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Ten Above

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Peter remembers.

As a boy, he played in the shadows of bookshelves and beakers that resembled hibernating monsters. He had a pencil case of black plastic with his name scratched out on the bottom from a safety pin. There was a tree in his backyard in Cambridge that he loved to climb, the bark rotted and crusty and foul, covered with ants and whitening sap. When he'd get to the top, he'd brace his feet on opposite limbs, squint out at the cars that snaked up and down the winding hills, and pretend he was a magician learning how to fly.

His mother never remembered the tree.

When Peter went back, years later, not even a stump was there.

Peter doesn't have the best recall -- a fatal flaw for a con artist, and one he's had to compensate for. His current retention isn't the problem. Phone numbers, last week's lunch, where he stashed the keys -- none of that's an issue. It's his childhood which is misaligned. Places which should be on the map are blank. Places he's told about, he can't recall. Sometimes things don't quite match up.

He has scattered memories: his father, raving and ranting about formulas. His mother, crying.

Himself, climbing branches that might or might not have been there, watching cars run by in a metal river that broke the posted speed limit.

- - - - - - - - - -

Like the best scientific theories, Peter discovers a parallel for the tree phenomenon in a cramped, streetside room in Watertown that smells vaguely of mold.

As soon as he's legally able, Peter attends driver's ed. The commuter rail's not bad; the T's a miracle of transit and panhandling, but a car represents infinitely more freedom. That's what Peter craves. In his Watertown classroom, Peter learns valuable insights into automobile maintenance, such how to peel tags off license plates carefully enough that they can still be reused. The teacher's out for a smoke half the time and running an instructional movie for the other half. On their frequent breaks, Peter ducks in and out of the corner store that sells discount gummi worms by the bag, trading pieces to the other students in exchange for hints on cop-spotting.

During a shared meal of compressed glucose and sucrose and food coloration, Peter learns tips from one of the remedial students who's only attending class for the insurance discount. Out of all of the advice, ten above is the rule of thumb that Peter likes the most. Ten miles above the speed limit, he's told, is the average minimum that staties will start pulling cars over for. Anything under isn't worth the ticket -- unless it's at the end of the month and they're trying to meet quota, or the road's deserted enough that you stick out like a sore thumb, or they're just feeling like assholes that day anyway.

So ten above is the guideline. The speed limit is the expected minimum that you'll be driving; five above is the average flow for traffic, both on and off the highways. As long as you stay inside that ten mile window, you're relatively safe to break the law, as long as you don't do anything too stupid like bang a uey in Sudbury.

In the meantime -- within that narrow range -- you're between legal and illegal. Both possibilities exist at the same time. Adapting to that flexibility is surprisingly easy for Peter. Once he realizes that, he decides he likes it.

Sliding around the law, Peter learns, has a certain protocol. Most people are only focused on getting themselves from Point A to Point B, and any residual interest they have in you largely concerns if they'll collide or not. If you're legal enough not to be worth catching, even law enforcement will let you slide. By extension, if you provide people with just enough truth that they feel you're real, they'll be content to let you move along -- whether or not you're lying.

Everyone speeds on the highways. Only a few people get punished.

- - - - - - - - - -

Peter doesn't plan in advance to get a tattoo. He's drunk; he's nineteen. Ultimately, he is curious, and that's what leads him and the rest of his posse across the border to Rhode Island, stopping at the first parlor they see that's available. Tess was the one to get it into her head that she wanted to get inked, and the idea spread like an infection until everyone packed into Peter's car, jabbering on and smelling of reheated roast beef.

The parlor is ratty. It doesn't have to be high-class, raking in its revenue from Mass residents hopping the state line. They're not supposed to be allowed into the back room, but the artist is lazy and leaves the door open, so they all get a view. Something about the needle unsettles him: stitching, sewing identity to flesh for all to see. Everyone plans to get variations on the same thing, some stupid tribal knot to symbolize unity. He should have realized it was a bad plan; Tess's last idea of a good time involved dragging him out to meet one of her shroom-head friends in the Pit at Harvard Square, where Peter had watched the guy stick paper clips into his arms. The whole thing had reminded him uncomfortably of Walter.

Tim jabs him in the chest as they're waiting, words slurred, circling around an argument that Peter can't seem to shake. The more time that Peter spends around Tim, the more he realizes he doesn't like the guy. "Michael's pro because he can see a job through if he has to, whether it's a win or a loss, Peter. That's why he's better than you. It's like you want to play, but you don't want to play at the same time. Either break the bank or stop wasting time."

Peter bats Tim's hand away. He tries to think about something else, anything else as the needle buzzes in the back room. A tattoo would invite questions. It'd be an avenue to start up a conversation; he'd have to devise a good story. He'd have to keep it straight. He'd have to be ready to join the crowd. He'd have a mark that tied him to these people with their ideas of how the world worked, and of who Peter was supposed to be in context to that.

In the end, he comes up with an excuse about not being able to make up his mind. He's the only one out of all of them who goes back across the state line with his skin intact.

- - - - - - - - - -

Ten above is the limit Peter observes when publishes his first paper through the science journals. He's operating on false credentials, which means he's already close to the danger line. To help bring down the risk factor, he chooses a topic that's popular that year, involving cancer, artificial sweeteners and lab mice. Something mainstream. Something safe. Cancer's always popular.

Afterwards, when he gets the acceptance letter, Peter takes his friends out for dinner. Someone asks him, jokingly, if the world of academia is where he thought he'd end up as a kid. Peter laughs it off, and weasels out of the tab.

Truth be told, the one thing Peter's sure about is that he never wanted to be a scientist. He never wanted to end up like his father; it's almost embarrassing how easily chemistry comes to him, and how willing he is to use it. Peter knows enough about theory to realize that Walter was probably right about some of the wilder claims, but he prefers to believe otherwise; it's how he manages to sleep at night. There are certain laws of physics that he'd like to put faith in without wondering if they'll spontaneously invert on a whim.

Some of Peter's memories are damaged from being around his father and his mad backyard experiments -- from his father's erratic behavior, from the yelling and the insane requests, the mysterious tins in the fridge that made his mother weep. When you're told enough times that things exist which don't -- and vice versa -- you start to realize that reality itself plays a little loose with the rules.

That's what Peter assumes happened. Since nothing else has popped up to contradict him yet, he's happy with vilifying Walter. Being a scapegoat is the one good thing his father can do.

Peter's learned to adjust around his gaps. He skips his history over the parts that don't make sense. Instead of struggling to match everything perfectly together, Peter lives between the lines of ten above, which delineate the safe zone between truth and falsehood. The grey zone treats him well. Little white lies are his hallmark; holes in red-tape bureaucracy protect him. Corruption in the system is his ally.

The missing tree from his childhood is on the list of things that Peter doesn't like to think about. There are a lot of things, actually, but he figures that's fair; putting your life back together after your psychotic toothpaste chemist of a father gets locked away is more than probable cause. But when there are subjects you don't want to get included in a conversation, something else has to fill in the gap. A certain amount of lying becomes necessary for social interaction. A judicious degree of polite exaggeration helps grease the way.

Peter's not really a con artist; he just fools people a little, gives them what they want. He's not that good of a liar; his body language gets too nervous. He rubs his palms. He's not a thief. He just acquires things, roughs up a few people, trespasses on occasion, buys cigarettes for kids asking pathetically in parking lots -- because he's been there, wandering alone in the summertime with two bucks in your pocket for the week and no reason to go home to sleep. He knows how much it sucks.

He's not malicious. He just wants to get by, to coast along with the flow. He knows he has intelligence. It just doesn't seem worth applying to anything in particular yet. After all, look at his father's track record. That was a shining example of brilliance at work.

A three-piece suit and office wouldn't be hard for Peter to enroll in. But Peter dislikes rules; he's uncomfortable with restrictions, and he's smart enough to get around them. His father hammered down a label for Peter to be judged by for the rest of his life -- Bishop's son, the Bishop kid, the nutjob's boy -- and Peter resents it.

Peter doesn't hate the system. Far from it. He just doesn't like being pinned down. There's a restlessness in him, a sense of moving at a different pace than everyone else. Not an uncommon sensation for above-average IQs, or so the theory goes. And -- like the above-average crowd -- Peter likes the system best when he's beating it.

Having a bracket of legality appeals to him. It sets two points and lets him float between them, where boundaries are debatable and Peter can slide away from definitions and disappear.

He's not a criminal. He's not legitimate. He's simply on the edges.

- - - - - - - - - -

Peter is smart enough to play the social game; he's capable of fitting in and making connections, but he's still an outsider. Even when he follows the proper steps in a situation, he's displaced. Whenever people ask him if he'll settle down, own a house, buy a lot somewhere with money from a job he can't stand to have, he feels completely and utterly ignorant. He doesn't know how to stay put. Clinically, on paper, the numbers look good -- mortgage rates and homeowner's insurance and loans -- but he's uncomfortable with roots. When you own something, it can be taken away. Peter learned that with his mother and their house in Cambridge; he learned it with the tree. He learned it with his father, who gets called by his first name because that way, Peter no longer has to say Dad.

By the time he's nearly thirty, Peter's become an expert at reading people; he's skilled at looking for evidence of what they think is reality, picking up subtle cues about how they operate. He knows how to work in uncertainties. He's almost perfected deflection at the drop of a hat. He measures his progress in how long of a split-second hesitation he has between someone asking too personal of a question, and the blossoming of an easy, embarrassed smile.

He knows how best to say, "Walter -- my father. He's estranged."

He knows how to say, "Walter -- my father. He's getting the help he needs."

He knows how to keep anyone from asking at all.

Outright denial never helps; once people think there's a secret to be had, they do their best to wrestle it out. Telling the truth up front can be just as bad. These days, Peter knows how to let people peel away layers slowly, as if he's offering up a great secret that couldn't be googled in ten seconds flat. His father was involved in a tragedy; his father caused it. His father was sick. His father was -- is -- in an institution.

But say it right, and no one will care more about the facts than they have to.

Peter remembers.

There are things that never happened and places that don't exist. There are ways he doesn't match up with his surroundings. But he can live just getting by for now, doing what he has to do, staying under the radar while traveling just a little bit faster than he's supposed to.

In the space between white and black, where laws get broken -- but no one gets caught -- Peter coasts along man-made highways: of roads, of rules, of people.