When she raises the blinds and daylight floods over her, he sees just how young she is and thinks again that this the last place she should ever be. Her soft, easy lines and her bright eyes don't belong among the ugliness here, the lifeless greys and tans and the sharp angles. For a moment he can nearly imagine that they are somewhere else, somewhere normal: he can almost see her across the counter at that coffee shop he used to like on Brighton 10th Street, smiling at the cashier as she orders a something-or-other with two shots, please. Or sitting opposite him on the subway, oblivious to the noise and the crowds, eyes narrowed in concentration as she reads through a file (not his, of course, some other poor bastard's) with earbuds in place, a pen stuck in her hair, a highlighter between her teeth.
The picture vanishes; that world is hers and no longer his. He expects by now that he will die within these walls, sooner or later.
"Okay, then. I think you're right, it was a bit grim in that last room," she says, and she leans down slightly to inspect the base of the window. "I don't think these open, though." She looks over her shoulder at him. "That all right, or shall we keep looking?"
"'s fine," he mumbles. His heart has slowed back to its normal rate, almost, and he reminds himself to breathe. "It's…small spaces," he adds, feeling that he owes her an explanation. "I just need to see outside."
"All right, I'll remember that for next time," she nods, and for some reason he believes that she will. She sits down opposite him again and puts the file in her lap. "How's your room in that regard? I know they're all a bit small."
He shrugs. "It's okay. There's a window." He wishes he was on a higher floor, like this one, above the tree line so he'd get the most sun. But as it is, when it's quiet, from his bed he can just make out the sound of the water crashing against the low shore when the Circle Line ferry goes by and creates a wake, and it reminds him of home. But it is rarely quiet here.
In the desert, he thinks, he and the guys would have laughed themselves sick over something like this. He can almost hear Jimmy: oh, the view's not good enough for you, princess? Shit, man, I'll take it! Room to myself, four walls and a bed and no scorpions tryin' to crawl up my ass every night? Who do I gotta kill?
"Sleeping all right?" Her tone is still light, conversational.
"Couple hours a night, I guess."
"Hmm." She flips open the folder and lifts a page, her eyes scanning rapidly. "I can adjust a few of these doses a bit, see if we can do better than a couple. If it's bothering you." Whatever he'd been on at the last place had him asleep like a stone for twelve, fifteen hours at a stretch, thick-tongued and barely functional for the other nine. People spoke to him and by the second sentence he'd forgotten the first, television was an incomprehensible blur of color, words slid off of pages before his eyes—though at least then he didn't have the dreams, which was probably the point; it was more crowded there and he had been keeping everyone awake for the first few nights. She looks back up at him inquiringly, and he gives a meaningless sort of deferential gesture.
"Well, let me know." She closes the file again and sticks it into the side of the chair, in the narrow space beside the cushion, and then interlocks her fingers—small, bare—around one knee. "I heard that you asked to have the mirror taken out."
He stares down at his sleeves, the cuffs already fraying from all the times he has tugged them down. It's an automatic motion now, covering up. "Said they can't. It's bolted in, or something." He'd finally just thrown his sheet over it, though some nights he thinks he can hear something breathing behind it.
"It can't be broken, if that's what's worrying you," she says. "They made sure of that." He can feel her eyes on him, but he doesn't look up.
"It's not that." A thread comes loose and he rolls it between his fingers. His hand shakes, as it nearly always does these days, though he's noticing it less and less. "I just don't want it there."
She allows a moment to go by before she asks "Don't want to look into it?"
He hasn't seen himself in days, probably over a week by now. He scratches at his beard, more grown out than it's been in years; he hasn't bothered asking for a razor. "Don't know what'll be there," he says, because he can't think of a good lie.
"You mean yourself, or something else?"
Streaks of blood and dirt and something like melted ash, bruises and broken-nail scratches, a face that wasn't and yet was his own, endless black eyes watching him from the inside— "Both. Either. I don't know." He pulls off another thread.
"It sounds like you don't trust yourself."
He shakes his head. "Not anymore."
She nudges her glasses up her nose with one finger, by the corner, not the middle, and to him there's something achingly sweet about the gesture. He can't remember the last time he was near anything like her. "You said before that you remember some of it," she says, and she doesn't need to explain what she means by it.
"Yeah. I think." Flashes, sudden and unpredictable in his waking hours as well as when he sleeps, loud and bright and with all of his senses, tangling and overlapping. He sees the skulls and smells fresh paint and hears low growls and feels a blade ringing against ribs, and he doesn't know what came first or later or together. "But I can't—I don't know what parts are real."
"Okay." She puts her hands in her lap, pressing the tips of her thumbs together. "But you still tried to plead guilty, to everything, even though you're not sure." He twitches a shoulder noncommittally. "Will you tell me why?"
It's the way she asks that makes him want to find the words. "At first I couldn't believe any of it. But…"
"You changed your mind," she prompts gently, when he trails off.
"Tapes," he mumbles, now tracing the stitching on the chair with the edge of his thumb. "From the zoo and stuff. Cops showed me. I thought I dreamed it or something. And the fingerprints and everything. And…" She waits. His chest is tightening again. "David. And Jane."
"Your friends," she says, again not really asking, and for a moment he can't say anything. When she speaks again her voice is soft but clear. "They were both ruled suicides. You know that, right?"
"No," he says forcefully. Of that, at least, he is sure. "That's not right. They wouldn't've, not ever. I knew them for a long time." He had introduced the two of them—or that was what Griggs liked to say, though it wasn't exactly true. What really happened was that they'd been at that bar in Washington Heights and he'd thumped down his third empty glass and declared that he didn't care if Griggs was his superior officer, he was also a limp-dick chickenshit if he didn't go over and say something to that girl, because he'd been staring at her for an hour and she probably thought he was a serial killer by now. Griggs punched him in the arm and called him an asshole, but then he'd gone and talked to her after all. It was 2:00 AM in Fallujah when she'd Skyped him to say that she was pregnant, and they'd celebrated until dawn, passing a dusty bottle of bitter red wine between them as Jimmy danced around, trying and failing to remember the words to "Big Poppa." At the wedding reception, Griggs had slung an arm around his shoulders and told everyone present that he was the one to thank for it all.
She rests her elbow on the side of the chair, her chin on her fingers. "At the Supreme Court hearing, when you said that you were guilty of the other things, you said that their deaths were your fault too."
"They were." It comes out in a rush. "I don't know how, but it had to've been me, because they wouldn't fuckin' do that. I mean—" He looks at her quickly, but she flicks her hand carelessly and he goes on. "Not both of them, never, see?" Someone has to understand, anyone. Not for him, but for them. "So…if I could do that without knowing, then maybe everything else…" He stops again.
"Maybe everything else was you as well," she finishes for him, and he nods. That he remembers well, being in the hot courtroom and suddenly speaking for the first time in days, his voice hoarse. The lawyer—court-appointed and ridiculously young, who wore the same coffee-flecked tie every day and hadn't looked him in the eye once—had gone white in the face and hissed at him to be quiet, but he said it again, louder, and the room grew noisier, and the gavel sounded like gunshots and he'd flinched and ducked, and someone behind him screamed go back to hell, and by the time he was back in his cell he'd decided that he'd had fucking enough.
And it hadn't worked, anyway. Everything he tried to do just made him look—not competent was the technical term, but he knew what they really meant.
As if she is thinking of the same thing, she says "So when you said that you were guilty, did you know that New York doesn't have the death penalty anymore?"
"No. Not then. I thought everywhere did, for stuff like that."
"I know what you mean. It's a bit tricky, the federal-versus-state thing," she says. He suspects that it's not, really, but her saying so makes him feel fractionally less of a fool for the first time in a long while. "Is that what you wanted to happen?"
Back to the seam on the upholstery. "Maybe. I guess."
"I don't know," he answers, though as he says it he realizes that he does. "I just…I can't go back to solitary. That's all." It's the main reason he has stopped fighting it, stopped trying to explain, stopped saying much of anything until today. Just thinking of those cells, six feet by nine, fills him with a sickening, spiraling dread. At least there is daylight here, and he is sure that he can find another way if he has to. They count everything here, pills and utensils and toothbrushes, and so he pays attention. He keeps to himself in the lunch room and in the yard, giving the impression of staying out of trouble, but really he is watching to see who seems the most on edge, the most likely to do it for him if given the chance.
"That's all," she echoes, and she's quiet for a moment. "In your note you said that you wanted to leave everything to Mason Griggs, all your things and your money for when he's older."
He makes a soft, dismissive sound. "Not like it's much. It's basically nothing." His benefits are long gone, of course, and he assumes that most of what he'd owned has been sold off or taken into evidence or something. But it was the only thing he could think to write at the time.
"Still, I think it says something that you did that."
He shrugs again. Then, haltingly: "The cop didn't have any family." He'd had friends, though: when he left the first hospital and got to the other island, the guard had processed him with an air of routine indifference and waited until they were alone in a corridor before he leaned in close and whispered this is from Butler as he rammed a knee into his groin. By the end of the first week he'd learned to expect daily reminders. "I asked. But…I just thought…"
"I think I understand." She pauses, and then adds "He's all right, you know. Mason. He's with his grandmother." He looks up quickly. "I asked too."
"Oh." He tries to swallow, it takes a few tries. "Good." He hesitates, unsure if he should ask, but something makes him think that he's allowed to. "Uh, did—have they found Jimmy? Do you know—?"
"I don't, I'm sorry," she answers, and she actually sounds it. "I can ask. I'm not sure they'll tell me anything about that, but if they do then I'll let you know, okay?"
"Sounds like he's a good friend as well," she offers, and he huffs a quiet, humorless laugh at that, both at the present tense and at the way the word feels like a foreign concept to him now. "Talking of friends—the priest, Mendoza." He gives a faint gesture of recognition. "Can I ask why you don't want to see him? He keeps asking to visit, he's phoned nearly every day so far."
Shame coils inside him, knotting itself tightly around his guts. "There's no point. He can't change anything."
"He spoke for you in court. I don't think you were there for that," she says, which is a remarkably tactful way of putting it, he thinks. "He said that you don't belong in here at all. He was quite adamant, apparently."
"He shouldn't waste his time. He's a good man, but…"
"That's what he said about you," she notes, and he drops his gaze, watching the patches of autumn sunlight on the linoleum. "What would you think about me speaking with him?"
"Just about all of it, really. He was there for a lot of it, it seems, and I'd like to get his perspective. I think it'd be a help in starting to put it all together," she replies. "But I wouldn't tell him anything you didn't want me to. I can't, actually; I'm not allowed to repeat anything you've said in here, apart from what's already in the record or unless it's directly to do with a trial in future." He snorts in disbelief before he can stop himself. "What, you don't believe that?"
"No, it's…'a trial in future.'"
He glances up as she does a little shrug with her face, the corners of her mouth quirking downward. "Well, this isn't necessarily forever, your being here, after all. Eventually they're going to reevaluate to see what progress we've made." She studies him for a moment. "You don't think we'll get anywhere?"
"Not really," he says, looking down again, only vaguely aware of the pronoun she's used a few times now. "No offense. I know it's your job to…uh…" He isn't entirely sure how to finish it.
She gives a wry sort of chuckle. "I don't work for the police or the D.A. or anyone like that. With them, at times, but that's not quite what I do. I'm really just here to help you figure things out."
It's the ease with which she says it that shakes him back into silence. She adjusts her glasses again and continues, "Anyway, this Mendoza: I won't tell him any details we've discussed, and of course he can't tell me anything private that you've said to him, either. It's funny, our jobs are a bit similar that way." She tilts her head thoughtfully. "I'd just like to hear what he thinks, that's all. That all right with you?"
"I mean…yeah, whatever you think." It occurs to him that she probably doesn't have to ask or even tell him that, but she had. Nor has she reached for the file again, and yet she remembers their names.
"All right, I'll do that." She pauses, perhaps a bit delicately this time, and then says "You know what he's saying about what really happened, yeah?"
"Yeah, I know."
"What do you think about it?"
"Think they're gonna put him in here too, he keeps saying that shit," he mutters, and she makes a quiet, half-amused sound.
"Do you think he's telling the truth?"
He lingers for a moment on her phrasing and then shakes his head helplessly. Barely an hour has gone by since that day in April (the day he got back, as he finds himself thinking of it) that he hasn't wrestled with that question. "I don't know," he tells her. "I dunno why he'd make up something like that. Why anyone would."
"He really seems to want to help you."
"But I don't get why he cares."
"Has he been your priest for a while?"
"No. Jane knew him, but I only just met him because of—this." And again, it's far too normal of a word, 'met,' for what had happened: it had, after all, been the best and the worst and the hugest moment of his life, at least of the ones he could remember. Everything was boiling and expanding, and suddenly something popped or broke and then he was kneeling in a dark, low room and rain (rain? Inside? Even the smaller details didn't make sense) was lashing down around him and someone was making a terrible, anguished sound and it was like the worst hangover of his life times a thousand, a hundred thousand, and everything, everything hurt more than he'd ever known that it could. And then there were faces swimming before him, and hands grasping his, and a voice saying softly "It's over. You're free of it. It's over, mijo." Not really a formal introduction.
"I never had a priest. I haven't been in a church since I was a kid," he goes on. "I never really believed in any of that stuff. I didn't even think about it that much. I don't speak Spanish, I don't know any Latin. I mean, I barely finished high school. I tried paintin' houses once and I got canned after a week, I was no good at it. I don't like the Doors that much. I don't even like cats. I'm allergic to 'em. I mean…regular ones, not…you know." He can hear himself rambling and he can't stop; he's gone over the list so many times, both in his mind and whispered aloud to himself at night. Somehow there's a comfort in the fact that it never makes sense.
On the word Latin, her eyes had flickered—for just a moment—over his chest and his arms, her expression hard to read. That night they'd patched him up just enough to keep him alive, but it's all still there, of course, still vivid and ugly and uneven under his fingers. He'd tried to warn them all not to look, grabbed white coats and blue scrubs in a desperate fist and pleaded with them all that they had to fix it; he couldn't really explain why but it was essential that they get rid of the words. But it would have taken far too much time and effort, apparently, "and I can't imagine who would pay for that," the surgeon had said, with a coldness that had stunned him at the time.
So he'd torn off the gauze with his non-cuffed hand and broken the clip off of a cheap fountain pen left on his bedside table and done it himself—a nurse caught him after only a few minutes, but it was good enough, he hoped; it looked even worse, if that was possible, but at least it didn't really say anything anymore. "It won't work now," he mumbled in hazy relief to the nurse as she slapped at his forearm and pierced him with yet another IV, though he's still not entirely sure what he meant. She had just sighed in disgust and snapped at the guard holding him down by the shoulders that it was his job to watch out for this kind of thing, for Chrissake, and he'd retorted that he'd only been gone for a second and anyway what did it matter; this nutcase was headed to the hole forever and no stunts he pulled would change that now and goddammit, now he had blood on his sleeve and a shitty assignment.
That was how things were now, he'd found: that was how people spoke about him, and to him, their contempt open and pulsing, either because they thought he didn't understand or because he deserved to hear it. That was how they looked at him; their eyes avoided his face but raked his body with a kind of hungry revulsion, recalling the grisly rumors they'd heard about what was under his shirt, annoyed when they were denied the right to stare.
When he had edged into the other room an hour or so ago, though, limping slightly—he's getting used to that, too—Dr. Croft had walked right over to him, looked up into his face and shaken his hand as she introduced herself, though he thought she might also have glanced for half a second above the V of his shirt, at the bruising around his throat. (That, at least, had faded a good deal by now.) And he was so taken aback by the sheer incongruousness of her, her neatly piled-up hair and the tiny curls at the nape of her neck, her laundry-clean smell, her accent that reminded him of those shows on PBS that he'd always found sort of dull, honestly, and above all the perfectly calm expression on her face, that he didn't notice that the silent, glaring orderly who had brought him there had left until he heard the door close behind him. He looked around quickly, startled that he was allowed to be alone with her.
"Just us," she'd said, as if she knew what he was thinking, though he hadn't said anything, and indicated the chairs facing one another in the middle of the floor. He'd immediately felt himself beginning to panic again as he'd looked around the room and saw how closed-off it was, how small and airless and lightless, but then she seated herself opposite him and said "So, what do you prefer to be called?" and he was distracted.
"Well, I don't really like the surnames thing we do here, to be honest," she said matter-of-factly. "It's a bit impersonal. And we're going to be seeing a lot of each other from here on, and we're likely to be discussing some rather personal things, so I always like to start by asking what you're comfortable with." She gave an inviting gesture.
He blinked, trying to get his mind around the question. He couldn't remember ever being asked anything like it before. As a kid (he very much hoped that this wasn't in the file sitting on her knees) he was Little Mickey—his mother's doing, he'd always assumed, in the hopes of wresting some sort of cozy, hair-ruffling affection for him out of Big Mickey, though it hadn't worked at all. Somehow the others at school had found out about it, and he'd had to bloody a few noses to officially reduce it to just Mick. In the odd jobs he'd had after school he'd mostly just been hey you or new guy, usually never much beyond that. Then at boot camp he was rise and shine, pencil-dicks and moveyerfuckinass, recruit! with all the rest of them, and those he had actually sort of loved; it was the best time of his life. On a dare he'd stolen four packs of Camels, two Hershey bars, a tattered Maxim magazine and a nearly-full bottle of Jameson from their gunny's foot locker, and Griggs had immediately dubbed him Santino Claus when he'd dumped it all out on his bunk and told the other guys to help themselves. Occasionally he shortened it to just Claus, which confused everyone else and made the two of them laugh. A few weeks before his first deployment he'd gone for a run in the park and then stopped in a bodega for a soda, and an old man had spotted his USMC t-shirt, grabbed his sweaty hand in both of his and very solemnly called him a hero, and he was so surprised that he blurted out "but I haven't done anything."
And then he was gone, for all that time, and he wasn't anyone at all (though he thought he remembered, towards the very end, a sense that there was a name that he couldn't say, wouldn't say, no matter how many times he demanded it—¿cuál es tu nombre?). And then he returned and he was just that fuckin' freak painter, that Satanic asshole, goddamned cop-killer. Then, numbers: docket ending 2-7-5-4; inmate 13-A-4562.
"Michael," he'd told her, and she smiled a little and quietly said "okay." He fought the nausea climbing in his throat and told himself that the room wasn't closing in, there was no shrieking cloud of bats and nothing scrawled on the walls as he asked "Do I call you, uh—?"
"Georgiana is fine," she replied, though she put a little 'r' on the end of it. Then she leaned in, her brow furrowing slightly as she peered at him in concern. "You all right? You look a bit green," she said, and that was when he'd started to feel dizzy, his breath coming way too fast.
"It doesn't really add up at all, does it," she says now. When he looks up at her there's a frown on her face that wasn't there before, a scattered, almost distracted expression, and he barely dares to hope: does she believe? But then—does he?
"No. I don't know," he says again. "Maybe I do think he's right, Mendoza. Or maybe I just want to. I don't know."
"What do you know?" she asks, not unkindly. "Beyond the part about your friends. Tell me something you're sure of in all this."
He thinks, passing a slow hand over his face. Even now he still can't decide which is better (or worse): the idea that the priest is wrong and it was always only him, that he has somehow come so apart from himself that he could do those things and not know it, or the idea that the priest is right; such horrors really do exist and there is nothing standing guard between life and nightmares after all. When he had arrived on this island however many days (weeks?) ago now, wrists and ankles chained, he'd looked out of the van's window and seen the street sign, "Hell Gate Circle." He had started to laugh despite himself, a strange, hollow sound, which probably hadn't helped matters at all. But is it really possible that even with everything else that happened over there, everything he saw and did, there is still far more in the world to fear than he ever knew?
"I know I did it, but it wasn't me," he manages finally. "I remember some parts—a lot of parts—and I know there's…proof, and all, but I didn't want any of it."
"Good, okay," she says, nodding. "I think that's a good place to start."
"With what you know. Then from there we'll use it to sort out what you don't. That sound all right?" Nod. "Try another. Something about yourself that you know, beyond any doubt."
He's quiet for another long moment; he can tell by now that she doesn't mind waiting. "I wasn't always like this."
He knows there's no real point to it, but for some reason he needs her to know that there was once a different him, another version, one who laughed for real, who slept through the night, who loved sausage pizza and the Jets and Sean Connery best as James Bond. Who at first had shied away from holding Mason ("the fuck you mean, 'like a football'?") but then had grinned when the little boy seized his dog tags in one tiny fist. Who'd spent the night of his senior prom in the parking lot of the Grand Union supermarket with Jennifer Marano, first in the backseat and then on the hood of his mother's car, lying back on the windshield and pretending that they could make out the stars overhead, kissing and getting stoned and talking about everything they were going to do once they were done with school, and he still ranks it among the best nights of his life even though nothing they'd said had come true. Who could go into elevators without passing out, who had no idea what death smelled like, who had never even heard of clozapine or haloperidol. Even if he's gone forever now, and he probably is, that person had existed. He had lived.
"Crazy," he says.
"But you think you are now?"
"I don't," she replies, and his astonishment must show on his face, because she sits back and says plainly "No, I don't think you're crazy." She winces a bit and adds, "Wouldn't really be the word I'd pick either way, but, as you say."
"Then…what do you think?"
Now it's she who takes a few moments to consider, and then says simply "I think something absolutely terrible happened to you over there." She hitches half a breath before going on. "And I think—I think by now we're all so used to hearing that terrible things are happening to you guys over there that perhaps no one's really been listening to you, like truly, fully listening."
He nods mutely; he can't possibly find the right words to say to that. "But I think you have the right to be heard," she continues, leaning forward again. "If you talk, Michael, I give you my word I'll listen, for as long as it takes. I think between the two of us we can make some sense of this, honestly I do." And for some reason he believes her. This time he tells himself to look at her when he nods, and he holds her gaze for as long as he dares. "But I can't do much if you don't talk, and to do that you've got to stick around, yeah? Can we agree to that?"
"Yeah," he says again, and then, because she's still looking at him shrewdly with her eyebrows raised, "I promise." He knows he's saying it for her, not for himself, and thinks perhaps she knows that too, but maybe that's good enough for now.
"All right, then, that's a deal," she says, and she smiles, and just for a moment it's like there's twice as much daylight in the room, and it's easy to breathe.