Vincent and Charlie
Published in Parallel Prairies in September, 2018
Vincent hit the brakes, hard, and skidded to a stop.
“Huh,” he said, staring out the windshield at the wounded land.
Every week or two, on his way into town or on his way home to the farmhouse, Vincent took a short detour to have a look at what he still thought of as his land. He’d sold the field to Roy Chambers a few years ago, when Irene was still alive. That land sale marked his official retirement from farming, but he still liked to check out the field.
He hadn’t expected to see what looked like a long meteorite scar, a trench dug into the frozen earth. Black soil stood stark against the bright snow. Across the mile road, five of the trees in John Pachulak’s windbreak had been sliced off low by whatever had crashed into his land. Roy’s land. The trunks lay across the road, smouldering.
Vincent could remember planting those trees as a kid, ten or maybe eleven years old, working side-by-side with John and his brothers under the watchful eye of Ivan, the Pachulak family patriarch: kneeling in the turned earth, pushing birch saplings into the dirt and watering them, the merciless summer sun glaring down on them.
In the hazy distance the low mountain rose from the plain, an improbable bulwark of stone deposited by glaciers in full retreat at the end of the last ice age. Clouds reared above it, heralding snow.
“Storm comin’,” Vincent said aloud, to no one in particular.
A wave of fear passed over him, a claustrophobic sensation of being trapped, a strange feeling in the wide-open prairie. After a second, it passed, leaving him with the sensation—the certainty—that someone needed help.
Someone in the trench.
Vincent’s balance wasn’t what it used to be, so he clambered down, cautiously and slowly. A fading warmth came off the walls. He was already chest-deep in the ground, and the floor sloped downward.
Now that he was in the trench he could see what had surely dug it, and it didn’t look the way he expected a meteorite would. Instead it resembled a giant silver egg embedded in the ground. As Vincent approached the thing, one hand on the earthen wall, he whispered a little prayer: “Lord Jesus, don’t let this cave in on me.”
A smell came to him, over and above the notes of turned earth and the sterility of the snow: roses—an impossible, impossibly sad whiff of roses.
He reached the egg. The trench walls rose up over his head now. He couldn’t see the field anymore. There was only dirt to either side of him and a slice of white sky above. A tree root smouldered at waist height, thick as his thumb, sliced and cauterized by the thing’s passage.
Above him in the world outside the trench the wind picked up, a gusting roar that came and went.
The egg was bigger than he’d initially thought. It stood taller than Vincent did, and he wasn’t a small man.
Another surge of empathetic fear shivered through him. When it passed he found himself more certain that someone needed his help. Someone in this strange silver egg.
“You okay?” he said, not sure who he was asking.
He reached out a hand, hesitant, shaking a bit, to touch the shell of the egg.
(The hull of the ship.)
He wore no gloves, but it felt warm.
At his touch, a hole appeared in the shell of the egg, the silver material melting, puddling at his feet. He took a startled step back. The molten shell gathered like mercury shining with reflected sky. The hole grew.
The wind roared overhead.
When the hole was large enough to admit him, he entered the egg. A wave of scent, not roses now, more like Irene’s orange pekoe tea, filled Vincent’s nostrils.
A momentary buzzing that reminded him of bees in summertime, one that he heard but also felt in his jaw.
Inside the egg was like a cavern, the walls rounded in an almost organic way. Wheat-seed lights winked on and off. A steady dim glow came from nowhere that he could see. In the centre of the cavern, he found a hammock, sort of: pale mesh that held someone in a complex harness.
The passenger, pilot, whatever, was small, skin and bones, with a head far too large for his body. Great black eyes gazed at him from a face grey as ash. Vincent tried his best not to count the fingers: three on each hand.
He did his best to concentrate instead on his, its, clothing: a tunic and skirt of dull yellow material that looked no thicker than silk.
How are you even still alive?
The pilot pawed at the harnesses, trying to unstrap himself. Those black eyes didn’t appear to blink. The scent of roses came again. A flare of dark purple blotted out his vision for an instant, but then cleared.
A faint voice sounded in his head.
It sounded like it came from a long way off, a faded echo.
Those black eyes, imploring.
Vincent fished his jackknife from the pocket of his jeans. He’d sharpened it just this morning, or maybe yesterday.
Good timing, Vincent thought.
Aloud, he said: “Listen, Charlie, I sure hope I can cut those things.”
If they were some kind of crazy science-fictional supermaterial, though, this rescue was doomed.
He put blade to strap. The material was stubborn, but with some elbow grease the knife would cut it.
As he sawed, Vincent said, “Hope you don’t mind my calling you Charlie. Gotta call you something.”
Charlie was light, lighter than a child.
Bird bones. All hollow.
Vincent carried him out of the trench. He had to walk well past where he’d parked the truck before he was close enough to the surface to feel safe stepping out, what with Charlie’s extra weight. Eventually, he made it back to the truck and set his burden down on the passenger seat. He hurried to the driver’s side. When he started the truck, he turned the heat up to full. For a long moment he sat, rubbing his hands, staring out the windshield, trying to think.
“Are you cold, Charlie?”
A stink of sulfur, there and gone. Another wash of that fear that belonged to another.
Vincent looked over at his passenger. Those great dark eyes were open, staring up at nothing in particular, but his wide nostrils flared and contracted, and his shallow chest moved in rhythm with his breathing. At least he was still alive.
Vincent reached behind the truck’s seat, found the ratty old pink blanket Irene always told him he should throw out, and draped it over Charlie’s small form.
“Hope that helps,” he said.
To the west, the mountain had vanished into lowering cloud: flurries incoming. The wind gusted hard enough to shake the truck, but then died down again.
Vincent’s breath fogged in front of him. The fan was louder than the radio. The scent of roses filled the cab.
For a second he wondered where the clutch pedal had gone. With a little laugh he thought: No, that was the old truck. This one was an automatic.
He put the truck in gear, backed out onto the gravel road, and headed for home. The first snowflakes, small and hard, driven by a banshee wind, rattled against his windshield. He flicked on the wipers, trying to think what he would tell Irene.
The car was gone.
Did she go to town?
For groceries, maybe. Vincent hoped she’d bring back fresh white bread, but lately all Irene bought was the multigrain stuff, bread made, in his considered opinion, with birdseed.
At least this would give him time to figure out how to explain all this to her.
Charlie fell from the sky. I saved him.
The wind had come up again, so he parked in the graveled yard next to the house. A blast of cold buffeted him as he opened his door. Snow, sharp on the wind, lashed his face, his bare hands. He pulled on gloves.
When he opened the passenger side door Charlie looked up at him, then slowly closed his eyes. Vincent hoped he wasn’t dying.
“Stay with me, Charlie,” he said.
A scent of stargazer lilies overwhelmed Vincent as he reached across to undo the passenger seatbelt.
“Stay with me.”
Into the house. Charlie was light, so light. Bird bones indeed.
He laid Charlie down on the old brown chesterfield and those big black eyes opened again.
“You hungry?” Vincent said.
He mimed eating, wondering as he did it what Charlie might make of his motions.
“I have bread, cheese, probably some ham.”
He went to the kitchen and returned with a serving tray: white bread, cubes of cheddar, slices of fried garlic sausage he’d found in the back of the fridge, round pucks of cucumber soaking in vinegar.
Charlie sat up on the chesterfield, old springs twanging underneath him. He picked up one of the slices of bread, sniffed it, tore a piece from it and tasted it. His face crinkled, but he chewed and swallowed. He tried the cheese and spat it out, sniffed but didn’t taste the sausage, and ate every last cucumber and then drank down the vinegar. He looked up at Vincent, blinked those great dark eyes, and held out the bowl.
Vincent smelled skunkweed and flax-flower.
“More of that?” he said.
Charlie looked at the bowl in his hands, then back at Vincent.
He brought a chipped Snoopy coffee mug, a litre of white vinegar, and a half-empty bottle of cooking wine that had been in the cupboard long enough to have a coating of dust like a cape on its shoulders. He poured a cupful of vinegar and held it out to Charlie, who took it, sniffed it, drained it, and handed the mug back. Pink flashes flickered across Vincent’s vision, little lightning strikes, heatless and without thunder. The room smelled of new leather. He poured more vinegar. When the vinegar was gone, he switched to the wine, which was dull red and smelled sour and sweet at the same time.
Charlie drank it all. When he’d finished the last mugful, he leaned back on the chesterfield and closed his eyes. Sleeping? Vincent couldn’t tell.
Vincent left him to it. He washed his hands in the bathroom sink, then poured himself a half-cup of coffee in the kitchen. He sat down at the small breakfast table in the corner. From here he could still see Charlie, resting, sleeping, meditating, whatever you’d call it. The small kitchen window showed him a slice of darkening sky, against which he could just make out the skeletal black fingers of the willows in the back yard.
Stirring sugar into his coffee, he wondered what was keeping Irene.
The wind gusted, rattling the willows. He’d have to trim them, come spring, or hire someone to do it. They grew so fast. Hadn’t he just had someone trim them last year? They were already scraping the shingles again.
He jerked awake in the kitchen chair. His coffee had gone cold.
“Well,” he said, “guess I might as well go to bed.”
He poured the last of the coffee into the sink, dumped the grounds from the coffeemaker into the wet garbage pail in the porch, put the mug into the dishwasher, and started it running.
As he brushed his teeth, he listened to the wind howl outside, a beast loosed on the world. The willows scratched and scraped against the shingles. The house groaned and cracked. The window showed nothing but snow.
Charlie didn’t stir as Vincent walked through the living room on his way to the master bedroom.
Vincent lay in bed, awake, for what felt an eternity.
He woke up alone. The windows were dark. Irene’s side of the bed was already cold. How long had she been up?
He reached out an arm, found his glasses, fumbled them onto his face. The clock read 5:55 AM.
“Irene?” he said, but she didn’t answer.
Maybe she was in the bathroom.
He rolled to his back and closed his eyes. Rainbow colours flared in the darkness of his skull, and he lay as still as he could, waiting for the migraine to start. He hadn’t had one in decades, not since before he got married. Now would come the knife blade, prying open his skull, the jabbing pinpricks in the front of his brain.
But it never came.
He opened one eye, cautiously. The rainbows had dissipated.
He got up.
In the living room, a small grey man, or maybe a child, sat on the chesterfield, watching Vincent with large black eyes.
“Are you real?” Vincent asked.
He received no response.
He expected to find a bouquet of roses on the dining-room table, but there was nothing.
Maybe Michael will know where Irene is.
He fished the address book out of the drawer by the phone and looked up his son’s phone number.
778? What area code was that? He punched one, then the ten digits written in old ink in Irene’s neat script.
The phone rang once, twice, three times.
“Dad?” The voice became more alert. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes. Just— have you seen your mother lately? Do you know where she is? I haven’t seen her in—”
“Jesus Christ, Dad,” Michael hissed. “It’s four-thirty in the morning—”
“No, it’s six-th—”
A pause, like Michael was marshaling his thoughts.
“I’m in Vancouver. You remember that, right? It’s two hours earlier here.”
“Of course I remember.”
“Dad, Mom’s not coming home. Remember? She—”
Vincent heard Michael take a shuddering breath.
“Dad, Mom died. Last year.”
Vincent found he couldn’t breathe. Memory crashed in: the hospital, the doctors, the nurse giving him a hug, the funeral home.
“Do you want me to come out there, Dad?”
“I’ll book a flight, Dad. I’ll be there soon.”
He showered, then opened the door to let the steam clear. While he waited for the hot water to fill the sink, he caught a look at himself in the mirror. When did I get so old? Grey stubble, white hair. Hadn’t he been thirty just last night?
He laughed, a little rueful bark, then started to shave.
A hazy blue sheen wavered over the mirror and vanished. He listened to the scrape of his razor mowing down stubble, hearing it with his ears and with his bones.
The stuff in the dishwasher was clean and dry, still faintly warm. He put it away while the coffeemaker ran. He kept smelling roses but couldn’t find any flowers in the house.
The news on the radio was about the storm. It had swept across most of the province overnight, from Thompson up in the north all the way down to places south of the US border. Half the roads in the south of the province were closed. Highway One was closed from the Ontario border to Saskatchewan.
The sun had come up, but the clouds hid it, letting through only a wan grey light. Snow blanketed the yard. Drifts stood thigh-high across the driveway. The pine trees lining the road were bowed and white.
“Huh,” he said aloud. “That must’ve been a hell of a storm.”
The car wasn’t in the yard. Had Irene parked in the garage? He’d need the tractor to clean the yard, the driveway, and maybe even a bit of the road if the plow didn’t come by soon.
The keys weren’t where they belonged, hanging from their hook on the varnished pine KEYS plaque that Michael had made in high school shop class.
He patted his pockets, looked in the junk drawer.
“Irene?” he said. “You seen the keys? The tractor keys?”
She didn’t respond.
After a moment, he remembered again.
“Charlie?” he said, trying to keep from sobbing. “How about you? Know where my keys went?”
He heard the word in his head, in his own voice, but he wasn’t sure that he thought the word. If he didn’t, though, where had it come from?
In the porch he put on his brown quilted under-jacket then pulled his old parka on overtop. In the parka’s pocket he found what he was looking for: a key for a lock he no longer owned and the IH key for the tractor on a ring with a John Deere fob from Lord knew where. He smiled at the little irony.
He pulled on his old boots, a JETS toque with a missing pompom, and the padded ski gloves Michael had bought him for Christmas last year, or the year before, maybe? Things blurred together at Vincent’s age.
The wind had died down, but the temperature had plummeted. It took his breath away as he stepped outside, even in the shelter of the covered deck. Snow had drifted onto the square concrete paving stones and he’d have to shovel them at some point. Right now, though, he wanted to get the tractor started.
The plow went by on the mile road as he finished up the driveway. He waved to the plow driver, a middle-aged man whose name he felt sure he should remember.
He parked the tractor and then drove the truck to town. It was slow going.
First stop: the post office. Flyers, the hydro bill, and a missive from the MLA that he dropped, unread, into a recycling bin already half-full of missives from the MLA.
At the Solo store next door, he bought a loaf of white bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jug of milk. He put the groceries on the floor of the truck.
“Shit,” he said aloud.
He went back into Solo and found himself in the same aisle as the salad dressings and the ketchup. From the baffling variety of vinegars—red wine, balsamic, raspberry—he finally selected a couple of two-litre jugs of plain white vinegar.
He went through the same checkout. The girl’s name tag read STARLA. He wondered if he knew her parents or, more likely, her grandparents. She chewed gum that smelled of cinnamon and wore perfume that smelled of coconut.
Back in the truck he let the engine run a while to warm it up. The sky above the store was bright and blue and cold. When the needle on the temperature gauge moved an increment off the C, he backed out onto the street then went up Main Street to the highway. He turned left and gunned it, got up to a hundred and two, and set the cruise control.
He turned two miles before his corner. Something made him want to check out the old fields, the ones he’d sold to Roy Chambers back when he’d retired from farming.
Five missing trees. The felled trunks had burned away, leaving behind brittle charcoal bones. The storm winds had blown them to pieces, and the plow had scattered them from the road, spreading chunks of burnt wood in the ditches and even up onto the field.
The trench had been partly filled in by the storm so that it now looked like a shallow, soft ditch. Vincent wondered if the egg was still melting, down beneath the snow and the earth.
So Charlie is real. I’m not losing my mind.
When he got home the light on the phone was blinking. He picked up the handset. MISSED CALL. 778-something. He tapped the HANDS-FREE button, then dialed his voice mail.
“Hi Dad.” Michael’s voice. “Okay, I’m booked on the ten a.m. flight. I get to Winnipeg at three fifteen or so, and I’ve got a car booked. See you about suppertime, I guess.” There was a pause. “I hope you’re doing okay. Sorry I got uptight. Call if you need something. So, yeah. Suppertime, I guess. See you then.” Another pause, then, “Loveyoudad,” all in a rush.
Vincent rewound the message and listened again. He wrote Michael suppertime on the notepad next to the phone.
A sizzle of spices passed over his palate: cumin, ginger, something he couldn’t name but thought he might have tasted once at a Moroccan restaurant when he’d visited Michael in Vancouver.
He caught sight of the chesterfield, through the door into the living room, and the small grey person sitting there. Charlie.
He thought of his field, flat, fallow, blanketed in thick snow. He thought of the trench, partly filled in with snow.
“I’ve got a question for you,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of questions for you.”
I understand, said a voice, one that that sounded in his mind, not in his ears.
First, I must say thank you.
Vincent grabbed one of the jugs of vinegar from the kitchen, then entered the living room.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
A smell of lilacs accompanied Charlie’s words.
Charlie sat on the chesterfield, watching him.
“You’re— you’re welcome,” Vincent said.
Without you I would almost certainly be extinct.
“It was the right thing to do, helping you.”
He poured vinegar into the Snoopy mug that was still on the coffee table, handed the mug to Charlie, and sat down next to him on the chesterfield.
“That is you, right? Speaking in my head like that?”
Yes. Those great black eyes blinked. My language is not yours. But I can— I am able to manipulate your memories. Your kind’s memories. I have learned to affect them. To speak.
Charlie drained the mug of vinegar in a single long swallow.
When necessary, to hide myself.
Charlie opened the jug of vinegar and poured himself a fresh cup. Those hands were dexterous, probably more so than Vincent’s hands, even if you discounted eight decades of use and the accumulated arthritic twinges.
No. Yes. In a manner of speaking. Your memories are—
—a kind of energy. I can manipulate that energy.
“Huh.” Vincent leaned back on the chesterfield. “What about the smells, the flowers? The little flashes of light, the rainbows? Is all that you, too?” Or am I having a bunch of little strokes? he thought, but chose not to say.
Vincent could see Charlie considering the question.
Your memories are— different. Their structures are unlike those of most members of your species. I have had difficulty in manipulating them.
A waft of strawberries accompanied the words, the thoughts. The memories, if Charlie was to be believed.
It has taken me some time to establish exactly how to speak to you with any consistency.
He spread his three-fingered hands in a gesture at once familiar and utterly alien.
Vincent nodded. “The doctors, they told me I’ve got—” He took a breath. “I’ve got the start of dementia. Mild, so far, but—” He shrugged. “Michael thinks I should be in a home.”
Is this not a home?
“It’s— Well, that’s a story for another day. Never mind. It’s not your problem.”
Can you hear my thoughts? Vincent thought to himself.
He waited a moment. Charlie didn’t reply, so he said, aloud: “Can you read my mind?”
I cannot. I can merely affect your memories. I am able to—make words—in your memories of the very recent past.
“Why are you here?”
Charlie waited a long moment before answering. I am—lost. I suffered an incident. My boat lost its way, foundered, and I am here. Marooned.
He blinked, long and slow, then continued. I am not supposed to be here. Extended contact with your people is a—sin? Transgression? A breaking of the rules.
“Will your people come looking for you?”
They may. It is doubtful. I have no contact with them.
Charlie drank some vinegar.
It is our way. I am— You might say I am a fledgling. Finding my way.
“Will you—can you establish contact? Call for help?”
I cannot say for sure. I wish to try. I do not know what their response might be.
They sat in silence for a long moment. From the other room, Vincent could hear the ticks of the wall clock as it counted off seconds.
“What can I do to help?”
Charlie put a three-fingered hand on Vincent’s. His flesh was dry and warm.
You have done so much for me already. It is I that owe you.
“It’s the right thing,” Vincent said. “You’re supposed to help people. Aren’t you?”
Charlie didn’t say anything.
The phone rang, and rang again. Vincent blinked, realized he was sitting on the chesterfield, and shook his head.
A third ring, then silence.
He wiped his eyes, trying to clear the gummy feeling from them then looked at his watch. A little after 6:00 p.m.
Wow, I didn’t plan to sleep that long.
It had gone dark outside. The sky wasn’t yet black, but a deep, dark shade of blue. An almost-full moon shone above the bluff of trees on the other side of the yard.
He managed to lever himself up from the sofa. Charlie watched him. Did he ever sleep? Maybe only when he’s hurting. The vinegar jug had been emptied. Did he have to pee?
Vincent walked with a stiff gait to the phone. Sleeping sitting up didn’t agree with him.
The call display said ROY C and the Chambers’ phone number. The voicemail light blinked at him. Vincent dialed the number and listened to the message:
“Hey Vince, it’s Roy. Listen, I just had a couple guys show up here askin’ questions about the field and Packer’s trees. Said somethin’ might have come down yesterday, day before. They said a meteor, but I think there’s more to it. Some kind of experimental plane, maybe? Anyways, they asked how to get to your place, and I—”
Someone knocked on the door, three quick raps. “Mr. Peloquin? May we have a word?”
His eye caught on the notepad: Michael suppertime. It was his writing but damn if he could remember writing it. Still fuddled from having a nap, I guess.
Three more raps on the door.
Whoever it was used the English pronunciation, the -quin coming out like “Quinn”, not the French version everyone around here would use, Vincent included, even though he spoke, at best, what they used to call Diefenbaker French.
Vincent pressed the phone’s OFF button and set it down. He went into the porch and opened the door.
“Yes?” he said. “Can I help you?”
Two men stood outside, one on the stoop, the other behind him on the square concrete slabs of the covered deck. The one on the stoop said: “Good evening, Mr. Peloquin. My name is Mr. Jones, and this is my associate, Mr. Cooper. We have a few questions we’d like to ask, if you’d spare us the time.”
“Uh,” Vincent said.
“Thank you,” Jones said, stepping forward, into the house. Vincent was forced to take a step back. Before he could say anything, both men were in the porch with him. They shed their overcoats. While they hung them on hooks, Vincent stepped into the house.
He glanced at Charlie.
Damn, he thought. I think they’re here for you. Hope you weren’t lying about being able to hide yourself.
Before he could stop himself, Vincent said: “Would you like some coffee?”
They sat around the big old dining-room table. The two strangers wore expensive-looking suits, Cooper in dark blue and Jones in dark grey. Jones did most of the talking, while Cooper spoke hardly at all, watching with cold blue eyes. He hardly seemed to blink.
“It’s a long way from Winnipeg, out here,” Jones said.
He had an easy smile and a facile, superficial charm that reminded Vincent of a shark. His smile affected only his lips; his eyes weren’t at all involved.
“Further than you’d think,” Jones continued. “Especially after a storm like that one. You know they closed the Number One for a while?”
“Yes,” Vincent said. “I heard.”
He took a sip of coffee. The other two had declined, Jones politely, Cooper with a small shake of his head.
Charlie, on the chesterfield, watched with calm black eyes. The two men hadn’t seen him.
That whole memory-editing thing must be working, Vincent thought. Or else he didn’t really exist; but if that was the case, what would bring these men here?
“The reason we’re here, Mr. Peloquin”—Vincent resisted the urge to correct his pronunciation—“is to look into an incident affecting land that you once owned.”
He held out a hand to Cooper, who handed over a tablet computer. As far as Vincent could see, it had no manufacturer’s logo whatsoever.
“A meteorite.” Jones turned on the tablet and opened the photo gallery app.
A long shot of a row of birch trees, all of a uniform height. Bright blue sky. A low mountain, dark in the distance. A gap in the windbreak.
“This is Mr. Pachulak’s land, as seen from Mr. Chambers’ land,” Jones said.
Annoyingly, he pronounced Pachulak correctly.
He swiped the screen. A closer view, now, of the trees. The five stumps, charred and scarred.
Swipe: a view of the field, now.
“Mr. Chambers’ field,” Jones said.
In a thick blanket of snow, a shallow depression showed where Charlie’s boat, as he had called it, had burrowed into the earth.
Vincent began, “I’m not sure what—”
“Have you been out to the field lately, Mr. Peloquin?”
“Lately?” He glanced into the living room at Charlie. “No.”
Cooper, too, glanced into the living room, following Vincent’s gaze. He looked back at Vincent. His manner wasn’t charming; Vincent got the sense, from him, of explosive forces held barely in check.
“Hmmm.” Jones swiped the tablet’s screen again. “Someone was there today.”
The tablet displayed a photo of tire tracks in the snow.
“It’s hard to say there’s a clear match—”
Swipe: a truck tire in close-up, brightly lit by a flash; Vincent suspected it was his, that they’d snapped the photo just before they’d knocked on his door.
“—but it certainly does resemble your tire tread.”
“There are a lot of trucks in this neighbourhood,” Vincent said.
“There are,” Jones conceded.
“Drink a lot of vinegar, do you, Mr. Pelican?” Cooper said abruptly.
“I don’t care.”
Cooper set a matte black case on the table. It had the general shape and size of a briefcase, but it looked like it could deflect a bullet. He pressed his thumb to a spot that, to Vincent’s eye, looked no different from the rest of the case. The latches sprang open. From the case’s interior he drew a shallow grey bowl, which he placed on his head, positioning it like a yarmulke or an archbishop’s skullcap.
Then Cooper looked into the living room, right at Charlie. “Well, fuck,” he said, and stood up.
Charlie’s eyes, wide at the best of times, grew even wider. His hands moved in panicky ovals and figure-eights.
Vincent started to stand, too. Jones turned to him.
“That would not be a good idea, Mr. Peloquin.”
Help, Charlie said, in Vincent’s mind.
“Is it the subject, Mr. Cooper?” Jones said, not taking his eyes off Vincent.
Cooper stalked into the living room. Charlie stood up from the chesterfield, still gesticulating.
“Got you now,” Cooper growled.
He grabbed one of Charlie’s bony arms with his left hand. He drew back his right, and Vincent was afraid that Cooper was going to punch Charlie, punch him and not stop.
Jones turned in his chair to face the living room. “Is it,” he said again, slowly, emphatically, “the subject, Mr. Cooper?”
“It is,” Cooper said, sounding queerly subdued.
I want to, Vincent thought, but of course Charlie couldn’t hear him. But I don’t know how.
Jones said, “And you have it? In hand?”
“I do,” Cooper said.
“No damage, Mr. Cooper.”
“No. Of course not.”
Cooper lowered his right hand. The tension went out of him. Vincent, in the dining room, let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding.
“Take it to the car.”
Jones turned his gaze to Vincent. He wasn’t smiling now.
“Understand that we could arrest you, Mr. Peloquin. Obstructing an agent of— Well, obstruction of justice. But we won’t.”
His face twisted into a sneer, an expression that Vincent, even in the current situation, couldn’t help but think was probably his default setting.
“Frankly, Mr. Peloquin, you’re not worth the paperwork.”
Cooper led Charlie out of the living room. Jones, meanwhile, reached into the briefcase for a small metal cylinder, brushed aluminum, rounded at the top.
“If you’d please focus on me, Mr. Peloquin,” Jones said, “we can finish this up quickly and go our separate ways, mmm?”
“You have got to be joking,” Vincent said.
It looked exactly like one of the memory erasers from the Men in Black movies. He remembered taking Michael to see it when Michael had been taking his degree at Brandon University. What were those things called in the movie? Oh, right.
“Hmmm? Oh. Yes. Of course, we don’t call it that, officially.”
Absurdly, Jones’ sneer melted into a smile, a genuine smile for once, warm and human. Not like a shark at all.
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Peloquin, but we—”
Cooper was passing Vincent’s chair, still towing Charlie. His grip on Charlie’s arm looked unbreakable. Those hands were fighter’s hands, powerful, with big knuckles.
Vincent stuck out his foot. He caught Cooper right at the ankle. Something in his knee went pop, something felt more than heard.
Cooper stumbled, losing his grip on Charlie. The skullcap went forward off his head, landing with a clang on the ground.
“Fuck!” Cooper shouted.
Charlie scurried around the corner, into the kitchen, moving faster than Vincent would have imagined possible. As he passed the skullcap, he scooped it up in one three-fingered hand.
“That,” Jones said, “was spectacularly ill-advised.” All trace of a smile had vanished.
“I’m on it,” Cooper said.
He rounded the corner into the kitchen, following Charlie. Vincent wondered if he could still see his quarry, or if he was following some other sense. Perhaps he was powered simply by rage.
After a moment, he returned, once more towing Charlie. He wore the grey skullcap again. He glowered at Vincent.
“I got it,” he said to Jones. “We’re good.”
Thank you for trying, Charlie said to Vincent.
The others didn’t seem to hear him. Perhaps the tuning he’d done to be able to speak in Vincent’s memories had rendered him
inaudible to merely normal minds.
“Take him in?” Jones said to Cooper. He motioned with his chin to indicate Vincent.
Jones nodded. “I’m letting you decide,” he said. “He assaulted you, after all—not me.”
Cooper considered, then shrugged.
“Fuck it. He’s old. Soon enough he’ll be dead. Wipe him and we’ll go.”
He dragged Charlie into the porch.
“All right.” Jones turned to Vincent. “You’re lucky. Well, if you choose to look at it that way. My associate is not usually so kind to those who get in his way.”
He held up the silver cylinder and pressed something on its side with his thumb. It began to make a sound, a whine that rose quickly in pitch beyond what Vincent could hear. A red light began to wink at him, on off, on off.
“As I was saying, before your misguided attempt at heroics distracted us all: We of course cannot let you remember this.”
“I’ve got dementia,” Vincent said. “Give it time.”
“Do you? My condolences.”
Jones thumbed another button, and everything went white.
“Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Peloquin,” the stranger said.
He wore a grey wool coat over a dark blue suit. His breath puffed into vapour in the cold air.
“We will be in touch if we need any further information,” the stranger went on.
“Sure,” Vincent said, trying to remember what they’d been talking about.
“If you think of anything—anything at all”—he made a business card appear from an inner pocket and handed it to Vincent—“please do call. ”
The man got into the driver’s seat of a glossy black sedan. Another man sat in the passenger seat, glowering. Vincent glanced at the card.
Adam Jones, Consultant
An email address and a phone number.
Out on the mile road, headlights marked the approach of another vehicle.
Rush hour, Vincent thought.
This new arrival slowed. Vincent could see its turn signal winking. Someone else coming to the farmhouse. It wasn’t Irene’s car; it was an SUV.
The black sedan drove slowly up the driveway, snow crunching under its tires. At the corner, it turned east. The SUV waited for it; the driveway was only wide enough for one vehicle at a time.
Vincent turned. A small grey man—
Charlie, some deep part of Vincent’s mind said.
—stood looking at him.
When you tripped him, I had time to examine the hat he wore.
“Charlie?” he said.
I was able to disable certain devices in the hat. Enough that I was free to alter Cooper’s memories, in addition to Jones.
“Who?” The names rang a bell, but he couldn’t quite place them.
Cooper and Jones. Charlie gestured at the sedan’s receding lights.
It came back to him all in a rush: the interrogation, the threats, the grey skullcap. Tripping Cooper.
“Oh,” Vincent said.
The SUV turned into the driveway.
They have forgotten me, as thoroughly as they attempted to make you forget them.
“Why can I remember them? Why can I remember you?”
He remembered a white flash, a moment’s disorientation.
Their device is tuned for normal memories. As we have discussed, yours are—different.
The SUV stopped. Michael looked out the windshield at Vincent. His eyes passed over Charlie with no sign that he saw anything.
I must go now. Again, I thank you. With all that I have, I thank you. Never can I fully repay you.
Charlie turned and loped toward the bluff. He reached the first trees as Michael opened his SUV door.
“Dad?” he said. “Why are you out here without a coat?”
Vincent shrugged. “Waiting for you.”
“God, I hope not. I planned to be here a lot sooner. They just reopened the Number One a couple hours ago.”
“So I heard.”
Michael nodded. “So who were those guys? In the car?”
Vincent looked toward the bluff. Charlie had vanished into the trees. Vincent wondered if he’d ever see him again.
“Dad?” Michael laid a hand on his shoulder. “You okay?”
“I think so.”
“Who were those guys?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Michael shook his head.
“C’mon, Dad,” he said. “Let’s go inside. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
“Yes,” Vincent said, limping toward the house. His knee hurt. “Yes, we do.”