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By Dan Chaon
Published by Ballantine Books on 2018-01-09
FICTION / Thrillers, FICTION / Literary
NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Two sensational unsolved crimes—one in the past, another in the present—are linked by one man’s memory and self-deception in this chilling novel of literary suspense from National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon.
Includes an exclusive conversation between Dan Chaon and Lynda Barry
“We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves.” This is one of the little mantras Dustin Tillman likes to share with his patients, and it’s meant to be reassuring. But what if that story is a lie?
A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.
Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients has been plying him with stories of the drowning deaths of a string of drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses his patient’s suggestions that a serial killer is at work as paranoid thinking, but as the two embark on an amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.
From one of today’s most renowned practitioners of literary suspense, Ill Will is an intimate thriller about the failures of memory and the perils of self-deception. In Dan Chaon’s nimble, chilling prose, the past looms over the present, turning each into a haunted place.
Praise for Ill Will
“In his haunting, strikingly original new novel, [Dan] Chaon takes formidable risks, dismantling his timeline like a film editor.”—The New York Times Book Review
“The scariest novel of the year . . . ingenious . . . Chaon’s novel walks along a garrote stretched taut between Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock.”—The Washington Post
“Powerful . . . Chaon is one of America’s best and most dependable writers, and in the end, Ill Will is a ruthlessly ‘realistic’ piece of fiction about the unrealistic beliefs people entertain about their world.”—Los Angeles Times
“This intriguing novel about a tightly wired criminal psychologist with a murky past has the tension of a thriller plus the emotional release of justice finally served.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Powerfully unsettling . . . There’s a lot going on under the surface of Ill Will—more than one reading will reveal. Going back and reading this oddly compelling book again will only provide more pleasure.”—Chicago Tribune
“Terrifically eerie . . . Too few writers prize atmosphere as much as narrative tautness. With Ill Will, Chaon succeeds at delivering both.”—The Dallas Morning News
“Outstanding . . . Chaon’s writing is cool and precise, but his story is thrillingly unstable. It also boasts, at the end, a traditional horror-novel payoff I didn’t see coming—Stephen King couldn’t have done it better.”—The Wall Street Journal
“One of the best thrillers I’ve encountered in a very, very long time.”—Newsweek
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PR AISE FOR ILL WILL 'In his haunting, strikingly original new novel, Chaon takes formidable risks, dismantling his timeline like a fi lm editor and building the narrative with short, urgent chapters told from a few key perspectives. . . . As the story spins toward its inexorable conclusion, only the reader ascertains what is happening? a sinking realization that rattles the psyche and interferes with sleep. I read the concluding sections with increasing horror; the ending, twisting in the author's assured hands like a Rubik's Cube, is at once predictable and harrowing. Somehow, it resolved nothing and left me shaken. I believed this could happen? I believed all of it? and the only thing more terrifying than that is the possibility of another Dan Chaon novel. I will be nervously looking forward to it.' ? The New York Times Book Review 'The scariest novel of the year . . . ingenious . . . By now we should all be on guard against Dan Chaon, but there's just no effective defense against this cunning writer. Before beginning his exceptionally unnerving new book, go ahead and lock the door, but it won't help. You'll still be stuck inside yourself, which for Chaon is the most precarious place to be. . . . Chaon's novel walks along a garrote stretched taut between Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock. By the time we realize what's happening, we've gone too far to turn back. We can only inch forward into the darkness, bracing for what might come next.' ? The Washington Post 'Outstanding . . . Following writers like Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson, Dan Chaon writes in the spooky tradition of suburban gothic. . . . An unreliable narrator can often feel like a cheap trick in the novelist's playbook, but Mr. Chaon employs it masterfully, integrating unreliability into the book's very typography. . . . Mr. Chaon's writing is cool and precise, but his story is thrillingly unstable. It also boasts, at the end, a traditional horrornovel payoff I didn't see coming? Stephen King couldn't have done it better.' ? The Wall Street Journal
'Disturbing, amazing, masterful . . . Chaon has such command over the suspense in his novel that even some narrative experimentation doesn't derail the horror. . . . Chaon fans who have read his previous novels will be pleased to know that, as is his wont, the author waits until the uncanniest moment to loop characters and plots together, providing a frightening fi nish.' ? NPR 'Powerful . . . Chaon is one of America's best and most dependable writers, and in the end, Ill Will is a ruthlessly 'realistic? piece of fi ction about the unrealistic beliefs people entertain about their world.' ? Los Angeles Times 'Powerfully unsettling . . . A ranking master among neopulp stylists, Chaon adds to the book's disorienting effects by playing with the physical text. Some chapters take the form of parallel columns, two or three to a page. White spaces and uneven alignments push words, sentences? and thoughts? apart. . . . While such touches underscore the author's playful approach, the writerly stagecraft keeps the reader off guard and sometimes on edge, in a kind of altered cognitive state. There's a lot going on under the surface of Ill Will'more than one reading will reveal. Going back and reading this oddly compelling book again will only provide more pleasure.' ? Chicago Tribune 'Haunting . . . An accomplished short story writer and novelist, Chaon embraces his inner Patricia Highsmith, propelling headlong into the crime psychological genre. . . . The author revisits the familiar tropes of his earlier work? adoption, fi res, estranged siblings, amputation, drownings? and manages to invent a different kind of narrative altogether. . . . The brilliance of Chaon's writing comes through in his agile ability to depict the acute states of isolation and alienation of his characters. Like Donald Antrim and Dana Spiotta, Chaon animates isolation and grief with a perfect pitch of authenticity and fi delity.' ? San Francisco Chronicle
'Reading a truly terrifying novel can make you feel like you're drowning: As much as you may want to surface and catch your breath, the plot holds you in its grip. . . . As Chaon moves nimbly between viewpoints, calling memories and relationships into question, a powerful undercurrent of dread begins to form beneath the story, slowly but inexorably pulling you under.' ? Entertainment Weekly 'There is no questioning Mr. Chaon's writing chops. . . . [Ill Will is] the most disturbing novel I've ever read.' ? Pittsburgh PostGazette 'Chaon is a master of creeping dread and gathering paranoia. . . . What's sinisterly good about Ill Will is Chaon's audacity in teasing out the strands of his novel, enlisting vastly different yet somehow linked perspectives on a series of seemingly ritualized killings, separated by decades, as if they come from the far sides of a single unfi nished jigsaw puzzle.' ? BookForum 'Chaon shifts effortlessly between timelines and between characters, each movement unsettlingly intimate and immediate, each adding to the steadily expanding sense of dread and uncertainty. . . . Were Ill Will only a skilled dismembering of a man's selfimage in pursuit of deeper truths, it would be impressive enough, but there's so much more going on. To Chaon's credit, Ill Will actually contains answers to its central mysteries . . . but these answers and resolutions are ultimately as unsettling as the mysteries and questions themselves. Ill Will serves as a vivid reminder of the sheer power of story, the force by which we shape our lives, and which can also tear them down.' ? National Post (Canada) '[A] murder mystery that's also a chilling investigation of the fallibility of memory and the damage infl icted by family secrets . . . In the complexity of its characters and the evocativeness of its themes, Ill Will successfully slips over the wall some would erect between literary fi ction and the mystery genre. . . . Chaon faithfully carries out his responsibility to keep the mystery plots . . . simmering in a pressure cooker of suspense and emotion. While doing so, he manages to summon the atmospheres of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs.' ? Shelf Awareness
'In Chaon's capable hands, [Ill Will] is a brilliant depiction of mental illness. It's a murder mystery and a literary thriller, a multilayered nonlinear narrative and a psychological portrait of the dark side of human nature. You'll lose track of the number of deaths, but you'll remember the daring storytelling and the skillful treatment of characters who live with repressed memories.' ? BookPage 'Intensely readable . . . In this creepy yet fascinating work, with a bleak Ohio wintery landscape as backdrop, Chaon creates a world of tragedy, disease, and drug abuse right out of today's news and makes it real while keeping readers guessing on many levels.' ? Library Journal (starred review) 'Exceptional and emotionally wrenching . . . With impressive skill, across multiple narratives that twine, fracture, and reset, Chaon expertly realizes his singular vision of American dread.' ? Publishers Weekly (starred review) 'A dark genrebending thriller . . . Chaon has mastered multiple psychologically complex and often fearsome characters. A shadowy narrative that's carried well by the author's command and insight.' ? Kirkus Reviews (starred review) 'Chaon has created another of those twilight realms of which he is an indisputable master. The book's characters plumb the depths of deception and surpass all established measures of instability and dysfunction. . . . If the defi nition of eeriness is indeed 'strange, suspicious, and unnatural,' the defi ners of the genre (Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, etc.) have a worthy heir in Dan Chaon.' ? Booklist 'Dan Chaon's new novel is subtly, steadily unnerving? like a scalpel slipping under your skin and prying it, ever so slowly, from the muscle beneath. Ill Will is a dark M'bius strip of a thriller that will leave you questioning what's perceived and what's imagined, and whether the reverberations of tragedy ever truly come to an end.' ? Celeste Ng, New York Times bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You
'This novel is brilliant, beautiful, and terrifying. Dan Chaon has written a tender, masterful family story and injected it with a cardiac arrest of a plot. Ill Will keeps you up late into the night, swelling your heart and turning your blood to ice.' ? Lily King, New York Times bestselling author of Euphoria 'As it circles through the variously griefstricken, paindistorted, drugstupefi ed, bored, angry, deathhaunted, secretly psychopathic, entirely compelling minds of the fabulously dysfunctional Tillman family, Dan Chaon's Ill Will not only confi rms him as among our country's fi nest writers but makes clear that he is one of our bravest and most inventive. Chaon embraces risks that would have most novelists? and let me be clear about this, ALL of the thriller and suspense writers currently drawing breath? turning pale and making the sign of the cross. It's stunning. Read it right now.' ? Peter Straub, author of The Throat 'Dan Chaon's darkly stunning Ill Will ensnares you from its very fi rst pages. It's both a bonechilling literary thriller and a complicated tale of family secrets and the strange and dangerous paths grief and guilt can take us on? and it is not to be missed.' ? Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me ? 'I believe in bad places,' one narrator of Ill Will confesses, and he's right. Dan Chaon's damaged characters stalk the elusive truth and what may be a serial killer through a nightmarish Cleveland populated by drug addicts and sexual predators. Intimate and unsparing, this is one of the creepiest books I've ever read.' ? Stewart O'Nan, author of Songs for the Missing 'Ill Will is a literary masterwork, and that rare, true psychological thriller that comes along once in a decade. This novel may be the most honest exploration of deceit ever written.' ? Alissa Nutting, author of Tampa 'A knockout book. Reading Ill Will, it's hard not to think of moments when novels such as The Shining and Ghost Story were published, books that would change the landscape of the horror fi eld in fundamental ways. It's the kind of novel that makes you want to stand up and applaud.' 'John Langan, Locus
by dan chaon Ill Will Stay Awake Await Your Reply You Remind Me of Me Among the Missing Fitting Ends
DA N C H A O N B A L L A N T I N E B O O K S N E W Y O R K
Ill Will is a work of fi ction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fi ctitiously. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. 2018 Ballantine Books Trade Paperback Edition Copyright ? 2017 by Dan Chaon Reading group guide copyright ? 2018 by Penguin Random House LLC All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Ballantine and the House colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC. Random House Reader's Circle & Design is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in 2017. An earlier version of Part 2 was originally published as 'What Happened to Us'? in Ploughshares, Spring 2014 and Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses 2016, edited by Bill Henderson. library of congress cataloginginpublication data Names: Chaon, Dan, author. Title: Ill will : a novel / Dan Chaon. Description: New York : Ballantine Books,  Identifi ers: lccn 2016034066 (print) | lccn 2016039804 (ebook) | isbn 9780345476050 (trade paperback) | isbn 9781101885345 (ebook) Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Psychological. | FICTION / Crime. | GSAFD: Suspense fi ction. Classifi cation: lcc ps3553.h277 i45 2017 (print) | lcc ps3553.h277 (ebook) | ddc 813/.54'dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016034066 Printed in the United States of America on acidfree paper randomhousebooks.com randomhousereaderscircle.com 246897531 title-page image: iStock/aleroy4 Book design by Simon M. Sullivan
We often meet our destiny on the road we take to avoid it. ? Jean de La Fontaine
PA R T O N E November 2011? April 2012
Sometime in the fi rst days of November the body of the young man who had disappeared sank to the bottom of the river. Facedown, bumping lightly against the muddy bed below the fl owing water, the body was probably carried for several miles? frowning with gentle surprise, arms held a little away from his sides, legs stiff. The underwater plants ran their fronds along the feathered headdress the boy was wearing, across the boy's forehead and warpaint stripes and lips, down across the fringed buckskin shirt and wolftooth necklace, across loincloth and deerskin leggings, tracing the feet in their moccasins. The fi sh and other scavengers were mostly asleep during this period. The body bumped against rocks and branches, scraped along gravel, but it was mostly preserved. In April, when the two freshman college girls saw the boy's face under the thin layer of ice among the reeds and cattails at the edge of the old skating pond, they at fi rst imagined the corpse was a discarded mannequin or a plastic Halloween mask. They were collecting pondwater specimens for their biology course, and both of them were feeling scientifi c rather than superstitious, and one of the girls reached down and touched the face's cheek with the eraser tip of her pencil. During this same period of months, November through April, Dustin Tillman had been drifting along his own trajectory. He was fortyone years old, married with two teenage sons, a psychologist with a small practice and formerly, he sometimes told people, some occasional forays into forensics. His life, he thought, was a collec-
tion of the usual stuff: driving to and from work, listening to the radio, checking and answering his steadily accumulating email, shopping at the supermarket, and watching select highly regarded shows on television and reading a few books that had been well reviewed and helping the boys with their homework, details that were? he was increasingly aware? units of measurement by which he was parceling out his life. When his cousin Kate called him, later that week after the body was found, he was already feeling a lot of vague anxiety. He was having a hard time about his upcoming birthday, which, he realized, seemed like a very bourgeois and mundane thing to worry about. He had recently quit smoking, so there was that, too. Without nicotine, his brain seemed murky with circling, unfocused dread, and the world itself appeared somehow more unfriendly? emanating, he couldn't help but think, a soft glow of ill will. 2 A few days after the body was discovered, Dustin picked up the phone and it was his cousin Kate calling from Los Angeles. 'Listen,' she said. 'I have some very weird news.' Dustin said: 'Kate'? They spoke regularly enough, once every few months or so, but it was usually on birthdays or holidays or around the edges of holidays. 'It's about Russell,' she said. 'Russell, my brother Russell'? He was sitting at the desk in his offi ce, his 'study,' as he liked to call it, on the third fl oor of the house, and he stopped typing on the computer and glanced over at his ashtray, which was now full of little sugarfree hard candies, loz-
enges wrapped in cellophane. 'Don't tell me,' Dustin said. 'He's escaped.' 'Just listen,' Kate said. Dustin hadn't spoken to Russell, his adopted older brother, since Russell had been sent to prison. He had not written to him or even kept tabs on him, really, and the thoughts that he had of him were of the most cursory sort. For example, he'd see a movie or a TV show that took place in a prison and he'd think: I wonder what Russell is doing right now? He had a general idea of what prison would be like. This included things like homosexual rape and 'shanks? carved out of toothbrushes or spoons. Sometimes he would picture men in the prison library, studying legal books, or in cafeterias, eating the terrible casseroles, or lying moodily, fully dressed, on metal bunk beds, glaring at the ceiling. Various images of this sort had come to Dustin over the years. But mostly he'd imagine Russell as he had been when they were growing up together? Russell, six years his elder, who had shot him once with a BB gun in the back while he was running away, Russell, listening to deathmetal music and carving a pentagram into his forearm with the sharp end of a drafting compass, Russell, who had used improvised kung fu moves to destroy a magnifi cent snowman that Dustin had built, Russell, who was delighted by Dustin's fear of the dark and would wait until Dustin was comfortably alone in a room and then sneak by and turn off the light and pull the door closed and Dustin, trapped in darkness, would let out a scream.
On the night that their parents were going to be murdered, Dustin Tillman and his cousins Kate and Wave were sitting at the kitchen table in the camper, which was parked for the moment in the driveway of Dustin's family's house in western Nebraska. It was the beginning of June, 1983. Their two families were planning to leave the next morning to go on vacation together. They would travel through Wyoming and up to Yellowstone, and they would stay at various campgrounds along the way. But that night, the camper was like their own little private apartment that they were living in. The three of them were playing cards. A transistor radio emitted songs from a distant Denver rockandroll station. A heavy beetlebodied June bug beat its wings and ticked thickly against the light fi xture on the ceiling. The girls were only seventeen, but they were splitting a light beer, which they had taken from the refrigerator in the camper. They had poured it? half and half? into two glass tumblers. The night was warm, and the girls were wearing their bikini tops and cutoff shorts. They had used a curling iron to make fl ips in their shoulderlength blond hair, but the fl ips had grown a little limp. They were twins, not identical but almost. Dustin was thirteen, and he sat there, his cards fanned out, and the girls said: 'DustTin! It's your turn!' And Kate reached down and without thinking scratched a bug bite on her bare ankle and Dustin was looking surreptitiously, the way her fi ngernail made a white mark on the reddish tanned skin, the fi ngernail which had some polish on it that was fl aking off.
In retrospect, Dustin couldn't remember much that was signifi - cant about that particular morning when they discovered the body. The day was clear and cold and sunny, and he woke up and felt fairly happy? happy in that bland, daily way that doesn't even recognize itself as happiness, waking into a day that shouldn't expect anything more than a series of rote actions: showering and pouring coffee into a cup and dressing and turning a key in the ignition and driving down streets that are so familiar that you don't even recall making certain turns and stops; though the mind must have consciously carried out the procedure of braking at the corner and rolling the steering wheel beneath your palms and making a left onto the highway, there is no memory at all of these actions. You were not even present, were you? In retrospect: another day, late in the morning, early in the century. Another long Midwestern interstate corridor in Ohio. This particular road connected a whole series of fertile little towns to the cities, though lately what was once farmland was being developed, and rows of identical houses rose out of the muddy fi elds instead of crops. The backyards of these new communities were punctuated with aboveground pools and swing sets, and many featured little manmade ponds, which at this moment in spring looked like parking lots made of water instead of asphalt. Once they were landscaped, maybe they would look more appealing. There was a lot of roadkill these days, as well. The highways now cut the countryside into narrow parcels, and the displaced woodland animals were often caught moving from one section to the next? raccoons, opossums, deer, foxes, their bodies tossed onto the berm in the positions of restless sleepers, mouths open, eyes closed, almost peacefullooking. People, too, seemed to meet their end more frequently on the roads, and Dustin had noticed the way that mourners seemed more
and more to erect small roadside shrines to those who perished in accidents, crosses fashioned out of picket wood, often surrounded by a pile of brightly colored objects: usually plastic fl owers? pink roses, yellow daffodils, white lilies? but sometimes green Christmas wreaths or plastic holly or ribbons; very frequently clusters of stuffed animals, bunnies and teddy bears and duckies; and sometimes items of clothing such as shirts or baseball caps, which gave the crosses a certain scarecrowlike quality. There was probably a good essay in this, Dustin thought. Coming up to the exit, he saw the fl ashing of the police cars gathered together, their blue and red lights dappling in the mild spring rain. Some orange road cones had been set out, and a policeman in a refl ectorstriped raincoat stood there waving the cars past with a plastic DayGlo baton. Dustin slowed and turned down the radio and steered into the detour around the roadblock that the policeman indicated with an elegant sweep of his wand. There was a clutch of cops gathered at the edge of the bridge, grim and damp from drizzle and drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups, and Dustin observed them with interest. He enjoyed watching policeprocedural dramas on television, and he had loved it, back in the day, when he would sometimes be called to testify as a courtapproved expert. Remembering this gave him a wistful twinge. He guessed that whatever was going on must be fairly serious.
There was a famous photo of Dustin and Kate and Wave? the picture that had been in the newspapers, which had been nominated for the Pulitzer; it didn't win but it was recognizable. A remarkable and memorable crime photo. Here were the children? the beautiful blond twins, and the skinny freckled boy between them? and the police are leading them, hurrying them from the house. In the photo, Wave is weeping openly, her mouth contorted, screaming maybe, and Kate is looking off to the side, fearfully, as if someone is going to attack her, and Dustin is staring straight ahead and you can see that there is blood on the front of his shirt, a Jackson Pollock of blood, and he is stricken, glazed with camerafl ash light, stumbling away from the crime scene, and there behind the children and the police is the body of Dustin's mom, Colleen? you can see her corpse, perfectly framed in the background, her limbs thrown out in a posture that is clearly one of death, violent death, and a broad stain of blood beneath her. & the imprint of her blood on Dustin's Tshirt where he had held her, his mom, for a moment when he found her body on the front stoop beneath the porch light. The other bodies? not in the photograph? are Dustin's father, Dave, who is in the living room with a gunshot wound to his chest, and his aunt Vicki, who is dead beneath the kitchen table, where she tried to hide from the gunman, and his uncle Lucky by the sink, the corpse slumped against the bottom cabinets, his head thrown back, arms open as if falling backward. Shot in the mouth. These bodies weren't the kind that you could show in the newspaper, but the picture of the three children was just enough to convey a vivid sense of massacre'
10 6 By the time Dustin reached his offi ce, the news of the discovery had already begun to circulate. Most people assumed? correctly, as it would later turn out? that the body was that of Peter Allingham, a college sophomore and lacrosse player who had gone missing in the wee hours of November 1, after an evening of barhopping and Halloween parties, dressed in a cartoonish, racially insensitive Native American costume: feathers, buckskin, et cetera. Seen by large numbers of people and then gone? very improbably vanishing, people said, on his way to the bathroom at the Daily Tavern, and he never came back to join his friends. Aqil Ozorowski was sitting in the waiting room of Dustin's offi ce, wearing earbud headphones and gazing at his smartphone, texting vigorously. His dark, shaggy hair hung down like blinders on either side of his eyes, and Dustin stood there in the doorway with his briefcase, waiting to be noticed. He felt a bit nonplussed. They didn't have an appointment, but Aqil had the habit of simply appearing. He was an odd case. He had ostensibly come to Dustin for smoking cessation hypnotherapy, but his susceptibility to hypnosis was very low. Instead, their sessions had devolved into loose, vaguely intimate discussions, with no clear goal in mind. They'd talk about some conspiracy theory that Aqil had read about on the Internet, or they'd talk about Aqil's insomnia or about his resentful feelings toward the pop star Kanye West? but after the fi rst few appointments they had all but ceased to mention smoking. 'I just don't think I'm ready yet,' Aqil said. 'But I do think you're helping me, Doctor. You're a good listener.' Actually, Dustin wasn't sure that was true. In fact, he had learned very little about Aqil in the months that they'd been meeting. Aqil was about thirty years old, Dustin guessed, and based on his name Dustin thought he might be biracial, but he wasn't sure. Aqil had
11 dark, deerlike brown eyes, and his long straight hair was either black or a dark auburn, depending on the light. His complexion could indicate any number of races. He gave no indication of his family background, even when Dustin asked direct questions. 'Honestly,' Aqil said, 'I'm not really interested in that stuff. These shrinks always want you to tell stories about your childhood and your past, like that's supposed to explain something. I don't really do that.' The one thing that Dustin did know was that Aqil had been a policeman and that he was now on medical leave from the Cleveland Police Department, though that situation, too, had never been clearly explained. Some kind of psychological diffi culty, Dustin assumed. PTSD? Paranoia? There were no medical records that Dustin had been able to access, and even when he'd undertaken a surreptitious Google search it had yielded few results. Aqil was listed as a graduate of the Cleveland Police Academy. There was a grainy photo of him on his high school football team, where he'd been a running back. He had a defunct LinkedIn page. Whatever he'd done to get himself on psychological leave from the police department, it hadn't made the news. Still, there was apparently something he needed. He glanced up at last and gave Dustin a grin. He politely pulled the plastic cowrie shell of earbud from his ear, as if Dustin's waiting room were his own private space and he was surprised to be interrupted. 'Hey,' he said. 'Hey,' Dustin said. 'I didn't realize we had an . . .' and Aqil blinked a couple of times. 'Did you hear the news about the dead kid'? Aqil said. Dustin turned on the light and set his briefcase on a chair and Aqil stood up and stretched. '. . . appointment'? Dustin said. 'Do you want to hear my theory'? Aqil said.
12 7 'It's about Russell,' Kate said. 'Russell, my brother Russell'? he said, and she said, just listen! and she began to read to him from a news article: . . . now nearly twentynine years after his arrest, independent DNA tests by three different laboratories, she read. DNA tests on genetic evidence confi rm what Tillman has long contended? that he is not the person who killed his mother, father, aunt, and uncle that June night in 'What newspaper is this'? Dustin said. 'This is unbelievable.' Tillman will be the latest person to be exonerated by DNA, according to offi cials at the Innocence Project, a nonprofi t legal clinic that investigates wrongful convictions. The test results show what Russell has said from the day he was arrested that he is innocent said Vanessa Zuckerbrot an attorney for Innocence Project 'I don't understand why we weren't contacted about this,' Dustin said. 'When was the last time anybody talked to him'? All these years I knew I wasn't the one, said Tillman in an interview, I believe there is a higher power greater than me and that's been helping me all these years, keeping me together 8 When he met his wife he was a sophomore in college and six years had passed since the whole thing, the murders, trial, et cetera. There were whole days when he would only think a little about those events, when the thoughts would graze lightly across the surface of his consciousness and then sink into the waters? he found
13 himself visualizing his memories this way, imagined certain images drifting down into dark green ponds and sending up a few gurgling bubbles as they vanished. He was so spacey during those years, barely tethered to earth, he thought later? His wife was a student assistant in his American history Revolution to Constitutional Convention class, and as he was leaving class she walked along beside him for a moment and very lightly touched him on the arm. 'What are you taking'? she said. 'Ativan'? '. . . Huh'? he said. And they looked at one another and he guessed that something in his face made her raise her eyebrows appraisingly. 'Oh my,' she said. 'I think you better have a seat over here for a minute, don't you'? 'Well,' he said. 'I'm a? ? but she took him by the elbow and steered him toward a bench, which sat below a Sargentlike painting of an ancient turnofthecentury trustee. 'Sit,' she said. 'I used to have a problem with BZDs, so I know a little about what you're going through.' She eyed him thoughtfully. 'Don't worry,' she said, 'I'm not like a narc or a religious nut or something, it's just that you look familiar.' 9 Aqil took out a map and unfolded it carefully on Dustin's desk. 'Listen,' he said. 'This isn't just another weird rabbit hole I'm going down. This one is real. And you, Dr. Tillman? I think you are going to get this, more than anybody else I could tell. This is right up your alley.' Dustin shifted uncertainly. 'Why do you say that? Up my alley in what way''
14 'Just give me a minute,' Aqil said. 'Let me, you know, lay it out for you.' He placed the map on the desk between himself and Dustin, and Dustin looked down at the little red stickers that had been pasted along the edges of the interstate corridors and the waterways in a kind of curving pattern, possibly a pattern? he thought of the way that light pollution, seen from outer space, revealed the outlines of the Eastern Seaboard and the Great Lakes. 'Look,' Aqil said. 'So each of these dots? Each of these dots represents an apparent accidental death, apparent,' he said, and he pointed to the northern corner of the state. 'Here: JONATHON FRISBIE,' he said. 'Twentyone years old, student at Ohio Northern University, went missing 1/1/01. Found 1/2/01, Maumee River; cause of death, drowning. Blood alcohol level was 0.23. 'VINCENT ISOLATO, nineteen, student at Ohio Northern University, reported missing 2/20/02, found 4/20/02, Maumee River, cause of death, drowning; MATT POTTS, twentyone, student at Kettering U. Missing, 3/30/03, East Lansing, Michigan, found 4/02/03, Red Cedar River; cause of death, drowning.' 'I can see where this is going,' Dustin said. 'But.' 'Just wait, wait,' Aqil said. 10 He was in his study when Kate called and he saw her name come up on the caller ID and he felt aware of the old feeling of attraction, not even such a big taboo to be drawn to your cousin when you were a thirteenyearold boy but he had been embarrassed nevertheless, had never admitted it, though of course the girls knew, surely. They had been a certain kind of teenage girl, working class, Dustin
15 thinks now, though of course back then they would have never used that term? trailer trashy, maybe people might have said, slutty; at the very least it was clear that these girls were experienced. Shrewd, practical. Tube tops, short shorts, heavy makeup. Not virginal. And later, years later, there was this moment when he had been visiting Kate at her place in L.A. and she had seemed so amused? this was when he was speaking at USC at a conference? and Kate had said, so tell me about being a therapist. What's that like? She had never been to college? she had worked as a hairdresser her whole life? had no interest in that kind of thing and he was aware that her only concepts of 'therapists? were from TV or movies or whatever, the tweedy dithering absentminded snob, and she was smiling at him her eyes turned slyly sidelong and she said, what do you talk about with them, have any of them been really, like, dangerously crazy? I just can't imagine . . . And now here he was, a fortyoneyearold man in his 'study,' how pretentious, at his desk, at his computer, checking his email and going over his 'notes? and he picked up the phone and he wanted to be in the mode that was the person he would have been if 11 'JESSE HAMBLIN,' Aqil said, 'twentyone, student at Michigan State, missing 4/4/04. 'Never found. 'CLINTON COMBE, nineteen, student at Brownmeyer College, missing 5/5/05. Found 5/16/05, Olentangy River. Cause of death: drowning. Blood alcohol level: 0.34. 'ZACHARY OROZCO, eighteen, freshman at Ohio University,
16 missing 6/6/06; that sends up some fl ags, right? Found 6/8/06, Hocking River, cause of death: drowning. Blood alcohol level 0.34. 'JEFF WAMSLEY, twentyone, Ohio Northern University, missing 7/7/07, found 7/24/07, Maumee River. This is interesting? his father says to reporters that, and I quote, rumors circulating that there might be some kind of mad drowner in our midst. 'Now look at this one. JOSHUA McGIBONEY. A microbiology major, from University of Dayton. Went missing . . . you guessed it, Doctor, I can see . . . 8/8/08, after leaving a rugby party, his body found three days later facedown in Wolf Creek. Blood alcohol level: 0.40. It's hard to imagine how he could get so drunk and walk away? 'It's interesting, right? It makes you curious, doesn't it, Doctor? 'LUKE GORRINGE, Delta College student from Bay City Michigan, reported? note: reported? missing 9/11/09, East Lansing, Michigan. Found 10/15/09, Red Cedar River. 'VINCE NORBY, another student from Brownmeyer College? went missing 10/10/10. 'Found 2/11/11. Olentangy River.' 'How many are there'? Dustin said. He looked at the folder that Aqil was holding, a sheaf of paper, and Aqil gave him a wry smile. 'How many? Including Peter Allingham, do you mean'? 12 This was the day that Kate called to tell him about Russell, about the DNA evidence, Russell to be released from prison, a few days after Peter Allingham's body was recovered from the pond near campus. There was no real connection to be made between the two events except that later they adhered in Dustin's mind.
17 'So I'm just a little confused about the time line of all of this,' he said to Kate. 'The dates. At what point did this group? Innocence Project, right'? at what point did they begin to work on Russell's case? And I don't understand why they didn't contact us. Why they weren't required by law to contact us since we are the victims? families and we were the ones who testifi ed.' 'Listen,' Kate said, 'I'm as freaked as you are, honey. Believe me.' 'But it doesn't make any sense,' Dustin said. 'Surely this whole thing has been under way for a long time, and the fact that we aren't hearing about it until he is practically out the front gates of the? 'I know,' Kate said. 'I'm in, like, shock. I don't even know what to think. It's like one blood test and suddenly your whole life is? ? 13 . . . kind of upsetting, he thought. Extremely, extremely upsetting. A chilly April afternoon but he was outdoors wearing only that wool herringbone sports jacket that looked so much like a psychologist would wear that it was a little embarrassing, actually, and he glanced over his shoulder. He was standing in the backyard along the side of the house holding an unlit cigarette when he heard the boys coming up the driveway, home from school; it was later in the day than he realized, and he bent down on his haunches and buried the cigarette in the dirt of a newly planted wisteria bush? 'Hey,' Dustin said as the boys appeared. Aaron and Dennis and their friend Rabbit, that loping, clumsy yet vaguely predatory gait that teenage boys develop, and they looked at him.
18 'Hey, Dad,' Dennis said laconically. 'What are you burying'? 'Nothing,' Dustin said. 'Just checking this, um . . .' He gestured. 'Plant'? Dennis said. 'Bush'? Aaron said. They had decided that it was hilarious to fi nish Dustin's sentences, because he had long had the habit of drifting off into ellipses, groping through increasingly long silences for the right word and not fi nding it. Distracted, always distracted, maybe even to the point of something wrong with his brain. '? Wist,' he said. 'Wisteria,' he said, and the boys exchanged glances; grins. 14 Russell and Dustin? Rusty and Dusty, that's what their parents sometimes called them, as if they were a matching set. Though of course they hadn't chosen Russell's name. Russell was a foster boy when he came to them, son of a drugaddict mother, father unknown. He'd been living with a different foster family for several years, but then there had been a house fi re, and he was orphaned again. Dustin's father had been deeply moved by this tragedy. Russell was fourteen when they adopted him, and Dustin was eight, and Dustin can remember that day. There had been a party, and after the party had dispersed he had seen Rusty standing in the backyard, staring out toward the horizon. Western Nebraska, bordering on Colorado: the fi elds, lined with telephone poles; the grasshopper oil wells, gently nodding their sleepy heads. At the edge of the horizon, a ridge of low hills rose up from the fl atland. Along
19 the tops of the hills were gnarled volcanic cliffs and boulders, pocked and jagged. In the summer, when the sun was right, the shadows of the cliffs and rocks could be said to resemble faces, or the fi gures of animals. Dustin sat on the back steps and looked out along with Rusty. After a time, Rusty turned. His face was solemn, maybe brotherly. 'What are you staring at'? Rusty said, and Dustin shrugged. 'Come over here,' Rusty said, and when Dustin did, Rusty didn't say anything for a while. He considered Dustin's face. 'You want to know something'? 'What'? And Dustin breathed as Rusty's eyes held him. 'My actual mom died,' he said. 'They say that she hung herself, but I think they probably killed her.' 'Who'? Dustin said. 'Who killed her'? But Rusty only shrugged. Then, abruptly, he gestured at the sky. He pointed. 'You see that'? he said. 'That's the evening star.' He put his palms fi rmly over Dustin's ears and tilted Dustin's head, swiveling it like it was a telescope. 'You see it now? It's right . . . there!' And he drew a line with his fi nger, from Dustin's nose to the sky. Dustin nodded. He closed his eyes. He could feel the cool, claylike dampness of his brother's palms against his head. The sound of the hands was like the inside of a shell. 'I see it,' Dustin said softly.
20 15 His wife's maiden name had been Jill Bell, which she loathed. She said that it always made people think that she was going to be a nicer person than she was, it always made the teachers think that she would be a placid, goodygoody little girl, the name, she said, of a fairy or a milkmaid or a fl ower that people sang about in the nineteenth century? 'When Springtime Jill Bells Are ABloomin',' she said, and she even had a tune for it, which resembled something Stephen Foster might have composed. In any case, she liked Jill Tillman better: There was something a little snappier about it, more acerbic, which suited her. She got on the phone? to talk to one of the boys? teachers, or a construction contractor whose work wasn't quite up to par, or some bureaucratic functionary? and she had found a perfect, crisp snap to the words. 'This is Jill Tillman,' she would say, and a perfectly pleasant chill would spread across the syllables. 'May I speak to your supervisor, please'? It was the kind of voice that had gotten them through the fi rst years of their marriage, when he had been a PhD candidate and she was in law school and they had the boys one after the other. It should have been a disaster but she was a person who liked to put things in order, to make lists and schedules, to discover neat little shortcuts and inventions. She knew about Dustin's past, of course, but was not interested at all in the psychology of it, in dwelling on it, in dredging things up and examining them. This was one of the things he loved most about her.
21 16 Dustin walked down the hallway to the bedroom where his wife was stretched out on top of the covers in her jeans and bare feet, reading a book. It was about ten o'clock at night. He stood there in the doorway looking at her and she continued to read peaceably. She had an odd habit. She would take the corner of a page between her thumb and forefi nger and begin to turn the page over before she had read it all the way, craning her head a little to catch the last couple of lines. He didn't understand why she didn't just fi nish the page before she fl ipped it. They had been married twenty years and they had never once talked seriously about getting divorced, although there were long periods of silence in their marriage where they were living more or less like roommates. Companionably aloof. 'It's hard for me to concentrate when you're staring at me,' she said now, glancing up as he came in and lay down on the bed beside her. 'What are you reading'? he said. She showed him the book cover: Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov. 'Oh,' he said. 'That sounds fun.' 'It's actually hilarious,' she said. He rested his chin on her shoulder, glanced at the top of page 73: shine, sea waves. A nice cosy life. Can't understand why you should criticize He pressed his face down into the soft shirtsleeve crease of her arm, right above her breast. Breathed in, smelled, and her chest rose slowly and she rested her hand on the back of his head. 'I have something weird to tell you,' he said. He closed his eyes. Her fi ngers ran lightly across his hair. 'I have something I need to tell you, too,' she said. 'You go fi rst,' he said. He felt her draw in a long breath and hold it.
22 'No, you go fi rst,' she said, and there was a thin line of tension in her voice, almost like she was gritting her teeth. Was she mad at him? Had he done something inconsiderate? 'How was your doctor's appointment'? he said, and when she didn't speak he lifted his head to look at her face. 17 From: Aqil Ozorowski (Ozorowskiag@yahoo.com) Sent: Fri April 8 2012 1:26 AM To: DrDTillman@outlook.com RE: Crazy Dear Dr. Tillman, I hope I didn't come on too strong today as if I was trying to push things down your throat or so forth. I know I have had my moments of seeming 'off the wall,' but I think we've got a good enough relationship that you can tell when I am going down the rabbit hole and when I am being real. This is the real deal. First of all, let's just put aside the weird coincidence with the dates. It's just too much, right? It makes me sound like one of the conspiracy guys with the tinfoil hats! So put it aside. Instead, just think for a minute about the facts that tie all these deaths together. What sets up a fl ag for me is all the stuff that's missing. The evidence investigators didn't fi nd. Right? The only obvious connection is the extreme amount of alcohol consumption by each victim, and since the corpse is always recovered in a local waterway the cause of death is always assumed to be drowning, with death assumed to occur on the night the victim went missing.
23 So we cops look at this and we say, simple. An accidental drowning. 'Death by Misadventure? is what we put on the report. Case closed. It's sad, but no further investigation is needed. Binge drinking is an epidemic on these college campuses, and when you have that amount of drunkenness somebody's going to die, right? It's just the odds. But then look at the actual circumstances. The blood alcohol level in many of these cases is crazy. So they would have to be consuming very quickly. Most of the time they are in a crowd, at a party or a bar, and then suddenly nobody has seen them for a while. They've gone off somewhere. I won't use the word 'vanished.' Now, as drunk as they supposedly are, somehow they negotiate their way to a riverbank without a single witness seeing them. Then 'happen? to fall into the water. 'Help!' they yell. 'Help! Help me!' Nobody hears them. Unheard and unseen. Are any of these kids troubled, accidentprone alcoholics? Not really. Most of them are A and B students, a lot of them athletes in good physical health, lots of friends and good stable family relationships. Not to say that kids like that don't also die. But you might expect some fl ags with deaths like these. Not a single one of these was ever listed as a suicide. There's no evidence of that. And why is it that most often their bodies aren't found immediately? Instead, it's days, weeks, months later, downstream of the 'accident.' There are never any signs of FOUL PLAY but there are also no signs of AN ACCIDENT. Whatever happened to these kids happened without witness or evidence. Every time. Which is one of the things that makes me think that maybe there's something purposeful about these deaths. Almost like they've been arranged. Am I crazy? Everything I say to my courtappointed shrink, he comes back at me with 'delusions of reference.' He's looking at me for signs of mania, paranoia, some diagnosis he can pin on me. And maybe you think the same thing. But I trust you more, Doctor. I could tell right away when I met you that you were a kindred spirit. Will you be my second set of ears and eyes on this thing? I'll give you all
24 the fi les I have; I'll lay it all out for you. Then, if you don't agree, explain it to me. Tell me there's something I'm exaggerating. Something I'm 'projecting? too much into. If you say that I am delusional, I will believe you. I do remember your little saying, Doctor. 'Sometimes a dead bird is just a dead bird.' That story you tell. But these are not birds, Doc. They are dead young men. I just want somebody to think about it with me. Help me. I am, most humbly, your patient, Aqil Ozorowski 18 'It's about the size of a grapefruit,' Jill told him. 'Dr. Watanabe could literally press down on my stomach and feel it. I can't believe it. I've been walking around for . . . years? 'Probably years. And I didn't notice anything.' 'So maybe it's nothing,' he said. They were sitting crosslegged on the bed, facing each other, holding hands, and it must have looked, he thought, like they were children, like they were reciting a rhyme together. 'Before we panic,' he said, 'let's look at the most optimistic side. 'These things can be completely benign.' In his mind, the tumor was really a grapefruit. It was yellow and had a thick, pocked skin, and it was full of pink quartermoon chambers. 'I love you,' he said. 'I know,' she said. They both lifted their heads and listened. From down the hall, they could hear the music of their sons? videogame console. The
25 two boys side by side on Aaron's twin bed, their thumbs and forefi ngers twitching over their controllers, their eyes fi xed and aglow. 'Will you go make them go to sleep'? Jill said. 'Yeah,' he said. He lifted his hands from her grasp. Their palms had grown sticky. 'I don't want to tell them anything until I'm ready,' she said. 'Okay'? It occurred to him that he had not told her about Kate's call, about Rusty. And then for some reason he thought again about the dead boy in his Halloween costume, under the ice. It makes you curious, doesn't it, Doctor? 'Okay,' he said. 19 Sometimes a dead bird is just a dead bird. Jill told him that, back when they were fi rst dating. They had been walking together along the main street of town, holding hands? it was the fi rst time they had held hands, and when their fi ngers clasped she had looked at him and raised her eyebrows and grinned And then a robin fell on the sidewalk in front of them. Apparently it fell out of the sky. Possibly a bird of prey had accidentally dropped it, they decided later. But at the moment they were both astonished. They stood staring at the limp body, and their handhold fell away. 'Fuck,' Jill said. And then, without another word, she grabbed his hand up again and held it tightly. 'Listen,' she said fi ercely. 'It's nothing. Sometimes a dead bird is just a dead bird.'
26 '? Which he had always remembered. It was one of those little private phrases that married people take up and repeat to one another; it had become a mantra for him, though Jill had no idea that it was also an anecdote that he sometimes told his patients? one of those humorous but poignant personal stories that you introduce to help build trust, et cetera. 'Sometimes a dead bird is just a dead bird,' he would say. 'When Jill told me that, I felt something kind of . . . unlock inside me.' And he'd look at the patient. Thoughtful. Puzzled for a moment. 'I realized,' he'd say. 'I realized that I had the choice. I could give this moment a meaning, or I could choose to ignore it. It just depended on the kind of story I wanted to tell myself.' He could feel himself smiling earnestly, as if he'd never thought of this before. 'We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves,' he'd say. Sometimes he would make a gesture that was almost like a touch, though he actually rarely made skintoskin contact. 'But we can control those stories,' he'd say. 'I believe that! Events in our life have meaning because we choose to give it to them.'
PA R T T W O Summer 1978
29 Rusty Bickers went walking through the fi elds at dusk, Rusty Bickers with a sadness and nobility that only Dustin could see. He'd dream of Rusty Bickers at the kitchen table, eating Cap'n Crunch cereal before bedtime, his head low, lost in thought; Rusty Bickers, silent but awake, beneath the blankets on his cot, his hands moving in slow circles over his own body, whispering, Shh . . . shhh . . . hush now; Rusty Bickers standing in the morning doorway of the kitchen, watching Dustin's family eating breakfast, his shaggy hair hanging lank about his face, his long arms dangling from slumped shoulders, his eyes like those of someone who had been marched a long way to a place where they were going to shoot him. Dustin heard his mother's bright voice ring out: 'It's about time you got up, Rusty!' Dustin was eight years old, and Rusty was fourteen, an orphan, a foster boy. All that summer, Rusty slept on a folding bed in Dustin's room, so Dustin knew him better than anybody. Rusty was beginning to grow a man's body. His legs were long and coltish, his feet too big; hair was growing under his arms and around his groin. He had his own tapes, which he listened to through enormous, spaceman headphones. He had a souvenir ashtray from the Grand Canyon. He had some books, and photographs of his dead family, and newspaper clippings. Rusty sometimes wet the bed, and it was a terrible secret that only Dustin and Dustin's mom knew about. Dustin's mom said that he should never, ever, tell. Sometimes, late at night, when Rusty thought that Dustin was asleep, he would slip into Dustin's bed because he had peed in his own. He curled his long body against Dustin's smaller one, and
30 Dustin stayed still. Rusty put his arm around Dustin as if Dustin were a stuffed animal. Dustin could feel Rusty quivering? he was crying, and his tears fell sharply onto Dustin's bare back. Rusty's arm tightened, pulling Dustin closer. Rusty's last foster family? the mother, father, and two younger brothers? had died in a fi re. Some people? Dustin's older cousins, Kate and Wave, for example? some of them whispered that they heard that Rusty had started the fi re himself. Anyway, he was weird, they said. Psycho. They stayed away from him. Before Rusty had come to live with them, Dustin's father was in a bad accident. He had been working as an electrician on a construction site when a roof collapsed. Dustin's father and his father's best friend, Billy Merritt, had fallen through three fl oors. Billy Merritt had died instantly. Dustin's father had broken both legs, and his right arm had been severed. His fall had been softened because he landed on Billy Merritt. Now Dustin's father had a prosthetic arm that he was learning to use. The prosthesis looked like two hooks, which his father could clamp together. For example, Dustin's father was learning how to grasp a fork and lift it to his lips. Eventually he would be able to turn the pages of a book, or pick up a pin. There had been a settlement for his father's injury, a large sum of money. The very fi rst thing Dustin's father did was to go and speak with the people at County Social Services. He wanted to take in a foster boy, he said. This had been one of his dreams, something he'd always wanted to do. When he was a teenager, Dustin's father had been sent away to a home for delinquent boys. After a while, Dustin's father had run away from that place and joined the Army. But he still vividly remembered that awful time of his life. Dustin's father loved Rusty Bickers. Rusty's story was so sad that perhaps it made Dustin's father feel better. He felt that he could
31 help Rusty somehow. He wanted to provide an atmosphere of Love and Happiness. There was so much money! Dustin had no idea how much, but it seemed bottomless. His father bought a new car, and a pool table, and a huge stereo system; his mother got her teeth fi xed; they began to plan an addition to the house, with a family room and a bedroom for Rusty. When they went to town, to the big store at the mall, Dustin and Rusty were allowed to pick out a toy? anything they wanted. While their father looked at tools and electronic devices, Rusty followed Dustin through the rows of toys: the pink and glittery aisle of girls; the mysterious and bookish aisle of games and puzzles; the aisle of action fi gures and toy weapons and Matchbox cars; the aisle of baby stuff? rattles and softedged educational devices that looked like dashboards, things that spoke or giggled when you pulled a string. Rusty stopped for a long time in the aisle of sports stuff, the aisle of BB guns and real bows and arrows. He touched the sharp razory tips of the arrows with his thumb. 'Nobody knows what they want, not really,' Rusty Bickers said, sometimes, when they were in bed at night. Dustin didn't know whether Rusty had made this up or whether he was quoting some movie or song. He said this when he was talking about the future. He was thinking about becoming a drummer in a rock band, but he worried that it might be pointless, living out in western Nebraska. He thought that maybe he should live in New York or L.A., but he was worried that if he was in such places, the black kids would be always trying to beat him up. 'They hate white people,' Rusty told Dustin. 'All they want to do is fi ght you.' Rusty had met black people. He had lived with some black boys in a group home, and he'd had a black teacher.
32 Dustin hadn't yet seen a black person, though he wanted to. There was a cartoon on TV called Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, about a group of black children who lived in a junkyard. This was Dustin's favorite show, and he longed to make friends with a black child. 'You can't make friends with them,' Rusty said. 'All they want to do is kick your ass.' Dustin disapproved of this, but he didn't say anything. They weren't allowed to say ass. But Rusty didn't even seem to notice. He was thinking of where he would like to go, if he could go somewhere. He closed his eyes and leaned back, playing drums on the air above his head. It was a summer of parties. They were happy times, Dustin thought. Friday. Saturday. People would begin to wander in around six or so, bringing coolers full of icy beer and pop, talking loudly? Dustin's uncle and aunt and cousins, his father's old friends from work and their wives and kids, his mother's high school friends? thirty, forty people sometimes. They would barbecue, and there would be corn on the cob, bowls of potato chips and honeyroasted peanuts, slices of cheese and salami, pickled eggs and jalape'os. Music of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Crystal Gayle. Some people dancing. Their house was about a mile outside of town. The kids would play outdoors, in the backyard and the large stubble fi eld behind the house. Dusk seemed to last for hours, and when it was fi nally dark they would sit under the porch light, catching thickly buzzing June bugs and moths, or even an occasional toad who hopped into the circle of light, tempted by the halo of insects that fl oated around the bare orange lightbulb next to the front door. Rusty hardly ever joined in their games. Instead, he would stake out some corner of the yard, or even a chair inside the house, sitting, quietly observing. Who knew what the adults were doing? They played cards and gossiped. There were bursts of laughter, Aunt Vicki's high, funhouse cackle rising above the general mumble; they sang along with
33 the songs. After he got drunk, Dustin's father would go around touching the ladies on the back of the neck with his hook, surprising them, making them scream. Sometimes he would take off his arm and dance with it. Sometimes he would cry about Billy Merritt. The night grew late. Empty beer cans fi lled the trash cans and lined the countertops. The younger children fell asleep in rows on the beds. If he was still awake, Dustin would sometimes gaze out the window, out to where the last remaining adults stood in a circle in the backyard, whispering and giggling, passing a small cigarette from hand to hand. Dustin was eight and wasn't supposed to know what was going on. But Rusty told him. At fi rst, Dustin didn't want to believe him. Dustin had mostly heard frightening things about drugs? that wicked people sometimes put LSD in Halloween candy, to make the children go crazy; that if you took angel dust, you would try to kill the fi rst person you saw; that dope pushers sometimes came around playgrounds and tried to give children pills, and that, if this happened, you should run away and tell an adult as soon as possible. Rusty had smoked pot; he had also accidentally taken LSD, which someone had given to him in a chocolate bar. Dustin wasn't sure he believed this, either. The depth of Rusty's experience, of his depravity, seemed almost impossible. Later, when Dustin's parents were out, Dustin and Rusty went through their dresser drawers. They found copies of pornographic magazines in Dustin's father's Tshirt drawer, at the very bottom; in his mother's bra and panty drawer, they found a small baggie full of what Rusty said was marijuana. Rusty took a little for himself, and Dustin nearly started crying. 'Don't tell,' Rusty said to him. 'You're not going to tell, are you? You know your mom and dad could get in trouble with the police if they ever got caught.' 'I won't tell,' Dustin whispered.
34 '? Dustin's father seemed like a regular father, except for his arm. Sometimes, on Saturdays after breakfast, Dustin and his father and Rusty would drive up into the hills with Dustin's father's 10-gauge rifl es. Dustin's father lined up beer cans and mayonnaise jars and such along a fence, and they would shoot at them. Dustin's father could not hold the gun well enough to aim it himself, but he showed Dustin and Rusty how. The fi rst time Rusty took the gun, his hands were shaking. 'Have you ever handled a gun before, son'? Dustin's father said, and Rusty slowly shook his head. Dustin's father showed Rusty where to hold his hands, how the butt of the gun fi t against his shoulder. 'Okay, okay,' Dustin's father said. He stooped behind Rusty, his chin right next to Rusty's ear. 'Can you see through the crosshairs? Right where the lines meet'? Dustin watched as his father and Rusty took careful aim, both their bodies poised together. When the mayonnaise jar burst apart, Dustin leapt up. 'You hit it!' he cried, and Rusty turned to him, eyes wide, his mouth slightly open in quiet wonder. Dustin's mother was waiting with lunch when they got home. She made hamburgers and corn on the cob. She seemed to Dustin like a typical mother. She was slightly overweight, and bustled, and was cheerful most of the time. When Rusty fi rst came, she would sometimes give him hugs, but he would always become rigid and uncomfortable. After a time, she stopped hugging him. Instead, she would simply rest her hand on his shoulder, or on his arm. Rusty wouldn't look at her when she did this, but he didn't move away, either. Dustin thought of what he was learning about plants at school. They drank in sunlight as their food; they breathed, though you couldn't see it. He thought of this as he watched Rusty sit there,
35 with Dustin's mother's hand on his shoulder. Her hand briefl y massaged his neck before she took it away, and Dustin could see the way Rusty's impassive expression shuddered, the way his eyes grew very still and far away. Dustin saw Rusty standing at the edge of the backyard, the silhouette of Rusty, so motionless he might have been a fence post. Dustin observed silently as Rusty seemed to stare out into the distance. Miles away, the red taillights of semitrucks were moving along the interstate, and Dustin was suddenly aware that there were people inside them, that they were traveling to distant places and they would never know that he and Rusty were watching them. It made him feel a strange, tingling kind of ache. 'What are you staring at'? Rusty said at last, and it was startling; it was like being woken from a dream. Rusty didn't turn to look at Dustin. His voice came out of his shadow. 'What do you want'? he said. 'Nothing,' Dustin said. 'Come over here,' Rusty said, and Dustin stepped forward uncertainly. He felt suddenly shy. He was afraid of being tricked. Often, his older cousins, Kate and Wave, would fool him by talking softly in that way. But Rusty didn't even glance down when Dustin crept up beside him. He just kept peering out toward the interstate. 'God!' he said. 'You're so stupid, you know that, Dustin'? 'I'm not stupid,' Dustin said, and Rusty turned his face to him at last. Grinned. 'Haha,' he said. 'You're like Little Red Riding Hood skipping through the forest.' He tilted his head, considering Dustin's face. 'Do you know what would happen if a kid like you got sent to a foster home'? 'No.' And Dustin breathed as Rusty's eyes held him without blinking. 'They do really nasty things to the little kids. And if you try to
36 scream, they put your own dirty underwear into your mouth, to gag you.' He stared at Dustin ruefully, as if he was imagining it. Then he pointed up toward the sky. 'You see that'? he said. 'There's the Big Dipper.' Rusty stood behind Dustin and put his hands over Dustin's ears, his fi ngertips pressing fi rmly into Dustin's scalp. He tilted Dustin's head back. 'You see it'? Rusty murmured, and Dustin nodded. He let himself lean back into the grip of Rusty's hands, imagining that his head was a globe that Rusty was holding, that he was fl oating in space and he could see galaxies. But he kept his eyes closed. 'Yeah,' he said. 'I see it.' Sometimes, they all seemed so happy. Here they were, watching TV in the evening, his mother sitting on his father's lap in the big easy chair, laughing at some secret joke, his mother blushing. Here they were, camping at the lake, roasting marshmallows on sharpened sapling sticks over a campfi re; Dustin climbing on their father's shoulders out in the lake and standing up, his feet fl at on either side of his father's neck, wobbling, balancing, raising his hands into a diver's pose. Jumping into the water as if his father were a diving board. At night, Dustin and Rusty would wade along the edge of the shore with a fl ashlight, catching crawdads. Rusty wasn't afraid of their pincers. He would grin hard, letting them hang dangling like jewelry clamped to the lobes of his ears. Dustin didn't know what the feeling was that fi lled him up in such moments. It was something about the way the fl ashlight's beam made a glossy bowl of light beneath the water, the way, under the beam, everything was clear and distinct? the bits of fl oating algae and minute water animals, the polished stones and sleepy minnows fl ashing silver and metallic blue, the crawdads, sidling backward with their claws lifted warily. It was the sound of his parents? voices as they sat around the campfi re, the echoing waver as their father
37 began to sing. Rusty was a silhouette against the slick blueblack stretch of lake, and Dustin could see that the sky wasn't like a ceiling. It was like water, too, deep water, depth upon depth, vast beyond measure. And this was something Dustin found beautiful. And he loved his young mother and father, and his aunt and uncle, laughing in the distance, and his girl cousins in their tent, already dreaming, and Rusty himself, standing there silently in the dark. He was fi lled with a kind of awed contentment, which he thought must be happiness. Later, deep in his sleeping bag in the tent, Dustin could hear his parents talking. Their voices were low but he found that if he listened hard he could understand. 'I don't know,' his mother said. 'How long does it take to get over something like that'? 'He's all right,' Dustin's father said. 'He's a good kid. He just needs to be left alone. I don't think he wants to talk about it.' 'Oh,' his mother said, and breathed heavily. 'I can't even imagine, you know? What if I lost all of you like that? I don't see how I could go on. I'd kill myself, Dave. I really would.' 'No, you wouldn't,' Dustin's father said. 'Don't say stuff like that.' And then they were silent. Dustin looked over to where Rusty was lying and saw that Rusty was awake, too. The tent walls glimmered with fi relight, and the glow fl ickered against Rusty's open eyes. Rusty's jaw moved as he listened. Dustin woke in the night; he could feel something pressing against him, and when he opened his eyes the tent's thin walls were almost phosphorescent with moonlight. Rusty's sleeping bag was rolled close to his, and he could feel Rusty's body moving. Inside their sleeping bags, they were like strange, unearthly creatures? thick caterpillars, cocoons. Rusty was rocking against him and whispering, though the words blurred together in a steady rhythm, rising
38 and falling until Dustin could almost make out the words, like something lost in the winds: 'Waiting . . . I've . . . when are you . . . Oh I am waiting for . . . and you never . . .' and the rocking quickened and he thought Rusty was crying. But Dustin didn't dare open his eyes. He kept himself very still, breathing slowly like a sleeper would. Rusty was making a sound, a high thread of tuneless humming, which, after a moment, Dustin realized was the word Mom, stretched impossibly thin, unraveling and unraveling. And Dustin knew that this was something he could never speak of, to anyone. Yet even then, even in this still and spooky moment, there was a kind of happiness: something wondrous in Rusty's whispered words, in the urgent pressing of Rusty's body, a secret almost glimpsed. What was it? What was it? He couldn't ask Rusty, who was more silent and sullen than ever in the week after they returned from their camping trip. He would disappear for hours sometimes, trailing a heavy silence behind him, and if Dustin did encounter him? lying faceup in a ditch thick with tall pigweed and sunfl owers, or hunkered down by the lumber pile behind the garage? Rusty would give him a look so baleful that Dustin knew he shouldn't approach. When Rusty had fi rst come to live with them, Dustin had said, 'Am I supposed to call Rusty my brother'? They were sitting at the supper table, and both his father and mother stopped short and looked up. 'Well,' Dustin's father said cautiously, 'I know we'd sure like it if Rusty thought of us as his family. But I think it's up to Rusty what you call him.' Dustin had felt bad at the way that Rusty had shrunk when they all looked at him. Rusty froze, and his face seemed to pass through a whole series of uncertain expressions. Then he smiled. 'Sure, Dustin,' he said. 'Let's be brothers.' And he showed Dustin a special highfi ve, where you pressed your thumbs together after slapping palms. You pressed your thumb against the other person's, and
39 each of you fl uttered your four fi ngers. It made the shape of a bird, probably an eagle or a falcon. Of course, that didn't really make them brothers. Dustin knew that Rusty had probably only said something nice to please Dustin's parents, just as he called them 'Dad? and 'Mom? to make them happy. But that was okay. Something had happened. Something strange and unexplainable passed through the pads of their thumbs when they slid against one another. Dustin remembered that handshake again as he watched Rusty. Rusty was slouching thoughtfully near an abandoned house not far from where they lived. Dustin had tracked him that far, but he kept his distance. He watched through a pair of his father's binoculars as Rusty picked up an old beer bottle and broke it on a stone, throwing back his arm with a pitcher's fl ourish. The windows in the old house were already broken out, but Rusty hit at the empty frames with a stick for a while. He lifted his head and looked around suspiciously. He didn't see Dustin, who was hidden in a patch of high weeds, and after a time, feeling somewhat content, Rusty settled onto his haunches and began to smoke some of the marijuana he'd taken from Dustin's parents? dresser. Dustin observed: the way his eyes closed as he drew smoke into his mouth, and the way he held it in his lungs, then exhaled in a long breath. Rusty let the handmade cigarette hang loosely from his lips, as if he were a movie detective. Then he inhaled again. Rusty seemed more relaxed when he fi nally came back to the house, around dinnertime. He even deigned to play a game of rummy with Dustin, which he almost never did. They sat side by side on the living room fl oor, and when Dustin said, 'Gin!' and laid down all his cards, Rusty wasn't even mad. Rusty gave him the old highfi ve. The eagle or falcon fl ying. He grinned at Dustin kindly. 'Rock on,' Rusty said.
40 '? But that night, as he and Dustin lay in bed, all Rusty wanted to talk about was leaving. New York. Los Angeles. Nashville. Learning how to play electric guitar. He was thinking of writing a letter to the rock band Black Sabbath and asking if he could work for them. 'I'll take you with me,' Rusty said. 'When we go. Black Sabbath are very cool. I could tell them you were my little brother. And we were, like, homeless or something. They'd probably teach us to play instruments. So, you know, when they got older, we would take over. We'd be, like, Black Sabbath, Part Two.' 'What would I be'? Dustin asked. He wanted to see himself in this new world clearly, to imagine it whole, as Rusty had. 'Probably the drummer,' Rusty said. 'You like drums, don't you'? 'Yes,' Dustin said. He waited, wanting to hear more about himself as a drummer, but Rusty merely folded his hands behind his head. 'We'd probably have to kill them, you know,' Rusty said. 'Who'? Dustin asked. 'Black Sabbath'? 'No, asshole,' Rusty said irritably. 'Dave and Colleen. Your parents. I mean, we could get the gun while they were sleeping and it wouldn't even hurt them. It would just be like they were asleep. We could take your dad's car, you know. I could drive.' Dustin thought of his father's new Jeep Wrangler, in the driveway, still shiny. He pictured sitting in the passenger seat, with Rusty behind the wheel. He didn't say anything for a minute. He didn't know whether Rusty was joking or not, and he was both scared and exhilarated. He watched as Rusty drew his bare foot out from beneath the covers and picked at a knobby toe. 'You could kill them while they were sleeping. It wouldn't hurt them. It wouldn't matter.' He paused dreamily, looking at Dustin's face. 'And then if you lit the house on fi re, no one would ever know what happened. All the evidence would be burned up.'
41 He said this steadily, but his eyes seemed to darken as he spoke, and Dustin felt his neck prickle. He watched as Rusty's mouth hardened, trying to tighten over a quiver of his lips, a waver in his expression. He said, 'They'd think we died, too. They wouldn't come looking for us, because,' he whispered, 'they wouldn't know we were still alive.' Rusty stared at him, his face lit silver in the moonlight, and Dustin could feel a kind of dull, motionless panic rising inside him, as in a dream. A part of him wanted to shout out for his mother, but he didn't. Instead, he slid his legs slowly onto the tile of the fl oor. 'I have to go to the bathroom,' he said, and stood uncertainly. For a minute he thought he would start to run. But the minute Dustin stood up, Rusty moved quickly, catching him by the arm. The sweet, coppery smell of feet hung on his bare skin as he pulled Dustin against him. 'Shh!' Rusty's fi ngers gripped, pinching Dustin's arms. 'Don't scream!' Rusty whispered urgently. They stood there in a kind of hug, and Rusty pressed his mouth close to Dustin's ear, so that Dustin could feel Rusty's lips brush against the soft lobe. Rusty didn't let Dustin go, but his grip loosened. 'Shh,' he said. 'Don't cry, Dustin. Don't be scared.' He had begun to rock back and forth a bit, still holding Dustin, still shushing. 'We're brothers, aren't we? And brothers love each other. Nothing bad's going to happen to you, 'cause I'm your brother, man, I won't let it. Don't be scared.' And Dustin looked up at Rusty's face. He didn't know whether Rusty was telling the truth or not, but he nodded anyway. Rusty's eyes held him as they rocked together, and Dustin swallowed tears and phlegm, closing his mouth tightly. It was true. They did love each other. For the next few days, or maybe weeks, Rusty paid attention to Dustin. There were times when Dustin thought of that night that Rusty had talked of killing, of lighting fi res, and there were even times when he felt that it would happen, sooner or later. But when