TWICE: the serial
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“Dusty,” Thom said. “You can’t have gotten so far through your degree without understanding how vanishingly unlikely it would be for a single confrontation—however scary—to cause years of acute delusional psychosis. I feel certain you’d be the first to assure anyone else of that fact.”

“Amen,” Anna breathed.

Dusty nodded without looking up, feeling more scolded than comforted—embarrassed and ashamed of his own behavior, yet undeserving of relief.

“The kind of illness Matt appears to be suffering,” Thom continued, “is almost certainly the product of some profound physiological dysfunction, or years of chronic emotional and psychological abuse. You have no idea where he’s been, or what he’s gone through since—”

“Wherever and whatever that’s been,” Dusty insisted, “I’m the one who put him there.” Had these very people not taught him to own his mistakes and excuses? All this effort to excuse him now seemed laughably suspect, given their inescapable partiality.

Anna shook her head. “I don’t think so, Dusty. You know even better than I do how much trauma Matt had already suffered before we ever met him. He claimed not even to remember what had happened to him before he showed up on the Avenue—except something about the murder of his previous caregiver. That suggests the kind of trauma that could have resulted in psychosis. He was way too intelligent, and years beyond his age behaviorally. Everybody saw that.” She shrugged. “That profile says adolescent-onset schizophrenia to me. He’d be the perfect candidate. And you’d have had what, exactly, to do with that?”

“You mean besides being a trigger?” Dusty sounded sullen, even to himself.

“A trigger?” Colleen asked. “To cause schizophrenia? Really?” She rolled her eyes.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dusty sighed. “He was the least schizophrenic guy any of us ever met. You know that, Anna. They don’t come more together than Matt was—then.”

“Well, whatever the cause of his condition now,” Colleen mused, “I can’t help wondering how much of the rest of this is even real. Couldn’t he just have invented that whole business yesterday? Do ‘they’ even exist—anywhere beyond Matt’s head? Or were those letters really just from him as well?”

Watching Colleen try to make this all go away left Dusty’s heart aching even more. “That guy at Ricky’s was definitely not any hallucination of Matt’s. … Maybe they can’t find him ’cause he’s locked up in a nut-house somewhere.”

“Email access isn’t usually allowed in psych wards,” Anna reminded him. “And it’s not Matt we’re sorting out here. It’s you, Dusty—and this weird blame game you’re engaged in.”

Thank you!” Colleen huffed under her breath, looking at no one in particular.

“Weird blame game?” Dusty protested. “Who spent years telling me to own —”

“— your shit!” Anna cut him off impatiently. “Not everybody else’s. Matt’s problem, whatever it is, is not your shit, Dusty. That is so clear to everyone in this room, except you for some reason. I’d ask why, except I think I know already, and I’m pretty sure you do too—somewhere in there—if you were willing to look there, instead of shoveling it over with this mea-culpa theater.”

Dusty’s brows shot up as the heat of irritation flashed through his chest and face. He threw his hands out in a sharp, questioning gesture. “Well, don’t leave us in suspense, then! Out me!”

Anna gave him a challenging look. “Have you and Colleen talked much about your family?”

“Everything,” said Dusty, his voice clipped by temper. “Fire away.”

“About why you left?” she pressed. “And what happened next?”

“We have no secrets,” he reiterated sullenly, giving Colleen a look meant half as reassurance and half as apology. “If there’s anything I haven’t told her, you’re welcome to.”

“Okay. So tell me how you felt, back on the Ave., about your addiction.”

“You know goddamn well how I felt.” He felt his face begin to burn.

“Yup,” said Anna. “But if you’re so determined to own things, I want you to own this one—again right now. So, please, just say it.”

“I despised myself.” He shrugged. Old news, right? What was this for? “I tried to hide it—from everyone.” He looked up at her. “And?”

“What were you ashamed of?” she pressed.

Dusty gave her a look. “Didn’t we just —”

Why were you ashamed of it?” she sighed. “Everyone you knew was hooked on something. Why try so hard to hide it from them all?”

“Because…you know, I hated—what my dad did to us. It was him I ran from. And then, to turn around and…become him. Everything he was.” He gave her a helpless look, wondering what she thought shaming him all over again now, in front of Colleen—though she knew all of this as well as any of them did—was going to make better. “I don’t see what all this has to do with Matt.”

“I think you’re still hanging things on hooks not meant for them, Dusty,” Anna said quietly. “I know you’re upset with me right now, but listen for a minute. Listen hard.” She gazed at him, sadly. “Matthew was never your son. …You were never his father. Not in any way.”

Dusty stared back at her. “Well, fuck no,” he said, flummoxed. “If anything, he was mine. I know that. What’s your point?” But even as he asked it, his eyes grew hot and wet.

Your addiction didn’t ruin his life, Dusty,” Anna said, unblinking. “He was never dependent on you that way. And he’d been no stranger to violence for many years by the time you two had that fight. Have you forgotten how you ended up together in L.A.? If what Janus tried to do didn’t make him crazy—”

“Janus didn’t mean shit to him!” Dusty snapped. “I was… Matt would never have expected me to—”

“Oh, you think not?” Thom asked, leaning forward suddenly to rejoin the conversation. Dusty was surprised—unnerved, in fact—to see Thom’s eyes reddened and swimming too. “You think he’d lived with an addict for—however long you two were down there—and never understood what that meant? Never guessed what speed might make you do? He’d learned that little in the streets you’d both been living on?” Thom leaned back looking tired, but smiling crookedly. “Had him that well fooled, did you, Mr. heart-on-his-sleeve? …Hilarious.”

Dusty felt himself blush again, not in anger this time. He wondered, hardly for the first time, how Thom always managed to see right through him to the core of things this way. Anna’s x-ray vision, he understood. She’d known him for years back on the Ave. But Thom…just understood somehow—over and over again.

“She’s right, Dusty,” Thom said. “Whoever you were the night you guys fought, it wasn’t your father, and this friend of yours was not your father’s son. You didn’t break him. You were notthatpowerful. …Own that.”

Dusty looked down at his knotted hands, and nodded. Maybe they were right. His guilt might be…a little grandiose.

“And, honestly, I’m…still not completely sure Matt’s even crazy at all,” said Anna.

All eyes swiveled toward her, including Dusty’s. “You…believe what he’s saying?” He half-wondered if psychosis could be caught from email…

“Of course not,” Anna growled. “But…something about his writing feels…off.”

Dusty almost laughed. “You think so?

She gave him a warning look. “I mean the writing itself—not the content, Dusty. It seems too clear. Too rational and orderly. It just doesn’t sound like a crazy man’s work to me. The story is obviously impossible, but… What if he’s up to something less obvious here? You remember how clever he was. He’s expressed concern about being watched, about the risks of correspondence. What if this bizarre story he’s sent us is…some kind of…” she paused, seeming to search for words, “camouflaged communication or metaphoric code…that he hopes we’ll see through in ways they would miss?” She shook her head, and heaved a sigh. “Maybe I’m just grasping at straws, but something here just isn’t fitting for me. I mean, where’s all this delusion been in his other emails? Those all seemed squeaky clean to me.”

“I think you’ve hit on something,” said Thom. “Before we write him off, perhaps we ought to read more of what he sent.”

Even Dusty had read no further yet than Matt’s first few pages. The minute he’d let his poker face slip in Anna’s study, she’d rushed off and gotten Thom up to come talk him off of his ledge. Damn humiliating.

“Even if he is just crazy,” Thom continued, “there have to be inadvertent clues in that much writing—about where he is, or what’s really going on. We’re all stuck here today anyhow, with nowhere to go and little if anything urgent to do. Why not use the time to read more of this tome, and see if something useful rises to the surface.”

“I’ll go upstairs and print everyone copies of the first thirty or forty pages,” Anna said. “But first—” she turned to Colleen “—I’d still like that Dutch Baby.” She smiled at Thom. “It’s still our anniversary, dear.”

Right, Dusty thought. And now they’ll be celebrating it by reading Matt’s psycho-manifesto. He stood up and sighed. Doesn’t get better than this, eh?

Curiously, Colleen went to whisper something into Anna’s ear, then walked over to Dusty and put her arms around him. “Wanna come help me in the kitchen?”

He nodded. It was the least he could do after delaying everyone’s breakfast.

He followed Colleen, but as soon as they got there, she pulled him toward the windows, farther from the doorway, and gave him a long, serious kiss. Then she leaned back, and looked him in the eyes. “I don’t want to seem unsupportive, future husband, but there’s something I need to say. So brace yourself, okay?”

Ooo-kay…?” he said, wondering what new catastrophe was about to land in his lap.

She nodded, more to herself, it seemed, than to him. “So, I want you to imagine for a minute that I had sat in that living room this morning, beating myself up as hard as you just beat yourself. How would that have felt to you?”

His mouth fell open slightly. “…Not good.”

She nodded again, very much to him this time. “Now imagine that someone else had walked in and started beating me like that. What would you do then?”

“I’d deck him,” he said, looking down self-consciously, hoping she would smile.

She shook her head. “Pretend you could only talk. What would you say to him?”

“I’d say, ‘That’s my wife you’re beating up, you jackass.’ …Then…I’d still punch him.”

“Okay.” She still didn’t smile. “So, here’s the deal. Next time I see you treat yourself the way you did this morning, I’m going to walk up to you and say, ‘That’s my husband you’re beating up, you jackass.’ I won’t punch you, though.” She still wasn’t smiling.

He pulled her fiercely into his arms, just managing to keep his eyes from spilling over—again. God, I’m sure a leaky shit all of a sudden, he thought. They held each other for a while, until Colleen pulled back to look up at him. “I need you to understand that it can’t just be about what you think of yourself anymore. Not if we’re really going to do this. It’s about how we feel about us now, and how we do or don’t make each other suffer. You can’t punish yourself anymore without punishing me too. Because I love you. The way you are, not just the way you could be. …All the yous I’ve ever seen.” She leaned in closer. “All of them. …And I expect the same of you.”

He nodded, even as he batted off a whole new wall of shame trying to crash down on him. Somewhere in the past seven years, it was like he’d just…forgotten, somehow, that there was so much still broken inside him. Yet there it all still was.

But, there was all this love inside there too now, that had never been in there before. Yet again, he felt his face begin to crumple, and bit back hard enough to stop it. Time to be the man she saw, not just the one he feared.

“I’m sorry, Collie.” He kept his voice as steady as he could. “I can do better. And I will.”

She sighed, and offered him a smile at last, sad and tender. “Now, my love, imagine that after punching that guy out, and telling me you loved me, you realized you’d made me feel ashamed.” Her smile grew sadder, but remained. “What would you tell me then?”

The ache came gushing from his chest too forcefully to stop. “I wouldn’t waste the words,” he wept, “where words are useless.” He leaned in again and clung to her like a drowning man to driftwood. “I’d just…do this,” he sobbed, putting his lips to hers with all the desperation he had ever stuffed away inside himself.

She didn’t pull away, in pity or revulsion, as some quaking little corner of him feared she would. She clung to him as fiercely as he clung to her, crying now as well, as if unwilling to leave him alone, even in his weaknesses.

When the crying and the kissing ebbed away again, they still did not pull back, or even wipe their faces, but just went on leaning into one another. Breathing into each other’s hair. Waiting to be sure that this time they had really finished all they were here to do.

“Did one of you—” Anna pulled up short in the kitchen doorway, looking mortified as he and Colleen turned their blotched, snotty faces toward her. “Sorry. I forgot.” She turned quickly to retreat.

“No, that’s okay!” said Dusty. “We’re good.” He glanced at Colleen’s face, then back to Anna. “Don’t we look good?” He surprised himself by laughing.

A second later, Colleen was laughing too. “This is what we look like in the morning, Anna. Before our makeup’s on.” She shrugged. “Now you know.”

Anna brought a hand up to cover her smile—clearly unsure of whether smiling was all right yet.

“What were you going to ask?” Colleen said.

“You... You’re sure you’re finished?” Anna pressed.

Oh yeah.” Dusty turned to splash some water on his face at the sink, and brushed back his hair with a wet hand. “I’ve never been so finished in my life. What was it, Anna?”

“I, uh, went up to my study to start printing Matt’s thing, and was looking for my copy of that letter we both got yesterday. I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Thom says he hasn’t been in there at all since yesterday. … Did one of you take it for some reason?”

Dusty and Colleen looked at each other, then shook their heads at Anna.

“Sure you didn’t leave it at work?” Dusty asked. “We were rushing around pretty hard.”

“No. I remember right where I put it on my desk when we got home last night.”

“Well, that’s strange,” said Colleen. “It didn’t just fall onto the floor or something when we were up there this morning?”

“I looked.” She shrugged. “But…memory is a sketchy thing. If I get back to work next week and find it lying on my desk, I’m going to deny we ever had this conversation.” She turned to go, but looked back over her shoulder. “You guys are all right?”

Dusty nodded. “Yes.” He glanced down at Colleen. “Really.”

“Good.” Anna gave them an easier smile. “I’ll go get that printing started then.”

When she was gone, Colleen smiled up at Dusty. “So, you wanna learn to make a Dutch Baby?”

Dusty grinned at her. “What, like some kind of practice run?” He wiggled his eyebrows. She gave him a look, and swatted his ass.