SECONDS PASSED. Matt Hunter guessed it was seconds. He stared at the phone and waited. Nothing happened. His mind was in deep freeze. It came out and when it did, he longed for the deep freeze to return.
The phone. He turned it over in his hand, studying it as if he'd never seen it before. The screen, he reminded himself, was small. The images were jerky. The tint and color were off. The glare had also been a problem.
He nodded to himself. Keep going.
Olivia was not a platinum blonde.
Good. More, more…
He knew her. He loved her. He was not the best catch. He was an ex-con with few bright prospects. He had a tendency to withdraw emotionally. He did not love or trust easily. Olivia, on the other hand, had it all. She was beautiful. She was smart, had graduated summa cum laude from the University of Virginia. She even had some money her father left her.
This wasn't helping.
Yes. Yes, it was because, despite all that, Olivia had still chosen him- the ex-con with zero prospects. She had been the first woman he'd told about his past. No other had hung around long enough for it to become an issue.
Well, it hadn't been all flowers. Olivia's smile- that drop-you-to-your-knees pow- had dimmed for a moment. Matt wanted to stop right there. He wanted to walk away because there was no way he could handle being responsible for dimming, even for a brief moment, that smile. But the flicker hadn't lasted long. The beam soon returned to full wattage. Matt had bitten down on his lip in relief. Olivia had reached across the table and taken his hand and, in a sense, had never let it go.
But now, as Matt sat here, he remembered those first tentative steps when he left the prison, the careful ones he took when he blinked his eyes and stepped through the gate, that feeling- that feeling that has never totally left him- that the thin ice beneath him could crack at any time and plunge him into the freezing water.
How does he explain what he just saw?
Matt understood human nature. Check that. He understood subhuman nature. He had seen the Fates curse him and his family enough to come up with an explanation or, if you will, an anti-explanation for all that goes wrong: In sum, there is no explanation.
The world is neither cruel nor joyous. It is simply random, full of particles hurtling, chemicals mixing and reacting. There is no real order. There is no preordained cursing of the evil and protecting of the righteous.
Chaos, baby. It's all about chaos.
And in the swirl of all that chaos, Matt had only one thing- Olivia.
But as he sat in his office, eyes still on that phone, his mind wouldn't let it go. Now, right now, at this very second… what was Olivia doing in that hotel room?
He closed his eyes and sought a way out.
Maybe it wasn't her.
Again: the screen, it was small. The video, it was jerky. Matt kept going with that, running similar rationalizations up the flagpole, hoping one would fly.
There was a sinking feeling in his chest.
Images flooded in. Matt tried to battle them, but they were overwhelming. The guy's blue-black hair. That damned knowing smirk. He thought about the way Olivia would lean back when they made love, biting her lower lip, her eyes half closed, the tendons in her neck growing taut. He imagined sounds too. Small groans at first. Then cries of ecstasy…
He looked up and found Rolanda still staring at him.
"Was there something you wanted?" he asked.
"I've been standing here so long, I forget."
Rolanda shrugged, spun, left the office. She did not close the door behind her.
Matt stood and moved to the window. He looked down at a photograph of Bernie's sons in full soccer gear. Bernie and Marsha had used this picture for their Christmas card three years ago. The frame was one of those faux bronze numbers you get at Rite-Aid or a similar drugstore-cum-frame store. In the photograph Bernie's boys, Paul and Ethan, were five and three and smiled like it. They didn't smile like that anymore. They were good kids, well-adjusted and all, but there was still an inescapable, underlying sadness. When you looked closely, the smiles were more cautious now, a wince in the eye, a fear of what else might be taken from them.
So what to do now?
The obvious, he decided. Call Olivia back. See what's what.
It sounded rational on one level and ridiculous on another. What did he really think would happen here? Would the first sound he heard be his wife breathing heavily, a man's laughter in the background? Or did he think Olivia would answer with her usual sunny voice and then- what?- he'd say, "Hi, hon, say, what's up with the motel?"- in his mind's eye it was no longer a hotel room, but now a dingy no-tell motel, changing the h to an m adding a whole new significance-"and the platinum wig and the smirking guy with the blue-black hair?"
That didn't sound right.
He was letting his imagination run away with him. There was a logical explanation for all this. Maybe he couldn't see it yet, but that didn't mean it wasn't there. Matt remembered watching those TV specials about how magicians did their tricks. You watched the trick and you couldn't fathom the answer and once they showed it to you, you wondered how you could have been so stupid to miss it the first time. That was what this was like.
Seeing no other option, Matt decided to call.
Olivia's cell was programmed into his speed dial in the number one spot. He pressed down on the button and held it. The phone began to ring. He stared out the window and saw the city of Newark. His feelings for this city were, as always, mixed. You see the potential, the vibrancy, but mostly you see the decay and shake your head. For some reason he flashed back to the day Duff had visited him in prison. Duff had started bawling, his face red, looking so like a child. Matt could only watch. There was nothing to say.
The phone rang six times before going into Olivia's voice mail. The sound of his wife's animated voice, so familiar, so… his, made his heart stutter. He waited patiently for Olivia to finish. Then the beep sounded.
"Hey, it's me," he said. He could hear the tautness in his tone and fought against it. "Could you give me a call when you have a second?" He paused. He usually ended with a perfunctory "love you," but this time he hit the end button without adding what had always come so naturally.
He kept looking out the window. In prison what eventually got to him was not the brutality or the repulsion. Just the opposite. It was when those things became the norm. After a while Matt started to like his brothers in the Aryan Nation- actually enjoyed their company. It was a perverse offshoot of the Stockholm syndrome. Survival is the thing. The mind will twist to survive. Anything can become normal. That was what made Matt pause.
He thought about Olivia's laugh. How it took him away from all that. He wondered now if that laugh was real or just another cruel mirage, something to mock him with kindness.
Then Matt did something truly strange.
He held the camera phone out in front of him, arm's distance, and snapped a picture of himself. He didn't smile. He just looked into the lens. The photograph was on the little screen now. He looked at his own face and was not sure what he saw.
He pressed her phone number and sent the picture to Olivia.