“Like someone who doesn’t feel.” She fell back into the bed. “I don’t want to feel anymore. I said I felt numb, but there’s worse hiding underneath that. Jagged spikes of pain. I wanted that baby, Hudson. And before that, I wanted you. Not anymore, but I did. All that’s left from all that want is hurt. I tried to hate you, and I do a little. But mostly I can’t help but admire you. Your methods are impressive. Maybe you’re an example of evolution. Maybe a lack of emotion is what it takes to move the human race to the next level. Because I think you’re right—it is your strength. And I don’t know if you were born that way or if you turned into this over time because of your f**ked-up family—sorry, but it’s true—but I think I could learn that. Or at least try. What’s the harm in letting me try?”
Her voice had strengthened as she talked, and now her words echoed in the quiet room. Honestly, there was little to refute. And the possibilities her monologue had inspired…
She perked up in surprise. “Okay? Really?”
My mind was already swimming with plans. I never went looking for experiments. They’d arise out of situations and relationships around me that were interesting, that I wanted to explore. As it happened, there was a newly married couple that had just moved into my parents’ building. Though they’d recently pledged their lives to each other, I couldn’t help but notice the way he eyed other women. There was a lot I wanted to study there. Celia would actually prove helpful. “After Christmas. If you’re up to it.”
“I’ll be up to it.” She was excited.
My pulse kicked up a notch. How sick was it that her enthusiasm was a mental turn-on? I stifled my adrenaline rush by adding practicality. “There will be rules. Some we’ll have to make up as we go since I’ve never worked with a partner.”
“Of course. What’s the fun of a game without rules?”
“They aren’t games.” It came out harsher than I’d intended, but it was important to me that she understood the difference. “They’re experiments. It’s science.”
“Whatever you want to call it, Hudson. It’s semantics. There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of fun with it. I know you do.”
So it didn’t matter that I hadn’t told her the games excited me. She already knew.
And Jesus, I was already referring to them as games myself. If I weren’t so looking forward to the new phase of my research, I might have been irritated.
“Maybe,” I conceded. “There is an enjoyment at correctly predicting how people will react.”
She smiled—the first sign of joy since she’d awoken in the cold, sterile room.
“What have I agreed to?” But I genuinely smiled back.
She took a deep breath. Then her expression eased into something more solemn. “Thank you, Hudson.”
“You’re welcome.” Also genuine.
We settled into a comfortable silence. My mind swirled with ideas and notions. Perhaps good really had come from all of the Celia mess. Though somewhere deep inside of me, a warning bell sounded, and while it was quiet enough to ignore, it was persistent and left me with the slightest niggle of doubt and dread.
After a moment, she chuckled. “You’re so ridiculous, you know. You’re like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. All the time he doesn’t think he has a heart and yet he really does.”
“An interesting comparison.” I’d always identified more with Hannibal Lecter from the famed Thomas Harris series about a psychologically curious sociopathic serial killer. Though I wasn’t a serial killer, the way the character molded and manipulated others, studying and predicting their behavior—reading him had felt like looking in a mirror. “Except I don’t really have a heart.”
Even in the dim light, I saw her roll her eyes.
I tapped a finger on the arm of the chair and considered the basis of her analysis—she saw kindness in things I’d done, I guessed. Though she may have perceived benevolence, it wasn’t sincere. “You realize, Celia, anything that appears like an act of compassion on my part is simply that—an act.”
“Why act at all? I mean, with me, for example. Why claim to be my baby’s father? Why let me bully my way into your ‘experiments?’” She used quote fingers when she said the word experiments.
There were a handful of answers I could have given, some with a bit of truth, some downright lies. The fact of the matter was that I felt obligated. It was the one emotion I owned, and as such, I owned it well. If my sense of duty was going to be the reason for most of my existence, then I’d make sure I lived up to it with all I had. I was responsible for Celia’s predicament—there was no doubt in my mind of that—and for that alone, I was obligated to her, no matter how strong the alarm of doubt in my gut.
“I see you formulating a response over there, Hudson. Don’t bother. If you aren’t going to answer honestly, don’t answer at all.” She looked up at the ceiling. “I’d prefer if you just said you didn’t know.”
So that was what I chose to say. Because it was easier. “I don’t know.”
The nurse arrived then, and I slipped out. It was near seven and I had to get home and changed before heading into work. A night with no sleep was going to make for a miserable day at Dad’s office, but worse would be a day with my mourning mother.
The nursery was on the way to the elevators, I told myself, when I found my feet heading in that direction. A lone male figure dressed in a suit and tie stood peering in the windows, and even down the hall, with his body half-turned away, I recognized him.
I didn’t say anything as I approached the windows next to him. I forced myself to look in, forced myself to gaze at the newborn babies. Forced myself to recognize that there had been a loss in this world—in my world—and there should be at least a moment of grieving.
The disappointment from earlier returned. But that was all.
For my dad, though, there was more. Tears streaked his face, and I realized I’d never seen a grown man cry, let alone my father.
Without any greeting, without looking at me directly, he asked. “Was it mine?”
Perhaps it was appropriate that he was the one in mourning. But the facts surrounding his bereavement—the too-young daughter of a friend that he’d knocked up, the wife he’d driven to drink, the secrets that required him to be there incognito in the early hours—angered me too much, overwhelming all else.