The Answer Circle: part one

The Answer Circle: The Dirtbrain of Prague

TW: suicidal ideation

By a bizarre coincidence, Dimitri Cobalt woke up at 5:15 that morning, which was fifteen minutes later than usual. It was a bizarre coincidence because Donovan Gale also happened to wake up at 5:15, only, for him, that was fifteen minutes early. This little tid-bit would ultimately prove to be a horrendously unextraordinary detail in two otherwise fantastical lives, but it is kind of interesting that in the three-and-a-half minutes it took them to get up, these two men—whom you will soon learn are very different—had five things in common:

  1. They both woke up at 5:15 that morning.
  2. That was fifteen minutes away from the times they would usually wake up.
  3. They were blissfully unaware of two things, one being the existence of one another, the other being that this would be the last morning they would be blissfully unaware of the existence of one another.
  4. Before beginning their day, they both took a moment to lie and think, “Today is the anniversary.”
  5. After a few moments of that, they both finally pulled themselves up, threw their sheets back, and thought, “I should kill myself today.”

It was, as that specific thought often is, a bit of a disappointing realization. But it was also very liberating to have the assurance that their troubles would end. 

 

Cobalt immediately knew how he would do it. He crawled out of bed, picturing the pink shoebox in the chief’s office, which Allison had decorated with an adorable pattern of glitter glue, macaroni, and an assortment of photos of herself and the chief surrounding the words, “I love you, Dad!”, specifically so no one would ever guess what was inside. Cobalt’s permission to open that box had slowly but surely grown limited over the past five years until it was cut off altogether. That was hardly the source of his dismay, though. In fact, it may have been the thing he missed least about his former position at the Slipped Letter

Mostly he missed being allowed to talk to people—no, being able to talk to people. He wouldn’t go as far as to argue that the chief was wrong for limiting Cobalt’s field work, but he certainly would never admit that he belonged on the bench, profiling clients based on Dice and Daphne’s descriptions. He could hardly admit to himself what his problem really was, but this morning, he let it pass through him like an icy gust of wind. 

He was no longer stable. He was losing more control of himself every day instead of healing. The truth echoed through his mind as he buttoned his shirt. Every day I’m less human. Every day it’s less safe to be around me. After his tie was tied, he took a minute to study his reflection. On first glance, one might not notice anything unusual about him. Kind of tall, kind of toned. Uneven fingernails, dark hair. Visible Lettering tended to work like this, so very few people, the kind of people who look deeply and focus wholly, would notice any inordinacy. Such as that while Cobalt’s right eye was an icy blue, his left eye was a deep violet. If someone was really attentive, they might notice a strange glint in those eyes at certain times. If someone was really unlucky, they might see the violet eye darken into an explosive shade of red.

Cobalt snapped his eyes away from their reflection and made his way to the kitchen. As was the case with the last three anniversaries, he didn’t feel like eating. Unlike the last three anniversaries, when he managed to shove down an apple anyway, he knew he wouldn’t be needing health, or brain activity, or energy anymore. He threw his laptop and research into his bag, threw that bag over his shoulder, and made his way to work. Now, you might be wondering why he’d bother going to work on such a day. Maybe you’d then think, Well, he needs the box, and then think, Is there really no other way for him to do it? Truth is, the box was only one of the things he’d need that day. The other thing, he might not be able to get if he didn’t make it seem like he wanted to keep up his day-to-day life. So, he went to work.


When Donovan got out of bed, he held his hands above his head and stretched to the right for ten breaths, then the left, then backwards, then forwards. Not that it would do him any good anymore, but he had heard it would make him taller. He had been stuck at 5”4 since he was thirteen, and Cera was constantly reminding him that he probably wouldn’t grow anymore since he had remained stagnant for five years. It really opened a door of insecurities every time he looked in a mirror. It always started with too short, then escalated to dumb, untalented, awkward, which invarably escalated to not ready for college, not ready to grow up, childish freakish lovechild. Well, he wouldn’t miss that.

He got dressed and found that Montague had Pop Tarts set up by the toaster. In spite of himself, he smiled. Cera was a bit of a health freak, so these had become a rare luxury only for when Montague was feeling especially sympathetic. He’d find them waiting for him on the mornings before exams or after Starbay High gave orchestra concerts. Montague took it very seriously as a clandestine mission, even going as far as to act confused when Donovan whispered his “thank you”s later in the day. After knowing the man for nearly his whole life, Donovan still couldn’t quite tell if Montague actually took everything so seriously or if he would eventually reveal that he had just been teasing the family for seventeen years.

Donovan heated up the Pop Tarts and ate them quickly, half expecting Cera to race over at the smell and throw the box in the garbage disposal. She could probably get it to fit. Just to keep the rest safe, he threw them in his backpack for lunch, along with his laptop, his notebook, and upon complete acceptance of his decision, a half-ton binder holding far beyond its fill of scraps of sheet music. 

It well-over doubled the weight of his bag and made Donovan lean back a bit when he put it on. But he had always told himself that he was just borrowing the music, that he’d give it back to Mr. Heston at the end of the year so he could pass it down to the next student who wanted to play the violin but couldn’t officially take orchestra for one reason or another. And, well, the end of the year was coming a bit sooner than expected.

Donovan threw his backpack over his shoulders, grabbed his longboard by the trucks from its place next to the umbrella stand, and greeted the warm Texas September. They were getting on in the month; it was only beginning to not be murderously hot. The sun hadn’t completely risen yet, but a slight tinge of pinkish orange was creeping past the clouds at this point. He had more than enough time to get to school before class started, maybe up to forty-five minutes before the first bell. With the alternative being to stay home, on anniversary day, and risking a run-in with Dad’s awkward attempts at comfort, Montague’s badly hidden pity, and Cera’s worse-hidden lack thereof, along with her stressing about the evening ceremony, about everyone being dressed like this was some red carpet show, about how could we fit everyone at the bookstore with Starbay’s growing population, she knew we should have relocated to the reception hall. 

Don’t get him wrong, Donovan hated going to The Slipped Letter. He wished it had been torn down after what happened. He spent every ceremony every year not listening to a word of the speech, instead devoting his time to glaring at its plasterboard walls, daring them to answer, “Why should you survive? We shouldn’t you be left contaminated and broken and lost? Why shouldn’t your books be poisoned by the filthy air and declared unsafe to the public, stripped from your shelves and burned in front of you?”

But something about having the ceremony in the reception hall was worse. It would accentuate the fact that this was not a mourning ritual, but a spectacle for Starbay’s non-existent population of patriots. Well, it probably wasn’t going to happen anyway. The Slipped Letter had become a symbol of perseverance, complete with a golden plague in front with a list of the twelve names, the same twelve names that had been repeated on every American TV show, YouTube video, and radio show for a week. Of course, Donovan suspected there wasn’t a single person outside of Starbay who remembered a single one of the names, as the list had been replaced by another set of names far to quickly.

By the time Donovan had gotten to school, very few students were there, so he made his way to the orchestra room, hoping he’d get one last chance to speak with Mr. Heston.


You know the only thing worse than sitting in the doctor’s waiting room while you’re beginning to suspect that a bug in your child’s head is actually eating his brain? Having to do it while glancing up at every door opening, every particularly loud tick of the clown-faced clock, every swish of a broom outside–which seemed to be getting closer with every swish–and thinking, This is it, my fifteen-year-old and I are going to be arrested. 

Kindra Lowe gazed at her son, who seemed too preoccupied by his own mind being mangled to be worried about every other problem, although there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that the thought wasn’t far from his excessive list of worries. Case in point: his head was on her lap. It hadn’t been there in a long time. She and Monty were close, but it couldn’t change the fact that he was a fifteen-year-old boy with a natural sense of pride. She couldn’t deny that his reliance on her at this time of distress delighted all sorts of motherly instincts, but it also worried her that he was in such a state. She ran her fingers through his hair, brushing strands out of his face, trying to keep her hands from quivering. If Monty knew that she was summoning every bit of energy she could muster to put on a brave face, he wasn’t showing it. He was fidgeting with his clay bead necklace, twisting around the Star of David pendant. Kindra inwardly cringed at this new habit, wishing Monty would stop drawing attention to the necklace, but couldn’t blame him at the same time. The waiting room was specifically designed to draw every possible worry out of them both, it seemed. 

You know how pediatricians like to pick a theme to calm kids’ nerves? Like trains or dolphins or whatever? This one apparently thought, “You know what kids like? Clowns. Everywhere.” That’s right, the whole office was crawling with posters, dolls, clown-themed books. A little playroom you had to get to by crawling into the mouth of a giant cutout on the wall. It was a madhouse. The secretary, dressed in a black cardigan and blue, horn-rimmed glasses, worked furiously, typing on her computer and rifling through papers. Kindra figured she was constantly thinking something like, Don’t look, don’t look, one glance and it’s all I’ll see when I close my eyes tonight.

Kindra turned to the door, the only safe (clown-free) space to look. There was a reason she had never taken Monty to this particular pediatrician, and it had little to do with the clowns. The fear that seemed to be ripping her nerves to shreds, which caused them to create double the panic, was not of the vaguely disturbing poster directly across from her head, depicting a little frowning girl in a blue dress that sat on the lap of one of those freaks. What scared her was the stories she had heard of people like Monty who had tried to get a simple check-up before. They had always been told as silly cautionary tales–after all, who would be stupid enough to try and get past the SLPD? What good person would even want to try it? 

She leaned her head back and looked at the ceiling as she continued to stroke Monty. “Good person.” She was coming to disdain the phrase, as it always seemed to trigger a mini complex. Am I a good person? Am I even worse for dragging Monty in on this? Could this really be what God wants? She always managed to talk herself down by thinking of the Laurel Woods incident.

When Monty was in the first grade, it had been announced that the mayor had plans to level half of Starbay’s most biodiverse wooded area. Being a professor of environmental science, Kindra was crushed. When she saw it on the news, Monty had to stop her from throwing her dinner plate at the television screen. Needless to say, she hadn’t felt like the best mother at that moment. 

But she felt like the worst mother in the world when, a month later, her neighbor called her in the middle of a lecture saying, “Monty’s on TV.” She raced to the faculty lounge and saw it in all its glory on the breaking news–a band of seven-year-olds protesting in the woods, chanting phrases at the camaraderie of vehicles. Monty was chained to a tree. 

In spite of herself, Kindra chuckled at the memory of discovering he had swallowed the key, and one of the workers with a chainsaw offering to cut Monty free.  Monty immediately burst into sobs, crying, “You’ll hurt Shrubby! You’ll hurt Shrubby!” 

Kindra always looked back on the story with a sense of pride, but right now, she was clinging to it for dear life. Monty was doing something wrong, something he knew was wrong, something she certainly wouldn’t have approved if he had brought it up with her. But walking away from Kindra ended up bringing them closer together. 

Then the door to the waiting room opened, and the fragile puzzle of her thoughts fell back into an indecipherable mess, only there seemed to be even more pieces than before. 

The janitor wheeled in his cart, whistling a current pop song. The curly blond hair and smile-pressed eyes were unmistakable. Kindra took Monty’s shoulder and turned his face inward, trying to be gentle but quick. She let her hair fall into her face, hoping it was enough so she couldn’t be recognized but little enough so she wouldn’t seem suspicious. But even then, she was certain the tumultuous pounding of her heart would give her away. As she heard him spray and swab something–probably one of the giant clown face’s window eyes–she began another internal war. Look up? No, he’ll see. His back is turned. How do you know he won’t pivot around the second you chance a look? How do you know he doesn’t already know who you are? Or what you’re doing?

She knew she shouldn’t have come. The hardened side of her heart had almost convinced her to stay home that morning, but Monty was so badly tormented and she didn’t trust herself with any stay-at-home cure. She eventually convinced herself that as Monty was instrumental to the plan, anything that could happen to him must have been predetermined. Therefore, they were safe no matter what happened, even if they were to stay at home and leave him to his pain. But a mother’s sympathy was beyond her control. No matter what, if Monty was hurt, she would stop at nothing to help him.

Grasping him, Kindra began to rock back and forth, hoping it would cover up the sudden movement. It gave her a unique strength that helped her through the hurricane of the janitor starting to work on the secretary’s window–which, if you recall, was right next to Kindra. It’s all predetermined, she continued to tell herself. It helped to have a rational thought in her mind, keeping her grounded. If he’s meant to find us, he’ll find us. If he isn’t, he won’t. If anything, this whole situation is a blessing. It will finally let me know if I’m doing the right thing. The puzzle was coming back together. Everything is fine.

Then, the janitor stood on the chair rightnexttothem, probably doing something with the security camera. This time, the puzzle didn’t just fall apart. Each piece split into fourths and they all began to fly about like a bunch of gnats.

Kindra brought her head closer to Monty’s as she rocked, leaving no opening for the janitor to see their faces. She was tempted to whisper something like, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” but couldn’t risk being overheard.

Poor Monty. Through all her worrying, she had completely forgotten to wonder how he felt. In the shadowed curtain of her frizzy blond hair, she couldn’t see his face, but she could imagine he understood what was going on. How he could deal with it on top of his paralyzing headache, she had no idea.

“Gah! What the—!” exclaimed the janitor, wobbling a little on his chair.

Monty’s sharp breath brushed against Kindra’s hair. This was it. This was the end. They were entirely at the mercy of a higher power now. In most ways, that was terrible, because it was quite possible their lives were ruined forever. One way, it wasn’t so totally terrible, because she could finally give into the temptation that had been plaguing her since the moment the janitor had walked in. Her hair still in her face, she drew her eyes up. What kind of look did she want to give him? What response did she want to illicit? Sympathy? Mercy? Fear? Before she could decide, she was already seeing the furrowed brows, the tightened grimace trained on…the camera.

The secretary looked up from her computer, cringing at the room before turning to the janitor. “Rod, again? How many times do you need to be told–don’t spray directly on the camera!

“Oh, I–I’m sorry, Susan. Really, I mean…”

Susan shook her head, took another tragic look at the room, and mumbled something as she returned to her screen. Kindra turned her head back down, whispering a “thank you” so quietly that Monty probably couldn’t even hear it. This was it, then. If they could get through this, then it meant they were on the right path. 

She was a bit disgusted at herself for it, but she had almost been relieved when Monty got sick. It was an excuse to put off the plan until he got better. She’d probably look for another excuse if they got through this. We can’t do it because it’s raining;We can’t do it because we ought to wait until after we binge watch this show;We can’t, we can’t, we can’t; because, because, because. It occurred to her that this might be why no one had done it yet, because doing nothing was so much more tempting. And that was the reason they had to do it, because no one else would.

The door to the secretary’s room opened and closed, and Kindra sat up, still rocking Monty. The boy went back to fidgeting with the pendant. She swore he already looked paler than he had moments before, but then again, she probably did too.

“Freemont, Lowe,” said a voice behind the window, a thick layer sweeter than it had been when it chastised Rod.

Kindra helped Monty up, suppressing a sigh of relief. But now she was starting to worry about the actual appointment, which had been the least of her worries when she made it–not because she wasn’t extremely worried about it, but because she had many, many worries. Of course it had occurred to her that there was a reason people like Monty weren’t supposed to go to the doctor, but considering their unique condition, it was a great deal safer than the place they were supposed to go. There was a reason Lettereds were rarely discovered for what they were, and it was that science could bend over backwards to explain the craziest things. If the doctor found anything odd, they would simply make up an explanation for it.

Once Monty was on his feet, Kindra led him to the window, too blind with relief and concerned with her son to notice the squinting, unprescribed eyes behind the blue glasses. “Can you tell me what’s wrong, hun?”

Monty couldn’t get out more than a small croak. “Head…head.”

Kindra let him lean on her shoulder, putting an arm around him. “His head’s been hurting. He can barely walk.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” Susan crooned. “Can I ask you a few more questions, Mom?”

“Yes, anything,” said Kindra, still not taking her eyes off Monty.

“When did this start?”

“Yesterday. He told me he wasn’t feeling well, but I thought it was just a head cold. I should have brought him in then…”

“Oh, don’t blame yourself, dear. Now, is he on any medication?”

“I gave him some Tylenol.”

“Ah. And what are you doing here?”

“Well, I was just hoping you could… I mean, I don’t know if he’s…”

“No, I mean what are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the SLPD?”

The puzzle froze and cracked. Kindra’s fight or flight instincts failed her as she did neither, slowly turning to the window. The first thing she noticed was the real Susan, sprawled out on the chair, sans glasses and black cardigan. Those items were currently on the person of Rodney Wallace, who was flashing his ever-present grin at Kindra.

“Ms. Lowe. If I’m not mistaken, your son has been Lettered for, what, eight years? If we were in any way unclear when we explained that any medical condition must be run through us—”

“No, it’s, I, just, I’m sorry, I. Sir. I was just…worried. I know today’s a busy day for y’all, what with. You know. The anniversary…and…”

“That’s very considerate of you, Mrs. Lowe, and I’m sure we greatly appreciate your thoughtfulness. But, forgive me, I couldn’t shake the feeling you were hiding from me just now.”

Kindra held Monty more tightly. “No, I, I didn’t mean to… I swear I just… I didn’t want to bother—”

“A visit from you and your son could never be a bother, Ms. Lowe. Exposure of Unlettereds to Lettered biology, though… that might irk us a bit.” He took off Susan’s glasses as he spoke, which made his eyes easier to see and thus far more intimidating. Nothing was traditionally intimidating about Dr. Rod–his plain face and ever-present grin made you feel right at home. But today was a bit of an off day for the Lowes, when things that were usually one way were turning out to be something else entirely.

Kindra turned her back to that and faced Dr. Rod head-on. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It won’t happen again.”

Rod glanced between the two of them, his expression unmoving…and then he nodded. “As long as we’re clear. I’ve already texted my partner at the lab. She’s expecting you to arrive in about twenty minutes. Be there, will you?” He pointed at a list of names before him, taking a pen and crossing one out. “You’ve already missed one appointent today. That’s not a good habit to feed,” he said with a wink.

“Yes… Yes. Okay. Sure. Of course. Thank you…thank you.” She breathed a small sigh–half relief, half worry. The she glanced at Susan. 

“Oh, she’s fine,” said Rod. He took his cleaning spray from the desk, tossed it so it did a flip in the air, and struck and anime-like pose. “One of my best experiment turnouts. Didn’t explode once.” He offered a chuckle as he sat back down, which Kindra nervously returned, nodding her goodbye.

As she and Monty made their way out, she began to worry again. This happened frequently, didn’t it? The SLPD employees all doubled as retail workers, anyway. She couldn’t imagine it, running a police department, a small-scale medical clinic, and a bookstore… The point was, they had probably dealt with worse in matters of customer service. This was nothing to be suspicious of, surely…

She took another glance at Monty’s clay bead necklace. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to leave it in the car, only for as long as the appointment… No. Once it’s ready, don’t let it out of your sight, no matter what. That was much easier to agree to when “no matter what” was an abstract concept. She convinced herself that it wouldn’t matter, anyhow. The greatest minds in the world could brainstorm for years and never arrive at the truth.

That was a big part of the reason she and Monty were chosen anyway. Tired single mom, well-mannered young boy. No one in their right mind would accuse them of attempting the crime of the century.

 

AC BALLI

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