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Forgotten a novel, p.9
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       Forgotten: A Novel, p.9

           Catherine McKenzie
 

  “Hi, Emma, thanks for agreeing to do the show,” she says in her modulated broadcaster voice. Her cadence is perfectly timed for reading a script off a teleprompter. “Carrie filled you in on the subjects we’ll be covering?”

  “I think so.”

  “Good. Take a seat and make yourself comfortable. We’ll begin in about five minutes.”

  Making myself comfortable seems out of the question, but I sit down in the armchair she points to anyway. I smooth out the wrinkles in my pants while a guy in his early twenties with a mod haircut slips a tiny microphone under my sweater. It happens so quickly I barely have time to be embarrassed, though I’m pretty sure he caught an eyeful of . . . well, not much, really.

  Cathy Keeler sits across from me with a nonchalance born of years of experience. She flips through a set of index cards, muttering to herself. I take several sips from the water glass sitting on a small table next to me, surveying the sea of faces watching us. The most common expression is one of disappointment. I guess a lot of people thought they were getting Christmas giveaways today.

  The cameramen turn on their lights. I blink slowly in their glare as another guy in a headset darts toward Cathy and takes her notes. She squares her shoulders as a voice yells, “Quiet on set,” and the familiar, slightly bombastic theme music for In Progress fills the room. When it stops, Cathy looks into the camera over my left shoulder.

  “Good evening. Tonight I’ll be talking to Emma Tupper. For those of you not yet familiar with her story . . .”

  She continues for several minutes, outlining the facts. When she’s done, she asks me some easy questions about how it feels to be home, and what I’m going to do now. I stick to the script I worked on earlier: It’s amazing to be home; I’m going back to work in the new year, can’t wait. I feel like Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham following Crash Davis’s instructions when he gets to the Show. I’m lucky to be here; it’s such an amazing opportunity.

  Cathy smiles and nods, and leads me along smoothly until I’ve just about relaxed.

  My mistake.

  “Ms. Tupper, I have to say, your story doesn’t really add up.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, for instance, why would the tour company leave you in the middle of nowhere?”

  “I was sick.”

  “Shouldn’t they have taken you to a hospital?”

  “We were days away from one.”

  She raises her right eyebrow. “So they left you in a remote village instead?”

  Why is that tone familiar? Oh, right. She sounds like me when I’m in the middle of cross-examining someone.

  My throat goes dry. I take a sip of water as she waits for my answer. I put the glass down and measure out my words carefully. “When I got sick, we were in the middle of a wildlife preserve. It took us two days to drive there, and the ‘road’ was just a dirt track full of bumps and ruts and mud. Every second on it was excruciating, like someone was trying to jackhammer my body into a thousand pieces. I was kind of out of it, but I’m pretty sure I begged them to leave me by the side of the road. Instead, they took me to a village where they knew there were NGO workers who had good medical supplies. And that’s where they left me.”

  “Why didn’t the tour company come back to get you?”

  “You’d have to ask them that.”

  Great. Now I sound like someone I’ve been cross-examining. Defensive. Like I have something to hide. Like I might start to cry any second.

  “And you really couldn’t get a message home for six whole months?”

  “No.”

  “I see.”

  “I . . . I’m confused, Ms. Keeler. You seem to be implying that I’m making this whole thing up. Why would I do that?”

  She makes a dismissive sound in her throat loud enough for only me to hear. “I’m not here to answer your questions, Ms. Tupper, but perhaps you’re seeking attention? Your fifteen minutes of fame?”

  “You think I want everyone to know what happened to me?”

  She motions to the room. “You’re here, aren’t you?”

  I lean away from her, aware again of the glare of the lights and the room full of women watching me expectantly, wondering, Will she break down? Is she telling the truth?

  I knew this was a bad idea.

  “I’m here because you invited me, Ms. Keeler. I didn’t go looking for this. It wasn’t even my idea to go on the trip, as you very well know, and I gave up a lot to go there.”

  “I assume you’re referring to your boyfriend, Craig. You still haven’t seen him, I believe?”

  A nervous flutter twinges in my gut. “Yes, that’s right.”

  She gives a gurgling laugh that must sound delightful on TV. “Well, when we heard about that, I have to say, we couldn’t resist organizing a little reunion.”

  Organizing a little what?

  She looks over my shoulder again, only this time, I know she’s not looking into the camera. I turn my head, and there he is: Craig Talbot, living and breathing and walking toward me looking tired, and cuter than I remember in his favorite light gray suit. There are laugh lines around his pale blue eyes. His sandy hair is cut short and parted on the left.

  Our eyes meet, and I feel like the whole room, the whole world, is watching, waiting for me to react like someone should when she sees her boyfriend for the first time in six months.

  “Emma? Don’t you want to say hi to Craig?”

  I stand up and walk toward him, forcing myself to smile like a happy, normal person who’s just been given a great surprise. When I get near enough, I reach out and hug him. After a moment’s hesitation, his arms slip around me, holding me tight. I breathe in his familiar, spicy spell. My legs feel weak.

  “Emma,” he says into my ear. “Welcome home.”

  We break apart and stare at each other as the room watches. In the complete silence I can hear a camera shutter opening and closing.

  “Aren’t you going to kiss her?” someone in the audience shouts.

  And suddenly I know why Matt and the Management Committee wanted me to come here. They’re looking for exposure, all right, they just think bigger than I do—they always have. Because this has all been about manufacturing the perfect happy ending to my freak-show tale to ensure that it gets maximum publicity and spreads TPC’s name far and wide.

  “Kiss, kiss, kiss,” the audience chants like it’s an episode of Jerry Springer.

  Craig looks uncomfortable and embarrassed, but what can we do?

  We kiss. The cameras whir.

  Chapter 9: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

  Craig and I are riding the elevator to his condo, standing shoulder to shoulder.

  When we broke apart from our made-for-the-media kiss, Cathy Keeler went to commercial. Without quite looking me directly in the eye, Craig suggested we go to his apartment to “talk” once the show was over.

  It’s always such a good sign when a guy wants to talk.

  I must’ve been in a state of shock during the final segment of the show, because I don’t remember a word of what Cathy Keeler asked me, or what I answered. When the studio lights dimmed, Cathy thanked me as a man with a sign that said CLAP! encouraged the audience to put their hands together. They complied perfunctorily. Still pissed about the lack of giveaways, I guess.

  “I’m sorry about that,” Craig says. “Matt—”

  “Said that the Management Committee would greatly appreciate it?”

  He smiles. “Yes.”

  “I got the same speech.”

  We reach his floor and the elevator doors ding open. I follow Craig down the hall. His front door is an impressive piece of solid mahogany with a shiny set of chrome numbers at eye level. Inside, his apartment looks just as it always has, like a single, well-to-do man lives here. The walls are a dark gray-blue, and the furniture is al
l the same heavy mahogany as the front door. A rain forest had to die to make this apartment.

  It’s a place I’ve never felt quite comfortable in, no matter how much time I’ve spent here. Maybe that’s why I didn’t take him up on his offer to stay here while he was away?

  “So,” I say when we’ve taken off our coats and hung them on the chrome coatrack by the door, “you wanted to talk?”

  Craig runs a hand through his hair, smoothing it down. He looks a little heavier than the last time I saw him, like he hasn’t been eating well or working out. Craig’s a one-thing-at-a-time kind of guy, and whenever things get crazy at work, he eats like crap and stops going to the gym.

  “Emma, this might seem like I’m putting you off, but I had a long flight. I’d love to take a shower and get changed before . . . well, you know. Do you mind?”

  “No, that’s all right.” And maybe by the time you get out, I’ll know what to say.

  “I won’t be long. There should be some food in the fridge. I asked Juliana to stock it.”

  “Is she still cooking for you?”

  “Of course. Why wouldn’t she be?”

  “I don’t know, I keep expecting things to be the same, but then they’re different—”

  Craig shakes his head. “Shower, then talk, okay?”

  “Yeah, sorry. Go, go.”

  I watch him walk toward his bedroom, then I pull out my cell phone to check if there’s a message from Stephanie. No new messages. I dial her number, now memorized. It goes right to voice mail like it always does, and I leave her another message (this is not a test, this is my life) and close the phone.

  Surprisingly hungry, I go to the kitchen to see what Juliana left. She’s an amazing cook and totally devoted to Craig, an only child whose jet-setting parents didn’t have much time for him when he was growing up. Instead, he had Juliana.

  I find some chicken and saffron rice in a Tupperware container and put it in the microwave. When the dinger sounds, I plate it up and bring it to the dining room table. My eyes wander to the glass cabinet in the corner, which is filled with odds and ends from Craig’s life (books he’s never read, the paperweights his parents brought back from around the world, a few formal shots of him growing up). I check the top shelf, and there it is: the trophy we won at a litigation workshop we attended together four years ago.

  Litigation boot camp, as we called it, was mandatory for all of TPC’s litigators after a couple of years of practice. It was led by a group of sadistic men who took great pleasure in breaking lawyers down before building them back up.

  Craig and I were paired for the week, which culminated in a daylong mock trial. I knew Craig before boot camp, but we’d never spent much time together. Up until then, I’d kind of written him off as one of those private-school, uptight assholes you meet a lot of in my profession.

  As we worked around the clock preparing, I learned that I was both right and wrong about him. He could be one of those private-school, uptight assholes (it was kind of his default setting), but he was also really smart and thoughtful. We were too busy for romance that week, but he did all these little things that caught my attention. Like he let me do the closing argument, though I could tell he wanted to, and he had this sixth sense about when I needed more coffee, or snacks, or even, briefly, a back rub. It felt like we spent the whole week moving toward each other. And when we held the Best Team trophy between us and smiled for the photographer, I knew it was only a matter of time before we slept together.

  I thought that might be all it was at first. But we had fun together, and we understood each other’s crazy, unpredictable schedules, even when Craig’s got worse once he left litigation and joined the Corporate department. Sometimes, when we were stuck at work after hours, we’d steal forty-five minutes together for dinner in an unused conference room. A few times we even snuck into the back reaches of the library and made love.

  It was like that for years. We had good conversations, went on nice vacations, and rarely fought. If you’d seen us together, and you were with someone who wasn’t quite right, you would’ve felt jealous. Sometimes I even felt jealous when I thought of us abstractly. Why couldn’t I be in that picture-perfect relationship? Oh, right. I was.

  I finish my chicken and stand to look at the trophy more closely. Propped in front of it is a picture of us taken the day we won it. We both look slightly disheveled and exhausted from the all-nighter we’d pulled. I’ve never understood why he keeps it on display.

  “I always thought you looked great in that picture,” Craig says, coming up behind me.

  I turn to face him. He’s changed into jeans and a black sweatshirt. His hair is still damp.

  “Funny, I was just thinking the opposite.”

  “You never think you look good in pictures.”

  “Because I don’t.”

  He smiles ruefully. “Some things never change.”

  “True.”

  Our eyes meet briefly before Craig looks away.

  “Should we sit?” he asks.

  I follow him to the living room, and we sit on his masculine, dark brown couch. It’s an L shape, and as if by agreement, we each take a different part of the L.

  He stares at his hands, silent, thoughtful.

  I feel compelled to break the silence. After all, I’m the party at fault here, right? “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to call you, Craig.”

  “I know. You said.”

  “There really just wasn’t any way . . .”

  I stop myself because what I’m saying feels like a lie, even though it’s mostly the truth. After the earthquake, there wasn’t any way to call outside the country unless you had a satellite phone. Which our village didn’t. But a few weeks after the earthquake, a rumor started among the villagers that the next village over had one, and maybe a working Internet connection too. The rumor circled and circled, and in a day or two, the phone’s existence, and its maybe working connection to the outside world, took on a mythic quality.

  I admit I was taken up with the myth. How could I not be? A possible connection to home had to be investigated. And while the villagers seemed content to simply discuss the possibility, I was not. I pleaded with Karen and Peter to show me the way, and they eventually agreed. They didn’t believe the rumor, I could tell, but they wanted it to be true for me.

  After they relented, Peter told me to put some things together discreetly—water, food, the sturdiest shoes I had—and went off to haggle with Nyako, the village’s procurer. If you needed something (and it was available somewhere), Nyako had it—and sure enough, an hour or so later, Peter walked toward me, navigating a bike with each arm.

  “We’re biking there?”

  “No way else to get there, I’m afraid. I’ve got to keep the truck fueled for emergencies. No telling when I’ll be able to get more gas.”

  I wanted to say that this was an emergency for me, but I knew it wasn’t really. I took the smaller of the two bikes—a faded red Schwinn—and adjusted the seat to fit my proportions. Peter did the same with the rusty hybrid he was going to ride, and we slung our packs over our backs and set out.

  It was ten miles to our destination, but it felt like twenty. The bike’s seat dug into my behind, and my back started to ache from being crouched over the handlebars. Even if I’d had the energy, we couldn’t bike very fast; the road was pitted and bumpy, and I was almost thrown from my perch more than once. The sun beat down on my neck, seeking out the band beneath my hair where I hadn’t applied enough sunscreen.

  When we finally got there, we were greeted by a group of teenage boys sitting on a large pile of rocks, holding guns lazily across their laps. My heart leaped to my throat, and I thought of Ishmael Beah and his book, A Long Way Gone—a Christmas gift from my mother because she loved even the bad parts of this place. Were these boy soldiers? Were they out of their minds on drugs and fear? Was I
about to get us both killed just because I wanted to make a phone call?

  Peter put up his hand in this self-assured way he has, and I stopped pedaling.

  “Stay here,” he said.

  “Are you sure? We can go back.”

  “I think they’re just protecting the village against looters. I’ll talk to them first.”

  “Please, Peter. Don’t go if it’s dangerous. It’s not that important.”

  “Sure it is. And don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

  He dismounted and wheeled his bike slowly toward the boys, smiling, friendly, nothing to fear here, even though he seemed twice the size of even the largest of them.

  As I watched him talking to them, I felt an odd urge to cough—just as I did before the earthquake, when I watched the snake—to draw attention to myself in some way. Like the urge to jump some people feel when they stand on the edge of Niagara Falls, to be swallowed up by the massive river. Even though I knew it could be bad—dangerous, even—it felt like a better alternative in the moment.

  And then Peter beckoned to me, a smile on his face. I climbed down from my bike and walked toward the boys.

  “Hello,” said the tallest one. Sitting highest on the rocks, he was their leader, I assumed. “I am Tabansi.”

  “Hello, Tabansi,” I said back. “My name is Emma.”

  “You are looking for satellite phone, yeah?”

  Hope sprang through me. “Yes, do you have one?”

  “Yes.”

  “And may I . . . can I use it?”

  One of the smaller boys snickered. The boy sitting next to him shushed him.

  “You cannot.”

  “Oh, I—”

  “It is my father’s, but it is broken. It fell to the floor when the earth shook.”

  “Oh no. I mean, I’m sorry.”

 
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