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Hold Tightby Harlan Coben
Marianne nursed her third shot of Cuervo, marveling at her endless capacity to destroy any good in her pathetic life, when the man next to her shouted, "Listen up, sweetcakes: Creationism and evolution are totally compatible."
His spittle landed on Marianne's neck. She made a face and shot the man a quick glance. He had a big bushy mustache straight out of a seventies porn flick. He sat on her right. The over-bleached blonde with brittle hair of straw he was trying to impress with this stimulating banter was on her left. Marianne was the unlucky luncheon meat in their bad-pickup sandwich.
she tried to ignore them. She peered into her glass as if it were a diamond she was sizing up for an engagement ring. Marianne hoped that it would make the mustache man and straw-haired woman disappear. It didn't.
"You're crazy," Straw Hair said.
"Hear me out."
"Okay, I'll listen. But I think you're crazy."
Marianne said, "Would you like to switch stools, so you can be next to one another?"
Mustache put a hand on her arm. "Just hold on, little lady, I want you to hear this too."
Marianne was going to protest, but it might be easier not to. She turned back to her drink.
"Okay," Mustache said, "you know about Adam and Eve, right?"
"Sure," Straw Hair said.
"You buy that story?"
"The one where he was the first man and she was the first woman?"
"Hell, no. You do?"
"Yes, of course." He petted his mustache as if it were a small rodent that needed calming. "The Bible tells us that's what happened. First came Adam, then Eve was formed out of his rib."
Marianne drank. She drank for many reasons. Most of the time it was to party. She had been in too many places like this, looking to hook up and hoping it would come to more. Tonight, though, the idea of leaving with a man held no interest. She was drinking to numb and damn it if it wasn't working. The mindless chatter, once she let go, was distracting. Lessened the pain.
She had messed up.
Her entire life had been a sprint away from anything righteous and decent, looking for the next unobtainable fix, a perpetual state of boredom punctuated by pathetic highs. She'd destroyed something good and now that she'd tried to get it back, well, Marianne had screwed that up too.
In the past, she had hurt those closest to her. That was her exclusive club of whom to emotionally maim-those she loved most. But now, thanks to her recent blend of idiocy and selfishness, she could add total strangers to the list of victims of the Marianne
For some reason, hurting strangers seemed worse. We all hurt those we love, don't we? But it was bad karma to hurt the innocent.
Marianne had destroyed a life. Maybe more than one.
To protect her child. That was what she'd thought.
"Okay," Mustache said, "Adam begot Eve or whatever the hell the term was."
"Sexist crap," Straw Hair said.
"But the word of God."
"Which has been proven wrong by science."
"Now just wait, pretty lady. Hear me out." He held up his right hand. "We have Adam"-then he held up his left-"and we have Eve. We have the Garden of Eden, right?"
"So Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. And then Abel kills Cain."
"Cain kills Abel," Straw Hair corrected.
"You sure?" He frowned, thinking about it. Then he shook it off. "Look, whatever. One of them dies."
"Abel dies. Cain kills him."
Straw Hair nodded.
"Okay, that leaves us with Cain. So the question is, who did Cain reproduce with? I mean, the only other available woman is Eve and she's getting on in years. So how did mankind continue to survive?"
Mustache stopped, as if waiting for applause. Marianne rolled her eyes.
"Do you see the dilemma?"
"Maybe Eve had another kid. A girl."
"So he had sex with his sister?" Mustache asked.
"Sure. In those days, everyone did everyone, didn't they? I mean, Adam and Eve were the first. There had to be some early incest."
"No," Mustache said.
"The Bible forbids incest. The answer lies in science. That's what I mean. Science and religion can indeed coexist. It's all about Darwin's theory of evolution."
Straw Hair looked genuinely interested. "How?"
"Think about it. According to all those Darwinists, what did we descend from?"
"Right, monkeys or apes or whatever. So anyway Cain is cast out and he's wandering around this glorious planet on his own. You with me?"
Mustache tapped Marianne's arm, making sure she was paying attention. She turned slug-like in his direction. Lose the porn mustache, she thought, and you might have something here.
Marianne shrugged. "With you."
"Great." He smiled and arched an eyebrow. "And Cain is a man, right?"
Straw Hair wanted back in: "Right."
"With normal male urges, right?"
"So he's walking around. And he's feeling his oats. His natural urges. And one day, while walking through a forest"-another smile, another pet of the mustache-"Cain stumbles across an attractive monkey. Or gorilla. Or orangutan."
Marianne stared at him. "You're kidding, right?"
"No. Think about it. Cain spots something from the monkey family. They're the closest to human, right? He jumps one of the females, they, well, you know." He brought his hands together in a silent clap in case she didn't know. "And then the primate gets pregnant."
Straw Hair said, "That's gross."
Marianne started to turn back to her drink, but the man tapped her arm again.
"Don't you see how that makes sense? The primate has a baby. Half ape, half man. It's apelike, but slowly, over time, the dominance of mankind comes to the forefront. See? Voilà! Evolution and creationism made one."
He smiled as though waiting for a gold star.
"Let me get this straight," Marianne said. "God is against incest, but He's into bestiality?"
The mustached man gave her a patronizing, there-there pat on the shoulder. "What I'm doing here is trying to explain that all the smarty-pants with their science degrees who believe that religion is not compatible with science are lacking in imagination. That's the problem. Scientists just look through their microscopes. Religionists just look at the words on the page. Neither is seeing the forest in spite of the trees."
"That forest," Marianne said. "Would that be the same one with the attractive monkey?"
The air shifted then. Or maybe it was Marianne's imagination. Mustache stopped talking. He stared at her for a long moment. Marianne didn't like it. There was something different there. Something off. His eyes were black, lightless glass, like someone had randomly jammed them in, like they held no life in them. He blinked and then moved in closer.
"Whoa, sweetheart. Have you been crying?"
Marianne turned to the straw-haired woman. She stared too.
"I mean, your eyes are red," he went on. "I don't mean to pry or anything. But, I mean, are you okay?"
"Fine," Marianne said. She thought that maybe there was a slur in her voice. "I just want to drink in peace."
"Sure, I get that." He raised his hands. "Didn't mean to disturb you."
Marianne kept her eyes on the liquor. She waited for movement in her peripheral vision. It didn't happen. The man with the mustache was still standing there. She took another deep sip. The bartender cleaned a mug with the ease of a man who'd done it for a very long time. She half-expected him to spit in it, like something from an old Western. The lights were low. There was the standard dark mirror behind the bar with the anti-cosmetic glass, so you could scope out your fellow patrons in a smoky thus flattering light.
Marianne checked the mustache man in the mirror.
He glared at her. She locked on those lightless eyes in the mirror, unable to move. The glare slowly turned into a smile, and she felt it chill her neck. Marianne watched him turn away and leave, and when he did, she breathed a sigh of relief.
She shook her head. Cain reproducing with an ape-sure, pal.
Her hand reached for her drink. The glass shook. Nice distraction, that idiotic theory, but her mind couldn't stay away from the bad place for long.
She thought about what she had done. Had it really seemed like a good idea at the time? Had she really thought it through-the personal price, the consequences to others, the lives altered forever?
There had been injury. There had been injustice. There had been blind rage. There had been the burning, primitive desire for revenge. And none of this biblical (or heck, evolutionary) "eye for an eye" stuff-what had they used to call what she'd done?
She closed her eyes, rubbed them. Her stomach started gurgling. Stress, she imagined. Her eyes opened. The bar seemed darker now. Her head began to spin.
Too early for that.
How much had she drunk?
She grabbed hold of the bar, the way you do on nights like this, when you lie down after you have too much to drink and the bed starts twirling and you hang on because the centrifugal force will hurl you through the nearest window.
The gurgling in her stomach tightened. Then her eyes opened wide. A thunderbolt of agony ripped through her abdomen. She opened her mouth, but the scream wouldn't come-blind pain squeezed it shut. Marianne doubled over.
"Are you okay?"
Straw Hair's voice. She sounded very far away. The pain was horrible. The worst she had felt, well, since childbirth. Giving birth-God's little test. Oh, guess what-that little being you are supposed to love and care for more than yourself? When it first comes out, it is going to cause physical pain you can't begin to fathom.
Nice way to start a relationship, don't you think?
Wonder what Mustache would make of that.
Razor blades-that was what it felt like-clawed at her insides as if fighting to get out. All rational thought fled. The pain consumed her. She even forgot about what she'd done, the damage she had caused, not just now, today, but throughout her life. Her parents had withered and been aged by her teenage recklessness. Her first husband had been destroyed by her constant infidelity, her second husband by the way she treated him, and then there were her kid, the few people who'd befriended her for more than a few weeks, the men she'd used before they used her. . . .
The men. Maybe that was about payback too. Hurt them before they hurt you.
She was sure that she was going to vomit.
"Bathroom," she managed.
"I got you."
Straw Hair again.
Marianne felt herself falling off the stool. Strong hands slithered underneath her armpits and kept her upright. Someone-Straw Hair-guided her toward the back. She stumbled toward the bathroom. Her throat felt impossibly dry. The pain in her stomach made it impossible to stand upright.
The strong hands held on to her. Marianne kept her eyes on the floor. Dark. She could only see her own feet shuffling, barely lifting. She tried to look up, saw the bathroom door not far ahead, wondered if she'd ever get there. She did.
And kept on going.
Straw Hair still held her under the armpits. She steered Marianne past the bathroom door. Marianne tried to put on the brakes. Her brain wouldn't obey the command. She tried to call out, to tell her savior that they'd passed the door, but her mouth wouldn't work either.
"Out this way," the woman whispered. "It will be better."
She felt her body push against the metal rod of an emergency door. The door gave way. Back exit. Made sense, Marianne figured. Why mess up a bathroom? Better to do it in a back alley. And get some fresh air. Fresh air might help. Fresh air might make her feel better.
The door opened all the way, hitting the outside wall with a bang. Marianne stumbled out. The air did indeed feel good. Not great. The pain was still there. But the coolness on her face felt good.
That was when she saw the van.
The van was white with tinted windows. The back doors were open like a mouth waiting to swallow her whole. And standing there, right by those doors, now taking hold of Marianne and pushing her up inside the van, was the man with the bushy mustache.
Marianne tried to pull up, but it was no use.
Mustache tossed her in as if she were a sack of peat moss. She landed on the van's floor with a thud. He crawled in, closed the back doors, and stood over her. Marianne rolled to a fetal position. Her stomach still ached, but fear was taking over now.
The man peeled off his mustache and smiled at her. The van started moving. Straw Hair must be driving.
"Hi, Marianne," he said.
She couldn't move, couldn't breathe. He sat next to her, pulled his fist back, and punched her hard in the stomach.
If the pain had been bad before, it went to another dimension now.
"Where's the tape?" he asked.
And then he began to hurt her for real.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
There are times you run off a cliff. It is like one of those Looney Tunes cartoons where Wile E. Coyote sprints really hard and he’s still running even though he’s already gone off the cliff, and then he stops and looks down and knows he will plummet and that there is nothing he can do to stop it.
But sometimes, maybe most times, it isn’t that clear. It is dark and you are near the edge of the cliff but you’re moving slowly, not sure what direction you’re heading in. Your steps are tentative but they are still blind in the night. You don’t realize how close you are to the edge, how the soft earth could give way, how you could just slip a bit and suddenly plunge into the dark.
This is when Mike knew that he and Tia were on that edge—when this installer, this young yah-dude with the rat-nest hair and the muscleless, overtattooed arms and the dirty, long fingernails, looked back at them and asked that damn question in a voice too ominous for his years.
Are you sure you want to do this . . . ?
None of them belonged in this room. Sure, Mike and Tia Baye (pronounced bye as in good-bye) were in their own home, a split-level-cum-McMansion in the suburb of Livingston, but this bedroom had become enemy territory to them, strictly forbidden. There were still, Mike noticed, a surprising amount of remnants from the past. The hockey trophies hadn’t been put away, but while they used to dominate the room, they now seemed to cower toward the back of the shelf. Posters of Jaromir
Jagr and his most recent favorite Ranger hero, Chris Drury, were still up, but they’d been faded by the sun or maybe lack of attention.
Mike drifted back. He remembered how his son, Adam, used to read Goosebumps and Mike Lupica’s book about kid athletes who overcame impossible odds. He used to study the sports page, especially the hockey stats, like a scholar with the Talmud. He wrote to his favorite players for autographs and hung them with Sticky Tack. When they’d go to Madison Square Garden, Adam would insist they wait by the players’ exit on Thirty-second Street near Eighth Avenue so that he could get pucks autographed.
All of that was gone, if not from this room, then from their son’s life.
Adam had outgrown those things. That was normal. He was no longer a child, barely an adolescent, really, moving too hard and too fast into adulthood. But his bedroom seemed reluctant to follow suit. Mike wondered if it was a bond to the past for his son, if Adam still found comfort in his childhood. Maybe a part of Adam still longed to return to those days when he wanted to be a physician, like his dear old dad, when Mike was his son’s hero.
But that was wishful thinking.
The Yah-Dude Installer—Mike couldn’t remember his name, Brett, something like that—repeated the question: “Are you sure?”
Tia had her arms crossed. Her face was stern—there was no give there. She looked older to Mike, though no less beautiful. There was no doubt in her voice, just a hint of exasperation.
“Yes, we’re sure.”
Mike said nothing.
Their son’s bedroom was fairly dark, just the old gooseneck desk lamp was on. Their voices were a whisper, even though there was no chance that they’d be seen or heard. Their eleven-year-old daughter, Jill, was in school. Adam, their sixteen-year-old, was on his school’s junior overnight trip. He hadn’t wanted to go, of course—such things were too “lame” for him now—but the school made it mandatory and even the “slackest” of his slacker friends would be there, so they could all bemoan the lameness in unison.
“You understand how this works, right?”
Tia nodded in perfect unison to Mike’s shaking his head.
“The software will record every keystroke your son makes,” Brett said. “At the end of the day, the information is packaged and a report will be e-mailed to you. It will show you everything—every Web site visited, every e-mail sent or received, every instant message. If Adam does a PowerPoint or creates a Word document, it will show you that too. Everything. You could watch him live time if you want. You just click this option over here.”
He pointed to a small icon with the words LIVE SPY! in a red burst. Mike’s eyes moved about the room. The hockey trophies mocked him. Mike was surprised that Adam had not put them away. Mike had played college hockey at Dartmouth. He had been drafted by the New York Rangers, played for their Hartford team for a year, even gotten to play in two NHL games. He had passed
on his love of hockey to Adam. Adam had started to skate when he was three. He became a goalie in junior hockey. The rusted goalpost was still outside on the driveway, the net torn from the weather. Mike had spent many a contented hour shooting pucks at his son. Adam had been terrific—a top college prospect for certain—and then six months ago, he quit.
Just like that. Adam laid down the stick and pads and mask and said he was done.
Was that where it began?
Was that the first sign of his decline, his withdrawal? Mike tried to rise above his son’s decision, tried not to be like so many pushy parents who seemed to equate athletic skill with life success, but the truth was, the quitting had hit Mike hard.
But it had hit Tia harder.
“We are losing him,” she said.
Mike wasn’t as sure. Adam had suffered an immense tragedy—the suicide of a friend—and sure, he was working out some adolescent angst. He was moody and quiet. He spent all his time in this room, mostly on this wretched computer, playing fantasy games or instant-messaging or who knew what. But wasn’t that true of most teenagers? He barely spoke to them, responding rarely, and when he did, with grunts. But again—was that so abnormal?
It was her idea, this surveillance. Tia was a criminal attorney with Burton and Crimstein in Manhattan. One of the cases she’d worked on had involved a money launderer named Pale Haley. Haley had been nailed by the FBI when they’d eavesdropped on his Internet correspondences.
Brett, the installer, was the tech guy at Tia’s law firm. Mike stared now at Brett’s dirty fingernails. The fingernails were touching Adam’s keyboard. That was what Mike kept thinking. This guy with these disgusting nails was in their son’s room and he was having his way with Adam’s most prized possession.
“Be done in a second,” Brett said.
Mike had visited the E-SpyRight Web site and seen the first inducement in big, bold letters:
ARE YOUR CHILDREN BEING APPROACHED
BY CHILD MOLESTERS?
ARE YOUR EMPLOYEES STEALING FROM YOU?
and then, in even bigger and bolder letters, the argument that sold Tia:
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW!
The site listed testimonials:
“Your product saved my daughter from this parent’s worst nightmare—a sexual predator! Thanks, E-SpyRight!” Bob—Denver, CO
“I found out my most trusted employee was stealing from our offi ce. I couldn’t have done it without your software!” Kevin—Boston, MA
Mike had resisted.
“He’s our son,” Tia had said.
“I know that. Don’t you think I know that?”
“Aren’t you concerned?”
“Of course I’m concerned. But—”
“But what? We’re his parents.” And then, as though rereading the ad, she said, “We have the right to know.”
“We have the right to invade his privacy?”
“To protect him? Yes. He’s our son.”
Mike shook his head.
“We not only have the right,” Tia said, stepping closer to him. “We have the responsibility.”
“Did your parents know everything you did?”
“How about everything you thought? Every conversation with a friend?”
“That’s what we’re talking about here.”
“Think about Spencer Hill’s parents,” she countered.
That stunned him into silence. They looked at each other.
She said, “If they could do it over again, if Betsy and Ron had Spencer back—”
“You can’t do that, Tia.”
“No, listen to me. If they had to do it over again, if Spencer was alive, don’t you think they’d wish they’d kept a closer eye on him?”
Spencer Hill, a classmate of Adam’s, had committed suicide four months ago. It had been devastating, of course, hitting Adam and his classmates hard. Mike reminded Tia of that fact.
“Don’t you think that explains Adam’s behavior?”
“To a point, yes. But you know he was already changing. That just sped things up.”
“So maybe if we give him more room . . .”
“No,” Tia said, her tone cutting off any debate. “That tragedy may make Adam’s behavior more understandable— but it doesn’t make it less dangerous. If anything, it’s just the opposite.”
Mike thought about that. “We should tell him,” he said.
“Tell Adam we’re monitoring his online behavior.”
She made a face. “What’s the point in that?”
“So he knows he’s being watched.”
“This isn’t like putting a cop on your tail so you don’t speed.”
“It’s exactly like that.”
“He’ll just do whatever it is he’s doing at a friend’s house or use an Internet café or something.”
“So? You have to let him know. Adam puts his private thoughts on that computer.”
Tia took a step closer to him and put a hand on his chest. Even now, even after all these years, her touch still had an effect on him. “He’s in trouble, Mike,” she said. “Don’t you see that? Your son is in trouble. He might be drinking or doing drugs or who knows what. Stop burying your head in the sand.”
“I’m not burying my head anywhere.”
Her voice was almost a plea. “You want the easy way out. You’re hoping, what? That Adam will just outgrow this?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. But think about it. This is new technology. He puts his secret thoughts and emotions down there. Would you have wanted your parents to know all that about you?”
“It’s a different world now,” Tia said.
“You sure about that?”
“What’s the harm? We’re his parents. We want what’s best for him.”
Mike shook his head again. “You don’t want to know a person’s every thought,” he said. “Some things should remain private.”
She took her hand off him. “You mean, a secret?”
“Are you saying that a person is entitled to their secrets?”
“Of course they are.”
She looked at him then, in a funny way, and he didn’t much like it.
“Do you have secrets?” she asked him.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Do you have secrets from me?” Tia asked again.
“No. But I don’t want you to know my every thought either.”
“And I don’t want you to know mine.”
They both stopped, on that line, before she stepped back.
“But if it’s a choice of protecting my son or giving him his privacy,” Tia said, “I’m going to protect him.”
The discussion—Mike didn’t want to classify it as an argument—lasted for a month. Mike tried to coax his son back to them. He invited Adam to the mall, the arcade, concerts even. Adam refused. He stayed out of the house until all hours, curfews be damned. He stopped coming down to eat dinner. His grades slipped. They managed to get him to visit a therapist once. The therapist thought that there might be depression issues. He suggested perhaps medication, but he wanted to see Adam again first.
Adam pointedly refused.
When they insisted that he go back to the therapist, Adam ran away for two days. He wouldn’t answer his mobile phone. Mike and Tia were frantic. It ended up that he’d just been hiding at a friend’s house.
“We’re losing him,” Tia had argued again.
And Mike said nothing.
“In the end, we’re just their caretakers, Mike. We get them for a little while and then they live their lives. I just want him to stay alive and healthy until we let him go. The rest will be up to him.”
Mike nodded. “Okay, then.”
“You sure?” she said.
“Neither am I. But I keep thinking about Spencer Hill.”
He nodded again.
He looked at her. She gave him the crooked smile— the one he’d first seen on a cold autumn day at Dartmouth. That smile had corkscrewed into his heart and stayed there.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you too.”
And with that, they agreed to spy on their older child.
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