I'm running but I can't run much farther. The pain in my side already has me limping; there's fire in my lungs. I can't hear his footfalls. But I know he's not far away. I know now that he's been right beside me all my life in one way or another. I'm the light; he's the shadow. We've coexisted without ever meeting. If I'd been a good girl, the girl I was raised to be, I never would have known him. But it's too late for regrets.
I'm on Hart Island in the Bronx, a place known as Potter's Field. It's the city cemetery for the unknown and indigent--a grim and frightening place. How we've all wound up here is a long story, but I know the story will end here--maybe just for some, maybe for all of us. A tall abandoned building that seems to sag upon itself looms ahead of me. It's a darker night than I have ever known, in more ways than one. The sliver of moon is hidden behind a thick cloud cover. It's hard to see but I watch as he disappears through a door that hangs crooked on its hinges. I follow.
"Ridley!" The call comes from behind me. But I don't answer. I just keep moving until I am standing at the entrance to the building. I hesitate there, looking at the crooked, sighing structure and wondering if it's not too late to turn around.
Then I see him, up ahead of me. I call out but he doesn't answer me, just turns and slowly starts to move away. I follow. If I valued my life and my sanity, I'd let him get away and hope he did the same for me. We could go back to the way things have been. He dwelling in a world I never even knew existed, me going about my very ordinary life, writing magazine articles, seeing movies, having drinks with friends.
Fear and rage duke it out in my chest. Hatred has a taste and a texture; it burns like bile in my throat. For a moment, I hear the voice of someone I loved: Ridley, you can release the hatred and walk away. It's nothing more than a single choice. We can both do it. We don't need all the answers to live our lives. It doesn't have to be like this. A few minutes later, he was gone.
I know now that those words were lies. Hatred doesn't release. Walking away is not one of my choices. Maybe it never was. Maybe I've been in the path of this freight train all my life, lashed to the tracks, too weak, too foolish, too stubborn to even try to save myself.
As I enter the building, I think I might hear the rumble of boat engines. I feel a distant flutter of hope and wonder if help is coming. I hear my name again and look behind me to see a man who has become my only friend moving unsteadily toward me. He is injured and I know it will take him a while to reach me. I think for a second that I should go to him, help him. But inside I hear movement and the groaning of an unstable structure. My breathing comes shallow and quick. I step deeper inside.
"Stop running, you coward!" I yell into the huge darkness. My voice resonates in the deserted space. "Let me see your face."
My voice bounces off the surfaces around me again. I don't sound scared and heartbroken, but I am. I sound strong and sure. I take the gun from the waist of my jeans. The metal is warm from my skin. In my hand, it feels solid and righteous. This is the second time in my life I've held a gun with the intent to use it. I don't like it any better than the first time, but I'm more confident now, know that I can fire if pressed.
He steps out from the shadows, seems to move silently, to glide like the ghost that he is. I take a step toward him and then stop, raise my gun. I still can't see his face. A milky light has started to shine through the gaping holes in the ceiling as the moon moves through a break in the cloud cover. Shapes emerge in the darkness. He starts moving toward me slowly. I stand my ground but the gun starts shaking in my hand.
"Ridley, don't do it. You'll never be able to live with it."
The voice comes from behind me and I spin around to see someone I didn't expect to see again.
"This is none of your business," I yell, and turn back to the man I've been chasing.
"Ridley, don't be stupid. Put that gun down." This voice behind me sounds desperate, cracks with emotion. "You know I can't let you kill him."
My heart rate responds to the fear in his voice. What am I doing? Adrenaline is making my mouth dry, the back of my neck tingle. I can't fire but I can't lower the gun, either. I have the urge to scream in my fear and anger, my frustration and confusion, but it all lodges in my throat.
When he's finally close enough to see, I gaze upon his face. And he's someone I don't recognize at all. I draw in a gasp as a wide, cruel smile spreads across his face. And then I get it. He is the man they say he is.
"Oh, God," I say, lowering my gun. "Oh, no."
I bet you thought you'd heard the end of me. You might have at least hoped that I'd had my fill of drama for one lifetime and that the road ahead of me would not hold any more surprises, that things would go pretty smoothly from now on. Believe me, I thought so, too. We were both wrong.
About a year ago, a series of mundane events and ordinary decisions led my life to connect with the life of a toddler by the name of Justin Wheeler. I happened to be standing across the street from him on a cool autumn morning as he wandered into the path of an oncoming van. In an unthinking moment, I leapt out into the street, grabbed him, and dove us both out of the way of the vehicle that certainly would have killed him . . . and maybe me if I'd been thirty seconds earlier or later arriving on the scene. Still, that might have been the end of it, a heroic deed remembered only by Justin Wheeler, his family, and me, except for the fact that a Post photographer standing on the corner got the whole thing on film. That photograph (a pretty amazing action shot, if I do say so myself) led to another series of events that would force me to question virtually everything about my former perfect life and ultimately cause it to unravel in the most horrible ways.
The funny thing was, even after my life had dissolved around me, even after everything I thought defined me had turned out to be a lie, I found that I was still me. I still had the strength to move forward into the unknown. And that was a pretty cool thing to learn about myself.
My life may have looked as if it had been on the business end of a wrecking ball, but Ridley Jones still emerged from the remains. And though there were times when I didn't think it was possible, my life settled back into a somewhat normal rhythm. For a while, anyway.
If you don't know what happened to me and how it all turned out, you could go back now and find out before you move ahead. I'm not saying the things that follow won't make any sense to you or that you won't get anything out of the experience of joining me on this next chapter of my vida loca. What I'm saying is that it's kind of like sleeping with someone before you know her name. But maybe you like it like that. Maybe you want to come along and figure things out as we go, like any new relationship, I guess. Either way, the choice is yours. The choice is always yours.
Well, I'll get to it, then.
I'm the last person in the world without a digital camera. I don't like them; they seem too fragile. As if getting caught in the rain or clumsily pushing the wrong button could erase some of your memories. I have a 35-millimeter Minolta that I've been using since college. I take my rolls of film and then drop them off at the same photo lab on Second Avenue I've been using for years.
I had a friend who thought that there was something inherently wrong with picture taking. Memory, he said, was magical for its subjectivity. Photographs were crude and the direct result of a desire to control, to hold on to moments that should be released like each breath that we take. Maybe he was right. We're not friends anymore and I have no pictures of him, just this memory that resurfaces every time I go to pick up photographs. And then I think about how he liked to sing and play the guitar after we made love (and how he was really terrible at it--the guitar playing, the singing, and the lovemaking, for that matter) but that the sight of Washington Square Park outside his windows always seemed so romantic that I put up with the rest for longer than I might have otherwise. My memories of him are organic and three-dimensional, pictures that exist only for me; there's something nice about that after all.
So I was thinking about this as I pushed through the door of the F-Stop to pick up some photos that were waiting for me. A desk clerk I'd never seen before looked at me with practiced indifference from beneath a chaos of dyed black hair and twin swaths of eyeliner.
"Help you?" he said sullenly, placing a paperback binding up on the surface in front of him. I saw the flash of a tongue piercing when he spoke.
"I'm picking up photographs. Last name Jones."
He gave me a kind of weird look, as if he thought it was a name I'd made up. (A note about New York City: Here, if you leave a plain or common name, people treat you with suspicion. Meanwhile, if your name would sound bizarre or made up anywhere else in the world--for example, Ruby Decal X or Geronimo--it wouldn't even raise an eyebrow in the East Village.)
The clerk disappeared behind a dividing wall and I thought I heard voices as I glanced around at some black-and-white art shots on the wall. After a short time, he returned with three fat envelopes and lay them on the desk between us. He didn't say anything as he rang up the sale. I paid him in cash, and he slid the envelopes into a plastic bag.
"Thank you," I said, taking the bag from his hand.
He sat down without another word and returned to his book. For some reason, I turned around at the door and caught him staring at me strangely just before he averted his eyes.
I paused on the street corner at Second Avenue and Eighth Street. My intent had been to stop by the studio and bring the photos to Jake. They were some shots we had taken over the last few months: a long weekend in Paris where we'd tried and failed to reconnect; an afternoon spent in Central Park, where we fooled around on the Great Lawn and things seemed hopeful; a miserable day with my parents at the Botanical Gardens in Brooklyn, characterized by heavy awkward silences, mini-outbursts, and barely concealed dislike. Faced now with the reality of dropping in on Jake, I balked, loitered on the corner staring at the sidewalk.
I don't want to tell you that my world has gone dark or that the color has drained from my life. That sounds too dramatic, too self-pitying. But I guess that's not too far off. When last you heard from me, I was picking up the pieces of my shattered life. I think we ended on a hopeful note, but the work has been hard. And like any protracted convalescence, there have been more lows than highs.
As of last month, Jake moved out of the apartment we shared on Park Avenue South and is living semi-permanently in his studio on Avenue A. Far from finding peace with his past and coming to terms with what he has learned, Jake has become obsessed with Project Rescue and Max's role in it.
By Max, I mean Maxwell Allen Smiley, my uncle who was not really my uncle by my father's best friend. We shared a special connection all my life. And last year I learned that he was really my biological father. I am currently struggling to recast him in my life as my failed father instead of my beloved uncle.
Project Rescue is an organization developed by Max, an abused child himself, to help pass the Safe Haven Law in New York State years ago. This law allows frightened mothers to abandon their babies at specified Safe Haven sites, no questions asked, no fear of prosecution. I discovered last year that there was a shadow side to this organization. Cooperating nurses and doctors were secretly flagging children they thought were potential victims of abuse and unsafe in their homes. Through a collusion with organized crime, some of these children were abducted and sold to wealthy parents. In a sense, I was a Project Rescue baby, though my story is more complicated. Jake is a Project Rescue baby for whom things went horribly wrong.
Lately, Jake has abandoned his art. And while he and I have not formally broken up, I have become a ghost in our relationship, behaving like a poltergeist, tossing things about, making noise just to get myself noticed.
I am reminded of something my mother, Grace, once said about Max: A man like that, so broken and hollow inside, can't really love well. At least he was smart enough to know it. They say we all fall in love with our fathers over and over in a sad attempt to resolve that relationship. Is it possible I was doing that before I even knew who my father really was?
"Ms. Jones. Ridley Jones." I heard a voice behind me and went cold inside. Over the past year, I had developed quite a fan club, in spite of my best efforts to keep myself out of everything other than my legal obligations involving Christian Luna's murder and the investigation surrounding Project Rescue.
Excerpted from Sliver of Truth © Copyright 2012 by Lisa Unger. Reprinted with permission by Three Rivers Press. All rights reserved.
Sliver of Truth: A Novel