Before Max's father could speak to me I had disconnected the phone and stood, mouth slack, and my mind completely blank. I was too bewildered to panic, too exhausted. For a minute I existed without identity, without a history in a world that was literally without rules. And then as if coming up for air, I thought one simple, elegant thought: I had gone mad. Insanity was the only explanation for what was happening to me. For how otherwise could established events, long over and secured in my memory, suddenly and so spectacularly re-arrange themselves? Or simply cease to be? It was as if I had stumbled into some sort of parallel universe. Nothing made sense anymore! I staggered back downstairs to the kitchen and sat looking at the room as if it was fake, a sort of facsimile of my life, an elaborate hoax. Then, without warning, I was hit by a terrible, visceral panic attack. Gasping for breath I sat down and closed my eyes tightly, trying to meditate, trying to calm myself. The crisis passed - leaving me drenched with sweat. Calmer, more centred, I eventually made myself some decaffeinated coffee and cleared the kitchen table completely. It was made from white glass, stylish in that late 1990s way glass things had been. I took a white board marker from my briefcase and started to draw on the milky surface. I started to draw carefully and slowly, wide sweeping mandalas, Jungian street maps of my inner turmoil. Firstly I drew what had happened to me, Max; our meeting in Hartford; the crisis with his family, his disappearance, the law suit with his father; his father's subsequent suicide, and then my departure from College. I left a wide blank space and then, on the far left of the table, I started to draw the recent events: the first dream, Max resplendent, the incident in the bedroom, the dvd of the abused youth tormented by the guard, my decision to seek out Samuels; I even put in poor Alex Whitehouse as a sort of rococo curl, a reluctant witness.
After my improvised work of art, I checked my notes, written after the first visitations and the first vivid dreamscapes. Then in the middle of the table I wrote out a series of questions. The activity calmed me. I felt I was engaging my rationality at last and that I could analyse and contain what was happening to me: that somehow I could put this external manifestation back into the box of my sub consciousness. But then suddenly I noticed a curious anomaly. In the first dream, when Max was alone in the shower, he had called me the wrong name. I stared at my notes in disbelief. Samuels had not commented on this, although I had given him copies of my dream diary. Turning in the shower, his wet muscled body side onto me, Max had called me Daniel. Why had I not noticed that before? Why hadn't my analyst? Or at least why had he not brought the matter to my attention?
Suddenly the door bell rang. It seemed incredibly loud, and so precarious was the state of my nerves that I swung around spilling my drink. The sound came again, a single elongated ring deafening in its intensity. For a while I felt like a criminal, someone hunted. I walked quietly into the hallway and towards the front door. It was solid oak, with a small spyglass in the middle panel. A high frosted fanlight let in natural light, but otherwise I crept up towards it without risk of being observed. I pressed my right eye to the peep hole and looked out, a brilliant white fisheye of snow and sky, and curved up on one side was a figure, a young man, gloved and coated, seemingly looking at his feet. I recognised him immediately as the youth near the café, the one I had spied after my first meeting with Samuels. Was this the guy who had called last night? Why hadn't he waited until this evening, or had Alex got the time wrong? I scrutinised the distorted figure. When he looked up I almost flinched away. His grey-blue eyes were very close, made pale and liquid by the snow light. He looked blankly at the door and half turned to leave. His black hair lay across his cheek and forehead, the white skin pinched with cold. He was even more attractive close up, and much more Max like; almost a sibling? Could it be Max, in some way? Would I recognise him after all this time? But how could he have not aged? And how was he almost in fact younger than when we first met? I looked closer. Through the open collar of his coat I noticed a broad, masculine neck, the Adams apple incised between two delicious tendons, like a fist of bone. He was more muscled than I had first thought on our first encounter. The youth turned, still loitering, checked his watch and then he lit up a cigarette.
I have always found youths smoking a massive turn on. The reasons seemed obscure, bizarre, like any fetish. In part it was the oral element obviously, seeing them insert the butts into their mouths, seeing them draw and take the hit, then cloud out the smoke. Perhaps it was more destructive and nihilistic; the sight of a fit youth poisoning their bodies, abusing themselves, drugging themselves. Or was it merely my fetid recollections of Max after a night of continuous abuse, inhaling a massive spliff; his eyes glassy, his anus gummy and polished, his thick veined cock across his stomach and his abs smeared with a snail trail of spent seed? I watched as the youth smoked, bizarrely tempted to masturbate, but just then, as before, he threw the half finished cigarette away. He looked again at the door, glanced up at the house, and then he turned and walked out of my field of vision. I waited, my pulse pounding in my throat and ears and after about five minutes, I opened the door and looked out. The light was blinding, revelatory: in the deep clean snow were a series of footprints, peppered about the doorstep, as if some form of predator had paced and snarled at my door. The cigarette but was still smouldering.
I closed the door carefully and returned to the kitchen. The table, covered in my artful graffiti looked exotic, dramatic but disturbing, like the scene of a crime. Suddenly I felt a deep stab of intense suspicion aimed at Samuels, something pointed but yet at the same time indistinct. For a moment my conviction that he was at the centre of some elaborate conspiracy gave me immense satisfaction. But I had approached him after the dreams started, after the break-in, and in some senses he was an unlikely guy for me too seek out as an analyst - he could not have anticipated it before hand? My paranoia collapsed as quickly as it had formed, like some dark twister, snaking through my mind, shattering my sanity, and then dissipating, dropping things at random. I picked up a marker and added `smoking youth' towards the left of my drawing. I walked back into the hall and called Samuels' office. He was with a client, so I left an urgent message with his secretary. Then I returned to my study and went through some old appointment diaries, finding a series of addresses for old colleagues in Hartford. Without the least hesitation I rang the first reliable contact I came across. I was informed that he had left years ago. The second one I was told had died. Finally I made contact with a woman called Lisa Gordon. Actually she had been a good friend to me in my faculty days, and had been helpful in avoiding any conflict of interests between myself and Max when it came to grading his work: a difficult job, and one that involved her in a lot of extra work. I was put through from the main switch board to her secretary. When I asked for Lisa by name, with all the professional assurance I could muster, I was passed straight on without any further questioning.
`Professor Gordon speaking.'
`Lisa, it's Julian Grey - `
There was the slightest pause, a moment of hesitation like a TV screen flickers or a radio crackles. `Julian Grey?' The voice was pregnant with expectation, tense: I could tell that I was still anonymous.
`Yes, yes Lisa - I'm sorry about the long silence -'
`Julian!' something had clicked, a recognition, a synaptic response over decades of time. `Julian! My god! How good to hear from you! Where are you?'
I babbled out the name of my institution, as if I had literally left Hartford a few days ago: great banks of undisclosed time hung between us like fog.
`What can I do for you! It's literally astounding to hear from you after all this time!' And then, like an echo, she seemed to sense the tone of my voice, or to measure the enormity of the years that lay between us. `Is everything alright?'
`Yes, yes - well, no actually. Things are a bit crazy here. This is profoundly selfish of me, calling you after all this time, but I need your help. It's about Max?'
There was another nanosecond of silence, a blankness. `Max?'
`Yeah - Max Lennox - the student who I had the affair with - I mean' I rubbed my eyes, wincing at the word, `I mean a relationship with -'
`Really? You had a relationship with a student? Good god - I had no idea - I don't think I knew? Did I?' There was a tone of intrigue, or perhaps of embarrassment in her voice, as if she had forgotten something vital. I stood leaning into the door frame looking at the phone. This was almost as bad as talking to Mrs Lennox. I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of my lungs. Light headed, I felt another sickening lurch of panic.
`Lisa, you have to remember this: you were instrumental in helping me deal with it at the Faculty level - and when he disappeared.'
`Disappeared? Good god - look - Julian, I have to go teach now, leave me a number and I can call you back as soon as I have finished!'
Would she? The sudden doubt was almost too much to bear. `Lisa, listen, can you do me a favour - can you access the records for Max Lennox. He graduated in 1983. Can you check what his records say?'
`Yeah, sure - I guess.' Her voice was uncertain. The data would be confidential, she might be worried about accessing it. Or was she conscious of something else? As with Samuels, there came a sudden, shocking fear of a conspiracy, of something utterly sinister.
`Ok, nothing confidential: just dates when he graduated. Can you confirm he took my classes?'
`Sure, I can do that!' her voice was relaxed now, but curious. `Ok, look I had better go - be good to chat after all this time - you can tell me why you took off like that, I mean - so suddenly, without any explanation!'
I couldn't speak. My mouth had sealed up. I prised my lips open like a diabetic. `Ok, I'll explain, promise. Call me when you can Lisa, I'd really appreciate it!' I clicked the phone off.
I looked again at the table top and then I walked up the stairs to a box room littered with accumulated rubbish. I was looking for anything now, any possible clue that I was sane, that my memories were real. I started to look in the same place where I had found the photographs, like an archaeologist returns to a rich seam, the site of earlier finds. Nothing came to light. My collection of memorabilia and junk seemed so random, of no intrinsic value. Then suddenly I came across a small collection of expired passports, held together by one large elastic band. Instinctively I snapped them open and found the one valid for the early 1980s, the period that had somehow become unhinged from my own experiences! I flicked through the embossed, stamped pages - and there, to my horror, was a visa to Italy. It was stamped and signed, and re-signed on exiting Rome in August 1983. So I had been there. The photographs - saturated in lurid Mediterranean light - were taken of me in Europe, during the exact time that Max vanished! But I had no recollection of it at all. I recalled the dream - Max naked on the beach - the reference to Capri. The passport in my hand had to be of someone else! I flicked through to the photograph: and again, to my horror, a young, beefier version of myself glowered out at me. Again a sudden, intense sensation of vertigo - the room and ground snatched away from me. What did this mean? What could it all mean?
I sat upstairs holding the passport for about an hour, maybe longer. The central heating had long gone off, and despite the intense sunlight, the winter snow chilled the floors. I felt the cold seeping into my bones. I heard the phone ring several times, but it was someone else's, ringing in another time. Eventually at some nameless hour I answered it. It was Samuels.
`Julian - I've been trying to return your calls all day! Are you alright?'
`No, no - listen - we have to meet tonight.'
`Of course, I can come around now if you want - I've just got to write up some case notes - say an hour?'
I thought of the table downstairs, the elaborate diagram like the pictorial representation of an open heart bypass procedure: my heart.
`Yes, ok - that would be really helpful - something terrible has happened!'
`Oh god - are you safe? Are you sure you don't want me to come immediately?'
`No - no - an hour would be fine.' I could hear a slight bleep on the line, a call waiting.
`Right, Julian - I'll see you in an hour.' Samuels rang off and immediately my phone rang again. It was Lisa.
`Julian, I've been trying to get hold of you for an hour!'
My relief washed over me. I started babbling some response, and then a mood of anxiety set in as I noticed her tone. `Listen, Julian: we don't actually have much on this Max guy, I mean partly because the records were all hardcopy then and they are stored now in the central archives. I can tell you that Max did one of your classes - Introduction to Modern Psychology I - and did rather badly in it! He left before graduation, along with another student also in your class. I think they went to California and took their credits with them.'
`Ok -' The information was utterly inane. `Lisa, can you remember the case of Max's disappearance, in Italy, and the death of his father?'
Again a gaunt silence hissed in my ear. `I'm sorry, Julian, I can't really. He is an attractive looking kid - you had an affair with him?'
`Yes.' but a voice inside my head simply said, quietly and deliberately, `did I?'
`Gosh. Ok. That's all I can find on him, sorry - you want to get back in touch or something?'
I felt sick with despair. `No, well not exactly. Lisa, the family - the father tried to sue me over Max's disappearance in Italy, can you remember - that was why I had to leave - the College wanted me to go! Max's father was Italian.' My voice was sliding all over the place as if I was close to tears.
`Julian -' the tone in Lisa's voice had changed very slightly again. It was guarded now, cautious, as if she had suddenly realised she was talking to a mad man. `Julian, you left without any explanation - the College authorities were as mystified as your friends were. If Max was the reason you left, no one knew at the time. And I certainly can't recall any law suit. And Lennox is not an Italian name, is it - I mean - it's a Scottish Catholic name, although I guess there might be an Italian connection?'
`Oh my god!' I had not intended to say that - I had not intended to say anything.
`Lisa - what was the name of the boy who left with Max? Who dropped out of my class at the same time?
`Could you find it for me?'
There was another pause and then a sound of papers. `Yeah, sure - hold it' She must have had the file on her lap, or across her desk. `Yeah - Daniel Ciano. A Daniel Ciano?'
Cold fingers of panic curled around my throat and chest. The name stirred up something, something shocking. The name dislodged some deep secret. I had an intense vision of a youth shaved and oiled, bound, packed in a crate. His anus had been plugged and a tight ball gag fitted to his mouth. He had been branded with a serial mark on his cheek. I suddenly and without warning screamed.