Chapter 1 The Momentous Multitudes (or, Gird Thy Silly, Futile Selves) Interrogation Room #3 Bruno Victor Benucci III & Sergeant S. Mendes December 19 // 3:12 p.m.
Consider this: billions of people in the world, each with billions of I ams
. I am a quiet observer, a champion wallflower. I am a lover of art, the Mets, the memory of Dad. I represent approximately one seven-billionth of the population; these are my momentous multitudes, and that’s just for starters.
“It begins with my friends.”
“My story,” I say.
Only that’s not quite right. I have to go back further than that, before we were friends, back when it was just . . .
. . .
Okay, got it.
“I’ve fallen in love something like a thousand times.”
Mendes smiles a little, nudges the digital recorder closer. “I’m sorry—you said . . . you’ve fallen in love?”
“A thousand times,” I say, running both hands through my hair.
I used to think love was bound by numbers: first kisses, second dances, infinite heartbreaks. I used to think numbers outlasted the love itself, surviving in the dark corners of the demolished heart. I used to think love was heavy and hard.
I don’t think those things anymore.
“I am a Super Racehorse.”
“You’re a what
?” asks Mendes, her eyes at once tough and tired.
“Nothing. Where’s your uniform?”
She wears a tweed skirt with a fitted jacket and flowy blouse. I quietly observe her brown eyes, very intense, and—were it not for the baggy pillows, and the crow’s feet framing her features like facial parentheses—quite pretty. I quietly observe the slight creases on her hands and neck, indicative of premature aging. I quietly observe the absence of a wedding ring. I quietly observe her dark hair, shoulder-length with just a lingering shadow of shape and style.
Parenthetical, slight, absence, lingering: the momentous multitudes of Mendes, it seems, are found in the hushed footnote.
“Technically, I’m off duty,” she says. “Plus, I’m a sergeant, so I don’t always have to wear a uniform.”
“So you’re the one in charge, right?”
“I report to Lieutenant Bell, but this is my case if that’s what you’re asking.”
I reach under my chair, pull my Visine out of the front pocket of my backpack, and apply a quick drop in each eye.
“Victor, you’ve been missing eight days. Then this morning you and”—she shuffles through papers until finding the one she’s looking for—“Madeline Falco march in here, practically holding hands with Mbemba Bahizire Kabongo, aka Baz, the primary suspect in our murder investigation.”
“I wasn’t holding hands with Baz. And he’s no murderer.”
“You don’t think so?”
“I know so.”
Mendes gives me a pity-smile, the kind of smile that frowns. “He just turned himself in, Vic. That, plus his DNA is on the murder weapon. We have more than enough to put Kabongo behind bars for a very long time. What I’m hoping you might shed some light on is how you go from running out the front door of your own home eight days ago, to walking in here this morning. You said you have a story to tell. So tell it.”
This morning’s memory is fresh, Baz’s voice ingrained in my brain. Diversion tactics, Vic. They will need time. And we must give it to them.
“Every girl who wears eyeliner,” I say.
. . .
. . .
Sergeant Mendes squints. “What?”
“Every girl who plays an instrument, except—maybe not bassoon.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t unders—”
“Every girl who wears old Nikes. Every girl who draws on them. Every girl who shrugs or bakes or reads.” Tell them about all the girls you thought you loved, the ones from before.
I smile on the inside, the only place I can. “Every girl who rides a bike.”
I pull out my handkerchief and dab the drool from the corner of my mouth. Dad called it my “leaky mug.” I used to hate that. Now I miss it.
Sometimes . . . yes, I think I miss the hated things most.
Mendes leans back in her chair. “Shortly after you left, your mom reported you missing. I’ve been in your room, Vic. It’s all Whitman and Salinger and Matisse. You’re smart. And kind of a nerd, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is, you’re no hard-ass. So why are you acting like one?”
Under the metal table, I pick at the fabric of my KOA wristband. “‘I am large, I contain multitudes
Mendes picks up: “‘I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab. Who has done his day’s work? Who will soonest be through with his supper? Who wishes to walk with me?
. . .
I try to hide my shock, but I can’t be sure my eyes didn’t just give me away.
“Whitman balanced out the criminal justice classes,” says Mendes. “You know what the next line is, don’t you?”
I don’t. So I say nothing at all.
“‘Will you speak before I am gone?
’” she says quietly. “‘Will you prove already too late?
. . .
“Due respect, Miss Mendes. You don’t know me.”
She looks back at the file in front of her. “Bruno Victor Benucci III, sixteen, son of Doris Jacoby Benucci and the late Bruno Benucci Jr., deceased two years. Only child. Five-foot-six. Dark hair. Suffers from the rare Moebius syndrome. Obsession with abstract art—”
“Do you know what that is?”
“Oh, I’ve had my share of Picasso-obsessed crooks, lemme tell you, it’s no picnic.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know what you meant.” Mendes flips the file shut. “And yeah, I did some research. Moebius is a rare neurological disorder affecting the sixth and seventh cranial nerves, present from birth, causing facial paralysis. I understand it’s been difficult for you.”
Mendes’s tone suggests a hint of self-satisfaction, as if she’s been sitting on this definition, just waiting for me to ask if she knew what was wrong with my face. I’ve had Moebius syndrome my whole life, and here is what I’ve learned: the only people arrogant enough to use the words I understand are the ones who can’t possibly understand. People who truly get it never say much of anything.
“You did some research,” I say, barely above a whisper.
“So you know what it feels like to have sand shoved up your eyelids.”
. . .
“That’s what it’s like sometimes, not being able to blink,” I say. “Dry eye doesn’t begin to describe it. More like desert eye.”
“Did your research offer insight into the night terrors that come from sleeping with your eyes half shut? Or how drinking from a cup feels about as possible as lassoing the moon? Or how the best I can hope for is that kids just leave me alone? Or how certain teachers slow down when talking to me because they assume I’m stupid?”
Mendes shifts uncomfortably in her chair.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I say. “I’m not complaining. Lots of people with Moebius have it worse than me. I used to wish I was someone else, but then . . .”
But then Dad introduced me to Henri Matisse, an artist who believed each face had its own rhythm. Matisse looked for what he called “particular asymmetry” in his portraits. I liked that. I wondered about the rhythm of my own face, and about my particular asymmetry. I told Dad this once. He said there was beauty in my asymmetry. This made me feel better. Not un-alone, just less alone.
Accompanied by art, at least.
“But then . . . ?” says Mendes.
I almost forgot I’d started a sentence. “Nothing.”
“Vic, I know you’ve had it tough.”
I point both index fingers at my unflinching face. “You mean my . . . ‘affliction’?”
“I never used the word afflicted
“Oh right. Suffers from
. You’re a humanitarian.”
Underneath my KOA wristband, I feel my tiny paths going nowhere. My fingers have always been a force to be reckoned with, scratching and clawing and pinching. The wristband is an effective reminder, but it’s no match for my fingers, with their tiny little fingerbrains, determined to test my pain threshold.
I ask, “You ever hear that a person has to go through fire to become who they’re meant to be?”
Mendes sips her coffee, nods. “Sure.”
“I’ve always wanted to be strong, Miss Mendes. I just wish there wasn’t so much fire.”
. . .
“Victor.” It’s a whisper, barely even there. Mendes leans in, her entire presence shifting from defense to offense. “Vic, look at me.”
“Look at me,” she repeats.
“Did Baz Kabongo put you up to this?” She nods slowly. “It’s okay. He did, right?”
“Let me tell you what I think happened,” she says. “Kabongo gets nervous, sees his face posted all over town, decides he’s done hiding. He talks you and your girlfriend into lying to us, saying you were in places you weren’t, at times you weren’t, with people you weren’t. He knows his only chance is an alibi, or an eyewitness saying someone else did it. And who better than two innocent kids? Am I warm?”
I say nothing. I am an absolute ace at nonverbals, and every minute that passes is a win, a victory no matter how small.
“I’m pretty good at my job,” she continues, “and while I don’t know where you were on the night of December seventeenth, I know where you weren’t. You weren’t in that house. You didn’t see that pool of blood. You didn’t see that man’s eyes go out, Victor. You know how I know this is true? If you’d seen all that, there’s no way in hell you’d be sitting in that chair right now, dicking around with me. You’d piss your pants, is what you’d do. You’d be fucking terrified.”
. . .
. . .
Those fingerbrains are ruthless animals, munching on my multitudes.
“Kabongo is counting on you to lie, Vic. But do you know what he forgot? He forgot about Matisse. He forgot about Whitman. He forgot about art. And you know what all good art has in common, right? Honesty. It’s the part of you that knows what’s what. And that’s the part that’s gonna tell me the truth.”
I count to ten in my head, where Baz’s voice plays over and over like a scratched record. Let them think what they want. But do not lie.
“We’ll protect you,” says Mendes. “You don’t have to be afraid. Just tell me what happened.” Diversion tactics, Vic. They will need time. And we must give it to them.
. . .
. . .
I lean in to the digital recorder and clear my throat. “Every girl who drinks tea.”
Mendes calmly shuts the file. “All right, we’re done here.”
“Every girl who eats raspberry scones.”
She scoots her chair out from under the table, stands with an air of finality, and speaks loud and clear. “Interview between Bruno Victor Benucci III and Sergeant Sarah Mendes terminated at three twenty-eight p.m.” She pushes stop, grabs her coffee and folder off the table, and heads for the door. “Your mom should be here soon to pick you up. In the meantime, feel free to get coffee down the hall.” She shakes her head, opens the door, and mumbles, “Fucking raspberry scones.”
The Hackensack Police Department, Interrogation Room Three, dissolves into the Maywood Orchard, Greenhouse Eleven. I imagine: Baz Kabongo, with his borderline paternal instincts, and sleeve of tattoos; audacious Coco, loyal to the end; Zuz Kabongo, snapping, dancing in place; and I imagine Mad. I remember that moment—my moment of heartbreaking clarity when the clouds parted, and I saw everything as if I’d never seen anything at all. The truth is, I didn’t know what love was until I saw it sitting in a greenhouse, unfolding like a map before me, revealing its many uncharted territories.
As Sergeant Mendes opens the door to leave, I pull my hand from under the table, raise it up until the wristband is at eye level, admire those three block letters, white against the black fabric: KOA.
Walt Whitman was right. We do contain multitudes. Most are hard and heavy, and what a headache. But some multitudes are wondrous.
Like this one . . .
I am a Kid of Appetite.
“I was in that house, Miss Mendes.” I focus on the snow-white K
as the blurry image of Mendes freezes in the doorframe. She does not turn around.
“I was there,” I say. “I saw his eyes go out.”
Copyright © 2016 by David Arnold. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.