In the darkness, it isn’t York’s voice he hears, but that of Fiona, sounding as matter-of-fact as she had while playing quizmaster.
Concussion, she says, is the lesser relation of traumatic brain injuries – concurrent with headaches, nausea and trouble staying awake. Zach would have thanked her if she wasn’t just telling him what he already knew.
He knows she’s not really there, anyway; there is no way a bed this comfy could belong to Greenvale General. He is conscious of the high thread count and the routine plumping of the pillows beneath his head. Pillows plural. Ushah had rarely been so generous.
He has his suspicions, and they are confirmed when someone talks to him – authentically this time, up close and personal. The door clicks, followed by a source of heat at his bedside. His living visitor is Harry Stewart’s aide; it seems Zach will be serving out the remainder of his grief under the old man’s very literal surveillance.
Because Zach can hardly move, much as he’d like to. It is a struggle just to open his eyes when Tillotson states his name.
“Ah,” Michael says. He is a silhouette through murky water. “I did suspect you might wake up today.”
Zach thinks Michael might be holding something, but he can’t make it out to be sure. He sees a smudge of bright-sparkling white against the shades of brown and tan that make up Michael.
“Why’s that?” Zach asks. Predictably, it hurts to talk.
“This is the first bout of rain we’ve had for the better part of a week.”
Zach twitches his mouth in some approximation of a frown. It’s the best he can manage without aggravating the dormant brattish ache sitting precariously inside his skull, just waiting for an excuse to throw a tantrum up there.
He can’t hear any rain. The room Stewart gave him must be somewhere in the bowels of this place, a solitary wellness retreat just for him.
“Is that how long I was sleeping? A week?”
“Not quite. You’ve been in and out, but Doctor Johnson put it down to exhaustion.”
“Your delivery isn’t especially poetic today.”
Michael pauses. “Now is not the time for whimsy.”
“Ushah came to see me? Here?” Zach croaks, only to feel ashamed that it takes him a moment to place why he has a sudden sense of dread. “Who else came here?”
This time, Michael doesn’t miss a beat. “No one. Forrest Kaysen is most certainly dead.”
“So you know what happened.”
“In part. Mister Stewart was not liberal with the details, but it is hardly my concern.” Again, Michael delays; Zach can make out enough of him now to see the kid gingerly bow his head. “I am terribly sorry for your loss.”
No, Zach muses; don’t want to think about that. Can’t think about that. Not yet.
Instead he says, “What are you holding?”
“Stew.” As if it’s necessary, Michael lifts the white smudge to give Zach a better look. It’s a bowl, fine china. “Do you have any other questions, or would you like to eat something?”
When Zach’s mouth twitches again, it’s meant to be a smile. He has never been one to turn down food – especially a free lunch – especially something guaranteed to be fancy. Yet the decision is not presently his.
“I’d love to, but I don’t think I could currently hold so much as a spoon.”
“I can feed you,” Michael says, sounding mildly baffled at having to clarify to begin with. Well – the kid is a carer. Zach can only imagine Stewart sent him here to play the classics.
“With all due respect, I’d rather you didn’t.” Zach sends his fingers an experimental order: do something. He counts it as a victory when they tap against the duvet. “I want to see if I can manage it myself. I have to.”
“Very well,” Michael says. “I shall leave the bowl on the bedside table.”
“Thank you,” Zach says, with a dose of finality. His resolve wavers slightly when his blur of a benefactor turns to leave, and he calls out in haste: “Michael.”
Halfway through a shimmering rectangle that Zach presumes is the door, Michael stops. “Should you change your mind, simply call for me.”
“Thank you,” Zach says again, meeker than before. Though he is smarting, he is also acutely aware of how hungry he is; he’s mostly grateful that Michael didn’t need Zach to spell it out. Michael must speak the language of stubborn invalids fluently at this point.
He lets his eyes close, intending to rest them for just a moment. That moment extends, into darkness, into voices that aren’t there again. He hears them like he's listening to a radio several rooms over, tuned midway between two stations: static and syllables. A single sentence recurs, the only one that’s coherent, cropping up at varying intervals to preach the good word.
Forrest Kaysen is most certainly dead. Forrest Kaysen is most certainly dead.
When Zach wakes next, he can still barely see anything, but that’s because it’s night outside. The room has sprouted windows - or maybe it had windows before, he simply didn't care to acknowledge them. Either option seems plausible when his world hasn't afforded him the benefit of consistent architecture recently.
Though the stew by the bedside has cooled, now, it’s a blessing that he has the strength to sit up and reach for it.
He wonders, who cooked it? Nick Cormack, perhaps, with the special ingredient being chef’s spit? Or did Michael make it, apportioned from whatever mushier rendition he served Harry today?
If Zach learnt anything concrete in Greenvale, it’s who could cook and who could not. He pictures mac and cheese that should've been stew as he takes a fork to the bowl.
He picks out the carrot slices, and cold strips of meat. They’re still good.
On principle, Zach supposes he should be cross with Harry for withholding visitors – but he doesn’t have the fight in him to complain, nor does he particularly mind. He has no interest in debriefing the press, and it is a relief to cut Greenvale off for a while. They can give him nothing except their pity, and he’d rather spare everyone involved the hassle.
While he’s spending more time awake now, he keeps no schedule. There is nothing to do but lie in bed, and it doesn’t really matter if his eyes are open or closed in the meantime.
The last time he felt like this – the last time he wanted to be in bed and nowhere else – he was six years old and missing mommy. Back then, he found a place to sleep for as long as he wanted, and York came in to hold the line.
York isn’t here now.
Harry’s aide drops in often instead, but it’s not quite the same. For one, Michael never bothers him; it's like Michael is programmed to tidy the room, deliver food, adjust curtains when Zach is sleeping.
Zach figures he'll just have to bother the kid first.
“May I make a request?” Zach says, as Michael is collecting plates. They are piled up from lunch: one had held pie, the other fresh berries.
Michael doesn’t look over as he responds. “I shall fetch all you require. Aspirin, cigarettes, or new attire?"
“None of the above,” Zach says. “I want local newspapers. Editions from the past couple of weeks would be preferable, if you have any.”
Now Michael does look at him. Zach has never seen him play the role of an open book, but there is something akin to disapproval in how unwaveringly Michael stares.
“That cannot be done, I fear. It would not be a good idea.”
“Because Emily is front-page news,” Zach says, and it doesn’t take an FBI profiler to work out he’s hit the nail on the head when Michael looks away. “Please. I know you’ll have your reservations, but that’s exactly why I want them.”
“I have no personal feelings on the matter this way or that. Mister Stewart thinks—”
“I can guess what he thinks. He thinks it’ll upset me, push back my recovery.”
Michael draws himself upright, supporting the dishes in the crook of one arm. His face betrays nothing, too well-trained to make that mistake a second time.
“He’ll see to it you convalesce. He shall not risk anything less.”
Zach never thought he minded Michael's poetic inclinations before, but they suddenly have the power to leave him positively dismayed. Perhaps it’s because the kid already identified them as a thing of whimsy. Zach’s vision might not have cleared up after all, because he’s struggling to see the humour of the situation.
“But Harry’s not the one with healing hands, is he? The only one coming to see me is you. You don’t have to tell him.”
The futility of that argument dawns on Zach the moment he finishes saying it. Whatever the true nature of their relationship is (and Zach thinks he has some idea, an inkling drawn from context clues), Michael yields to Stewart with perfect devotion.
There will be no bargaining here. There is nothing he needs that Zach could offer him.
“All right,” Zach says, as Michael eyes him carefully. “Tell me one thing, at least. Please. I want to know what they’re saying about how she died.”
“I suspect you already know the answer to that.” Michael’s gaze drifts to the window, past Zach, to the palatial grounds beyond. “Officially, she is George Woodman’s final victim.”
Zach scoffs before Michael can finish speaking. He’d considered the possibility, yes, but he’s angrier than he thought he would be to receive confirmation. Emily deserved better than that, one final indignity after death. George would never have been able to best her.
“I am… sorry, Mister Francis Zach Morgan,” Michael goes on, with a cursory bow of his head. He's attuned to not just the ailing, it seems, but to men of righteous indignation. “I sincerely wish I could fulfil your request.”
It’s okay, Zach thinks, with York in mind; I get it. Of course I get it.
But he doesn’t say it, and Michael leaves soon after.
The mortal relief of surviving Forrest Kaysen wasn’t enough to get Zach out of bed, but it seems simple spite will do the trick. Zach wakes up early the next morning, and the watery-weak sunlight bothers him almost as much as the heavy duvet right out of a five-star resort.
He pushes the blankets back with relish and swings his legs over the edge of the mattress with more determination than he's deployed for some time. He hasn't needed it when the farthest he’s ventured is to the bathroom, to sway under lukewarm water or half-heartedly scrape at his stubble.
It occurs to him, as he meanders down an unnecessarily long corridor, that he doesn’t really know the daily routine of his reclusive hosts. He only knows about their trips to the diner due to York opportunely bearing witness. Nevertheless, he’s a little surprised to find Harry already awake, dressed and in the dining room, facing the door like he's been waiting for Zach to make an appearance.
“You’re up early,” Harry says, digital filter stripping his tone of any trace of irony. “I can send for breakfast, if you like.”
“Would Michael be the one preparing it?”
“Then no, thank you. He’s done enough for me as it is.”
“He doesn’t mind,” Harry says, with the faint quirk of a brow. He nearly looks amused. “In fact, I would go so far as to say he feels he owes you a debt of gratitude.”
Zach is silent as he makes his way to Harry’s table, not trusting himself to walk and talk at the same time. His head no longer hurts; his wooziness comes from inertia, from being on his back for too long with nothing bar regrets to mull over.
When he gets to his destination, he lowers himself gingerly into the seat opposite Harry and says: “Why?”
“What do you mean, why? You saved our town. You saved us.”
“Assume that’s even remotely true. We both know I didn’t just do it for the town.”
“Yes, well.” There is a gleam in Harry’s eye. “Your reasons hardly matter to the people alive today who would have died otherwise.”
“They matter to me,” Zach says. He looks down at the tablecloth, pale and crisp like so much of the mansion’s interior. “I couldn’t save the two people I wanted to save. And plenty of others died on my watch even before that.”
“I shall assume, if one of those people to whom you refer is Emily, then the other must be York.”
It takes so much to startle Zach these days that he's marginally impressed by Harry’s achievement. His vision flickers back up to Harry, finding the old man’s face to be just as indecipherable as that of his young aide. It’s no miracle that they function so seamlessly as a unit. Like Zach had with York.
“I did wonder,” Zach says, quietly, “if that was really you, in the White Room.”
Harry makes a noise of his own accord, a throaty hum that rattles and splutters. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re as transparent as ever, Harry. Just tell me this – have you seen them?”
“Have you seen either of them since? Have you gone back there? I’ve tried, tossing and turning with my eyes scrunched up for hours, but…” Zach trails off, fixing his focus to his hands. There is a half-healed cut on the ridge of his thumb that he hadn’t noticed before. “I can’t get back.”
“Forgive me if this sounds callous, but that might be for the best,” Harry says. “You have tormented yourself enough.”
“If you’re going to tell me that I need to let go, I’m well aware,” Zach replies, meeting Harry’s gaze again. “But I can’t do that until I know for sure they’re both okay. That I did enough for them on my end.”
“They’ll find a way to tell you. Until then, know that I believe you did.”
“Well, I haven’t set the record straight. Michael told me that people think George killed Emily.” When Harry begins to type, Zach cuts him off to add, “Don’t be angry with Michael. If he hadn’t said anything, I would’ve marched into town to find out – and probably injured myself in the process.”
Harry tightens his jaw like he wants to say something, but his hand remains motionless against his keyboard. Zach figures out in seconds why Harry is reluctant to respond: there is nothing sitting on the tablecloth, no dishes nor breakfast paraphernalia. Michael will likely walk in soon to feed his employer, and despite Michael’s constant hovering, Zach hasn’t been able to ascertain what the kid knows and how much.
That’s Harry’s duty to disclose, not Zach’s. For all his reservations about the lumber magnate, he won’t disrespect his host by intruding on private affairs.
“Just tell me one thing,” Zach says. “George. Was he – that is, were you—”
It’s Harry’s turn to interrupt. “That is a story for another time, Mister Morgan. And that time will be soon, but not now.”
As if on cue, a lock clicks open from across the dining room. It echoes splendidly for such a small noise, a sparse sign of life in the oppressively large house. After he and York's first visit, Zach had assumed the mansion would at least contain some other live-in staff; his current spell as a long-term guest disabused him of that notion.
“Mister Francis Zach Morgan,” says Michael’s voice.
Zach looks over just in time to catch raw surprise on his face, eyes wide and lips parted. There is something theoretically satisfying about seeing someone so composed get rattled, like witnessing the first ripening of the forbidden fruit. Zach would enjoy it more if he hadn’t already had enough forbidden fruit lately to make him sick.
“Good morning, Michael.”
“You are up and out of bed,” Michael says, and he still sounds alarmed. “Tell me, sir, how is your head?”
Zach checks with Harry before he answers. He sees only mild trepidation in the old man’s grimace.
“Clearer,” he says.
Of the two of them, York had always been the snappier dresser. He was no fashion obsessive, but he invested more time than Zach would have liked in recreating whatever outfits were splashed across red-carpet coverage. Even at home, he lounged around in suits when Zach would have been just fine with some comfortable sweats.
So he learns something about himself when he realises he’s grown tired of wearing whatever sets of guest pyjamas Michael lays out for him every other day. They’re always expensive; they reside in that sweet spot between loose and snug, and they’re all some variation of Oxford blue. But they’re a reminder that he is less of an agent and more of a patient, these days.
He is dressed in those pricey pyjamas, smoking on the front steps of the mansion, when Michael comes to him unexpectedly, brandishing an umbrella despite the lack of drizzle beyond the porch. It’s cloudy overhead. Perhaps it’s forecast to rain later on.
“Are you going into town?” Zach says, and he realises he’s somewhat taken aback. He can’t remember ever seeing Michael nor Harry in Greenvale when the weather threatened to be less than perfect.
“Indeed,” Michael says, curtly, tucking his umbrella beneath his arm. His gaze shifts between Zach and the smouldering cigarette. “You’re smoking.”
Zach feels slightly embarrassed, because he must seem terribly ungrateful. Michael has been feeding him, keeping his room clean and medication regular, only for Zach to start burning his own lungs at the first opportunity.
“I’m sorry,” Zach says mildly.
“I hardly think remorse applies. I’m thinking nothing anywise.”
“I know exactly what you’re thinking, but I’m not smoking because I had some kind of craving. I haven’t wanted a cigarette since… Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever felt a need for them in the same way York does. But I just thought — never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
After closing the door behind them, Michael stands motionless beside Zach, upright and planted in place, looking straight ahead. Enough time passes that Zach doesn’t expect him to speak, but then he does.
“You longed to feel a connection again, even if you could only do so by retracing his steps. I understand completely the importance of rituals.”
In spite of himself, Zach smiles, lopsided and restrained. Michael plays the role of overbearing manservant with such Oscar-worthy finesse that Zach nearly forgot he was human.
“I’m relieved to hear you say that.” Zach takes another long drag, barley and needles hitting the back of his throat. “Forgive me for being presumptuous.”
“Relief is unnecessary, and apologies too. I have no desire to pass judgement on you.”
“Harry said something to that effect. You don’t owe me anything, though.” Zach twists his mouth to one side, to direct the smoky exhale away from Michael. The urge to complete the cigarette is gone, so he stubs it out against the marble arch flanking them. “Although, could I abuse your kindness a little more?”
Michael turns his head, regarding Zach with only mild interest.
“Please don’t tell Harry about all this. I get the impression he thinks I should be… moving forward, not looking back.”
“He does,” Michael concedes, and Zach finds his veracity surprising.
It can't possibly be an act of rebellion; Harry must want his thoughts known. Never one to do his own dirty work, is he? Zach meant it when he decided to pay his host his dues in respect, but if he can’t push any boundaries, he can at least walk right up to them.
“What about you?” he says, cautiously. “Are you of the same belief?”
For good measure, he gestures in Michael’s direction. His hand drifts from indicating Michael’s head to his feet, and he seems to instil a degree of tension in his companion’s body as he goes. At least, Michael tips back his head enough to look both guarded and vulnerable, his swallowing throat straining against his perfectly-pressed collar.
“I question why you’re asking me. You know we rarely disagree.”
“That implies you have an occasional difference of opinion. Maybe you have one now.”
“My opinion matters not,” Michael says, weighing up his words, “but you survived a heinous crime. One that cannot be forgot – so I’d be patient; take your time.”
Since meeting Harry and his aide, Zach had thought the biggest mystery surrounding them was their connection to the town, to George, their constant need to undermine him and run their own operations. It occurs to Zach that he missed a mark before, and so did York; there is mystery in what they are to each other as an entity.
If Harry is the farce that comes after tragedy, Michael must be the first part. A young man chained to a throwback financier is a melancholy existence on paper.
“Do you speak from experience?” Zach asks.
Michael remains tense, expressionless. He adjusts the umbrella still pinned to his side.
“I have errands to run, Mister Francis Zach Morgan, and they are time-sensitive. Please be mindful of Mister Stewart.”
That’s right; the umbrella. Zach had been meaning to ask about it. He figures it’s enough to simply point at it, and Michael already has an answer prepared.
“Thanks to your efforts, I am learning to be less afraid.”
Zach is too tired to smile properly – either that, or his reserves of optimistic thinking are still too severely depleted. But he finds himself compelled to flash another half-smile, not unkindly.
They weren’t my efforts, not really. It was mostly York.
He tucks the open carton of cigarettes back into his shirt pocket, feeling the angular press of it through his cotton pyjamas, cool and hard. He turns to go back inside and leave Michael to his work, but Michael calls after him.
“Is there anything you’d like me to fetch for you?”
Zach hesitates, one hand on the doorknob. It's cold to the touch, just as angular; everything in this place is.
“Come to mention it, yes. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you swing by my room at the Great Deer Yard Hotel?” Zach casts a glance over his shoulder, finding no hint of resistance on Michael’s face. He'd already figured his hosts would've got their hands on everything: his gun, his badge, his hotel key. “I have some clothes there. I’d like to start wearing them again.”
“Have you not liked the nightwear I have sent you?”
“No, it’s not like that at all. They’ve been extremely nice, Michael, but if I don’t get out of them soon, I'm worried I never will.”
Michael does something startling: he smiles. It isn’t remotely sincere and doesn’t reach his eyes, but it's good enough. An attempt has been made.
“Very well,” he says, and then he’s gone.
Harry spills his guts not long after, on a clear day that flirts with being just about sunny, and Zach is glad of the fact he got his suits back in time. It would be borderline savagery to hear an old man recount a lifetime’s woes without proper pants on.
None of it comes as breaking news, though Zach isn’t quite sure why he knew about all the skeletons in the Woodman family closet without having to see them strung up in front of him. Maybe York figured it out, always seeing the world from above, a crow flying in straight lines.
Or maybe Zach had just instinctively seen something of Harry in George, in their self-assured stewardship of Greenvale, their unwavering certainty that they both knew what was best for the place: like father, like son.
Once Harry is done telling all, Zach wonders if it would be impolite not to ask any further questions. He isn’t disinterested, exactly; just – wary. He has walked blindly through enough foreboding doors to know that what lies behind this one can’t be any good, not for Greenvale and certainly not for Harry.
Still, it seems like Harry has done all his moving on already, speaking frankly of his shortcomings as though acknowledging them is penance enough. Zach can’t decide if the old man deserves the peace or not.
“I imagine you want to spend some time in town before returning to the city.”
“That’s the plan,” Zach says, smoothing down his tie. Michael brought him the contents of his entire suitcase, but he keeps gravitating to the red one, York’s colour of choice. “I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye.”
“But you will be leaving.”
Zach breaks away from the painting of the woodland women long enough to shoot the tycoon an inquisitive glance.
“You sound eager to see the back of me, Harry.”
“Nothing gets past you, does it?” Harry emits a chuff as a substitute for laughter. “But my boy, please don’t take it personally. There is nothing for you here except places to brood.”
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” Zach says, evenly. “Greenvale can’t hold many happy memories for you either.”
It is far easier to render Harry speechless when his aide isn't around to fill in the blanks with theatre. The ensuing silence is a comfortable one, a snatch of time for Zach to ponder red dresses and branches, each leaf on the canvas painted to be unique.
“There are some,” Harry says, finally. “Even if there weren’t, I owe it to this town to endure. I am paying for my debts with my life.”
Zach turns his head to look at Harry properly. “Don’t I owe this town a debt as well?”
“Not in the slightest. You should go forth and live, Zach – that is the only way you can truly honour the dead.”
Considering all the trouble he’s been, a tricky customer from the start of the case to its bitter end, Zach is loath to admit that Harry might have a point.
Michael drives him back in to town the next day, and Zach dismisses the kid before they get there.
It would be a hell of a lot easier to leave Greenvale in his rear-view mirror if its people weren’t so preposterously kind. Zach finds that Polly has been keeping his room at the hotel immaculate, with the mini fridge well stocked and fresh sheets on the bed. They’re not as remarkable as the sheets Harry had provided, yet Zach’s first night’s sleep outside of the Stewart mansion is one of the best he’s had in years.
But it’s the well-wishing that gets to him. Polly hands him a stack of envelopes over breakfast, and he finds cards inside them, all cheap and poorly printed. He receives a few of the same design, too; he supposes the entire town gets their stationery from the same aisle at the Milk Barn.
Usually, the FBI isn’t best liked in small towns like these. Zach would have expected poison-pen letters before ever daring to imagine he might receive Get Well Soons, like he’s some well-loved tourist and not just a badge.
Rather, York was. It was York they liked.
One card in the bunch offers the sender's condolences – With Deepest Sympathy, sending love from the Ingrams. It’s allegedly signed by both Laura and Keith, but Zach deduces from the looped, flowery handwriting that Keith could never have authored something so delicate. The penmanship is light, the nib barely touching paper, as if Lily wasn't sure she'd be doing more harm than good.
It’s the thought that counts.
When he piles up the cards to store them in his suitcase, Zach puts that one to the bottom of the pile.
Now that Zach is able to walk again without tumbling over, he promptly begins to drive everywhere.
It’s a necessity in Greenvale; everything is so far apart, the space between each settlement defying the town’s tight-knit sense of community. On foot, he could be walking for miles without ever seeing a living soul. The leafy scenic routes are best enjoyed with gasoline.
Still, even in the car, he’s finding it harder to locate people who are alive.
The Woodman house is a crime scene under Bureau jurisdiction, as is Thomas’s apartment – though as far as Zach can tell, they have done very little with regards to clearing them out. But he’s not being kept in the loop. Officially, he is taking a leave of illness.
And Carol's bar – the aptly-named Galaxy of Terror, a movie reference that York had been delighted by enough to overlook its insides – is closed for business indefinitely. Nobody is singing there, nor are there lights shining through the windows at night.
He drives past Emily’s house. He drives past it again, and again. Nobody is home.
By the time Zach calls in on the Cormacks at work, it’s been a month since Nick’s release.
The cantankerous chef has been tirelessly rebuilding his life while Zach was killing time, and it shows; the restaurant is cleaner now, devoid of clutter and raggedy net curtains that had previously drooped over the windows.
While she’s pouring him a cup of coffee, Olivia tells him it's because they wanted to restore the place, her and Nick. To start again on the thing they built together. It's a clumsy way of letting Zach know that his meddling wasn’t enough to break their marriage, but Zach takes the L with the warmest smile he can muster. It’s been a while since she had cause to be proud, he reckons. He’s never been happier to get put in his place.
Nick comes to him, when there’s a lull in business just after the lunchtime rush. He slumps over the counter, wiping down a glass with a kitchen rag. Zach is briefly reminded of Thomas tending bar for his sister: how he’d kept a nervous distance between himself and the customers, but came alive when mixing drinks.
“Guess I should feel blessed,” is how Nick opens. With a dour scowl on his face, he's the least grateful-looking thankful man Zach has ever seen.
“For receiving a visit from the hero of Greenvale himself.”
Zach breathes in sharply. “If you see him, let me know.”
“Don’t get modest now. If you ask me, you deserve the title. Not for stopping our satanic Sherriff – well, not just that. You did what you had to do with me, but you didn't parade me in front of any cameras. You left my name alone.” Nick looks down at the freshly-dried glass in his grasp, not quite to admire his handiwork. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“You should be thanking York. Though we both knew you weren’t a terrible man, Nick.”
“Sure. Just a terrible husband.” Nick huffs under his breath, shaking his head until he comes to a natural stop. “York is that friend of yours, right?”
“He was. He’s doing his own thing now.”
Nick raises an eyebrow. “That was fast. I suppose a case like this would be enough to send anyone off soul-searching.”
Zach takes a sip of coffee, more to ponder it than savour the caustic tang. There is an ingredient missing. He must’ve made a face, because Nick reaches for an open carton of milk beside the register and tops up Zach’s drink.
“Is that better?”
After trying it, Zach makes a noise of approval.
“You always took your coffee strong before,” Nick says. “That must’ve been one hell of a blow to your head.”
With the mug hovering just in front of his lips, Zach musters a smile. “Yes. That must be it.”
“How long are you going to be in town?”
“Not long. Not that I entirely know where I’m going to go from here.”
“Well, whatever you do, I hope you can take it easy.” Nick straightens up with an air of adjournment, dropping the dishcloth somewhere down behind the counter. “You’re not such a terrible man yourself.”
Zach extends a half-hearted roll of his eyes, because he senses that's the reaction Nick wanted. One last little jab, as a perfect mirror to his wife. With all those cards in his suitcase, Zach has the luxury of knowing that he’s not the butt of everyone’s jokes, but a fond inclusion; still, his heart isn’t really in the game.
He’s not a terrible man, that’s the problem. He barely feels like a man at all.
That night, it rains, so Zach expects to encounter a world of hassle when he opts to pay Harry another visit. The drive over is long and quiet, too, because Greenvale’s radio stations seem to go off the grid at the faintest hint of poor weather.
He’s fully prepared to pitch a fight with their security system upon arrival. When he gets there, it comes as a pleasant surprise that the Stewart household’s gates are wide open.
As is the custom, Michael answers when Zach rings the doorbell: not in person, but over a speaker concealed somewhere above the front door. His voice booms down superficially directed from the Heavens; he sounds far too confused to be godly.
“Mister Francis Zach Morgan. I was not told to expect you.”
“I didn’t call ahead.” Zach looks around aimlessly, unsure as to whether there’s a camera trained on him. “Is now a bad time?”
“Yes, if you’re here with urgency. Mister Stewart is away, you see."
Zach halts, because this surprise is less of a pleasant one. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Harry and Michael be more than a few rooms apart from one another without reason, and if Harry isn’t home – if he’s left his assistant behind – Zach doubts the old man simply popped out for a pleasant stroll.
He shakes his head, more to himself than any potential spyware.
“Away? Is he all right?”
“Quite all right. This happens often. In the city – as a precaution – he visits doctors, sometimes surgeons. They all alleviate his burdens.”
“And you don’t go with him?”
“Sometimes, yes, but not today. I've work to do while he’s away.”
Zach taps a finger to his chin in thought. Was it urgency that brought him to Harry’s door? No, not really. More a compulsive need to get away from Greenvale and all its suffocating niceness for a while.
“I don’t mind.”
Michael hesitates. “Pardon?”
“I said, I don’t mind if Harry isn’t around. May I come in?”
If the ensuing silence is anything to go by, Michael will not be forthcoming with an answer. Zach is debating giving up the whole thing as a bad job when he hears Michael’s voice again – this time in person. The door opens and Michael is standing in front of him, wearing a stonefaced grimace and cotton pyjamas.
Oxford blue. Real comfy-looking.
“Mister Francis Zach Morgan. I was just about to have dinner.”
As they tread the familiar path to the dining room together, Michael is bizarrely apologetic about the fact he hasn’t cooked enough food for two. He sounds mildly put-out as well, of course, but Zach supposes he’s been trained to be self-sacrificing in the presence of guests. Even unwelcome ones.
“I’m not hungry,” Zach says, raising a deferential hand. “I ate at the hotel earlier – but don’t let me stop you.”
In the doorway to the hall, Michael comes sharply to a halt. “If you’ll pardon my candour, this is highly irregular.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Zach waits a beat. “I can go, if you like. I’m being inconsiderate.”
The way Michael’s shoulders roll back tells Zach that what the guy really wants to say is, yes you are. Instead, Michael replies, “Please, take a seat.”
Zach does. On the table is a modest supper Michael has prepared for himself — stew, resembling the kind he'd served Zach on his first lucid night here. He must be used to making dishes that are easy to eat. Stuffed though he is, Zach idly wishes there was extra to go around.
Michael positions himself with his fork at the ready, but he doesn’t take a bite. He stares at Zach, expectantly. Zach stares back until he feels worn down enough to speak.
Briskly, Michael looks down at himself. “I—! I was not counting on having visitors. Otherwise, I would have remained in my daywear.”
“You gave me sets just like those while I was occupying a guest room. Is that your favourite colour? Blue?”
“I am not opposed to it,” Michael says, going on in the same breath, “but I have no strong preferences.”
“You know, you've a tendency to say things like that.” Zach leans back in his chair, stretching his legs out beneath the table. It’s wide enough for him to estimate he won’t end up kneeing his host accidentally. “I know you’re young, but it’s okay to have your own opinions outside of Harry’s.”
Michael looks up at Zach through stray locks of hair, swept across his forehead. He could be annoyed or he could be amused; Zach can't possibly guess.
“How old do you think I am?”
“Let's see. Did you go to school with Quint and Becky?”
Even when Michael laughs, the noise is devoid of genuine mirth. It’s as perfunctory as his smile, a means to a communicative end.
“I’m three more past my eighteenth year. I did not do my growing here.”
“I see. York and I did consider the possibility you weren’t a native. You’re more Great Gatsby than Greenvale.”
Michael crinkles his nose, idly stirring the contents of his bowl. “Gatsby was governed by passion and greed. I control what I feel, and have what I need.”
Zach scoffs, with amusement rather than mockery. “York figured you’d be a reader. A poet like you must have an impressive library.”
“Mm.” Once he’s finished swallowing down his first bite, Michael’s tone is as close to incredulous as Zach has ever heard it. “Is that what brought you here tonight? To talk Salinger, Poe, T. H. White?”
“Well, on my way over, I thought I wanted to see Harry. But now I’m here, I’m starting to think who I really wanted to chat with was you.”
Nothing abnormal registers on Michael’s face, which makes it all the more startling that his fork clatters abruptly into his bowl.
“Me? To what end?”
“I never thanked you,” Zach says. “Not properly.”
As he resumes primly picking at his dinner, Michael shakes his head and says, “That is unnecessary.”
“On the contrary, I don’t think you’re thanked nearly enough. It has to be difficult, what you do – caring for someone all the time while you’re still so young.”
“That is not something you need to thank me for.”
“You tended to me, too. I really am grateful. Juggling a guy like me with a guy like Harry must’ve been the worst week and a half of your life.”
Michael smiles again. If Zach didn’t know any better, he’d say there was a spark in Michael's eye, a flash of honest to goodness mirth. He breaks it by popping a mushroom in his mouth, demurely covering the lower half of his face with a hand as he talks while chewing.
“It was perhaps in the top ten.”
Zach laughs, loudly enough to astonish himself; his head tips back as he lets it ring out. He considers drawing upon what survives of York’s spirit to riff something back – but when he takes a proper look at Michael in order to find inspiration, he quickly changes his mind.
It’s no wonder Michael opened the door in pyjamas, because he looks tired. He was never the most robust-looking individual in the municipality, but he was at least a few shades more tan than Brian the insomniac. Today, he’s almost as pale as the graveyard keeper, and sweat has curled his fine dark hair at his temples. The clinical lights of the Stewart mansion are washing him out right down the drain.
They make a fine pair of dinner companions, he and Zach. Circles round the eyes and bone-deep exhaustion.
The kind thing to do would be to let Michael eat something uninterrupted, so Zach hits stop on the conversation for now. Michael’s manners are impeccable as always, but he doesn’t have to wolf his food down for Zach to know he’d really needed it. The gradual lowering of his shoulders is proof enough.
Only once the bowl is empty, and Michael is working his way through a cup of tea instead, does Zach do away with temperance. Michael looks up through a dazed murkiness in his bright eyes, as though he’d almost forgotten Zach was there. He must be awaiting another push at conversation, so Zach utters the first thing that comes to mind.
“You tried to kill me.”
It doesn’t go down well, if he's reading the way Michael purses his lips correctly. Michael casts his gaze to the floor, head bowed in shame.
“You must mean our encounter at the clock-tower. I recall little of it, but due to that wretched fog, I was not myself at the time.”
“I know it wasn’t your fault, Michael. But I realised something when I saw you. I hadn’t seen you without Harry before – not really.” Zach scratches his cheek in thought. “He must have been worried sick.”
Michael adopts a blank stare, like the prospect hadn’t crossed his mind. “Mister Stewart has enough to worry about already. Some of consequence, some quite small — for our town’s sake, he bears them all.”
It’s one thing to care for the guy, but to Zach's ears, Michael sounds like a true believer. Martyr for the cause. When it comes to outlining what that cause is, neither Michael nor Harry have been especially enlightening.
“And you?” Zach says. He’s uncovering something about himself, and it’s that he’s an opportunist. “What do you worry about?”
Michael’s smile resurfaces, knowing and wry, but it only serves to make him look that much more worn out. He stands, taking his crockery with him.
“That is between myself and my journal, Mister Francis Zach Morgan.”
Now there’s a tantalising thought.
Despite Michael offering to brew a rare pot of coffee, Zach volunteers to see himself out instead. The wave of relief that briefly washes over Michael’s face tells him he made the right call; his host is too tired to do much hosting. He doesn’t take it personally.
Michael departs to go clean up his dishes, and Zach has every intention of making his way to the front door and out into the cold night. When he clocks the room that he vaguely recalls as being Michael’s quarters, his plans abruptly change.
York was a stickler for search warrants and due process, a stance Zach never technically thought he disagreed with – but he finds himself asking silently for York’s forgiveness now. The door is unlocked when he tries the handle, and if that isn’t divine messaging, what is?
Michael’s room is just as sterile as Zach had visualised it. The bed is tightly-made, the curtains are tied back, the shelves are alphabetised with loving precision – none of which makes it any less depressing.
When Zach and York had been twenty-one, their walls were papered over with band posters and movie pin-ups, the face of Joey Ramone hanging over their bed like a piece of religious iconography. Zach vaguely recalls York actually praying to him one night – drunkenly, of course. Michael’s room may be devoid of mess, but that comes at the cost of its personality.
He wasn’t kidding about having a journal. It’s central on his desk and filled with microscopic entries, like every single noteworthy day of his life could be condensed into just a few sentences. And for the most part, those sentences centre on Harry.
Well. Newer entries offer a degree of biodiversity in the form of a wooden bird – one Michael lost, with all the hasty forgetfulness of someone his age. His handwriting, small and neat, can’t disguise the fact he’s getting more worked up as the days go by, and in his panic he doesn’t seem to realise that he’s solved his own mystery. The last mention of him physically having the bird involved the diner.
It’s not quite a case that requires the attention of the FBI. When he next goes into town, Zach finds the bird anyway.
“You have been quite kind to Michael,” Harry says, the next time they meet after the carving’s reunion with its rightful owner. They are in the diner, of course, because that’s the only place in the borough that Harry seems to frequent, despite the brave new era descending over Greenvale. “Ever since he finished assembling that bird, it is like he’s been revitalised. He was terribly worn down after all that extra work I had him do during your investigation.”
“He’s a good kid,” Zach says, taking a sip of milky coffee. Olivia knows to present him with it every time he walks through the diner’s doors. “You must be proud.”
“Extremely,” Harry says. “He is a fine young man, as you well know.”
“Not like the first son,” Zach says, with more bitterness than he’d intended to convey. He isn’t thinking of the Sherriff. Rather, he’s picturing Emily.
Harry pauses. His gaze briefly flits towards the counter, but Michael is still collecting his order, engrossed in back-and-forth with Olivia.
“Michael is no mere replacement for George.”
“Does he know that?” Zach asks, then thinks to elaborate. “He’s your assistant, for the most part, and never calls you dad. I’m no stranger to emotionally distant parenting, but even my father allowed me to tell people we were related.”
“It was for his own good.” Harry narrows his eyes. “The reasons are complicated.”
“Your reasoning always is,” Zach retorts. “I don’t expect you to explain yourself. I’m just saying that there might be secrets left for me to unveil here, after all.”
“So you’re being glib, now,” Harry replies, a layer of tension lifting from his inelastic face. “Is your proud refusal to leave town doing you any good?”
I know, I know. He's made it clear he's the chairman of the Evict Zach Morgan Committee, hasn't he, York? Zach swirls the dregs of coffee in his mug, then looks across to the booth where he’d dined with Emily and Thomas in the past. He can still see them occupying the seats, Thomas politely covering his mouth as he laughs at something Emily’s saying – but then again, Zach sees them just about everywhere.
“Don’t worry. It won’t be long now.”
“What won’t?” comes Michael’s voice, before Michael himself drifts into view. He is, in perfect conformance with the norm, carrying food for Harry, which he sets down before turning his attention to the agent.
“Nothing,” Zach says. He unloads his mug and gets up, freeing the seat for Michael. He fires a fleeting smile to the man in question. “It was good to see you.”
The beginnings of a bemused frown settle on Michael's face, but he nods his head – same to you – with a perfunctory smile of his own. Zach can feel Harry’s eyes burning a hole through his back all the way to the exit.
What Zach doesn't know about raising a child could fill a library, and not simply due to the abundance of poor parenting he received before the Red Room swept him up. He’s never felt the need nor inclination to think about having offspring himself – to the extent that he thought about anything when York was in charge, anyway. His opinions are built on sand, not rock: unsteady and without foundation.
But he’s pretty sure he’s correct in his evaluation of Richard Dunn, while he watches the man serve a scotch to the next barfly down the line. Behind Richard stands Sallie Graham with receipts to store, and Zach saw Quint outside on the way in, hauling out the trash.
It’s like nobody died at all. For the three of them, moving on means business as usual.
Zach is vaguely jealous.
“What are you having, officer?” Richard says, his measured voice still audible above his establishment’s music.
“Vodka on the rocks, please, Richard.”
“Yeah?” Richard says. His eyebrows disappear up beneath the brim of his hat. “I gotta say, I’m a little disappointed. It keeps me on my toes when you order the more complicated cocktails.”
“I’ve had enough of complicated.” Zach bobs his head. “Just vodka will do. Sorry.”
“No need to apologise. It’s on the house, by the way. You have Sallie’s insistence to thank for that.”
Both Richard and Zach cast Sallie a glance in unison, catching her in the middle of laughing at something a patron said. She’s laughing politely, of course – the burden of service workers – but at least she’s able to fake it. Soon enough, she’ll be meaning it.
“Tell her thank you.”
“Tell her yourself. I know she didn’t much want to see you before, but she’s in a better place.” Richard speaks as he pours the shot, sliding it jauntily over to Zach. “I think having somewhere to direct all that sadness helped her let some of it go.”
“Sure, but working here just as much. She always liked being around people. Around life.”
“I traded pleasantries with Quint,” Zach says, steepling his fingers over his glass. “He mentioned something about taking a trip. Are you fine with him leaving for a while?”
“Can’t stop the kid. Even if he ends up leaving forever, he’s got to live his life.” Richard sneaks a look at Sallie again, without Zach’s accompaniment. “I wish someone had told me the same thing at his age. Hell, I left it a little long with him, but I’m telling him now.”
Bartenders hear so much salacious gossip that holding confession might as well be part of the job description, so Zach would bet a couple bucks on Richard having encountered the rumours about he and Sallie by now. Their past romantic entanglement never truly ended, according to their neighbours; the band never packed up for the night. Theirs was just a song on pause.
York had thought it strange that Quint would be so invested in Sallie’s recovery when their main connection was apparently mourning Anna Graham. But Zach sees it clearly. Their lingua franca was always Richard: the way he’d hurt them with the things he did, but also the things he didn’t. And Richard permitted the dialogue.
A flawed man, but a loving father. It sounds like all those obituaries for Xander Morgan.
Plain vodka tastes so much better to Zach than cocktails.
On Wednesdays, Polly serves French toast and berries for breakfast. Zach has found he likes to eat a little longer after waking up than York ever did, but he attends the hotel’s breakfast services anyway, if only to sit back with the morning newspaper.
George Woodman – Satanic Sherriff – continues to dominate the front pages. While the headlines are getting more and more salacious, at least it isn’t Emily’s photograph getting plastered above every article any more. Reporters can’t be trusted with her. They are far too invested in emphasising how beautiful she’d been even in death, just like Woodman’s other victims.
None of it was beautiful. It was all barbarism. Zach doesn’t have the energy to write a letter to the editor.
Without Kaysen around as his only fellow guest, Zach has grown used to occupying the canteen alone, but fate has decided he won’t get the French toast to himself today. He finds Michael sitting in what had been York’s usual spot, working his way through a loose-leaf cafetiere.
Zach unfolds his newspaper as he walks over. “What happened? Did you fall out with Harry and check in here?”
“Of course not. He has taken off with his doctors to the city for physiotherapy.”
“And he let you stay behind to, what, hang out? I find that difficult to believe, Michael.”
“On the contrary,” Michael says. He stares into his cup, in an exceptionally conspicuous attempt to avoid Zach’s gaze. “I… requested the morning off.”
“And you came here.” Zach slaps the newspaper down, then fills a chair. “Why?”
“Mister Stewart says you’re leaving soon. I came to say goodbye to you.”
Zach raises a brow as sharply as he can. “He’s been telling people I’m leaving soon since the first day I woke up in your mansion. I’ve made no concrete plans.”
“I am aware,” Michael replies. He’s a smart guy, too clever by half, but he apparently doesn’t seem to notice he’s shot holes in his own excuse for dropping by. “Pray tell, why haven’t you gone home yet?”
For all the difficult questions Zach has had to field recently – some from townspeople, some from those vulture-beaked reporters – Michael has found the one to stump him. He rubs leisurely at his throat, finding a spot on the ceiling to stare at.
“If you can tell me where home is, I’ll happily go there.”
The second he’s spoken, Zach regrets it. It’s a little heavier than social norms dictate breakfast conversation should be. To his credit, Michael nods sagely, like he really does understand – even if he can’t possibly.
But then he says, startlingly, “You miss York.”
“Yes,” Zach replies, his voice quiet. “I know he’s fine. But me… I feel selfish for wondering where it all leaves me. I’m trying to figure that out first before making any major life decisions.”
“You are a capable agent,” Michael says, “of valiant action. You will find your footing.”
“That wasn’t me,” Zach says, for what feels like the thousandth time. It’s just the first time he’s been so overt. “That was all York.”
Michael tucks a strand of his own hair back behind his ear, slow and fluid, elegance embodied. Zach stares at him, thinking of Emily, of self-denial and self-restraint. It was a gesture to seemingly buy time, because Michael’s rhyme scheme is back with a vengeance when he opens his mouth.
“You give yourself too little glory. You weren’t a footnote in this story. York was outward-facing, true — but he relied on help from you.”
Begrudgingly, Zach smiles. “Do you think of those on the spot, or do you prepare some in advance?”
Michael lifts one shoulder then drops it, a shadow of a shrug. “You should know — you felt the need to snoop through my private thoughts.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Zach says. “I’m an investigator. Occupational hazard of knowing me.”
“No matter. I would not be careless enough to put anything of consequence in there.”
I noticed, Zach thinks. That journal told him nothing substantial whatsoever about the young man in front of him. In some ways, Michael is just as much a ghost of Greenvale as those inhabiting the forest – untouchable, unreadable, intangible even as he’s sitting frustratingly close.
Drumming his fingertips on his newspaper, Zach says, “May I ask you something?”
“I cannot stop you.”
“Why don’t you call Harry father?”
The cup in Michael’s grip lingers for a few seconds too long in front of his mouth. When he lowers it, he’s frowning.
“…your reasons, I know. Don’t make me have to investigate properly. I’m still signed off work for all my terrible injuries.”
“I'm stunned you'd invest that much time and effort,” Michael says dryly. “I suppose our reasons aren’t so important now. Mister Stewart had enemies, and if they suspected our relationship was even remotely familial, I would be endangered.”
“That’s what he told you?” Zach asks. When Michael nods, he follows up with, “And you believed him?”
“Of course. He does not want to make the same mistake he made with his first son.”
Ah. That answers the query Zach had entertained a couple of weeks ago, when he’d been living under Harry’s watch. He reflects, mostly to himself, “So you know about George.”
“Not officially,” Michael says. He smirks irksomely around the lip of his teacup. “I had my suspicions. Thank you very much for confirming them.”
Zach can’t do much more than stare for a second. It’s bad enough that he’s let a rather monumental cat out of the bag – tricked into doing so by some haughty kid whose poetry would get him kicked off America’s Got Talent – but Michael doesn’t even have the decency to react with adequate turmoil, receiving horrifying news about his father like it’s just another snippet of local gossip.
“You can’t be serious. It doesn’t bother you at all that he kept that from you?”
“Mister Stewart has told me things he will never tell another living soul, but he is entitled to his secrets. He has given me enough. Besides, I always assumed he never found the right moment to inform me.” With a clink, Michael deposits his teacup on its saucer. “He is, as you know, an advocate for the importance of timing.”
“You’re so charitable to him,” Zach says, almost in awe. “You always ascribe the best possible interpretation to his actions.”
Nebulously, Zach hears his own father, as a garbled murmur echoing from somewhere over his shoulder. Even now that he’s remembered the facts of that night, he can’t do the same thing Michael does. Unconditional love – if that’s what it is, something is stopping him from affording his father such mercy.
He hadn’t been there to protect Zach’s mother. He hadn’t been there for a while before that.
“Were you not the same?” Michael says, sounding like a distant echo. “You trusted York implicitly, but you can’t tell me you didn’t occasionally disagree with him.”
“Disagreeing with York… Of course we disagreed. But all he ever did was what he thought was best for me.”
“By allowing you to sleep your life away in seclusion,” Michael says, leaning forward slightly. “By waking you up when it all got too much, even for him. Of course, I am certain these are things he regrets, and he would want you to enjoy the simple pleasure of being awake.”
Zach blinks, hard, pulled back to reality. It is par for the course that the adoptive son of Harry Stewart, armchair psychologist extraordinaire, might occasionally pull out the same box of tricks.
The only trouble is, he’s right.
I don’t know who I am. I spent so long being York’s backseat driver that I’m at a loss without him. I can’t tell if I like coffee or drink it because he did. I’m not particularly dazzled by Matthew Broderick but I’ll still tell you I love Ferris Bueller.
I’m not a person. I’m waking up for the first time. I’m only just being born.
Michael has enough on his plate without Zach being his problem, too. Zach opts to share none of the above, instead regarding Harry’s son with a knowing smile. There’s nowhere to go but on the defensive.
“Isn’t that what you’re doing? Sleeping through life in a nowhere town?”
“I have… aspirations,” Michael says, with an aristocratic sniff. He both looks and sounds like Zach just stepped on his tail. “For example, I would like to go to college.”
The reminder that his visitor is young hits comically hard and fast, a blow to Zach’s still-sore-sometimes head. Zach is the wiser one here, technically, or perhaps merely older, having borne witness to a grown-up life played out by York, just like a real boy. He’s meant to be past thirty and Michael is just on the cusp of twenty-two.
“As for you,” Michael continues, and his softer tone is one Zach has only seen him use with Harry before, when they’re whispering amongst themselves about private manoeuvres. “You shall figure it out. You have survived worse.”
As with Harry, Zach thinks Michael is being too charitable.
He nods anyway, says thank-you, minds his manners.
After breakfast, Zach decides to have a cigarette. He wants it only to test his newfound hypothesis that he’ll choke on the damn thing, and invites Michael along to witness the whole sorry affair.
They go to the wooden gate guarding the path to the lake, Zach perching on it while Michael keeps his feet firmly on the ground. It’s so quiet that Zach fancies he can hear fish splashing down the hill, until Michael finally drowns them out, folding his arms behind his back.
Zach flicks away excess ash. “Well, what?”
“Does it bring you any closer to York?”
Zach peers down at the lawn. He hadn’t forgotten about their past conversation, but he hadn’t presumed Michael would commit it to memory.
“Can’t say it does. Do you know what the definition of madness is, Michael?”
“Repeating the same action and expecting different results.”
“Right.” Zach angles his head, regarding Michael side-on. “So this must be my descent into lunacy.”
“Doubtful,” Michael says. He is more interested in the swaying branches overhead than Zach, peering curiously up at them while he talks. “You've had plenty of reasons 'til now to unhinge. Thus far, you've avoided the lunatic fringe.”
“Another indicator of madness might be a compulsive need to rhyme.”
Sharply, Michael looks down at Zach, the lack of feeling on his face not fooling the agent in the slightest. “In that case, I’ll change my assessment of you. We’re both well accustomed to folie à deux.”
“York and I weren’t… Well, maybe we were. But you and Harry, that’s another story. You’re not mad, but you’re certainly maddening.”
Michael faintly smirks. “Are you profiling me, now?”
“I’ve been profiling you since I met you. I don’t believe you came here just to see me off.” Zach reconsiders. “Unless you really find me interesting.”
“On the contrary, I imagined it was you interested in me. After all, you went and read my diary.”
Zach coughs, guttural and subdued, hacking up an adjunct of smoke. “You’re not going to let that go.”
“You are correct.” Michael stands to attention, like a soldier, like one of the statues propped up by flora in Harry’s gardens. “I am not here for farewells. I am here to ask, while I still can – why did you do that?”
When Zach stubs out his cigarette and slips the butt into his carton (it wouldn't do to litter), it's an exercise in delaying.
“Are you still angry about it?”
“Somewhat. On balance – in light of everything you have done for this town, and Mister Stewart – I have opted to absolve you, but I would still like to know your objective.”
“I didn’t have any,” Zach says. He pulls one leg over the other, sitting ankle-on-knee. “I wish I could tell you I did, but it’s apparently in my nature to pry. Or maybe that’s another bad habit I got from York that I need to expunge. My apologies.” Michael’s furrowed brow tells Zach that wasn’t quite what he wanted to hear, so Zach opts to lighten the mood. “That has to be preferable to saying I wanted to see all the nice things you'd written about me.”
Zach is mindful of the fact his comedic chops are mediocre at best, but Michael is downright unresponsive. Something about him stops looking quite right, and it only becomes more prevalent as the seconds tick by. The problem is that Michael's face is red. His cheeks are bright, wide eyes staring like those of a demon-dog caught in the headlights, and Zach suddenly feels a nervous crater where his own stomach should be.
“Excuse me.” Michael quickly looks away, raising a palm to ward Zach off. He takes a step back, then another. “This was foolish of me. I should not have imagined you’d given it much thought at all.”
Ah. Maybe this is why Harry had been so keen to boot Zach out of sight, out of mind.
Zach uncrosses his legs, gripping the gate beneath him to push up. He gets as far as standing before he realises he’d moved too fast; he’s dizzy, really should’ve eaten something, can’t find his footing.
He’s in the midst of preparing to taste grass when Michael seizes him mid-sway, hands wrapping around his forearms and steadying him. Zach stumbles one step forward, but mercifully comes to a halt.
Michael is stronger than Zach had expected he’d be, or at least more solid. His hands are warm through the sleeves of Zach’s shirt. Why had he thought Michael would be cold to the touch? It’s an absurdity that he’d ever considered Michael’s body temperature at all.
With York at the helm, Zach’s physicality had always possessed twenty-twenty vision. Without York, Zach’s left eye is unreliable, attuned to colours more than boundaries. He looks up at Michael’s face and it’s hazy around the edges, but the concern etched there is unmistakeable.
Tentatively – so faintly that he barely does it at all – Michael squeezes Zach's arms, his throat bobbing.
“Are you all right?” he says. It's with that kindly tone again.
“I’ve been better,” Zach says, devolving into a groan. He’s a little taller than Michael, but right now he wants to hunch over in his finest imitation of Polly. “Maybe – maybe I should’ve gone with Harry on his medical outing.”
Michael’s mouth bends at one corner, in the ballpark of a halting smile. “You would not be able to afford his doctors.”
“Maybe not,” Zach says. “Good thing I’ve got you here.”
A poor choice of words, all things considered. But Michael doesn’t protest.
With Polly helping in a supervisory position, Michael guides Zach back to his room. An invitation to the Stewart mansion is extended — for further rest and recuperation — but Zach knows better than to accept, no matter how bewildered Michael appears at the prospect of a lowly agent forfeiting such opulence. His lacerations won't heal at a natural rate because they came from an unnatural source; this is one thing the free market can't solve.
Zach crashes out the second he gets into bed, and it’s not quite so bright outside when he wakes up again.
It seems he’s spent more time dreaming than sleeping lately. He wonders if Harry is the type to say I told you so.
Consulting the clock and finding it to be the middle of the afternoon instils him with a temporary spike of dread, until he chides himself for foolishness. The guy he wanted to see is renowned for never sleeping. No hour will be inconvenient.
Brian wouldn't look out of place in an early '80s Misfits line-up, but he looks just at home amongst the headstones, too. Today, Zach finds him kneeling in front of one, clipping away at overgrown weeds with a set of pruning shears.
Zach takes a look, but the name carved into the stone doesn’t ring a bell. The primordial powers-that-be have apparently voted in favour of no longer dropping metaphors right into Zach’s lap.
“Good afternoon, Brian. How are you doing?”
Brian keeps working. He barely falters.
“Must clean up... Now that the town is clean... It can be done here, too.”
Zach hums in agreement. The graveyard was never poorly maintained, but Brian had his work cut out for him because the plants always seemed to grow quicker within the cemetery's bounds. Whether that’s due to all the decomposing bodies or the red trees in the back is anyone’s guess.
Peering past Brian, Zach looks at them now through their private fence, all birch-esque pillars with leaves like splattered blood. They look less healthy in Kaysen's absence, the red of them faded under the sun.
“You’re doing an excellent job. I’m sure your slumbering guests will appreciate the effort.”
“Not guests… Guests may leave.” Brian ducks his head, drawing his shoulders even closer to his ears. “And you—”
“—haven’t left, I know.” Everyone keeps helpfully pointing that out, York, just in case it had slipped my mind.
“No,” Brian says. “No… I wanted to say… You have a question… on your conscience.”
“I do.” Zach rubs his neck in contemplation. “I’m looking for someone. Perhaps you know who.”
“Emily,” Brian says. “She was... cremated. Scattered in her mother's city. Her aunt…”
“Please,” Zach interrupts, holding up a hand. He doesn’t need to hear the rest.
For one, the newspaper had told him the whole story already, about Emily’s family from three states over collecting her remains and burning them up. Despite a myriad of journalists implying she would’ve made a stunning corpse, Zach bets her family disagreed, and didn’t want to see her committed to the ground with holes right through her. While he was sleeping in a comfortable bed, Emily was being returned to the wind, ashes and dust.
Yet he doesn’t feel guilty for missing the spectacle.
That part of her wasn’t Emily. The part that mattered is with York.
“If I give you a name,” Zach says, “would you be able to tell me if someone with it is buried here?” Brian places a hand to the grass, which Zach takes as confirmation. “It’s a family name. Tillotson.”
There is a modicum of movement on the grave-keeper’s face. His brow creases, then he withdraws his hand.
“No such person here.”
Brian shakes his head, so slowly that the effort seems gargantuan, only to pick up his shears again with slightly more vitality. Working for the dead is the only thing that seems to give him life.
Zach wishes he couldn't relate.
Despite the near-torrential rain outside tonight, Michael swings open the door without hesitation. He looks decidedly peeved, with his lips pursed and one brow raised to an impossibly steep angle, but Zach is still absurdly proud Michael got this far. It's like watching a nightlight chase away the fear of the dark.
“Mister Francis Zach Morgan. You cannot turn up on a dime. Did you think to check the time? My father would surely find it shocking — to wake to your incessant knocking.”
Michael lowers the brow in aid of a magnificent scowl, one arm outstretched as a barrier across the door. Zach knows he shouldn’t see such an unfriendly stance as an invitation, but he does. A challenge, at least.
“I know it’s late,” Zach says. He can hardly deny it when the full moon above him them is vivid, even through the rain-clouds. “I’m sorry.”
“There is some of York’s thoughtlessness in you after all.”
“Did I interrupt Harry's sleep?”
“Thank your stars that you didn't.”
“You’re fully dressed,” Zach points out. “You can’t tell me you were snoozing in a three-piece.”
Michael looks down at himself, then scoffs. “I was not, but some hours are universally accepted as unsuitable for social calls.”
“This isn’t a social call,” Zach says. “I needed to find you, and you’re awake.”
The hard borders of Michael's posture soften at that. He studies Zach carefully, and while he doesn’t go pink this time, all trace of hostility fades satisfyingly from his eyes.
“Why? You have one minute to explain.”
“I’m going to need several. May I come in?”
Michael hesitates. He is flagrant in examining Zach’s face with scrutiny, pupils flickering from one position of interest to the next, until they settle on what Zach assumes is his scar. He’s quickly proven wrong.
“Your dressings are soaked,” Michael says, as annoyed as he is gentle. “Were you prancing about in the rain?”
“No. I went to throw rocks at your window, but decided that was a little too juvenile-delinquent.”
The prodigal son deflates on a sigh. Down goes his arm; down go the barriers.
Back after his encounter with Kaysen, when he’d spent a week or so floating in and out of consciousness, Zach had often imagined someone attending, painstakingly, to every part of him that had taken a beating. It was mostly in the form of hands tracing his face, applying ointments or fixing his bandages – and the owner of those hands had been no-nonsense, never dwelling on any wound longer than necessary, but they had been gentle. Their warmth had been nice. They’d soothed him for a little while.
He’d naturally assumed he was hallucinating Emily, in all her kind-but-clumsy glory. He realises now he’d simply been acknowledging Michael, who is currently up-close-and-personal again, but not in a manner that feels horrendously awkward.
Sitting on the edge of Michael’s bed, Zach can’t decide whether to shut his eyes or keep them open while Michael attends to him, having pulled up the chair from the desk with his suit jacket slung over it. They are knee to knee, and Zach can hear every breath Michael takes, regular and steady. He even spares Zach the embarrassment of ever meeting his gaze.
“You’re good at this,” Zach says, ultimately, when the silence gets too much. It wasn't uncomfortable, exactly, but after nearly three decades of a constant narrator in his head, there is a perpetual gap to fill.
“Thank you,” Michael says automatically. There is no feeling behind it.
“I mean it. You certainly have better bedside manner than all the medical examiners I know.” Zach purposefully breaks their silent understanding and looks Michael in the eye. “You want to be a doctor, don’t you?”
Michael stops halfway through the process of applying a dry sticking-plaster to Zach’s cheek.
“How – how did you know—”
“I’m an FBI profiler, remember? You told me you want to go to college. And there’s a reason Harry never takes you into the city with him when he goes for physiotherapy. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d wager he doesn’t want you seeing a deluxe hospital like that, talking to potential future colleagues and getting ideas.”
“It isn’t like that,” Michael says. As defensive as he sounds, his work on Zach remains gentle, attentive. “He… He has offered to pay for my studies countless times. There are plenty of nurses he could hire to take over my role in my absence. I am the one who is not yet ready to leave.”
“Why? Were you scared of the red seeds?”
“In part. But…” Michael pulls back to review his efforts, leaving Zach bereft of warm breath near his ear. “But I can’t leave him, not yet. I care for him very much. He has looked after me since I was fifteen.”
“You never had other family here,” Zach says. “There's never been any contingent of Tillotsons in Greenvale. So how…”
“How did he find me?” Michael interjects, to which Zach can only nod. “Mister Francis Zach Morgan, I thought you weren’t interested in me.”
Zach smiles. He absent-mindedly rubs at the fresh bandage around his head, so well-fit that it’s not loose, but not so tight that he notices it. Not for the first time since he discerned the aide’s ambitions, he thinks it’s a crying shame Michael isn’t running a ward of his own by now.
“Why do you think I made York trudge up here so often during our investigation? It wasn’t just for your father. I felt sorry for you, Michael. You always seemed like you were going through the motions.”
“You felt… sorry for me,” Michael echoes. He looks dimly disappointed.
“Did your father do it?” Zach asks. “Not Harry. Your biological father, when you were fifteen years old. Did he manage to pull the trigger?”
The astonishment on Michael’s face is enough to make Zach feel a twinge of guilt for inflicting it. His eyes grow almost comically wide, and he sinks back into his chair with an air of defeat, jaw dumbly hanging, no words coming out. Perhaps he had a point when he said Zach had inherited York’s thoughtlessness.
“Please, if you don’t want to talk about it…”
“No,” Michael says, hastily. “It’s just – it’s been such a long time since I’ve cast my mind back to that event. I’m somewhat amazed you figured it out.”
“Forgive me. I should've been more tactful. I experienced the same upheaval, so curiosity got the better of me.”
“I know,” Michael replies. Zach thought he might; he had no reason to lie when he’d claimed Harry shared most intel with him. “But you were younger than I was, and deeply loved your mother. My parents were not particularly pleasant people – indeed, they met Forrest Kaysen through his foray into pushing narcotics. It is callous to say, I know, and I do not want to undermine your sorrow, but I am... not displeased that I ended up with Mister Stewart.”
“I understand,” Zach repeats, lifting a hand to preclude any over-explaining on Michael’s part. “You’re not a callous person. I know you’re not.”
“You can fill in the rest, I’m sure,” Michael says, clicking shut the first-aid kit on his lap. He tucks it neatly under his chair. “Mister Stewart sent for me shortly after reading my story in the papers and recognising the tell-tale signs of Forrest Kaysen’s involvement.”
"Then your father..."
"Yes. He did. Sooner or later, one would have ended up shooting the other regardless."
Zach thought he’d have more questions, but he finds he has nothing to say. No: he doesn't want to risk it. York was never particularly reliable in moments of emotional magnitude, so his role models for navigating minefields are sparse and slippery. He looks down, drawn to Michael’s hands, where they are folded neatly in his lap.
“Did you… investigate me?” Michael continues. “Like you threatened to yesterday?”
“A little bit, but I gathered most of it just by listening to you and observing your comportment.”
“I fear you wasted your time. You were supposed to be figuring out things about yourself.”
“Oh, you certainly helped me with that.” Zach smiles for the second time in as many minutes. “I came to a conclusion or two.”
“Indulge me. What were they?”
“Well…” Zach trails off, tipping back his head. The fluorescent lights of Michael’s room remind him of bulbs uniquely found in operating theatres. “I know I like coffee, but maybe with more milk than York did. I don’t think I’ll continue with the cigarettes. I’m less adverse to wearing fancy pyjamas than I thought… and I know I really did care for Emily. Even if it wasn’t with quite the same immensity as York.”
Michael nods like he’s impressed. “That’s a superb start.”
“Take Emily, to begin with. You cared for her because she was kind, and patient; that suggests you value altruism. As my father says, a person's heart is of the utmost importance.”
“But that’s you, too.”
“I don’t follow.”
“You’re describing yourself. Kind and patient.” Zach resumes looking ahead, finding that Michael boasts a bemused frown. “It must be little wonder that I care about you.”
There it is again – the endearing embarrassment he’d only managed to catch a glimpse of back at the hotel. While Michael is too stubborn to break away from Zach’s gaze, his cheeks are a fine shade of pink, and he fiddles with the knot of his tie. He looks his age for the first time since the collective Morgans met him.
“And I… care for you.”
“I don’t think you do,” Zach says, as kindly as he can. “You might’ve cared for York. You can’t possibly know anything about me – not when I don’t know that much about myself.”
Michael stalls. It’s his turn to look to the fluorescent lights for guidance, and they must be more receptive to him because there is resolution on his face when he regards Zach again.
“Keith Ingram,” he says, “is a pleasant fellow, I'm sure, but it has never occurred to him that he should be an equal partner in his marriage rather than encouraging his wife to mother him. The proprietor of the Heaven and Hell Gas Station skirt-chases not because he is a womaniser, but because he is just as insecure as he is closeted. I have not spent a substantial amount of time with these people, but would you say I am correct in my assumptions?”
Zach takes a moment to twig. When he does, he breaks out into a slow, incredulous grin.
“You’re spot on.”
“Then you would also say I am an excellent judge of character?”
“In that case, I know enough about you as well.” Michael goes so far as to fold his arms when he concludes, “I care for you.”
“I wish I could be as sure of my identity as you are.”
“You’re thinking about this the wrong way around. You influenced York just as much as he influenced you. Besides, trying to define yourself is a fool’s errand. If you do not change – if you are unwilling to adapt – you may just walk the path of Sherriff George Woodman.”
Zach shakes his head, from disbelief rather than dissent.
This guy has his moments, doesn't he, York? No wonder Harry likes him so much.
“You present a compelling argument. I just need to find a way to process it on my own terms.”
“Yes. Mister Francis Zach Morgan…”
“Why don’t you just call me Zach?”
Michael’s choice of distraction this time is the shirt button just beneath his collar. He tugs lightly at it, ostensibly airing out his throat doing nothing to quell the residual flush still climbing him like ivy.
“Zach,” he says. It’s a name he’s had plenty of practice vocalising, but only when surrounded by Zach’s other titles, and that one syllable alone comes out of him like a foreign phrase. His hands lower back to his knees, curling up at the ends of them. “If you wouldn’t mind…”
Like he’s watching a movie, a taped television screen projected to life-size proportions, Zach sits idly by as Michael leans forward. If it crosses even the recesses of his mind that he should direct Michael away, he ignores the impulse. Michael is on the edge of his seat, stabilising himself with one leg sliding between Zach’s, though they don't touch. The first snatch of contact he makes is reaching out, cradling Zach’s head in his hands – then closing the gap.
Either through inexperience or uncertainty, Michael kisses the side of Zach’s mouth. The pressure begins almost imperceptibly but he nonetheless feels red hot to the touch, blistering when he had been so gentle before. Zach angles his head without much deliberation to seek out more of it; their lips meet properly.
On the whole, it’s chaste. Michael is still the most forward kisser Zach has ever encountered – yet there’s a thought. He’s the first one. Zach has been present for kisses before, experiencing them just as intimately, but it doesn’t truly count when York’s girlfriends didn’t know they were unwittingly entering a ménage à trois.
Michael shuffles back after breaking it off as though embarrassed with himself, sliding a hand idly through his hair. Zach briefly mulls over what it would be like to do the same – if his hair would feel as soft as it looks, if Michael would mind the imposition – but he can’t.
“You’re so young.”
“You’ve got a life to live without watching me claw together mine.”
“I know. Everything you’re about to say, I know.”
“Then you know this is goodbye.”
Michael pauses. “I do.”
It has stopped raining by the time the Stewart mansion’s door opens again, but it remains a bitterly cold night, and Zach can’t say he’s eager to undertake the drive back to town. It’s going to be a nightmare getting the car to heat up, and he wouldn’t put it past Greenvale to be the kind of topographical anomaly that produces icy roads in spring.
Having left his jacket inside, Michael scrunches up slightly against the chill, crossing his arms and tucking his hands in. He lingers behind, too, while Zach stands removed from the doorway, admiring the stars.
There are plenty of them. He’ll never see stars like that in the city.
Feeling Michael’s eyes trained ardently to his head, Zach decides now is as appropriate a moment as any to come clean.
“I’ll be checking out tomorrow.”
“At what time?”
“Early. Don’t bother coming to see me off. I have a long journey ahead of me.”
“I wouldn’t be able to come,” Michael replies matter-of-factly. “I have my father to attend to.”
Zach nods. He slips his hands into his pockets, and finds only his car keys in one of them. No cigarettes.
“Tell me one thing, however,” Michael says. “Please.”
“Will I see you again?”
It's not quite what Zach had anticipated, but he can work with it. He turns, slow and savouring, drinking in the sight of Michael Tillotson and Greenvale’s most ostentatious property. Theirs is a world Zach had no business entering, welcomed warmly until he was reluctant to leave.
“Whatever we accomplished here won't be the end of it,” Zach says. “As we’ve unfortunately become authorities on red seeds, I imagine our paths will have to cross. And you know, there are medical schools in my state with fairly good reputations... So my answer is yes, we’ll see each other again. With any luck, I’ll be me by then.”
“I’d like that,” Michael says – and smiles.
It’s the warmest that particular expression has ever looked on him, and certainly the happiest. Zach recognises the impalpable glow around him as the stuff of hope, of being able to talk about the future and believe it's really coming.
“I’ll be me by then, too.”