Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Ill Will

by Dan Chaon

Available on Amazon »

What has Aaron heard about me? What have they been telling him? There is that feeling when your own story is out of your hands. someone else is making you up behind your back, and it gives you a shiver of The worst thing is that he thinks he’s the hero of this story, and he’s never, ever going to find out that he’s actually the bad guy. Some people are lucky this way: Your life splits into hundreds of hallways, and you can briefly grasp all the lives you’ve had and all the people you’ve been even in your short span on this earth. You can see the infinite, never-ending math equation of it, and you realize that any way you tried to tell your life story would be wrong. You weren’t even one person! You aren’t even one person, even now, as you And he gave me that same smile. That same interested smile he gave his TV show, and his patients, and for the first time I realized it was not a  human smile. It was a protective coloration. An adaptation of some sort. He would project it equally at a television, or a son, or a houseplant, but whatever was really inside him was crouched and peering out stealthily. “Let me know,” he said, “if you’d like to talk.” Sometimes Jill would say, that seems reasonable. Sometimes she would say, that doesn’t really make sense. And that had been my guidepost for the better part of my life. Now there was no one to tell me the difference, and so my thoughts bobbed uncertainly as Aqil drove. This little island that I’d built for myself, this family that had seemed so safe and stable, was dissipating beneath my feet. I watched as Aaron forked noodles into his mouth, and they were yellow like warning signs on a construction site. I felt a gaze pressing on my back. Standing there in the doorway, gaping at the television, spooning ice cream into my mouth, I felt more than ever that I was not one person. I was the awkwardly shuffling, distracted dad that the boys may have vaguely noticed as he opened the freezer and rummaged; I was the kind of fussy, self-involved husband who pestered his dying wife with petty issues about his work life, until she had to beg him: Please. I can’t; I was the kind of man who would sit by your bedside and feed you ice chips from a spoon; I was also the one who thought that the ending didn’t have to be so grim, if only you tried harder. If only you’d be less pessimistic. I nodded. We walked through these steps nearly every time we went over his “case,” and sometimes he repeated himself almost word for word. It was like a zoo animal circling in a cage, thinking that this time he was going to find an opening. In a lifetime, maybe there is only one true experience of bliss, and maybe this was Wave’s. The peyote came forward in a surge and she heard herself say, “Oh!”—the way an actress would portray a sudden realization. “Oh,” she said, and then she wasn’t altogether in her body. What happened to us? It was a question that interested her. Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story. They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale. But she suspected that most of these stories would fall apart under strict examination—that, in fact, we were only peeping through a keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden. Memories were no more solid than dreams. So I unaffixed myself from the mattress and put on some sweats but I couldn’t shake this feeling of shitty unfriendliness. There was the distribution of wrapped packages, the forced jollity, the desperation of a widower trying to make  “family memories.” I couldn’t stand it. I was thinking like, Oh, a book. Oh, a cheap video game. Oh, a sweater I will never wear. Thank you. May I go now? And yet you’ll still feel this weird pinch of tenderness toward him. It was his dream to have sons who adored him, to be the fabled Good Dad, to be sweet and kind and wise, to be your buddy in your time of need, and you feel a twinge of compassion but combined with the urge to flee, to put as much distance between the two of you as possible. His voice was kind of scratchy and deep, and it made me think of stoners and heavy-metal music from the 1980s. The intonation and inflection and so forth. First time I heard him it occurred to me that there are ways of speaking, maybe even certain ways of moving your tongue and your voice box, that only a particular generation of humans learn how to do. I sometimes thought that my uncle had a way of talking that was preserved in amber from 1983, and even from the first time he spoke to me I thought it was amazing. My dad didn’t know this, of course. He doled out money for “books” and “expenses” without even blinking an eye—I guess he’d gotten some money from my mom’s insurance—and honestly the majority of our conversations involved him opening up his wallet and handing me some cash. Sometimes he would pop up and attempt an amateurish performance of a dad—he would go off on some digression about how constellations aren’t real, or how kale is really good for you, or how he wished we would have gone camping more when I was little. Did I want to go camping? Or he would lay some wisdom on me, Sufi wisdom, he said, which seemed completely random and impenetrable. Then he’d roam off, trailing his wisps of positivity through the house. Mostly we avoided each other successfully. And now here he was, a forty-one-year-old man in his “study,” how pretentious, at his desk, at his computer, checking his email and going over his “notes” and he picked up the phone and he wanted to be in the mode that was the person he would have been if In retrospect, Dustin couldn’t remember much that was significant about that particular morning when they discovered the body. The day was clear and cold and sunny, and he woke up and felt fairly happy—happy in that bland, daily way that doesn’t even recognize itself as happiness, waking into a day that shouldn’t expect anything more than a series of rote actions: showering and pouring coffee into a cup and dressing and turning a key in the ignition and driving down streets that are so familiar that you don’t even recall making certain turns and stops; though the mind must have consciously carried out the procedure of braking at the corner and rolling the steering wheel beneath your palms and making a left onto the highway, there is no memory of these actions. You know what you learn when you study the legal system? Poor people pass down damage the way rich people pass down an inheritance. In any case, she liked Jill Tillman better: there was something a little snappier about it, more acerbic, which suited her. She got on the phone—to talk to one of the boys’ teachers, or a construction contractor whose work wasn’t quite up to par, or some bureaucratic functionary—and she had found a perfect, crisp snap to the words. “This is Jill Tillman,” she would say, and a perfectly pleasant chill would spread across the syllables. “May I speak to your supervisor, please?” His life, he thought, was a collection of the usual stuff: driving to and from work, listening to the radio, checking and answering his steadily accumulating email, shopping at the supermarket, and watching select highly regarded shows on television and reading a few books that had been well-reviewed and helping the boys with their homework, details that were—he was increasingly aware—units of measurement by which he was parceling out his life.
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