It’s 6 AM and Doyle is getting ready for work.
He stands in front of the bathroom sink, wearing a pair of brown slacks and a white t-shirt, meticulously shaving. He can hear his wife Clara in the kitchen, making breakfast, his son Doyle Junior in a playpen in the living room, and the TV, turned down low, buzzing with some morning show nonsense in the background.
Doyle finishes shaving, washes his face, then steps out into the hall, making his way to the kitchen. Clara’s making pancakes.
“Five more minutes.” She looks over her shoulder and smiles. He can’t help but smile back.
He wanders into the living room and peers into the playpen to check on his son. He’s chewing on a rubber teething ring, playing with his feet.
Doyle’s dress shirt is draped over the back of his easy chair. He pulls it on quickly, buttoning it absentmindedly as he loses himself in the shallow banter of the morning TV hosts.
Doyle hears the clink of plates setting down on the table. Pancakes, toast, orange juice, coffee. Perfect. Clara is already sitting at her spot, and he stops at her chair, bends over, and kisses her on the cheek before he sits down at his.
“We going out with Bill and Emma tonight?” Clara wipes her mouth with her napkin as she asks the question. “I’ll need to get a sitter if we are.”
Doyle sighs. “Yeah. I guess we can’t get out of it.”
“I thought you liked Bill and Emma,” Clara says.
“I do. But it’d be nice to spend a quiet night at home. Sitting on the couch, watching TV, changing diapers until Junior falls asleep.”
Clara smiles. “You’re a softy.”
They eat in comfortable silence, listening to Junior play, listening to the television, but mostly wallowing in the earliness of the day, letting their coffee gradually lead them out into the day. When he finishes his breakfast, Doyle gathers up the dishes, rinses them off in the sink, and starts putting them in the dishwasher.
“Who are you planning to call to watch Junior?”
Clara gets up from the table and goes over Doyle Junior’s playpen, picks him up, and checks his diaper. “I thought maybe I’d call Emily.”
Doyle makes a face. “I don’t like her. She keeps inviting that boy over.”
“That boy is her boyfriend, and he’s great with the baby. He even changes him.”
Doyle makes a face. “How can you tell?”
“Well, he does it wrong. But it’s sweet that he tries.”
Doyle shakes his head and mutters to himself as he loads in the detergent and turns the dishwasher on.
“You’d better get your jacket,” Clara warns. “You don’t want to be late for work.”
Doyle looks up at the time, grimaces, and heads to bathroom to brush his teeth. He does so quickly, rinses, then stops at the hallway closet. His jacket and tie hang on inside hooks. Clara doesn’t like that—she says it wrinkles the fabric—but it’s convenient. He fumbles with his tie for a minute, then Clara puts Junior back in the playpen and comes over to straighten it for him.
“Thanks,” Doyle says, smiling slightly.
Clara tsks good-naturedly, then kisses him.
“I’ll be home a little late,” Doyle says. “That meeting. So I guess we’ll have to leave as soon as I get home.”
“OK,” Clara says, then goes back to the living room.
Doyle puts on his jacket, smooths out the lapel, and adjusts the cuffs before heading out. He’s almost at the front door when he hears the kitchen phone ring.
“I’ll get it,” Doyle says. “That might be Bill.”
“You’ll be late,” Clara warns.
“It’ll be OK,” Doyle says. “It’ll only be a minute.”
He walks into the kitchen and picks up the phone. He and Clara are the only couple he knows who still has a land-line phone in the house. “Hello?”
“Project Recall.” The voice on the other side of the phone is male, even-toned, and slightly distorted by the cheap earpiece.
Doyle feels his throat catch. He puts his arm out on the kitchen counter to steady himself. “I’m listening.”
“You’re being reactivated.”
Doyle closes his eyes, and forces himself to take a deep, slow breath. “When?”
Doyle forces himself to keep his voice steady. “All right.”
“Yeah.” Doyle clenches his left fist until his knuckles turn white. “Understood.”
The phone clicks as the voice on the other end disconnects. A few seconds later Doyle hears the dial tone. He stands there for a moment, listening to the dialtone, trying desperately not to think. Then he places the phone down.
“What did Bob want?” Clara’s sitting on the couch, watching a little TV before she begins her day.
Doyle doesn’t answer. He walks over to the playpen and looks down at his son. Doyle Junior has abandoned the teething ring, but he’s still playing with his feet.
“Hey there, little guy.” Doyle reaches down to pick up his son.
Clara looks over at Doyle and frowns. “What’s wrong?”
Doyle rocks his son in his arms, looking at his face, then kisses him gently on the forehead.
“Is Bob all right?”
“It wasn’t Bob.” Doyle’s voice is husky with emotion. He puts his son back in his playpen, then sinks into the couch heavily, cradling his head in his hands.
“Doyle?” Clara touches arm, worry plain in her voice. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
Doyle clasps her hand tight, presses his face against it. Tears stream down his face, wetting her hand.
Clara looks at him in bewilderment. “Honey, you’re scaring me.”
“I’m sorry.” Doyle takes a breath. He lets go of her hand. “I’m sorry. It’s… I just… I’m sorry.” He kisses her forehead, gently, the same way he kissed his son.
“Seriously, I’m scared.” Clara’s voice is tight, her body is rigid. “I’ve never seen you like this before. What is it? Is it your family?”
“It’s a long story,” Doyle says. “Long story.”
They sit there quietly on the couch for a minute, holding hands. Doyle stares at the TV—not really watching it, just staring.
“I have a past. You know that. I told you there were things in my life I wasn’t proud of. You never asked, never pressed. God, I was so grateful for that. The phone… that was my past calling.”
Doyle reaches over for the TV remote and turns off the TV. Without the background noise, even as low as it was, the room suddenly feels too quiet.
“When I was… hell, I was a kid, really. I thought I knew everything. Thought I had all the answers. I had a vision of How The World Should Be, and I thought I had the power to make it that way. Having a cause when you’re young… that’s better than any drug ever invented. Having a purpose. A crusade.”
He sighs. “It wasn’t really my crusade, though. I thought it was at the time. I thought I was a leader, at the vanguard of a wave of change. But all I was doing was repeating words someone else put in my head. I was a stupid little shit.”
The last word comes out hard, harsh, unforgiving. Doyle’s mouth curls in contempt as he remembers his younger self.
“I fought what I thought was the good fight, but it wasn’t. I was a chump. A puppet. I fought, and I lost, and I deserved it. And while I was sitting in the ruins, looking at the broken trash heap of my life, sitting in the spoiled carcass of everything I ever thought was true and wasn’t, men came to me. They picked me up, dusted me off, and gave me a new purpose. They showed me a new vision of How The World Should Be, and offered me more power to make it that way. And God, I signed on. I signed on so fast…”
He lets go of Clara’s hand. He slumps forward on the couch, head bowed, hands clasped as though in prayer.
“I was still a stupid little shit. I knew, though. The first time, I guess I can sort of explain it away. I was young and eager and trusting and carried away by words and visions and emotion. I wasn’t brainwashed the first time, but I was definitely carried away. But the second time I was bitter and angry and looking for a cause, and I signed on with eyes open, knowing where it would lead. And I was all in. I did everything they asked, I didn’t ask questions, I did everything.”
He laughs bitterly. “And then one day they just stopped calling. Nothing. Months passed. Then years. Years passed, and I never heard a word, and after a while I thought ‘hey, maybe they’re done with me.’ So I tried to move on, you know? I got a job, I made friends. I met you. Suddenly I had this life. I love this life. You showed me what I could have been, Clara. What I should have been. You and Junior.”
His voice hardens. “I’m still a stupid little shit.”
The room is silent. Doyle can hear traffic outside, the sound of people on the street—this house always had thin walls.
“I thought I could have this. I wanted it, and I lied to myself and told me they’d let me keep it. But when you make a deal with the devil and you’ve already sold your soul, what do you have left to trade?”
He clenches and unclenches his fists, over and over and over again.
“Your service, is what. Eternal, unending service. Whenever they call. Whatever they say. Wherever the road might lead. I knew that when I signed on. I accepted that.”
His voice breaks then, a half-sob, cut short by an effort of will. “You didn’t though. You didn’t know anything about this. I was so goddamn selfish, and I’m sorry, Clara. I really am.”
He looks at her, finally. Reluctantly. She’s slumped against the arm of the couch, head lolled over to one side, eyes wide open, staring straight ahead. She hasn’t been able to move for minutes, now. All she can do is stare straight ahead, unblinking, locked in her own body, drowning in her own fear.
“It’s kinda like Lou Gehrig’s disease,” Doyle says. His voice is gentle. It’s the voice he uses when he’s putting Junior to bed. “The brain can’t make the body do anything any more, so it just sits there, trapped. Only with Lou Gehrig’s disease you can still feel everything, right up to the end. I wouldn’t do that to you. You’re completely numb to everything now. Eventually you’ll shut down, and I swear you won’t feel it.”
He looks away. “Junior didn’t suffer. It hits infants really fast. All he did was go to sleep…”
He chokes up again. It takes him a few seconds to recover this time. “It’s the best I have, Clara. I’m sorry. Most of the fast ones hurt like hell, and I couldn’t do that to you. I know this isn’t much better, but it’s the best I can do…”
He stares at the ground, unwilling to look at her again. “It’ll be over soon. It’ll be over soon.”
He closes his eyes, listening. Finally he can hear it—a shallow, rasping breath, inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling… each breath gets shorter, and shallower, until finally it’s a series of soft gasps.
And then, finally, silence.
Plague opens his eyes, stands, and smooths out the wrinkles in his jacket.
“I’m late for work.”