One Nerve Remaining, Waiting on One Look…
Have You Got it in You, Part II
It’s getting worse, against all the odds, it’s getting worse…
(Guard down, floor’s yours, last man standing can we just get it over with…)
The executive bathroom is private, thank God, and Alan locks himself in.
For a while he simply leans back against the door, pulling off his glasses and squeezing his eyes shut in an effort to get himself back under control. But that just makes it worse, makes the images (Hardington’s body pinned beneath him, his hands locked around the bastard’s throat, bone and cartilage cracking and collapsing beneath his fingers) stand out brighter against the black backdrop of his closed eyelids.
He stumbles to the sink on shaking legs and splashes cold water on his face, forcing himself to breathe in slow, soft inhales and long, flat exhales because that’s what always seems to work best, trying to make the runaway beat of his heart match the much calmer rhythm of his breathing. Finally it starts to work, and Alan shudders in relief. But then he catches sight of his reflection in the mirror—pale face and shadowed eyes and too-prominent cheekbones—and suddenly the adrenaline surges through him again, and before he even understands what he’s doing he’s driven his fist into the mirror with a hoarse, ragged cry of rage.
The world goes blessedly grey for a moment.
When Alan comes back to himself he’s still slumped against the counter, braced on one hand. There’s a great round spiderweb of cracks in the mirror now, obliterating one of his reflection’s eyes and warping and distorting one side of his face. His other hand hurts like hell; Alan wonders dully if it’s broken.
“Please,” Alan whispers, whether to his reflection or God or to the Universe at large, he’s not sure. “Please, no more. No more.”
The house is empty when Alan gets home. Lora’s gone for the next three days, on her final interview for the position at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Part of him desperately wishes she was here; the other part is profoundly grateful she isn’t here to see him like this. It was hard enough to convince her to take the job in DC as it was. He can’t give her another reason to worry about him now.
He sets a pot of coffee to brewing and pulls some ice out of the freezer to make a pack for his swelling left hand. I had to put my good hand through the goddamn mirror, he thinks, and emits a strangled noise that might’ve been a laugh.
For the next few minutes Alan feels almost like he might be settling back towards some semblance of normal, but then something new sets his nerves on edge and his skin crawling. It takes his exhausted mind another five minutes to realize it’s the sound of the coffee maker percolating that’s doing it, of all things, and he yanks the cord out of the wall violently enough that the entire machine ends up crashing to the floor, sending half-brewed boiling coffee and broken glass everywhere.
He’s still staring numbly at it when he hears the front door open.
“Hey, Uncle Alan? You home? Sorry I just let myself in, but I left one of my textbooks over here the other night and you weren’t answering the phone, and I saw your car here so I figured…”
Sam Flynn turns the corner into the kitchen and blinks. He looks from Alan’s face, to his icepack-covered hand, to the coffee maker’s corpse on the floor, and then back up to Alan’s face again, with that boggle-eyed expression he gets whenever he encounters something that just doesn’t make sense.
“Holy shit, Uncle Alan, what happened? Are you okay?”
Alan opens his mouth to answer, but it’s simply too much, the final straw. His vision greys out once again, then tunnels all the way to black, and he feels his legs give out underneath him. The last thing Alan hears is Sam’s shout as he rushes to catch him.
“Alan? Hey, come on, wake up buddy, anybody home…?”
Alan opens his eyes to find himself lying on his living room couch, with Roy Kleinberg perched on its arm next to him, a glass of water in his hand.
“About damn time,” Roy says, smiling lopsidedly, the relief in his voice unmistakable. “How’re you feeling?”
“Roy…? …what’re you…when did you…?” he starts, his voice barely more than a croak.
“Sam called me,” Roy answers, pushing himself off the arm of the couch. He kneels next to Alan, helping him sit up and pressing the glass of water into his uninjured hand. “I sent him home a few minutes ago—the kid was damn near hysterical. He thought you’d had a heart attack. Damn near gave me one.”
“…’m not so sure I didn’t,” Alan mutters, draining the glass and nodding gratefully to Roy. “Thanks.”
“Alan, how long has it been since you slept?”
“I’ve been sleeping fine,” Alan answers automatically. “Just…had a stressful day.”
Roy isn’t having it. “Alan Bradley, you are the worst goddamn liar in the world, and you know it, so don’t bullshit me. Can you stand?”
Alan thinks about it for a moment, then cautiously stands up from the couch, bracing himself on the arm until the dizziness goes away. “Yeah. I think so.”
“Good,” Roy says. “Because I’m taking you to the doctor.”
He’s got Alan in the passenger seat of his beat-up red Honda hatchback before he can properly protest, and by the time they’ve pulled out of Alan’s cul-de-sac Alan is dozing, drifting to the sound of REM playing on Roy’s radio.
The doctor X-rays his hand and diagnoses hairline fractures of his first and second proximal phalanges. He sends Alan home with a cast and prescriptions for painkillers and a new type of sleeping pill called zolpidem, along with an admonition to come back and see him in two weeks if his insomnia hasn’t improved.
“Don’t worry,” Roy assures him. “I’ll drag him in here with a chainfall if I have to, and I probably will.”
Alan doesn’t bother with the painkillers, but he takes the first of the sleeping pills almost as soon as he’s sent Roy off, promising to tell him everything tomorrow. He can almost imagine Roy’s indignation at the Chairman of the Board’s proffered “favor”, and the thought actually makes him smile, a little.
He’ll never be able to tell him about the rest, though. Alan can’t think of anyone he could possibly tell, anyone he could explain it to—he can’t even explain what happened today to himself—and in those last minutes before the sedative drags him under, Alan has never felt so alone.
In his dream he’s standing before the broken mirror again, looking into the shattered, distorted face of his reflection.
I’m sorry, he whispers to the face in the mirror. I wish I could understand. I want to understand. But I can’t. I can’t take this anymore. I don’t have it in me. I’m sorry.
The reflection lingers for a few last moments, staring back at him silently through the web of cracks. Alan can almost imagine some emotion in the one visible eye—anger or fear or sorrow—but he can’t quite get a handle on it.
Then the reflection is gone, leaving only the empty glass behind.
When Alan wakes, his pillow is damp, as if he’d been crying in his sleep. But he can’t remember his dream, if indeed he’d had one at all, and the only emotion that comes to him is relief.
For the next six hundred cycles, Rinzler never breaks his programming again.