This is an excerpt from “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” by Thomas Sweterlitsch. Copyright 2014 © Thomas Sweterlitsch. Reprinted with permission of G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
10, 21 —
People often ask us how their loved ones died, expecting extraordinary circumstances or wondering whether they suffered terribly, and I’m reminded of Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts because, with rare exception, the deaths we research are banal — someone eating, opening a window or walking dully along. Nothing extraordinary — though often survivors remember how fine a day it was, how perfect for autumn, how almost like summer. The end occurred quickly, that much is verifiable — no one suffered except the ones who lived. Five hundred thousand lives ended in the blinding white flash. Shadows elongated and became like charcoal smudges, the City became like snowy ash and in a breath of wind vanished. Other than details, all we really answer about their loved ones is that they likely did not suffer and they likely died as they had lived. Even this dreadful martyrdom ran its course.
October twenty-first —
Ten years since the end.
Tuesday’s the last I used brown sugar. I’d even pinged Kucenic that morning to be courteous, to tell him I’d a touch of the bug and wouldn’t be coming in — but he informed me I’m already out of sick days and vacation days and some of the other archival assistants were tired of covering for me. That I would be docked pay and may face probation. There’d been complaints, he said. He voiced a few minutes later, his profile pic all snowy beard and kind blue eyes, his Adware left gaudily exposed like a crosshatch of silver wires threading his skull beneath his wispy hair. This was over at Tryst Coffeehouse, on their Wi-Fi to take the call. My Adware’s shoddy, running a skittish frame rate that augments reality with a shitty microsecond delay. Kucenic’s image hung in my eyes like a transparency overlaying café menus, displays of lattes, Red Eyes, Mochas, velvety coffees hovering wherever I looked, Fair Trade and Organic info scrolling over every bag of beans. He asked if everything was all right but his lips weren’t quite synched up with his words.
“Everything’s fine,” I told him. “My sinuses, I think, just a sinus infection –”
“You’re researching homicide,” he told me.
“I’ll be better tomorrow –”
“I’ve trusted you with potential fraud and homicide,” he said. “There’s a schedule we have to follow, there are reports –”
“Her body was tampered with –”
Self-conscious discussing the body in a crowded café, but everyone at the nearby tables was immersed in their own Adware streams, chatting to unseen companions or slumped over their coffee lost in private fantasies — no one paying attention to me.
“RFI #14502 — Hannah Massey,” said Kucenic. “You’ve written that the archive’s corrupted around her –”
“Whoever’s trying to cover up the killing is sloppy,” I told him. “All those corruptions in the archive are like fingerprints but there are a million fingerprints and it will take time to make sense of them all –”
“You’re burning yourself out,” he said. “I understand this is a difficult time for you, and I’m sympathetic, I am, but I need to know if you can handle this report right now. It’s been months since you first found her. I need you to wrap this up. Do you need help? We can work out a leave of absence. We can reassign your cases –”
“I don’t need a leave,” I told him. “I can’t afford a leave –”
“What does your doctor say?”
“Leave personal shit out of this,” I told him. “Don’t turn this personal –”
“You’re doing taxing work,” he said, easing off a bit. “You’re always thorough in your approach, but there are gaps in your presentation. Significant gaps. What about the victim’s parents? Her friends? You haven’t even filled in her last hours –”
“There are no last hours, not yet,” I told him. “I’ve tracked her to the point of her disappearance, but that’s not when she died. She was on campus, a psychology lecture about human/computer interaction. After class she cut through the Student Center and entered the lower level of a parking garage on Fifth Avenue, near Moorewood. No security cameras down there. That’s when she was taken –”
I minimized Kucenic and stared into my coffee, at the Nutrition Facts appearing there like legible shimmers of light. There’s a gap in the Archive from when she entered the parking garage to when I found her body near the river. Security cameras were installed in that garage in the weeks after she vanished — there’s plenty of footage of the garage’s lower levels timestamped weeks and months following her disappearance, of security guards making their rounds on golf carts, but all too late.
“We need to trim the scope of what you’re working on. State Farm just wants proof of how she died,” said Kucenic. “A documented cause of death — that’s all. A one page summary. And when we’re certain we’re dealing with homicide, I’ll have to register her death with the FBI — there are legal implications if we don’t handle this properly. We need to stick to their timetables. I can’t go days or weeks without hearing from you –”
“I found her body,” I told him, thinking of spring rains sluicing away her shallow burial. “No one else would have –”
“Look, Dominic,” he said, “if you’re going to work in this field you have to understand the bigger picture. You can’t just hole up in the research, block out every other consideration. You have to understand that when I meet with State Farm, their reps will be excited by what you’ve found, the work you’re doing, but their first question will be, ‘why haven’t you told us how she died?’ That information means money to them — they care about the money, not the girl. You have to think like they think if you want to be effective in this line of work –”
“They don’t care who killed her, just that she was killed,” I said. “Isn’t that right? You want me to ignore what happened to her? I can’t do that, Kucenic. For the past few weeks, whenever I close my eyes I see her –”
“All these images aren’t real,” he told me. “You immerse into the archive and if you’re not careful, you forget that it isn’t real. You spend so much time watching people die — it can affect you. It’s okay if you can’t keep up right now, if you can’t work like this –”
“What do you mean, ‘forget that it isn’t real?’ It was all real –”
Thomas Sweterlitsch is the author of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” his first novel. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter, and worked for 12 years at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Reach him @LetterSwitch.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.