by Kass


Thanks to merryish, watersword and yaoobruni for brainstorming and beta!.

Subject: Here I am
Date: June 20, 1995 09:00:04 AM

Hi Mom.

Yes, I got your emails. I'm sorry I worried you.

Look, I understand that as far as you're concerned there's nothing like the power of a good education, but please believe me when I say there was nothing else I was going to learn from the morons at Brighton aside from how to sleep my way through my senior year. It's a complete waste of my time.

And if it makes you feel any better, I didn't lie to you about the camping trip in the Berkshires. Jack and I really did go out there for the weekend. Walked a little bit of the AT, actually. I just headed west from there, instead of coming back with him.

I'm in Pittsburgh now. I hitched. Don't freak out; I got picked up by a female trucker who chain-smoked the whole way and called me "sugar" a lot. I wasn't in any danger.

You're going to tell me not to do that again, I know you are. Seriously, Mom, don't worry, I can take care of myself.

- Peter

Subject: California!
Date: August 9, 1995 05:11:03 PM


I've reached the far end of the continent. It's kind of exciting. Riding the rails beats the crap out of hitch-hiking. Well, except for the part where most trucks have bucket seats, whereas most boxcars not so much. But I like being able to walk around and stretch my legs. And there's more romance to hopping trains than there is to standing by the side of the road watching the asphalt melt.

The other guys doing this are mostly misfits. What intrigues me is, most of them are doing this by choice -- they have jobs they could be doing "back home," just don't want to do them -- which is not what I would have imagined. There's a whole code of behavior that I'm just figuring out, like when you leave a guy alone in a boxcar of his own and when it's okay to sit down and strike up conversation.

There's a decent impromptu lending library. One guy was carrying Fahrenheit 451, which I reread in about an hour. There's a lot of Jack Kerouac and Robert Pirsig, which probably tells you everything you need to know. Oddly, no one's been interested in the printer's proofs of Schrock's book on organometallics.

In southern California the trains stopped running and the air was smoky, so we all jumped ship. The fires are bad this year, and the Santa Anas aren't helping. Everything smells like ashes, and the air is hot and dry.

What surprises me isn't that there are fires here almost every year; it's that people keep building within obvious fire zones. Underbrush burns. This is a fire prone ecosystem. And yet people keep building subdivisions in places that obviously want to burn. It's a kind of insanity -- doing the same thing but expecting different results. (Did we ever establish whether that was Einstein or Franklin? It sounds more like Franklin to me.)

Anyway, I'm fine. Please don't worry. Go hang out with your book group. Enjoy having the house to yourself for a change. You've been talking about going to Scullers to hear some jazz for years now, but you never do it. Go have some fun. I really am okay, and you can email me anytime.

And no, I'm not coming home in time for the school year. I'm sorry. Did you really think this was just a summer thing?


Subject: We didn't start the fire
Date: September 20, 1995 06:58:00 PM


Sorry it's been a while. I haven't had a ton of internet access lately.

I've been working for the Bureau of Land Management. They don't usually take new hires this late in the season, but the fires have been so bad this year that they've been pressing pretty much every able-bodied guy they could find into service.

I thought it might be hard to get the job -- I'm not exactly Mr. Hulk over here -- but the recruiter didn't even blink, just gave me a clipboard and told me to fill out an application and show up for a mandatory drug test and a physical. (Both of which were a joke, in case you're wondering.)

Training was kind of abbreviated, since they couldn't spare many guys to teach us, but that was fine by me -- the training was boring anyway. Everybody just wanted to get out there.

The pay is crap, but the work is interesting, and on really bad days we get twelve bucks an hour. (Yes, that's hazard pay. Time and a half. I'm living high on the hog.) We spend a lot of time building firelines. I've never set so many fires in my life, and I think I could happily go the rest of my life without ever smoking a cigarette now.

The smokejumpers are having all the fun. Don't worry, I'm not eligible to apply for a smokejumper position until I've served at least a year, and I doubt I'll be here in another month anyway. But man, jumping out of helicopters with firefighting gear strapped to your back: compared with that, chainsaws and firelines are just so predictable.

I'm the smallest guy on my team, but I haven't had any trouble lifting the equipment. I seem to be as strong as some of the guys who work out regularly. I'm not complaining; it's just odd.

The reason I haven't given you an address is that I don't really have one. We've been camping not far from the fireline and working twelve hour shifts. Every seventh day we get to come home for a night, but it hasn't been worth finding a place to live. I've been sleeping on this guy Luis' couch, but I think his girlfriend doesn't like me, so I'm probably going to look for a new place to crash later this week. Honestly, I don't need anything from home; everything I own here reeks of smoke and I'm probably going to burn these clothes once the fires are out anyway.

Anyway. There's honestly not much else happening. Fight fires, eat chili, sleep. Luis said something about dragging everybody to a bar next time we're here on a Friday night, but I'll probably skip it anyway.

Okay, the library's about to close so I have to log off now. More soon.

- Peter

Subject: Okay, fine, I'll spill
Date: February 4, 1997 09:03:17 AM


Her name is Clara, and no it's not serious. She works as a croupier at the Imperial, which means I'm spending a lot of time in her casino, among others. It turns out all that time I spent learning to count cards so you wouldn't be able to beat my friends and me at gin rummy is actually useful to me now.

Walter hasn't been hassling you any more, has he? I told them they should under no circumstances allow him access to the payphone anymore. You shouldn't hear from him again.

Anyway. I'm playing a lot of poker. It's not as glamorous as it sounds -- I'm in the casino by 10 in the morning and most days I don't leave until Clara gets off work at midnight. And then we go home and do things I won't tell you about, because you're still my mother, and you do not need to know.

I'm sorry we don't have plans to come to Massachusetts anytime soon. Clara doesn't get a ton of vacation days, and although I'm making a decent living at the poker tables, it's not exactly the kind of job that leads to benefits or a travel budget. (And I don't want to win big right now; do that too many times and I'm liable to get myself on casino blacklists, which is exactly what I do not want.)

Clara applied for a job as a croupier on a Norwegian cruiseliner, which I think would be a lot of fun. I've always wanted to see the fjords. I'll keep you posted.

Are you doing okay? Do you need money? I don't have a checking account, but Clara does, and I can send you a check if you need anything. Just ask.

- Peter

Subject: Castle at the Horseshoe
Date: May 13, 1998 01:03:22 AM

Hi Mom.

If Mrs. Steig could see me now...! Something tells me I'm not the only one of her students currently employed as a bar pianist -- though she always thought I was destined for greatness, so she'd probably be especially disappointed to see me here. I kind of like it, though. Low pressure.

I decided to adopt a stage name; meet "Peter Castle." It has a nice ring to it, don't you think? (Also, "Peter Castle" is old enough to legally drink, which means he can work in a bar without raising any eyebrows.)

The good thing about playing at the Horseshoe is that once it gets to be about one in the morning, everybody's too drunk to care what I'm playing. Then I can break into some more interesting jazz, at least. And sometimes I stay after closing time, when the staff is cleaning up, and play Rachmaninoff and Bach and Ustvolskaya just because I can.

But most of the time it's "Funny, Here Comes That Rainy Day" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "As Time Goes By." Most nights some clown requests "Piano Man" and then laughs at me drunkenly. One of these days I'm going to actually snarl at the guy who asks for it, and then I'll be out of a job.

But for now it's not so bad. Other than calling out requests, nobody talks to me, and I have to say, that suits me just fine.

The other night I saw a guy propose to his girlfriend by dropping a ring into her martini. She almost swallowed it -- I think she thought it was an olive. That was entertaining.

How are you? Did you adopt the cat? Just please tell me you're not going to name it after Walter or me.

- Peter

Subject: Hello?
Date: April 2, 2001 11:04:45 PM

Are you out of town? I tried calling the house a few times today, but didn't get an answer. You also haven't answered my last few emails, which isn't like you. I hope I haven't said anything to make you angry. I know I was hard on Walter last time we talked, and I know you hate that; I'll be better about it from here on out, I promise. It's not fair of me to hold you accountable for the fact of his complete and utter craziness.

Anyway. When you have a second, drop me a line?

- Peter

Subject: ...
Date: April 11, 2001 03:21:00 AM

I don't even know how to write this email.

I should have noticed it the first time you didn't write back. You've always been so good about that, but somehow I let it slide. I was busy. There were things going on. A business deal about to go south. It doesn't matter.

When you kept not writing back, I thought maybe you were pissed at me. Or maybe you were traveling somewhere, didn't have access to email.

I still can't believe you're gone.

The obit in the Globe was nice. I wonder who wrote it. One of the book club ladies, maybe. Were you still doing that? I didn't think to ask.

I liked the way it finessed the whole question of Walter's and my whereabouts. "She is survived by her son Peter, recently of Tallahassee, and her husband Walter, in residence at St. Claire's in Woburn." Sounds like he's working there, maybe. Like the two of you had a commuter marriage, or a temporary separation. The casual reader would have no idea he's spent the last ten years in a mental institution, and no idea I've spent the last six years on the road.

I can't believe you're not going to read this. I don't even know why I'm writing it.

But I can't stand the thought of stopping. Not writing to you anymore. These emails are the closest thing I have to a journal. The only connection between the life I have now and the life I had before.

I'm sorry I never came home again.

I'm sorry you had such a tough life.

I hope, wherever you are, you're happy.

Subject: St. John
Date: June 19, 2002 11:04:55 AM

I'm going to stop feeling sheepish about writing you these messages. It's cheaper than therapy, right?

I don't really have anything to say. St. John is nice. No hurricanes yet, though it's early in the season still.

You would have liked it here.

Subject: Blake
Date: August 14, 2002 12:13:25 PM

So there's this guy. Name of Blake.

He's almost as smart as I am, which is saying something. Obviously not hurting for money; I wish you could see his house, it's incredible. The kind of expensive that doesn't look expensive, so you know it's even more expensive than you think.

We met on the beach about three weeks ago. We've been spending a fair amount of time together, which is...nice. I like it more than I want to admit. It's possible that being solitary and always on the move is getting a little bit old.

He comes from old money: prep school, sang with the Whiffenpoofs at Yale and so on. I did the usual due diligence and the internet backs up his claims, but there's still something about him that seems...constructed. Not that I have any stones to throw on that front, since I introduced myself as Peter King from El Paso.

It's funny how much freer I feel with the assumed name. He knows my mother died last year, he knows my father is incarcerated. Telling those truths doesn't feel as vulnerable when they don't link me to Walter or to you.

Blake called me up this morning and invited me over for drinks and dinner. He sounded excited about something, but wouldn't say what it was.

I can't shake the feeling that he's going to proposition me tonight. I think I'll say yes. Would that shock you? I couldn't really imagine saying any of this to you, and now I'll never know how you would have responded.

Subject: Blake
Date: August 15, 2002 04:11:14 AM

I can't believe it. All that coy flirtation -- the open-collared shirt, swirling 15-year-old Guyanan rum around in the palm of his hand, breaking out the good grass -- was actually leading up to a business proposition. Not the kind I'd been hoping for.

Blake saw it in my eyes, too, and his smile turned tight, and in that instant I hated him a little bit.

But I can't stop thinking about his suggestion. Nanotechnology paired with an injectible chemical agent which would enable the body to generate dummy cells. Fool a retinal scanner and a thumbprint reader, and you could do…just about anything. He says he has someone working on the nanotech. The chemistry would be all me.

My first thought was: he knows I'm Walter's son. That, in itself, should be enough to make me flee for greener pastures. But I can't seem to help being intrigued.

Could I really create that kind of chemical agent? Just thinking about setting up the lab makes my head spin. We'd need a ridiculous amount of money. Which, apparently, he has. I don't know. It's practically alchemy.

I told him I'd think about it. He's right that there's a fortune in it, but I'm uncomfortable. I don't like the idea of being beholden to him. Honestly, this whole thing makes me tempted to go do something else for a while. Maybe actually find a life I can settle down into, instead of one that keeps me running all the time.

Screw it: I'm getting out of here.

Subject: Professor
Date: November 13, 2003 09:14:02 PM

I have to admit, there's a part of me that wants to send the journal articles to Walter. Even though I've never written to him, and do not intend to start. But there's still part of me that wants to rub his nose in the fact that I'm succeeding -- that I'm publishing, that I'm tenure-track.

The degree may be falsified, the surname may be fake, but the research is real. And I'll bet it's one hell of a lot more interesting than toothpaste. Even if it's not the cutting-edge organo-nanontech I would have been doing if I had said yes to Blake.

Teaching is actually pretty fun. The kids are all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. After a few drinks Sharon gets misty-eyed and says things like, "were we ever really that idealistic?" I wasn't, obviously, but I'm not telling her that.

This place really is the quintessential New England liberal arts college. Exactly like it looks in the brochures: autumn leaves, ivy growing over red brick, students bundled in winter coats walking across the quad. You would have loved it here. I'm sorry I didn't have this kind of life before, when you could have visited me.

I haven't told Sharon about Walter. She knows he's alive, but I've just said we're estranged, and she wisely leaves it at that. I think she suspects he might have beaten me, or sexually abused me or something. In some ways he might as well have. God knows I have plenty of scars, if only the invisible kind. Man: I should really not write to you after a glass of scotch, I'm getting maudlin.

Anyway. Sharon's a few years older than I am; I think she's eager to move in. I told her I wanted to wait and see how the year plays out. I haven't really unpacked, even though I've been here for more than three months. It's just hard to imagine putting down roots somewhere. I feel like something's going to come along to screw things up.

Subject: Predictable
Date: January 11, 2004 10:23:16 AM

I guess I should be surprised it took them a whole semester to figure me out.

Sharon cried and cried, and screamed at me until she was hoarse. She didn't throw anything, though, so I guess it could be worse.

I ran into a couple of my students while I was packing up the car, and one of them asked if I'd still help him with his dissertation. I told him I would, but he'd have to pay handsomely for the privilege. Presto: new career path.

It seems like I should feel some guilt about leaving the ivory tower and promptly starting to write dissertation chapters for pay. But I don't. Maybe I'm bitter at the academic system for screwing me out of the first stable job I've ever had, even though I screwed them first.

Whatever. The money's good. I won't do any of the labwork -- have to leave something for the kids to do themselves, right? -- so the work is portable. I'm thinking Tokyo; I've always wanted to see some of Asia.

Am resolutely not thinking about how much dough I could make working with Blake. I told him no. End of story.

Subject: Istanbul
Date: February 10, 2005 03:14:15 PM

It's beautiful here in the wintertime. Hagia Sofia under a thin coat of snow. I had to buy a new coat in the Amsterdam airport, which cost more than I wanted it to, but I'm glad I have it. The heat in my hotel is...sub-optimal.

My contacts here are seriously paranoid; we met at Cagaloglu, presumably because no one could bug the place. Apparently these guys have done business there before, because after we changed (into towels and wood-and-leather sandals) we were led into a smallish marble room where we were left alone to talk.

Predictably, they tried to undercut me, but I held my ground. I came away with a thirty percent stake. Assuming my intel is good, which I'm pretty sure it is, we're going to make a killing, and I'll come away with a nice nest egg.

Once we'd concluded our business, a big man appeared silently in the door and guided us to the main room, a huge octagonal space with a high ceiling. My contacts urged me to enjoy a massage (''our treat, please'') so I figured what the hell.

My whole body kind of hurts now, but in a good way. I think I might be half an inch taller.

Tonight: kebab and a bottle of Raki. Tomorrow: moving on.

Subject: Since you're never going to see this
Date: March 19, 2006 04:32:15 PM

Every now and then I think I've really gotten myself in trouble, but then I manage to squeeze out of it again. It's a rush. Like walking the rails and throwing myself out of the way just before the train comes hammering past.

Sometimes I've regretted leaving home so young. It hasn't always been easy, or comfortable, or fun. I didn't want to write to you about the things that went badly; I still don't. But being on my own has forced me to learn how to think on my feet, and I'm grateful for that.

Being able to talk fast and sound convincing has served me well. Once again I'm not in jail, or dead, or worse. I'm holed up somewhere safe, nursing my bruises and drinking gin, knowing that by tomorrow no one will even be able to tell I got the crap beat out of me again.

Sometimes I wonder which one of you I have to thank for healing as fast as I do. I suspect the answer is Walter, but I don't want to think too hard about that.

Anyway. Life could suck a lot more than this. Even though Tess is furious at me, and Blake probably still has a bounty on my head, and you're still gone.

Subject: On my way up again
Date: August 10, 2007 11:14:45 PM

Almost twelve years since I left home. This isn't the life I imagined, but it's the life I've got.

Mohegan Sun is just as I imagined it. Full of people trying too hard to have a good time. Not unlike Vegas, in that way, though part of what makes Vegas great is the ridiculousness of its scale. Bright lights and neon and extravagant fountains in the desert. This place doesn't have any of that going for it.

But there's a lot of money here, and I'm going to make some of it mine.

Tomorrow I'm meeting with a guy named Big Eddie (I don't know his last name; everybody just calls him Big Eddie) about a loan, just to get me on my feet again. I've been watching the way they deal and I'm pretty sure I can beat their system.

And then once I've made my fortune...

I wouldn't mind going back to the Caribbean, but I don't want to risk running into Blake or his buddies. I've been thinking about Japan again; I liked Tokyo. Or it might be time to see someplace more remote, Hokkaido maybe.

I miss you. I wish I could call.

Subject: Shaking it off
Date: November 14, 2007 02:39:45 PM

Blake's goons have gotten smarter. Well: they're not the goons anymore. I seem to have graduated. Now he's got sneakier bastards following me. I spotted one behind a newspaper at the diner on Eleventh, and another one in line ahead of me at Starbucks.

It's been five years and I haven't breathed a word to anyone about what he wanted to do; why is he still having me tailed?

I told him I wasn't interested. And I'm sure as hell not the only organic chemist he can lay hands on, so I don't understand why he's not going elsewhere and leaving me the hell alone.

Subject: Fuck you
Date: July 9, 2008 00:03:45 AM

Who hacks into a dead woman's email account?

Not a rhetorical question, actually, since someone's hacked into this one. I don't know why you're reading my dead mother's mail, but you're an asshole, whoever you are.

I wanted to read some of our correspondence, so I logged into her account, and from force of habit checked last account activity. This account has been accessed recently by someone at another IP address -- and you've hidden the IP by using Tor exit nodes, so I can't trace you.

I don't know why I didn't think to check sooner. Someone's been logging in routinely, and since I can't quite bring myself to believe that the spirit of my mother is checking her email from beyond the grave, that points to you. Whoever you are.

Did you think I wouldn't see? Or did you want me to log in to her account one day and realize you've been watching over my shoulder all this time?

Blake, if this is you... You know what? I don't even want to contemplate that possibility. I would rather imagine some shadowy, nameless government entity printing these messages and filing them away in a manila file labeled with my name than imagine you prying into my business. Into my mother's business.

Thank you for curing me of my last remaining link to sentimentality. I'm never going to see my father again, and you just took away my last glimmer of connection to my dead mother. I hope you're proud of yourself.

I'm going to derive such pleasure from falling off your map. Obviously I'm never using either of these email accounts again, but that's just a start. If you're keeping tabs on me you know Boston isn't especially hospitable for me right now, so I'm leaving town, and don't you wish you knew where to? Tough: I'm going someplace where my life can be my own.

The End