“How would you do it?”
“I don’t remember when it started,” Susannah said.
They were walking the rim of Potter’s Field now, streetlights pooling along Boulevard in the distance. Beneath their feet, thousands of forgotten bones, stories never told.
“It would be easier, I think, if I could point to a day and say, ‘There. That’s when I began to lose my mind.’ But it didn’t work that way. It came on as age does, tiny creaks to your bones that you don’t hear at first. Creases you don’t notice until they’ve remapped your skin. You don’t see it coming because it’s coming all the time. I don’t know, maybe I was always crazy. Maybe I’ve never been.”
“What do you mean, ‘crazy’?” Grant asked.
“Such a terrible word, isn’t it? I’ve had therapists who would scold me for using it. But that’s how it felt, as if I was given to crazes. Flash floods of grief for no reason. Riptides tugging me down. I could drown in them, my lungs physically aching for air. Then just as sudden, I’d be calm again, rebuilt. Sometimes the spells would be happy ones, a surging in my blood, dizzy hope. But more often, it felt like drowning. The harder I fought for the surface, the quicker I sank.”
“How long would they last, these spells?”
“A few hours, at first. Then days, weeks. When Eliot was 7 or 8, they started to come more often. I’d be sitting there with my beautiful daughter, tipsy with love for her, and then like a snap, I’d go under. I’d get distant, unresponsive, sometimes even cruel. It must have been awful to have me as a mother.”
“Where was Frank in all this?” Grant asked.
Susannah didn’t answer until they’d merged with the path along the Bell Tower, coming upon a stretch of graves Grant had never seen.
“Do you ever drive somewhere, maybe early in the morning, and when you get there, you don’t remember driving? Like, you must have, because you’re someplace else, but you can’t remember even turning on the car? That’s what it felt like to be married to Frank. I must have loved him at some point. He was a good man, a good father. He tried to treat me well. But it was as if I’d been sleepwalking when we married. I’d look at him and think, who are you?”
Grant thought of the man in his hospital bed, fresh stitches seaming his skin. How lonely his life must have been.
“Did you get help?” Jules asked. Her tone was softer than before, swaddled and careful.
“There were always doctors, always pills. They’d work for a while, until they didn’t. I had a couple stays in a psych ward, but they just made me loopier and hateful. I’d blame Frank for sending me there, even though it had never been his choice. When a doctor suggested the Lotus, I think it was more for Frank than me. Give him and Eliot a break; send me somewhere that didn’t feel like prison.”
“We’ve seen the brochure,” Jules said. “It must have been very appealing.”
“I loved it immediately. The lake, the air. It was green everywhere, lush and alive. At first, it was just massages and steam baths and sparkling water at every meal. The third day, I started what they called my ‘holistic healing journey.’” She laughed at the term, light as wind chimes. “I did two hours every morning in an art class, making clay ashtrays or whatever. Then I went swimming or hiking before lunch. My early afternoons were spent with IV treatments or acupuncture or Thai massage. Around 2, I’d go to Dr. Bergmann-Fuchs’s office for three hours of ‘guided self-healing.’” She glanced to Grant with a smirk. “They wouldn’t let us call it ‘therapy.’ At dinner, they gave us these shakes that tasted like mulch and patchouli, and then we went to bed.”
“What was in the shakes?” Grant asked.
Susannah shrugged. “I didn’t care. I felt better than I had in years.”
“That doctor, Bergmann-whatever,” Jules said. “What was he like?”
“He had this voice like glass—flat and clean, almost transparent. No accent, no shifts in tone. Being around him felt like being alone, only more so. It was like he was inside your own head.” She crossed her arms against the chill. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized what he must have been doing. Snaking his way into our thoughts. He hypnotized us, you know? He called it ‘liberating your subconscious,’ but it was your basic nightclub hypnosis. He must have suggested memories, implanted ideas, but I do remember that I was the one who suggested ending my life.”
She stepped off the sidewalk here, leading them over the lumpy grass, which sunk, ever so slightly, beneath their feet.
“I didn’t want to die, exactly. I just wanted to stop existing. Like an actress who got stuck in a role. I was ready for new challenges, I told him, a new life. But even as I said those things, I could hear his voice in my head suggesting them.”
“That didn’t worry you?”
“I took it as a good sign, like maybe I was making sense for the first time.”
Susannah came to a stop near the greenhouse, where she brought her face to the window and cupped her hands. Grant watched her for a few seconds, her skirt shifting in the wind, those shoulders curving just like Eliot’s. He wondered how much his friend knew of this story and prayed, fists and teeth clenched, that he’d get to ask her someday.
“So how’d you get from therapy to Brasstown Bald?”
“It was just talk for a while,” she said, falling into step beside them. “I returned to the Lotus every few months, shaky and dry-mouthed like an addict. Over time, the conversation turned to plans, at first hypothetical—where would you go? How would you do it? And it wasn’t just me talking. He’d add details too. Then one day, I walked into his office, and he was smiling. Dr. Bergmann-Fuchs never smiled. But he had this goofy grin as he told me had this friend. If I could come up with $500,000, this guy would help me fake my own suicide. He’d take care of the planning, pick me up from the trail parking lot—whatever I needed. He could even get me a new identity, Social Security number and all.”
“Why did you go along with it?” Jules asked.
“I never considered saying no. By then, he’d made me want it so badly. I was giddy with my good luck.”
“Where’d you get $500,000?”
“My parents left a trust for Eliot’s education when they died. I was the executor.”
Jules shook her head but kept her mouth shut.
“The day it happened,” Susannah continued, “They took me to a safe house south of the city, kept me there for weeks. No phone or TV. I couldn’t even go outside. Every day, I got a new set of guards who watched me eat, sleep, shower. Never the same people two days in a row. They didn’t want me making friends,” she said. “Eventually, a man in a three-piece suit came to get me. He put me on a private plane with a new driver’s license and birth certificate. As soon as the plane took off, he told me, Susannah Wiley would be dead. I’d become Virginia Johnson,” she chuckled. “Such a common name.”
Grant wondered about the real Virginia Johnson, buried somewhere nearby. How many names had been stolen, lives commandeered?
“I didn’t know where we were going until we landed at a small airfield outside San Diego. Another man greeted me, this one in galoshes and smelling of fish. He handed me an envelope with $1000 cash and the address to my new apartment. ‘Good luck,’ he said. Like a fool, I thought that was the end of it. I thought I was free. And for a few months, maybe I was. I got a job at a makeup counter at the mall. Made a couple of friends, got a cat. But then one day,” Susannah’s gaze sank to her hands. “I came home from work to find a woman in my living room. I remember thinking she was old, but she was probably 65, 66. Long gray hair swooped in a bun. She looked like your favorite librarian. She had th-these photos of Eliot on the playground. I thought she was just being nice, letting me see my daughter was okay, but in the last one, she was in the picture too. She had this dog, and Eliot was petting it, the sweetest grin on her face. I’ll never forget what the woman said. ‘It would be shame if something happened to that little girl.’”
Susannah shuddered now, maybe from memory, maybe the mounting chill in the air. Grant took off his coat and set it across her shoulders.
“That’s when she told me how this thing worked. She said people would approach me—wherever I went, whenever they needed me—and I’d have to do what they asked. Most of the time, it was a package they needed delivered, or they’d have a message for me to call in. Sometimes, though,” she inhaled sharply. “Sometimes it was worse. If I didn’t do what they asked, they’d hurt Eliot. I didn’t have any choice.”
“Couldn’t you go to the police?” Jules asked.
“And say what? That I faked my death and now some nameless, faceless group was forcing me to run errands? For all I knew, some of them were cops. I couldn’t take the risk. They would’ve killed her.”
“How often did they come?” Grant asked.
“Sometimes I’d go months without a word. Sometimes I’d get two in one week. They’d always have more pictures of Eliot in the school play, or at Girl Scouts. Each time, someone—maybe the person who approached me, but often not—would be in the picture with her. So what else could I do? I delivered their packages. I called in their codes. They took money too, thousands of it at a time, whatever I had.”
“Did you try to get away?”
“Once,” Susannah said. “I hid in the basement of an abandoned house in the Valley. I was there a week, maybe. Then some guy showed up at my window with a photo of Eliot in the hospital. Her head shaved. Bloody,” she gestured to her temple. “They had done it, hurt her just like they said they would.”
“No they didn’t,” Grant said. “That was the bombing before the Olympics. She was there when it happened. It’s how we met.”
Susannah closed her eyes and nodded, taking a deep breath before continuing on. “Well, it achieved their goal. I never tried to get away again.”
“If they follow you all the time, they know you’re here. Why would they let you come?”
“Three years ago, they asked me to do something big. I won’t tell you what. But they said if I did it, they’d leave me alone, so I did. And they did. But then Eliot came to set, and then, you two showed up, calling me Susannah, just like they always do. I thought you were with them.”
Grant remembered how her skin had paled when he’d said her name, even that birthmark flushing white. “If they have Eliot…,” he said.
“I know,” Susannah added.
They walked for a minute in silence, the moon looming overhead. He didn’t know what to do next, how to find her. The world felt so big.
They’d skirted the obelisk monument, heading wordlessly back to their start, when they heard it. A thin sound from behind them, like a twig snapping or knuckles popped. Susannah’s back shot straight and she froze, only her eyes frantic in motion. “They found us,” she said.
“It was just—” Grant started, but when he glanced back, he saw the edges of a shadow in motion. He looked to Jules, who was tensed and white-eyed.
He heard his coat drop to the ground before he noticed Susannah moving. He turned to see the white flutter of her skirt as she ran toward the gate. “Damnit,” he said.
He tugged Jules with him as he darted toward a row of headstones to crouch behind. In the ground, he could feel the echo of heavy footsteps. “We need to split up,” he whispered. “Run that way. The wall is closer. I’ll go toward the trains. Once you get out, call an Uber or take MARTA or whatever. I’ll meet you at the library, okay?”
Jules stared at him, breath heavy.
Grant peered over the stone to see a jowly man in a black coat stalking the Bell Tower walls. To Jules, Grant whispered, “Go.”
Jules made a little noise in the scramble, but she was light and gone before the man turned around. He saw Grant, though. His eyes winked like the moon on his pistol.
Grant shot to his feet and started running. As if his knee had never shattered, as if he wasn’t held together by screws and fear. He headed toward the chain link fence, over the loose bricks, the tree roots. Past an iron-gated mausoleum, beyond low stone walls crumbly with age. He could hear the man behind him, panting but steady. The first chance he got, he ducked behind a knurled tree, where it was just dark enough for him to fit into the shadow.
The man, his boots crunching over dead leaves, somehow ran past him. Grant heard him holler near the gatehouse. Another voice answering, a woman, and then their steps fading into the horns of passing traffic.
He waited five minutes, maybe ten, before emerging. He looked down to check the shape of his knee.
There, just inches from his feet, he saw it. And everything changed.