Mary sat up and groaned. Sometimes it was hard to think of a reason to get back up off the kitchen floor in the morning, but there were always more bills to pay. The phone was ringing and she felt a dull ache in her side. Her left hip had one of those bruises that kept rebruising and never got to heal. She smelled of burnt plastic.
Just once she’d like to make it to her bed before passing out. She lifted the two halves of a broken glass from the floor where she’d fallen. The phone kept ringing. It brought back the broken, electric sound of The Cook’s laugh, his eyes bulging and shining from the smoke. He had laughed until what little bit of light was left of his mind died. Mary set the glass in the sink and took another from the cupboard.
The water washed the taste of ash from her mouth and wet her lips again. In the bedroom, she unplugged the phone from the wall. Gerald Thompson. The Cook. Mary slipped out of the burned costume, unhooked the cape and tossed it on the bed. The sheets were all balled up, twisted on the floor. It had been a week since she’d slept there.
The shower water never seemed hot enough after a fire. The hot tap was all the way up, the cold tap remained untouched, and it still felt tepid. She went for cold instead and stood there in the icy water, listening to the phone ring in the kitchen, listening to the traffic thirteen floors down. She could hear the couple who lived in the apartment below her, making love. The man kept whispering in the woman’s ear, “Kimberley, Kimberley, Kimberley.” Mary wanted to touch him, to see inside his head, see what he was really thinking.
She forced herself to stay in the shower. The cold was getting into her bones, the small of her back, her ankles, but it was making her whole again. The ache moved through her body with the cold, and it all became one pain. When Mary stepped out of the shower and turned off the faucet, the couple below her came. Or the man did, and she could hear the woman’s quiet voice: “I did too.”
She toweled herself dry. The press last night had asked about the newest story, “The Secret Identity of The Cook.” She’d explained that it was going to be published in a weekly news magazine, by the end of the week at the latest. The magazine would have first publication rights to all her histories, the stories behind the villains. Before this, she had given the stories out to everyone in the press, photocopied at her own expense. Now she was getting paid for her work.
She pulled on her underwear, a T-shirt, jeans, sneakers. The phone was still ringing in the kitchen and Mary thought about unplugging it too. The newspaper lay face up, just inside the door. The headline read “The Cook Was Escaped Mental Patient!” and there was a picture of Gerald Thompson beneath the headline.
Born with the superpower to control knives with his mind, to make them float through the air at his whim, Gerald Thompson would never have hurt a fly before his accident. The paper had an interview with a scientist, Dr. Sheryl-Ann Simpson, from one of the local universities. She had been working with the mental hospital, studying Gerald’s powers.
“This is the sort of superpower that we should be focusing on,” she said. “A power like this one is without any logical sense to it. Why knives and not forks? What qualified as a ‘knife’? Could he direct daggers, swords? Could he move metal knives only, or the plastic knives from fast food restaurants? Was the power limited by what he understood was a knife? This is what we were trying to discover, before his escape.”
There was a little picture of the scientist beside the interview, bright smile for the camera, the lab coat that doubtless disguised inept fashion sense. Everyone wanted their half-column of fame. Mary tossed the paper on the coffee table and turned on the radio.
She wandered back into the kitchen. The water from her broken glass was everywhere, and she dropped some paper towels on it. They were interviewing Mrs. Thompson, the widow Thompson, on the radio.
“The accident was worse than him dying,” she said. “If that bread truck had killed him, we would have been able to grieve. It would have been awful, but we could have moved on. We could have . . . have . . .”
“You could have coped,” the interviewer said.
“I guess,” Mrs. Thompson said. “But he didn’t die. He just changed, turned into a giggling child. Brain damage. At the mental hospital, they gave him phone privileges. He kept our number beside his bed, and some nights the phone would ring at three a.m. and it would be Gerald’s voice on the other end, laughing and laughing. It was like being haunted.”
“Did your son ever talk to him on the phone?”
Mary got two eggs out of the fridge and set them on the counter. The frying pan had some burnt gunk on it, but not enough that it was worth washing. Alice Thompson lived on Barrington Street. Mary had the address written down somewhere, and in a while she would know the truth, but this was important too, the way Alice Thompson wanted the world to see her.
“No,” Mrs. Thompson said. “I told Charles that his father had died. There was a part of me that knew I’d have to tell him some day. I was going to tell him when he was ready, but now he knows because of the newspapers and the TV.” She paused. “He’s angry at me,” she said. “He found out in one day that I lied, that his father was alive, and that some crazy fat lady in a costume killed his dad.”
“I’m sure he’ll understand,” the interviewer said. “You were just trying to protect him.” There was a moment of silence.
“The doctors there at the mental hospital told me that people with head injuries would sometimes be confused and overly sexual, but they didn’t prepare me for some of the things he would say.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” said the interviewer. He tried to change the topic. “How is your son taking the news?”
“It always got my hopes up, in a way,” Alice Thompson went on, oblivious. “Because part of him was still there, still remembered the things we had done together.” She sobbed, “When he said such dirty things, I didn’t know what to do. He would tell me about how he wanted his . . .” And the interview ended, the broadcaster cutting in to announce a song.
Mary sat down with her coffee and eggs. The pressure in her head was still there. Today was Thursday, and that meant noon to six at the bookstore. She ate quietly, listening to the phone ringing and the radio. “Crazy fat lady in a costume.” Well, the widow Thompson was angry. She’d lost a husband today. But her husband had killed eighteen people, including three children. It didn’t matter what kind of a man he’d been. Mary’s responsibility was to deal with what he became.
The notebook was sitting on the kitchen table. She picked it up and flipped through it to the notes on Gerald. Gerald Thompson had been a cook, and a good one. His superpowers lent themselves to that line of work, and he’d taken it further, turning it into an art form. Somewhere in Mary’s closet was a stack of old Time magazines, and Gerald was on the cover of one, after signing a deal to cook for the world leaders at a summit of some sort. He was “The Chef Who Will Set the Tone for Our Future.”
Last night he was a childlike monster whose tantrums controlled a vicious power. That warehouse had been full of knives, glinting sharp in the light of the fire, whipping through the air at his giggling whim. A car accident had done that, had broken or bruised something in his head and changed him overnight into something less than he was, something more dangerous.
The phone rang again, and Mary sighed and answered.
“You haven’t paid your student loan in six months,” the man said, without waiting for Mary to say hello. “You can’t just ignore us.”
“Hello?” she said, pretending she hadn’t heard.
“Your student loan is overdue,” the collections agent said, pronouncing each word carefully. “I don’t think you understand how serious . . .”
“My student loan?” Mary said, “That was what, forty thousand dollars, right?”
“Thirty-nine thousand six hundred and . . .”
“Yeah,” she said. “I paid that. You didn’t get that money?”
“Our records don’t indicate that any . . .”
“I could have sworn I gave you guys that forty thousand dollars,” Mary said. “I mean, if I didn’t give it to you guys, where could all of that money I make at my minimum wage job be going?”
She hung up. Halfway to the front door the phone started ringing again. She could still hear it as she locked the door behind herself and she could still hear it when she got on the bus that would take her downtown. It was just a part of the background noise, the thousands of other phones that rang constantly in her supersensitive ears.
The Thompson house was an apartment above some downtown shops. Mary bought a newspaper from the corner store below and climbed the steps. The door was simple and elegant, with a bit of frosted glass. She could hear Mrs. Thompson’s thoughts, scattered in the apartment beyond. She was worried about making a good impression at some interview, and she was worried about how her son was taking things.
Mary rang the bell and stood patiently while Mrs. Thompson fixed her hair inside, thinking that it was a man from a magazine who was here to interview her. The door opened and Mary smiled as wide as she could, stretching out her hand to shake.
“Good morning Mrs. Thompson,” Mary said, and Mrs. Thompson reached forward and shook her hand. The moment they touched, Mary knew everything. She saw the night that Alice had met Gerald, she knew the make of the car that Alice wanted to buy with the money the magazines would give her for the interviews. She could see Alice’s story and Gerald’s escape. She saw the guilt. “I was wondering if you’d consider a subscription to the Globe and Mail,” Mary said, and Mrs. Thompson stopped smiling.
The door swung closed again.
Mary pulled out her notebook as she walked further downtown, heading to work. She dropped the newspaper in a garbage can. Gerald and Alice Thompson had never had a perfect marriage. Gerald’s sex drive was too low, he was never interested. When the accident happened, Alice had been thinking about calling a lawyer, about beginning the separation process. She hadn’t told anyone, and in the first few months of dealing with Gerald’s new condition, guilt had eaten her up inside. Every visit to the mental hospital was less bearable but she went out of a sense of duty.
When Gerald had started calling her, she hadn’t hung up on him. Her therapist said that she should, her friends said that she should. “When he calls,” her friend Emily said, “just put the phone down and walk away. You owe it to yourself to have a life, Alice.” But Emily didn’t know that she’d been planning to leave. She hadn’t told anyone.
And then one night, on the phone, Gerald had stopped laughing and said something that sounded almost coherent. He said something that was dirty and forthright in a way that he never had while he was healthy. Alice had hung up the phone right away.
But over time, the dirty words came again and again, and it was more like talking to him than the laughter and the giggles ever were. Sometimes his sentences were whole sentences, and his wording was almost poetic. Alice found that she had begun to encourage him, to repeat key phrases back to him. They would talk like this until he would start laughing again, much louder than before, and he would hang up the phone.
It was only after a week of this that she realized he was touching himself and that he hung up when he finished. It became a game in her head, some strange foreplay that Gerald had devised, acting like a strange child until she said the right words, and then they would really talk. He was sitting in a motel room somewhere, away cooking for dignitaries, and he missed her the way she missed him. They would talk about being close, and they would come.
Mary wasn’t finished writing when she got to the bookstore, so she walked a block further and sat on the curb. A bus passed her, almost close enough to touch, and Mary held her breath against the hot exhaust. The city was noise in her ears; she blocked it out, the individual sounds filtered down to one noise.
Alice Thompson started having regular phone sex with Gerald after his accident, and eventually she had confided in her therapist, who urged her to stop. When she finally did stop, the conversations with Gerald became nightmares of him laughing angrily and repeating words. “Hard, hard, hard,” and “love, love, love.” When he escaped two weeks after she stopped, and the first murders were reported, she blamed herself.
There was no way that she could have known the hospital had lowered his dosage as part of a cost-saving test. In Alice’s mind, it was her fault. The guilt grew deeper and deeper.
Mary stood up and closed the notebook. A little girl was looking at her from the other side of the road, and it made Mary nervous. She smiled and waved; the girl waved back but didn’t smile. In the bookstore, there were customers everywhere, and Alan was standing behind the cash register, dealing with the line. He was staring at them with efficient anger.
“Just on time,” he said, and before Mary could answer, a middle-aged woman with a shock of white through her black hair was taking her by the elbow.
After work, Mary took the bus home and changed into a clean costume. She sat at her typewriter, with the cape reaching the floor, and she typed up the pages of “The Secret Identity of The Cook” which dealt with Alice Thompson and how she had reacted to her late husband’s accident. She wrote about how they had begun to have phone sex and how they’d stopped, and the part Alice believed it played in the murder spree that followed. Mary wrote about the hospital’s attempt to cut costs by lowering dosages, and about the more and more intrusive tests that scientists like Dr. Simpson insisted upon performing.
When she was done, she pulled on pants and a jacket to cover her costume and walked six or seven blocks to another apartment building with the story in her hand. Up on the roof she removed the pants and jacket, pulled her mask on, and leapt into the air. The city shrank beneath her, and the air was thin in her lungs. It didn’t take long to fly to the offices of her editor at MacLean’s magazine.
Stuart was a quiet and serious man. Mary knew that he dreamt of coming to work and going through just one day where he didn’t have to deal with someone in a costume. She watched him read her piece behind his glass desk. He made little clucking sounds from time to time, and shook his head at parts. Finally he looked up.
“This could get the magazine in trouble,” he said. “Did you read this woman’s thoughts?”
“It’s part of the story,” Mary said.
“Well,” Stuart said. “We can print the story without the phone sex.”
“You think it’ll embarrass her?” Mary said. “It’s what really happened. It isn’t anything to be embarrassed about. It’s sad and it’s true. The hospital lowered his medication, and they wouldn’t admit that to her. This frames the story and its impact on the lives of his family.”
“It’s a private thing,” Stuart said. “You can’t just pull someone’s grief out into public because you can read minds.”
“Maybe you can’t,” Mary said. “But maybe the people at Harper’s can.” This was her first editorial meeting about these stories, and she knew that she couldn’t back down. She had to set a precedent. Stuart was silent for a moment, looking at her, and then down at the pages in his hand.
“We’ll print it,” he said. He sat down at his desk and pulled a brown manilla envelope from the drawer. This was her payment. Until now she had self-published the stories, bound into small booklets. It felt nice to get paid for it, and she knew she was doing the right thing.
“Someone has to speak for Gerald Thompson,” she said. Stuart looked at her for a long time, silent.
“Is that what you think you’re doing?” he said.
“Of course,” Mary said. “I’m making him human again. People want to think these villains are monsters, but they aren’t.”
Stuart held the envelope of money out toward her, and she took it.
“That’s the amount we agreed on,” he said. “You can count it if you like.”