Radhesh had never really learned how to mourn properly, never having settled into one tradition. He was a teenager when his parents had died. He had just begun studying engineering at Stanford, an early entrant at sixteen, and they had flown all the way from India to visit him. They weren’t supposed to be on American Airlines 11. They were supposed to catch an earlier connection, but their flight from Delhi was late arriving, and instead of landing safely in Los Angeles, they were flown, along with hundreds of other passengers, into the World Trade Center.
The last he’d heard of them had been a brief voice message from his mother, informing him of their delayed arrival. He’d kept it as long as he could before it was lost in the shuffle of migrating technology. He’d been dry eyed through the memorial service. But his mother’s voice message was enough to make him feel the sharp point of reality, the absence of the real woman represented by it. Her grace. Her fierceness. The way she would tug on his hair and tell him to cut it regardless of how long or short it was.
Now Radhesh watched his son closely, thinking to himself that if he was deficient in proper mourning etiquette, Vikram was even less equipped. Radhesh thought this not because his son had become paralyzed with grief at the death of his mother, but seemed rather to have been energized by it. Radhesh put this down to Rachel’s sudden disappearance, something that was creating a frenetic racing in his own heart. She and her brother tempered each other, met in the middle where their limitations might otherwise rule them. Apart, they were quite different people.
As with his mother and father, Radhesh at first did not, could not believe that his wife had gone. More than forty years ago he had stood among his parents’ fragmented carbon remains, overlooking that dreadful scar carved out of Manhattan’s concrete flesh. No amount of commemoration could align the place where they had perished with the hole inside him.
It had been different with Nadia. He had held her, had wrapped his arms around her, felt each twitch, each stop in her breath. She had stopped responding by that point, could not even return the simple pressure of his hand as he held hers. That familiar hand he knew as well as he knew his own. Smooth, trimmed nails, but pale and limp, weightier in his grasp now that there was no will to animate it. Rachel had told him what would happen. His daughter, telling him the protocol for his wife’s death as though it was not also her mother she was speaking of. But she had not wavered. Now she was missing.
Radhesh took a deep breath, tried to find the pain, to let it take him, to make him a human being again instead of this automaton that seemed to have taken his place. He wanted to think about Nadia. He wanted to remember her, to recall the day they’d met. To think about the first time they’d made love in his tiny San Francisco apartment, during a rainstorm that had downed half the power lines.
When he asked her to marry him and move to his family home in Delhi, Nadia not only agreed, but set about learning Hindi with alarming speed. Her English was, for the most part, flawless, but she preferred to speak Russian when she wanted to tease him, to seduce him. She could make his knees weak without trying. He couldn’t in living memory recall a time when he had ever won an argument against her. She was incandescent, razor sharp, and she knew what she wanted her life to be.
Nadia had gone back to work a few months after Vikram was born, and Radhesh had the initial raising of his son, until both of them realized their child was quickly outpacing the parenting experience they’d expected to have years in which to acquire. Two years old, speaking in complete sentences, this strange little human constantly demanded an explanation for the overwhelming amount of information that being newly alive had forced on him.
Those had been painful years for all of them, though Vikram most of all, as they went through a series of experts, and later a full clinical program as they tried to develop a therapeutic path for their son’s “disordered development”. Finally, fed up with all of it, Nadia took temporary leave of her job at the international academy and turned her attention completely to her son. Her idea, which turned out to be the right one, was not to try and stop the cycling thoughts that plagued him, but to feed the furnace of his mind with as much education as she could give him.
When Rachel was born, she showed signs of being similarly gifted, and they were slightly more prepared, though not for Vikram’s reaction. At two-and-a-half, he was perfectly capable of holding a full conversation, though much of it was affect and he’d revert back to a childlike frustration whenever he lost the thread. Rachel, whose complexity first manifested itself in a more tactile way, became her brother’s student in the art of baby precocity.
Accordingly, her first word had been “Vadim”, which was the Russian name Nadia had given him. Rakhila and Vadim. Rachel and Vikram. His complete devotion to his younger sister was a psychological insulation for her. In that way they seemed to solve each other. After that, it was an uphill battle not to let the two of them completely take over the family. But Nadia never let it happen. She made sure that she and Radhesh had the necessary time and space to continue their love affair. Even the Fall hadn’t changed that.
Radhesh glanced at his son, then brought the tea over to the tall table set up near the kitchen island, positioned under a yellow pendant light that always made it feel like the small hours. Father and son had discussed many things at this table. This was their place, belonging only to the two of them during those long nights when they tried to puzzle out how to shore up their sinking world.
He set the cup in front of his son, but Vikram didn’t appear to see it. His eyes, red from weeping, were now wide, his mouth set, like he had been frozen in the act of being surprised by something terrifying. Then, drawing in a sharp breath, he looked up, met Radhesh’s eyes, though his expression remained. He seemed to have forgotten how to blink.
“I could have prevented this,” he said in a near whisper, something confessional in his attitude, like there was something he had been keeping back and was now desperate to reveal.
“Enough of that now.” Radhesh said firmly, refusing to entertain any expression of self-blame. “We need to find your sister.”
“I’ll find her,” Vikram said at once, sitting up. “Sergei’s fully mobilized.”
Radhesh knew they both disliked the idea of Sergei’s involvement but he could see no help for it. He took a sip of his tea, found it steadying, and regarded his son over the rim of his mug. Vikram seemed to have come back to himself. He propped his elbow on the table and rested his face against his hand, covering his mouth in the way he did when he was anxiously working through some mental calculation on a mental drawing board only he could see.
“Unless you think the Americans already have her.” Radhesh pressed.
“If so then we have a different set of problems. That’s all we have to go on right now.”
“But if she is,” Radhesh said softly. “If you think Hudson Ford had a reason he believed was valid… perhaps she believed it too?”
Vikram met his eyes. “She did not go with Hudson Ford.”
Radhesh was a little annoyed by his certainty. He clasped his hands around his mug, turning it slightly in his hand. It was his favourite, a simple rustic design, both the rough and glazed textures pleasant under his hand. It had been picked out for him from a market in Calcutta by his now-missing daughter.
“I worry about the two of you,” he said abruptly, not sure why he was saying this now, or why he was trying to provide a possible alternative. “Imagine how it must be for her. Here she is, this young beautiful woman, incredibly gifted, trapped in a world where she’s unable to thrive. Suddenly this man appears in her life, this doctor, this… gift. You can’t blame her for being tempted.”
“She did not go with Hudson Ford,” Vikram repeated almost dully, as though he would almost have preferred it to be otherwise.
Finally, his hands shaking, he pulled his cup towards him and drank the cooling tea, and for a moment Radhesh thought he might just crack. Vikram had shed tears in front of his father but it had been years since Radhesh had seen him weep in earnest. He hadn’t wept, as far as Radhesh knew, when the ARC had come down. He had refused to be emotionally deterred from his objective to overcome the disaster and recover some kind of order, however futile it might be.
“I should go down to the Cradle,” Vikram said abruptly as he stepped down from his stool.
“I’ll go with you,” Radhesh said, following suit.
“No,” Vikram said at once, then moderated his tone. “Please, father. You’re needed here. The hydro works must remain secure.”
Radhesh wanted to argue, not because believed his son’s stated reasons were bad arguments. It was the sudden shift in Vikram’s demeanour, that he and he alone knew what was best. Radhesh might have pressed the point but he couldn’t see any viable alternative, and he was honest enough to admit it was his own helplessness that needled him.
Vikram took his hands, squeezed them, everything in his expression trying to convey the depth of his concern. Radhesh pulled him into a tight embrace, feeling the hardness of his shoulders, the softness of his dark hair against his cheek, so like his own. He let himself take in the shape and texture of this young man, his son, who he had never quite, and still did not understand. That had been Nadia’s strength. And now that she was gone, Radhesh felt like he was in danger of losing her fluency in the language she and his children seemed to share, but had mostly eluded him.
After Vikram departed, Radhesh sat at the table for an hour or more, just staring at the two empty mugs, his mind grinding over the facts again and again as though that would make them more comprehensible. It wasn’t until Zarah, the undertaker’s wife, touched his shoulder that he realized he wasn’t alone. He hadn’t heard her come in. He wondered how long she had been watching him. Her face was calm, understanding.
“My friend,” she said, in good but halting English. “I have this for you, from your wife.”
She held out to him a plain, rectangular wooden box. He thanked her, and waited for her to leave before opening it. Inside, carefully tied with colourful leather thongs, were the long tresses of Nadia’s hair, no doubt carefully clipped before the preparation of her body. They were dark, with threads of bright silver in them, long as his arm, as she’d preferred to wear it. How many times had he stroked it, kissed it, tangled it in his fingers, pulled it taut when she whispered wicked encouragement into his ear, even as recently as a few nights ago. He shivered at that thought, felt the sinews of his neck and jaw tighten, involuntarily holding back the howl that was building inside him.
Long limbed and naked in the shadow of his narrow kitchen, Nadia Semyonov casually slid a dented mixing bowl under the steady drip-drip of the leak that had developed as the rainstorm progressed into its fifth hour. She was thirty, gorgeous, with eyes that laughed even when her mouth compressed with disapproval. They’d met casually once or twice through mutual friends. They were both foreigners, bound to vacate these American shores in a year, and neither of them were particularly sad about it, given recent events.
“You were going to ask me to go home with you,” she observed over a beer one evening.
“You were about to.”
She seemed to use her whole body in her study of his, and he liked the rain-cast shadows on her pale skin. He traced the progress of one ghostly raindrop as it made its way over her flank, disappearing down into the shadow of her inner thigh. She rewarded him with a sharp intake of breath, an entreaty, and a torrent of soft Russian oaths, then rapidly translated these into full understanding, her hands and mouth providing skilled, tactile interpretations.
An hour later, she rose from bed and went to deal with the irritating sound as water penetrated the old Edwardian plaster ceiling. Without asking, she picked Radhesh’s mobile up from the counter and rang up his landlord. She didn’t bother to introduce or account for herself, simply explained to the man that he would have the ceiling repaired by next week, thank you very much, then hung up.
“You’re too soft on people,” she told Radhesh as she slid back into his bed, tucking her face in against his neck.
“You can’t be sure. We haven’t known each other that long.”
“Not yet,” she yawned.
Carefully, Radhesh lifted the box and bent his face to it, inhaling the scent of her hair, inhaling a lifetime of memory and love that even survived the world’s near-total destruction. Now she was dead, and this was all that was left of her.
He keened as held the box to himself, weeping into her long hair, repeating her name to himself like a mantra until it was nothing but anguished vowels.