SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Frameshift > Opening Chapters
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Hardcover: Tor, June 1997, ISBN 0-312-86325-X
Paperback: Tor, November 1998, ISBN 0-812-57108-8
Trade Paperback: Tor, November 2005, ISBN 0-765-31316-2
British edition: HarperCollins Voyager, 1999
It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for
what you are not.
winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize in literature
The Present Day
It seemed an unlikely place to die.
During the academic year, twenty-three thousand full-time
students milled about the well-treed grounds of the University of
California, Berkeley. But on this cool June night, the campus
was mostly empty.
Pierre Tardivel reached out for the hand of Molly Bond. He was a
good-looking, wiry man of thirty-three, with narrow shoulders, a
round head, and hair the same chocolate brown as his eyes.
Molly, who would turn thirty-three herself in a couple of weeks,
was beautiful stunningly so, even without makeup. She had
high cheekbones, full lips, deep blue eyes, and naturally blond
hair parted in the center and cut short up front but tumbling to
her shoulders in back. Molly squeezed Pierre's hand, and they
began walking side by side.
The bells in the Campanile had just chimed 11:00 p.m. Molly had
been working late in the psychology department, where she was an
assistant professor. Pierre didn't like Molly walking home alone
at night, so he'd stayed at the Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory, poised on a hilltop above the campus, until she'd
phoned saying she was ready to leave. It was no hardship for
him; on the contrary, Molly's usual problem was getting Pierre to
take a break from his research.
Molly had no doubts about Pierre's feelings for her; that was one
of the few good things about her gift. She did sometimes wish he
would put his arm around her as they walked, but he didn't like
doing that. Not that he wasn't affectionate: he was
French-Canadian, after all, and had the demonstrative nature that went
with the first part of that hyphenate, and the desire to cuddle
against the cold that came with the second. But he always said
there would be time for helping to hold him up later, with her
arm around his waist and his around hers. For now, while he
still could, he wanted to walk freely.
As they crossed the bridge over the north fork of Strawberry
Creek, Molly said, "How was work today?"
Pierre's voice was richly accented. "Burian Klimus was being a
pain," he said.
Molly laughed, a throaty sound. Her speaking voice was high and
feminine, but her laugh had an earthy quality that Pierre had
said he found very sexy. "When isn't he?" she said.
"Exactly," replied Pierre. "Klimus wants perfection, and I guess
he's entitled to it. But the whole point of the Human Genome
Project is to find out what makes us human, and humans sometimes
make mistakes." Molly was pretty much used to Pierre's accent,
but three utterings of "yooman" in one sentence was enough to
bring a smile to her lips. "He tore quite a strip off Shari's
hide this afternoon."
Molly nodded. "I heard someone do an imitation of Burian at the
Faculty Club yesterday." She cleared her throat and affected a
German accent. "`I'm not only a member of the Herr Club
for Men I'm also its chancellor.'"
Up ahead there was a wrought-iron park bench. A burly man in his
late twenties wearing faded jeans and an unzipped leather jacket
was sitting on it. The man had a chin like two small fists
protruding from the bottom of his face and a half inch of
dirty-blond hair. Disrespectful, thought Molly: you come to the
very home of the 1960s hippie movement, you should grow your hair
a little long.
They continued walking. Normally, Pierre and Molly would have
swerved away from the bench, giving the resting fellow a generous
berth Molly took pains to keep strangers from entering her
zone. But a lighting standard and a low hedge sharply defined
the opposite edge of the path here, so they ended up passing
within a couple of feet of the man, Molly even closer to him than
About fucking time that frog showed up.
Molly's grip tightened, her short unpainted fingernails digging
into the back of Pierre's hand.
Too bad he's not alone but maybe Grozny will like it better
Molly spoke in a quavering whisper so low it was almost lost on
the breeze: "Let's get out of here." Pierre's eyebrows went up,
but he quickened his pace. Molly stole a glance over her
shoulder. "He's up off the bench now," she said softly. "He's
walking toward us."
She scanned the landscape ahead. A hundred feet in front of them
was the campus's north gate, with the deserted cafés of Euclid
Avenue beyond. To the left was a fence separating the university
from Hearst Avenue. To the right, more redwoods and Haviland
Hall, home of the School of Social Welfare. Most of its windows
were dark. A bus rumbled by outside the fence the last bus
for a long time, this late. Pierre chewed his lower lip.
Footfalls were approaching softly behind them. He reached into
his pocket, and Molly could hear the soft tinkle of him
maneuvering his keys between his fingers.
Molly opened the zipper on her white leather purse and extracted
her rape whistle. She chanced another glance back, and
Christ, a knife! "Run!" she shouted, and veered to the
right, bringing the whistle to her lips. The sound split the
Pierre surged forward, heading straight for the north gate, but
after eating up a few yards of path, he looked back. Perhaps now
that the man knew the element of surprise was gone, he'd just
hightail it in the opposite direction, but Pierre had to be sure
that the guy hadn't taken off after Molly
and that was Pierre's mistake. The man had been lagging
behind Pierre had longer legs and had started running sooner
but Pierre's slowing down to look gave the man a chance to
close the distance. From thirty feet away, Molly, who had also
stopped running, screamed Pierre's name.
The punk had a bowie knife in his right hand. It was difficult
to make out in the darkness except for the reflection of
streetlamps off the fifteen-inch blade. He was holding it
underhand, as if he'd intended to thrust it up into Pierre's
The man lunged. Pierre did what any good Montreal boy who had
grown up wanting to play on the Canadiens would do: he deked
left, and when the guy moved in that direction, Pierre danced to
the right and bodychecked him. The attacker was thrown off
balance. Pierre surged forward, his apartment key wedged between
his index and middle fingers. He smashed his assailant in the
face. The man yowled in pain as the key jabbed into his cheek.
Molly ran toward the man from the rear. She jumped onto his back
and began pummeling him with clenched fists. He tried to spin
around, as if somehow he could catch the woman on top of him,
and, as he did so, Pierre employed another hockey maneuver,
tripping him. But instead of dropping the knife, as Pierre
apparently thought he would, the man gripped it even tighter. As
he fell, his arm twisted and his leather jacket billowed open.
The weight of Molly on his back drove the blade's single
sharpened edge sideways into his belly.
Suddenly blood was everywhere. Molly got off the man, wincing.
He wasn't moving, and his breathing had taken on a liquid,
Pierre grabbed Molly's hand. He started to back away, but
suddenly realized just how severe the attacker's wound was. The
man would bleed to death without immediate treatment. "Find a
phone," Pierre said to Molly. "Call 9-1-1." She ran off toward
Pierre rolled the man onto his back, the knife sliding out as he
did so. He picked it up and tossed it as far away as he could,
in case he was underestimating the injury. He then tore open the
buttons on the attacker's light cotton shirt, which was now
sodden with blood, exposing the laceration. The man was in
shock: his complexion, hard to make out in the wan light, had
turned grayish white. Pierre took off his own shirt a beige
McGill University pullover and wadded it up to use as a
Molly returned several minutes later, panting from running. "An
ambulance is coming, and so are the police," she said. "How is
Pierre kept pressure on the wadded shirt, but the fabric was
squishing as he leaned on it. "He's dying," he said,
looking up at her, his voice anguished.
Molly moved closer, looming over the assailant. "You don't
Pierre shook his head. "I'd remember that chin."
She kneeled next to the man, then closed her eyes, listening to
the voice only she could hear.
Not fair, thought the man. I only killed people Grozny
said deserved it. But I don't deserve to die. I'm not a
The unspoken voice stopped abruptly. Molly opened her eyes and
then gently took Pierre's blood-covered hands off the drenched
shirt. "He's gone," she said.
Pierre, who was still on bended knee, rocked slowly backward.
His face was bone white and his mouth hung open slightly. Molly
recognized the signs: just as the attacker had been moments ago,
Pierre himself was now in shock. She helped him move away from
the body and got him to sit down on the grass at the base of a
After what seemed an eternity, they at last heard approaching
sirens. The city police arrived first, coming through the north
gate, followed a few moments later by a campus police car that
arrived from the direction of the Moffit Library. The two
vehicles pulled up side by side, near where the stand of redwoods
The city cops were a salt-and-pepper team: a wide black man and
a taller, skinnier white woman. The black man seemed to be the
senior officer. He got a sealed package of latex gloves out of
his glove compartment and snapped them onto his beefy hands, then
moved in to examine the body. He checked the body's wrist for a
pulse, then shifted its head and tried again at the base of the
neck. "Christ," he said. "Karen?"
His partner came closer and played a flashlight beam onto the
face. "He got a good punch in, that's for sure," the woman said,
indicating the wound Pierre's keys had made. Then she blinked.
"Say, didn't we bust him a few weeks ago?"
The black man nodded. "Chuck Hanratty. Scum." He shook his
head, but it seemed more in wonder than out of sadness. He rose
to his feet, snapped off his gloves, and looked briefly at the
campus cop, a chubby white-haired Caucasian who was averting his
eyes from the body. He then turned to Pierre and Molly. "Either
of you hurt?"
"No," said Molly, her voice quavering slightly. "Just shaken
The female cop was scanning the area with her flashlight. "That
the knife?" she said, looking at Pierre and pointing at the
bowie, which had landed at the base of another redwood.
Pierre looked up, but didn't seem to hear.
"The knife," she said again. "The knife that killed him."
"He was trying to kill us," said Molly.
The black man looked at her. "Are you a student here?"
"No, I'm faculty," she said. "Psychology department."
He jerked his head at Pierre, who was still staring into space.
"He's Pierre Tardivel. He's with the Human Genome Center, up at
the Lawrence Berkeley Lab."
The officer turned to the campus cop. "You know these two?"
The old guy was slowly recovering his composure; this sort of
thing was a far cry from getting cars towed from handicapped
parking spots. He shook his head.
The male cop turned back to Molly and Pierre. "Let me see your
driver's licenses and university IDs," he said.
Molly opened her purse and showed the requested cards to the
officer. Pierre, chilled without a shirt on, still shaken by the
death of the man, arms covered to the elbows with caking blood,
managed to get out his brown wallet, but just stared at it as if
he didn't know how to open it. Molly gently took it from him and
showed his identification to the policeman.
"Canadian," said the cop, as though that were a very suspicious
thing to be. "You got papers to be in this country?"
"Papers . . ." repeated Pierre, still dazed.
"He's got a green card," said Molly. She leafed through the
wallet, found it, and showed it to the officer. The male cop
nodded. The female cop had retrieved a Polaroid camera from the
cruiser and was taking photos of the scene.
Finally the ambulance arrived. It came through the north gate,
but couldn't get down the path to where they were. All the
vehicles had turned off their sirens once parked, but the
ambulance left its rotating roof light on, making orange shadows
dance around the scene. The air was filled with staticky calls
over the police and ambulance radios. Two attendants, both male,
hurried to the downed man. A few spectators had arrived as well.
"No pulse," said the male cop. "No signs of respiration."
The attendants did a few checks, then nodded at each other.
"He's gone all right," said one. "Still, we gotta take him in."
"Karen?" said the male officer.
The female cop nodded. "I've got enough shots."
"Go ahead," said the man. He turned to Pierre and Molly. "We'll
need statements from both of you."
"It was self-defense," said Molly.
For the first time, the cop showed a little warmth. "Of course.
Don't worry; it's just routine. That guy who attacked you had
quite a record: robbery, assault, cross burning."
"Cross burning?" said Molly, shocked.
The cop nodded. "Nasty fellow, that Chuck Hanratty. He was
involved with a neo-Nazi group called the Millennial Reich.
They're mostly across the Bay in San Francisco, but they've been
recruiting here in Berkeley, too." He looked around at the
various buildings. "Is your car here?"
"We were walking," said Molly.
"Well, look, it's after midnight and, frankly, your friend seems
a bit out of it. Why don't you let officer Granatstein and me
give you a lift? You can come by headquarters tomorrow to make a
report." He handed her a card.
"Why," said Pierre, finally rallying a bit, "would a neo-Nazi
want to attack me?"
The black man shrugged. "No big mystery. He was after your
wallet and her purse."
But Molly knew that wasn't true. She took Pierre's
blood-encrusted hand and led him over to the police car.
Pierre stepped into the shower, cleaning the blood from his arms
and chest. The water running down the drain was tinged with red.
Pierre scrubbed until his skin was raw. After toweling off, he
crawled into bed next to Molly, and they held each other.
"Why would a neo-Nazi be after me?" said Pierre, into the
darkness. He exhaled noisily. "Hell, why would anyone go to the
trouble of trying to kill me? After all . . ." He trailed off,
the English sentence already formed in his mind, but deciding not
to give it voice.
But Molly could tell what he had been about to say, and she drew
him closer to her, holding him tightly.
After all, Pierre Tardivel had thought, I'll probably
be dead soon anyway.
Let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us
rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.
winner of the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize
The screams came like popcorn popping: at first there were
only one or two, then there were hundreds overlapping, then,
finally, the quantity diminished, and at last there were none
left and you knew it was done.
Jubas Meyer tried not to think about it. Even most of the
bastards in charge tried not to think about it. Only forty
meters away, a band of Jewish musicians played at gunpoint, their
songs meant to drown out the cries of the dying, the rumble of
the diesel engine in the Maschinehaus insufficient to
fully mask the sound.
Finally, while Jubas and the others stood ready, the two
Ukrainian operators heaved the massive doors aside. Blue smoke
rose from the opening.
As was often the case, the naked corpses were still
standing. The people had been packed in so tightly up to five
hundred in the tiny chamber that there was no room for them to
fall down. But now that the doors were open, those closest to
the exit toppled over, spilling out into the hot summer sun,
their faces mottled and bloated by the carbon-monoxide poisoning.
The stench of human sweat and urine and vomit filled the air.
Jubas and his partner, Shlomo Malamud, moved forward,
carrying their wooden stretcher. With it, they could remove a
single adult or two children in each load; they didn't have the
strength to carry more. Jubas could count his own ribs easily
through his thin skin, and his scalp itched constantly from the
Jubas and Shlomo started with a woman of about forty. Her
left breast had a long gash in it. They carried her body off to
the dental station. The man there, an emaciated fellow in his
early thirties named Yehiel Reichman, tipped her head back and
opened her mouth. He spotted a gold filling, reached in with
blood-encrusted pliers, and extracted the tooth.
Shlomo and Jubas took the body off to the pit and dumped it
in on top of the other corpses, trying to ignore the buzz of
flies and the reek of diseased flesh and postmortem bowel
discharges. They returned to the chamber, and
But it was. Jubas's own sister, lying there naked among the
dead, her green eyes staring up at him, lifeless as emeralds.
He'd prayed that she'd gotten away, prayed that she was
Jubas staggered back, tripped, fell to the ground, tears
welling up and out of his eyes, the drops clearing channels in
the filth that covered his face.
Shlomo moved to help his friend. "Quickly," he whispered.
"Quickly, before they come . . ."
But Jubas was wailing now, unable to control himself.
"It gets to us all," said Shlomo, soothingly.
Jubas shook his head. Shlomo didn't understand. He gulped
air, finally forced out the words. "It's Rachel," he said,
between shuddering sobs, gesturing at the corpse. Flies were
crawling across her face now.
Shlomo placed a hand on Jubas's shoulder. Shlomo had been
separated from his own brother Saul, and the one thing that had
kept him going all this time was the thought that somewhere Saul
might be safe.
"Get up!" shouted a familiar voice. A tall, stocky
Ukrainian wearing jackboots came closer. He was carrying a rifle
with a bayonet attached the same bayonet Jubas had often seen
him honing with a whetstone to scalpel sharpness.
Jubas looked up. Even through his tears, he could make out
the man's features: a round face in its thirties, balding head,
protruding ears, thin lips.
Shlomo moved over to the Ukrainian, risking everything. He
could smell the cheap liquor on the man's breath. "A moment,
Ivan for pity's sake. It's Jubas's sister."
Ivan's wide mouth split in a terrible grin. He leaned in
and used the bayonet to slice off Rachel's right nipple. Then,
with a flick of his index finger, he sent it flying off the blade
into the air. It spun end over end before landing bloody side
down in Jubas Meyer's lap.
"Something to remember her by," said Ivan.
He was a monster.
His first name was Ivan. His last name was unknown, and so
the Jews dubbed him Ivan the Terrible. He had arrived at the
camp a year before, in July 1942. There were some who said he'd
been an educated man before the war; he used fancier words than
the other guards did. A few even contended he must have been a
doctor, since he sliced human flesh with such precision. But
whatever he'd been in civilian life had been set aside.
Jubas Meyer had done the math, calculating how many corpses
he and Shlomo had removed from the chambers each day, how many
other pairs of Jews were being forced to do the same thing, how
many trainloads had arrived to date.
The figures were staggering. Here, in this tiny camp,
between ten and twelve thousand people were executed every day;
on some days, the tally reached as high as fifteen thousand. So
far, over half a million people had been exterminated. And there
were rumors of other camps: one at Belzac, another at Sobibor,
perhaps others still.
There could be no doubt: the Nazis intended to kill every
single Jew, to wipe them all off the face of the earth.
And here, at Treblinka, eighty kilometers northeast of
Warsaw, Ivan the Terrible was the principal agent of that
destruction. True, he had a partner named Nikolai who helped him
operate the chambers, but it was Ivan who was sadistic beyond
belief, raping women before gassing them, slicing their flesh
especially breasts as they marched naked into the chambers,
forcing Jews to copulate with corpses while he laughed a cold,
throaty laugh and beat them with a lead pipe.
Ivan reveled in it all, his naturally nasty disposition only
worsened by frequent drinking binges. As a Ukrainian, he'd
likely started off a prisoner of war himself, but had volunteered
for service as a Wachmann, and had demonstrated a
remarkable technical facility, leading to him being put in charge
of the gas chambers. He was now so trusted that the Germans
often let him leave the camp. Jubas had once overheard Ivan
bragging to Nikolai about the whore he frequented in the nearby
town of Wolga Okralnik. "If you think the Jews scream loudly,"
Ivan had said, "you should hear my Maria."
A miracle happened.
Ivan and Nikolai pulled back the chamber doors, and
God, it was incredible
a little blond girl, perhaps twelve years old, barely
pubescent, staggered naked out of the chamber, still alive.
Behind her, corpses began falling like dominoes.
But she was alive. The Jewish men and women had been packed
in so tightly this time that their very bodies had formed a
pocket of air for her, separated from the circulating carbon
The girl, her eyes wide in terror, stood under the hot sun,
gulping in oxygen. And when she at last had the breath to do so,
she screamed, "Ma-me! Ma-me!"
But her mother was among the dead.
Jubas Meyer and Shlomo Malamud set about removing the
corpses, batting their arms to dispel the flies, breathing
shallowly to avoid the smell. Ivan swaggered over to the girl, a
whip in his hand. Jubas shot a reproachful glance at him. The
Ukrainian must have seen that. He forgot the girl for a moment
and came over to Jubas, lashing him repeatedly. Jubas bit his
own tongue until he tasted salty blood; he knew that screams
would just prolong the torture.
When Ivan had had his fill, he stepped back, and looked at Jubas,
hunched over in pain. "Davay yebatsa!" he shouted.
Even the little girl knew those obscene words. She started
to back away, but Ivan moved toward her, grabbing her naked
shoulder roughly and pushing her to the ground.
"Davay yebatsa!" shouted Ivan at Jubas. He dragged the
girl across the ground to where he'd left his rifle, leaning
against the Maschinehaus wall. He aimed the weapon at
Jubas. "Davay yebatsa!"
Jubas closed his eyes.
It was horrible news, devastating news.
The pace of the executions was slacking off.
It didn't mean the Germans were changing their minds.
It didn't mean they were giving up their insane plot.
It meant they were running out of Jews to kill.
Soon the camp would be of no further use. When they'd
started, the Germans had ordered the dead buried. But recently
they'd been using earthmoving equipment to exhume the bodies and
cremate them. Human ash whirled constantly through the air now;
the acrid smell of burning flesh stung the nostrils. The Nazis
wanted no proof to exist of what had happened here.
And they'd also want no witnesses. Soon the corpse bearers
themselves would be ordered into the gas chambers.
"We've got to escape," said Jubas Meyer. "We've got to get
out of here."
Shlomo looked at his friend. "They'll kill us if we try."
"They'll kill us anyway."
The revolt was planned in whispers, one man passing word to
the next. Monday, August 2, 1943, would be the day. Not
everyone would escape; they knew that. But some would . . .
surely some would. They would carry word of what had
happened here to the world.
The sun burned down fiercely, as if God Himself were helping
the Nazis incinerate bodies. But of course God would not do such
a thing: the heat turned to an advantage as the deputy camp
commander took a group of Ukrainian guards for a cooling swim in
the river Bug.
The Jews in the lower camp the part where prisoners were
unloaded and prepared had gathered some makeshift weapons.
One had filled large cans with gasoline. Another had stolen some
wire cutters. A third had managed to hide an ax among garbage
he'd been ordered to remove. Even some guns had been captured.
A few had long ago hidden gold or money in holes in trees,
or buried it in secret spots. Just as the bodies had been
exhumed, so now were these treasures.
Everything was set to begin at 4:30 in the afternoon.
Tensions were high; everyone was on edge. And then, at just
"Boy!" shouted Kuttner, a fat SS man.
The child, perhaps eleven years old, stopped dead in his
tracks. He was shaking from head to toe. The SS officer moved
closer, a riding crop in his hand. "Boy!" he said again. "What
have you got in your pockets?"
Jubas Meyer and Shlomo Malamud were five meters away,
carrying an exhumed corpse to the cremation site. They stopped
to watch the scene unfold. The pockets on the youngster's filthy
and tattered overalls were bulging slightly.
The boy said nothing. His eyes were wide and his lips
peeled back in fear, showing decaying teeth. Despite the
pounding heat, he was shaking as if it were below zero. The
guard stepped up to him and slapped the boy's thigh with the
riding crop. The unmistakable jangle of coins was heard. The
German narrowed his eyes. "Empty your pockets, Jew."
The boy half turned to face the man. His teeth were
chattering. He tried to reach into his pocket, but his hand was
shaking so badly he couldn't get it into the pocket's mouth.
Kuttner whipped the boy's shoulder with his crop, the sound
startling birds into flight, their calls counterpointing the
child's scream. Kuttner then reached his own fat hand into the
pocket and pulled out several German coins. He reached in a
second time. The pocket was apparently empty now, but Jubas
could see the German fondling the boy's genitals through the
fabric. "Where did you get the money?"
The boy shook his head, but pointed past the camouflage of
trees and fencing to the upper camp, where the gas chambers and
ovens were hidden from view.
The guard grabbed the youngster's shoulder roughly. "Come
with me, boy. Stangl will deal with you."
The child wasn't the only one with something concealed on
his person. Jubas Meyer had been entrusted with one of the six
stolen pistols. If the boy were taken to commander Franz Stangl,
he'd doubtless reveal the plans for the revolt, now only thirty
minutes from its planned start.
Meyer couldn't allow that to happen. He pulled the gun from
the folds of his own overalls, took a bead on the fat German,
it was like ejaculation, the release, the moment, the
squeezed the trigger, and saw the German's eyes go wide,
saw his mouth go round, saw his fat, ugly, hateful form slump to
The signal for the beginning of the revolt was to have been
a grenade detonation, but Meyer's gunshot startled everyone into
action. Cries of "Now!" went up across the lower camp.
The canisters of gas were set ablaze. There were 850 Jews in the
camp that day; they all ran for the barbed-wire fences. Some
brought blankets, throwing them over the cruel knots of metal;
others had wire cutters and furiously snipped through the lines.
Those with guns shot as many guards as they could. Fire and
smoke were everywhere. The guards who had gone swimming quickly
returned and mounted horses or clambered aboard armored cars.
Three hundred and fifty Jews made it over the fences and into the
surrounding forest. Most were rounded up easily and shot dead,
the echoes of overlapping gun reports and the cries of birds and
wildlife the last sounds they ever heard.
Still, some did make good their escape. They ran out into
the woods, and kept running for their lives. Jubas Meyer was
among them. Shlomo Malamud got out, too, and began a lifelong
search for his brother Saul. And others Jubas had known or heard
of made it to safety as well: Eliahu Rosenberg and Pinhas
Epstein; Casimir Landowski and Zalmon Chudzik. And David
But they, and perhaps forty-five others, were all that
The early 1980s. Ronald Reagan had recently been sworn in
as president, and, moments later, Iran had released the American
hostages it had been holding prisoner for 444 days. Here in
Canada, Pierre Trudeau was in the middle of his comeback term as
prime minister, struggling to bring the Canadian constitution
home from Great Britain.
Eighteen-year-old Pierre Tardivel stood in front of the
strange house in suburban Toronto, the collar of his red McGill
University jacket turned up against the cold, dry wind whipping
down the salt-stained street.
Now that he was here, this didn't seem like such a good
idea. Maybe he should just turn around, head back to the bus
station, back to Montreal. His mother would be delighted if he
gave up now, and, well, if what Henry Spade's wife had told
Pierre about her husband were true, Pierre wasn't sure that he
could face the man. He should just
No. No, he had come this far. He had to see for himself.
Pierre took a deep breath, inhaling the crisp air, trying to
calm the butterflies in his stomach. He walked up the driveway
to the front door of the side-split suburban home, pressed the
doorbell, and heard the muffled sound of the chimes from within.
A few moments later, the door opened, and a handsome, middle-aged
woman stood before him.
"Hello, Mrs. Spade. I'm Pierre Tardivel." He was conscious
of how out of place his Québecois accent must have sounded
here another reminder that he was intruding.
There was a moment while Mrs. Spade looked Pierre up and
down during which Pierre thought he saw a flicker of recognition
on her face. Pierre had merely told her on the phone that his
parents had been friends of her husband, back when Henry Spade
had lived in Montreal in the early sixties. And yet she had to
have realized there must be a special reason for Pierre to want
to visit. What was it Pierre's mother had said when he'd
confronted her with the evidence? "I knew you were Henry's
you're the spitting image of him."
"Hello, Pierre," said Mrs. Spade. The voice was richer than
it had sounded over the phone, but there was still a trace of
wariness to it. "You can call me Dorothy. Please come in." She
stepped aside, and Pierre entered the vestibule. Physically,
Dorothy bore a passing resemblance to his mother dark hair,
cool blue-gray eyes, full lips. Perhaps Henry Spade had been
attracted to a specific type of woman. Pierre unzipped his
jacket, but made no move to take it off.
"Henry is upstairs in his room," said Dorothy. His room.
Separate bedrooms? How cold. "It's easier for him to be lying
down. Do you mind seeing him up there?"
Pierre shook his head.
"Very well," she said. "Come with me."
They walked into the brightly lit living room. Two full
walls were covered with bookcases made of dark wood. A staircase
led to the second floor. Along one side of it were tracks for a
small motorized chair. The chair itself was positioned at the
top. Dorothy led Pierre upstairs and into the first door on the
Pierre fought to keep his expression neutral.
Lying on the bed was a man who appeared to be dancing on his
back. His arms and legs moved constantly, rotating at shoulder
and hip, elbow and knee, wrist and ankle. His head lolled left
and right across the pillow. His hair was steel gray and, of
course, his eyes were brown.
"Bonjour," said Pierre, so startled that he'd begun
speaking in French. He began again. "Hello. I'm Pierre
The man's voice was weak and slurred. Speaking was clearly
an effort. "Hello, P-Pierre," he said. He paused, but whether
composing his thoughts or just waiting for his body to yield a
little control, Pierre couldn't say. "How is is your mother?"
Pierre blinked repeatedly. He would not insult the man by
crying in front of him. "She's fine."
Henry's head rolled from side to side, but he kept his eyes
on Pierre. He wanted more, Pierre knew, than a platitude.
"She's in good health," he said. "She's a loans officer for a
large branch of Banque de Montréal."
"She's happy?" asked Henry, with effort.
"She enjoys her work, and money is no problem. There was a
lot of insurance when Dad died."
Henry swallowed with what appeared to be considerable
difficulty. "I, ah, didn't know that Alain had passed on. Tell
her . . . tell her I'm sorry."
The words seemed sincere. No sarcasm, no double edge.
Alain Tardivel had been his rival, but Henry seemed genuinely
saddened by his death. Pierre squeezed his jaw tightly shut for
a moment, then nodded. "I'll tell her."
"She's a wonderful woman," said Henry.
"I have a picture of her," said Pierre. He pulled out his
wallet and flipped to the small portrait of his mother wearing a
white silk blouse. He held the wallet where Henry could see it.
Henry stared at it for a long time, then said, "I guess I
changed more than she did."
Pierre forced a weak smile.
"Are . . . only child?" A few words had gotten lost in the
convulsion that had passed over Henry's body like a wave.
"Yes. There " No, no point in mentioning his younger sister,
Marie-Claire, who had died when she was two. "Yes, I'm the only
"You're a fine-looking young man," said Henry.
Pierre smiled genuinely this time and Henry seemed to smile
Dorothy, perhaps detecting the undercurrent, or perhaps just
bored with conversation about people she didn't know, said,
"Well, I can see you two have things to talk about. I'll go
downstairs. Pierre, can I bring you a drink? Coffee?"
"No, thank you," said Pierre.
"Well, then," she said, and left.
Pierre stood beside Henry's bed. Having his own room made
perfect sense now. How could it be any other way? No one could
sleep next to him, given the constant jerking of his limbs.
The man on the bed lifted his right arm toward Pierre. It
moved slowly from side to side, like the bough of a tree swaying
in the wind. Pierre reached out and took the hand, holding it
firmly. Henry smiled.
"You look . . . just like I did . . . when I was your age,"
A tear did slip down Pierre's cheek. "You know who I am?"
Henry nodded. "I when your mother got pregnant, I'd thought
there was a chance. But she ended our relationship. I'd assumed
if I'd . . . if I'd been right, I'd have heard something before
now." His head was moving, but he managed to keep his eyes
mostly on Pierre. "I I wish I'd known."
Pierre squeezed the hand. "Me, too." A pause. "Do you do
you have any other children?"
"Daughters," said Henry. "Two daughters. Adopted.
Dorothy Dorothy couldn't . . ."
"Best, in a way," said Henry, and here, at last, he let his
gaze wander away from Pierre. "Huntington's disease is . . .
is . . ."
Pierre swallowed. "Hereditary. I know."
Henry's head moved back and forth more rapidly than
normal a deliberate signal all but lost in the muscular noise.
"If I'd known I had it, I . . . never would have allowed myself
to father a child. I'm sorry. V-very sorry."
"You might have it, too."
Pierre said nothing.
"There's no test," said Henry. "I'm sorry."
Pierre watched Henry move about on the bed, knees jerking,
free arm waving. And yet in the middle of it all was a face not
unlike his own, round and broad, with deep brown eyes. He
realized then that he didn't know how old Henry was. Forty-five?
Perhaps as old as fifty. Certainly no more than that. Henry's
right arm started jerking rapidly. Pierre, not sure what to do,
let go of his hand.
"It's . . . it's good to finally meet you," said Pierre; and
then, realizing that he would never have another chance, he added
a single word: "Dad."
Henry's eyes were wet. "You need anything?" he said.
Pierre shook his head. "I'm fine. Really, I am. I just
wanted to meet you."
Henry's lower lip was trembling. Pierre couldn't tell at
first if it was just part of the chorea or had deeper meaning.
But when Henry next spoke, his voice was full of pain. "I
I've forgotten your name," he said.
"Pierre," he said. "Pierre Jacques Tardivel."
"Pierre," repeated Henry. "A good name." He paused for
several seconds, then said, "How is your mother? Did you bring a
Pierre went down to the living room. Dorothy was sitting in
a chair, reading a Jackie Collins novel. She looked up and gave
him a wan smile.
"Thank you," said Pierre. "Thank you for everything."
She nodded. "He very much wanted to see you."
"I was very glad to see him." He paused. "But I should be
"Wait," said Dorothy. She took an envelope from the coffee
table and rose to her feet. "I have something for you."
Pierre looked at it. "I told him I didn't need any money."
Dorothy shook her head. "It's not that. It's
photographs of Henry, from a dozen years ago. From when you
would have been a little boy. Photographs of what he was like
then the way I'm sure he'd like you to remember him."
Pierre took the envelope. His eyes were stinging. "Thank
you," he said.
She nodded, her face not quite masking her pain.
Pierre returned to Montreal. His family doctor referred him
to a specialist in genetic disorders. Pierre went to see the
specialist, whose office wasn't far from Olympic Stadium.
"Huntington's is carried on a dominant gene," said Dr.
Laviolette to Pierre, in French. "You have precisely a
fifty-fifty chance of getting it." He paused, and smoothed out
his steel gray hair. "Your case is very unusual discovering
as an adult that you're at risk; most at-risks have known for
years. How did you find out?"
Pierre was quiet for a moment, thinking. Was there any need
to go into the details? That he'd discovered in a first-year
genetics class that it was impossible for two blue-eyed parents
to have a brown-eyed child? That he'd confronted his mother,
Élisabeth, with this fact? That she'd confessed to having had an
affair with one Henry Spade during the early years of her
marriage to Alain Tardivel, the man Pierre had known as his
father, a man who had been dead now for two years? That
Élisabeth, a Catholic, had been unable to divorce Alain? That
Élisabeth had successfully hidden from Alain the fact that their
brown-eyed son was not his biological child? And that Henry
Spade had moved to Toronto, never knowing he'd fathered a child?
It was too much, too personal. "I only recently met my real
father for the first time," said Pierre simply.
Laviolette nodded. "How old are you, Pierre?"
"I turn nineteen next month."
The doctor frowned. "There isn't any predictive test for
Huntington's, I'm afraid. You might not have the disease, but
the only way you'll discover that is when you finish middle age
without it showing up. On the other hand, you might develop
symptoms in as few as ten or fifteen years."
Laviolette looked at him quietly. They'd already gone over
the worst of it. Huntington's disease (also known as
Huntington's chorea) affects about half a million people
worldwide. It selectively destroys two parts of the brain that
help control movement. Symptoms, which normally first manifest
themselves between the ages of thirty and fifty, include abnormal
posture, progressive dementia, and involuntary muscular action
the name "chorea" refers to the dancing movements typical of the
disease. The disease itself, or complications arising from it,
eventually kills the victim; Huntington's sufferers often choke
to death on food because they've lost the muscular control to
"Have you ever thought about killing yourself, Pierre?"
Pierre's eyebrows rose at the unexpected question. "No."
"I don't mean just now over concern about possibly having
Huntington's disease. I mean ever. Have you ever thought about
"No. Not seriously."
"Are you prone to depression?"
"No more than the next guy, I imagine."
"Boredom? Lack of direction?"
Pierre thought about lying, but didn't. "Umm, yes. I have
to admit to some of that." He shrugged. "People say I'm
unmotivated, that I coast through life."
Laviolette nodded. "Do you know who Woody Guthrie is?"
The doctor made a "kids today" face. "He wrote `This Land
is Your Land.'"
"Oh, yeah. Sure."
"He died of Huntington's in 1967. His son Arlo you have heard
of him, no?"
Pierre shook his head.
Laviolette sighed. "You're making me feel old. Arlo wrote
Pierre looked blank.
"Folk music," said Laviolette.
"In English, no doubt," said Pierre dismissively.
"Even worse," said Laviolette, with a twinkle in his eye,
"American English. Anyway, Arlo is probably the most
famous person in your position. He's got a fifty-fifty chance of
having inherited the gene, just like you. He talked about it
once in an interview in People magazine; I'll give you a
photocopy before you go."
Pierre, unsure what to say, simply nodded.
Laviolette reached for his pen and prescription pad. "I'm
going to write out the number for the local Huntington's support
group; I want you to call them." He copied a phone number from a
small Cerlox-bound Montreal health-services directory, tore the
sheet off the pad, and handed it to Pierre. He paused for a
moment, as if thinking, then picked a business card from the
brass holder on his desk and wrote another phone number beneath
the one preprinted on the card. "And I'm also doing something I
never do, Pierre. This is my personal number at home. If you
can't get me here, try me there day or night. Sometimes . . .
sometimes people take news like this very poorly. Please, if
you're ever thinking of doing something rash, call me. Promise
you'll do that, Pierre." He proffered the card.
"You mean if I'm thinking about killing myself, don't you?"
The doctor nodded.
Pierre took the card. To his astonishment, his hand was
Late at night, alone in his room. Pierre hadn't even
managed to finish undressing for bed. He just stared into space,
not focusing, not thinking.
It was unfair, dammit. Totally unfair.
What had he done to deserve this?
There was a small crucifix above the door to his room; it
had been there since he'd been a little boy. He stared up at the
tiny Jesus but there was no point in praying. The die was
cast; what was done was done. Whether or not he had the gene had
been determined almost twenty years ago, at the very moment of
Pierre had bought an Arlo Guthrie LP and listened to it.
He'd been unable to find any Woody Guthrie at A&A's, but the
Montreal library had an old album by a group called the Almanac
Singers that Woody had once been part of. He listened to that,
The Almanac Singers' music seemed full of hope; Arlo's music
seemed sad. It could go either way.
Pierre had read that most Huntington's patients ended their
lives in hospital. The average stay before death was seven
Outside, the wind was whistling. A branch of the tree next
to the house swept back and forth across the window, like a
crooked, bony hand beckoning him to follow.
He didn't want to die. But he didn't want to live through
years of suffering.
He thought about his father his real father, Henry Spade.
Thrashing about in bed, his faculties slipping away.
His eyes lit on his desk, a white particleboard thing from
Consumers Distributing. On it was his copy of Les
Misérables, which he'd just finished reading for his
French-literature course. Jean Valjean had stolen a loaf of
bread and no matter what he did, he could not undo that fact;
until his dying day, his record was marked. Pierre's record was
marked, too, one way or the other, but there was no way to read
it. If he were like Valjean if he were a convict then he
had a Javert, too, endlessly pursuing him, eventually fated to
In the book, the tables had turned, with Inspector Javert
ending up being the one incapable of escaping his birthright.
Unable to alter what he was, he took the only way out, plunging
from a parapet into the icy waters of the Seine below.
The only way out . . .
Pierre got up, shuffled over to the desk, turned on a hooded
lamp on an articulated bone-white arm, and found Laviolette's
card with the doctor's home number written on it. He stared at
the card, reading it over and over again.
The only way out . . .
He walked back to his bed, sat on the edge of it, and
listened to the wind some more. Without ever looking down to see
what he was doing, he began drawing the edge of the card back and
forth across the inside of his left wrist, again and again, as
though it were a blade.
When she was eighteen, Molly Bond had been an undergraduate
psychology student at the University of Minnesota. She lived in
residence even though her family was right here in Minneapolis.
Even back then, she couldn't take staying in the same house with
them not with her disapproving mother, not with her vacuous
sister Jessica, and not with her mother's new husband, Paul,
whose thoughts about her were often anything but paternal.
Still, there were certain family events that forced her to
return home. Today was one of those. "Happy birthday, Paul,"
she said, leaning in to give her stepfather a kiss on the cheek.
"I love you."
Should say the same thing back. "Love you, too, hon."
Molly stepped away, trying to keep her sigh from escaping
audibly. It wasn't much of a party, but maybe they'd do better
next year. This was Paul's forty-ninth birthday; they'd try to
commemorate the big five-oh in a more stylish fashion.
If Paul was still around at that point, that is. What Molly had
wanted to detect when she leaned in to kiss Paul was I love
you, too, spontaneous, unplanned, unrehearsed. But no.
She'd heard should say the same thing back, and then, a
moment later, the spoken words, false, manufactured, flat.
Molly's mother came out of the kitchen carrying a cake a
carrot cake, Paul's favorite, crowned with the requisite number
of candles, including one for good luck, arranged just like the
stars on an American flag. Jessica helped Paul get his presents
out of the way.
Molly couldn't resist. While her mother fumbled to get her
camera set up, she moved in to stand right beside her stepfather,
bringing him into her zone again. Molly's mother said, "Now make
a wish and blow out the candles."
Paul closed his eyes. I wish, he thought, that I
hadn't gotten married. He exhaled on the tiny flames, and
smoke rose toward the ceiling.
Molly wasn't really surprised. At first she'd thought Paul
was having an affair: he often worked late on weeknights, or
disappeared all day on Saturdays, saying he was going to the
office. But the truth, in some ways, was just as bad. He wasn't
going off to be with someone else; rather, he just didn't want to
be with them.
They sang "Happy Birthday," and then Paul cut the cake.
The thoughts of Molly's mother were no better. She
suspected Molly might be a lesbian, so rarely was she seen with
men. She hated her job, but pretended to enjoy it, and although
she smiled when she handed over money to help Molly with
university expenses, she resented every dollar of it. It
reminded her of how hard she'd worked to put her first husband,
Molly's dad, through business school.
Molly looked again at Paul and found she couldn't really
blame him. She wanted to get away from this family, too far,
far away, so that even birthdays and Christmases could be
skipped. Paul handed her a piece of cake. Molly took it and
moved down to the far end of the table, sitting alone.
Wrapped up in his personal problems, Pierre failed all of
his first-year courses. He went to see the dean of undergraduate
studies and explained his situation. The dean gave him a second
chance: McGill offered a reduced curriculum over the summer
session. Pierre would only manage a couple of credits, but it
would get him back on the right track for next September.
And so Pierre found himself back in an introductory genetics
course. By coincidence, the same pencil-necked Anglais
teaching assistant who had originally pointed out the
heritability of eye color was teaching this one. Pierre had
never been one for paying attention in class; his old notebooks
contained mostly doodled hockey-team crests. But today he really
was trying to listen . . . at least with one ear.
"It was the biggest puzzle in science during the early
1950s," said the TA. "What form did the DNA molecule take? It
was a race against time, with many luminaries, including Linus
Pauling, working on the problem. They all knew that whoever
discovered the answer would be remembered forever . . ."
Or perhaps with both ears . . .
"A young biologist no older than any of you named James
Watson got involved with Francis Crick, and the two of them
started looking for the answer. Building on the work of Maurice
Wilkins and x-ray crystallography studies done by Rosalind
Franklin . . ."
Pierre sat rapt.
"... Watson and Crick knew that the four bases used in
DNA adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine were each of a
different size. But by using cardboard cutouts of the bases,
they were able to show that when adenine and thymine bind
together, they form a combined shape that's the same length as
the one formed when guanine and cytosine bind together. And they
showed that those combined shapes could form rungs on a spiral
ladder . . ."
"It was an amazing breakthrough and what was even more amazing
was that James Watson was just twenty-five years old when he and
Crick proved that the DNA molecule took the form of a double
helix . . ."
Morning, after a night spent more awake than asleep. Pierre
sat on the edge of his bed.
He had turned nineteen in April.
Many of those at risk for Huntington's had full-blown
symptoms by the time they were to select a figure
thirty-eight. Just double his current age.
So little time.
And yet, so much had happened in the last nineteen years.
Vague, early memories, of baby-sitters and tricycles and marbles
and endless summers and Batman in first run on TV.
Kindergarten. God, that seemed so long ago. Mademoiselle
Renault's class. Dimly recalled celebrations of Canada's
Being a Louveteau a Cub Scout, but never managing to
finish a merit badge.
Two years of summer camp.
His family moving from Clearpoint to Outrement, and he
having to adjust to a new school.
Breaking his arm playing street hockey.
And the FLQ October Crisis in 1970, and his parents trying
to explain to a very frightened boy what all the TV news stories
meant, and why there were troops in the streets.
Robert Apollinaire, his best friend when he was ten, who had
moved all of twenty blocks away, and had never been seen again.
And puberty, and all that that entailed.
The hubbub when the 1976 Olympics were held in Montreal.
His first kiss, at a party, playing spin the bottle.
And seeing Star Wars for the first time and thinking it
was the best movie that ever was.
His first girlfriend, Marie he wondered where she was now.
Getting his driver's license, and smashing up Dad's car two
Discovering the magic words Je t'aime, and how effective
they were at getting his hand under a sweater or skirt. Then
learning what those words really meant, in the summer of his
seventeenth year, with Danielle. And crying alone on a street
corner after she had broken up with him.
Learning to drink beer, and then learning to like the taste.
Parties. Summer jobs. A school play for which he did
lighting. Winning season's tickets to the Canadiens home games
in a CFCF radio giveaway what a year that had been! Walking,
unmotivated, through high school. Doing sports reporting for
L'Informateur, the school newspaper. That big fight with
Roch Laval fifteen years of friendship, gone in one evening,
never to be recovered.
Dad's heart attack. Pierre had thought the pain of losing
him would never go away, but it had. Time heals all wounds.
All that, in nineteen years. It was a long time, was a
substantial period, was . . . was, perhaps, all the good time he
The pencil-necked teaching assistant had been talking last
class about James D. Watson. Just twenty-five when he'd
codiscovered the helical nature of DNA. And by the time he was
thirty-four, Watson had won the Nobel Prize.
Pierre knew that he was bright. He walked through school because
he could walk through school. Whatever the subject, he
had no trouble. Study? You must be joking. Carry home a stack
of books? Surely you jest.
A life that might be cut short.
A Nobel Prize by age thirty-four.
Pierre began to get dressed, putting on underwear and a
He felt an emptiness in his heart, a vast feeling of loss.
But he came to realize, after a few moments, that it wasn't the
potential, future loss that he was mourning. It was the wasted
past, the misspent time, the hours frittered away, the days
without accomplishment, the coasting through life.
Pierre pulled up his socks.
He would make the most of it make the most of every minute.
Pierre Jacques Tardivel would be remembered.
He looked at his watch.
No time to waste.
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