The moment that Milo Slade had attempted to avoid for nearly his entire life ﬁnally arrived under the sodium glow of a parking lot ﬂorescent at a Burger King just south of Washington, D.C., along Interstate 95. His wife, Christine, about three hundred miles north of his position, was completely unaware of his present location. Though his sudden and unexplained disappearance may have been a cause of concern for her just one week ago, Milo suspected that it was signiﬁcantly less so now.
Things had changed so much in such a short period of time.
The camera and the tapes, the objects that had ultimately led him to this moment, were also back in Connecticut, left there purposely lest he be unable to stop himself from watching. These items had been in his possession for less than two weeks, and he felt guilty enough for what he had seen already.
It was just after seven P.M., and his passenger and fellow traveler had expressed the need to use a restroom. Though Milo also needed to urinate, he decided to forgo nature’s call and use the time alone to access some of the jars of jelly from the trunk of the Honda in order to satisfy one of the mounting demands making rational thought almost impossible. Almost an hour ago, Milo had been forced to complain to his companion about the overwhelming headache that had been plaguing him ever since the ﬁrst of these demands had taken shape in his mind. Though he was loath to admit to the suffering, always wanting to keep every aspect of the demands as secretive as possible, he felt he needed to in order to limit the conversation in the car and allow him to direct all of his mental energy to the road ahead. An offer had been made to take the wheel, as he knew it would, but Milo knew that the pressure would only increase if he were sitting in a passenger seat with nothing on which to direct his attention. With each passing mile, the demands had grown stronger and louder, though that wasn’t quite right since they issued no actual sound. Instead, each inexplicable demand blazed away in his mind like a small sun, a silent, unstoppable imperative that consumed all thought and reason. And as they did so, the conﬁnes of the Honda had seemed to become smaller and smaller. He had grown ﬁdgety, his arms and legs feeling almost electriﬁed. Even in the limited space of the driver’s seat, he was unable to sit still. The ﬁllings in his teeth had begun to ache. He was perspiring profusely. His brain felt as if it were trapped in an ever- tightening vise.
The physical toll of the demands had never been so terrible.
He had tried switching the Honda’s cruise control on and off in an effort to release some of the pressure on his mind and body but found no relief. He had tried adjusting the power mirrors, and still no effect. He had pretended to accidentally lock and unlock the doors in hopes that the pop of the power locks might afford some reprieve, but it had not. Finally, he had risked snapping and unsnapping his jeans, just once, but even this had offered little in the way of respite. The demands were too many and too loud for his usual delaying strategies to work. There were four of them now, a never-before- seen number, pressing on one another like a crowd battling its way to a locked exit door in the middle of a ﬁre.
The demand to open those jars of jelly.
The demand to replace the stale air in the Honda’s tires with fresh air.
The demand to bowl a strike.
The demand to sing “99 Luftballons” to anyone who would listen.
He expected others to follow shortly, as the mounting pressure would undoubtedly force new and ever- more- challenging demands to the surface. Weebles and ice cubes and drink boxes and those goddamn words would surely follow, and maybe even some new demands not currently found in his repertoire. He wondered how much more of this he could take.
In short, Milo was a man slowly losing his mind.
But he hoped that the jars of jelly would help. The twisting of the lid, the satisfying pop of the pressure seal, and the subsequent, almost imperceptible yet supremely powerful hiss might alleviate enough of the building pressure to allow him to continue his journey.
As he feared, two jars had not been enough. He had moved a total of nine from the trunk to the front seat, the remains of his stash, and though he would’ve liked to have found the time to conceal them under his seat, away from the prying eyes of his passenger, he had not. Delaying their opening for even a second had become impossible.
Milo was in the midst of opening his ﬁfth jar, having lost all track of time in the euphoric pop of the pressure seals, when the passenger door opened, the interior light came on, and the woman attempted to reenter the Honda. She paused for a moment, staring at the four opened jars of Smucker’s grape jelly (Milo’s preferred brand for satisfying this demand) on her seat, their lids stacked neatly in a rectangular space in the console, before asking, “Uh... what’s this?”
Milo was sitting behind the wheel, a jar of jelly in his hand and four more sealed jars in his lap. His left hand wrapped tightly around the jar and his right gripped the lid, ready to turn. For a moment, he considered lying to the woman. After all, he’d
spent the last three years of marriage, and two years of courtship before that, concealing these demands from his wife. His parents and even his friends were equally unaware, even though they consumed an enormous portion of his life. And even with the mounting pressure, greater than any he had felt before, he was still ﬁlled with shame of this secret part of him. Perhaps he could invent a story about contaminated jars of Smucker’s and the desire for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The story would have been ridiculous (least of all because he had no bread), but the truth, he knew, would be inﬁnitely more so. Still, he might have tried to offer up a plausible explanation for the jars of jelly strewn about the car, but it was because he was about to open the ﬁfth jar, and because he knew that he would need at least a couple more in order to silence the demand, that Milo ﬁnally decided to forgo the lies. Though it might have eventually proven impossible, perhaps he would have been able to put off the demands a little while longer, maybe long enough to ﬁnd a hotel room and satisfy enough of them to make it back to Connecticut safely. But now that he was in the midst of satisfaction— had begun the pro cess of release— he knew that there was no stopping. He could not simply toss the remaining jars into the backseat and drive on as if nothing were wrong. And from the look on the woman’s face as she placed the open jars on the ﬂoor, settled in to her seat, and turned to face him, it would’ve been impossible for her to ignore the jars as well.
The time for secrets had ﬁnally come to an end.
“Just give me a minute and I’ll explain everything,” Milo said, then turned the lid on the jar, absorbed the satisfying pop of the pressure seal, and sighed heavily. chapter 1
When he ﬁrst spotted the video camera sitting on the end of the park bench beneath the dying elm, Milo didn’t take it. He had wanted to take it, to be sure. Not steal it, but claim it ﬁrst in the event that it had been left behind by a careless own er who might never return. But there were still a few stragglers in the park that eve ning, and one of them might have left the camera behind, relying on the goodness of man to keep it safe. Though a video camera was something Milo would have liked to own, the act of approaching the bench, reaching down, and placing his hands on the device would require more daring than he could ever muster. Just stopping to take notice of it had left Milo with the feeling that a thousand eyes had been cast on him, forcing him to nudge his dog forward along the path. Opportunity lost,
he had thought as he rounded the hill in the direction of his new home.
So when he returned the following eve ning and found the same camera in the same location, Milo couldn’t help but think that fortune was somehow smiling on him, forcing him into action. Though the north end of the park was typically deserted because of its lack of amenities (other than the single bench), the fact that the camera had lasted more than twenty- four hours without being claimed by someone, own er or otherwise, was remarkable. And although approximately the same number of stragglers was still present in the park, picnicking across the ﬁeld near the gazebo and ﬁnishing up a game of basketball on the shadow- strewn court, Milo felt more emboldened this evening as he approached the shade of the elm.
Deciding to claim it for his own, he sat down beside the camera, commanding Skywalker, his newly renamed bea gle, to heel while he stalled, hoping to add a perceived purpose to his stop. After what he felt was a sufﬁcient period of time, he reached over and casually grabbed the device, which was small enough to ﬁt in one hand, and had begun to straighten up when he noticed the nylon bag in the shadow beneath the bench.
Reﬂecting on the moment much later, Milo would grin, thinking how close he had come to missing the camera bag entirely. Though he had always thought that it was the camera that had changed his life, it was really the bag, ﬁlled with those fourteen numbered tapes, that had set things in motion. Conﬂagration.
The word ﬁlled Milo’s mind as he and Skywalker covered the mile between the park and his apartment. For the trip home, he had placed the video camera into the black bag and slung it over his shoulder, afﬁrming his newfound own ership over the device in one single motion. Conﬂagration.
For reasons that he would never understand, this was the latest in a series of hundreds, maybe thousands of words that became lodged in his mind from time to time over the course of his life, though “lodged” was perhaps an understatement. These words appeared suddenly, for no apparent reason, and though they started as a tickle in the back of his mind, they quickly grew to consume every bit of his mental pro cesses, inﬁltrating the farthest corners of his brain, burning in his head to the point of physical pain until they were at last satisﬁed. Conﬂagration.
The word had been in his thoughts for almost a week, an uncommonly long period of time in comparison to most, and so the pressure and tension building in his head was especially high. No matter what Milo did, where he went or what he thought, conﬂagration
remained in the forefront, serving as an aching, insidious, and insistent distracter to all that he attempted. And as with all previous words, Milo had no idea why this partic u lar one chose to take up residence in his mind, but as with the rest, he knew that there was only one way to rid himself of it. If things went well, he might have to endure the word for only one more day.
Milo’s new home was a one- bedroom apartment on Willard Avenue in the town of Newington, Connecticut, about a mile from his real home, which was currently occupied by his wife, Christine. Milo had been separated from Christine for about three weeks, and he still had yet to completely unpack. Boxes were neatly stacked about the living room and kitchen, and his bedroom furniture consisted only of his bed and desk, both extricated from his home during the rapid departure (or what he thought of as an escape) from his house on Wilson Road.
Milo’s marriage to Christine had been in decline for more than a year when she ﬁnally asked Milo for “space,” and after two months of stalling, hoping that things would eventually improve, he ﬁnally began taking steps to rent an apartment close to the house in order to accommodate what he thought had been his wife’s request.
Though digging through boxes for a clean pair of underwear was getting old, Milo was not anxious to ﬁnish unpacking. Part
of him hoped that the separation wouldn’t last long. He and Christine had been married for almost three years, and although there were clearly issues that needed to be worked out between them, he couldn’t imagine permanently upending things over a few squabbles. They had a home, a dog, and a life together, and he had expected them to be discussing children soon. Making such drastic changes to his future seemed incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, for weeks prior to his departure, Milo had begun assembling the items that he thought he might need in the event that he was forced to move out. In the words of his best friend, Andy, “A woman can only ask for space for so long before she’s going to tell you to get the fuck out.” As much as he hated to admit it, Milo knew that his friend was right. Every time Christine broached the topic of space
, never speciﬁcally requesting a separation but only suggesting the need for some time apart, Milo would acknowledge her comment with a dejected “I know,” but he would say nothing more, waiting for his wife to press the issue. He sensed that Christine did not want to be the one to speciﬁcally tell Milo to get the fuck out
and was hoping that her husband would instead take the hint and offer to move out on his own. At the same time, Milo was hoping that Andy was wrong and that Christine would eventually come to her senses. But even in the beginning, he feared that she would not, and so he had begun a slow but steady pro cess of preparing to move out.
Stopping at a tag sale on the way to pick up coffee for Christine one morning, he had purchased a pair of lamps and a can opener for eight dollars, stufﬁng the items into the trunk of his car in the event that he suddenly found himself on his own in need of adequate lighting and a tuna ﬁsh sandwich. This was followed by more and more surreptitious Saturday- morning visits to tag sales and ﬂea markets, where he continued to ﬁll his trunk to the point of nearly bursting. Though it took him weeks to accept
the inevitable, he wanted to be equipped to move on, knowing in his heart that he might soon be living alone with his best friend, Puggles, whose name he had changed to Skywalker during his ﬁrst week in the apartment. Though his friends thought him crazy for changing the name of a dog that he had owned for two years, Milo understood that dogs reacted more to tone than words, so an excited, high- pitched “Skywalker!”
proved to attract just as much attention from his bea gle as did a similarly intoned “Puggles!”
Besides, he had always hated the name that Christine had given the dog.
It had been during their late- afternoon runs that the deterioration of the marriage had become obvious to Milo. Though things had apparently been going sour for some time (at least in Christine’s estimation), he had never suspected real trouble until they began running together in early spring. Despite the never-ending plague of odd and inexplicable demands placed on him, Milo had managed to effectively conceal each and every one from his wife from the moment they had begun dating, and this, in addition to other, more routine efforts to keep Christine happy, should have been more than enough to keep their marriage on a sound footing. At least this is what Milo had thought when they began jogging through the neighborhood, side by side.
Christine had taken up the sport after years of relatively little physical activity, so it had come to as a surprise to Milo when he came home one day to ﬁnd her doubled over and panting in the kitchen. Though she had always been in ﬁne shape, her late- afternoon runs, seemingly initiated on a whim, had begun to take on an almost religious quality when Milo ﬁnally asked to join her. Upon reﬂection, he should have known that the sudden urge to exercise was a sign of trouble. He had seen married
women begin intense exercise regimes before, and it usually signaled one of three things: The wife had experienced a health scare, the wife was having an affair, or the husband had been caught cheating. Though none of these was the case in Milo and Christine’s marriage (as far as Milo knew), he suspected that Christine was attempting to dramatically improve her physical appearance, and he should have realized that few women (or men) are willing to do this for a spouse after three years of marriage.
Christine agreed to allow Milo to run with her, and for the ﬁrst month, she ﬁnished the two- mile route through the neighborhood well ahead of her breathless, bedraggled husband. But as Milo continued to run, his high school cross- country genes began to reassert themselves, and his desire to impress his wife soon had him running stride for stride with her along the course. As Milo’s endurance and speed improved, he noticed that Christine continued to push the pace, running faster and harder as Milo attempted to keep up, until one day, as they rounded a corner in a near sprint, Christine drew to a stop, threw up her hands, and shouted, “What the hell?”
Milo pulled to a stop along his wife, oblivious to the cause of her anger. Though in retrospect the cause should have been obvious, at the time it was not. “What’s the matter?”
“You just keep coming, don’t you? You can’t let me have my own thing! You just have to be better than me!”
“Honey, I’m just trying to keep up with you,” he said between breaths. “I don’t need to pass you. Just keep up. I thought you wanted me to run with you?”
“I did,” she snapped. She looked at her husband for a moment, eyes bulging, breathing heavily, seeming to search for more words, and for a second, Milo thought that his wife might be in the midst of a panic attack, a condition to which she was occasionally prone. Though these attacks could result in hyperventilation, a loss of equilibrium, and disorientation, Christine’s primary
concern had always been the public spectacle and potential embarrassment that she might suffer if one was to ever strike while outside the home, as had happened when she was younger. If Christine were to experience one of these attacks in a public location, like this street corner, Milo was under orders to remove her from the situation as best he could, as quickly as he could, in order to prevent further embarrassment.
But this was not a panic attack, Milo realized rather quickly, but simply a moment of extreme anger and a subsequent loss for words, something that did not happen often to a litigator such as Christine. For the ﬁrst time that Milo could remember, his wife didn’t know what to say. For a moment, he thought she might apologize. “I don’t know what came over me,” he half expected her to admit, which would be followed by a brief embrace and an offer of sex when they returned home.
After all, he hadn’t done anything wrong.
But for almost a minute, Christine said nothing, and the protracted silence made Milo uneasy. Finally, she spoke, settling on “Never mind,” and took off in another sprint. Unsure what to do, Milo broke into a sprint himself, trying to catch his wife. He understood what she had been trying to say, but at the same time, he couldn’t understand the logic behind it at all. Had she hoped to always outdistance him, and if so, why bother running together at all? For Milo, who was twenty pounds overweight, the challenge had been to just keep pace with his wife, yet unknowingly and unintentionally, he had apparently stolen a source of pride from her. The expected admiration that he thought his wife might feel for his ability to match her pace couldn’t have been farther from reality, and he still couldn’t understand why.
Nevertheless, Milo had no intention of allowing his wife to ﬁnish ahead of him that day. To walk into the house after her would mean facing the awkward silence that comes after a couple
has engaged in marital combat and is then forced to immediately resume their daily activities under the same roof. Milo hated this form of vicious, nonverbal warfare, the purposeful absence of words where there would normally be many. If Christine ﬁnished the run ﬁrst, she would invariably be in the shower by the time Milo arrived home, and rather than shouting, “The shower’s all yours!” when ﬁnished, she would exit the bathroom without a word, probably donning a robe rather than remaining naked as she crossed the hallway into the bedroom. Standing in front of the dresser, she would begin drying her hair, refusing to even acknowledge his presence as he made his way to the bathroom for his own shower. This stubborn unwillingness to speak, an indication of anger through a deniable lack of words, would persist throughout dinner and perhaps all night unless Milo did something about it. By forcing polite conversation on his wife and preventing a break in the action, he would give Christine no choice but to either resume hostilities with another verbal barrage or stand down. Standing down was her typical response in these circumstances, but either one was preferable to that dreadful silence.
So with a burst of speed that he didn’t know he had, Milo caught his wife as she rounded the ﬁnal turn and ascended the two hundred yards of hill leading to the couple’s driveway. He passed his wife over the last twenty yards, then clutched his knees, gasping for breath, in front of their home as she jogged by declaring that she was going for a walk to cool down.
Whether Christine had meant to cool down from the argument or from the run was unclear, but since she had never walked before, Milo had assumed the former. Aware of the continued threat of silence if the two separated at this crucial moment, Milo adopted his cheeriest voice and replied, “Great! I’ll come along.”
He had always been good at pretending that nothing was wrong. Expert, in fact.
So began the tradition of a walk following their run, and what Milo considered to be the beginning of the end.
Even with the weeks of preparation, Milo couldn’t help but feel a little depressed each time he entered the apartment and was faced with its spartan furnishings. The lamps that he had purchased at the tag sale were sitting on the ﬂoor, ﬂanking a sagging futon that Milo had rescued from the basement during the move. Opposite the futon was a televi sion perched upon one of the four wooden chairs from the battered kitchen table, which he had also removed from the basement. DVDs were stacked neatly beside the chair in alphabetical order, with Sigourney Weaver’s ﬁrst two Alien
ﬁlms (the rest were an abomination) on top and the X-Files
boxed set (all nine seasons for just $124.99) on the bottom. Though he and Christine had purchased a number of movies as a couple, both had brought a collection of their own ﬁlms to the marriage as well, and Milo had extricated his DVDs during the move. He had also taken about two dozen other movies that he had received as gifts or were ﬁlms that he knew Christine would never want to see again, including the Matrix trilogy, Hoosiers
, all six Star Wars ﬁlms, and the ﬁrst seven seasons of The Simpsons
He had anticipated many lonely nights in the apartment until he and Christine settled their differences, and he had wanted to be ready to ﬁll his time as best he could.
Milo ate a silent dinner of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches off a paper plate before taking the time to examine the camera more closely. It was a Panasonic, similar to one owned by his friend Andy, with a small fold- out display screen for recording and viewing previously recorded material. The battery attached to the camera indicated a nearly full charge, and there was no tape loaded.
In the nylon bag, Milo found an extra battery, a charger, and fourteen tapes, each conveniently numbered with a black felt- tip
marker. He removed the tape marked “#1” and placed it into the camera. After a moment of fumbling for the right switch, he managed to get the tape to play. The screen was blank for several moments, and then a woman’s face ﬁlled the frame and began speaking.
Things would never be the same.
Excerpted from Unexpectedly, Milo by Matthew Dicks. Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Dicks. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.