I have this recurring dream. It involves my own death. My funeral, really. The service is held at Hemingford Unity Cemetery, where every so often a body is hidden in the red clay north of Wichita Falls, Texas. I suppose this particular cemetery was chosen because my father lies there, and because I will eventually bury my mother's body beside his. But did Misty really think I belonged with them? I've lived in Houston for nearly twenty years now, and the drive to Wichita Falls is not short.
The first sign of something wrong is the number of attendees. My wife and my mother and two uncles are here. My best friend, Tom Bishop, is here. And a minister, but of course he was hired to come.
The images generated by my subconscious are impressive in detail. A great, ageless oak tree casts a skeleton shadow across the congregation. Rows of headstone soldiers stand guard over long-dead namesakes. And beside my casket stands a mound of dirt covered with a blanket of synthetic grass.
What's missing is the eulogy. The hired minister finishes his prepared words and looks to pass the baton to the next participant. But no one steps forward. I guess Misty thought Tom would say something, and I guess he thought she would do the honors. My mom suffers from Alzheimer's disease, so no one would have mistaken her for the speaker. Finally the minister asks someone, anyone, to come forward and say a few words for the deceased. Misty and Tom briefly exchange glances and then ignore each other. The uncles watch red dirt ruin their wingtips. My mother just stares into space, probably remembering the time when she was eight and someone in school set her only pair of shoes on fire.
"Very well, then," the minister says and walks away.
After a moment the handful of mourners wander to their cars, fire up engines, and leave the cemetery. I remain with a bearded groundskeeper, who removes the synthetic turf, lowers the casket, and shovels red clay back into the hole from where it came.
Recently I saw a therapist and told him about the dream.
"So," he asked, "do you think this dream might have something to say about you?"
"It seems obvious," I said. "I feel like I'm not doing anything with my life."
"Yet you seem relatively successful to the outside observer--six-figure household income, beautiful wife. What exactly should you be doing?"
My answer was silence. I was either unable or unwilling to think of something.
A couple of days went by, the question still unanswered, and eventually I mentioned my concerns to Misty. She delivered an Ann Landers-esque quote that has increasingly and alarmingly become her standard response to any unpleasant matter she encounters.
"Something will come up," she said. "It always does."
Two days later Batista made me the offer, and I've never seen my wife wish so badly that she had been wrong.
Channel-surfing on our bedroom TV is doing nothing to take the edge off. It's not like I haven't agonized over this decision to the point of absurdity, but today is the day, after all.
Now is the time.
I've already passed by three "talk" shows, and while I've seen a lot of shouting and a fair amount of screaming, I've yet to encounter any talking. I flip absently, past a baseball game and an infomercial and a "Star Trek" installment, on my way to CNN when I happen upon a televangelist.
". . . lost, just like I was lost, that's right, just like I was lost. When I lived in that sin-infested town, that Babel nestled among the hills and jutting into the bay like an angry finger, like a vile middle finger thrust hatefully into the air . . ."
I can't remember seeing this particular fellow before, but here in Texas, TV preachers are as common as houseflies. According to the caption in the bottom right corner of the screen, his name is Yale Thayer. He's a thin man with pale skin and fire-red hair.
". . . begins at conception, not when some godless scientist says it does. They want to farm human beings, my friends. They want to harvest cells from someone who could turn out to be your sister, your best friend, your aunt Ruby who tapes 'Wheel of Fortune' every weekday on her VCR. And they hide behind their own corrupt morals, trying to influence public opinion by giving false hope to those unfortunate enough to contract incurable diseases. 'We can save lives!' they cry! 'We can help people who are alive!' But to do this they want to steal the life away from innocent babies, each with a soul given to them by God and saved by His Son, Jesus Chr--"
I touch the television remote and end his tirade midsentence. I'm supposed to be packing, so I jack up the volume on CNN and head back into the bathroom, where toothpaste and cologne and grooming implements patiently wait to be dropped into my suitcase. When I happen to look at my reflection in the mirror, the fear apparent in my own eyes unnerves me.
I carry the suitcase back into the bedroom--now ready for underwear briefs and white T-shirts--just in time to catch the beginning of a Breaking News Event brought to me by a striking, articulate brunette.
". . . don't really know exactly how long the group has been missing. Police in neighboring Corpus Christi notified the FBI after numerous missing person reports were filed by concerned friends and relatives who claimed to have lost contact with suspected members over three weeks ago. Authorities expressed skepticism, however, when questioned about sources who estimate the group had swelled to over nine hundred members in recent weeks."
A short, muscle-bound fellow dressed in a navy blue FBI jacket appears on the screen behind the caption: Special Agent Gerald Weir.
"We are currently gathering information on the group, which calls itself Primordial Carbon," he says. "Apparently this group made a pilgrimage into a remote area of the King Ranch and chose a gathering place about sixty miles south of Corpus Christi. As to the allegation that their numbers approach one thousand, we have reason to believe this has been somewhat exaggerated. But I would like to assure the public that any and all leads are being investigated."
The beautiful brunette anchor further explains the significance of this news event, declaring it the largest mass disappearance of humans in recent history, and asks us viewers to tune in to CNN for a special report beginning promptly at--
"Cameron," Misty calls from the kitchen, "did you pack your golf shoes yet?"
"No," I tell her. "I think they're still in the trunk of my car."
"I'll get them."
She's been remarkably calm today, my wife, considering her attitude over the past three weeks. When I first told her she threatened to divorce me. She didn't care about the money, the five million dollars NeuroStor offered for the test. She didn't care when I explained that my job was being eliminated, that our entire company's financial health--and my retirement stock options--might rest on the success of the transmission machine. Instead she said--quite predictably, I might add--All I need is you, Cameron. Sure it is. Easy to say when there is plenty of money to go around.
The idea of divorce scares the hell out of me. Maybe, considering our declining intimacy over the past several years, it's something we should have discussed a long time ago. But when you marry young like Misty and I did, and when your relationship stretches on for five, ten, and now fifteen years, it's not easy to give up the comfort, the bedrock upon which your life rests. You want to know the laundry is going to be done every Sunday afternoon. You get used to the daily ritual of cooking familiar meals for two. You lull yourself to sleep every night with the rhythmic pattern of your wife's breathing. Boundaries box you into predictability, and eventually you grow dependent upon the razor-wire walls that form the perimeter of your life.
But something changed in me the day Batista made the five-million-dollar offer, and in the end I realized there was no way I could not accept. That recurring dream, the one where I go to my grave with no eulogy? It was trying to tell me something, and I'm going to heed its warning.
I'm going to do something with my life.
Misty looks over at me periodically as she negotiates the Beltway traffic, and while her voice trembles with anger, I read more from her eyes. Like fear. And grief. And uncertainty. The one thing she knows for sure: She doesn't want to let me go.
"You're crazy, Cameron. Do you hear me? I should have you committed."
The overcast sky paints the city in shades of gray, and even the conditioned air in the car feels uncomfortable and sticky. Fifty or so miles from the Gulf, Houston is close enough to draw tropical moisture out of the ocean but too far away to be cooled by any sort of sea breeze effect. That's one benefit of choosing Phoenix as my transmission destination--not a whole lot of humidity in Arizona.
The radio mumbles a conversation I can't quite hear. Misty's speed hovers just below the posted limit of seventy miles per hour, which is interesting when you consider that she drives like a demon most of the time. She's making time to stage one final confrontation, you see.
"Really, Cameron," she says. Her eyes shift but never quite make contact with mine. "Will you please seize this last opportunity to reconsider? I've told you a thousand times that I don't care about the money, and I don't believe the job market in Houston is as bad as you say it is. You could find something. I could make more money. Don't act like this is the only choice you have."
"Honey, we've gone over this. It's not just the money--"
"You're just bored with accounting, that's all. You need a vacation. That's why I think you should go ahead and visit Tom. Fly out there and stay for a week and play golf every day. I know you'll feel better."
"Misty . . ."
"Please just fly. Just take an airplane." One of her hands leaves the steering wheel and rummages into her purse. She pulls out an envelope and shoves it at me. "I bought this for you. A direct flight to Phoenix. It leaves at five-thirty."
"Airplanes go down all the time, Misty. And someone had to try them first. Someone always has to be the first."
"It's a first-class ticket, see! I think they serve drinks before the plane even takes off."
"You don't underst--"
"I understand that you might die!" Her eyes have gone red now, and she just glares at me with them.
"Misty, watch the road."
She drops the ticket into my lap.
"The road. Of course. Don't want to be injured on the way to your death."
Misty already knows I've come to terms with the unlikely botched transmission. I think she's trying to find similar ground on which to stand.
"I'm not having this debate with you again, Misty. It's not just the money. It's not about my retirement or even trying to save the company. I want to do something. I want to make a difference, for myself. For everyone."
Now she looks away from me, out the window. I can't see her eyes, but I hear the tears.
"What about me, Cameron? Why won't you do something for me?"
"Misty . . ."
"Don't think I don't know the real issue here. You're not trying to make a difference. You're just tired of drifting."
"You heard me. Sometime after Luke died you lost your way, and now you're a drifter. A lost soul. And I'm the one to blame because I never gave you children."
Now Misty's quiet tears turn to sobs, and I put my arm around her trembling shoulders.
"Please don't cry. We've gone over this a thousand times. It's not your fault."
"Yes it is! I'm the barren one!"
Luke, our first and only child, was born thirteen years ago, two years after we married. He was a beautiful child, but an undeveloped brain killed him after only three weeks. We tried to conceive again, but after two miscarriages and years of fertility specialists we finally gave up.
Misty could have allowed Luke's death to wreak havoc with her mind, but she's a resilient person, much more so than I am. She whipped her body back into shape and found useful ways to spend her time. For several years she wrote freelance magazine articles (her very first submission--a story describing reduced calorie consumption as a way to slow the aging process--was accepted by Ladies' Home Journal, paving the way for more than twenty sales to various small- and large-circulation magazines). And later she joined the local theater group, where she acted occasionally and wrote several original plays. Her mother also managed to convince her that God could help ease the pain, and for the first time since we married, she made church a Sunday routine.
I did not fare so well. Golf isn't therapeutic the way writing apparently is, and I haven't found, nor do I care to search for, God.
"What am I supposed to do, Misty? Just call up Batista and tell him I changed my mind? It's too late now. He's counting on me. Everyone is."
"They wouldn't be counting on you if you had listened to me in the first place! If you had respected the opinion of me, your wife, instead of confiding in your boss, instead of going all buddy-buddy with that slimeball."
"He's not a slimeball. If it wasn't for--"
"Oh, come on, Cameron! Now you're defending him? You've done nothing but complain about him for years! He's too young, a kid just out of college who has no business trying to direct seasoned workers. Those are your words."
"I know they are."
"And now, just because he chose you to die in this--"
"I'm not going to die."
"You think just because he chose you to try this ridiculous machine, you think he's gone from untested child to brilliant leader in the span of a few weeks."
I look out my own window and watch a short line of cars moving up the freeway entrance ramp from the feeder road. A black BMW, a silver Dodge truck, a red Chevrolet sedan. The accelerating Chevrolet farts a disturbingly large cloud of black smoke as it merges with traffic, adding a little spice to the already polluted, humid Houston air. A little spice, but not really a lot, not when you consider the other three million cars in the area, not when you consider the stinking refineries on the southeast side of town, not when you consider twenty million passengers a year flying in and out of the city's three commercial airports. Houston's air pollution, after all, is among the worst in the United States, often as toxic as perennial favorite Los Angeles.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Rift by Richard Cox. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Cox. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine 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.