The Border Part Three (3 page)

“What do you want?” Harry asked, his eyes filled with anger.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied darkly, staring at him. “Honestly. I don’t know what I want. Maybe I want an apology for what you did fifteen years ago. Do you think that could be it? I mean, I get where you were coming from, but I wasn’t the only blonde-haired kid in town. So do you think that could be the issue here? Do you think it’s that simple? I want an apology for what you did, and for how you…” Pausing for a moment, he finally sighed. “And here we are again. You’ve drawn out the worst of me, the whiniest, and we’re at each other’s throats again. That’s the problem, Dad. When these things are so close to the surface, it doesn’t take much for them to come through.”

“So maybe you should have stayed away,” Harry replied.

“How long for?”

“Forever!”

Ben nodded. “Maybe that would have been a better idea.”

“Sometimes things just don’t work out,” Harry continued. “There’s no point pushing ‘em, either.”

“What doesn’t work out? Relationships? Whole lives?”

“Give me my remote.”

Heading over to the window, Ben looked out for a moment at the street where he used to play as a child.

“Give me my remote,” Harry said again.

For a few seconds, all Ben could think about was the time Mr. Ryman chased him down the street after catching him picking roses. He allowed himself a faint smile, and he wondered whether Mr. Ryman was still alive.

“Give me my remote,” Harry said for a third time.

“Do you think it’s true?” Ben asked, turning to him. “Do you think we’re really born onto this rocky of a planet with no means of leaving a legacy?”

“What are you talking about now?”

“I’m talking about a bigger legacy than just kids or a splash of fame, I just…” He paused again. “I refuse to believe that we don’t have the chance of making an impact on the cosmos.”

Harry shook his head in despair.

“Too deep for you, Dad?”

“Too stupid. Give me my remote and -” Before he could finish, the remote control was tossed into his lap.

“I was lying,” Ben continued, staring into his father’s eyes. “I didn’t come here to get an apology from you. I know you never apologize for anything. I didn’t even come to get an apology. I know you never apologize for anything. I came to smooth things over for Beth’s sake, but obviously that’s not going to happen, is it?” He paused. “Because you don’t think you were wrong. You think you were right. Still, after all those time, you think I did it.”

“Get out of my house,” Harry replied.

“Aren’t you going to ask me?” Ben added, stepping over to him. “I’ll make a deal with you, Dad. If you have the balls to ask me straight out, I’ll answer honestly. I’ll tell you the truth.” He waited for a moment, before crouching next to his father’s armchair. “Ask me if I killed those girls, and I will tell you whether I did. I will tell you the absolute truth.” Another pause. “Go on, Dad. Just ask.”

He waited, as Harry stared back at him.

“What’s wrong, Dad? Don’t you want to know the truth? Ask me.”

II

 

“I’m not saying Gary’s death was the best thing that ever happened to me,” the woman on the TV said, “but…” She paused, before starting to smile. “Well, I definitely found a whole new lease of life after he was gone. I became a new me.”

The studio audience clapped approvingly. Some even cheered.

“Lucky bitch,” Beth muttered, running an iron over Lucy’s uniform with one hand while still feeling her own forehead with the other.

“Widows get a good deal,” the woman continued as the applause died down. “If your husband dies, you get a lot of sympathy and a lot of help. Plus, you know, financially it makes sense, provided you’ve been together for a while and he has a life insurance policy. I don’t want to sound mercenary, but you have to think about that kind of thing.”

“You have to think of your children,” the host pointed out.

“Absolutely,” the woman continued. “When Gary died, there was a little period when people wondered whether I’d… Well, you know, people can be suspicious.”

“You were investigated on suspicion of murder?”

“Right.”

“But the investigation was dropped, right?”

“Of course. But for some people, mud sticks.”

Glancing at the desk over by the window, Beth remembered the policy Bob had taken out a few years earlier. She couldn’t quite recall how much it was supposed to pay out, but she was pretty sure it was seven figures, maybe even more. The whole thing had seemed abstract at the time, and a little ghoulish, but now… However much it was, it would be enough to put Lucy through college, enough to ease their worries. For a moment, she caught herself fantasizing about a world in which Bob suffered an accident. She knew it was wrong not to be horrified by that idea, but deep down she felt a wriggling knot in her stomach, a sensation that actually, being free of Bob would be wonderful.

“No,” she whispered, focusing on the ironing once again. “Just no, just -”

Hearing a noise nearby, she turned and looked over at the door, where her younger nephew Oliver was standing with tears in his eyes. She hadn’t heard him entering the house and she had no idea how long he’d been there, and for a moment she wondered if she was hallucinating.

“Hey,” she said, forcing a smile, “you okay there?”

Oliver nodded, even as a tear ran down his cheek.

“Okay,” she continued, setting the iron to one side and heading over to him, “you’re clearly
not
okay. What’s wrong, are you hurt?”

He shook his head.

“Then what is it?”

“Mum and Dad are at work,” he told her, “and…” Reaching into his pocket with a trembling hand, he took out his mobile phone. “Stuart showed me some pictures on the internet.”

“He did, huh?” she replied cautiously. “Well, there are certainly some things on the internet that no-one wants to see. You need to be careful what you click on.”

“Not
that
internet,” he whimpered, as more tears ran down his face. “The
other
internet.”

“There’s another internet?” Reaching out, she took his phone and looked at the screen, before immediately turning it away as soon as she saw the photo of a man who’d been run over by a train. The man had been sliced in two, and glistening guts were spilling out even as he still twitched. “Oh God, Oliver…”

“It’s the dark internet,” he told her, clearly on the verge of breaking into sobs. “That’s not even the worst thing that’s on there.”

“The dark internet?” she replied, pulling him closer and giving him a hug, while closing the browser on his phone and deleting the app that he’d used to access the site. “I’ve heard of that. Jesus, what was Stuart thinking, letting you loose on there?”

“He said I was too chicken to look,” Oliver whispered, “and I told him I wasn’t.”

“It’s not about being chicken,” she continued, “it’s about being smart. There’s enough bad stuff on the normal internet, you don’t need to go deeper into the darker one.”

“He showed me sites where people buy and sell really bad things. Like murderers and drug-dealers.”

“Well you need to not think about it,” she told him, “and promise me that you’ll never look again. Okay?” She waited for a reply, before pulling back and looking into his tear-filled eyes. “Promise me?”

“What if someone buys someone to murder
me
?”

“No-one’s going to do that. None of that stuff is real, anyway.”

“It isn’t?”

“Of course not.”

“Stuart said it’s
all
real.”

“Well, Stuart doesn’t know, does he? Stuart’s only fifteen, he doesn’t know everything.”

Oliver paused for a moment, with tears still in his eyes. “Are you going to tell Mum and Dad?”

“No,” she replied, “not if this is the only time it happens. When I was younger, the internet was just this thing on the computer in the corner, it wasn’t everywhere like it is now. You couldn’t carry it around in your pocket, and there certainly wasn’t a dark internet, either. You kids have it so rough these days.” Reaching out, she used her thumb to wipe tears from his face. “Now why don’t you come to the kitchen and have some of the homemade lemonade I cooked up yesterday? Does that sound good?”

He nodded again.

“As your aunt, I think giving your lemonade is one of my jobs,” she continued. “Then you can come with me to pick Lucy up from dance class if you like?”

Another nod.

“Go get two glasses ready,” she replied, stepping back. “I’ll be through in a minute.”

As Oliver hurried to the kitchen, Beth rolled her eyes and went over to switch the TV off. For a moment, however, she watched the screen as the panel discussion continued.

“If Gary hadn’t died,” the woman added, “we’d have ended up hating each other. It would have been hell. His death meant that none of that happened, and I actually think of him rather fondly now. Plus, our kids never had to learn what a complete asshole their father was. I mean, Gary was a total idiot. It would have been awful if the kids had realized that. As it is, I just tell them he was a good man, all the usual stuff, and they’re happy believing that. Weird world, huh?”

“Crazy,” Beth muttered.

Switching off the TV, she subconsciously felt for the vein on her forehead as she turned and headed out of the room. Glancing over her shoulder at the last moment, she looked back at the desk drawer containing Bob’s life insurance policy.

***

“Listen, can you just
call
me?” Bob hissed into his phone. “Candy, you’re being completely immature about this. The way you just keep ignoring me around the office is ridiculous,
completely
ridiculous. And not answering when I call you…”

Turning, he looked over at Candy, who was sitting on the other side of the office, typing at her computer.

“I know you heard your phone ringing just now,” he continued, turning away from her again. “
I
heard it, for God’s sake! Just talk to me!”

He paused, before checking over his shoulder and seeing that she was still ignoring him.

“I miss you,” he whispered into the phone. “There, I said it. I miss you, Candy. Let’s talk and see if we can figure something out. Call me when you get this.”

He waited a moment longer, trying to think of something else that might persuade her, before cutting the call. Instantly, he came up with another line that he figured might work, so he brought up her number again.

“You okay there?” Tom Lanegan asked suddenly.

“What?” Almost jumping out of his skin, Bob spun around, dropping the phone in the process. He immediately got down on his hands and knees and reached under the desk to get it back.

“Tough day, huh?” Tom continued, standing in the doorway. “I know the feeling. Some days just have a little more whack about them. Work-related or home-related?”

“Um… home,” Bob said cautiously, getting back onto his chair as he checked his phone for damage. “I’m sorry, I won’t let it affect my performance.”

“You got a difficult decision to make?”

“I… guess so.”

“You want to know the secret?” Tom asked, looking across the office for a moment, as if it was his turn to worry about getting overheard. Finally, he turned back to Bob. “Masturbate.”

Bob stared at him.

“Masturbate,” Tom said again.

“I’m sorry?”

“If you’re struggling with a decision,” Tom continued, lowering his voice a little, “just pop off somewhere and masturbate. It clears the head and helps you see what you should be doing with astounding clarity. I know that sounds like a joke, but it’s absolutely true. Try it, you’ll soon see that I’m right.”

“Well…” Bob paused. “That sounds…” Another pause. “Yeah.”

“I’m being completely serious,” Tom told him. “Masturbation is a key strategy in the modern office. Obviously it’s not mentioned in training programs, there’d be legal reasons for that I suppose, but as one friend to another, I’m telling you that it works. That’s why I have no problem with people nipping out to masturbate in the bathroom. In fact, I think it’s healthy. I wish I could hold a group meeting and tell everyone that it’s allowed, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t come across in the way it’s intended, so instead I just tell trusted people one-on-one. As for technique -”

Hearing footsteps nearby, he put a finger to his lips.

“Hey,” Candy said, avoiding eye contact with Bob as she handed Tom some printouts. “I need you to let me know about the Offenden file. It’s just, you told me you’d have a decision I could relay to the customer today, and I checked my email and you haven’t got back to me yet, and this is the third time there’s been, like, a deadline, and I think they’re getting impatient so I need to know if you want to move ahead with their contract or not.”

“Right,” Tom replied with a frown, “sure, I did promise you that, didn’t I?”

“So…” She paused. “Do you have a decision?”

“I will have one for you today,” he told her. “I swear.”

“It’s just that my liaison at the Offenden office has called twice this morning, and I really need to tell her.”

“Today,” he replied. “For sure, I will get you a yes or a no on that contract. Thank you for reminding me.” With that, he turned and headed out into the corridor.

“So you
do
answer your phone sometimes,” Bob said darkly, as Candy turned to walk away.

Stopping, she sighed before looking back at him.

“I left you three messages this morning,” he continued. “You haven’t checked any of them!”

“How do you know that?” she asked. “Are you stalking me now?”

“I can see you across the office!”

“I told you, I need time to think about where our relationship is headed.”

“Candy -”

“Would you leave your wife for me?”

“Would I -” He paused, shocked by the suggestion. “Candy, I think maybe we need to talk about this in a more private setting.”

“But would you? In theory, I mean.” Reaching down, she put a hand on her belly. “If I was with child, for example.”

“You’re not with child,” he replied, before pausing. He looked nervously at her belly. “You’re not, are you?”

“What would you do if I was?”

“But you’re not!” Another pause. “
Are
you?”

She stared at him for a moment, with a deadly-serious expression on her face. “No,” she said finally, “I’m not. Not as far as I’m aware, anyway.”

“Jesus, you scared me.”

“But I can’t go on like this,” she continued, with a hint of genuine concern in her voice. “Bob, it was fun being your bit on the side for a while, but now I need more respect. I know you can’t guarantee anything, but I want to feel that you could at least
maybe
definitely see yourself with me in the long-term. Or are you just with me ‘cause of my perkiness and my good body?”

“Of course not.”

“So you like my personality too?”

“Very much.”

“More than your wife’s?”

“Jesus,” he hissed, “can you try not to ask such pointed questions?”

“You know,” she continued, “I know you’re cheating on her with me, but sometimes it feels like you’re cheating on me with her. Like, I feel like I should go and tell her to keep away from my man.”

“She’s my wife,” he pointed out.

“And what am I, a piece of meat?”

“You’re my lover. Now can we
please
talk about this away from the office? How about tonight?”

“Dinner?”

“I was thinking drinks.” He paused. “I have a Christmas gift for you.”

“You do?”

He nodded.

“What is it?”

“I can’t tell you. You have to open it.”

“Did you wrap it?”

“Of course.”

“Or did the store wrap it for you? ‘Cause that’s kind of lazy. You can tell a lot about a man from the kind of wrapping paper he uses. My grandmother told me that, and she’s been married, like, eight times. All of it based on wrapping paper.”

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