THE INTRUDERS

Michael Marshall

For Nathaniel

—I did it

How can we be sure we are not impostors?

—Jacques Lacan

The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

Prologue

Thump, thump, thump. You could hear it halfway up the street. It was bizarre that the neighbors didn’t complain. Or do so more often and more stridently. Gina sure as hell would—especially if the music sucked this bad. She knew she ought to go upstairs as soon as she got indoors, yell at Josh to turn it down. She also knew he’d look at her in that way teenagers have, like they’re wondering who you are and what gives you the right to bother them and what the hell happened in your life to make you so boring and old. He was a good son at heart, though, and so he’d roll his eyes and nudge the stereo down a notch, and then over the next half hour the volume would creep up until it was even louder than before.

Usually Bill was around to get into it with him—if he wasn’t hidden in his basement, tinkering—but tonight he was out with a couple of faculty colleagues. That was good, partly so he could get the bowling out of his system without involving Gina, who couldn’t stand the dumb sport, and also because he went out very seldom. They usually managed to grab a meal somewhere once every couple weeks, just the two of them, but most evenings this year had seen him disappearing downstairs after dinner, wrench in hand and a pleasurably preoccupied look on his face. For a while he’d generated his own strange noises down there, low booming sounds you felt in the pit of your stomach, but thankfully that had stopped. It was healthy for a guy to get out of the house now and then, hang with other guys—even if Pete Chen and Gerry Johnson were two of the geekiest dudes Gina had met in her entire life, and she found it impossible to imagine them cutting loose at bowling or drinking or indeed anything at all that didn’t involve UNIX and/or a soldering iron. It also gave Gina a little time to herself, which—no matter how much you love your husband—is a nice thing once in a while. Her plan was a couple hours in front of the tube with her choice of show—screw the documentary channels. In preparation she’d gone to the big deli on Broadway, picked up groceries for the week and a handful of deluxe nibbles for right now.

As she opened the door to the house and stepped into a zone of even higher volume, she wondered if Josh ever considered that his vanilla mom might have rocked out on her own account, back in the day. That before she’d fallen in love with a young physics lecturer named Bill Anderson and settled down to a life of happy domesticity, she’d done plenty time in the grungier venues of Seattle-Tacoma and its environs, had been no stranger to high volume, cheap beer, and waking up with a head that felt like someone had gone at it with hammers. That she’d bounced sweatily to Pearl Jam and Ideal Mausoleum and even Nirvana—back when they were local unknowns and sharp and hungry instead of hollow-faced and dying—most memorably on a summer night when she’d puked while crowd surfing, been dropped on her head, and still got lucky in the soaking and dope-reeking restrooms with some guy she’d never met before and never saw again.

Probably not. She smiled to herself.

Just went to show kids didn’t know everything, huh?

An hour later she’d had enough. The thumping was okay while she was just watching with half an eye—and the volume had actually dropped for a while, which maybe suggested he was doing some homework, and that was a relief—but it had started ratcheting up again, and in ten minutes there was a rerun of a West Wing episode she’d never seen before. You needed a clear head and peace and quiet to follow what the hell was going on with those guys, they talked so fast. Plus, Jesus, it was half past nine and getting beyond a joke.

She tried hollering up at the ceiling (Josh’s bedroom was directly overhead) but received no indication she’d been heard. So she sighed, put her depleted plate of goodies on the coffee table, and hoisted herself off the couch. Trudged upstairs, feeling as if she were pushing against a wall of noise, and banged on his door.

After a fairly short time, it was opened by some skinny guy with extraordinary hair. For a split second, Gina didn’t even recognize him. She wasn’t looking at a boy anymore, nothing like, and Gina realized suddenly that she and Bill were sharing their house with a young man.

“Honey,” she said, “I don’t want to cramp your style, but do you have anything that’s more like actual music, if you’re going to play it that loud?”

“Huh?”

“Turn it down.”

He grinned lopsidedly and walked into the room to jack the volume back. He actually cut it in half, which emboldened Gina to take a step into his room. It struck her that it had been a while since she’d been there when he was also present. In years past she and Bill had spent hours sitting on the floor here together, watching their toddler careering around on wobbly legs and bringing them random objects with a triumphant “Gah!,” thinking how magical it all was, then later tucking him in and reading a story, or two, or three; then perched on the bed in the early years of homework and puzzling out math problems.

At some point in the last year, the rules had changed. It was a solo mission now when she came in to fix the bed or sweep up piles of T-shirts. She was in and out quickly, too, remembering her own youth well enough to respect her child’s space.

She saw that, among the chaos of clothing and CD cases and pieces of at least one dismembered computer, there was evidence of homework being tackled.

“How’s it going?”

He shrugged. Shrugging was the lingua franca. She remembered that, too. “Okay,” he added.

“Good. Who’s that you’re listening to anyway?”

Josh blushed faintly, as if his mom had asked who this Connie Lingus was, that everyone was talking about.

“Stu Rezni,” he said diffidently. “He—”

“Used to hit sticks for Fallow. I know. I saw him at the Astoria. Before they knocked it down. He was so wasted he fell off his stool.”

She was gratified to see her son’s eyebrows shoot up. She tried not to smile.

“Can you keep the volume sane for a while, honey? There’s a show I want to watch. Plus, people are staggering up the street with bleeding ears, and you know what that does to property values.”

“Sure,” he said with a genuine smile. “Sorry.”

“No problem,” she said, thinking, I hope he’s going to be okay. He was a nice boy, polite, a slacker who still got (most of) his chores done eventually. She hoped without a trace of egotism that he’d taken on enough of her, too, along with the big old helping of Bill he’d absorbed. This young man already spent a lot of time alone, and he seldom seemed more content than when taking something apart or putting it back together. That was cool, of course, but she hoped it wouldn’t be too long before she saw evidence of his first hangover. Man cannot live by coding skills alone, not even in these strange days.

“Later,” she said, hoping it didn’t sound too lame.

The doorbell rang.

As she hurried downstairs, she heard the volume drop a little further and smiled. She still had this expression on her face when she opened the front door.

It was dark outside, the streetlamps at the corner spreading orange light over the fallen leaves on the lawn

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