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Gray Matter

an extract from the novel
Gray Matter coverby Gary Braver

Vanessa's insides were wracked with she drove home.

The downstairs lights were on, and all but the rest of the interior was dark. All but her son Julian's room.


She didn't want to see him. She didn't want to see anybody. All she wanted to do was go into a deep sleep and not come out of it.

She looked up at Julian's bedroom door.

What the hell was he doing up at this hour? Christ, it was nearly two.

She pulled the car into the garage. Julian's skis were hanging up along the back wall. New parabolics that had cost over seven hundred dollars. They had been used once, on their winter vacation in Vale last year. He had no interest in skiing, and the entire week he spent inside the condo doing his pictures--stippling away like some crazed gnome. He had gotten soft and flabby, and given up everything physical. At school he was known as Dots.

She unlocked the door and pushed her way inside. Except for the hum of the refrigerator, the place was dead quiet. The only relief from the dark was the light strip under Julian's door at the top of the stairs.

Vanessa climbed the stairs, feeling old and weary. On the landing she looked into the master bedroom. Her husband Brad was asleep. She then stopped just outside of Julian's door and listened. Nothing. No CD, no television, no sound of some mindless video game. He had probably fallen asleep on his bed. Good. She'd just flick off his light and let him sleep out the night.

She tapped quietly. Although he slept little, he would occasionally pass out from sheer exhaustion. She tapped again, and still nothing. Gently she turned the knob and pushed open the door.

Julian was not in bed but at his workbench.

The halogen lamp glowed brilliantly over the tiltboard. His back was to her and his head was hunched below his shoulders. For a moment she thought that he had fallen asleep in place, because he did not move as she entered. But as she moved closer, she noticed his left hand.

"You're still up." She tried to sound pleasant, but the effort was strained. The public humiliation had its source in him; and at the moment it took every fiber of her being to feign civility.

Her eye fell on a photo of her and Julian at his music summer camp last year in the Berkshires. He had just finished his recital to a standing ovation. They were posed at the piano, she with her arm around his shoulder and smiling proudly, he standing limp and glowering at the camera with one of his pained grimaces. That photo was so much them, she thought: Her needy pride, and his refusal to give. Such a pathetic symbiosis. To think what she had sacrificed to get him in that picture--the money and years, the leave of absence--just to be available to guide him, to drive him to his music and art lessons, getting him into one of the best prep schools in the country. And what does she get back at the height of his achievement? a fucking scowl. He had perfected the art of rejection. The ungrateful little prick.

Looking at him frozen in that old-man hunch, she could feel her blood pressure rise. To think what he had put her through to raise him up from the quagmire of mediocrity. To think how she was ruined because of him. King Lear was right: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/To have a thankless child!"

"Julian, I'm talking to you."

Still nothing.

She took a deep breath. The only thing keeping her from exploding was a voice in her head: He's your son. He's your own flesh and blood. Love him for what he is.

But another cut in: Would this still have been my Julian?

The question was unanswerable.

"It's rather late," she said, straining to keep her voice neutral.

But Julian still did not respond--not even a stir. That was strange. Ordinarily he would tell her to leave his room. For whatever reasons, he never allowed her to see what he was working on. Even with a vacation school project, he'd lock himself in here, then wrap it up and take it back to school, never once allowing her a peek. That's the way he was: self-absorbed and totally ungiving.

Only once did he let Vanessa see a work in-progress. It was a year-and-a-half ago when out of the blue he called her upstairs into his room.

"Well?" he had said in a flat voice, letting her look over his shoulder. Vanessa remembered her surprise at the subject matter: a bowl of fruit on a table by a curtained window. His subject matter back then--and still--had been fantasy superheroes with massive bodies of rippling musculature, swords, gee-whiz weaponry, and disturbing bug-eyed alien heads, all done in garish color. While Vanessa had spurned the subject matter, technically his work was extraordinary, given that it had been done completely in pin-point dots. So, a simple bowl of fruit was a delightful departure. Maybe at last he was moving into his post-impressionist phase, she had thought.

"It's beautiful," she had said, tempering her praise so as not to take it away from him. "Is it a class project?"

He flashed her a hurt truculent look. "Why do you say that?"

"Well, I don't know, it's just different from what you usually do. That's all."

"You mean, the usual crap."

"I didn't say that."

"It's your birthday present," he said in a dead voice.

"Oh, Julian, how sweet of you." She was taken aback and felt tears rise. "How considerate."

"You don't like it."

"What do you mean? I love it. I love it. I'm telling you, it's beautiful. Really. And I'm flattered, I'm touched." And she was. This was the first time in years that he had even remembered her birthday, let alone give her something that he'd created. Last year she had to remind him, and he went out and bought her a key chain.

"Well, I don't like it," he said. "It's stupid."

"No, it's not."

"It's stupid!" And with that he slashed the drawing with his razor knife.

"What are you doing?" she had cried, trying to stop him. But he slashed and slashed the paper until it was hopelessly shredded.

Then without a word he pushed himself from the bench and went down stairs, leaving Vanessa standing over the torn-up picture, crying to herself.

"Do you know what time it is?" She moved deeper into the room. "Two-fifteen."

Still nothing. Not even a turn of the head to acknowledge her presence. He was pulling his silent treatment on her again. She didn't need this shit. She didn't need his sour, precious fucking rejection routine. Not after what she had been through.

"Julian, I'm speaking to you." She crossed the room.

He was wearing that awful black shirt with the hideous Roaring Skulls picture on the front and their disturbing slogan on the back: "Life Sucks" scribed in ghetto scrawl, as she called it. God! When the hell was he finally going to grow into his own talent? Here he was an accomplished musician who could play Shostakovich and Lizst, and he went around in heavy-metal shirts emblazoned with unseasoned nihilism. (Thank God Bloomfield had a dress code.) Moreover, his artistic talent was such that he could get into the finest art schools in the nation, and he wasted his hours on testosterone brutes. "It's time you went to bed."

He still did not respond, and she felt herself heat up.

You bastard.

"Lights out."

She marched up to him. Still he did not turn nor say anything, but continued stippling away. She glanced at the easel.

At first, she thought it was another of his fantasy characters. But as her eyes adjusted to the figure on the sheet, she felt a shock of recognition. It was a self-portrait, except that Julian's face looked like that of a snake or lizard. The thing's head had the same general shape as his own, just as the mouth and eyes were clearly Julian's. But the features were all somehow stretched into distinctly reptilian impression. The face was elongated, and there were scales covering its head and body. But it was Julian for sure. It was grotesque, but like all of his works it was precisely crafted.

What struck her was the color -- reddish brown, not black, his usual color.

He took out his mouth guards and lay them on a dish. "It's a self portrait," he said. "Like it? I mean it's not 'Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte' or anything, but it has a nice likeness, don't you think, Mother?"

He had said "Mother" as if he'd spit something up. She was forming a response, when Julian slid back.

Vanessa let out a gasp. Julian's right hand was a bight red mess of pinpricks from his knuckles up to his elbow. He was stippling the portrait with his own blood.

"What are you doing?" she screamed.

"Ms. Fuller says that I should work in different mediums." And he took his point and jabbed it into the back of his wrist.

"Stop that!"

But he continued stabbing himself with the point so that beads of blood rose up. He then dipped in the pen tip and begin tapping away on the picture.

"I said to stop that!"

But he continued.


Slowly Julian turned his face up toward hers. And in a scraping whisper he said, "I can't."

A bright shock froze Vanessa in place.

"Because of what you did to me, Mother."

"What? What do you mean what I did to you?"

"What you let them do to my head."

"I don't know what you're talking about?"

"My head, Mother. They did something to my head. My brain."

"I don't know what you're talking about or why the hell you're doing that to yourself. But I want you to stop. Do you understand me, Julian? It's goddam sick, and you're going to give yourself blood poison." It crossed her mind to tell him not to drip on the wall-to-wall carpet she had spent a fortune on.

Julian lay down the pen and raised his bloody hands to his head and parted a section of hair above his hairline. Then he stuck his head under the lamp. "Look. Look at the scars, Mother."

Vanessa felt as if she were suddenly treading barbed wire. "What about them?"

"Where did they come from?"

"You know perfectly well. I told you that you fell off your stepstool in the bathroom and hit your head on the radiator when you were two."

"These are little spots, not a regular scar," he said. "You're lying, because I remember. Besides, how could I fall from a six-inch stool and land on the top of my head?" His eye fixed her.

"You don't remember anything."

"I remember going to a hospital and having some kind of operation. I remember being bandaged up and seeing things. And taking tests and stuff. And other kids." Then his voice became a bizarre falsetto: "'Mr. Nisha wants you to be happy. Just relax and watch the video. For Mr. Nisha.'"

"I don't know what the hell you're talking about. You took tests to see if there was any brain damage. And, thank goodness, there wasn't," she added, feigning motherly relief.

"But there was, and it wasn't because I hit my head. It's because you had me fixed."

"Julian, I'm in no mood for your crap, okay? This conversation is over."

As she started to leave, Julian shot to his feet. Because he was still small for his age, Vanessa towered over him by a foot.

"What if I did that to your head, huh? What if I operated on your head to make you smarter? Huh?"

"What are you talking about?"

"I remembered being tested. Aptitude tests -- intelligence tests. Three years straight of tests. I'm still taking them. And why? Well, I put it all together. I wasn't supposed to remember, but I did. How would you like it if I did that to you?"

She did not respond.

"I asked you a question, Vanessa?" he said, in perfect mimicry of her. "I'm speaking to you. Answer me. Count back from twenty, Vanessa!"

She turned. He was standing there with one of his pens in his hand, the point aimed at her. "Don't you threaten me, you little ... " But she stopped short.

"What? Say it. 'Little creep,' right? Is that the expression you're searching for, huh? LITTLE CREEP. That's what they all say. 'Julian the little creep.' Why should you be any different?" He took a step toward her. "How would you like it if I operated on your head because I didn't like how your brain worked? Huh? How would you like it if I cut you up to make you smarter? HOW WOULD YOU LIKE IT IF I MADE YOU A FUCKING LITTLE CREEP?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said, her voice like acid. "And don't you speak to me that way. Not after what I've put myself through for you."

"You know what I'm talking about. You had me fixed because I wasn't good enough for you and your fancy friends at the Club and University. You wanted a little Superstar to parade around. Well you got him, Vanessa! You got yourself your little genius, and his teeth are all ground down, and he's taking five different medications because he's a little GENIUS."

As he screamed at her, his tongue flashed against the row of yellow stumps in bright red gums and spittle shot from his mouth. His face filled with blood and his eyes bulged like hens' eggs. He looked positively grotesque. "How would you like a little brain surgery, Mother? Then you'd know what a miserable Hell it is to be me--what it's like to be possessed. What it's like to hate you the way I do."

As he approached, his face filled her vision. "HOW WOULD YOU LIKE THAT, MOTHER?"

As if to the snap of her own mind, Vanessa felt herself lurch forward.

"You little bastard!" she heard herself scream. "Because of you I'm ruined. They did this to me. They set me up. Because of you. Yes, because you're such a fucking monster. BECAUSE OF YOU!"

Her hand shot to the jar of tools and pulled up a long sharp metal ice-pick like thing. The next instant, she buried it in the crown of Julian's head.

Instantly blood geysered out of the boy's skull as he let out a faint cry.

For a telescoped moment, she watched in numbed horror as Julian jerked about and rose in place on his toes as if trying to follow his own blood, his eyes widening in utter dismay, his mouth slack-jawed and moving wordlessly like a marionette's trying to form a question. An involuntary pocket of air bubbled out of his throat as blood streamed down his face and onto his shirt. Then just as he seemed about to gain stature, his mouth spread into a hideous grin, and he collapsed backward onto his tilt board, the long instrument still stuck in place. Because of the internal pressure, blood shot out across the self-portrait picture bedewing the canvas in a fine post-impressionist spray.

Panting uncontrollably, Vanessa tried to comprehend what her hand had done. She did not cry out nor did she touch her son. She just stood there gasping for air and watched him die.

When she heard the deep-throated gurgle, she turned. Without deliberation, she removed a razor knife from the scattered implements.

They had done this to me, she told herself.

She didn't know how they knew about Blake's paper, but she knew they had set her up tonight, contacted the prick and arranged for that video. It was their doing. Because she had wanted her son back. Because she had insisted they undo what they'd done to him. Because she threatened to blow the whistle when they refused to even try, filling him full of useless chemicals that made him even worse.

When dealing with the human mind, there's no way to predict collateral effects.

Such bullshit. Collateral effects! He was a freak. She had threatened to take him elsewhere, so they brought her down in public. On her night of nights.

She moved to Julian's bed and sat against the bolster. She glanced once across the room at her son dead on his tiltboard, his blood streaming onto the carpet.

For a second, the image of him nursing at her breast flitted across her mind. She let out a long pathetic groan.

Then she slashed her wrists.

For the next several minutes, with her knees clutched to her chest, and her wrists bleeding into a pillow, she whimpered softly and rocked herself to death.

© Gary Braver 2002, 2003
Gray Matter cover

Gray Matter (2002) is published in the US by Forge.

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