By Dennis Detwiller, © 2011
Albert Syme is an odd sort who keeps to himself. Floppy and dire, he looks like a clerk, and that’s what he is; one of the thousands that haunt the lunch carts on Washington Avenue at noon. Syme’s glasses hang on the end of his nose like a man poised at the edge of a cliff. His eyes look at you precisely like those of a gecko sunning itself. They are blank and green and flat, and he stares for too long. People don’t look at him. It’s not because he’s imposing. He’s precisely the opposite, small and long-armed and bulging in the middle. It’s not because he seems dangerous. He looks somewhat simple, slick like he was dolloped in a thin grease, and empty in the face.
The reason people don’t look at him is that he’s forgettable.
At this moment, Albert Syme is as close to normal as he ever will be.
Syme works for the Office of Naval Intelligence. Precisely four people know this, and only his boss and the one other person in his office know his name. The two ladies who sit in the Navy desk opposite the ONI collation room know he’s there but don’t know who he is. He supposes the bank might know—his pay draft being supplied by the Office of the Navy, after all. He says nothing to anyone else. His barber. His landlady. To them, he is a receipt. He has no family (they gave him up in Boston) and no friends.
Such things worry Syme. Sometimes, at work, he plays a game where he draws lines, like pipes, from name to name in his mind, connecting all who might know the secret. It doesn’t really matter, he supposes, but he still worries. He imagines his name filling with water, sees the liquid moving in the dark of the pipes, drowning the names of those connected to him. He pictures the people in their tubes, drowning as the water rushes in, in the dark.
He smiles when he thinks these things. His secret, his job, is the most important thing in his life.
The job is his life, though he couldn’t tell you why.
Now, July 19, 1928, he eats a hot dog in the summer sun, grasping it in one ink-stained hand while holding his hat down to keep it from catching the breeze and tumbling up the walk. He is surrounded by hundreds of people who fail to see him, lost in their own lunches, conversations, lives. He eats with the conviction and blankness of an animal. He does this every day when the weather is fine.
When he finishes, he crumples up the hot dog’s wax paper wrapper and drops it to the cement. He glances at the ink on his hand and heads back up the steps of the huge, stone building, crossing from the light of the sun into the shadow of the portico. As he crosses from outside to in, the wind catches his hat but he snatches it from the air before it can get away.
He goes inside and continues the last day of his daily routine.
If Syme had left ten minutes later, he would have seen the officers arrive. Three men in Navy dress, one a captain with a valise handcuffed to his arm. In this building that is not unusual, but this man was special. His name tag read JOHNSON. Syme would have recognized him from the photo on the wall next to the hot pot. He stares at it every day. The two men with the captain were built in the exact way Syme is not. They were human walls with legs, wearing truncheons and pistols on their hips. They did not smile or speak.
These men entered the ONI collation room and the captain spoke with Syme’s supervisor, Templeton Mears, a man who always looks as if he had just survived some near disaster. Mears listened to the description of the job the captain had in mind, and before he could finish Mears swung a hand towards Syme’s desk. Mears barely contained the black terror he felt speaking to the Director of Naval Intelligence. As they spoke, it looked as if Mears’ eyes would continue to grow until they engulfed his whole face.
When the captain was done, the valise was opened and papers were removed, as well as two manilla envelopes which stank of photographic chemicals. They were placed squarely in the center of Syme’s desk. Mears signed a paper for them, and the men left. Immediately Mears fell into his wood chair, which squeaked under his weight. He covered his eyes with his hands.
The room fell back into the drone of the electric clock ticking time.
If he had been there, Syme would have seen all of this. Instead, he was outside, eating his hot dog.
Syme does not like his boss. Mr. Mears is a slack man. He fails to do what is required by the job. He slinks in and out at odd hours. He piles work on Syme’s desk. He reads funny books and sports annuals and flips through the encyclopedias which line the wood-grained walls, leaving Syme and the other man in the office, Norman, to finish the collation. Norman is not efficient, but cares about his work. Syme does not hate Norman. Instead, he feels about Norman the way he feels about the people who ride the #13 bus with him on the way to work. They are there the reason he is there, and as long as they don’t bother him, he will not bother them.
What they do in the room, besides being secret, is boring. They pull Navy files, type and collate copies, staple photographs, cross-check ID numbers and collect them for closed envelope reports. They hand-duplicate files, sometimes many times over. These reports are numbered and are picked up once a week by an armed Navy officer. Where they go from there, no one in the room has any idea. For Norman it is a source of endless speculation. For Mears it is a unconsidered question. For Syme it is an indication that what they do here, in the ONI Collation Office, room 3118, is important.
Syme enters and finds Mears’ desk empty. Norman sits at his smaller, steel desk, hunched over it, his jacket off, sweat on his thick brow and in his thinning brown hair. Norman leans over a sheet of graphing paper and draws a careful line on it with a mechanical pencil. He does this with his tongue pinched between his yellow teeth. Norman often has to hand-draw maps. It is something Syme does not have an eye for.
“What is this document?” Syme asks the room, his back to Norman’s back.
Norman’s pencil stops on the sheet and he turns. His face is round and red and Irish. His mouth hangs open. His empty blue eyes stare at Syme’s back without any recognition of the fact that Syme was speaking to him.
Syme hefts the folders and holds them up without turning around.
“Some big wheel brought that down from the Chief of Naval Operations. I wasn’t here. Just Mears. Mears told me.”
“Where is Mears?”
Norman laughs, repeats the question in a whisper as if it were a joke, and goes back to work.
Syme removes his jacket, catching a whiff of his body odor in the process, folds the coat and drops it over the edge of his chair. He sits, pulls in his chair, carefully arranges his tools on the table—his typewriter, his India ink, his fountain pen, his mechanical pencil, stapler, eraser, ink eraser, paperclips and onionskins.
When this is done, he opens the photographic envelopes first. This has become a habit for him. He likes to guess what the report might be by looking at the photos. Photographs of wreckage usually mean foreign technology intelligence; bodies usually mean accidents; grainy photos are often spy shots of foreign fleets; photos of people usually mean suspected spies. There will be the original and for each original a copy.
Today when he looks at the first image, he has no idea what the report might contain.
The photograph is of an eye in extreme close-up. It is huge, bulbous and black, hanging on the skin of some creature, skin which looks like it is flaking off in diamond-shaped chunks. A human hand is barely visible in the upper right corner, out of focus, holding a wooden ruler with large hash-marks. The ruler indicates the eye is three and a quarter inches across. Even though the whole creature is not visible, Syme can see it is dead. He is not precisely sure why he knows this.
Something pulled from the ocean by some Navy destroyer?
Syme blinks, staring at the photo, and adjusts his glasses as if that might somehow help.
Finally, in an attempt to jumpstart his work, he unshuffles the stack of photos and papers in a fan on his desk, like a deck of cards.
He sits still for a long time.
Then he reads.
Syme was born with a cleft palate. The man who left him at the Park Green hospital in Boston said that was why he did so, but Syme does not know this or the man. He was left one evening in June, which has since become his birthday, by a man in sailor’s garb whose hands were covered in blood as if he had delivered the child himself.
He was marked as UBB CPl in the registry, Unknown Baby Boy, Cleft Palate. He was assigned a number and held there in the children’s ward, separated from the other children as if his face might infect them, in an area jokingly called Bastard Hall.
He was taken by the Catholic Charities precisely because of his cleft palate. He was moved to a house that had an assortment of children the world had disfigured, either by the hand of man or by genetics. Syme was was two months old when he arrived.
Today, his face is seamless.
He knows some of this, but not much. He has not had the continuity of a family narrative to tell him this. Instead he has inferred it from a strange ridge on the inside of his mouth, and from what the charity house people told him. Sister Rosita had called him a very lucky little boy, and even then, even at five, Syme had realized she didn’t just mean because of his adoption. His life after the orphanage was a life where he was held at arm’s length. Provided for. Smiled at. Sent to school. But when he left the house of the people the government called his parents, he never went back. It was the life before the adoption that kept his mind rapt.
In the back of Syme’s mind he can still recall struggling to speak, moving his tongue around the gap in the front of his face, and the whistling noise it would sometimes make when he breathed. To him, this feeling is so old—his face seems fine now—that it is like considering a long forgotten wound.
Until he was two, his face had a hole in it with a spray of ill-formed teeth that cut from his upper lip to the base of his nose. He doesn’t really know this. He has no photographs. But every year Syme seemed to change. The wards noticed first that his nose seemed to straighten and flatten from what had been the shape of a split mushroom. A thick webbing of scar tissue filled the gap near the front of his mouth, which, over time, closed like a slow-healing wound. Finally his lip knit itself up like a zipper closing. This process took two years. It was so slow that the few who saw him often enough to notice were never certain what was happening, but it disturbed some of them.
Only Sister Rosita knew him from when he came to the charity house to when he left, and she called Syme a miracle. If Syme was asked to describe his life in one word, “miracle” would not be in the running.
It is just after seven in the evening when Syme looks up again. Outside, he can see the electric lights from Grant Park through the large, curved window, which otherwise throws back a reflection of the entire room over the black of night. His head is buzzing like the clock.
Norman must have crept off some time before, saying nothing, shutting the door quietly to avoid interacting with Syme. In his typical manner, Mears had never returned. The building feels vast and empty, but Syme is used to being here at odd hours.
When it is empty, the building feels like a church.
Syme has finished reading the file he was to copy, and is having a hard time finding a point in the narrative to grab hold of and fold into a suitable shape to fit in his mind. It is not just the photos, which on their own are extremely disturbing. It is not the fact that the Federal government has seized the populace of an entire New England town in secret and interred them. It is not the fact that the report includes after-action statements from submarine commanders indicating torpedoes were fired. It is not even the agglomeration of these facts. It is what is left out of the report.
The holes in the report say things. They say that man is not the only intelligent resident of this world. They say that people can breed with inhuman . . . things . . . and that cities of their kind dot the bottom of oceans all over the world. They say the Navy has discovered an enemy which lives in the sea, and which had until now gone undiscovered. The report screams this without ever saying it outright.
A Marine battalion, heavy weapons, full combat, torpedoes—as always, the Navy is deadly serious. It is only when this narrative is inserted into the photos that the story takes off on its own, a looping film of black and white in Syme’s mind.
His mind moves through pages and ties them up with photographs. In his mind’s eye, the photos enter the lines of text and vice versa, and when they are inextricably linked up they spin and spin, refusing to leave his brain.
Two photographs in particular occupy his thoughts for some time.
One is of what might have once been a woman. Her face is fixed in the wax-like repose of death. Her neck is bloated and crisscrossed by mottled veins and scars. Her white hair is thinned to the point where her peeling scalp shines in the light of the flashbulb. Her eyes are huge and watery and turned at different angles. Her shirt, which looks like something from a Victorian play, is punctured by holes and where her torso is punched open, a thin liquid has poured out, something other than blood. Even that is not so bad. Above the waist she is hideous, dead but not inhuman. Below the waist, the body explodes into madness.
Her hips begin normally and then split into five limbs. The skirt which once covered the nightmare is rolled up and folded back. The limbs are mottled and scaly and fraught with dewclaws and teeth and strange webbing. They all end the same, in a dumb flipper the size of a forearm. No toes, nothing resembling a foot. Just gray-white flippers.
The second photograph is of two of these things. Living. Standing behind barbed wire fencing, lit by headlight or klieg. They stand upright. Both are male. One a child. The big one is an older man with a white beard, a pea coat and an odd, antiquated cap. Outside the wire in the background, the silhouettes of two Marines overlook the scene.
Both captives have strange, bulging throats, short legs, long arms and wide, reflective, shining eyes, watery eyes that are pools of light, staring into the camera. The man has his teeth bared, and they are tiny fish teeth, small, angled and perfect. The man hugs the boy protectively.
Syme does not know why he focuses on these photographs.
Syme almost died of a fever in the spring of 1925. The problem began with insomnia. He found, quite suddenly, he could no longer sleep through the night. Where he had once retired to bed and woken (without alarm) at the proper time, he found himself full of terrible energy. Lying in bed, even sitting still at night, felt wrong. Instead, it seemed that he should walk, run, dance, scream. The energy, which grew as the sun fell, was at first strangely exhilarating and later frightening, like too much current put through a circuit which began to heat and then melt.
He had not yet started at the Navy. He worked as a clerk at the Regis library. There he began what would later become his dull lifestyle, something which no doubt had aided him in securing a job at the Office of the Navy. He spoke to no one but his supervisor and those who crossed his path at work, and slowly exiled those outside of work who might once have considered him fondly; when he moved to Washington, D.C. in 1922, he had gathered a small circle of people who haunted the same places, and by 1925 he had jettisoned such people as irrelevant, replacing them with silence. It was all right. Many were pairing up and marrying, moving for work, completing other acts which to him seemed as alien as taking wing and flying away.
This quiet life lasted until the spring of 1925.
The feeling would settle just after three in the afternoon. A humming behind his eyes. The promise of a mad energy that would shake and propel him while darkness ruled. Still, he would work the day, return home, eat a meal in his bachelor apartment and then stare at the bed. His mind seemed to fill more and more with vitriol, dark images and fear as the night wore on. The radio did not help. Reading did not help.
Syme walked the parks at night. He would walk in the dark, often keeping from the light, imagining he was swimming in the black. The moon hung over him like an enormous eye and Syme would find himself staring at it, sometimes for hours. In the morning he would drag himself home in the dim morning light, dress, and go to work, exhausted. Still he could not sleep. This schedule became his life, for a time.
At some point late in March, Syme’s schedule skipped the tracks. He does not recall when this behavior slipped over into full delirium, he only remembers a sweet fade into a perfect state of being—no fear or doubt or even anger, just existence. Movement. Screaming. Blurred faces. A feeling of ebullient expectance. A fevered joy.
He woke on April 3 in St. Cuthbert’s Hospital, and was told that he had been in the grips of a fever which had unbalanced him mentally. He had harmed no one, but had wandered the city in a haze until he collapsed while screaming at the moon in Anacostia Park three nights before. His fever had crested and collapsed the evening before. The doctors said he would now be well.
Even though library’s director was understanding, Syme quit his job the next week. He prepared a curriculum vitae and applied at the government office. The next month, he began employment at the Office of Naval Intelligence. This notion had seized him suddenly and perfectly, and he found that even considering other possibilities hurt his mind.
It was a fresh start.
He finishes the rote copying of the file by one thirty in the morning, working without break. Mimicking all he finds in the one file, down to the smallest detail, Syme painstakingly staples the photographs at exact angles in the doppelganger report, traces and adds perfect duplicates of handwritten notes which haunt its columns, and onionskins the sign-out sheet, adding his name to the list beneath that of Captain Johnson on both files.
He places the folders next to one another. It would be difficult for the person who had originally fashioned it to tell the difference. Such was his work. He picks both up, walks the short distance to Mears’ desk, places them on it, locks the door and leaves.
In the empty hall, the church-like feeling of the building continues. Polished marble floors and dim lights and wood and the smell of old cigarettes. No one is here except at the charge desk downstairs where a single Navy man stands guard.
Syme walks down the darkened stairs.
The man who left Syme at Park Green as a baby was a sailor from Boston named O’Donogh. He died in a flop-house in Shanghai in 1921, choked on his own vomit, his body seizing like it was trying to eject the foulness he had filled it with over the years. When he was found by the land-lady, his body was searched and then dropped in a mass grave for paupers on a rise overlooking the East China Sea.
His body is still there, what of it is left, in the mud, in the dark.
He was a drunk fisherman from Boston, and it was there he took up with a woman in 1901, the only woman who would have him. This was before the drugs and the gambling. The woman was a local from Southhook, but whose people had come from downstate. She had an odd cast about her, but she put up with O’Donogh’s ways and set about attempting to make a home for him, and, soon after, for the child they would have.
She was not exactly ugly. Instead, it was as if some subtle force had shifted her features so they failed, precisely, to line up. She looked a little like the reflection in a funhouse mirror. She was short and had large eyes.
They never married. Her name is not important.
When the baby came, the delivery was brief, but the woman took ill while O’Donogh marveled at the gap-mouthed child their coupling had fashioned. The woman died shortly after the baby came, despite the intervention of a doctor. Something else came out as well. Something half-formed and forgotten by the body that had shaped the baby. Something bulbous, wriggling and blue-black. It died soon after as well.
O’Donogh left the living child at Park Green and took to the bottle. From there his life meandered until he beached himself in Shanghai. Even in 1921, even in the days leading up to his overdose, O’Donogh would think of the baby and the woman.
He would think that he should have left that place earlier. That he should have killed the woman and the child inside her. That he should have walked away without taking the mewling thing with him. That he should have left them both to rot.
That thing, which became Albert Syme, will never know any of this.
Syme has no conception of God. Religion has no place for him, but several times—though he does not clearly recall this—he has felt something brush up against his life. Like the hand of some unseen giant, redirecting things for him, pushing him in certain directions, making his decisions and actions clearer, easier.
He felt it most strongly in the spring of 1925.
Tonight that feeling is with him, and with it comes the elation of certainty. The confusion he felt earlier has fallen away, leaving in its wake a quiet thrumming, filling his mind, allowing room for nothing else.
The first person to enter the building on Washington Avenue the next morning sees the blood. From there the moments drop like dominoes, one after the other. The Navy man who watched the door is dead, sprawled behind the desk. He was struck on the side of the face with something metallic and heavy (a three hole punch) and then beaten for ten minutes with the base of the nearby flagpole. The flag of the Navy and American flag lie wrinkled on the ground, soaked in blood.
The Navy man’s head is split like gourd, spewing pink tissue that looks like fat and blood so dark it is black. His gun is gone, but it is later found beneath a credenza across the way in the same lobby.
In Room 3118 they find Norman and Mears. Norman, too has been bludgeoned. Mears, it appears, walked in on it and met a similar fate. The two men were dragged and stacked in a corner, away from the desks, under the photograph of Captain Johnson and the hot pot, where their fluids settled and pooled, leaving them pale.
Flies have gathered in the room through the open window.
On Mears’ desk there are no files. Instead there is an incinerated pile of paper fragments, burned in a stainless steel garbage pail.
By ten A.M. the police are looking for Syme. Detectives arrive at his apartment and find an empty cube with a bed, some Reader’s Digests, some food and little else. No photographs, no address books. Syme’s clothes and goods are in order. He has not been here.
By noon the Navy has stepped in. Their own intelligence personnel begin to look for Syme, and the police agree to remain quiet. It is in the national interest, after all.
The night before, Albert Syme walks away from the building, his hands bloodied, his mouth in a grin. He stumbles in a way which keeps the few people he sees on the street from paying attention to him, like a man being continuously subjected to random movements of the body, a palsy.
He walks for what seems like a long time until he finally finds what he seeks. When he does, a calmness fills him and the tics in his muscles subside.
The Potomac glitters beneath him in the summer night, smelling like a million dead fish left to rot in the sun. Syme undresses madly, ripping at his clothes, tearing his shirt, ripping the zipper free on his trousers. He casts his clothes aside. He will not need them again.
He hops down the retaining wall, naked, invigorated. When his foot touches the water—cool but not cold—he practically collapses under the force of ecstasy.
He enters the water perfectly, silently, and begins to swim south, down and out of the Potomac into Chesapeake Bay, and from there into the depths of the Atlantic. The stickiness of the blood on his fingers is replaced by the cooling numbness of the salt water.
The feeling which fills him and spills over into the night is unlike anything the orphan Syme has ever felt. The nuns never gave him this. His adoptive parents never gave him this. His real parents never gave him this. It is a feeling of finding respite in a world filled with danger. Of a small place where everything can be perfect. Something waits for him out there, in the dark.
Albert Syme is going home.