In the nights after the Underground bombings, they clutched, and they were alive, fortunately, wonderfully alive. Alexandra told him he was too far when they were next to each other.

In the mornings, because she’d admitted what she was too impatient to enjoy, Jeremy removed pomegranate seeds from the husk, and because she did not want him to first think to discard the imperfect thing, she fussed a small screwdriver to repair his watch, though always it was breaking. When they watched a movie, he asked after if the gladiator would live, and no matter the quality, she declared the warrior’s future thrive. She began to pay attention to men’s shirts in shop windows, cuff links.

They had met in May and now it was July, and as days ticked off, the calendar grew suggestive. “I’ve seen you more than the inside of my own refrigerator this week, you know that?” Alexandra said.

“A dry goods woman, are you?”

“Just north,” Alexandra said. “Freezer.”

“That’s the one shaped like a boot.”

“It’s an intemperate country, but you’d be surprised at the idyll,” she said. “Food never spoils, and there is no fever, war, or taxation.”

Her foot was in his hand. “I will levy no impost,” he said. “But I cannot speak for the food.”

That afternoon, he noticed that she paperclipped magazine pages to keep her place. He remarked on it. Later, when she removed an issue from her overnight bag, she found a note clasped where she’d left off reading. Have a drink with me. Or have a museum with me. Have tea.

Am I allowed only one? she wrote on the blank side of a receipt. And when after a week he did not find her small letter, she did not tell him its contents, but she did invite him to meet her best friend.

At the bar, over glasses of whiskey and ice furnished with regular fleet, Jeremy removed and layered clothing, muttering too warm, too cold. He reiterated what she’d told him of Genevieve Bailey in the form of questions. Did Genevieve still prefer for different foods not to touch, and was it true that she preferred to write in pencil?

“It is true,” Genevieve told him.

“I like him,” Genevieve told her.

Once, Alexandra would have on the occasion of bringing him flowers said she was bringing his house flowers. Less to lose then. Less frightening. Now, she asked, “Can we be trusted to raise a houseplant?”

He brought home two kittens.

The Abyssinian they named Jill. The all black, So-So. The shell-pink felt of the pads on their paws shocked the sequester of her where careful language stacked, modular, ready-made. They lay on the carpet, jouncing shoelaces, and she made fool noises.

* * *

Jeremy was in the habit of walking. Sometimes, he would wake up on a weekend and just walk from Islington, passing the Columbia Road Flower Market with its stalls of tight bouquets clumped by the dozen, get lost in the tessellations of petals gathered in crystalline cellophane and white paper, continuing all the way down to Canary Wharf. These were not errands. It was only the quiet power of observing the world stayed where you left it, accommodating your passage, homes and trees and automobiles made tractable in a sense. In the panic of too much, you could lose your surroundings. This was legacy wisdom. His mother had never believed in psychotherapy, but she believed in walking.

Just walk it off, she said. It had not always worked, the walking cure. It had not worked of late. It was why he was going to Wright’s.

Because now, Alexandra’s very presence incurred a sense of deprivation, what it would be for her to be disappeared. It happened quickly. Someone familiar could do it. Someone decided and then never again. Never again when lying in the dark would they whisper for no reason other than the way it sanctified information, passed sentences. Never again would she say, “Put the geniuses on for bed?” The violins would not rise. Cellos would not come in through a song that lived across borders, proseless and mysterious in meaning. Never again would the appearance of her hair, thick as a paintbrush on the pillow, disrupt his vascular system.

The day of the bombings, July seventh, Seven-Seven, a day of doubles, Gavin Thomas, the fund researcher, had been unharried. Gavin Thomas, Jeremy supposed, would have known that they would profit marvelously because it was Gavin Thomas who had advised that they purchase credit default protection against transport just a week before. Gavin Thomas would have known that the value of the CDP would gallop uphill as quickly as trust in the Tube shot down; to the detriment of civilized society, Strategic would take in a load. The question was how he had known the value would swing, how Thomas had predicted catastrophe.

Thomas was too connected. Jeremy was sure of it. Charisma was multiplying in secret cells around the globe, men offering ideas to organize lives. Men offering ideas to organize deaths. To orchestrate terror was to tell young men what to do with tomorrow, an irresistible charm. You are part of a recipe for disaster. I can give your rage an occupation. He did not know how the system worked or what it meant. He did not know where the sides cut, who Thomas’s people were. Yet it was enough to suspect that Thomas had people at all, that someone had known when to bet against the safety of the city. It was enough to thicken the distance.

London had grown warmer in recent days. Jeremy could feel the heat on his neck as he walked. He looked at the horizon, something longer than truncated autobiographies. Wide blue.

He had a way of gentling the air around him, fading into it. Outside Wright’s, a two-floor flat that he kept to only half of, Jeremy made the call. He was not conspicuous on the stoop. The door opened without a word. A slip inside from view.

Toward the back of a dark, dusty room, Jeremy sat on the couch by an end table topped with a typewriter. Wright poured a glass of something and nudged it over. He crossed his legs, and Jeremy sipped, then waited for the ice to go soundless in the glass again, settle. For Wright to.

“The official stories are insulting. Were they that insulting when it was us keeping them?” he said finally.

“Everyone has secrets,” Jeremy said, “especially a country.”

“But the world was more spread out then,” Wright said.

At the end of when Wright and Jordan were Wilmington and Allsworth, they had flamed out of the army’s Intelligence Corps the way that either you decided was part of the job or that made you ask for a new name. When he’d first been recruited to Operation Banner, the Intelligence Corps mission in Northern Ireland, Jeremy had known only the outlines, that the Provisional Irish Republican Army had taken up terror in the name of a united Ireland, and loyalist paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force responded in kind, and neither the police in the Royal Ulster Constabulary nor the British Army had been able to stop the violence. At the end, he did not know much more. People with access to high grades of classified materials manufactured credentials and rerouted them to other professions. Now Wright taught courses on the philosophy of the mind and the philosophy of language at King’s College London, where probably there were other men who needed aliases, but all the while into the rest of their lives after Northern Ireland, it was Jeremy and Wright who on occasion met. They found shadows slanted across corners. They whispered, something centripetal leaning them toward each other, spinning, circling on snippets, rumors.

Wright’s assumption: there were current intel guys tracking him. His former employer would want to make sure secrets stayed. And so together was the only place they allowed the rage to express on their bodies since duty. The world was deadly, and they were pretending to be gentle men.

“I remember once One Rock telling me about when he was a young handler.” Jeremy leaned back into a chair. “He was telling me the problem was the route to Mecca. Arab nationalists in Aden. The National Liberation Front blew up a party at the home of a Foreign Office official. It had seemed so quaint. So far away and ancient.”

“MI5 wants to distinguish geometry now,” Wright said. “Self- starting rumors they stopped trailing Khan and Tanweer because the two were merely ‘on the periphery’ of another operation.”

“When there is no periphery to terror.”

“It promises death anywhere.”

Jeremy watched Wright pour another drink. Drink it. Pour another. He could sense the risky nostalgia in the room, in Wright musing that there would have been a trail of transmissions to follow, A to B, B to C, C to D, D for direction. Intercept the signals of the Underground Attackers, he was saying. Semper vigiles. Someone had told someone: it’s time. Time to make the most private thing a person could ever do, dying, a public event. And MI5 had permitted it to happen.

“We have to realize what’s not ours anymore,” said Jeremy. “We did what we could.”

Wright stood. “Don’t treat me like one of your call center sobbers. If it were over, you wouldn’t be here.” He crossed his arms. “Bastards waited for the G8 Summit.”

“Because Blair would be away at Gleneagles.”

“Because drop panic in the center,” Wright continued. “Watch the ripples. All the eight go home unadjourned by terror. Might’ve been UK news. But now it’s worldwide. They’ve scaled down the globe with perfect timing.”

“At Gleneagles they were meant to pool terrorist data,” Jeremy said.

Wright wrung his lips into a tight coil. “These bombers have mastered their irony.”

Mastery. Irony. The drink organized Jeremy’s hands in the shape of the glass. Steady. “Thomas shouldn’t have known,” he said. “Why credit default right then?”

Usually, it was he counseling Wright against big picture theories, what the opposition was doing, who was the object of extinction. Wright collected news clippings. He was certain the story wasn’t the story when it was official. He did not know the ops, but he knew there were leaks. Wright obsessed over who had circulated dossiers when they were handlers. Over splinter groups. Over elections. Jeremy would say you could go crazy worrying about strangers in Belfast, Sudan, the Balkans. There were too many people you didn’t know. So you recognized your finitude. You did not clarify the codes. You went on eating breakfast, popping sleeping pills. You could suffer more for the remote suffering, or you could realize your business wasn’t the public good anymore. It was one day, yours, at a time. He would say those things before Alexandra.

“Thomas, he’s just part of a trend. They believe all those triple-A CDOs can collect interest free of loss, that the CDP will earn out eventually. Simple as go bullish, go bearish, go to the country home.”

“I know how it works,” Jeremy said. “I’m the one hedging.”

And yet.

During the anthrax panic, Strategic had maneuvered the long and short game on Bayer and a handful of generic drug companies. Though the patent had expired in nearly every country, Bayer still held the patent for Cipro, a drug used to treat anthrax, in America. In the midst of an ally emergency, Strategic made an inconceivable dump of capital.

“I’m quitting.”

“And just say you’re right,” Wright said.

“I am right.”

“Just say you are. What is the use of the walk away?”

“The away,” Jeremy said. “It is a good quality to be in the circumstances.”

“Can’t get away from what’s inside you.”

“What’s inside?”

“The listening, the half-breath.”

But for now, the strategy: Continue the image, especially to her. Continue the regular fictions of the person he was supposed to be. He was supposed to be someone nonchalant in love and lies, someone who quipped and would never tell Alexandra he preferred her to food and water. “Three weeks earlier, I’d have said nothing.”

“But it wasn’t three weeks earlier.”

“It was right before the bombs,” Jeremy said.

An angle of the chin. A tunneling with the eyes. It was not pity exactly, Jeremy knew, but the look dropped down a shaft of silence between them, a punctuation mark in the face. Wright recrossed his arms, a reversal of right and left. He worked his tongue over his upper teeth, and finally he spoke.

“Ring the prepaid if you want to talk,” Wright said.

Then he stood up and walked, and Jeremy followed. The lines of the hallway seemed almost to choreograph his exit. They did not shake hands. It was simpler, the gesture. Not even a sigh, and Wright opened the door out into the London fog for Jeremy to fade back to the theater of his new life.

*

Quotients © Tracy O’Neill, 2020. First published by Soho Press.

Tracy O’Neill

Tracy O'Neill is the author of Quotients, one of Electric Literature's Best Novels of 2015, and The Hopeful, forthcoming from Soho Press. In 2015, she was named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and was long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize. In 2012, she was awarded the Center for Fiction's Emerging Writers Fellowship. Her short fiction was distinguished in the Best American Short Stories 2016 and earned a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2017. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Rolling StoneThe Atlantic, the New YorkerLitHub, BOMB, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Literarian, New World Writing, NarrativeScoundrel Time, GuernicaBookforumElectric LiteratureGrantlandVice, The GuardianVQR, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Catapult. She attended the MFA program at the City College of New York and the PhD program in communications at Columbia University. While editor-in-chief of the literary journal Epiphany, she established the Breakout 8 Writers Prize with the Authors Guild.

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