The lanky redhead relaxed at his childhood desk in the peaceful silence of his old dormer bedroom. Complicated algorithms and bits of code floated through his mind as he savored the satisfaction of having just completed the computer program for his senior engineering thesis at Princeton. Lost in mathematical reverie he was startled back to consciousness by a penetrating shriek. He jerked up his head, his ears ringing. Was that a scream? An animal howling? He bolted from the room, running down the stairs toward the noise, then froze at what he saw: his father, fists clenched, pounding the air, standing in the hallway uttering that horrible sound. A telephone dangled on its cord.
“Dad! Dad, what is it, what happened?” Will Manningham shouted, trying to break through the screams. “Dad!”
Will moved to wrap his arms around his father, but the man spun from his son’s grasp, his fists now pounding against the wall. The awful sound, half scream, half cry, continued, then choked into sobs.
Just then a second young man, the perfect duplicate of Will, ran into the hallway.
Will’s identical twin, Barrett Manningham IV, stared wide-eyed at his father and brother, saying, “Will! Dad! What’s going on? What’s all this about? Dad, Dad, what’s wrong, what is it?”
Will grabbed the handset, put it to his ear, and asked, “Who is this? What did you say to my father?”
“My name is Charles Addison,” came the response, a flat, unapologetic voice. “Assistant U.S. Attorney M. Charles Addison. I called for Mr. Barrett Manningham the Third. With whom am I speaking?”
“His son, Willford Manningham. What did you say to my father?”
“That would be for your father to tell you. I can only say that there has been a development with respect to your mother. Put Mr. Barrett Manningham back on the line, please.”
“Couldn’t you hear him? He can’t talk. What do you mean, something about my mother? My mother is dead, she died a couple of months ago. What do you know about my mother? Tell me what happened, what you said.”
“I am authorized to speak only with her husband, no other family members. If Mr. Manningham cannot continue our conversation, tell him we will be back in touch. Good day.”
The dial tone buzzing in his ear, Will tossed the handset onto its cradle and turned toward his father.
The man shifted his head back and forth between Will and Barry as though he was trying to look at his sons, but he was only gazing glassy-eyed into empty space, unable to focus on them or on anything. Then he gasped and went white as the color drained out of his face. He stumbled, reaching out to steady himself on the wall. Both sons moved forward, taking his arms across their shoulders to support his limp weight.
“Dad,” Will said, “it’s OK, Dad, we’re here. It’s OK.”
The brothers held their father between them, matching bookends guiding him down the hallway to the living room, into the overstuffed leather chair that had been his habitual seat for as long as the boys could remember. Like a character from a British television show wanting to steady the nerves of someone who had just suffered a terrible fright, Barry walked to the dry bar saying, “I’ll get some brandy.” But when he returned with the snifter of brandy and started to hand it to his father the man’s hands were shaking so violently his son held onto the glass and lifted it to his father’s lips.
“Take a sip, Dad,” the sons said in chorus.
The man tipped his head back and took a few drops of the brandy, then shook his head and pushed the glass away. Barry set the drink down on an end table and sat in a straight chair alongside his father.
Will pulled up a chair on the other side, sat so his face was level with his father’s, then said, “Please, Dad, what is it? Tell us what that man said. Something about Mother, what did he say? What is it? What?”
Their father tried to speak but no words came, only a kind of howl. This kept up for a few seconds, and then he began a relentless weeping. Each boy took one of the man’s hands and sat still, waiting.
Will was shaking now, unable to control his terror. What could have happened to undo his father like this? What had his father heard that was so horrible?
“Please, Dad, calm down,” he pleaded. “What was it? What’s happened? Dad, please!”
Their father freed one hand, reached for the brandy and took a long drink.
“Not…not cancer,” he sobbed. “Not cancer.”
“What do you mean, not cancer? Of course it was cancer. Dr. Peskov treated her for cancer, the cancer that killed her. What are you saying?”
“He said…no, not true, he…Peskov…he...”
The brothers said nothing, unable to grasp what their father was trying to tell them.
At last he stammered, “You…you know how Peskov said…said she suffered from that miserable cancer, that her only chance of…of living…” He choked on the word, inhaled deeply, then found enough voice to say, “was…was chemotherapy, the chemotherapy she hated? Mother always said the chemotherapy was killing her, and…she…”
The man sobbed again, his body shuddering. He buried his head in his hands.
Will watched in desperation as his father wept for another several minutes, still holding his head in his hands, shaking from side to side, gasping for breath.
At last the man looked up at his sons, his eyes vacant, his face collapsed. “She…she was right. Mother was right all along. I never listened to her, I said she was imagining it. I told her to obey the doctor, to take the treatments. But the chemotherapy did kill her. It was a lie, all a horrible lie. She never had cancer. It was all…all a fake, the whole thing, a fake. He…that Peskov…he’s a criminal, a criminal, they’ve arrested him.”