Chapter 1

Numbers

Fuller stood naked in the middle of the room, his clothes piled wet on the floor by his feet. The wooden parts of the house creaked and groaned against the wind. On the desk a candle fluttered. Tugging firmly on the wire, he pulled the remaining slack through the gap under the window, just enough to reach the desk, and pushed the window down firmly, wedging it in place. The room was quiet now but for the soft static crackle of the radio. The candle flame wobbled upright.

 

The outer bands of the storm had made landfall in the afternoon; by evening it had clawed a slow path across the southern end of the island and then turned north, a swirling black blanket of lashing rain and thrashing winds ripped trees up at the roots, downed phone lines and whipped debris through the air. Power across the island went down almost immediately. It might be days before he’d be able to repair the antenna on the roof, if it was even still there. This would have to do for now.

 

Stripping the plastic from the end with his teeth he twisted the exposed filaments tightly around the contacts of the jack and wrapped it with electrical tape, then plugged that into the side of the radio. The signal cleared up immediately. The one local FM station still able to broadcast under generator power was playing music, interrupted at regular intervals with storm updates, reminding listeners that a curfew was in place and to stay indoors and off the roads. Switching to the shortwave setting the static returned. He adjusted the tuner dial slowly, locating Voice Of America which now came in clearly. The make-shift antenna was working well. Moving slowly across the spectrum now, fine-tuning the dial in the shortwave bands, the white noise gave way to a tinny squelch, and then a signal.

 

“Four … four … four  … nine … eleven … two … seven … seven … seven … thirteen … zero …”

 

The voice was female with a British accent, monotone and robotic, reading the sequences of numbers, and nothing else, without interruption, or even a pause for breath.

 

“Six … five … one … twelve … nine … two …”

 

It continued, deliberate and metallic.

 

“Eleven … nine … four … twelve … two … three …”

 

Beside the radio was a small, worn notebook, a pen tucked in the pages, held closed by a thick rubber band. Fuller pulled the candle closer and began writing down the numbers as they were read. Within an hour he had filled several pages. 

 

He sat back in the chair looking over his notes. The book was almost full. But with what? Three months of searching and listening, of copying down numbers and trying to find the sense in them. Three months since his grandfather had died. Sixty-something years of personal effects to sort through and a house to sell; the funeral to plan. That was not a small event. A decorated and celebrated veteran of World War 2, one of the few remaining, was sent off with the pomp he deserved.

 

The evening after the service Fuller was alone at the house sifting through the remaining items. Most everything had been boxed and sent away, some donated, some sold, some given to relatives. In the den one item stood out among the detritus: a simple metal box closed with a small, corroded padlock. A key would have been useless even if he had one. Cutting it open took a minute. Inside, everything was neatly organized in its place. There were some papers and photographs from his time in the war, bound together in a stack; documents, souvenirs, medals, his Colt Government sidearm with an empty clip attached to the grip with a rubber band. Underneath it all was a cigar box – closed only with a bit of yellowed masking tape – containing dozens of little paper notepads filled with typed sets of numbers. Under those was a piece of letter paper folded in half and closed with a paperclip; it was filled completely with more numbers, like those in the notepads, hand-written in black ink. Tucked inside was a photograph of seven men posing for the camera, standing outside a field tent by an airstrip. On the back was written “Tinian Island. October, 1944.”

 

Grandfather had left no instructions or wishes for what was to be done with his belongings other than a one-page will designating Fuller as the sole beneficiary of everything. His wife, Fuller’s grandmother, had died several years earlier. In those following years their relationship became one more of friends than family separated by a generation, and Fuller spent much of his time outside of work at the house. Grandfather had remained vibrant and coherent until the end. He lived a long, eventful life and departed quietly in good standing with the world.

 

The few times Fuller had asked about the war his grandfather obliged, recounting stories at the periphery of it; the fun they had while on leave in Adelaide, his friends; where those who had survived were now and what they were like, the trouble they had gotten into as young men. These stories he told eagerly and with a smile. He never spoke of the war itself or what he saw or did. He had served in the Pacific and had seen his share, that much was clear.

 

When he returned he did what everyone did: he married and made babies; two in his case, a daughter and a son. That son was Fuller’s father, Jim. At the age of nineteen, despite being eligible for university deferment, he followed in his father’s path, dropping out of school and volunteering for service in Vietnam. The night before he shipped out he proposed to his girlfriend, Karen, over the phone. She said yes. They wrote letters to one another every week that he was away, though Karen received his at irregular, sometimes lengthy, intervals, several at a time, in a bundle.

 

While reading his words was a comfort to her and she was glad to have them, she could not keep her mind from the thought that the man who had penned them might at that moment already be dead.

 

When, some fifteen months later, Jim showed up unannounced on her doorstep she dropped to the floor and wept, the weight of so much worry suddenly evaporated. Jim put down his bag and sat beside her, holding her. He took her by the hand and placed a ring in her palm. They were married within a month, and bought a house a few miles away. Fuller was born the following year.

 

His mother kept the family photos on a bookshelf in her study, all neatly cataloged and captioned in albums with sticky pages and clear plastic covers. The dog-eared instamatics from those days showed a young, happy family. Fuller’s favorite photo, dated in his mother’s handwriting, was of his father leaving for work, smiling, dressed in khaki slacks and a crisp, white shirt with an identification badge on his chest and a pen in his shirt pocket. His hair was slicked back and he carried a brown leather satchel. All Fuller knew was that he had been a civilian contractor of some sort for the government; a career cut short when he was called back to Vietnam. He left a few months after the photo was taken. This time he did not return.

 

It was on Fuller’s fifth birthday that Will first came to the house. Soon the visits became more frequent. They became fast friends. Will gladly took the mantle of father to Fuller, and he and Karen were married less than a year later.

 

Will too had served in Vietnam, flying Hueys shuttling infantry in and out of the field. Back home he again traveled frequently by helicopter for work, now as a passenger. It was a warm summer evening when the phone rang and Fuller watched his mother’s face as she heard the news that his helicopter had crashed in heavy fog.

 

From that day she dedicated herself to raising Fuller, and to her work at the university where she was an adjunct professor. Their home became their refuge. They read together, cooked, made art, listened to music. Weekends were spent outdoors, no matter the weather; hiking the forested foothills, collecting bugs in jars, wading in streams and exploring. Despite the loss of his father and Will, Fuller remembered these days as some of the most fulfilling and rich of his childhood. His mother had made sure of it.

 

After putting Fuller to bed, his mother would close herself in the study, poring over papers and books. Sometimes he would wake up and go to find her there. She would sit him beside her on the chair, running her fingers up and down his back while reading silently to herself. The radio in the corner of her desk was always on with the volume turned low. 

 

There was a pounding coming from outside. Had the screen door been pulled open by the wind? He cursed himself for forgetting to remove it. The gusts were stronger now and coming in waves. The noise continued louder. Through a narrow gap between the window boards he saw headlights flickering behind a curtain of rain. Fuller quickly dressed and opened the door. Tess was standing there, drenched, the silhouette of her plastic poncho whipping in the wind.

 

“Hey. How’s it going? The power is out everywhere.” Tess motioned toward the road. “It’s all down. Pitch black. We have a case of beer. Bruce is driving. You can ride shotgun. Let’s go.”

 

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