August 13, 2008


The Sebastian family has a secret, and David’s parents protect this secret with a strict vigilance. David has been sworn to silence—“It might seem completely natural to you, honey, but other people just wouldn't understand”—and though David’s other attempts to keep a secret have ended disastrously, he’s never told anyone yet, and none of his friends are ever allowed to go up to the third floor. He explains that the only thing up there is his parent’s bedroom and a storage room.

Of course Valerie’s parent’s know about it, but they seem uncomfortable with the very idea, and Harry thinks that his father-in-law treats him differently since he’s found out. As though he’s somehow less of a man. Valerie tells him he’s just imagining things, but he can tell by the way her father shakes his hand.

(Harry’s own parents died when he was in law school, hit by a drunk driver. At least once a year, one of the local magazines will feature a profile of Harry Sebastian, Louisiana’s highest profile personal injury lawyer, and the writer will always mention the death of his parents as though this is the hidden key to understanding how Harry got where he is. Harry, of course, finds this simplistic and a little offensive, though he cheered up recently when his son remarked that this makes him seem darkly driven by a need for justice and vengeance, “just like Batman!”)

So this is the family secret, then: for the entire duration of their 23-year marriage, Valerie and Harry Sebastian have never shared a bed. The third floor contains two bedrooms and two bathrooms, one for each spouse.

The secret, like all family secrets, probably seems banal to those who don’t have a stake in actually keeping it a secret, and the Sebastians may come across as ludicrous or overwrought by trying to keep it hidden. (In fact, if many of their married friends knew about the Sebastians’ sleeping arrangement, they’d probably even be jealous of them.) But neither Valerie nor Harry relish the idea of explaining to anyone why they choose to sleep apart.

They’ve never actually had to defend their decision to others, though, thanks to their caution. But both of them are born arguers, and they’ve made a hobby of defending it to each other:

“It’s just weird that we’re expected to spend a third of our lives trying to share a small mattress with another person.”

“And you sleep so lightly, and I toss and turn.”

“Plus, you’re so cold-natured, and I can barely stand to have a sheet on me.”

“It makes perfect sense. But you know what most people would say if we told them, right?”

“Oh, of course. It wouldn’t even be what they’d say, it would be the way they’d look at us. Like we’re living a loveless marriage. No passion, no spontaneity.”

“As if having a sex life depends entirely on being forced to share the same bed every night.”

“’Hey, pal, we love sex so much we have two separate rooms for it.’”


“And that’s not counting the sun room and the bathrooms and the pool and my office and the kitchen and…”

“Okay, now you’re just being gross.”

They've become obsessed with proving to themselves that even though they have separate rooms their relationship is just as hot-blooded as any other. They’ve entered into a competition with an imaginary opponent, “the average couple.” Last year, Valerie read in Cosmo that their nemesis the average couple was intimate two times a week. Since then, one of them had visited the other’s room three times a week in retaliation. (They recently agreed that this had become almost like a quota; now the number of visits fluctuates between two and four times a week.)

Even after twenty-three years of marriage, Harry still got a thrill from the sound of his wife’s bedroom door opening, and her bare feet padding across the hallway, and finally her fingertips rustling softly against his door, almost inaudibly, until he got out of bed and found her standing in the soft light of his doorway with a slightly bashful grin, looking up at him with her hands clasped in front of her.

He’d visited her earlier in the week; tonight he’d found her in his bed, reading one of his case files, when he came upstairs. Later, as they dozed, Harry’s cell phone began to ring on his nightstand.

“Who’s that?” his wife mumbled. She’d turned away from him, one hand had reached back and clutched his thigh.

“Beats me.” The caller-ID said Pay Phone. This wasn’t unusual; he was more of a businessman than an attorney these days, but he still had a lot of people call him from the NOPD overnight lock-up. He didn’t recognize this pay phone’s number, but this was his private cell phone, and almost no one had this number. “I better take this. Hello?”

The voice on the other end sounded like it came from somewhere beyond the land of the living. “Hello?”

“Yeah, hello?” Harry got up and found his robe.

“Can you hear me?” The line crackled a few times, then the voice suddenly became clear. “Is that better? This phone cord, I think it has a short in it. You can hear me?”

“Yeah, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear. I just gotta hold this cord all screwy. You know how hard it is to find a working pay phone now that everyone has a cell? They don’t even fix ‘em any more.”

Harry’s wife pulled the covers up over her shoulders, then over her head. He frowned at his phone. “Uh, who is this?”

“Harry, it’s Luke.”


“Come on, brother…Luke. Lucas Budd.”

Harry said the first thing that came into his head. “Oh, fuck you.”

He quickly parted the blinds and glanced out into the street. There were no suspicious cars parked out front. Not yet, anyway. He was being ridiculous and paranoid, of course, but then again…

Harry stepped out of the room hurriedly and pulled the door shut behind him. He cupped his hand around the mouthpiece. “Do you have any idea the sort of shit you could bring down on me? What are you thinking, calling me?”

“No, it’s okay…it’s a pay phone. We’re safe.”

Down the stairs, there was a glow under David’s door and softly muffled voices could be heard. How long did it take to trace a call? Harry wanted to say thirty seconds, but maybe that was just on Law & Order. He stepped into his office and closed the door. “Jesus Christ, Luke…”

“Hey, guess what I played the other week? You’ll never guess: Liar’s Dice! God, remember how we used to play that for just hours back at the Delta house?”

“Who…who were you playing with?”

The line crackled a few times, then came back. “Damn it, hold on. You still there? Listen, I didn’t call just to chit-chat. I need your help, Harry. Dearly.”

“I can’t imagine how I could possibly help you.”

“You know people. You can help us organize a…a resistance, Harry.”

“Oh, Jesus, Luke…Jesus, Jesus." Harry sat down heavily behind his desk and put his forehead into his free hand. "You’re not fighting this?”

“I am.” Lucas Budd said this softly, then cleared his throat. “You best believe we’re fighting it. And you’re gonna help us. Come on, it’ll do you good. How long has it been since you’ve actually been in a courtroom…ten years? Fifteen?”

“Who’s this ‘we’ you keep talking about?”

“I don’t have time to get into all that. But we’re fighting back, and we need your help. The sort of help you gave Meyer.”

Harry felt irrational anger blossom up into his chest. “For fuck’s sake, Lucas…Reuben Meyers was a DUI and an vehicular manslaughter charge. The ‘help’ I gave him was making maybe two phone calls. You think this has anything to do with that?”

“Hold on.” The sound of the phone call grew muffled. “Sorry…a patrol car was passing by.”

In spite of his cooling anger, Harry had to chuckle darkly at this. “Fuck me, I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. Shit.”

“Listen, you don’t want to help me, fine. I’m not going to give you a guilt trip. But you have something of mine, and I’m gonna need it back. You still have it, right?”

Apparently Lucas Budd still knew how to hit people where it hurt. “Luke, buddy…you throw that contract in his face and Jerome is gonna take you apart. Like, biblically…to the seventh generation. Use your head, man. You think you’re toxic now? You’ll be dreaming about when you had it this good.”

Lucas Budd sighed angrily. “Do you have it or don’t you? That’s all I’m asking.”

“You know you’re just as dirty as he is in that deal, right? It might take him out—I said might—but it’s gonna blow up in your face just as bad. And that’s not to mention the innocent bystander, here. Do you really want to do this to-”

“Do you have it?” Lucas Budd roared. Or don’t you?”

“Yes, I have it. Jesus.”

“Good. Sorry. Just hold on to it. I’ll be sending a couple of…a couple of resistance fighters by to get it from you.”

Harry, behind the desk, looked up sharply. “Oh no you’re not.”

“Relax. They have the perfect alibi. You know them, but you won’t even realize who they are until they get there.”

“I’m telling you, Lucas, you’re not sending anyone over here…”

“Will you relax? You haven’t changed since college, I tell ya.” The line went dead for a few seconds. “Look, that was the robot telling me my time’s up. Just hold on to that envelope for me, you hear? I’ll take care of the rest.”

Harry didn’t speak for a moment, then said just “Okay.”

“Great. Thanks…and I mean that. And Harry? I’ll talk to you when I talk to you. Kiss Val for me.”

It sounded like he was about to hang up. “Lucas!”


“For the love of God, Luke…these guys aren’t fucking around any more. Be careful.”

He could already hear the smile in Lucas’ voice. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said, and then hung up.

Harry Sebastian sighed, then cursed again and went over to the window. He watched the dark street in front of his house, half-expecting the unmarked police cars to pull up at any moment. None of them did, of course, so he moved over to another window and stared down into the pool at the angular reflections of the lights sparking in slow-motion against the side.

Twenty minutes later, sure now that his overblown fears about the phone call were just that, overblown and unrealistic, Harry slipped his cell phone into the pocket of his robe and stepped out into the quiet dark of his house.

He passed David’s door and listened for a second in passing. He could hear Elizabeth Huynh saying something like “-and it just kept going on and on...” Robert Johnson, Jerome’s kid, had been there earlier, too, but apparently he’d left at some point…the only people he could hear in the room now were Elizabeth and his son.

Other parents might be suspicious to find their son behind closed doors with a girl past midnight…unfortunately, Harry knew he had nothing to worry about. David was probably braiding her hair.

(Once, he’d walked in on them found Elizabeth face-down on the bed, topless, with his son straddling her hips. David was holding a stencil to her back and he had a small paintbrush hanging from his mouth. On a saucer beside them set a small bottle of henna. They’d both looked up at him with thoroughly innocent faces. “What?” David had finally asked.)

Down on the first floor, Harry Sebatstian didn’t turn on any of the lights. He didn’t need to…the lights from the landscaping were bright enough to find what he was looking for. In the larger of the two guest bedrooms was an antique trunk with a wide sliding drawer on the bottom. It wasn’t exactly hidden, but with Valerie’s cashmere throw tossed over the trunk it wasn’t exactly obvious, either.

Harry Sebastian eased himself down to his knees and pulled the throw off. The drawer had a keyhole on the front, but it was fake. Actually, there was a catch on the back of the trunk, just a little sliding latch, that released the thin drawer so it could be opened.

The manila envelope was towards the center, buried under a few other things he didn’t want to leave out in the open. He angled the envelope so that it would catch the weak glow of the outside spotlights. It was blank, of course, except for two signatures, Jerome Johnson and Lucas Budd, right over the flap. No one could open and reseal the envelope without messing up the signatures. That was the theory, anyway.

After they were done signing the envelope that day six years ago, Harry glanced across his desk and suggested that maybe they shouldn’t have used their real names. They both agreed, but everyone was too lazy to go back out to the receptionist’s and get another envelope.

Harry knew exactly what he should do with the enveloope. He should take it out on the patio and light the grill and just toss it in. Wash his hands of the entire mess. It would probably be the best thing he could do for Lucas, actually, as well as the people he had helping him. If they even existed.

But instead, as he always knew he would, he put the envelope carefully back into the drawer.