"I want you to go back," said Hugh. "Back in your memories. Go past your thirties, into your twenties. From there, think about your college years. Then high school." He allowed a pause. "Are you thinking about high school?"
"Yes," said Seth.
"Okay. Go further back in time, back to middle school. Then elementary school. Can you remember a time before then? Before you started school?"
There was a slight delay before Seth spoke. Then: "Yes."
"What is your earliest memory?"
"In a boat, with my father and Terry. We're on a lake."
"What are they doing?"
"What are you doing?"
"Watching. Sometimes I get to help hold a pole. But mostly I just watch."
I felt a knot form in my stomach. I didn't fully understand Roman's strategy here, but there was something terribly personal and vulnerable about what we were doing, listening to these memories. Seth rarely spoke of his father, who had passed away when Seth was in his early teens, and it seemed wrong to "make" him do it in this state.
"Go back even further. Can you remember anything before that? Any earlier memories?" asked Hugh. He seemed uneasy, a sharp contrast to Seth's utter calmness.
" No. "
"Try," said Hugh. "Try to go back further."
"I . . . I'm in a kitchen. The kitchen at our first house, in a high chair. My mom's feeding me, and Terry's walking through the door. He runs to her and hugs her. He's been gone all day, and I don't understand where he's been."
School, if I had to guess. I tried to put an age on this memory, using what I knew of the age difference between the brothers. How long did kids stay in high chairs? And how young would he have to be to not understand the concept of school? Three? Two?
"That's great," said Hugh. "That's really great. Now keep going even more. Go back to something even earlier."
I frowned, thinking they were kind of pushing it now. I was no expert in human memory, but I thought I'd once read about how two was the age when memories really began forming. Seth seemed to struggle with this as well, frowning despite his otherwise calm exterior.
"Okay," he said. "I've got one."
"Where are you?" said Hugh.
"I don't know."
"What do you see?"
"My mother's face."
"No. That's all I remember of that."
"That's okay," said Hugh. "Now find something else before that. Any memory. Any image or sensation."
"There's nothing," said Seth.
"Try," said Hugh, not looking nearly as confident as he sounded. "It doesn't matter how vague it is. Anything you can remember. Anything at all."
"I . . . there's nothing," said Seth, the frown deepening. "I can't remember anything before that."
"Try," repeated Hugh. "Go further back."
This was getting ridiculous. I opened my mouth to protest, but Roman caught hold of my arm, silencing me. I glared at him, hoping I could convey all my frustrations at what they were doing to Seth in one look. Roman simply shook his head and mouthed Wait.
"I remember . . . I remember faces. Faces looking at me. Everyone's so much bigger than me. But they're mostly shadows and light. I can't see . . . can't comprehend much detail." Seth paused. "That's it. That's all there is."
"You're doing good," said Hugh. "You're doing great. Just listen to the sound of my voice, and keep breathing. We need to go back even earlier. What do you remember before that? Before the faces?"
"Nothing," said Seth. "There's nothing there. Just blackness."
Roman shifted in his chair, going rigid. He leaned forward, eyes bright and excited. Hugh glanced over questioningly, and Roman gave an eager nod. Swallowing, Hugh turned back to Seth.
"I need you . . . to go past the blackness. Go to the other side of it."
"I can't," said Seth. "It's a wall. I can't cross it."
"You can," said Hugh. "Listen to my voice. I'm telling you, you can. Push back in your memories, past the memories of this life, to the other side of the blackness. You can do it."
"I . . . I can't - " Seth cut himself off. For a moment, there was no other sound save the white noise on Roman's iPod, though it was a wonder I couldn't hear the pounding of my own heart. The frown that had been intensifying on Seth's face abruptly smoothed out. "I'm there."
Hugh shifted awkwardly, disbelief registering on his face. "You are? What are you doing? Where are you?"
"I . . ." The frown returned, but it was different in nature. It was distress from the memory itself, not the effort. "I'm bleeding. In an alley."
"Are you . . . are you Seth Mortensen?" Hugh's voice was a whisper.
" No. "
"What's your name?"
"Luc." The frown smoothed again. "And now I'm dead."
"Go back to the alley," said Hugh, regaining his courage. "Before you . . . before, um, Luc died. How did it happen? Why were you bleeding?"
"I was stabbed," said Seth. "I was trying to defend a woman. A woman I loved. She said we couldn't be together, but I know she didn't mean it. Even if she didn't, I still would've died for her. I had to protect her."
It was about that point that I stopped breathing.
"Where are you?" Hugh reconsidered his question. "Do you know the year?"
"It's 1942. I live in Paris."
Roman reached across me to a stray catalog on a chair. Producing a pen, he scrawled something on the catalog's cover and then handed it to Hugh. Hugh read it and then gently placed it on the floor.
"Tell me about the woman," he said to Seth. "What's her name?"
"Her name is Suzette."
Someone let out a strangled gasp. Me. I stood up then, and Roman jerked me back down. A million protests sprang to my lips, and he actually had the audacity to clamp a hand over my mouth. He shook his head sharply and hissed in my ear, "Listen."
Listen? Listen? He had no idea what he was asking. He had no idea what he was hearing. For that matter, I wasn't sure either. All I knew was that there was no way this could be happening. Much like the night I'd gotten into bed with Ian, I had the surreal feeling that the only way any of this could be real was if I'd accidentally stumbled into someone else's life.
"Tell me about Suzette," said Hugh.
"She has blond hair and blue eyes," said Seth levelly. "She moves like music, but none of the music I make can compare to her. She's so beautiful . . . but so cruel. Not that I think she means to be. I think she believes she's helping."
"Go back now," said Hugh. "Back to your childhood, Seth - I mean, Luc. Go back to your earliest memories as Luc. Are you there?"
"Yes," said Seth.
"What do you see?"
"My mother's funeral, though I don't understand it. She was sick."
"Okay. I need you to go back again, younger and younger, back until you hit more blackness. Can you do that? Can you find it again?"
Again, the rest of us held our breath, waiting for Seth to respond. "Yes," he said.
Hugh exhaled. "Go to the other side of that blackness, back before Luc. You can cross it. You did it before."
"Yes. I'm there."
"What is your name now?"
"My name is Etienne. I live in Paris . . . but it's a different Paris. An earlier Paris. There are no Germans here."
"What do you do for a living?"
"I'm an artist. I paint."
"Is there a woman in your life? Girlfriend? Wife?"
"There's a woman, but she's none of those. I pay to be with her. She's a dancer named Josephine."
I began to feel ill. The world was spinning, and I lowered my head, willing everything to settle back to its rightful order. I didn't need to hear Seth next describe Josephine. I could've done it down to the last curl.
"Do you love her?" Hugh asked Seth.
"Yes. But she doesn't love me back."
"What happens to her?"
"I don't know. I ask her to marry me, but she says she won't. That she can't. She tells me to find someone else, but there is no one else. How can there be?"
Hugh had no answer for that, but he had his rhythm now. He kept repeating the pattern, pushing Seth back further and further through impossible memories, always crossing that black wall, always asking Seth's name and location, where he was, and if there was a woman who'd broken his heart.