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Perilous Memories

 

Perilous Memories

 

 

Ulf Wolf

 

Shakespir Edition

October 2016

 

Copyright

 

Perilous Memories

Copyright 2016 by Wolfstuff

 

http://wolfstuff.com

 

 

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

 

Shakespir License Notes

 

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

::

 

Prologue

 

They grieve for they lost his living

he grieves for he lost his life

but dead he lost more than the living

in them he is still alive

while he lost life

and memory both

 

[*One ::

 

He knew by the cry of locked wheels on tarmac, by the sting of rubber smoke in his nostrils, by the core of silence in which he found himself despite the noise—and perhaps mostly by this stillness—that he was not going to make it.

He knew as he rushed towards it, or it towards him—for he felt stationary; knew as he saw the number painted on the undercarriage and looked again to make it out, 486 it said, paint peeling, or fading, no, it was peeling; he knew then, in the near timelessness of this immediacy, and with astonishing clarity, that he was going to die.

The tractor-trailer had just overtaken him. It had come up from behind, speeding surely, had blasted its horn once, then again—he had almost sensed the irritation, this was a vehicle used to being heard the first time—had then swung left and rumbled past him like an indignant mountain on the move. That accomplished, the eighteen-wheeler, without signaling, simply taking what was rightfully his, had steered right again, back to the slower lanes, its proper territory.

But a small foreign car, new and blue or blue-green and perhaps three car-lengths ahead, was in the rig’s way. This driver either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Neither did the rig.

The collision wasn’t much at first, just a touch, a scraping. But then the rig, as if suddenly aware, convulsed and slammed on the brakes. Smoke streamed from the locked wheels as it began skidding to its right.

He had all the time in the world to make up his mind, at least that is how it seemed. One moment came, stayed a while, then the next, each slow and long. He thought, and noticed himself thinking: he could simply brake and yes, possibly lose control, though that would lessen the impact, or—possibly a safer choice—he could perhaps avoid the sliding rig altogether by veering left for the fast lane, clearing now as the rig continued sliding to the right.

He made his choice and eased the steering wheel to the left, thinking yes, yes, he would miss the rig, easy does it, but not too fast since the rig, a helpless whale now, was slowing fast and not entirely out of the fast lane yet.

Then, and he should have done this sooner, halfway into the fast lane he glanced in his rearview mirror and saw the gray Pontiac—yes it was a Pontiac—come up from behind him at speed, also heading for the fast lane. To get out of Pontiac’s way and into the fast lane before him, he floored the accelerator and heard his Toyota gear down to gather strength and speed. But not fast enough.

Two things: the Pontiac, no doubt distracted by the skidding rig, did not hit the brakes in time; and the rig was not yet all the way out of the fast lane, now almost sideways in its slide. The Pontiac caught up and struck him from behind, careening him, still accelerating, directly into the trailer.

Those numbers, four eight six on the grimy blue of the undercarriage, were the last things he saw.

Metal screaming and the destruction of glass were the last things he heard.

Had he put away his groceries? was his final thought.

[*:*]

“An accident on the 110 freeway just before the 91 has all southbound lanes, I repeat all southbound lanes shut down, with traffic backed up to before Redondo Beach Boulevard. There has been a terrible accident involving a jackknifed big-rig and several other vehicles, with at least one fatality. Police and emergency vehicles are arriving on the scene with more on the way and according to Caltrans it will be two hours, at least, before any of those lanes will reopen. If you’re in a hurry, you’d do well to avoid this area. If you’re traveling south on the 110, we suggest you take El Segundo or Rosecrans and use the surface streets. Northbound 110 is also bumper-to-bumper due to spectator slowing.”

[*:*]

The impact was curious. There was pain, surely. There must have been pain, but if there were, it was very sudden and gone too soon to actually register.

No, not really pain. It was more like a burst of wind, a rushing upward from his feet to his head as iron and force crushed lungs and spine and his head was all but severed in this single act of bad luck and mechanical violence. The gust, like a giant exhaling, seized him and pulled him up and out and clear of the wreckage.

 

[*Two ::

 

She walked quietly past the closed bedroom door and down the stairs. It was still dark outside and the air smelled of rain. The living room was dark but the kitchen light was on, spilling onto the threadbare carpet all the way to the bottom of the stairs. She could hear Beth getting things ready for Bill’s breakfast.

She stepped into the kitchen then stopped short: it had happened again. Although she could only see the left side of her face, she could tell. Bruised and puffy. Her mom did not turn to face her.

“Morning, Mom.”

“Morning, honey.”

[*:*]

Elsie Reilly was only twelve years old, but had already known for almost a year that it was up to her to help her mom. This had come to her almost as a revelation on a dark and rainy morning like this one.

The old spruce outside her window, restless with wind, had scraped the roof and prodded her awake, she had opened her eyes on the dark, and realized she was thirsty. She had slid out from under her blanket and tiptoed down the stairs for a glass of water. Then back to bed. Not quite time to get up yet.

Then, as now, the kitchen light was already on, seeping out from under the closed kitchen door. As Elsie had entered—maybe it was the light, maybe it was that Beth didn’t turn to greet her right away, maybe it was something she had dreamt, she never really did sort it out—she noticed, as if for the first time, how tired her mother looked, how stooped and bent. After a while Beth had turned and smiled at her, but it wasn’t really a smile. Not a happy recognition, no, it had only been like a gesture before returning, almost mechanically, to the brush and the carrots in the sink. Elsie had looked at her face, at the side of her face really, at the tired shoulders, the bare arms, the graying hair caught in a small bun, at the struggle that was her mom, for what seemed a long time while she at the same time also saw a younger, happier mom; the face from before Tim and Sarah and Evelyn came, from when there had been only the three of them, a happier mom then with a brighter face smiling down at her, laughing often. Even singing sometimes.

Her mom had turned to her again, with the same not really a smile, and Elsie had smiled back, and known that it was up to her. Her mom needed help, and that was what being the oldest child was all about, wasn’t it? Up to her. She should have known sooner, she thought, but she had never put things together before: Beth was always up before everyone else and down in the kitchen to get them all fed and off to work and school and day care before getting herself ready and catching a downtown bus, to work a full shift sewing clothes. Then home again, hurry to day care before they close, fix dinner, wash the dishes, put the kids to bed, read them stories, make sure Bill has his TV snack and beer, mend socks and stockings, polish and clean, and perhaps even laundry before she could catch her breath and maybe a TV show if she wasn’t too tired, then off to bed, then awake again to everything all over.

That morning, as this had all added up and almost stunned her, she had decided that she would do a lot more to help. She would start by helping with the kids. She would take them to day care before school, she would pick them up after school as well. She would get them ready for bed. She would help clean, too. She would make her mom’s life a little easier, ease her load. And she had felt, seeing it all so clearly, and making up her mind, that she was growing up in a matter of minutes.

Recently, she had grown up further; had grown to understand Mom’s other problem. The one with Daddy and how her face got swollen.

For sometimes her mom would have a swollen eye or a blue cheek, sometimes she would favor her arm, but when Elsie would ask her about it, she would never really answer. Not answer answer; instead it was always just a stumble or a clumsy me or it was nothing really, darling; things Elsie couldn’t quite believe or make sense of. Then her mom had a broken wrist in a cast for six weeks and a bruised shoulder and face at the same time. Fell down the stairs, she said, clumsy me, late for work. Elsie did not know what to believe. But she had begun to notice how her mother stayed clear of Bill when he was drinking.

Then one night not long ago she had woken up from Tim’s crying in the room next to hers. He wouldn’t stop, and no one else was looking in on him, so she got up to see what was the matter. Once out on the landing she heard noises from the kitchen, angry noises. Dad loud, Mom answering, it sounded like begging. She had stolen down the stairs, and that’s when she saw how Beth got hurt.

Mommy had never told anyone about these things, so neither would she.

But knowing strengthened her resolve. She would do anything to bring her mom’s smile back. It was up to her.

[*:*]

“Let me do that,” she said.

Her mom stepped aside to let her help, but she still didn’t turn to face her.

[*Three ::

 

It was George Frideric Handel who changed his life, and became his hero.

Handel, in his view, was not merely a composer, he was the complete artist, sprung from purpose, a genius. And not only at the keyboard, but as a businessman, as a director, as a conciliator, as a survivor.

For not only would he write his oratorios; not only would he score all the parts. He would then scour London—or the Continent—for a cast, negotiate their fees, rent the Covent Garden Theatre or some such place, stage and direct the thing, make peace among his warring crews and prima donnas, wear the cashier’s hat, the organist’s, the conductor’s, the bow-taker’s, and pay master’s, and then, with all of London singing his praises again (and, to be sure, he was not above enjoying praise), it was off to Brook Street, where he lived, to count the profits. Oh, yes, he was the complete artist-survivor.

And what he admired most about the man was his heavenly ability to, in the midst of this whirlwind world, sit down at the keyboard and simply transcend all pressure, all this world, and once again conjure up his celestial music, his godly music.

And, of course, it was Handel who had saved him.

[*:*]

Three years earlier Leonard Sanderson had finally called it a day. Yes, he was good, no argument there, but so were many others. He was skilled, but not great; and after years of trying he finally saw, quite clearly, and almost with relief, that he never would become great.

He had played the piano since he was four, and had always pictured himself becoming a professional musician, a concert pianist, an artist, admired and successful. And he had given it his very best shot.

Growing up, when his friends got together after school first to play, later to chase, then torment, then woo the neighborhood girls, he would practice instead. For hours. And hours. Some days it came to him freely but often, too often, it was a grind, an endless drilling.

Some of the requisite fire was his own, but whenever it waned his mother was always at the ready with a backup flame. Fiercely. Mustn’t waste your talent on trifles, Len. You’ll be greater than them, you just see. You’ll be an artist. You’ll be a great pianist one day. This is your calling, Leonard, and don’t you forget it, but you have to work to get there. Work, Leonard. Practice makes perfect, Leonard. He had grown to hate that phrase.

But he did work. Slender fingers grew longer and stronger. By the time he graduated the Music Academy he had built a repertoire that led to some real engagements: real, as in getting paid. And with time and constant drilling, he matured along with his reputation. Yes, his gigs grew too, there was more money, the halls were a little larger, but still, at twenty-seven—being brutally honest with himself—he had to admit that he was still only a second-string pianist, playing second-string venues; and, really, was he ever going to become the true artist he had always pictured? He found the spark fading if not gone.

Even his mother had stopped nagging him, another bad sign.

Then—it was late one Saturday night and he had just returned from yet another high school gig—things came to a point. Closing his apartment door behind him, he leaned against it and closed his eyes. Why was he doing this? How many of these pimply kids really cared about the music? How many came just to appear sophisticated, as part of some highbrow mating ritual? He shook his head. Talk about pearls before swine.

He shed his tux and hung it back in his closet, donned a sweat suit.

It was dark outside, he could see his reflection in the kitchen window. Soon to be thirty, he thought, and I’ve climbed as far as I ever will. He looked down at his long, slender fingers—his strongest feature, that’s what Vivian claimed anyway—flexed them and cracked his knuckles. He heated some water and poured it into his glass teapot, added green tea, and stood watching as the water embraced then drowned the slowly sinking leaves, feeling emptied.

He carried the pot over to the sofa and sat down; poured the tea into a small Japanese cup and watched the steam curl up from the green liquid to evaporate into the silence, much like his life. He leaned back into the soft sofa cushion, closed his eyes again, and on a fundamental level simply let go.

What he felt was relief. There was more to it, to be sure, there were other currents, other feelings—the gray sense of failure among them—but in the main it was relief. And he decided then, as he re-opened his eyes and brought the small cup to his lips for a first sip: he would accept the teaching position he had recently been offered.

[*:*]

Six months into his new career he ran into Handel.

It was a garage sale of all things. With a steady job—decent money coming in and all that—he no longer used to bother with them, but the day was nice and he had time on his hands and something of the old hand-to-mouth spirit surfaced when he saw the badly painted cardboard sign and the little cluster of bargain hunters on the grass. He braked his Toyota and stepped out for a survey.

Albums, clothes, trinkets. He picked up a large, badly painted piece of plywood, cut to resemble an enormous light bulb, and wondered at the things people will buy and then try to get rid of. He replaced it and moved on. Four hundred recipes guaranteed to lose you twenty pounds. A big book. Wonder why that one’s fallen out of favor? Smiled. More clothes.

An old but unmolested box on the fringe of things caught his attention. He walked over to it and saw why it seemed untouched: it contained music scores. Not much of a garage sale item, to be sure. Only guys like himself would bother. He sat down on his haunches to take a closer look.

Piano scores mostly. Mozart, lots of Mozart. Haydn, lots of Haydn, too. Haydn, the music factory. Some Liszt, some Dvorak. A piece by Handel. More Dvorak, happy Dvorak. More Handel. He liked Handel but hadn’t played him much, if at all. He stopped to think. Actually, he could not remember ever having played Handel. Well, of course, oratorios and organ concertos were not meant for the piano. Some Bach. Then more Handel. An opera. Julius Caesar. He’d heard of it, but never listened to it that he could recall. Some recorder sonatas, Handel as well. The seller was either a fan or had inherited these scores from someone who was. And at the very bottom: yes, yet another Handel. He balanced the pile of already inspected scores on his left knee and brought it out into the light. How curious. He took a closer look to make sure, no, he was right. This was an organ concerto transcribed for the piano. Yellowed paper, old and brittle. He placed the other scores on the ground and returned to the piano score, began tracing the notations. It was beautifully transcribed. He read to the end of the page then looked back into the box, were there more of these? No, just the one.

He was so pleased with his find that he forgot to bargain and paid the full asking price of a dollar.

Back in his car he did not start the engine. Instead he turned the opening page over and kept reading, falling as he read through the clefs and staffs into the world of melody and counterpoint. And as he fell he savored the beauty now whispering, now rising—harmonies breathing and dancing. This was such fine, fine music.

He finished the score and laid it down on the seat beside him. Gently, almost respectfully. Then he leaned back and closed his eyes. Handel. He smiled. What a guy. This was wonderful.

Someone knocked on the car window. “You leaving or what?” Muffled through the glass.

He looked up at an agitated face, dark against the bright sky. “Oh yes, sorry.” He started his car and set out down the street while his mind returned to the score. He wanted to hear it. He wanted to play it and hear it. For the first time in months, in years to be honest, he really wanted to play.

[*:*]

He could hear the phone ring inside the apartment as he turned the key. As he opened the door the ringing grew louder, impatient. He put the score down on the coffee table, tossed the keys into the bowl, and reached for the receiver.

“This is Leonard.”

“Hi, Honey.”

“Hi, Viv.”

“Just calling to remind you. Five o’clock.”

“Five o’clock?” he tried to remember.

“Sharp. And, please, be on time for a change. Mom and Dad are coming too.”

Oh, God. The monthly. The ordeal. Dinner with her sisters, their smug husbands, and now her folks as painful bonus. He had completely forgotten. He looked around the room as if for a lifeline, and his eyes fell on the score.

“Viv,” he lied. “I can’t.”

“What?”

“I can’t make it, Honey. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, Len, I asked you yesterday, I specifically asked you and you said fine.”

“I know. But something’s come up.”

“What?”

“A gig,” he said. That’s almost not a lie, he told himself.

“A gig? You haven’t played for months.” Silence. She was waiting for details. He didn’t supply them. “How come you didn’t know about this yesterday?”

“I forgot. I had a note on the fridge. Just saw it this morning.”

Another silence, “I don’t know whether to believe you, Len.”

“Vivian, you know I’d like to come, but I can’t.”

“That’s precisely it. I know you don’t want to come.”

The truth stung. “I’m sorry. I really am. I have to practice a bit and get ready.”

She hung up without another word. Receiver in hand he steeped for a moment in his duplicity. He didn’t like lying. The shame was warm and unpleasant. Then he carefully replaced the receiver and turned back into the room and saw the score. Handel, his co-conspirator. He walked over to it and picked it up.

He played through the afternoon and into the evening. The phone rang several times, people left messages. He hardly noticed, but played on. Something within him had awoken, and he played on.

[*:*]

From that day he devoted himself to Handel.

He read every biography he could find. He bought all his oratorios. He devoured his organ concertos. He listened. And listened. He tracked down all existing piano scores. And he played.

Handel, the person, the man, the musician, the survivor—most of all the survivor—had re-lit the flame and every new discovery about him fanned it hotter. He practiced five hours a day again. He fell behind in his class work, got talked to about it, fell behind some more, got talked to again, then resigned his teaching job.

Stirred alive by Handel, filled with new purpose, he knew that he would finally realize his dream. And his fingers agreed. His ears agreed. He was becoming great.

Vivian, along with the rest of the world, grew peripheral. His need was too urgent, and there was only room for the one. He began playing gigs again. Then the gigs grew. Two weeks ago he had played Royce Hall at UCLA for the first time, to very good reviews indeed, and his agent was now talking about the Ambassador.

[*:*]

One Thursday afternoon late that January he returned to his apartment with groceries to find a message on his machine. It was from Bruce, his not at all unhappy agent. Please come see him. Now. Great news, he said. Great, he stressed. Then, as if he just could not bear holding on to it any longer: An offer from Sony. Oh, man.

He slumped into his deep armchair: Finally! This was it. For several seconds he battled with the concept, as if with some alien utterance that needed decoding. But it was plain enough, he had made it. Then he sprung up, he’d better get down there. He grabbed the keys out of the bowl, slammed the door, ran down to his car, pulled out of the garage, negotiated the streets, and headed south on the 110 freeway for his agent.

The bag of groceries still on the counter.

[*Four ::

 

Bill hunched over her, an inebriated beast, and spoke slowly, “Beth, I’m only going to tell you this once. You understand? Once.” He held up one slightly shaky finger. Then pointed it directly at her, a weapon. “If you’re pregnant again, you’re getting an abortion. If you don’t, I will beat it out of you.”

“Bill, please. I promise, I am not pregnant.”

His eyes stayed fixed on her, while his finger sliced the air in her direction once, twice, and again. “You know I can tell when you’re lying.”

“I am not lying, Bill. I swear.”

“You had better not.” He straightened up and glared at her from his new height. Then abruptly turned and left for the kitchen.

But she was lying. She had missed her period two months running and had gone in for a test. Sneaked in. How could he possibly have found out? And this afternoon the clinic had called to congratulate her. Congratulate? Nothing worse could have happened.

After Evelyn was born Bill had given her an ultimatum: either you have your tubes tied or I leave. But she couldn’t do that. It just wasn’t natural. It was not Christian. It was like clamping a muzzle on God’s channel of life. She could not, would not do it. So she refused. He beat her and repeated his ultimatum. She still refused. He beat her some more, but did not bring it up again.

What love there had been between them was long gone. Their lovemaking no longer had anything to do with love. He used her whenever he felt like it, and sometimes she didn’t have the time—he didn’t give her the time—to use her shield and foam, and afterwards she spent days and weeks anxiously waiting for her period. Once she worked up the courage to suggest that maybe he could have some sort of operation to make sure she didn’t get pregnant. That earned her another beating, and he called her wanton, lewd and whatever else. Ungodly. She concealed her bruises. They used to heal faster.

And now it had happened. She knew it had to eventually. And to make matters worse, God, so much worse, she had lied to Bill. Lied. Where had she found the strength to? There was a time she used to lie to him, to make him stop hitting her. When she used to say things to please him, what he wanted to hear, but he always found out, and it only made him angrier. Always made things worse, fed his rage. So she didn’t lie to him anymore. Never. Not until tonight. But she hadn’t lied for herself, had she? She had lied for the new life, her baby, her unborn.

Bill returned, beer in hand. Sat down heavily in the sofa. It groaned under his weight. He glanced briefly at the television set—a game show, reached for the remote. Turned it over in his hand, studied it for a while, as if trying to decipher it. Then he turned his gaze back on his wife.

“So why did you go to the clinic?”

“It was just my annual checkup, Bill.”

He took a long swig of his beer, and put the can down on the table. “I think you are lying, Beth.” The musty smell of beer reached her as he bent closer. “I haven’t seen your things in the garbage for a while.”

“What things?”

“You know damn well what things I mean. Your things. Your period things.”

Oh God, he’s spying on me.

The next lie came more easily. “I had my last period five weeks ago, Bill. At my age,” she paused to swallow, “at my age, the doctor told me, it starts to get irregular. Nothing to worry about, he told me.”

Bill took another swig, tried to suppress a belch, failed, straightened a little, “All right. But I want to see those things next time.” Then added, “I don’t trust you.”

He finished the beer, and made to rise, failed, tried again, succeeded, stumbled slightly and bumped his shin on the low table, swore, steadied himself.

She watched him as he turned and headed back toward the kitchen for another beer, his fifth tonight.

[*:*]

Her fear grew steadily over the following weeks. Showing him bloodied tampons was of course no problem, a child could have figured that one out. It was not as if he was going to smell them. Seeing it was enough, and ketchup was very red. No, it was the swelling, a little larger, a little rounder each week, that threatened her and the life within.

She studied herself again in the foggy bathroom door mirror. It was going on four months now and she was definitely showing. Definitely. She turned again, trying to determine how much. Now in profile, now head on, now from the other side, she turned again and scrutinized her reflection. She could not make up her mind. Looking now, from straight ahead you could see, but only if you knew it was there and looked for it, but then, oh God, when she turned sideways it was obvious. Obvious. And her breasts were firming up, preparing to supply. She lifted them, heavier now. Bill would notice soon.

“I need to get in, now.” His impatience muffled by the bathroom door.

“I’ll be right out.”

Bill was better in the mornings. Gruff, always, but not so worked up. There had never been a morning rage. She was sure it was his work, that and drink that made him so foul at night sometimes. She put on her bathrobe and opened the door. Bill, anxious to get in ahead of the kids, disappeared behind her and pushed the door shut. She heard him turn the lock, then went back to their bedroom to get dressed.

[*:*]

The cold kitchen greeted her with silence. The two windows, as she flicked the light switch, sprang to life with reflection, extending the kitchen out into the dark backyard beyond. She took a deep breath and entered her sanctuary.

They didn’t have much, she was all too aware of this; that ends barely met, but despite this, or maybe because of this, here in the kitchen, here in her world, she found both purpose and pride. For despite everything, despite penny-pinching and hand-me-downs, they did manage, she did manage, she was providing a home for her family. There was food on the table and Bill and the children always had clean and comfortable clothes. No one was lacking, she was making sure of that. This certainty, this satisfaction spread as a sort of warm glow every time she prepared breakfast first for Bill and then for Elsie and the kids, every time she cared for her charges, readying them for the day. It was silly, she knew, and probably meaningless to anyone else, but this was her secret pleasure. It gave her life meaning, and it mattered to her, very much.

And now, with a new life inside her, even more so. She was mother, custodian, keeper, tolerator. Lioness, she thought. Proud and strong, protecting her young. And she smiled at her own reflection in the window. Some cat.

Still, this is what she enjoyed, this is where she lived. Her secret life.

She opened the door to the refrigerator and took a silent inventory. Eggs? She brought out the carton and counted them. Yes, there were enough left. She glanced at her reflection again, tucked a stray strand of hair in behind her ear. Yes, she thought, it was kinda silly; but this is what she enjoyed, where she felt the most alive.

The only problem was that once Bill and Elsie and the kids were on their way, the real world arrived and then she had so little time to get herself ready. Just minutes really, to get dressed and catch the downtown bus. The one with heavy morning traffic that always threatened to, but seldom did, make her late for work. The one with three blocks to almost run from the bus stop to the clock, the clock she had to punch in and out five days a week.

Five days a week to make expensive garments for other people; the irony that she could never afford any of them herself not lost on her. But she sewed on. A cold lunch, back to the sewing machine, then punch out for her almost three-block run not to miss the bus back home.

How she had come to hate sewing, though. The sameness of it grated on her, the monotony was painful. Still, she should be grateful. She did have a job, after all—many did not—and they needed the money. So, thank the Lord for cheap city day care—and thank the Lord for Elsie who made sure the kids got there.

The other world, the one darkly beyond her reflection, served a purpose, which made it endurable. Her weekly paycheck meant eggs and flour and socks and shoes. And that’s what mothers do. They provide. Whatever it takes. They provide. And this what she was, she affirmed as her reflection swam back into focus, a provider. Mother. Keeper. Lioness.

She brought the large glass bowl down from the cupboard. She would scramble Bill’s eggs this morning. Pancakes for the kids.

[*:*]

Late that night in bed she turned over carefully. The old bedsprings groaned a little but not loudly enough to wake him. She eased first one leg onto the floor, then the other. She quietly donned her dressing gown and went downstairs.

She brought out her light blue dress from the closet. She shook it out a little, then held it at arm’s length for a while, regarding it. Yes, this was the one she’d let out next. She draped it over the back of the sofa, then returned to the closet for the sewing basket which she kept on the top shelf. Back at the sofa she sat down under the quiet light of the floor lamp, retrieved the seam ripper out of the basket, reached over for the dress and went to work.

She didn’t hear her come down, and she started.

“What are you doing up, Mom?” Elsie’s voice was only a whisper.

“Oh, nothing. I couldn’t sleep, and I figured I’d just mend this old dress.”

Elsie, soon to be thirteen now, thin and tall for her age, long brown hair messy from sleep, looked at her mother, then at her handiwork, and back at her mother.

“That’s not mending.”

“No,” she looked up at Elsie. “You’re right. I’m making it a little larger, that’s all.”

Elsie sat down on the sofa beside her. “Why?”

“Why? Well, I’ve put on a few pounds lately is why.”

Elsie didn’t answer at first. Instead she looked at her mother for a long while. “Not from overeating,” she said finally.

Oh, God, Beth wanted so much to tell, to let everybody know that she was pregnant again, that a new life was growing inside her. A new life on earth, her life. And she hated her deception. It wasn’t right. You should not hide God’s miracle. From Bill, yes, that was necessary, but not from the children. She wanted to share her joy with them. She wanted their hands to feel her belly, to feel the baby grow and soon the little stirring and kicks as well. And she almost told Elsie then and there; her desire to confess, and share, almost took charge, and she caught the words just as they were leaving.

Instead she said, “Oh, I don’t know about that. I just noticed that it was a bit tight is all. Besides, it’s the new fashion, you know. The loose fit.”

“Mom,” Elsie searched her mother’s face, “Mom, are you pregnant again?”

But there was no catching the tears. They burned at first, then welled, tiny rainbows as they formed, warm and heavy, to fill her eyes. She couldn’t look up. Silent drops coursed their short way down her cheeks before falling onto the blue of the dress. At that moment she loved Elsie like she had never loved another human being. She turned toward her, and took her in her arms. “You must not tell anyone. Not a living soul,” she said.

Elsie said nothing. Only nodded her head in the curve of her mother’s warm neck.

[*Five ::

 

Bill looked around, saw no one else around to answer it, grunted, put the beer down on the low table in front of him, rose, and lumbered over to the door. It was a woman in a gray skirt and matching jacket, just about to press the doorbell again. Then he glanced past her into the September night, surprised to notice the drizzle: it was not supposed to arrive until the morning. Then he took a second look at her. There was something familiar about the woman. He looked harder. She looked like Beth, for crying out loud. Then he recognized her.

“Nellie. What the hell are you doing here?”

“Hi, Bill. Nice to see you too. May I come in?”

“Sure.” He turned around and went back to his beer and his game.

Beth’s sister stepped into the front room and closed the door behind her.

“Who was that at the door, Bill?” Beth, drying her hands on a towel, came through the kitchen door. She stopped short at the sight of her sister. “Nellie! What are you doing here? I had no idea you were in town.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t stay long.”

“Don’t be silly. You should have called, though.”

“I didn’t know myself until last night. One of those sudden meetings.”

“You want to stay the night?”

“No, thank you. I’m fine. My eight-thirty flight was cancelled, but I’m booked on a ten-fifty now. I have to be back in Los Angeles for another meeting tomorrow first thing.” She looked around her, at the spare, but clean, living room, and managed not to frown. The she looked back at her sister, “But seeing as you’re just around the corner, I thought I’d stop by and say hi.”

“It’s so good to see you again. Can I get you something? Sit down, please.”

But Nellie neither answered nor moved. She remained where she was, silent and searching, as if struck by something out of place. She looked over at Bill, re-absorbed in his televised game, looked around the room again, unable to put her finger on it. Her gaze returned to Beth, critical, examining. Then her face lit up.

Beth, a little perplexed at her sister’s scrutiny, suddenly froze where she stood. Oh, No. My God.

Her sister assumed her most jovial air. “Beth! Oh my, look at you. When are you due?”

Beth, struck dumb by the question, by the catastrophe, could not answer. She barely managed to look back at her sister. Then she dared a glance at Bill, hoping against hope that he had not heard. But Bill had heard and she now saw him turn from the game to face them. And then heard him, very clearly, as he asked Nellie, one slow word after the other, some difficulty with each, “What did you just say?”

Nellie seemed not to understand. Neither the question nor the situation she found herself in. She looked over at Beth, then back at Bill.

He repeated the question, not quite a shout.

Beth glanced at Bill again, but quickly looked away. Her husband, crouched on the sofa, had forgotten his game. His eyes were fixed on her sister.

Nellie finally answered. “I just asked,” she said. “I just asked when Bettie was due.” She turned to Beth. “You are pregnant, aren’t you?”

Beth returned as if from a brief coma and found her voice. “Why, yes,” she said, “Yes, I am.” There, she had said it. It was finally out, and despite the tension, and despite Bill’s stare—now directed at her, she could feel his fury like a burn—she was relieved. No more lying. Her deception was over with.

Nellie looked from one to the other. Bill said nothing. Instead he stood up and lumbered into the kitchen for another beer.

Beth walked over to her sister.

“I hadn’t told him yet.”

Nellie was incredulous. “You haven’t told your husband that you’re pregnant?”

“Well, there’s more to it than that.”

“Well, I bet there is.”

Beth looked over at Bill returning, then back to Nellie. “Let’s go into the kitchen.”

Beth quietly fixed them coffee, trying to decide how much to tell her. Nellie, looking around the kitchen, from one thing to another as if taking inventory, waited in silence. She watched Beth pour the coffee, then spoke.

“Are you in some kind of trouble?”

“No, not really.” She smiled, or tried to.

She wished she could tell her about Bill and about her fear, but she had never been able to confide in her family about his mean streak. Rather, she had always defended him when they brought up one or another of his shortcomings. They never had liked him, she knew that, and she was not about to add fuel to that fire. No, it was her secret, and hers to keep. And the way she looked at it: as long as she was his sole target, as long as no one brought bruises to school or anyone else got hurt, Bill’s dark side was safe with her. So she lied.

“Money’s a little tight right now, and I didn’t want to worry Bill about another kid. Not,” she added, “until absolutely necessary.”

“That’s it? Are you sure?” Nellie for once seemed genuinely concerned. “He looked really strange in there, staring like that. Almost wild.”

Beth wasn’t sure how to respond. Nellie, being Nellie, had liked Bill the least of all of them.

“Well,” she said finally, “he’s just a bit distressed, what with layoffs going on at his work, and four kids.”

“Still can afford his beer though, it looks like.”

Beth didn’t answer.

“I warned you about him before you two married. He was a slob then, now he seems worse.”

“Well,” said Beth, “perhaps. But he has his good side, though. He really does. This is just something that we’ll have to work out. He’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

“I hope so.”

“He’ll be fine,” Beth said again, as if trying to convince herself.

They sat quietly for some time. The drizzle outside turned to rain, and a branch began tapping the window with the wind coming up.

Beth spoke again, “Why don’t you stay the night?”

“Oh, no. I can’t. I have that meeting tomorrow morning. I ordered a cab for ten o’clock.” She looked at her watch. “In fact, he should be here soon.”

“Sure you can’t stay?” Almost, but not quite, pleading.

“No, no. I mean yes, I’m sure. I can’t miss the meeting. Sorry, Beth.”

Though she didn’t sound sorry, thought Beth.

[*Six ::

 

Beth saw her out, then remained in the doorway to watch her leave. Some of the rain found her where she stood but she didn’t really notice. Nellie stepped into the backseat of the taxi, waved briefly to her before she pulled the door shut with a muted blow. Beth could no longer see her sister beyond the dark glass of the car. Then it pulled away from the curb, and Beth watched as the tail lights, chased by their twin reflections, sped away down the glassy asphalt, rounded a corner at the end of the street and disappeared for the airport.

Nellie was gone.

She closed the door behind her, hugged herself against the wet chill, but still lingered in the rain for a minute, maybe several, not thinking, just wishing, praying for the night to be over. Then she took a deep breath, turned and opened the door to this other world that her sister knew nothing about, to the one where Bill sat immobile on the couch, staring at but not really seeing the television, a sulking fury still leashed but soon to come for her. She knew it was only the question of when.

She checked on the little ones. Elsie had already put them to bed and they were all asleep now. She stood for a while watching their still faces, trying not to think about Bill. They looked so peaceful, so ignorant of the evils of the world. The innocence of children, she thought. Oh, that we could remain so innocent all of our lives. Tim, perhaps sensing her presence in the room, turned and moaned softly. Beth slowly backed out of the room and pulled the door shut.

She slowly descended the stairs. The game was over, and two football faces she could not name were now performing their jovial wrap-up commentary. Bill had not moved. Once she reached the bottom of the stairs she could hear Elsie putting away the dishes in the kitchen and she softly went to keep her company.

It was Elsie who spoke first. “What will he do, mom?”

“I don’t know, darling. I don’t know.”

“Will he beat you again?”

“I don’t know,” she said again. Then looked at hard and long at her daughter. “Whatever happens,” she said finally, “please stay out of the way.”

“But what if he hurts the baby?”

“I don’t know, Honey. But I don’t think he’s that crazy.”

“But what if he does?” she insisted.

“I don’t know. Just promise to stay out of the way.”

Elsie looked worried, but nodded. “Okay.” Then, “We should call for help.”

“No, Honey, no calls. Just stay out of the way.”

“Okay.”

“Promise.”

“I promise.”

There was a movement behind them and they both turned to face it. It was Bill, an unsteady shape in the kitchen doorway, with a baseball bat in his left hand. Beth gasped, then pushed Elsie in the direction of the door. “Run upstairs. Stay with the children. Whatever happens don’t come down.”

[*:*]

Elsie almost stumbled, then squeezed by her father and ran up the stairs to her room. She didn’t close the door behind her. Nor did she turn on the light. Just stood in the middle of the floor, nearly crying with indecision.

He was going to do it again. He was going to beat her, and it was going to be bad. She knew that. And so did her mom. So why couldn’t she call for help? Why didn’t she want her to call for help?

She had asked her mother the same question so many times but she always shook her head and bit her lip, no Elsie, that’s not right, we’re a family, we have to keep it in the family. But why Mom, he’s hurting you. No, darling, we have to keep it in the family.

But why? Why? She did not understand. It’s not that bad, her mom would answer, and he really is a good and honest man deep down, you know. And don’t you worry so much, it really doesn’t hurt that badly. And he would never hurt any of you. Never. I know that.

She turned and walked over to look in on her siblings. All sleeping. Tim had kicked off his blanket and Sarah was on the floor again, but Elsie was too worried, too confused, to take note. Instead, she silently closed the door to their bedroom behind her and slid down onto the landing floor, her back against the door. She could not do nothing. But what could she do? And what about the baby? What if he hurts the baby?

[*:*]

Beth looked at her husband, his pale face almost like a mask, then at the bat which he shifted from hand to hand. The presence of a weapon confused her at first, then frightened her as something more deadly began to fill her. She looked up at his face again. It was impassive, still, unmoving; only the eyes betrayed the rage within as they looked out into her kitchen, not quite at her, but around her, unfocused. Oh, my God, she thought, he does look like something wild. Like some animal. Bill, she thought in the single thought left over for him: my husband, what has gone wrong with you?

Then his eyes found hers and settled there. He finally spoke.

“Beth,” he said calmly, while shifting his bat again. “You lied to me.” The stillness about him was charged with violence to come. She could breathe it. She could see it. “I warned you, Beth. Don’t you remember? I warned you. And still you deceived me, you lied to my face. You played me for a fool. My own wife.”

“Bill, listen, for God’s sake.”

“Shut up!” The words were screamed by a calm face, in a dangerous and almost unearthly contrast. And in the same unhurried rage he approached her one step after the other. “Beth,” he said, pronouncing each word independently and deliberately. “You will never lie to me again.”

“Bill, for the love of God, don’t do it.”

“Never,” he said. The open hand slap was instant and vicious. It threw her head back and drew blood. She yelped, stunned by the pain, her eyes wide with confusion as she backed away from him. He calmly followed.

The second slap landed and rammed her head into the wall with a sickly crack. “You will never lie to me again,” he informed her. Beth screamed. Bill took careful aim and hit her with his closed fist. Her lips cracked, she felt a tooth loosen and staggered forward towards kitchen table. “Never,” said Bill from behind.

He spun her around and pushed her back on the table.

Her words bubbled out with the blood. “Bill! Please!”

“And didn’t I warn you? Don’t you remember, Beth? Didn’t I warn you I was going to beat it out of you. Don’t you remember? It’s your own fault. You only have yourself to blame. It’s your own fault, Beth. You did it. I warned you.”

Beth, sprawled now on the kitchen table, saw him raise the bat for a swing into her stomach, and the lioness, wounded and bleeding, awoke. She spun away and onto the floor as she heard the bat crack into the table. Bill swore.

Beth found her legs and bolted head-first into her husband’s gut, all adrenalin, all survival now, and pushed him off balance.

Then she screamed, filling the kitchen, the house, with her panic, “Elsie! Elsie! Call the police!”

[*:*]

Her mother’s scream reached her from below and it was the blessing, the release she was waiting, hoping, praying for. She was finally free to help. In an instant she was on her feet and racing down the stairs for the phone. She would save her, had to save her.

She knew what to dial, had dialed this number many times in her own mind, but never for real before.

“Emergency. Where are you calling from?”

“He’s killing her.” She noticed that she was screaming.

“Please,” said the voice, urgently, “what is your address? Give me your address.”

The firm insistence of the professional voice caught hold of her and over the violence in the kitchen Elsie gave the address.

“What is happening?”

“He’s, he’s beating her with a baseball bat. And my mother is pregnant. He’s killing them both.”

“The police and ambulance will be there in a few minutes, honey,” said the strong voice. “Be brave and stay away from him so you don’t get hurt, too.”

Before she could reply, they had hung up. She had done what she could.

[*:*]

Bill stumbled backward from the impact and slammed into the refrigerator. For a moment it appeared that he was going to fall, and he almost let go of his bat while fighting to regain his balance. But he recovered in time, a drunk’s equilibrium.

“You goddamn bitch, I’ll teach you!” The man lost what thin coating of control remained and went all animal. He swung his fist again, aiming for her face. He missed, but his hard knuckles struck and broke her left collarbone. She screamed with the fresh pain and almost fainted. And it was inviting, that rising blackness, that inviting chasm, unconsciousness. She could so easily go under, just succumb, but the lioness, all awake still, fought her way back to the surface and refused to let her go.

“Elsie!” she screamed. “Elsie! Where are you?” She rushed her husband again, trying to grasp the bat, but Bill, sweating now and breathing heavily, saw her coming and pulled away with a movement that could almost be described as graceful. Beth stumbled, fell. Her broken collarbone shot fresh pain through her and again she almost went under. Her body, her entire system, was in shock, but the lioness, fighting for her life, refused to give in. Seeing Bill lift his bat for another attempt at her stomach she again spun away, found her feet, and headed for the front room.

And now there was only flight. She ran for the front door, ignoring the fierce pain, aiming for the rainy freedom outside. She caught a glimpse of Elsie by the phone, receiver still in hand. She was trying to tell her something. Her mouth: Soon. Police.

Three more steps and she would have made it, but Bill caught up with her. A furious hand found and gripped her right shoulder and pulled her backwards. She stumbled over the edge of the low table and fell awkwardly into the armchair. Bill turned and again raised his bat.

Beth saw the motion, knew the full meaning of it, but was jammed down into the chair and could not twist out of the way.

“Bill! For the love of Christ! It is murder! It is murder!” She flung the words at him like weapons hoping to draw blood. If Bill heard, he showed no sign. The bat began its long wide arc, gathering momentum and weight as it raced for her stomach and the unborn child within.

[*:*]

Elsie saw her mother rush out of the kitchen, no longer Beth but something running for its life.

“Mommy!” she yelled. “The police will be here soon.”

But Beth didn’t hear, or see. Her eyes, wide with fright, saw only the door.

The man, the thing lumbering after her with speed, could not be Daddy. It was a monster out to kill her mother and the baby. Then, almost by the door, it caught up with her and pulled her backwards. She stumbled and fell awkwardly into the armchair. She immediately tried to scramble out of it but couldn’t. Could find no purchase, could not get up.

Elsie tried to comprehend what she saw, but mesmerized by the violence, couldn’t think. Then her mother’s voice reached her and shook here awake: “It is murder! It is murder!” The words rang like a terrified bell in her head: “Murder! Murder!”

As if commanded, she sprung onto the sofa and leapt from the armrest at her father. Her fingers, curved like talons, found his face. Her nails, strong and sharp, drew blood down his stubbled cheeks. She broke his furious concentration.

And lessened the bat’s impact.

[*:*]

But it nevertheless completed its journey and made contact with her swollen stomach with a dull thud. Beth screamed again from the impact, but found the strength in her legs to push back, back, back, to finally tip the armchair over, to let her roll out of it and away from her husband before he could raise the bat and hit again.

[*:*]

The fetus was uneasy. The steady and soothing swoosh of fluid and the slow rumble of heart had given way to new and agitated motion, to an erratic gallop that spread wave after wave of adrenalin throughout the tiny body and that with each wave shouted danger. It could feel the threat, the need to hide, the urge to run.

The agitation continued while it curled and curled. Small, undeveloped arms tried to shield, blind eyes tried to see. Then came the impact and a raw pain swept through the small body as a brilliant explosion. It needed to hide but had no way to, there was nowhere else. The small body was consumed and consumed again by the burning. It twisted and turned in an effort to escape the pain emanating from the broken thigh bone. Then a wave of blackness rose and washed over it, to cradle the tiny body in its night.

[*:*]

Bill tore at his daughter with his left hand and managed to throw her to the floor. She rebounded immediately, possessed, jumped onto the sofa, and leapt at her father again. And again her fingers found his face.

Beth, on her knees now, looked up and saw her savage offspring defend her and with a new scream, from pain and from rage, she found her feet and rushed at her husband as well. While he was tearing at Elsie to get her off his face, she again tried for the bat, and this time she reached it. She seized it with both hands and wrenched it free of his grasp.

Bill, confused, again dragged his daughter from his face, and tried to push her away while she clung to his arm. He turned to see where Beth was, but too slowly and too late to duck the oncoming bat. It caught him square across the nose, which crumbled with a sickening sound. Stunned, he felt and heard the bone crack and splinter. Then he sank, unconscious, to the floor like something discarded. There he remained, moaning, but not moving.

Beth slumped down on the floor. Elsie crawled toward her.

“Mommy. Mommy.”

“I’m okay, honey. I think I’m okay.”

Elsie looked at her mom’s terrible face, then past it at the three frightened little faces at the top of the stairs.

[*:*]

A minute later the room was filled with people and light. Outside, the ambulance and the two police cars, strobes still flashing, had attracted a small crowd.

Faces, neighbors she thought she recognized, all eyes, peeked through the door and shook their heads and said things or asked questions. From where she was sitting, holding Beth’s hand, she could see others too, curious strangers trying to catch a glimpse of the scene, almost smiling.

Two men in green coveralls came over to them. One of them kneeled by and examined Beth, touching her softly in several places, looking for damage. Her stomach hurt badly, she said when they asked. He rose again, and gently they helped her onto a stretcher. She was crying now and holding her stomach. She looked up at Elsie as they carried her out, but said nothing. Elsie could see them lift her inside the red and white ambulance by the curb, and how someone inside it asked Beth something; then she couldn’t see her anymore, for one of the men carefully closed the ambulance doors, then patted the ambulance on its back. Its siren started up with a loud scream and like a large, angry bird it flew down the street.

The green men returned and took a look at Bill, who still had not moved. Someone brought another stretcher and they carried him out as well.

When they returned they took a look at her, too, “just to make sure nothing’s broken,” said the man with blue eyes and blond hair in a ponytail. Her arm hurt a little where Bill had grabbed her, but after looking at it, he said it was just a bruise. She was fine, could stay. Then they left.

She turned and walked up the stairs to her siblings. Tim and Sarah were still sitting on the steps looking down, as if from good seats at the circus; Evelyn was on the landing looking for something in the carpet.

Elsie sat down beside them. The room below was now empty except for a policeman in uniform who was using the telephone, though there were still people outside looking in, and up at them as well. They did not look helpful, thought Elsie, more like hungry.

She could see a second ambulance drive away without the terrible siren. The policeman finished talking on the phone, then told the people outside to go home and close the door behind them. They backed away, but didn’t close the door. The policeman went over and pulled it shut. Then he came to the bottom of the stairs and looked up at her.

“What’s your name, honey?”

“Elsie.”

“Elsie,” he looked like he was tasting it. “That’s a real nice name.” Then he looked at the kids. “And who are these guys? Your brothers and sisters?”

That was pretty obvious, but she decided to be polite about it.

“Yes,” she said. “This is Tim.”

“I’m four,” said Tim.

“This is Sarah.”

“She is three,” Tim informed him.

Sarah looked back at the officer but said nothing. “And this is Evelyn,” said Elsie, indicating her smallest sister, who had now stopped her inspection of the carpet and was instead inspecting the officer.

“And how old is she?” wondered the policeman.

“She is two,” said Elsie.

“My name is Carl,” said the officer. “I’m a police officer. Your mom and dad were hurt and had to go to the hospital. I just called a lady who will come and spend the night with you. She should be here soon. I’ll stay here until she comes.”

“You don’t have to do that,” said Elsie. “We’ll be all right.” Meaning that she was quite capable of taking care of her siblings.

The officer took a long look at her. “I’m sure you will,” he said. “But just the same, if it’s all right with you.”

She nodded. “All right.”

[*:*]

The Hospital Emergency Room was ready for Beth when she arrived. Word had come in from the ambulance that she was pregnant and to expect a miscarriage. She was rushed into an operating room on arrival, where they set her collarbone, ministered to her wounds and found that she would not miscarry. The fetus, however, had received a severe blow and ultrasound indicated a crushed femur. There was nothing they could do about that.

Once she woke from the anesthetic, they brought her up to a semi-private room on the second floor where she was given a strong sedative, and she was soon asleep again.

Bill, on his arrival, was given professional but cold treatment of his broken nose and scratched face, and was then taken into custody.

[*:*]

Karen Anderson was the on-duty counselor that night. According to her log, she had received the call from Officer Bradley at 10:14 PM. Twenty minutes of precarious driving later she had arrived at the Reilly residence to relieve him. She had remained in the house that night with the four children.

The following day her supervisor had asked her to remain on the case, unless, of course, she didn’t feel up to it—what with her existing case load and all. She felt up it, she said. Very much so. How could she not? The bastard had almost aborted his pregnant wife.

Later the same day Karen drove over to the hospital to visit Beth Reilly and to make her see reason, for the woman refused to press charges against her husband.

“It was attempted murder, Mrs. Reilly. That’s what the police are saying.”

Beth Reilly, propped up by two large pillows, and in obvious discomfort despite her pain medication, was still shaking her head, refusing to face it, avoiding Karen’s eyes.

“Your husband tried to kill you,” she repeated.

“No he did not.” Beth stilled her head and looked up at her.

“Mrs. Reilly,” she began, then, “can I call you Beth?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“And you please call me Karen.”

“Sure. Karen.”

“But you have to listen to me, Beth. Your husband tried to kill your baby.”

“He couldn’t help it.”

“The man used a baseball bat, he tried to kill your baby, and possibly you.”

“I had promised him not to get pregnant.”

Karen had a hard time believing her ears—though she should not have, for Beth Reilly followed a sickening pattern she had observed so many times. But this was more flagrant than usual. Even so, the police had informed her that as things stood, if the woman did not press charges, they would have to release him within the next 48 hours.

“It was an assault with a deadly weapon,” she tried.

“He didn’t mean it.”

“Oh, he meant it all right.”

“But the baby’s okay.”

“The baby’s not okay, he has a broken bone.”

“It’s a boy?”

“You didn’t know?”

“No.”

“Yes, it’s a baby boy, but he has an impacted thigh bone which may not heal correctly.”

“What does impacted mean?”

“Crushed.”

“But everything else is fine?”

“From what they can tell, yes.”

“Well then, no harm done.”

“How can you say that, Beth?” Karen took a deep breath, had to get a firmer grip on herself, stay professional. Tried again, “How can you say that no harm was done. Have you seen yourself in a mirror? Or tried to move your shoulder.”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“It’s the drink, and the pressures he has on the job. And we have four children already, you know. Four,” she repeated, and looked for a second like she was going to hold up four fingers, but it never got to that.

“I know that.”

“And money’s tight.”

“I know that.”

“It’s the drink,” she said again.

“He broke your collarbone, and tried to abort your baby, against your will. These are criminal acts, Beth. You must see that.”

“I cannot do that to Bill.”

“Cannot do what?”

“Put him in jail. And then what’s going to happen to our family?”

“It’ll be a lot safer, for one,” said Karen, and regretted those words the moment they were said.

Beth looked at her darkly. Yes, that was the wrong thing to say.

“It was not his fault,” said Beth after a long silence.

“I know the circumstances, Beth. I know about his pressures. But we still make choices, we are still responsible for our own actions. Your husband did this,” Karen indicated her face and collarbone. “Not someone else.”

“It would break up the family.”

Karen almost said that the family was already broken, but luckily caught that one in time. Instead she said, “Not necessarily.”

“What do you mean? Wouldn’t he go to jail?”

“Not necessarily.”

“What then?”

“Possibly a treatment facility.”

“A hospital?”

“Yes.”

“That would still break up the family.”

“How so?”

“He would not be there. Would not be at home.”

“But he threatened to kill your baby,” Karen said in desperation.

“That was not his fault,” said Beth.

Back to where they had started.

“If you don’t press charges, the police will release him within the next couple of days.”

“How is he doing? How is his nose?” wondered the woman.

“How is he?” Karen felt a little incredulous, suddenly faced with the depth of denial this woman displayed. “He’s, he’s fine. They set his nose. Good as new.”

“Well, that’s something then.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s all right then, is what I mean.”

And Karen saw the writing on the wall. There was no way, no way in hell this woman was going to press charges against her husband.

“Anything you need?” she asked, as she rose to leave.

“No, thank you, Karen,” said Beth Reilly.

[*:*]

From there Karen drove over to the Reilly house to spend another night with the children. Elsie, the oldest, wanted to know how her mother was doing, and what they were going to do about her father.

Karen told her about her mom’s condition, and also that she refused to press charges, which more than likely meant that her father would come home again in a couple of days.

“Can I press charges?” asked Elsie.

“No, I’m afraid not,” said Karen.

“But I saw it all.”

“I know, but you’re only twelve. You’re just a child. Legally, that doesn’t count.”

“How can it not count? I saw what he did, and here…” she rolled up her sleeve to show Karen the bruise on her own arm, a large, yellow brown almost-welt where the man had grabbed her full force, “…see what he did to me.”

“I know, honey, but charges must be pressed by someone of legal age.”

“We all saw it,” said Elsie, maybe you should add us up.”

“What?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Don’t worry though, Elsie. Now that we know about this situation, we can do a lot more to prevent it from happening again.”

“Some silver lining,” said Elsie, who continually struck Karen as unusually precocious.

“I won’t happen again,” said Karen.

“So he is coming back, for sure.”

“I think so.”

Elsie simply shook her head. She had nothing else to say.

[*:*]

Bill Reilly was released 48 hours later, since no charges against him were ever brought. Karen Anderson was at the Reilly residence with Elsie and the children to receive him. Through the front room window she saw the taxi pull up and Bill Reilly, most of his face bandaged it seemed, step out. He lumbered up the short path to the front door and let himself in. Then saw her.

“I’m Karen Anderson,” she said, not offering her hand.

He looked around, first at Elsie, who glared right back; at the smaller children, hiding, it seemed, behind Elsie; and then back at her. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m assigned by the City,” she began.

“As what?” he interrupted.

“As a social counselor,” she said. When he did not answer, she continued. “I am here to ensure the welfare of your wife and children, Mr. Reilly.”

“You’re in my home,” he said. “I did not invite you.”

That raised her hackles. “Oh, but you did, Mr. Reilly. You most certainly did.”

The man got the point.

Then he asked, “When will Beth be back?”

“When she is healed.”

“And how long will that take?” he wanted to know.

“A week, perhaps.”

Elsie began, “Does he have to…?” but stopped at a glance from Karen.

Bill glared back at Elsie, who looked like a defiant sculpture, not about to move or back down.

“Your wife had a broken collarbone, severe bruises on her face and arms,” said Karen.

And then Bill asked the question which Karen never forgave him, because he asked it with such blatant hope of miscarriage: “And the baby?”

“The baby is fine,” said Karen.

“She’s having the baby then?”

“She’s having the baby, yes.”

He did not take the news well, apparently not caring one bit to keep up appearances.

“You did manage to mangle one of his thighbones,” said Karen.

“He did?” yelled Elsie, and Karen had put her foot in it again, she’d forgotten that Elsie didn’t know.

“Yes,” she said to her, “Yes, I’m sorry. Where the bat hit.”

“And he’s coming back to the house?” Elsie was incredulous now, not caring what her father thought of it.

“Your father is back, Elsie” said Karen.

At that Elsie turned and ran up the stairs, almost immediately followed by two of her siblings, leaving the toddler, unsure of what was going on, the only child left in the front room, wide-eyed and uncertain..

Karen turned to Bill Reilly. “Listen, Mr. Reilly. You are here right now, and not in custody or jail, because your wife refused to press charges. That is the only reason you are here. But now the rules have changed. Now that this family is under my care, any single incidence of violence from you and I,” and she stressed I, “can legally press charges, and believe you me, I will.”

Bill took the news glaring at the floor. “Well, that’s your prerogative,” he said finally. She would not have expected him to know the word.

“Yes, it is my prerogative,” she said. “And trust me, I will exercise it, at the drop of a hat.”

He glared up at her again, then said, “Can I go now?”

Karen had no idea exactly how to take that. “Well, yes.”

He didn’t answer, but walked past her and into the kitchen, where she heard him open the refrigerator.

[*:*]

Beth had now been home for over two weeks, still refusing to “do anything legal” about her husband, as she put it. Karen, however, had not given up hope. It was really the only way her handling of the situation could gain any real teeth.

This afternoon they sat by the kitchen table, a nice clear sun outside, making half of the kitchen nearly vibrate with light. Karen had brought up the subject again.

“Beth, please,” she said. “You must think of the baby first.”

“I know,” she answered, “I know. But he’s fine now.”

“Yes he is,” she agreed. “But don’t forget that I’ve come here almost every day.”

She took a long look at Beth before speaking again, surveying her, which made Beth a little ill at ease. Bruises still discolored her face, and her upper lip had not yet healed. Her eyes, brown and sad, seemed a little lost, mainly looking down at her hands, then at the table, now and then glancing up at her. Her right arm was still in a blue and white sling to allow the collarbone to heal. She must have been very beautiful once, she thought. In fact, she still was, beneath all that hurt. Karen sighed. Couldn’t help thinking: she had seen it so often, so bloody much too often. Why is it we cannot protect people like her?

She tried again, “You must forgive me for saying this, Beth, but all I can do is hope that Bill will remain fine when I’m no longer here. He’s a sick man, Beth. He is ill.” She stressed “ill.” “He needs treatment. I have observed these situations too many times to trust him to stay away from you.” She hesitated, then added, “And neither should you, Beth.”

Beth listened hard, as if battling with what she heard. “Your first duty,” Karen continued, “as a woman, as a mother, is to your baby. But there is nothing we can do if you won’t file charges against him. Our hands are tied.”

Beth looked down at her hands as they rested on the table, then at her gold wedding band, which she began to slowly turn on her finger—out of habit, thought Karen. Beth took a deep breath and spoke to her hands. “I know. But I’ve told you. I just can’t do it.”

Karen did not understand. Why do they tolerate this? Why on earth do they tolerate this? Why do they stay?

[*:*]

Beth stopped fiddling with her wedding ring and looked up at Karen across the table. Why did she insist on taking Bill away? Why didn’t she understand that it would break up her family? Ruin everything.

Over the last two weeks, Beth had been on the verge of agreeing several times, but could never bring herself to do it. She could never arrive at that as the best solution. But then there were so many things to consider. And all at the same time.

But was this not her family, her children, her home? And was not a bruise now and then a small price to pay? But then there was the baby, and what about Elsie? She couldn’t think all these things through, her thoughts wouldn’t cooperate, would not work together all the way. Instead they seemed to startle and flee as soon as they touched each other.

And then there was Tim and Sarah and Evelyn? And what about Bill?

Karen was right about one thing though, Bill needed help. She could see that. But how could they afford it? Would his insurance cover it? And wouldn’t they take him away again if she did file these charges? And then, who would make the money? She could not go back to work yet, not with her arm in a sling. All these things. All these too many things. It was impossible to work it all out.

She looked back at her wedding ring. No matter what, she thought, she was still the mother of four, soon to be five, she was the lover and wife of her husband, it was her husband Karen was talking about. These were her certainties and in them she found strength. She was the lioness, she reminded herself with a faint smile, and lions handle their own.

Karen looked around the kitchen, and seemed as if she could not quite believe what Beth was telling her. Then her eyes returned to her.

“Okay, Beth,” she said. “Okay. Let’s leave it at that for now. We’ll talk about it later.”

They both sat silently for a while.

“Karen?”

“Yes.”

“So, what will happen, I mean, what will you do if I don’t file charges? Will you still come around to visit?”

“Yes, I will. I will come and visit.” She paused to give her words more stress. “But what I can’t do, what we, you know, the city, can’t do unless you file charges, is guarantee your safety, and,” she nodded in the direction of her stomach, “the safety of your baby. If you don’t file charges, there is nothing, legally, that we can do to protect you.”

There it was again, protection, her baby’s protection. Why was the baby automatically more important than her husband? How on earth could she choose between them? Why should she have to choose? And what would the baby do without a father?

Then she asked, “Well, supposing I filed these charges, let you protect me. How would you go about it?”

Karen didn’t answer at first, she looked at Beth, then shifted slightly in the chair, looked away. Not sure what to answer, Beth thought.

“Well,” she said, “first of all we would get a court injunction forbidding him to touch you.”

Beth thought about that. “Not even friendly-like?”

“Well, that depends on the exact wording of the injunction, but mostly they specify no touching at all.”

“But what if he wants love?”

“Love? You mean sex?” Karen frowned. “They would never allow that.”

“No, not sex. I didn’t mean that. Just a pat or a kiss now and then.” Beth said, then rushed to add, “He does have that side too, you know.”

“I’m sure he does. But for safety’s sake I still think we need the order to specify no touching whatsoever. For your own protection.”

But something didn’t quite make sense to Beth. “All right,” she said, “say you issue this order that he must not touch me. What’s to stop him if he really wants to anyway?”

Karen looked uncomfortable, as if there was no good answer to that question. Beth doubted there was.

“Truthfully? Short of locking him up, nothing, really. But what an injunction will do is add the weight of the law to the side of not harming you, of not touching you. To touch you against the injunction would then be a crime, and a serious crime at that, and what usually happens is that this additional weight, this additional threat, works to prevent any hurt.”

“But you won’t be here to make sure he doesn’t?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s no good then.”

“What do you mean?”

“You said it yourself often enough, Bill gets a little crazy, that’s when he hits me. I don’t think crazy people, or people when they’re crazy, care one bit about what’s legal or not.”

[*:*]

Yes, Karen thought, that was the crux of the problem. She had no ready reply to that. What Beth said was true. It was also true that short of removing Bill from the house, and in essence locking him up, whether in jail or for treatment, there was no way they could guarantee her safety. And Beth Reilly, for some reason—for the same uncharted reason, she guessed, that so many other battered wives still stuck with their husbands—was not about to let them take Bill away, crazy or not.

“You’re right, Beth. We cannot guarantee, absolutely for sure, that he won’t touch, or hit you.”

“Unless you lock him up?”

She was a perceptive woman. “Unless we lock him up, yes.”

And that, thought Karen Anderson, this woman would never allow.

“That’s what I thought,” said Beth Reilly.

[*:*]

Beth’s decision worked out. She never filed charges and nobody took Bill away. Karen talked with him on several occasions. Sober and retrospective, he saw his crazy acts as just that, crazy acts. He could not explain. It was a rage, he said. It controlled him. He would drink less, to keep it at bay. He would not hurt her, never again, he promised. And so far he had not.

But things did not return to normal. Elsie viewed her father with new, mature and suspicious eyes. The younger children, though unaware of what had really taken place, seemed to sense their older sister’s mood and grew afraid of him, too. And Beth, mother, provider, and lioness, while cocooned by pride—for she was proud that her family had stayed whole—was nevertheless on constant alert for flight.

And Bill, not one to waste words before, now fell silent altogether: he did not talk, he did not touch, he did not grunt. He withdrew completely.

And it was into this strained and threatening world, on a rainy day in late January, that Brad Reilly was born.

[*Seven ::

 

And he isn’t dead. He is not nothing. He is not gone. He is moving. He is falling upward, into sky.

And he sees and hears from below: cars braking, their tires screaming, but not in time to avoid damage. Metal cries on impact and people are getting hurt, cries, even from within cars, he hears very well. Then he falls again, this time downward, as if pushed from above or sucked from below, toward a large dark mass which becomes a flat and irregular hill, becomes a monster at rest, becomes a truck square across a road, unmoving. Falling closer still, becomes a small car sticking out from under the carriage, a torn and mangled little car, crushed roof. Broken glass and bent wheels like a dead little cartoon car. He sees glass, dark and silvery pieces glittering on the concrete.

And something human. Something broken. An arm, spilling out of the car, spilling blood on the asphalt. A small lake forming. A chest, flattened by many tons of iron. The back of a head, cut, crushed, bleeding. An ear, torn, silver earring still in place, spilling more blood, into focus now. He recognizes this head, this ear, just knows: they are his.

And in seeing he knows more. Knows, and spins away from the death beneath, and up again into air into sky into cloud into light.

[*:*]

Into darkness. For how long he doesn’t know. Minutes, perhaps. Maybe months. It feels strangely cold where he is. He is a dream no longer his own, for without fingers—he knows he has none—there’s no Handel, the recording contract lost now. But he can feel the strange chill, and he knows that he feels it. And he can think, and he knows that he thinks. And he can remember. And knows that he remembers. He remembers and remains.

His remembers his name, and it is Leonard.

Up again now, up and into new light. Like a chute, he thinks, a water slide, only gravity has no say here, he rushes upward, at least that’s how it seems. Into more light. Blinded, he can’t think. So much light, then there are tunnels, again like water-less water slides, then walls, corridors, white and long, and a strong wind. But, still, he feels, and senses, and he is still Leonard. Then he arrives into new darkness and there is no time here.

Minutes, months. He begins to fall again, down from a great height. He falls through space. Through sky. Through clouds, heavy and dark. Then he sees below him, rushing up to meet him, a mountain, square and bulky. It is a gray building, nearly black in rain. He feels the rush of moist and cold air. He falls through clouds so low they could be fog, then through walls, through halls and lighted rooms, through glittering metal and glass, through taut and glistening skin, into fresh darkness, into warmth, into comfort.

And there are noises here. Thousands of little noises rushing about to form a river, a swooshing to the rhythm of a distant hammer, a forge somewhere in this comfortable night.

He is no longer falling. He knows he has arrived.

[*:*]

“Push! Breathe! Push! Take a deep breath now. All right, Beth, you’re doing great. Now, push! Deep breath. Push!” Karen held her hand tightly in both of hers. “Come on Beth, you’ve done it, you’re almost there. I can see the crown. Come on, let it come, let it out, let it come.”

Sweat was pouring down her face and her eyes were shut tight. Her mouth was fixed in a grimace and her arteries were standing out on her neck, pulsating with the effort. She took another deep breath and let it out slowly. Finally, the contraction eased and she was rinsed by relief. But almost immediately a new contraction mounted, harder this time, demanding everything again, taking over, ignoring her protest, blind to her pain.

And Beth, giving in, detached by the effort, replaced by this force, sees the arrival of a little head, her child.

Karen squeezed her arm. “Okay, Beth. Here we go again. The head is nearly out now. Don’t push anymore, just let it come, breathe, let it come.”

[*:*]

And it’s a wonderful darkness. He feels restored, clothed. He can feel arms and legs again, although one leg a little out of kilter, as if unaligned. He can feel chest and hear the beat of a smaller hammer, he has a heart. He thinks again and remembers, remembers and knows that he has died. Not long ago. Minutes. Months. He remembers the car, the wreck, the number 486, and the groceries he left on his kitchen counter.

And he remembers the strange traveling, the falling through clouds, through walls, through skin. And he knows. He opens his eyes wide with realization, but all is dark and warm and he sees nothing. He wants to laugh but cannot make a sound into this liquid everywhere.

There are distant voices. Outside.

And the liquidy world contracts and he begins to slip, head first. And pressure, a giant fist closing and closing and he is fighting to resist, to remain. The fist squeezes again, harder, and harder still. Then pain erupts. White and hot. Fully alert now, danger surrounding, he hears those outside voices clearly now: “Push! Breathe! Push!” through the climbing pain. His head slips farther into a vise which now tightens all around it. Slowly, iron clamps press it forward, drive and press it into a cone of pain, a pain still climbing, into scream, into red heat come to swallow him but he does not want to be swallowed and manages to stave it off, to keep it at a distance, if only for a moment. He tries to focus on the voice, the demanding outside voice. He listens and clings to his understanding of this voice, for he does indeed understand, and he does know what is happening, he knows exactly what is happening: he is Leonard, and he is being reborn.

But the pain returns, fresh and colossal now and utterly uncaring, and it crushes his head into nothing but blackness and floods his new and tiny body with perfect forgetting as it slowly squeezes him out into the world.

And so he falls again. In and down and away from the world of pain. The muffled voice, so close and so demanding only a few heartbeats ago, has faded now to barely a whisper above the receding surface and as he sinks farther, down through ceaseless water, down through ceaseless earth, down and into a new and vast stillness, he hears it no more. It is gone.

And so is he. There is no Leonard.

The forgetting is complete.

[*:*]

“Mrs. Reilly. Mrs. Reilly. Wake up.”

Beth opened her eyes, fighting her way back up to the surface. “Mrs. Reilly. Are you awake?” The duty nurse loomed above her, thermometer in hand. “Good. Here you go. Open up. That’s my girl. Put it under your tongue.”

Beth complied. The nurse took her wrist, briefly felt for the pulse, found it, and looking down at her watch, began counting.

“How’s my baby?”

“Shush. Don’t talk with the thermometer in your mouth.”

She waited until the nurse removed the thermometer. Then repeated her question.

“The baby is fine, he’s sleeping right now.”

“Everything is all right?”

“Yes, everything’s fine.”

But the nurse lied. She knew that the baby wasn’t all fine. Not fine at all. Knew that his right leg was malformed where the damaged femur had set improperly. The doctor had pointed it out to the interns. Had showed them the x-ray. Nothing they could do, not at this point at any rate, he had informed them. Knew that he would never walk well, the little thing, no matter how much therapy. And that wasn’t fine.

[*:*]

Bill tried to watch his TV show. It was the same old meaningless garbage, hard to focus on. He could hear Elsie upstairs with the kids, reading to them. She had wanted to go with Beth to the hospital of course, but who would look after them if she left as well? He lumbered out of the sofa and into the kitchen for another beer. One more wouldn’t hurt—it was Friday night after all, and he wasn’t really drinking, just having a beer or two. On his way back he heard Tim laugh at something Elsie said.

He slumped back into the sofa, cracked the beer open and took a long swallow. Tried to decipher the action on the screen. Mouths moved and eyes darted here and there and emphatic hands gestured some important thing or other, but he didn’t understand, words were sounds were background. They didn’t matter.

For he felt defeated, abandoned. God had left him. God had taken it back. There was no other explanation. When He left, leaving Bill to face the world—with its Karens and police officers and people who had no business meddling in his family affairs—leaving Bill to face it on his own, he had also taken the rage, his weapon.

His glorious rage. His righteous rage. His very specifically his rage. His to wield, had not father said so? That his rage was righteous, and glorious, and his to wield. And had it not felt so good, that surge, that strength, that fury that filled him. Especially that first rage, handed to him, specifically to him, by God, specifically by God.

[*Eight ::

 

“Bill Reilly, are you ready? Are you dressed and ready?” His mother’s high-pitched words like little magpies found and pecked at him from below.

Bill was at the top of the stairs, all ready. He had been ready for the last half hour, at least. “Yes, mother. I’m ready.”

She appeared at the bottom of the stairs, going-away clothes on. “Well, don’t just stand there looking the fool. Get down here this instant, we’re not waiting for you.”

He ran down the stairs, new shoes on scoured and polished wood, hurrying lest they leave without him.

“Bill Reilly, I’ve told you once if I’ve told you a thousand times, don’t run in the house. Is there a fire? Is there?”

“No, mother. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. You’re always sorry. Now go outside and wait, your father and I will be there shortly.” With that Mrs. Reilly vanished in the direction of his parents’ bedroom, on some mission or other.

Bill opened the large front door and stepped out onto the porch, filled with expectation. Everything held promise. The sandy driveway, brown and darker brown in the fading light, twisting away toward an even darker as it melted into the main road, held promise. The lilac bushes that hugged the porch in their leafless grasp held promise. The smell of autumn, of mist over the fields, of decaying leaves, of the coming night frosts, all held promise. The world was alive and fresh. He walked down the three steps, heard the old and weathered wood answer the faint squeaks of his patent leather shoes with a deeper, reassuring sound, not so much a squeak as a welcome, and the welcome held promise.

As he stepped onto the gravelly driveway each step brought its own little explosion of promise. The soaring silent flagpole over by the lilac bower did nothing but point straight up into the evening sky: a long white promising finger. And the stars overhead, coming out now one by one to see for themselves that is was true, they all held promise, too.

For it was true: they had never brought him before, never before, to their evening meetings. This was a very special day, his growing-up day. And now he heard them coming through the door and he turned. His father, imposing, silent, dressed in black as always when going. His mother, quick, small, locking the door, talking, always talking.

“Don’t stand about like a fool. Get back, let your father get in the car without you at his feet. Get in the back seat.”

Which he did. The large blackness that was his father lowered himself behind the wheel. The constant chatter that was his mother ran around the car to get in beside her husband. Bill noticed that they closed their doors almost in unison. His father turned the ignition and started the car. It was a good car, his father had said so many times. It always starts the first time. Tonight was no exception. And so began the journey.

“Now Bill, you remember to behave yourself. You will remember, Bill, won’t you?”

“Yes, mother, I will.”

“You know I was against you coming, you being such a fool, but your father said it was your time to meet God, so against my better judgment, mind you, you are coming.” She cast a quick glance at her husband as if to check her bearings. Was she speaking out of turn? Not so, apparently. His stern face, eyes straight ahead and unblinking, confirmed that she was on course. “So you better not act the fool tonight, or God will ignore you.”

“I won’t act the fool, mother.”

They drove on in silence, except for his mother’s chatter about first this then that, which for Bill, most of the time, was as good as silence, so much background sound he’d grown used to. Through autumn-heavy fields they drove, some still stubbed from the harvest, others already plowed and dark, fallow now till spring. Across tracks of dirt left by the farmers’ tractors, commented upon at some length by his mother, they drove. Past copses of birch and willow, some darkly distinct against the fading light, others faint, like suggestions, in the rising mist, they drove.

And as they drove, the inside of the large car grew warm. Then warmer. Then warmer still. But that was how his father liked it. It was one of the rules. Not even mother dared complain.

The cool of the autumn, just a glassy fraction of an inch from the flattened tip of his nose, only made it warmer for the rest of him. He closed his eyes and imagined hell, so much warmer than this. Forever.

 

His father parked the car not twenty feet from the two large wooden doors that served as entrance to the chapel. He had his own place for parking, by a small wooden sign with his name written on it: Mr. Reilly, it said. Mother had told him about it many, many times. It was a sign of honor, a sign of respect, she had told him, also many times. As he got out of the car and turned toward the little church, he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. He looked up into that distant, furrowed face, and he waited. The face looked back at him, solemnly, almost approvingly, but said nothing. His father then patted him on the head, offered his arm to his wife, and led the way into the congregation. Bill followed, looking left and right and up as they entered the brightly lit interior of the chapel.

He heard the many “Good day, Mr. Reillys” and “Good evening, Mr. Reillys” that were offered his father on the way to their pew. He saw him shake hands with some. Robert French, the grocer, quick and bowing; Will and Mindy Horrow, their neighbors, even though they had already met and spoken earlier in the day. It was an honor bestowed, to be greeted by Mr. Reilly in public. Here, where all could see. Mother had told him. Many times.

He also heard some “I see you brought young Bill alongs” and at those his father’s heavy hand would find his head again for a possessive pat.

Bill ogled his way down the aisle, eyeing the pictures on the wall, the large cross up front, the bleeding—and ugly, he thought, whoever had carved Him wasn’t very good—son of God up there nailed to rough timber. And he took in the beautiful pulpit—a much better job of carving, Saint Someone, he could not remember who, slaying a dragon, painted in bright colors, blues and reds and goldens. To be sure, he had seen this all before, but never at night, never at night service, never in such bright yellow light, made lighter still by the darkening day outside. He must have been gaping, for his mother caught his eye and silently promised him a thrashing if he didn’t close his mouth and stop looking the fool.

They reached the front pews, theirs was to the left, and sat down, his mother to his left and his father like a nearby mountain to his right. His feet could barely touch the planked floor and he tried to get comfortable while he listened to the rise and fall of murmur behind him, to the creaking of wooden pews and rustling of thin psalm book pages. Turning in his seat, he craned his neck to get a better view of the assembly. This, however, earned him a quick ear pinch from the magpie, and he quickly faced the front again. He looked up instead (that apparently was acceptable, there was no reaction from his mother) and took in the large beams stretching way above him from one wall to its opposite. Would be something to climb across.

A short while later—it was already getting warm, he noticed—the heavy doors were closed shut with a dull thud and a hush fell over the large room. Then nothing happened for so long that Bill wondered what had gone wrong. The murmur had dropped to barely a whisper, and then even the whisper died. That is when the pastor finally entered from a small door to the left. This was Pastor Lawley, he knew him well. He had seen him at home, quite often, coming to meet with Father. And at regular Sunday service, of course. He liked Pastor Lawley, he always gave him something, a piece of candy, a small coin, a kind word. He had soft hands, and he liked them, the soft hands. And kind eyes.

But this was a different Pastor Lawley somehow.

Well, at first he was the same Pastor Lawley as always, but then he grew unkind. And loud. His words, soft at first, telling things, grew bigger, louder, longer, and they began storming out of him, like black clouds, lightning, whips. Soon he was yelling about Satan and Sinners and the Lord Jesus our Savior and the Good Fight and Righteous Anger which was the Finger of God, and he yelled about the path of the true believer and the fate of the poor sinner (whom he didn’t seem to feel at all sorry for, like Jesus did).

And as the chapel grew warmer and warmer he hollered about Suffering and Sacrifice, about Heaven occasionally and in passing, but mainly on and on and on about Hell in some detail. Hell here, Hell there, Hell everywhere. It sprang from his screaming, soaring voice like some dragon and soon it lurked in every nook and cranny, in every thought, hope, dream, desire of every man, woman and child upon this earth. He wouldn’t stop talking about it. And then it was time to sing.

And then some people stood up in their pews and cried. And then they raised their hands toward the ceiling and they screamed “Hallelujah” over and over again, and some screamed other words he could not make out. And then his mother started to cry. Bill didn’t recognize the sound at first, it was so alien, a small moaning at first, soon louder, and he turned to see quick little tears scurrying down her cheeks. He had never seen her cry before, but these were mother-tears all right. She dabbed her eyes with a small blue handkerchief and looked blessed. Bill tried to understand.

Pastor Lawley, in some sort of ecstasy now (his eyes looked really wild), slung his arms up and out as if calling down lightning upon the congregation, and Hallelujahs seemed to spring up everywhere and made quite a din, but the Pastor’s voice was louder still, could be heard quite clearly as he admonished all sinners to stride forth now and be delivered. Bill watched Pastor Lawley’s lips in fascination (they seemed so fine, so incapable of this volume) as he yelled this admonition again, urging the dark-hearted and lost to come (and you know who you are), stand up now and stride forth, come to him and he would deliver them. Come forth now. Or else…, well he didn’t actually say that, but the message was clear enough.

A bent woman Bill didn’t recognize shuffled up toward the pastor and fell clumsily on to her knees. Like a beggar. Pastor Lawley walked down to where she had more or less fallen and placed one hand on her head and pointed behind him to the bleeding Christ on the Cross with the other. He closed his eyes as if in pain and seemed to draw the power of salvation from the ether. The crowd, suddenly very silent, craned to see. Pastor Lawley suddenly shrieked his blessing and the poor woman collapsed altogether. Someone helped her up and back to her pew to an eruption of Hallelujahs and “praise the Lords.” Bill caught the woman’s face, glistening with tears, drunk with bliss, as she was led away, still unable to stand on her own.

Another person stepped forward, hesitantly at first, but encouraged by voice after voice as he made his way up the aisle, more assuredly. He too fell down on his knees—but not quite like a beggar, more like someone pleading for his life—when he reached the pastor, who again placed his hand on the sinner’s head and, pointing again to the Christ upon the front wall, called forth redemption. Again the roaring sea of Hallelujahs filled the hot room. The man, Bill noticed, came up elated. Eyes upcast and shining and mouth open in mute praise. And Bill thought of the Spirit. That must be what Pastor Lawley could do, make the Spirit touch people. And Bill suddenly realized that he was watching a wonderful thing.

Others now, vying for the spot. It was as if a dam had broken, there was no stopping them now. One by one they came, clamoring, jostling, all these sinners, for their deliverance. Wading through the parting sea of praises they came, to fall upon their knees, to rise blessed. Bill could feel the surge, the fusing of the congregation, as an undertow, strong and flowing, calling him. And in this current, tugging now at his heart, he could feel the promise, the warm hand of Christ offering true elation (he could see it in every pair of rising eyes), the Spirit. Salvation. His Salvation.

He looked up at his father then back at Pastor Lawley and then back up at his father. And knew why they had brought him. And then he wished for nothing else. He could feel the surge of the Spirit beckoning, calling him toward the light. Yes, he really, really wished for this, nothing but this. He knew it was his night, when it was to happen.

Still they kept coming. Bill watched and longed.

At long last the stream of sinners ebbed and then trickled to nothing as no one else was coming forward, and there was only a stray Hallelujah or two in the air.

His father’s hand found his shoulder, and Bill looked up.

“Your turn now, son.” It was both a promise and a command.

The congregation fell silent but for the hum, the drone of bliss to come, gathering force in search of him. The undertow was like a pain now. Strong and calling. He thought of the elated faces cast to the cross. Of the tears of bliss shiny upon their cheeks. Of the Spirit. Of Salvation. Could it really be for him? Truly? Would he really feel it, like all of them had felt it?

God, how he wanted it. He could almost touch it now in the sea of drone as he found his legs carrying him past his father, into the aisle and turning left slowly forward toward the waiting pastor Lawley. And at that moment he knew, he was absolutely certain (and he was as happy as he had ever been in his life): he would be delivered. With each unreal step bringing him closer, he braced himself for the cataclysmic.

His young knees buckled and touched the floor. He bent his head. The pastor’s hand descended and came to rest on his crown, partially covering his forehead with a sweaty palm, clammy and warm. Bill held himself almost breathless, opening himself, then steeling himself, then opening himself again, not quite sure how best to receive the Spirit. Would it hurt? He steeled himself again. Any moment now. Any moment. Then he heard Pastor Lawley shriek his blessing, and the cauldron behind him erupted anew. A fresh flock of Hallelujahs took to the air and echoed as they crashed into the simmering walls. Bill’s head was swimming. The roar of the sea behind him, around him, swept him up. He rose, he choked. The strain, the confusion, the noise forced tears to his eyes. He looked up at the beaming Lawley, who in turn was looking over at his father. He heard the chorus of thanks as it surged through the room for the Christ on the front wall. And he himself, as he walked back to his seat on unsteady legs, as he looked up at his nodding and approving father, as he sat down beside his crying mother, he himself, felt absolutely nothing.

 

The proceedings continued, or maybe they didn’t. Bill couldn’t tell. His mother hugged him for the first time in years, and spilled her tears on his face. It did not register. His father patted his head again, well done my son, well done. It did not register. The thing did not exist in the world that could challenge his emptiness. And he was crying real tears now. They were warm and they were of embarrassment and of humiliation. They were of disappointment and of failure. They burned his eyes, these tears, and scorched his heart as they fell into that black, empty, awful thing inside him. It hadn’t happened. Nothing had happened. He had been made a fool of, by pastor Lawley, by the stupid people, by God. Then it was time to go.

He rose when his mother nudged him. He filed out with the rest of the crowd, and the many ugly faces turned to him, smiling, and to his father, fawning, blessing Bill, welcome to Jesus. The faces, the many, many ugly faces, began to dance in front of him, around him. Danced so fast they blurred. The many smiles, the many ugly smiles, toothy and toothless alike, began to twirl, to dart, to attack, to bite.

And so he made his way down the aisle and out into the cool night.

The undertow was gone. No, not gone exactly. Changed. It was changed. No longer pulsing with the promise of bliss, it instead held something new and much more palpable. Bill could feel it gather as he shielded himself from the grinning wall of teeth. The rapture of heaven, once so promised, so awfully promised, was forever lost, but in its place, rising now to fill the blackness, surged instead a white-hot fury, blind and powerful. And on and up it rose, seething, melting everything in its path. Ever closer to the surface. Seeing light now, breaking into air.

And that is when Bill Reilly, twelve years old, small for his age—he would not reach his father’s stature until his mid-teens—shocked the congregation from their toothy smugness back into the misty November night as he suddenly he turned to them, pale as death and shaking with humiliation and rage, and hurled at them, in a quivering, desperate voice, three words that he was never able to adequately account for:

“Satan knows you!”

They carried extremely well in the still autumn night, these three words. And coming from a child, vibrating as they did with desperate emotion, they struck every eardrum with an equal and undeniable force. They froze to a man and turned toward him. There he stood, small, indignant. They looked at each other, then back at Bill. There was no denying it, those words had come from Bill Reilly, Theodore Reilly’s son. The night turned very quiet.

But sometimes what is said (or screamed) and what is heard are different stories.

Ernest Brock, blacksmith, drinker, sinner, had, as on so many previous occasions, been delivered tonight. He had cried his tears and he had felt his remorse. He had even felt some sort of joy, or at least gotten caught up in the general hoopla of it all. That much was true. He had once again set his aching feet on the road that was straight and dry and narrow, and he was going to walk that road for the rest of his days on this earth. That last, however, was completely untrue. And he damn well knew it too. He could in fact not get out of there fast enough and home to his (just one shot, a small one, he promised himself, at the most two) home brewed spirits. So when these three words caught him and twisted him around, coming as they did from a child, it was a revelation. He knew that None other than God had spoken. There was no doubt. Absolutely no doubt that God had seen his thoughts. He had thought them plain as day and God had seen them. Had seen them and spoken. Had used the little child and spoken. Struck to his very core by guilt and remorse and not a little fear, the blacksmith fell to his knees. And in the cold gray dirt, arms raised toward the child, he pleaded into the stunned silence in his loud, hoarse voice.

“Forgive me, Lord. Oh please, Lord, forgive me.”

The crowd, not even vaguely recovered from the original event, again to a man turned away from Bill and toward the blacksmith. He had slumped down on the ground now and lay prostrate, face toward the child, crying.

Then they looked at Pastor Lawley, who kept looking at Bill Reilly. Then they looked at Bill’s father. They were all waiting for an explanation.

Bill’s mother, still too stunned from Bill’s proclamation to actually function, fainted at this point. Theodore Reilly, community pillar, chief benefactor of the little church, looked at his boy, looked at Pastor Lawley, looked at the blacksmith, and then back at his boy. And declared, loudly, and with unwavering certainty.

“That was God’s rage.”

And with that the father stooped down and lifted his son up for all to see. He then hugged him and buried the little head in his shoulder. “That was God’s rage,” he repeated.

“That was God’s rage,” confirmed the pastor.

God’s rage, murmured one to the other, noddingly.

Not much more could be said, really. It was almost like a miracle. No, it was a miracle. Blacksmith Brock actually got off the booze, as of that night. That was proof enough.

For a while Bill harbored the notion that he had gotten away with something, but with what exactly he could, or would, never put his finger on. Then as this notion evaporated with time, it left only his unshakeable certainty that God had indeed spoken. Through him.

Even now, Bill could still live that moment.

He had been as stunned as anyone at the three words that tore themselves from his throat to fling themselves into the autumn air, and he had fully expected the world to end at that point. But then the blacksmith crumbled to the ground and spoke in his direction. Then he was hoisted by strong arms for all to see, and the stunned faces that now turned from the blacksmith and back to him had lost their toothy qualities and actually held traces of fear, a good thing.

Then his father’s hug, the first and only. The rush of joy that had suffused him, nestled in the arms of this bear of a man.

And, most of all, the glorious power of the rage. God’s rage. He had been delivered after all. Not the way he had expected, nowhere near. But delivered nevertheless.

[*:*]

The television show still droned on. He finished the beer and took a long look at the empty can. Thought of getting another, made to rise but slumped back into the sofa.

But God had taken it back. After the fight and the police and all the warnings. God had seen fit to take it back. His gift. His right to punish. His right to see the wrong, the evil in Beth, and punish her for it. And had she not defied him? He had told her there was no room for more children in his house, he had told her, and yet she had defied him. Had in fact lied to him. He had only done what the rage told him to do. Given her what she deserved.

But now God had taken it back. And they made it seem so wrong. But they didn’t really know. How could they? God had not touched them.

Then there was his job. And the warnings there. He would lose his job, his boss had told him, if he as much as touched her again. They all conspired to keep the rage from him.

Oh, he had tried all right, had tried to call it, to summon it, but all these thoughts, all this talk of consequences and maybe losing his job, and this Karen Anderson in and out of the house as if she owned the place—it would no longer come. It had abandoned him. And all he could think was that God must have taken it back. And he had no idea why. He looked at the empty can again and decided on another beer after all.

As he set out for the kitchen, the phone rang. He changed direction and picked up the receiver.

“Hello.”

“Mr. Reilly?”

“Yes.”

“This is Nurse Simpson from Oak Forest Hospital. I just called to let you know that you have a brand new son.”

He didn’t answer. Just hung up.

[*Nine ::

 

A sea of impressions and sounds enter to braid fresh time. Images and smells grow his day. All is new here, from scratch, again. He doesn’t wonder at it, not at all, all is as it should be. This is life.

A warm mountain, a mother’s breast. A nipple leaking milk into his mouth. He sucks and swallows eagerly. This is food.

A room, light blue mainly, a window, a crib with wooden bars, white. Sticky heat on his bottom. Itchy, unclean. Then hands and water and clean again. Many faces, mostly grinning, some making noises, some leaning over the edge of the crib, coming close. Hands that touch his face, arms that lift him up and bounce him in the air. That hand him to larger arms, those that go with food, that pull him close, near to the familiar rumble of a heart. This is love.

And beneath all this, far below the nights and days of this fresh life, lies the forgotten, asleep now, no light reaching, no light reflecting. In darkness, deep within a marveling baby boy, beneath ceaseless water, beneath ceaseless earth, in a vast and ancient stillness, lies Leonard, forgotten, and for all we know: no more.

[*Ten ::

 

“How is it going with Bill?”

Although it had been well over a year since Bill attacked his wife, Karen, on one of her weekly visits, was still concerned, still not convinced that Bill was “healed,” as Beth put it.

“Oh, he’s just fine. Gruff, but you know, that’s Bill. No hitting, though, no. Not once.”

Karen looked at the little boy in Beth’s lap, blue eyes looking back at her, a happy face. Content. Soon to be eighteen months.

She brushed back a strand of her dark hair, pushed up her glasses—they had a tendency to slip down her nose, looked back at Beth. “I wish I could stop worrying,” she said and smiled.

“He is fine,” said Beth. “He really is.”

Karen reached across the table and took Beth’s hand. “I wish I could share your faith.”

[*:*]

It’s late one evening in March and Elsie is looking after him as usual. Although she tries very hard to concentrate on her school work she cannot help but listen to his mumble mumble while he negotiates the room behind her. She finally gives up trying to read and turns to watch her little brother.

Her little brother is getting the hang of it. From table to chair, grab hold of it, regain full balance, one, two, three, let go of the chair for the bookshelves, arrive, barely, grinning and drooling with pride. Let go, head for the crib now, limp, limp, limp. Oh, that limp. It stung her heart every time: that wonderful little life, that grinning little face, her happy little brother. Condemned and yet so happy. Look at him.

Almost there now, oops, almost fell but didn’t, reaches the crib. Grabs it, success. He turns to her and beams. She smiles back at his little victory. She wants to pick him up and hug him but she really has to get back to the books. There’s a test tomorrow.

She returns to her assignment as Brad sets out for the chair again. Nothing to it.

[*:*]

It turned out to be a wonderful spring that year, hardly any rain to speak of, warmer than usual, and things were going well.

They had allowed Beth to switch to the night shift. Well, at first they were not going to accommodate her, they said, they were all staffed up at nights, but then Karen paid them a visit and spoke to her boss, as well as her boss’ boss—at least that’s what Beth surmised, she didn’t ask Karen about it, didn’t want to pry—and then all was fine, sure, no problem.

And it worked out great. This way she could stay home with Brad, and the little ones, during the day, which also saved on day care. And Elsie, her wonderful, beautiful, so grown up already Elsie—and fourteen now, my how time flies—was the evening mother. Bill still had his job. Ends met. Things were going well.

But, she had to admit, for her one worry: Ever since Brad started walking, well limping, limping his terrible little limp, Bill had grown darker and darker. It was like he had intensified somehow. No rage, no, no hitting, but his silence had turned darker, deeper, more resentful.

And he was drinking a little more, too, she had noticed.

But other than that one thing, things were going so well.

[*:*]

“What do you want then, huh?”

Elsie felt him tug at her skirt as he made it all the way across the room without falling and grabbed onto her with his chubby little hand, dimpled knuckles and all. Her little brother looked up at her cheerfully, then stretched both arms up toward her, almost fell over backwards in the process, didn’t, regained his balance, beaming still.

“Want to be picked up, I see.” She gave up on the history page and reached down for him.

[*:*]

His world was images and impressions. It was wobbly legs, with something wrong, out of kilter, with one of them. It was arms and hands and fingers, short and not easy to control—grasping once, twice, three times sometimes to succeed. It was darkness and light depending on time of day, it was large legs not stepping on him and hands finding him to stroke his hair or pat his cheek. It was smiling faces, some small, some large, warm embraces, and it was words and words and words, above him, toward him, away from him, words lifting from faces and flying in many directions; words as sounds, clearly one with the face that said them, each a maker of words of different color, and each distinct from those made by other faces, and from those other sounds made by the door closing or a car starting outside, or the wind in the trees, or the rain on the roof—words were sounds with tiny echoes that he heard and tried to wonder at.

And his world included a large resentment, a dark shape mostly on the living room sofa, sometimes walking around on large legs, sometimes stepping so close to him that perhaps they were going to step on him the next time.

And then there was his sister. Although she didn’t come with food, nor the strong familiar heart, her love was stronger still, he could tell by the color of her words, by the softness of her hugs, by her eyes, by her face that said all is well with the world.

He grasped her skirt and succeeded on the first try to gain a hold and with it his balance. He looked up at the smiling face above him and stretched his arms toward it, almost fell down in the process, but not quite. His sister reached down for him, and picked him up.

[*:*]

Bill, half a mind on the show, heard something fall to the floor behind him with a rustle, then bounce once with a hollow sound, to finally roll to a stop against something. Whatever it was, it didn’t break.

He turned with effort to look back over his shoulder, annoyed, curious. And there, at the bottom of the stairs, grinning and drooling, was the baby. His youngest son, his accuser, holding onto the small table, looking with interest at the mess he’d made. The plastic vase had come to a stop against the table leg, its dried flowers scattered on the floor.

“Elsie!”

Brad’s face turned toward the voice, eyes wide.

“Elsie. Will you get down here!”

She appeared on the top of the stairs. “What, Dad?”

“How did he get down here?”

She looked down at the boy, wobbling but standing, even without holding on to the table. She looked surprised. “I didn’t know he could get down the stairs.”

“Make sure he stays up there, will you.”

“Can you put the gate back up then?” she said.

Oh, the gate. Where was the damn thing?

“Later. Just keep him up there and out of here. I can’t stand him limping around bumping into things.”

He turned back to face the set, but had lost interest in the show.

It was wrong. He, Brad, was wrong. He should not have been born, that’s how he saw it and he was sure of it now. The rage that night had said to kill him, to prevent him from being born, that’s what it had said, had meant, but he had failed to do it. Instead, thanks to Elsie and his own weakness, and to Beth’s defiance, all he had done was a little damage to his leg, and now that infernal limp served as a constant reminder of his failure to carry out God’s will. For it had been God’s will. Absolutely. He had carried God’s rage and the rage had said to kill him, so God had meant to kill him and had chosen him, Bill, as his earthly instrument. And God’s chosen instrument had failed. And that was Bill’s fault, not God’s. It wouldn’t to do blame God, or he would never give him his rage back.

And of late Bill had begun to realize: God meant to give it back to him, eventually, yes, he was pretty sure of that now. For God had given him signs, hadn’t He? For the first time in months, in over a year—had it been that long?—he had felt that warm stirring in his gut. And it was the kid had done it. It was the kid and his limping had made him burn. With shame at first, though he was not to blame. It was not his doing, he had nothing to feel ashamed about. It was Beth got pregnant, wasn’t it? He had told her not to, hadn’t he? So he tried to muscle that shame aside, but there was this other shame underneath, the shame of failure, of allowing him into the world, with his stumbles and falls, with his trying again to take one, two, three steps with that, that limp.

As the shame grew it became irritation, then a burning. Was this a test? he wondered. Was this the Devil had come to test him? Or was it God had come to test him? He settled on God, for by now he recognized the burning, the embers, the first flames of the rage. God had not abandoned him after all. God had remembered, had forgiven him. He had passed the test. He would give him back his rage.

[*Eleven ::

 

“Brad, you have to be quiet now. I have to listen to this. It is very important school work.”

He heard and stopped what he was doing, including mumbling to himself, and looked up at her, maybe understanding, maybe not, smiled, then returned to his Legos, quiet now.

A one-thousand-word essay. “Handel’s Messiah, impressions.” It was an important assignment, and one that she had looked forward to all week. She would have to focus.

She placed the cassette of the Messiah Highlights in the little recorder and pressed ‘play.’ She was to listen to it carefully, said the assignment, note her impressions, and then share them in essay form.

The music fought its way out of the small speaker and filled her room. She had heard some of the Messiah before, sure, once or twice, like the Hallelujah chorus, but she had never really listened, not really listened, and that is what she did now. She really listened. And it was wonderful. Some passages even made her skin goosebump and she shivered it was so good.

And as she listened, the voices and strings wove themselves into wonder and harmony and beauty and suffering and strength: it was like the spirit soaring, she thought. A reflection of the Creator, praise, but also happiness, yes, mostly happiness.

She thought about the composers she had learned about. So many of them had suffered, but they had been happy too, they had believed in their music, they had heard it and then done whatever it took to capture it for the benefit of others. They all shared an inner strength, an inner beauty. Elsie could sometimes feel it, this strength, this beauty, when she listened to classical music. And here it was again, stronger than ever. Those powerful voices, soaring. That, she thought, could be the theme of her report. Voices of Power. No, Voices of Strength. The Voices of Strength. She wrote those four words at the top of the page, and continued to listen, eyes closed now, top of the pencil between her teeth. Happy.

[*:*]

The music fought its way out of the small speaker and filled the room.

Brad held a brightly colored plastic brick in his hands, then tasted it, for taste, for texture, for hardness. Then bit down to relieve the itch. The itching gum, always itching. He bit down again. It felt better, biting down, but it was still itching.

Then he stopped. Heard. Turned to face his sister, also intent on this new sound. These many sounds. These different sounds. And as he stood, almost frozen, Handel found his ears and entered and filled him and joined with the other impressions building his life. But the music did not stop there. It spread farther and deeper, down through the still-growing layer that was Brad and becoming more Brad and down through the ceaseless water beneath and down through the ceaseless earth beneath and out into and over the vast sleeping darkness below where it hovered for a while on wide wings as if listening to the silence before it swept farther down in search of sister echoes. Then it winged across the chasm separating life and life and spanned it like a bridge of light.

The bright red Lego brick left his hand and fell to the floor. One tiny fist grabbed the other as the music traveled the bridge and into the forgotten. For just an instant, for no longer than a breath, the darkness gave and let escape a single but clear image up into what was Brad growing more Brad every day: a piano keyboard, slender hands playing. His hands.

The vast stillness that was Leonard stirred at the heavenly music and spoke.

“Handel,” he said.

[*:*]

“Handel,” he said.

Her pencil had left her mouth and was now trying to trace her impressions of this wonderful music. She could feel its strength, that was not the problem, but she had trouble wrestling the feeling down onto paper. What words do you use to describe something so, so indescribable, and if they indeed exist, where do you find them? She stumbled about for them, but they remained elusive. Then she thought of weaving, voices weaving something grand, and yes, yes as the image formed: she smiled and began to write.

Then the single word reached her, not from inside her thoughts, nor from inside the music, but from the outside, from somewhere in the room. It touched, then hung suspended in her mind for a breath or two before finally registering.

The pencil stopped moving, then fell as she let go. She turned around slowly to see who had entered so silently and scared her half to death.

But there was no one. Very cold fingers seized her heart: there were only herself and Brad in the room. She looked at him, not comprehending, looked around the room, at the door—still shut—behind him, then at Brad again, and the cold hand would not let go. It made absolutely no sense. She was hearing things.

“Handel,” he said again, looking her straight in the eyes.

“What?” She stared at the small apparition sitting on the floor.

“Handel’s Messiah,” he said. Not very distinctly, but clear enough.

“Oh, my God!”

When incontestably faced with the impossible, persons react differently. Some just “know” they don’t see, or hear, it (it’s just their imagination), no matter how positively certain their senses are; some see instant danger and without further thought attack it, or try to at least; some see an overwhelming threat and in blind terror can think of nothing but flight; some faint, the ultimate in “if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” Elsie was terrified, and her solution was flight. She had to get out of the room, away from it, away from the utterly impossible. Staying another second meant death, or worse.

In her unseeing desperation to get to the door and out of the room, she took the shortest route, the straight line, which crossed her brother, and she ran right through him. Her knee struck his forehead and, stunned, he toppled back and struck the floor with the back of his head, hard. She didn’t notice. She flung open the door, rushed out into the hallway and down the stairs. The shock had chased all color from her face and all moisture from her mouth and she arrived in the living room, breathing hard, pale and wide-eyed.

Bill put the paper down and looked around at the noise. Irritated. Returning to her senses, Elsie saw the expression on his face and realized she had to say something. The real world was back. Bill was waiting for an explanation, but she couldn’t think.

“What was that all about?”

She must have imagined it. Must have. Still, she could not bring herself to answer.

“Well, speak for Christ’s sake. Why did you come crashing down the stairs? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I thought,” she said finally, “I thought someone had come into the room.”

“So?”

“When I turned around, there was no one there.”

Bill didn’t answer, just frowned. Neither spoke for a few heartbeats. Then the wail from upstairs broke the tension.

Brad. “I must see what’s up with him.” She turned and darted up the stairs.

Bill didn’t answer. Returned to his paper.

Brad was on his back on her bedroom floor, crying and trying to sit up. She picked him up and patted him on the back of the head the way he liked it, but that made him cry even harder. She felt the swelling, fresh, pulsating, soft. And then remembered: she had knocked him over. Oh, God. What had she done? She sat down with him in her lap, and hugged him, rocking him gently from crying to moaning.

[*:*]

He could see it clearly: a piano keyboard, his hands upon it, playing, and he knew. In this instant of wide awake he knew. Awake he looked out from the deeply hidden silence and turned around and looked up at the child in the chair looking down at him.

“Handel,” he said again.

“What?”

“Handel’s Messiah.” It was hard to pronounce the words. His mouth was very small, and hard to work.

“Oh, my God!” It was a gasp, a yell.

In the next instant her knee hit him square in his forehead and he fell over backward. The twin impacts spread like tentacles down through ceaseless water and the ceaseless earth beneath and found and crumbled the bridge. The chasm separating life and life once again impassable, the darkness once again intact.

No more Leonard. Not a trace.

He came to. His head hurt badly. He cried. He tried to sit up but couldn’t, fell over on his back again, hurt even worse. Cried even harder. Friendly arms found him and picked him up and hugged him. Soothingly rocking. Safe again.

[*:*]

He was moaning softly now and finally falling asleep, and as she kept rocking him things slid back into perspective, or tried to. The real world returning. But what on earth had happened? She looked down at the tiny mouth that had formed those words. For there really was no way she could deny it, was there? He had spoken. Right?

Or—the thought was like an echo of him speaking—was she going crazy? Could insanity do this to you? She looked at her brother again, touched his smooth forehead, then noticed that he had a bump there as well, where her knee must have struck. She touched it gently and he moaned in his sleep.

Was she losing her mind? She shook her head. She didn’t feel crazy.

She gingerly lifted him up to carry him over to his crib, felt his warm breath on her shoulder, felt the warmth of his small body against hers. She smelled his hair, touched his little overalls, which Evelyn had worn not so long ago, felt the soft cotton. No, she told herself, she was not crazy, could not be.

She carried him across the floor, careful to not step on the Legos, and gently laid him down. She looked at his sleeping face, still moaning a little. But there was no getting away from it, there was only one of two explanations. Either he had spoken, or she was crazy. And since there was no way that he could have spoken…

She had to let it go, she had to try to let it go.

She went back to her desk and her essay. The report was due the day after next and she had to finish it. She lowered the volume on the little cassette recorder, so as not to wake him, and put her ear to the speaker. Pressed “play.” Forced herself to listen. Heard the music, but it wasn’t the same, not anymore. The strings were there, the voices too, but so were his words, looming over the choir, “Handel” they said, “Handel’s Messiah.” She finally gave up, stopped the tape and lay down on her bed, took in the ceiling. “Handel.”

Her sleep was fitful, for his words kept intruding.

[*Twelve ::

 

Over the next weeks they stayed with her, those words. Over and over she tried to tell herself it had simply been her imagination, some sort of dream, a hallucination perhaps, anything but what she knew had happened.

And often she found herself studying him, his mouth, his lips, his little face as he worked his beloved Legos, tongue sticking out and darting back in, replaying over and over in her mind the moment when the inexplicable escaped those little lips. There just was no explanation.

There were moments she wished she could live it over. Wished that she had not panicked, that she had not rushed out of the room. That she could have faced them, the words, stared them down, dispelled them. Either that or wrestle from them their secret.

Though other times, she wished, as strongly, that she had never heard them at all.

For she couldn’t shake them. They would not let go. In the end she felt she had to tell someone. They were driving her crazy, were becoming too much to keep to herself, to carry. So, before sleep one night she decided she would tell Beth first thing next morning. If only to hear from someone else that she wasn’t nuts. It was a good decision, felt right, and it allowed her to relax. She slept well for the first time in weeks.

But the following morning things got a little crazy: Tim had lost a sock, Bill cut himself shaving and clamored for a Band-Aid, Evelyn spilled her cereal all over the kitchen floor, Beth had a headache, and it just was not the right time; and besides, in the fresh—if chaotic—light of day she was no longer sure it was that big of a deal. So what if she had imagined it? People imagine things all the time. All the time. And the day after that the whole thing actually managed to look a little silly. Of course she had imagined the whole thing. Of course babies don’t talk like that. Of course not. And in the end she never got around to telling her.

And life took over. School was out and the weather stayed nice for days on end. She took Brad for long walks, well, mostly she pushed him around in his stroller, but their excursions were nice nonetheless, and Brad seemed to enjoy them a lot. The words finally began to fade from view entirely and by the end of the summer there were times when she was almost sure it had never happened at all.

Beneath, though, in true stillness, the certainty lingered.

[*:*]

But despite the words, or perhaps because of them, she had discovered Handel. By the time her assignment was done she felt she had encountered the maker of grace. That is how she thought of him, and what she in the end had called her essay: The Maker of Grace. It was like stumbling upon a treasure.

She found him magical. And more so the more she heard. The local library had a good selection: organ concertos, oratorios, the Concerto Grossi, recorder sonatas, and of course the Water Music and the Fireworks Suite, all of it magical. She listened to them, over and over, wrapped herself within them, breathed them, lived them. In a way she felt it like a coming home. To be sure, over the summer she discovered other composers, too. Joseph Haydn, for example, who wrote so many symphonies she had trouble figuring out how it was possible, at least at that time, for any one man to write so many. And Mozart, so happy in every note. But mostly it was Handel, the magician.

By the time school started up again in the fall, music had become a refuge of sorts for her, a sacred place she could retreat into and simply vanish.

And it also took the place of normal pastimes of girls her age—boys included. Frankly, between school work and wearing the hat of evening mom, there just wasn’t time for that boys stuff. Yes, it did bother her sometimes, and at times more than a little, but mostly she didn’t care, and she could always fall back into the arms of Handel.

True, she was turning into a bit of an outcast at school—an enigma might be the better word—for she was not at all bad looking, should be interested in boys (enough of them were interested in her), could easily have held her own in that fiercely competitive game of dating, but she chose not to. Stuck up, one theory went. Weird, went another. Possibly some strange prescription drug, a third. These theories eventually found their way to her ear, but all she could do in her defense was to shake her head and smile. How could they possibly understand? She had a family to take care of. And she had Handel to keep her company. Her mother was working nights, she said, and with a stack of siblings at home, she had to baby-sit, sorry. Sure, it hurt a little when she was invited to hang out with some of the cooler girls after class, and had to turn them down. But not too much. And then they invited her less and less, and then stopped inviting her altogether, and that was just fine with her.

[*:*]

And now she had finally gotten a CD player.

She had asked Beth for one weeks ago, shortly after school began, but though Beth had answered that she wished she could do it, at the moment she could not afford it. From that day on, however, Beth had put aside a little money every week, and one day she had winked and smiled and asked her to come into the kitchen. “For all your help, darling,” she said, and handed her an envelope soft with dollars. It was more than enough for the player and headset she had already picked out.

It had not escaped her that her local library had many more classical CDs to lend than cassettes, and now that she had her player and her headphones—which let her listen to the music as loudly as she wanted—it turned into a nearly inexhaustible well of treasure. And the clarity of the CD recordings: she could hear everything. It was just wonderful.

When she sailed her rivers of sound nothing else mattered: not rumors, not boys, not sneers and comments; just the music, the notes, the strings, the reeds, the risings, the fallings, the patterns, the relations, the counterpoint, the clean mathematics of it all. The beauty.

And she found Beethoven. He had always looked too stern for her liking. He looked like his symphonies sounded. Almost violent at times. Then she listened to one of his piano sonatas, and after that, when it came to the piano there was only Beethoven. For a while all she borrowed were his piano sonatas. She discovered that there was much more than music in his music, so much emotion, so much raw strength, so much, so much spirit. And he could be so tender. For one who looked like him to be so tender, she shook her head. And read about him. Found out about his struggle, could feel it in his notes, his elation, and she suffered and exulted with him.

And then, of course, there was still Handel, her magician, whom, she learned, Beethoven had considered the father of them all.

[*:*]

November had arrived, with dark and foggy nights in tow, often rain. Elsie had finished her homework—ten algebra problems, an essay on the Columbia River Gorge, and a brief cram for a chemistry test she felt pretty confident about—and now she was listening to Beethoven through her headphones while keeping an eye on Brad. As she floated down the shimmer of notes hammered out—conjured up, it felt like—by Brendel, she tried to imagine Beethoven writing this, tried to see what he might have seen, tried to feel what he might have felt. Musing, her eyes fell on Brad’s colorful Legos—always those Legos, still—and his busy hands: he was putting a nice wall together, a red, white, blue, yellow wall. How he loved those things. He had gotten past chewing them, though. Then, from its hiding place behind Legos and teething, the Messiah incident arose. It had been months ago now. She had truly managed to forget it. But she had just imagined it, right? Surely, it had just been her imagination, right? Her mistake, to be smiled at and forgotten.

But re-arrived now, it would not go away. She no longer heard Brendel’s notes, though they still entered her ears. Had it really happened? She had never answered that question to her satisfaction. No, she told herself then, it was a wound better left alone, healed now, and she tried to ignore it. But a new thought followed, like a temptress: Why not try it again? She shivered at the notion. But it had been the music, hadn’t it, that did it? It had been Handel’s Messiah. That assignment. Handel, The Maker of Grace.

Oh, don’t be ridiculous.

But what harm could it do?

He’s just a baby, how could he possibly?

So, if there’s no way, why not try then?

It’s impossible, and you know it.

She never quite settled this argument one way or the other. More than anything she simply watched herself act out her notion. She called for Brad. He looked up at her, at first a question in his eyes, but then rose and tottered over to her. She lifted him onto her lap, and while he sat there gibbering in some tongue only he knew, she adjusted the headphones and placed them over his ears.

He stopped his little monologue and looked up at her, quite curious now. His attention turned to the music. He listened intently. Other than that, there was no reaction.

Of course there was no other reaction. She was relieved. More relieved, actually, than she would have ever expected.

No, there was no reaction. At first.

Then his face sort of slowed, turned cautious, came to a halt. Then his eyes widened and a wonder occurred in them. He looked at her, first with a question but then in amazement. Elsie felt prickles of fear. Oh, my God, it’s happening. But if it does, if it does, she told herself, if it happens again, then, then at least I’m not crazy.

The look in his eyes changed from amazement to recognition, to sentience. He tried to say something. She watched his mouth, his lips, his tongue working to speak and then, quite clearly, they succeeded:

“Moonlight Sonata.”

The most significant thing that happened at this point was that nothing else happened. He continued to listen. She did nothing, just stared at him. Her first emotion was relief, a different relief: she was not crazy after all, never had been.

Then arrived reality: she saw with her own eyes, and heard with her own ears, what cannot be seen or heard. And his eyes, holding fast to hers now, had changed, deepened. They were no longer the eyes of a baby. They knew.

His mouth began a new labor. “I am,” it said, “Leonard.” The words were slurred and spoken slowly, but they nonetheless communicated.

The impulse to rid herself of the impossibility in her lap welled up from below like a scream, distant at first, rapidly approaching. It was not willed by her, certainly not, she was too confused to will anything. No, it arrived on its own, unbidden, this urge to flee, to escape this monster.

Her arms, filled with this lower urgency, set out to comply: it was only the strength of her love for her baby brother that managed to check the violence. Instead she fought the terror down and clutched him to her. The earphones clattered to the floor, and as she hugged him, she could not help but cry.

[*:*]

Leonard sensed the fear of the girl holding him, it was like a garment, he could feel its texture. Her eyes, wide and brown, were fixed on him; he could almost taste the terror rising within her and he was bracing himself for a scream, when instead she pulled him to her and buried him against her shoulder. He could hardly breathe she held him so fiercely. A wave, a storm of love, warm and desperate, emanated from her, through her embrace, through her skin, through tears that he felt on his neck, warm and heavy, and it entered him, and filled him, and as it did he could feel his grip slipping, and himself sinking, drowning in the care of her arms. Oh, it was so nice to simply let go, let this love wash over him, to sink again, back into warmth, through ceaseless water, through ceaseless earth, back into silence. Yet, he did try to remain, he did, tried to reach for and hold onto the face he’d seen, the terrified eyes, but he had already lost his hold on the vague world above, and without music there for him to grip, he sank farther, and farther, and in the end the tiny rift in darkness sealed again and all that remained in his sister’s lap was Brad the baby.

[*Thirteen ::

 

“Mom, I am not crazy. I swear I am not crazy.”

Oh, it had been a mistake to bring it up. Big, big mistake. Oh, God. She saw that now. She had really, really screwed up.

“You seriously…” Beth flustered and started again, “You seriously believe that a two-year-old baby can tell a composer, can, can recognize a composer by hearing the music?” She faltered again, and looked at her daughter. She began to say something else, but was at a loss for words. Finally: “He can’t even speak yet.”

Beth looked at her with such concern that Elsie knew that her mother would never believe her, not in a million years. And somehow she also knew that even if Beth were to see and hear him for herself, she would not, to save her life, believe what she saw. She could not believe. Elsie wasn’t quite sure how she knew this, but she did. They were different. Beth was made differently, grown by a world that did not allow for things like this, not under any circumstances.

She reached for and took her mother’s hand. Then shook her head. “You’re right, mom,” she said. “I don’t know what could have gotten into me. Maybe I dreamt it.” She paused, faking bewilderment. “It seemed so real though.” It hurt her to lie to her mother.

But these were words Beth could understand. She squeezed Elsie’s hands in return. “Maybe you should take it a little easier with the music thing. You’ve become quite a recluse, you know. We hardly see you in the evening anymore. Always up there with your earphones on.”

“Yes, maybe so, Mom.” She smiled.

[*:*]

It wasn’t right to lie to her, and she felt bad about it as she returned to her room. But what else could she do?

She went over to Brad’s crib. He turned over in his sleep just has she stepped up, moaning in some dream or other, then he snuggled down in his new position, sighed and set a new course. She looked at his peaceful face, his beautiful ear, his perfect mouth. Who on earth was Leonard?

[*Fourteen ::

 

“Bill?” Her voice sounded like a plea in the dark.

He shifted but did not answer. He had just helped himself to her and now lay spent and heaving beside her. She felt like an intruder. “Bill?”

“What?”

“Bill?”

“Yes.” Irritated. “What is it?”

“Have you noticed anything with Elsie?”

He shifted again but did not answer.

A silence later. “What are you talking about?”

“Have you noticed anything not, not normal?”

Another silence. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Of course she’s normal. What do you mean?”

She couldn’t decide whether to say anything more. It had been a long time since she and Bill had been able to talk about these kinds of things, and he probably wouldn’t understand. She knew she had spoken on impulse, but her need to unburden had outgrown caution. And this really mattered to her, worried her.

She had believed Elsie at first, that she had dreamed the whole thing as she said. And it had felt so good to be able to comfort her. But she had gone over her words in her mind again and again and they no longer seemed true. Elsie had changed too suddenly, from being so certain one way to being so certain the other. That just wasn’t like Elsie. Not like Elsie at all. No, she thought in the end, Elsie still believed that it had happened.

Normally, of course—and she found this a little ironic—she would talk to Elsie about it; but Elsie, well, she was the problem. And now she could tell that Bill wouldn’t understand. Not Bill. Not anymore. Then she thought of Karen. Of course.

She would talk to Karen about it.

“What are you talking about?” Bill spoke again, all awake now. Annoyed.

“Nothing, I was just wondering.”

“Nothing, my foot. What do you mean, normal? Why did you ask me?”

“Well, it’s just.” She hesitated. She realized how completely bizarre her conversation with Elsie would sound to Bill.

“Well, what?”

“Well, it seems…” She started again, “Well, Elsie said that she thought that Brad could talk now, that she had heard Brad talk. I know it’s completely crazy, but that’s what she said.”

“He’s gabbling all the time.”

“No,” she corrected, “talk like a grown-up.” That was the best she could think of, without actually lying.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“That’s what I thought, and I told her. But she said she was sure.” Hadn’t she? Wasn’t that what really disturbed her. Elsie’s being so sure at first.

“And?” She had his attention now.

“I kept telling her that it must have been her imagination, Brad could not talk yet, we both knew that. And then, after a while, she took my hand and said I was right. Said she must have dreamed it.”

Bill didn’t answer for a while. Then he said, “Not Elsie.”

It was a statement of fact. And she was surprised at how right he was, and at how well he actually knew his daughter. And that was the crux. Elsie just doesn’t dream things. Not like Elsie at all. So something was the matter.

“I know. That’s why I asked you.”

He didn’t answer. She could make out the ceiling in the weak darkness. Bill’s breathing, the hum of the electric alarm clock, the creak of the springs as Bill shifted again. She fell asleep waiting for him to reply.

[*:*]

A large stillness inside Bill shifted and it stood the hairs on his arms. His body was wide awake now, stiff with energy. No, he thought, no, that was not like Elsie, not like Elsie at all. Elsie did not imagine things. She would have said what she saw, and she would have seen it. Heard him talk, like a grown-up.

So, it was the boy. Had to be the boy. And had he not felt it all along, had he not known that something was not right with him? Ever since he started walking he had accused him with that limp, with that bent out of true, limping leg. And that stupid drooling smile. And always, always pointing at him, always casting that exposing light on him. Like God’s finger, seeking him out. Telling the world who had done this to him: He did it. It was Bill who did this to me.

But now the stillness told him that the finger pointing at him and accusing him wasn’t God’s after all. That was not God doing the pointing. No, that wasn’t God at all.

[*:*]

“And that’s what really worries me.”

Karen didn’t see it that way. “Maybe the strain of school, and homework, and standing in for you at night is getting to be too much, being the evening mom, as you call it?” she suggested.

“I’ve thought about that. Well, no, not exactly that. I was thinking more about her thing with music, it’s every free moment she has now. She always listens to it, and then she reads about it. And now she wants to learn to play the piano, too—she’s asked me for one of those electronic pianos, you know. And I was thinking that maybe this music thing was getting too much and was getting to her, somehow.”

Karen nodded but didn’t answer, waiting for more.

“But you see…you know Elsie now, don’t you?”

Karen nodded.

“It just isn’t like Elsie at all to imagine things. At one point, when she began to tell me about it, she said she was sure she had heard him, absolutely sure, and there was no doubt in her mind, I could tell. But then she suddenly changed her mind and said she wasn’t so sure. That she must have been seeing things. But, Karen, I don’t think she changed her mind, not really.”

Beth tried to arrange her thoughts as they came tumbling for her, now that she could let them out. But they came too fast, too many at the same time. So instead she looked at Karen and said, “Maybe you can talk to her, see what you think?

“Sure, I’ll talk to her.”

[*:*]

“Why should I talk to her?”

Elsie, alarmed that the subject was still alive, did not want to talk to anybody about it. She had thought about little else all day, and had concluded that it was a fact, she had no doubts, it had happened, twice. And she had decided that Brad’s miracles—for that’s what they were, miracles—had to be kept a secret. For one, no one would believe her, and for two, they would either think that she was crazy, or that Brad was a freak, or both.

She had no clear grasp of what was actually going on, but she did know that she was not crazy, and that Brad for sure was not a freak. And she also knew, with her heart, and in her gut: this secret had to be protected, at any cost.

“And, besides,” she said, “I talked to you in confidence, this was between you and me. Now you’ve gone and told Karen. And we agreed, I agreed, that it was probably something I imagined, no, not probably, it was something I imagined, Mom. And now you think I’m crazy.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy. I’m just worried, that’s all.”

“Mom, I’m all right. I made a mistake.”

“Well, could you just talk with her?” Beth pleaded.

“This is none of Karen’s business.”

“Elsie, I just want you to talk to her.”

“Why? What good would it do? I made a mistake, I thought I heard something which I didn’t. It’s not a big deal, Mom. Why don’t you believe me?”

“I believe you, honey.”

“So, why do you want Karen to examine me?”

Elsie choice of words surprised herself.

Beth had no answer to that, and looking down she let it go. “I’m sorry. You’re right. Let’s not worry about it.”

The tension in Elsie’s stomach eased a notch, and then another, but would not leave altogether.

[*:*]

Beth saw Karen again the following day.

“She doesn’t want to talk about it. She said she made a mistake, and that’s that. She was quite adamant.”

“That,” Karen said, “is a good sign. A very good sign. And very normal. And what it really means is that she feels embarrassed about it, possibly even a little defensive about the whole thing.”

Beth reflected. “You are right, there,” she said after a while, “that was her reaction all right, defensive.”

“Good. There, you see? Then I really wouldn’t worry about it. I’m sure she imagined the whole thing, and has since realized that she did.”

“Are you sure? It’s still so completely unlike her.”

Karen place her hand on Beth’s, then squeezed lightly. “Yes, I’m sure.”

Beth smiled back at her, at authority, accepting the verdict. “That’s a relief,” she said.

[*Fifteen ::

 

Back in her room late that afternoon, it was just Elsie and Brad. She sat at her desk, studying her hands.

No, she wasn’t crazy. Nor was Brad. Who’s ever heard of a crazy two-year-old anyway?

She slowly lifted her hands toward the ceiling light, felt them rise, followed them with her eyes. Brought them down again, felt the desk’s hard surface beneath them. Heard the soft sound they made upon landing. And she thought, I do this, I feel this, and it’s all real, all just me, nothing crazy.

And there’s Brad. Just as real, just as much just him. But what then? She looked at him sitting on the floor turning over and examining a blue wooden pin. How could it have happened? It was the music, this she was sure of, but how? How could it possibly be? How did it work?

This time she did not hesitate. She reached for her CD player and headphones.

“Brad.”

He looked up briefly from his pin then resumed his examination.

“Brad.”

He looked up again.

“Come here.”

Brad held on to the pin while he lumbered up onto his feet, bottom first, then straightening like an unfolding jackknife. He set out for her, a question on his face at first, but soon the marvel of placing one foot in front of another, with certainty and skill now, got the better of him, and it was as a baby consumed by walking that he arrived and grabbed her knee, pin still clutched by chubby fingers.

Elsie bent down and lifted him up onto her lap and adjusted the headphones to fit him properly. She reached for her favorite recording: Handel’s Messiah, which she had finally bought a few weeks back. The music that had made it happen the first time. The music that should make it happen again. And she had to know, she needed to know.

While Brad watched with interest, she opened the jewel case, carefully lifted out the silver disk, placed it in the player, closed its lid, fitted the headphones over her brother’s ears—which made him look like a little pilot, all caution and headphones—and pressed Play.

Waited.

The effect was electrifying.

[*:*]

“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God; speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.”

Voices, clear and strong on soft strings, entered and filled him. Entered him and filled him and winged their way over toys and rooms and sounds and colors and all that life had gathered to form Brad. Winged all through this life, then down through ceaseless water and ceaseless earth they winged and out into the darkness that holds our lives apart—the quietest of sentinels. And as they winged, impervious to time and silence, they reached the chasm—the final guard. But these wings knew only gladness and no fear and out over the abyss they flew and shone again a bridge across the stillness. And across it they winged and into life beyond, into Leonard, and again they touched memory. And so, images stirred and found their way across the bridge, across the darkness and up through ceaseless earth and ceaseless water, and up into current life. And in their trail followed the certainty that was Leonard.

[*:*]

Brad, steeped in sound and hands and fingers and keys, smiled as he listened. His fingers, strong and slender now, his keyboard, his piano. He saw again, upon the stand, the many Handel scores he had admired, practiced, performed. Then somebody removed the music from his ears and held it in her hands.

“Leonard?”

Somebody said his name. He opened unfamiliar eyes and looked out.

“Yes.” Words were hard to form. Muscles, unskilled as yet, produced only a poor parody of sound. Recognizable though.

“You are Leonard, aren’t you?” said the voice.

He thought about that in the stillness that followed. He could still hear the music through the headphones she put down on her desk, but only faintly—distant voices, weak strings.

Images were still racing across the bridge. And mixed with hands and fingers and piano keys, somewhere in that sunny Los Angeles apartment was their owner, and yes, he remembered, that was Leonard. He was Leonard. He looked up at the girl, towering above him like some giantess, but a girl nevertheless.

“Yes,” he said. It was a struggle to sound sober.

“And you can understand me?”

“Yes.”

“Do you…do you know what’s happening?”

“No,” he said, and that was the truth. He moved a tiny hand, looked at it, flexed a finger and observed it. He touched his tiny legs, kicked softly with one of them, letting his foot fall against the shin of the girl. And as he observed and sensed this small and unfamiliar body he knew that these limbs were still half asleep. Their horizon held only a hint of pigment, only a promise of dawn, of a day where there was no Los Angeles apartment and no long fingers on piano keys. He could tell that the new day dawning was drastically different.

He turned the other way, back toward the shining bridge. Across it lay his old day, the day before the crash, before the strange journey, before the comfort and warmth, the days of piano and Handel and recitals and his things. And he looked back up at the girl. He was alive, but he was no longer Leonard. Those fingers were lost.

“What about Brad?” the girl asked.

Brad. That was a familiar sound, Brad. It carried well on this new pre-dawn wind. Brad. It belonged, he suspected, to these new arms and legs.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“You’re not sure about what?”

He wasn’t sure about anything, not anything to do with Brad anyway. He knew where the sunlight came from, it came from Los Angeles, but he knew nothing about these tiny hands.

“I’m not sure,” he said again.

“I’m Elsie,” she said.

He looked at her. “Elsie?”

“Yes.”

“Hi, Elsie.”

“Hi.”

“I’m your sister.”

“Sister?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t have a sister …didn’t.”

She looked at him. Clear brown eyes in a pretty oval face close to his. Her breath was warm upon his cheek. “You do now.”

And then he sensed rather than saw the girl’s head whip around. Someone was entering the room. He heard steps now, and she let go of the CD player, which fell to the floor, pulling with it the headphones lying on the desk. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” faintly through the foamy earpieces as it fell and tumbled on the floor, where the Messiah then continued, even more distant.

He turned his head and looked up at the oncoming steps. A large man almost filled the room. The man’s eyes were wide, bloodshot and wild. He saw the man’s hands, gripping, releasing, gripping. He shook slightly. The girl said, or yelled, something, he could not quite make out what, for her emotions, louder to him than her words, were deafening. She was terrified. The man was upon them. One of his hands came down, hard. He could hear the sharp sound as it hit the girl’s face. Once, twice. The girl toppled from the chair, clutching him to her for a second, but then lost her grip on his shoulder and arm. He fell too, flailed for balance.

He struck the floor with the back of his head, with a soft explosion. This light was brief and painful. It crumbled the bridge, and the darkness beyond reclaimed its prisoner.

[*:*]

“Dad!”

Bill, who never set foot in the kids’ rooms if he could help it, loomed in the center of the room. He was drunk, swaying slightly. She could smell his breath even from where she was sitting, clutching Brad to her. His eyes looked wild, as if he had seen a specter. What had they seen? she more panicked than thought. How much? He didn’t speak, he just stood. Still and staring.

“Dad, what’s the matter?”

He didn’t answer. Then she saw the rage. Then it was upon her.

There was no way she could defend herself or get out of the way with Brad in her lap. Instead she took the full brunt of the hand which landed square on the side of her face. The impact spread like fire. Her neck strained as her head gave way to the violence. Tears welled up. He struck again. Her head flung back. She fell and dropped Brad in her fall. She struck the floor hard on her wrist, awkwardly. She looked up at her father swimming above her, huge, dangerous. But there was no escape.

Brad. He was a heap to her right.

The big hands reached down and grabbed her dress by the front and hoisted her to her feet. He bent in towards her and his face nearly touched hers.

“I saw it,” he screamed, each word putrid. “I saw you with the Devil. You were talking to the Devil.” He swung again with his free hand and struck her, full fist above her left eye. A flash of light filled her on impact, then darkness. She felt another blow as she receded through the mist, then another, and another, then nothing.

[*Sixteen ::

 

It felt so good, so right.

God had finally returned his rage. He felt like crying, and maybe he did. Maybe these were tears rather than beads of sweat that he felt on his cheeks looking down at his daughter, the witch, and the boy, the Devil. They both were still, stilled by his might, stilled by God’s rage. How he had missed it. Thank you Lord. Thank You. He had done good again, finally. He felt purged at last. Forgiven.

[*:*]

“I don’t know what to believe.” Beth anxiously looked over at Karen as they stepped through the hospital entrance and headed for the parking lot. “I’m not so sure she fell down the stairs. That she tripped as she said.”

Karen looked over at her. “Beth, what are you saying? Is there any doubt?”

“I’m not sure what I’m saying.”

“You heard her, that’s what she says. She tripped and fell.”

“I know.”

“And she’s always truthful, you’ve said so yourself. Has she ever lied to you?”

“No, never. Not that I know.”

“So what then?”

“Something’s not right.”

“What exactly are you saying?” Karen asked again.

Beth thought about that, about the bits and pieces that would not fit, no matter how hard she worked at making them. “Maybe Bill did it,” she answered at length. They had arrived at Karen’s car.

Karen opened the door for her and said, “Why would you think that?”

Beth did not get in, just looked at Karen where she stood, holding the car door. “A bad feeling. A really bad feeling.”

“But Bill was at the store,” said Karen.

“That’s what he says, yes.”

“But Elsie, she says that too.”

“I know.”

Beth could not still that voice, her instinct. Hope denied it, but Bill was too calm about it and too eager to explain how he had not been at home, how he had come home to find Elsie all banged up from falling down the stairs, just like Elsie said. And if Bill had hit her, why wouldn’t she just say so, why on Earth would she lie? Elsie never lies.

Karen spoke, “Bill has been fine now for over two years. Ever since, since it happened. You’ve said so yourself. That everything was fine, Bill was okay. And besides,” she added, “he has never touched any of the children, right?”

“No, never. He’s never touched any of the children, ever.”

“So?”

“It’s just that.” Beth fell silent again.

“It’s just that what?”

Beth didn’t answer. Instead she climbed in and sat down. Karen closed the door after her and came around to the driver’s side. Opened the door and climbed in herself. She did not start the car, but waited for Beth to speak.

Looking straight ahead, but not seeing, Beth spoke. “He’s been strange lately. Not like before strange, of course, not, you know, hitting or anything,” she looked over at Karen. “But edgy, you know. Especially when Brad’s around. Always wants him upstairs when he’s home. And when he sees him he tenses up and then sort of simmers. And I wonder, when I see him tensing up like that, will it happen again? That’s the bad feeling.”

“So you think it may have happened?”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” said Karen. “Why would Elsie not tell us?”

“That’s what I can’t understand.”

“Do you want me to check with the store, to see that Bill was there as he said?”

Beth turned faced her, as if startled. “No, heavens no. Why would you want to do that?”

“To make sure Bill is telling the truth.”

“Elsie always tells the truth.”

“But you want to be sure.”

“I am sure.”

“About what, Beth? What are you sure about?”

“That Elsie never lies.”

Karen let it go, but decided to check with the store anyway, to verify Bill’s story. As soon as she got a chance.

She never did get around to that, however.

[*:*]

Elsie, swimming up through codeine-induced sleep, dreamed.

She was dreaming about a brother called Leonard. They were running through a forest clearing together, the one by grandpa’s house, singing, laughing. She hugged him and he hugged her back. He knew all about music. He could hum Mozart, he could tell her all about Beethoven. They lay on their backs and he told her about the clouds, how they really were thoughts of happy men, or angry men, or sad men. How the big, billowing cumulus were majestic thoughts, dying to burst and share their important selves, how the nimbus were those of the narrow-minded hags who only thought of themselves and would hide the sky from the world, and how the cirrus were the stray thoughts of angels.

He was the friend she had dreamed of, and she loved him with an uncomplicated heart, none of those boy-girl currents. He was her soul mate. He was everything she wished for, he was beautiful. And he loved her too, and he needed her, for only she could see, and protect him from, the darkness looming. It had a name, the darkness did, which she could not remember, but it was looking for him, coming for him. And only she knew. Only she could save him.

[*:*]

“No,” she said, looking straight at her. “I fell.”

Karen sat on her bed, holding her glance. Elsie was at her desk, her face still sore and discolored.

“Beth thinks that maybe your dad, that he may have,” she seemed to be looking for a nice way to put it, “may have been involved. That he may have hit you.”

“Dad? No.” She shook her head. “He wasn’t even here.”

Karen looked away and shook her head too, slowly, which made her long, dark pony tail slap her shoulders gently, then looked back at her and smiled. “I believe you,” she said. Then added, “I wish your mom would, too.”

“Mom’s had her problems with Dad. Well, you know that. Maybe it’s spilling over.”

Karen cast her a quick glance. “That’s a very good point,” she said. “You may be right at that.”

Karen rose, then opened her mouth as if to add something. But instead she smiled again, and with a parting glance at Brad, left.

Elsie looked over at where he was sitting, quietly building his Lego walls, not even looking up at Karen’s leaving. Who on earth is Leonard? And where has he gone? she wondered.

[*:*]

By mid-December Elsie’s face had healed, but for some slight shadows where his knuckles had struck.

Her dad never acknowledged their shared secret. They seldom spoke but when they did it was only along the lines of “pass the salt, please.” Not a flicker of collusion. As far as he went, her version of the event was the event.

When their gazes on occasion collided, she saw only a blank wall. Nothing seeping through.

For her part she stayed as far away from him as she could and kept Brad at an even safer distance. She was always careful to close the door whenever they were in her room. Had the door had a lock, she would have used it.

And when she was certain they would not be disturbed she would wake him up.

It was amazing. A real miracle. Most of the time all she had to do was to speak his name. Sometimes—she could not figure out what was different—it took a little more. Some Handel, or Beethoven. But always with the same amazing result: Leonard reappeared.

And then they would talk, head to head in hushed voices, about his life, about his music, about his dreams; and she would share her life, her feelings for the same music, her thoughts about the men who created it, her dreams.

He did not have much to say about Brad. Brad was still a mystery to him and when he tried to be Brad to see what that felt like he would go deaf, dumb and blind, he said. Like entering a pre-dawn, shadows all around, the day yet to come.

But it had grown very plain to both of them what had happened: he had died and been reborn. There had been some sort of accident, he said. Cars involved. Very dark. Hard to face, he said, as if surrounded by a wall of pain. Although she wanted to know more, she never pressed him on it. But he was a toddler up north now, he had come to grips with that. Moved up north, he said with a grin.

It was always as Brad that he awoke, whether from a nap or in the morning, even when he had fallen asleep as Leonard, wishing her a good night in his labored (but getting better) speech. And Brad he would remain until she called on him. Stirring Leonard awake always took some igniting, a flame to pierce his darkness. Leonard could not wake up on his own. He didn’t even have a way of trying, he said. When he was Brad he had no idea that Leonard even existed. Didn’t even know that there was anything to try.

Elsie’s life, with her beautiful secret, had turned wonderful. Bill kept his distance and Brad was safe. All was well. And with Christmas coming, Beth would get her the keyboard she had asked for, she was sure of it.

[*Seventeen ::

 

Bill’s life was hell. He knew what he had seen. There was no doubt about it: he shared his roof with the Devil, evil bound in human flesh. And had not the return of God’s rage proved it? But he could not exorcise him, for his own daughter had become his protector, and she, his own daughter, his own flesh and blood, held the power to expose him, his violence, the return of his rage, anytime she chose—she had the scars to prove it. In fact, he could not understand why she had not already done so.

Ever since the rage left its mark on Elsie he had lived with the dread of Karen Anderson delivering on her promise: “One more incident like this, Mr. Reilly,” (it was Mr. Reilly, not Bill) “and you will be arrested, and I will make very sure that you go to jail for a long time.” And all it would take was a word from Elsie.

Every knock on the door, or ring of the doorbell, turned his stomach: they had come. But it always turned out to be someone else. A salesman, Greenpeace, what have you. He was always relieved to see them, but nonetheless told them to go to hell, if not in so few words.

Why didn’t Elsie tell? He was certain that every day was to be the day that she would. But nothing. If anyone had ever waited for the other shoe to drop, he thought once, and he had to smile to himself.

And he had tried, God, he had tried, to raise the rage again, to find its fury, and in it, he knew, or at least hoped, his answers. He dreamed that the rage, if he could only find it again, would save them all, that it would release Elsie from her unholy collusion with Satan, that it would free Brad from His unholy grip. But he could not find it, could not stir it. Dread and closed doors worked against him.

Christmas around the corner now, still no officers at the door, no sirens in the street outside, parked by his house, red and white for all to see. Still, they could be storming in at any moment.

If he could only find his rage.

Surprisingly, the rest of life was going fine. The guys at work seemed friendly again. He could even get it up every now and then at night, even if Beth didn’t seem to like it much anymore. But all that, of course, took place in a sham world. In the real world he was sharing his roof with the Devil, and he wished, he prayed, he burned to do something about it.

[*:*]

Every passing day lessened her doubts and in the end Beth had to concede that Karen must have been right: Elsie’s bruises were nothing but an accident.

Bill seemed a bit better, too. Brooding as always, sure, but still no rage, maybe it was gone for good, God, she hoped so. If anything, and she wondered at this every now and then when she glanced at her husband unawares, was there a trace of timidity, fear even, in his eyes? She could never quite tell.

But she could tell, and the important thing was, that things were back to normal: their breakfast routine, her job (she still worked the second shift), yes, even their infrequent and indifferent (to her) lovemaking, seemed to underscore the normal. And with this grew her sense that life was indeed fine, was as it should be. She could relax again. And with Christmas around the corner, she smiled to herself, all was well. She had even saved enough to buy Elsie that keyboard she was going on about.

[*Eighteen ::

 

And that Christmas brought her exactly what she wanted. The very one. Well, she had pointed it out to Beth more than once in the mall, which helped, of course.

And it was just beautiful. One small speaker at each end for stereo sound and a jack for headphones, which shut off the speakers, so she could play late at night without disturbing anyone. It could play so many sounds, too. It could sound like a real piano, like an organ, like a harp, even like a trumpet. She tried them all. It was an amazing instrument.

She could not afford lessons though, not as yet anyway, and neither was there the time to take any. Instead she found a set of Alfred’s Piano Lessons in a secondhand bookstore for not much money, and set out to learn on her own.

She found that she was meant to play. The fingering came to her naturally, the notations were just like reading, and playing was the one thing she did that fully absorbed her. When she sat down at the keys, time ceased to exist. Whether minutes or hours elapsed while she played, she could not tell. She just played. Her frequent and diligent practice—usually late at night, with headphones on—were journeys of discovery. She felt completely at home among the black and white of music.

Each day after school she would complete whatever chores Beth had set for her, then work hard to finish her homework, make sure the kids were in bed, and back to her practice. Leonard knew all about learning the piano, of course, and he would watch and listen and supply pointers here and there, until he had to go to bed, too tired to sit up straight.

Spring arrived, and it was only Bill and their tacit pact that marred her life.

Then came the day when Leonard asked to play.

[*:*]

He wanted to play. Wanted very much to play. Watching Elsie’s slender fingers take their first steps onto his turf brought the desire to follow, like an ache, to his chubby little hands. But he just couldn’t see it. These hands were too small, these fingers too short. Enough reach to play a Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star melody line, one finger at a time, at best. Still, no way of getting around it, he ached to play.

Reality being reality, he settled for guiding Elsie in her endeavor, and from the sidelines he coached and encouraged and directed. And, he discovered, she was very apt indeed. She also had that requisite burning. She could become great. His mother would have loved her. So he played, vicariously, through his sister.

But his ache was unrelenting and in the end would not settle for secondhand: he just had to play. Somehow. It became an obsession. He looked at his hands and re-examined his premise. No, of course not, he could not play the scores he remembered as they were written, of course not. But why must he play them as written? Could they not be adapted to his smaller reach? Instead of the three-or four-or five-note chords, why not two-note chords, if he chose the right two notes? This notion, once examined from all angles, made sense and took root.

He recalled a simple Mozart sonata from memory, and worked the transcriptions in his head, leaving out the base notes and some of the intervening harmonies, and on his imaginary staff drew a new, much simplified, score. Mozart for the precocious two year old, all thumbs and pinkies. He grinned to himself. He flexed his little fingers, and went over the score again. And again. Yes, it would work. He began off-keyboard finger exercises while he watched and coached Elsie, until he felt ready, fingers in good enough shape, the revised score firmly remembered. Then he asked.

She looked at him, surprised at first, then delighted, and of course, she said, sure, of course, and placed the keyboard on the floor. He walked over to it and sat down. He flexed his fingers, and looked over at Elsie. She looked back, curious, expectant. Neither spoke. Then his old, bigger hands slid into his smaller ones and they reached for the keyboard.

It worked, he knew it from the first note, it worked. The little hands did things little hands probably were not supposed to, but he had conditioned them well and with the guidance of their practiced predecessors they knew what to do. He played the Mozart sonata and it sounded fine, so fine. Elsie looked down at him, beaming, crying it looked like.

He was making music again and it felt wonderful. And in the playing, his old self—his real self—arrived stronger than ever. He saw images of Vivian, of his parents, of Los Angeles, of college auditoriums where he had played. Images, sounds, smells all came rushing back, tearing down all kinds of walls and leaping all kind of chasms as they came chasing each other across that bridge of music and into the present.

[*:*]

She watched him sit down and flex his little hands. Then he began and she forgot about the rest of the world. He played music like she had never heard it played before.

He couldn’t play the full chords, his hands could not stretch far enough, but what he did with the reach he had, with thumbs and little fingers, sounded plenty fine enough and she watched those little hands and arms perform beautifully within the range of their reach.

Elsie began to cry as she listened, for this was a real miracle.

Leonard’s little face was intent upon the keys and then he closed his eyes and seemed to become the music. Magic filled the upstairs bedroom. She thanked God for being alive.

[*:*]

Bill hit the mute button on the remote. Damn commercials. And damn if the volume didn’t double when they came on. Should be some sort of law about that.

He leaned back from the silent onrush of images and closed his eyes. He was tired, it had been a long day. And the constant, constant tension that simply would not let go. Still no word from Elsie. What was she waiting for?

Everything was so damn normal, and so damn desperate at the same time, and so, so, what? Pending. Pending, yes. Like a test. It was a test. Had to be. God was testing him again, he felt sure of that now, though that did not relieve the tension. If only it would end, go away.

He slipped further into the silence when he heard music. Classical music. He was no connoisseur to be sure, but he recognized it as classical piano. Mozart or one of those guys. He opened his eyes again. The quiet commercial droned on before him. That wasn’t it. He still heard the music though. He looked around to get a bearing. Upstairs, it was coming from upstairs. Must be from Elsie’s room. Her CD player. She should keep it down.

He was about to restore the TV sound when a fist found his guts and left him fighting for breath. It couldn’t be Elsie’s CD player, it had no speaker. She had one of those portable ones. It didn’t make any sense. Then he realized: must be her little piano, then. Elsie practicing without her earphones. The fist returned, harder, twisted at his innards. But that was impossible. She had only had it since Christmas. The fist again, harder still. This could not be Elsie playing. No way she could have learned this fast.

He sat motionless, like a reclined statue, watching the screen where a mute man with a broad smile voiced mute questions at a mute guest. The fist in his gut turned to iron, turned warm then hot, turned to promise. For suddenly he was certain: something ungodly was taking place upstairs. He had returned, the Devil had returned. He was showing himself again in his house, under his roof. If this was Elsie playing, He was helping her.

The power that sprang from his gut and now surged up and filled him had the strength of the inevitable, like sex at the point where nothing in the world matters but the mating. He could feel the rage of God gathering, and in its trail, elation. For now he knew that he must act. And it was so right.

He stood up slowly, deliberately, soberly, knowing he was to finally face Evil head on.

Careful steps brought him up the stairs, and with each step the music grew louder. The same, careful, silent steps brought him to Elsie’s door. Unmistakable now, the music came from behind it. He stood stock-still for several moments to let the shaking subside while the music danced and swirled all around him. Then he threw the door open.

Steeled for the worst, he nevertheless stumbled in shock. There, on the floor, sat not his daughter by the piano, but the Devil himself in the guise of his two-year-old son, conjuring notes from the keyboard with his dark craft. The Devil didn’t look up at first, too intent on the task at hand, but Elsie’s face confirmed everything. Wide open eyes, staring. Under the spell of His sorcery, no doubt. Then she screamed.

At that he was released. And in a wonderful, final surge of strength, his elation told him exactly what to do, how to defeat the Devil. And it was so easy.

In the violence that followed there was no rush, no uncontrolled slapping, no furious beating. Instead, he followed the Voice to the letter and slowly walked over to the Devil who by now had stopped playing and looked up at him in wide-eyed wonder. Then he lifted him up, slowly, deliberately, almost tenderly. The little body wriggled and squirmed in protest, but he overpowered these tiny objections and firmly settled his son in the cradle of his left arm. Testing the grip to make sure it was firm enough and that the boy could not work himself loose, Bill then proceeded to break, first one, then one by one the remaining fingers of his son’s left hand, and then, as deliberately, as slowly, one after the other, the fingers of his right hand. He did not hear Elsie’s furious screaming, scratching and pleading, nor the boy’s shrieks, intent only on his mission, on the voice of his God. Some of the fingers snapped easily enough, a little white bone splinter poking through the skin at the first try, others took a bit more working, and bled profusely by the time he was done. But nothing deterred him from his command. It was all for the best, he was setting everything right. Elsie stopped beating him, and fainted in a heap by his feet. Then the Devil stopped screaming, too, and left his son for the Netherworld. Brad was finally at rest. He laid his son on the floor, gently. Faint moans rose from his glistering face, like ripples of the violence now past.

He stood up and turned and saw three ashen faces crowding the doorway, staring up at him. “Go to your room,” he said, quietly. They fled. He looked back at his work, at the bloody mess of the two little hands, at his sleeping daughter, at the piano—silent now—with splotches of dark here and there on the white keys, and he knew that it was good. The room, and his house, was purged of Evil. Then he left, closing the door quietly behind him. He had done well.

[*:*]

And he played. He was lucky, so indescribably lucky. He had no idea how it could have happened, or how it worked, but he was still alive. As Leonard, fully alive. At some point he had died but he hadn’t died. Only his body had died. He, Leonard, the person he actually was, was still alive despite everything. And now he played. Every now and then he glanced over at Elsie where she sat, enraptured, big tears welling out of her brown eyes, rolling down her cheeks. A beautiful girl, his new sister. She had brought him back and he loved her for it. He returned to the keys, to the task of moving fingers where they were not meant to go, and they kept complying. His heart floated on the music. And he played.

Somewhere behind him a door swung open, and his body shouted a warning. He chose not to hear. It did not, must not matter, not now, not mid-flight. Someone entered the room. He played on. Then Elsie screamed and he stopped. He looked up at Bill, then at Elsie. Things were very wrong. He looked again at Bill and back at Elsie. She did not move, just stared at her father through terrified eyes.

Bill walked over to him and stooped to pick him up. His huge, strong hands found him and lifted. He fought all the way up, uselessly.

Bill cradled him in his left arm and fixed him in its vise. Strong hands found and seized his left hand.

He heard, more than felt, one of his fingers break. The next moment was as clear as an epiphany, and he knew exactly what was happening. He tried again to escape, but the man was too strong. Then came the pain. It welled up as from an uncapped well and just kept coming. It reached him and he screamed. Screamed to save his life, screamed to give the pain a means of escape, screamed to remain Leonard. A second pain erupted in the furnace of his hand and joined the first. Then a third pain, fresh, louder. Then blackness.

His screaming survived three more fingers then it, too, died to a moan while he sunk through ceaseless water and ceaseless earth into ceaseless night.

[*:*]

Elsie had a horrible nightmare, then came to. She opened her eyes, looked to her side, saw Brad, then vomited. She got up on her hands and knees, then all the way to her feet, and dried her mouth with her shirt sleeve. As yet she felt no emotion at all, she was coldly numb, simply registering fact: it had happened. It was no nightmare. It was real. Her brother lay in a pool of blood at her feet. The keyboard was splattered with red now drying to black. She managed to not vomit again, and instead made it downstairs where she called 911.

[*:*]

Bill had no idea what to do now. The rage had fled him. His elation, too. The television was still on mute, and he sat looking at patterns of color, of bodies and arms and smiles that meant nothing to him. What meant anything at all was that he had caught the Devil at it. Caught him red-handed, and had driven him out of his house. And that was right. Wasn’t it? They would understand, wouldn’t they?

He turned at the sound. Elsie was coming down the stairs. Pale as snow. Like something in a dream. She went over to the phone and dialed three digits.

[*:*]

The emergency service called Karen Anderson and she arrived shortly after the ambulance. As she got out of her car she saw them carry little Brad down the paved path on a stretcher, his hands wrapped in bloody gauze. She gasped and rushed into the house. Bill Reilly sat on the living room sofa in front of a silent TV, staring blankly. Elsie sat at the top of the stairs, white and shaking. Behind her, on the landing, stood the little ones sniffling from fright and confusion.

She wasn’t sure where to start but decided to call Beth at work before she did anything else. She stood with the receiver to her ear and looked at Bill, his face a dark and unseeing mask, then at Elsie, her face mask-like, too, struck and uncomprehending. Someone was getting Beth. The police arrived just as Beth got to the phone and spoke.

“Yes.”

“Beth?”

“Yes.”

“This is Karen.” Silence at the other end.

Then, “What’s wrong?”

“Brad has had an accident, you’d better come home as soon as you can. Get a cab.” Then she added, “I’ll pay.”

Beth hung up without answering. Karen put the receiver down.

One of the officers ask Bill what had happened. Bill didn’t answer. She heard him repeat the question as she mounted the stairs to reach Elsie.

She took a closer look at her when she got to the top. Poor girl, she thought, poor girl, she’s had a shock. She sat down beside her and put her arm around her shoulders. She noticed that the girl did not respond to the touch—something she had learned to watch for in cases of trauma: Elsie neither moved away from nor toward her, she didn’t notice.

“What happened?” Karen said.

Elsie didn’t answer.

“Please,” she said again, “tell me what happened.”

Elsie slowly turned her head and looked at her with large, still eyes. “What happened?”

“Yes,” said Karen. “Please tell me.”

“I will tell you what happened,” said Elsie, as if reciting something unfamiliar. “I will tell you what happened.”

But she didn’t tell. She fell silent again and her gaze returned to the room below her, where the officers still could not get Bill to speak.

“Please,” said Karen again. “You must tell me.”

Without looking back at Karen, Elsie said, “He broke his fingers. One by one, he broke his fingers. He lifted him up into his arms, held him firmly, then one by one he snapped his fingers in half. That’s what he did.”

Karen did not quite trust her ears. “Elsie, please. What do you mean?”

Elsie turned to her with the same large and still eyes, and spoke again, louder this time—loud enough for the officer to turn and face her—but she still spoke as if she was narrating an event not much to do with her. “The bastard broke his fingers. That is what he did. One by one by one, he broke his fingers. Don’t you understand. He broke his fingers.”

Then Elsie pointed at her father now looking back at her, and repeated, as loudly, “He broke his fingers. Deliberately. One by one. Broke his fingers.”

All eyes turned to Bill Reilly, who now struck Karen as an animal in a cage, like a bear surveying spectators. Suddenly he broke free of his confinement and charged out of the sofa for Elsie. He managed to get as far as the third stair when the officer nearest him caught up and tackled his legs. They buckled and Bill fell backwards. Immediately the second officer was on top of him, and between them they pinned him to the floor.

Bill’s charge seemed to have shaken Elsie awake for she no longer spoke, she screamed, tears streaming down her cheeks. “The bastard broke his fingers. The bastard broke his son’s fingers, one by one.” Then said, quieter, more to herself. “He ruined his hands.”

Bill struggled briefly to get free, but the officers were nothing if not professional subduers, and Bill soon lay still again. Still he would say nothing, offer no explanation. The officers then rolled him over and handcuffed him, none too gently. One officer remained by Bill while the other came up the stairs.

He addressed Elsie, as kindly as he could. “Please tell me, honey, from the beginning. What happened?”

Karen offered Elsie a handkerchief to dry her eyes, but she refused it. Instead she wiped them with her soiled shirtsleeve. Karen’s stomach heaved slightly at the smell of vomit.

Elsie looked up at the officer, took a deep breath.

Then another, then said. “I was practicing on my keyboard. I was practicing and Brad was watching, listening, he likes to listen. He likes the sound that the piano makes. Then he,” she looked down at the handcuffed bear at the bottom of the stairs, “came into the room, and stood watching us for a moment. Then he came over and lifted Brad up and held him with his arm, held him so strongly that he couldn’t move, and he tried to get away, he tried so hard to get away.” Elsie started crying again.

“Then what?” prodded the officer, gently.

“Then,” said Elsie, “he took his little hands in his huge ones and one by one snapped his fingers. I could her them break, I could hear each one as they crunched, even as Brad screamed and screamed, I could still hear his fingers break. I tried to fight him, but it was no use, he was like rock, it was like hitting a rock. Then everything went dark.”

Then she said nothing more.

While Karen listened she felt sick and could only think, what a monster, what a monster.

Then the monster, prostrate at the bottom of the stairs, turned his head with difficulty and finally spoke. “It was him playing that piano. She forgot to mention that. He was playing the Goddamn thing like a grown-up.”

Elsie didn’t look at him, but shook her head in silence.

He was playing the thing. You should have heard him.” Bill Reilly actually chuckled where he lay. He had everybody’s attention now. But then he sealed his fate. “I had to drive him out, don’t you see? He was in his hands. I could see him in his hands. I had to drive him out. I had no choice. Don’t you see?”

Karen went down the stairs and made another phone call. They would come right away, they said. She went back up and sat down next to Elsie again.

“We’re going to send Bill to the hospital,” she told her. “Don’t worry, Elsie, he will not hurt anyone again. Ever.”

[*:*]

Elsie heard her but didn’t answer. She was looking down at her father turned lunatic. He was lying on his stomach with his head turned left and resting on his right cheek. She could she his face clearly. His eyes were closed now and he almost looked asleep, resigned to whatever was coming next.

He was right about Brad, of course, he had played the piano, and her silence had denied it, confirming his lunacy, locking him up. It was wrong, she knew, but it was also right. It was more right than wrong. Much. It was a lie that she could live with, for Brad, Leonard, mattered more than anything in the world.

The ambulance arrived just before Beth, who got out of her cab just in time to see them lead her husband away.

[*:*]

Brad was in surgery for seven hours. The team was very skilled and they took meticulous care in setting, then splinting, his tiny fingers. They did an excellent job.

“With any luck at all, he should regain full use of his hands,” the chief surgeon told Beth and Karen.

[*:*]

Why wouldn’t they believe him? Why wouldn’t they listen?

They had him strapped to the gurney, he couldn’t move. He was in an ambulance, he knew that. He knew that they were traveling. He knew that there was no siren blaring. He knew these things, and he also knew what he had seen with his own eyes, he knew that, too.

He had sat there, in the middle of the floor, and he had played. Two-year-old children do not play, it was Him. The Devil. Who else could it have been? And the rage confirmed it, God’s rage confirmed it.

He pleaded and pleaded with these large, silent people, but they never answered. Why wouldn’t they listen? He had done a good thing, it was a necessary and good thing he had done. He had saved his son. Why could they not see that?

At the hospital they were met by three large nurses with a gurney. They undid his straps but re-strapped him as soon as they had him transferred onto the gurney. He was wheeled into the hospital through a side door and then into a very light room. Here they left him for a while until a face, which he could hardly make out against the bright ceiling light, looked out of its shadow and down on him.

“What have we here? The Reilly fellow?”

“Yes, Doctor,” said someone he could not see.

“Okay, give him 100 milligrams of Demerol, that should calm him down.”

Something stung his arm and filled it with fire. Then a brief wave of nausea washed through him followed by a hard, hard mist. He fought it for a moment, listening to their chatter. They were telling the doctor about him, what he had done to his son, to his fingers. But they said nothing about why, or about how he had saved him. They said nothing about that. Then they said nothing at all as he lost his battle with the strong drug.

[*Nineteen ::

 

Brad came home ten days later. It was early April and the weather that day saw not a cloud in the sky with a mild, westerly breeze already speaking of summer. The cruel contrast—the beautiful world outside and the terrible pain within—was lost on Beth, who was just happy to have her son home, but not on Elsie, who had to fight back tears as they carried him inside, his little arms ending in thick bandages, like white boxing gloves.

He was still in a lot of pain, they told them, and they were to give him half a small tablet of Oxycodone every six hours. Although that must have helped, he often moaned from the hurt and Elsie, trying to console him, wished she could do more for him. Looking down at his face grimacing now and then with his burning fingers, she almost felt the pain herself, and seeing his eyes dull with both drug and ache, she hated her father with passion. She had done the right thing in not telling that Brad had actually played. She had done the absolutely right thing, the monster deserved to be locked up. Deserved whatever they were doing to him.

Evening came, he was back in his crib again, and still awake, she could tell, restless and tossing in silence.

“Leonard,” she whispered from her bed into the darkness.

There was no answer. She whispered his name again, and again. There was no answer, not even a sound.

She cried then, burying her face in her pillow. I will bring you back, she vowed, Leonard, I promise, whatever it will take, I will bring you back.

[*Twenty ::

 

His recovery was considered normal, maybe even a little better than normal, his doctor said. They removed the splints in late May, revealing blue and black but nearly healed hands. A month after that, once the bones were fully healed, the physical therapy began. Initially, they had to bring him back to the hospital therapist every day, so they could watch and learn what to do, but two weeks later, once both Elsie and Beth felt comfortable about it, they were able to take over and continue his rehabilitation at home.

They were religious about it, one hour in the morning, and one hour in the afternoon, no matter how much Brad would try to wriggle out of it, or cry in protest, and after another couple of months he had pretty much regained full use of his fingers.

All things considered, things were going well. At least as well as anyone could expect. There was only the one problem: he could no longer talk.

“Well, he never really talked,” Beth was explaining to the doctor, “but he used to babble and chatter all the time, mouth always going, with a real word here and there, too. But since the,” she hesitated, “accident, he hasn’t said a thing.”

“But he makes sounds,” said the doctor, though it was more like a question.

“Yes,” said Beth, “he moans sometimes, and he whimpers, especially when he doesn’t want to do his exercises.”

“So there is nothing wrong with his vocal cords,” said the doctor.

“I don’t know about that. Does moaning and whimpering use those?” she wondered.

“No, I’m telling you.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Maybe you don’t see,” said the doctor. “If he can make any sounds at all, like moaning, his vocal cords will be fine. They make the sound. The problem here seems to be that he cannot control his vocal cords. To form words or specific sounds.”

“I see.”

“Well, it’s not unheard of,” he informed her, “Not that it is common either, you understand, but it’s not uncommon, not unheard of by any means. These things, when they happen, and they do, happen as a result of post-accident trauma. I’d give it another month. If there is no improvement after that, call me again, and we’ll see what else we can do.”

“Is there nothing you can do now?” Beth wanted to know.

“No, I would like to wait.”

“And what if there is no change?”

“Then we’ll see a specialist,” he said, stressing the word specialist.

Not all that encouraged, she left the doctor’s office. Brad, limping in tow, favored his hands, making them into fists then unfolding them, then fists, then unfolding.

[*:*]

Elsie closed her book with a soft rustle and pushed it away from her and out of the circle of light on her desk. Into soft shadow. She could study no more, not tonight anyway. She was too tired, felt too drained.

The room lay about her in silence, mostly dark. In one corner stood her keyboard on its stand. Although part of her wished that she could, she could no longer face playing. She had tried once, a couple of weeks ago, but the stains were still there. His blood. Yes, of course she had cleaned it, more than once in fact. Two days after it had happened she had spent a full hour working each and every key, but though the stains each succumbed to her rag and hot water, none would surrender their memory. No, she would not touch the keyboard again. Not yet anyway. Maybe never.

She looked over at Brad’s crib. There he was, sleeping soundly. She undressed, turned out the desk light and went to bed herself.

Although she knew he was sleeping, she still whispered, as she did every night, loudly enough for him to hear, were he listening, “Leonard? Do you hear me? Please, Leonard, let me know that you do.”

But the miracle was gone, leaving nothing but mute shadow. She longed for her friend, for Leonard, the pianist, the musician, and asked him every night in the hope that maybe, maybe things would change and he would answer.

But he did not, and listening to the faint hush of his breathing she fell asleep.

[*:*]

Beth waited the full month, but still nothing changed.

Even though his hands were now fully healed, and he had regained full use of his fingers, he still favored them. All grasping, scratching, gripping, was done with hesitation, as if a shadow still remained within them and told his hands to be careful.

And still he would not talk. He moaned, he whimpered sometimes, but no, no words. Nothing that took working his vocal cords. Beth brought him back to the doctor and he finally conceded. They did have a problem. Would she wait outside a few moments.

She and Brad went back to the doctor’s waiting room, and Beth tried to read a month-old magazine while she waited. She could not concentrate. Ten minutes later they could go back in.

“I have set up an appointment with Dr. Carder,” he told Beth.

“He is the specialist?”

“Yes. He is a child psychiatrist.”

“Psychiatrist?”

“Not to worry,” he said, sensing her concern. “Brad is not crazy or anything. Believe me, he’s fine.” Stressing fine. “It’s just that his not talking appears to be psychological rather than pathological.”

Beth didn’t understand, and said so.

“There really is no physical reason why he shouldn’t talk,” he explained. “His vocal cords are just fine. So the reason he does not talk lies in the mind. And the mind is Dr. Carder’s specialty. Especially children’s minds.”

“Is he expensive?”

“Oh, don’t you worry about that. I’m sure the city will cover that.”

She wasn’t so sure, but Brad needed help, that was the important part.

The appointment was arranged for the following Wednesday.

:: Twenty-One ::

 

“So this is the little guy?” said Dr. Carder. Only a little taller than Beth, in a gray suit.

Beth said yes, this is Brad. The doctor did not answer, still looking down at Brad as if appraising him.

Elsie took an instant dislike to the man. Though jovial, he was condescending. His smile was not a smile, she thought, it was something artificial put on to look like a smile. And his eyes were not clear, like eyes normally were, instead they were a sort of washed-out blue, veiled by half-shut eyelids. She could not bring herself to trust him. She watched him walk around his desk and sit down behind it in a large office chair with armrests. The chair creaked when he leaned back into it. He was rather heavily set.

Leaning forward now, creaking the chair again, resting his elbows on the desk, he formed a pyramid with his hands and brought it to just under the tip of his nose, touching his chin with his thumbs, nodding to himself. Then he looked from Elsie to Beth to Brad. Then back to Beth. “So,” he said, putting the pyramid away with another one of his artificial smiles, “tell me what happened.”

“Don’t you know what happened?” Beth asked. “Didn’t his doctor tell you?”

“Of course I do, and yes, he did. But I’d like you to tell me.”

Beth looked uncomfortable and appeared like she was not going to answer at first, then thought better of it and began telling him about the accident. Elsie watched the man take notes, watched his large hand, watched his hairy fingers grasp a thick, expensive-looking ballpoint pen. She watched him watch Beth from under his heavy eyelids, and glared back at him whenever his gaze shifted to her.

Beth finished her telling. Brad was looking around the room.

“This,” said the doctor after quite some silence, as if pondering Beth’s account, and with a reassuring smile, “is not at all uncommon. The boy,” he indicated Brad with a tip of his hand, “has obviously had a traumatic incident. Maybe not common, but not unheard of.”

“That’s what his, the other doctor said,” Beth said.

Dr. Carder held up a hand to indicate that he wasn’t finished quite yet, and Beth fell silent.

“To make matters worse,” he continued, “the cause of his trauma was his father, someone he trusted and was unconsciously emulating. That deepens the psychological scar.”

Get real, Elsie thought. Leonard couldn’t stand Bill and wouldn’t try to emulate him to save his life.

The man droned on. It sounded good, almost real, but they were just words tumbling, one after the other, out of this stuck-up guy, trying to sound impressive. For he didn’t know, how could he?

Finally he seemed done. Beth looked over at Elsie—was it okay to speak now, she seemed to wonder. “But,” Beth wanted to know, “what can we do?”

“Oh,” said the doctor, returning his fingers to pyramid formation, but this time let them rest on the desk, “we have a couple of avenues, either of which could work.”

He paused. For effect, thought Elsie.

“Normally, standard analysis would be indicated in a case of trauma such as this, but that,” and he apparently found this amusing, “is rendered a little difficult since he can’t talk to me.” He paused again. More effect. Wonder if he times these pauses, thought Elsie.

“But, not to worry,” he said then, reassuringly, “I have developed a form of physical analysis we could try. Or, we can try medication.”

He looked from Brad to Beth. “Or both,” he added.

“I don’t know, Dr. Carder. I don’t know about these things. That’s up to you.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” he said. “Then we’ll do both. We will give little Brad here a mild medication, and we will do some physical analysis, once or twice a week.”

“What exactly is physical analysis?” Elsie finally spoke and Dr. Carder looked startled at first, almost challenged. Then he smiled his best smile down on her.

“It is a way for me to ask your brother questions, and for your brother to answer me although he can’t, or doesn’t, talk, using colors, shapes, pictures and objects. Quite effective, if I may say so myself.”

I bet you would, thought Elsie, looking back at him, but she didn’t say anything.

The doctor looked back at Beth. “Set up an appointment with my nurse for next Wednesday and we’ll begin.” Then he wrote something on a note pad. “And here’s a prescription. Twice a day. We’ll have him back up to snuff in no time.”

Snuff? thought Elsie.

Beth smiled and thanked him. She took the slip of paper, folded it twice, and put it in her purse. “Thank you, Doctor.”

“My pleasure.”

The audience was over. Elsie was glad to get out of there. She took Brad’s hand, tenderly, and led him across the thick carpet toward the door.

[*Twenty-Two ::

 

Anthony Carder had never been expert at anything, had never been really good at anything. Pretty good, yes, and at a lot of things, but never really good. Never excelled.

As a kid he could hit a baseball well enough, that is, if the pitch wasn’t thrown too hard, in which case he always seemed to swing too late, and as a rule struck out. He was always among the last to be picked for a team. Too short for basketball in school, he never got picked, unless the emergency was dire and there was no one else around. He liked soccer, could run quite well, but not well enough, and his aim with the ball, though fair, was not what was required of a striker. And as he was too small to play well on defense, he was normally among the last picked here, too, if picked at all.

Growing up, it seemed to him that he spent most of the time sitting on sidelines looking in on the game, at what others—those who did excel, those who really lived—did. His own life was a bit unreal, as if he only lived it halfway. Real life, the one he wasn’t allowed to join, or never picked to participate in, always struck him as going on over there, on the field, not here, in the bleachers.

Those he really envied, however—and they were quite a few—he didn’t envy for their baseball or football prowess, or for their looks, or even for their cute girlfriends. Instead he envied them their focus, their bond with what they were doing, their alliance with what seemed to him to be the real.

Take Roland Newberry. A sort of friend. He loved astronomy with a passion. He would get his homework out of the way as quickly as possible, then hit his astronomy books, or work on his telescope—which he was building from scratch, by the way, polishing that mirror to perfection, hour after hour—or draw his celestial charts, or just stand out in the backyard and look up into the winter sky. That’s what he lived for. Astronomy. He ate it, drank it, breathed it. The most real thing there was.

Amazed, and not a little jealous of Roland’s fascination, he had tried astronomy himself, but it had felt superficial, shallow. He had gone through motions, as usual, read some books, got both blue paper and white ink to draw the night sky, hoping that a flame somewhere would find purchase. But none did and in the end he doubted there ever was a flame and the white on blue night sky was never completed, the ink dried in its little bottle and eventually he misplaced both the chart and the ink. Maybe it got cleaned away by his mother.

Roland, on the other hand, went on to major in astronomy in college and then on to three years of postgraduate astronomy studies. Never tired of it, married it for life—though he’d heard that Roland actually had married not long ago; another astronomer, of course. They were probably honeymooning on some mountaintop somewhere right now, somewhere with a big telescope, watching stars. Wouldn’t surprise him in the least.

Or Bill Clayton. He loved cars. Just loved them. He read car magazines, he collected old carburetors or whatever they were, took them apart, put them together again—improved them, he said. He always had dirt under his fingernails, little black crescents, and his hands often had little black grooves where the oil or whatever it was would not wash off easily. It seemed Bill was only truly happy when he could dive into a grimy old engine and rummage around—which he would do for hours. And true enough, he became a mechanic. Still seemed content, and still had dirty fingernails, whenever Anthony ran into him, which was not often.

Or Andy Small. He loved fishing. He used to joke that his dad had taught him to fly-fish before he could walk. It was all he would talk about. Fish and how to catch them. Of course, he became a bore to just about everyone, except for Tinker who also loved fishing. They were two of a kind, except Tinker could fix anything built by man. Forget his real name. But every Saturday those two took off fishing. They knew all about it, intimately. Rods, lines, bait, lures, they lived it, they mastered it, and they derived something from it, from this real thing called fishing, that he had never managed to derive from any of his endeavors, if you could call them that. Attempts, is probably the better word, for it had been his lot to observe, then attempt, but never to experience.

What he envied in these guys, and envied with all his heart, was their direction, their connection, their commitment. They lived, they cared about something, they seemed to know passion. By comparison, his life was adrift, he had no say, no say at all as to where it was going or what turns it was taking. He knew no part of this river. And he often asked himself why. No answer.

He got decent, but not great, sort of passionless grades in high school and was accepted at University of Oregon at Eugene. And he still didn’t know where he was going.

Which is how Kathryn, his older sister, died.

[*:*]

The telephone rang. It was Kathryn. Would he stop by the store on his way over and pick up some sourdough bread and ice cream. Chocolate chip. Please.

“Sure.” It had completely slipped his mind. She had arranged a little dinner to celebrate his acceptance to college. Always so thoughtful, always believing in him, Kathryn did. Always said that he was the only smart one in the family, he would go far, you just wait.

“And yes, please get some soda as well, if you remember. Diet Coke, Mary is coming too, and her new boyfriend.” Mary, his other sister, always counting calories. Always diet soda.

“Seven o’clock,” she reminded him.

Sure, he had said. I’ll be there.

 

He arrived on time for a change. Kathryn opened the front door even before he’d had a chance to knock, and he gave her a big brotherly hug and then shook her husband’s outstretched hand. Phil, an effusive congratulator, also insisted on slapping him on the back, hard enough to actually hurt him. Stepping inside, he saw and waved to Mary and her boyfriend with a “Hi,” and also caught the faces of Liz and Burt over in the living room, and William, and a couple of his friends, he didn’t remember their names. And a few others. Quite a little party. He nodded approvingly and smiled at Kathryn. She, however looked at him sort of searchingly. Looking for something.

They went through to the kitchen.

“Tony?”

“Yes.”

“Where’s the…?”

Oh, shit, he had forgotten to stop by the store. “Oh, Jesus. I’m so sorry.”

Kathryn, he could tell, was about to get cross with him when she changed her mind and instead laughed it off.

“Oh, never mind. I’ll just run down to the All Night and pick it up.”

“No, I’ll go.”

“No, no, you’re the guest of honor.” With stress on honor, and a smile. “Sit yourself down and try the dip.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, positive.”

And so she put on her coat and stepped out through the kitchen door and into the now misty evening—rain by midnight, they had promised—and that was the last time he saw her alive.

After twenty minutes or so there was a question or two as to what could be holding Kathryn up. Ten minutes later they asked the same questions with a bit of worry. A few minutes after that he really was worried and decided to go out and find her. Just in case something had happened. Mary’s new boyfriend offered to come along, but he said no, he’d just run down and see what was holding her up.

 

Red and white beams sliced the mist. Two police cars and one ambulance were parked outside the All Night entrance, which was very brightly lit. What people were around at that time had gathered around and the first impression he got was that of a movie shoot. They were filming something. But no, that was not it. As he drew closer to the eerie scene he saw there were no cameras, and that the brilliant light emanated from the powerful police searchlights, trained on the two sliding glass doors. And these spinning lights, red and white, red and white: it crept up on him, from his feet, through his legs and all the way to his heart, and then he knew what had happened. He knew who they now carried out, fully covered, on that stretcher. And he knew that it was his doing.

He was never able, later in life, to accurately determine the source of this knowledge, but it arrived, as strong and as unequivocal as any he had ever felt, and much more final: he had killed his sister.

They carried her across the wet asphalt and up to the ambulance, which at a word from one of the pallbearers suddenly shut off its flashing lights, red and white. They deposited her inside, then closed the rear ambulance door with a soft thud, climbed in through the front doors, and drove off.

The automatic doors slid apart again to emit two police officers leading a sullen, handcuffed male between them. He was his own age, perhaps younger. His greasy hair was combed back, almost as if varnished to his head, and he had lots of pimples—he could still see them today, as they made a small lunar landscape of his cheeks in that strangely bright light—and a protruding forehead that seemed to leave his eyes in shadow despite the glare. He seemed blinded at first, then squinted to make things out, looked around him. Her killer.

Again, the certainty was unequivocal. He couldn’t take his eyes off of him. His sister’s killer. Then those dark, hidden eyes fell on his, and for a brief moment they seemed to lock. During this heartbeat he looked into something insensate, into a void, into the soul of an animal, and in that brief span, on the bridge of that murky connection, his life was finally given direction.

Not on the spot—there was no room for thought—but on his way back to his sister’s house, once the shock began wearing off and he could think again.

That night, walking away from the scene of his crime, he made his sister a silent vow. Although this would never make it up to her, he would dedicate his life to finding out how someone like that, that boy really, could kill someone like his sister. And who was responsible? For it was not only his doing, he was not all to blame.

There was some comfort in that thought.

[*:*]

For the next several years he was driven.

Of course no one had blamed him for what had happened. In fact, he wondered if anyone even knew that she had called him earlier that day and asked him to pick up those items. He kind of doubted it.

Kathryn’s husband had clung to him at the funeral, crying openly and moaning over and over: “Why? Why?” but that wasn’t blaming him, was it? That wasn’t knowing that had it not been for him, she would still be alive, was it?

He poured himself into tracking down the answer.

He had hoped for, envisioned even, a simple, illuminating explanation; something certain, something you could touch and see and understand, but as his search progressed, the single answer became one of several possible answers, which, as he studied further, grew more and more complex, more uncertain, more guarded. Then, as he dug deeper, the answers were no longer answers, they were opinions. Books and books of opinions. Oh, they still masqueraded as answers but, beneath their lengthy and often eloquent surfaces there was usually nothing but inference and guesswork. Opinion.

By the time he majored in psychology he had read well over a hundred of these books, tomes more like, far above the requirements for his courses. And the answer? There was no answer.

The reason his sister was killed could be found just about anywhere, depending on who your professor was, depending on whose books he recommended (usually his own), and depending on who you actually believed.

Plenty to choose from: he discovered that the reason could be genes, could be society, could be God, could be parents, could be man’s innate evil character, could be man’s innate good character gone wrong, could be the neighborhood, could be the school system, could be bad television (was there such a thing as good television?), could be rampant pollution—Frances Dougherty’s words, who through four hundred some pages did her damnedest to prove that we are being chemically altered for the worse by insecticides—could be the press, priests, politicians, homosexuality, the crime rate. In fact, the reason could be just about anything you chose.

And as to responsibility? In this particular sea of opinion he actually detected a thread of agreement. It seemed that just about everything, except the perpetrator, shared the blame. That man, the animal that held the gun and pulled the trigger—and on this the vast majority, if not all, of these texts agreed—was the real victim. Not his sister.

Answers? No, there were no answers. All he had found was a labyrinth of guesses and opinions. And although his vow to his sister still provided a flame of sorts, it had grown weak and he found himself floundering. Serious doubt set in. He may soon have to face it: perhaps there just was no answer.

Still, he had come this far, and he pressed on in his quest. Maybe it had become an obsession by now, or perhaps it had become his only viable option, he was no longer sure. He just knew that he could not abandon this path, not this far along. There was one more step: to become a psychiatrist, he needed Med School.

He applied, got accepted—he had tons of extra credits—and worked his way through another stack of tomes, another sea of opinion-filled lectures held by sarcastic professors and self-satisfied doctors. And as he worked his way into his now chosen profession he began to see that the science, if you could call it that, and the opinions masquerading as answers, gradually took a back seat to jealousy, rivalry, and animosity. He realized that who said and thought what, and who agreed with him, was more important to his colleagues than what was said and thought. Alliances mattered much, so did politics, and so did, above all, power.

Then he had to smile to himself, for once he was certified and begun to practice he had also discovered that his chosen profession provided possibly the best job security in the country, along with an Unlimited Source of Income, the USI—which is how many of his colleagues had nicknamed the DSM—since they, as a body, could create new mental disorders pretty much at will by adding the word “disorder” to any one of possibly millions of normal human conditions, and then include them in the DSM, their billing manual. This was accomplished, as a rule, he had found, not by presentation of evidence or of research, but by a show of hands. Smooth. Well, if there were no answers, what could you expect.

Which, of course, is how they managed to include Caffeine Related Disorder, Nicotine Use or Withdrawal Disorder, or Conduct Disorder—he’d been at the Conduct Disorder conference, had voted in favor, incredulous almost at the ease with which they voted that one into the DSM, as a wonderful billable catchall when all else fails: show of hands please, motion carried: Conduct Disorder it is now a Psychiatric Condition, probably caused by a chemical imbalance (which was the standard text to placate the Pharmaceutical boys)—Christ, we’ll have Hunger Disorder next, or Thirst Disorder, caused by the chemical imbalance of too little water. It was a standard joke at their conferences that the DSM is the fastest growing myth in America. Not officially, of course, but for those in the know.

Talk about job security. What more can you ask of a profession.

So, where did that leave his sister, and his vow to her? What had happened to his flame? He couldn’t really tell. But for sure, by the time he realized that he had finally found something he was really good at, by the time he realized that he was as good a performer as the next guy, as clever an actor as the next, the vow had gone the way of the flame. All quiet. For there really was no answer, was there? That was the answer.

True, that was a little hard to admit, to face. It was much easier to simply stop thinking about it and let the whole thing slide. Much easier to accept his doctorate in psychiatry, his board certification, and to get on with the game. Which is exactly what he had done.

It was now a little over twenty-five years since those red and white beams had lit up the misty air and cast their ghostly shadows across the parking lot, since he had stood frozen and stupid in shock trying to come to grips with what he had seen, with what he had done. And now, twenty-five years later, he had all the answers.

Well, that’s a laugh. He had to smile. He’d hate to be cynical, but for them really having none, these answers certainly paid well.

The door had closed behind the little boy and his family some time ago. It was that limp, wasn’t it? Or, more likely the violence that had borne it, that had sent him back, that had reminded him that he had once been on a quest for answers, wasn’t it?

Oh, enough of that.

There was a slight knock and his assistant peeked her head round the door.

“Anything before I leave?”

“No, I’m fine, thank you. Good night”

She closed the heavy, brown door behind her. It shut with a soft sound, as if sealing him in. It was very quiet now. He could hear her getting her things ready, then opening and closing the office entrance. And in the silence that followed, the limping boy returned. The limping boy who wouldn’t speak. The limping boy with the simple mother and pest of a sister. Good-looking though, he had to admit, though not quite legal yet. He leaned back into his chair, making it creak in protest.

Then his pragmatic self took charge and wondered who was going to pay for the treatment. He’d have Anne check tomorrow.

[*Twenty-Three ::

 

The treatment began. Elsie was in charge of dispensing Brad’s daily dose; Beth brought him to his therapy with Dr. Carder. The weeks settled into a sort of routine. Brad made progress, good progress—at least that’s what the doctor assured them—but he still never said a word.

After Christmas the doctor increased his therapy to three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, and he changed Brad’s medicine to something he had to take three times a day.

The weeks stretched into months. But Brad would not speak.

[*:*]

Leonard was asleep, lost again on the far side of the impassable chasm separating life and life. There was no bridge now, nor was there any contact.

Brad was awake but could not get out. All his doors were sealed shut by pain. He heard sounds but they mostly meant little to him. They were like weather, who knows what weather is talking about. Though there were a few sounds that he did recognize. When they said Brad, for example, he knew they meant him. Some others were: food, toys, clothes, bed, sleep. Those he did remember, even if their meanings were cloaked in shadow, visceral rather than certain.

He did know the word Elsie. He also knew the word sister. And he knew they were the same. Elsie and comfort were also the same.

He tried to make the sort of sounds that Elsie did when she talked. He tried to say words. He could even remember making those sounds before. But his voice was tied up in his hands now. He could not reach the right muscles, as if those connections had been snapped along with his fingers.

The man standing on his left was silently looking down at him. Although he had seen this man many times now, he still did not know who he was. Neither did he like him.

The man said something and he looked up at him. He held a small wooden disk in one of his large hands, it was white with round green spots on it. Brad tried to take it, but the man pulled it away. He wasn’t meant to take it. The man held it out for him to see, again. Brad looked at it.

The man then pointed at the many other wooden shapes, disks and squares and triangles in various colors, that lay scattered on the floor. What does the man want? Again, and again, the big man showed him the white disk with green spots, then pointed at the floor. Brad looked down at the other shapes again. There was another one like it, over there. Was that it? Was that what he wanted him to do, again? He went over to it, picked it up, then gave it to the man. This made his big face, high above him, look happy.

[*:*]

He was frustrated. This case would simply not resolve. Was not even close to resolving. Refused to. And he had begun to hate that limp. It did not belong to someone that size. A limp like that was an old man’s limp, an old man’s pain, had no business in a boy this age. And the face, something in that face unsettled him, it seemed well aware of its body’s fate, bearing it well, resigned. Not a boy’s face at all.

And he would not speak. Not for anything. A soft moan or a grunt now and then was all he’d accomplished, and even that was not an accomplishment since according to his mother he had been able to make those sounds all along. Hence, no progress. None.

Things had been so crystally clear, initially. Of course. It was the trauma, what else could it possibly be? And he would fix him, profitably. The city would foot the bill, Anne had ascertained that in writing.

At first everything went according to plan, by the books. Beautifully.

To establish communication with the kid he had him duplicate his hand motions, and that worked well. The kid was not stupid, he had caught on quickly enough. Then he had him select colors and shapes from among many, based on what he showed him, and he was good at that, too. Had no problem. And he would respond to his voice, look up at him when he heard it, he would walk, limp, over and touch the various things he pointed to, and he would bring him the mates of the things he showed him, all of it just fine. He was indeed quite bright. In fact, he would do just about everything expected of him, except talk.

He had a spell of doubting that the boy had ever spoken, although his mother repeatedly stated, in answer to his repeated questions, that he had been quite vocal before the accident, as she preferred to call the attack. His mother’s assertions notwithstanding, he had had him checked for physical defects. Maybe the problem had turned pathological now. Tests came back. No, all was well. It was psychological.

He tried everything he knew. He consulted his books and journals. Lots of them. Tried again. Still not a word. There were times he felt—at times he was even convinced—that the boy did this just to spite him, to prove him wrong. But, of course, that was not the case. He just had not found the right cause yet, nor the right cure. Had to keep looking. And what the hell, the city paid by the hour.

[*:*]

By that summer Brad’s hands showed no sign of the accident. They looked like any young boy’s hands, fresh and active. But to Elsie, who had watched them transform from dimpled baby paws to slender fingers in baby disguise, who had watched the miracle they had performed on the keyboard, they seemed not right. To her they held a gnarled quality, as if some shadow lived in them or near them. She would often take his hands in hers and hold them, to try to melt the ice that made them forget.

And still he would not speak. Dr. Carder informed them that what they needed now was patience. Patience? It had been six months. They could not, he said,—she heard that as “had no right to”—expect instant results. It would take time. They were making good progress, he claimed.

She still could not play. At times she would sit on her bed and stare at the keyboard in its corner. And she would long to play again, long to continue learning, but the thought, as if it were rooted in pain, filled her with repulsion, with her brother’s screams, and with the loss of Leonard. And she would remember the stains left on fake ivory, that she had scrubbed and scrubbed but that still lingered as memory.

[*:*]

Bill thought the people at the hospital were pretty nice. But the food was awful. The clothes too. Hospital food. Hospital clothes. Well, it was a hospital. The worst thing was he had to stay with all these crazies. Like the fat little man who laughed at the obituaries, at accidents. Not just giggle, but belly roar. Like the old Polish guy, or was he Greek, who stared at the corner all day, I mean, all day?

They hadn’t been so nice at first. First they had treated him just like one of the crazies, as if he belonged here. He was not crazy. Not in the least. He had only done God’s bidding, and that was not crazy, that was necessary. But they wouldn’t see it that way.

He had tried to make them understand. That was not easy. He tried again. They didn’t get it. Tried again. Gave up. Stopped talking about it. He realized that they would never understand.

Then they grew nicer and he felt pretty good about it all. Although all hell would break loose if he didn’t take his pills. Happened once, no, didn’t feel like it that night, no, wasn’t going to take them. Must have been three guys holding him and a fourth shoving them down his throat, a fifth holding his nose so he couldn’t breathe. He just plain had to swallow in order to get some air, and down went the pills. They didn’t like you not taking the pills.

Beth came now and them. She didn’t understand either. He tried to tell her once, tried to explain, but she started to cry and left. She didn’t come back for a while then. But now she was back, every Sunday he thought it was. Or every other Sunday, he didn’t rightly remember. It’s almost noon now and he gets to watch TV in the afternoons, after lunch and the pills.

[*:*]

They heard from the hospital. Bill was doing well. Very well, they said. Maybe even ready to come home soon.

Elsie would not even hear about that. She was dead set against him ever setting foot in the house again, and had threatened Beth that she would leave if that ever happened.

“Elsie, how can you say that? He’s your own father.”

“He is a monster who should be locked away forever.”

Her daughter’s reply stunned her into silence. She looked at Elsie and shook her head slowly, then wiped her hands yet again on her apron. “That is not the Christian way,” she said. “Bill couldn’t help what he did.”

“He knew what he did. He’s just blaming God for it.”

“Elsie! He was a sick man. It was his illness made him do it.”

“Nobody’s that sick. Nobody is so sick they will mutilate their own son.”

“He didn’t know what he was doing. That’s what the doctors say.”

“And what else do the doctors say? That he’s all well now, that he’s ready to come home? That it will never happen again?”

“They have wonderful new medicines now.”

“Have they discovered why he did it? Can they guarantee that he will never do it again?”

“I haven’t asked them specifically.”

“I don’t trust the doctors, mom. I don’t think they know why Bill has a monster inside, why he is a monster inside. I don’t think they can cure him. Ever.”

“How can you say that? You must give him a chance.”

“Give him a chance? Give him a chance? Like you? When did he start beating you? How many chances did you give him? And where did that get you? How often did you give him another chance while you were still covered with bruises?”

“That was different.”

“Different? How was that different? He was a monster who beat you up when he felt like it, who for some reason did not attack his children until he mutilated Brad.”

“Don’t use that word.”

“Which word? Mutilated? He mutilated his son, mom. Face it. He mutilated his son.”

She started to cry. “He did not know what he was doing.”

“I think he knew. I think he knew very well. I think he blames God to get off the hook. I will never live under the same roof as him. If you let him back in the house, I’m gone. I’m sorry, mom, but I mean it.”

[*:*]

And Elsie would watch her mom start to cry again. Beth couldn’t face that she had married a monster.

Elsie looked to Karen for help, but soon realized that she sided with Beth. Yes, medical science had come up with new drugs that could make Bill normal again. Yes, but could these drugs erase the monster inside? No, not erase perhaps, but suppress. So you’re saying that if he forgot to take his pill one day, we’re all in danger? Oh, not as drastic as that, of course not. But then Beth would make sure he took his pills, right? Why couldn’t they keep him where he was? Not enough room, too many people needed treatment more than Bill. Believe me, Bill was getting much, much better. He would be ready to come home soon. It would be all right, believe me.

Elsie did not believe.

And Elsie thought about leaving. But could she in fact leave? And she looked over at her brother, silently piecing his toy together across the room. Could she leave him? Especially if Bill came back? Of course not. And she hoped the doctors would change their minds.

[*:*]

But they didn’t. Late that August Beth told her that Bill was coming for a visit, and everything must be normal. The doctors said so. Everyone must be home. And would she please, please, try to understand.

Elsie, who had lost her father that night so long ago now when he hit her mother with the baseball bat, saw no trace of him as he stepped out of the cab. All she saw was monster. It was a bit thinner, a little grayer, but still looming as he was helped into the house by a male nurse.

“I’ll be back at seven to pick him up, Mrs. Reilly,” he said. Elsie heard the ambulance drive away down the street, sound fading, then gone. And there was Bill, in their front room again. Beth just stood there, drying her hands on her apron, looking at her husband.

Bill looked at her, then looked around the room, at his children, at Elsie. Elsie looked away. At Brad. He didn’t move. As if a spell was working. Beth finally broke it.

“Bill. Welcome home. Sit down, please. Let me get you some coffee.”

“That would be nice.”

He even sounded like a stranger. Not like Bill at all. He sounded remote. Then Beth took his arm and led him over to his old spot, where he sat down. He saw the remote control. Picked it up. Turned the TV on. Elsie wondered how long she would have to sit here for things to be considered “normal.” Normal, she thought. That’s a joke. This isn’t normal. Normal is no one but him in the room. That’s normal. This is a farce. She glanced over at Brad.

Brad stood very still. His eyes were wide and fixed on Bill. Frozen on that face, she could see the scream that refused to come, unthawed in his throat.

She took his hand and quickly dragged him up the stairs and into their room. She shut the door. What on earth should she do? She had no idea. So she did nothing, just stayed there.

Seven o’clock arrived and the ambulance came. They helped Bill into the back of it, then drove off and she felt easier.

[*:*]

They told him he was going home for a visit. Why? he asked. Because you’re going home. Why? he asked again. Because you’re getting better. Better? How could be getting better when there never had been anything wrong.

But home. He wasn’t so sure about home. He liked it here now. Why couldn’t he stay? No, they said, you have to get used to going home.

He had to lie down in the back of the ambulance when it took off. He couldn’t see where they were going, but they said he was going home. And then it stopped, and they helped him out. His old house, they said. And he guessed it was, for the door opened and there was Beth. He recognized her, so he guessed it must be his house.

They helped him out of the car and into the front room. They were all there. Elsie and the kids. And Brad. And Beth, wringing her hands as usual. Oh Beth, what’s with those hands?

Then the guys from the hospital left him there. He looked around the room again. It looked friendly, but it didn’t feel friendly. Only Beth felt friendly.

“Bill,” she said. “Welcome home. Sit down, please. Let me get you some coffee.”

“That would be nice.” His voice sounded raspy in this small room. The pills did that.

She took his arm and walked him over to the sofa. Just like the nice people did when they wanted you to move. She asked him to sit down, and he did. Would it be okay to watch TV before lunch he wondered, but there was no nurse around to ask. So he picked up the remote and pressed the power button. It sprung to life. He looked around the room. No one came to shut it off. Must be okay then.

[*:*]

Beth said the doctors thought the visit was a great success, and now Bill would be allowed to visit every Sunday.

She dreaded them. Eleven every Sunday morning they all had to gather in the front room to greet him. He was led in, led over to his seat in the sofa, where Beth would fawn over him for eight hours, until he was led out at seven. Elsie knew that it was only a matter of time now before he would move back into the house.

Bill returned home for good in late October. Elsie felt caged in a situation beyond her control. She burned to simply pack some things, step out the front door, walk down the street, and never come back. But she couldn’t leave Brad. And she could not desert Leonard.

[*Twenty-Four ::

 

She was trying to do her homework.

The room was dark around her little island desk where her lamp cast a white-yellow glow on her books. She tried to concentrate on the figures and their angles on the paper in front of her. Something about angles she was to prove, but couldn’t. Her mind was not on it and she could not make it focus. She heard Brad’s breathing quicken in his bed: he was dreaming again.

She knew at the first sound that someone was turning the door knob. She heard the bolt slip back, releasing the door. Then it swung open slowly. She turned.

He looked haunted. The skin of his face, once full and ruddy, hung in little sacks. His eyes were darker, deeper. He walked into the room without a word. Three steps. Then he stopped. He looked down on the floor where the keyboard had laid once. There he stood still, staring. Elsie held her breath. Bill did not move. She dared a silent, very careful intake of air. Something hung in the balance. She did not move.

Bill looked up and his eyes found her. They seemed somehow lifeless. She willed him to leave but he remained, looking at her. Then he turned and walked over to the crib where Brad was still battling with his ghosts: she could hear him move about, almost like a dog dreaming about the chase. Bill stopped and looked down. For many loud heartbeats. Then he turned and walked out. He didn’t close the door behind him.

She could hear his slippers sliding on the carpet as he made his way to the stairs—he walked without lifting his feet, she reflected. What a thing to notice. Then, finally, Bill all the way down the stairs now, she breathed audibly. Then she stood up and closed the door.

[*:*]

Why was Elsie so scared? He didn’t understand. There was no Devil here now. He walked over to the bed. His little boy. He had saved him. Sleeping so peacefully. Yes, he had done right to listen to the rage. It had been right, as all things God’s are always right. He turned away from the crib and left the room.

[*:*]

Elsie called Karen the following morning.

“He was like a ghost.”

“But he said nothing?”

“No, he just stared.”

“Thanks for letting me know, Elsie. Don’t tell Beth though. I don’t want her to worry. I’ll call the doctor right away.”

[*:*]

The doctor increased his dosage. That would handle it, Karen said, but it didn’t. Once or twice a week she would turn to ice at the sound, and there Bill would be, haunted, staring. He left after a while. Never said a word.

Brad woke up one night as Bill was inspecting him and Elsie could hear the scream struggle to get out. It was a wheezing, a leakage of what never arrived. Elsie could not conceive the terror that tried to escape. She seized Bill’s arm and pulled him away from the crib. Bill did not resist. Instead he turned and left the room. Elsie rushed over to the crib and lifted her brother up into comfort. He was hacking with fear against her shoulder, sobs trying to escape.

[*:*]

Why was Elsie afraid of him? He didn’t understand. He was their savior, just making sure. Making sure that He, the Devil, stayed out, that’s all. That’s what God told him to do. Go up and check on him, make sure there’s only Brad there. So why was she so afraid? He wished her no harm.

[*:*]

She called Karen again.

“Karen, please. It’s not helping.”

“The medicine?”

“Yes. He still comes into the room, stands and stares, looks at me and then walks over to the crib and looks at Brad. Last night Brad woke up with him standing over him and he was terrified. He was shaking and hacking when I picked him up. He was terrified. You’ve got to help me.”

“Okay, Elsie. Calm down. I’ll speak to the doctor again.”

[*Twenty-Five ::

 

The nice people came back. He got to go with them again. He didn’t mind. No, not at all. Things were fine now, he was sure of that. The Devil was staying away, he had made sure of that. His son was free of the Dark One. Beth was crying, though. She shouldn’t do that. There was nothing to be afraid of now.

It wasn’t an ambulance this time. It was a regular car. Big, though. He got to sit in the back. He looked out the window at the house. It was his house, he was sure of that now. Beth was still in the doorway, dark against the lighted inside. He could tell that she was crying still. Silly woman. Then they pulled away from the curb and she was gone. He almost turned his head to look back through the rear window but didn’t.

The evening had turned into night. A light drizzle was falling, and he watched as the headlights carved through the rain. He felt good. He felt safe.

They arrived. Not very many people about. In bed already? They gave him his gown. It wasn’t his, though. He recognized his gown. It had a small blue mark by the washing tag. Usually. Not this one. But they wanted him to put it on, so he did. Was he going to bed? No, come with them.

The room they entered was very light. Like that room the night when they stuck him with the needle. The warm drowsy needle. They wanted him to lie down on a bed. Well, it looked like a bed but it wasn’t. It was more like an operating table, and he felt a little afraid. He looked at them, and tried to find the right question. They spoke before he got a chance to find it, they said not to worry, everything was going to be fine. But everything was already fine so why were they saying that? Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. He didn’t want to lie down and told them so.

They didn’t like his idea much. Not at all. And suddenly there were three or four of them. To help him lie down. He told them again that he didn’t want to, but they did not hear or did not care. So he put up a bit of a fight, for he was still quite strong, but there just wasn’t any use. They were dead set on having him lie down, no matter what. He had to go along. They didn’t trust him though, because they put straps around his wrists and his ankles and tied him to the bed that was more like a table and now he couldn’t do a darn thing about it.

A bright light sprung on above him, almost blinded him. And then someone else came into the room. He could hear the new voice talking out of the shadows. Was he ready? Yes, they answered.

He couldn’t really see but they brought some sort of machine up to the head of the table. He could hear them rolling it across the floor. It stopped just behind his head. Then someone he thought he recognized from the car leaned into the light, he caught a glimpse of the face before it turned dark against the bright light—just like Beth in the doorway—open your mouth, he said, wider. Then he put something hard in it. It tasted like wood. Bite on that, he said. And he did, very afraid now. Careful to do exactly what they said. They put some sort of grease on his temples and rubbed it in a little. Then something cold. He bit on the thing in his mouth and felt the cold metal on his temples and he was very afraid.

The first jolt tore his head open. Cold light screamed in through the ruptures and he heard the wood crack as his teeth convulsed into the block. It was pain for which he had no word. His body arched and strained, his feet and hands turned red from their struggle against straps. His large frame arched again, and his bladder emptied along with his bowels.

Oh Christ, someone said. I thought this guy had been prepped. Was he given sodium pentothal? Someone said no, they had not run the checklist. But Bill didn’t hear that. Bill didn’t hear at all.

The next shock replaced light with blackness. A freezing, electrical blackness. The wooden block fell away as Bill screamed, then as the jaws snapped closed by the current, they bit an inch, give or take, off his tongue, blood pumping all over his nightgown and threatening to drown him as he began to breathe his own blood.

Jesus Christ, the same someone said. Get him out of here and fix him up.

Bill didn’t hear that either. As far as Bill went, he would never hear again. He was cured.

[*:*]

“What’s the matter, Mom?”

Beth was just back from the hospital, sitting on the sofa, sobbing.

“They’re killing him in there.”

“What do you mean?”

“This new treatment they’re giving him, it’s killing him. He’s like, like something gray. He doesn’t even recognize me, Elsie.” She started to cry for real. “He doesn’t even recognize me.”

“What’s this treatment? Some other drug?”

“No,” she stopped to dab her eyes. “They’re doing something with electricity. Shocks. They say it’s working, but I don’t think so.”

She swallowed hard and tried to control herself. “If it’s working, it’s working much too much. And he’s had an accident. It’s just horrible. They said he fell and hit his chin. He bit off his tongue. A big bit of it. It’s just horrible.”

Elsie held her mother as closely as she could, trying to feel guilty.

[*:*]

They were not nice anymore. They had hurt him. And they kept hurting him. But there was nothing he could do. They pricked him with the needle so he couldn’t fight, then they hurt his head again. He was afraid of them now, but he couldn’t run. There was nowhere to run. And they wouldn’t tell him when they were coming for him. So all he could do was to wait. Wait for the little prick in his skin, for the warm wave that made him feel good just before they hurt his head again. And afterwards, it didn’t make him feel better or worse. It made him not feel.

And sometimes they brought a woman who said bill, bill, bill. Then they took her away again. She usually cried. But he could still watch TV after lunch, if he took his pills.

[*:*]

Beth knew she had failed. Her mate was wounded and dying. Time and again she went to visit him, and they brought her this gray what used to be her husband. They sat him down. She sat down. She looked at him and looked for him. He didn’t really look back. She searched for the gruff person she had grown accustomed to. She even searched for the Bill who had hit her and left bruises. But none of them were there. And she couldn’t help herself, she would start to cry and then they would say that she would have to stop crying or leave as she was upsetting the patient. She couldn’t stop, so she would stand up to leave and they would tell him to stand up, too, and he took one look at them, afraid of them, she could tell, stood up right away, and as they led him back to his ward he wouldn’t look back at her.

[*:*]

Elsie did not feel guilty. A little at times, perhaps, when she heard Beth cry in the kitchen, but all she had to do was think about that evening and she felt guilty no more, not in the least. She knew that Beth meant for her to feel at least a bit responsible, but no, not even that would bring about guilt. Yes, it was too bad about Bill, but Beth had not seen him stand there with Brad, his son, for heaven’s sake, in his arms, breaking each finger in turn. That image forgave all. There was no room for guilt.

She looked over at Brad, asleep. Sleeping easier now that Bill was gone. She was certain of that.

[*:*]

For Brad, Elsie was the warmth, the caring he could cling to. She was the center of his world. She was the voice that soothed, the hands that stroked, the arms that hugged.

As for Brad there was only Brad. The chasm below ceaseless water and ceaseless earth remained uncrossable. There were no bridges. No contact. There was only Elsie. And once a week now, the not so friendly man.

He knew the game now, however. The man’s game with all his shapes and colors and things for him to do. He could do it all now, anything he asked him. Still, the man was not friendly. Always looming above him, stooping down toward him. If he had a choice, he would not go there. But, of course, he had no choice. He didn’t really know there were such things as choices.

And every day, only once a day now, Elsie brought him the sweet red stuff. He liked it, it made him feel warm, and a little drowsy. It kept some of the shadows at bay.

[*Twenty-Six ::

 

Dr. Carder was approaching the end of his wits. And the end of a long string of books he had consulted to solve this little enigmatic pest of a boy. He felt no closer to a solution now than he had felt after the first couple of weeks. And to make matters worse, City Services was grumbling about money again and about the time he was taking.

It’s been over a year now, thirteen months to be exact, he was informed—as if he didn’t know. It was taking far too long, and they would not continue to pay much longer. A month, maybe two at most. This on top of their written and very official demand four months ago that he cut back the sessions to once a week. Of course he had protested, at the time, that things like this took time, and that this boy was a very complicated case, and that he could not possibly cure him with one session a week. Well, it’s that or nothing, came their reply in pretty certain, written, and official terms, and he had had no options but to cut back.

He had also cut back the medication at that time, to a smaller dose once a day. It seemed to have little effect anyway, but better keep some going, just in case.

And the worst thing of all: the damn boy still would not talk. Not a word

[*Twenty-Seven ::

 

It was early December. Nearly two years since that night. Elsie stood by his crib and watched him sleep. Watched his little chest rise and fall, slowly and steadily now, his face peaceful. And again she thought about her promise to bring him back. Her vow to Leonard.

Since the accident—she realized she had adopted her mother’s euphemism—she must have whispered his name across the darkness of their room, from her bed to his, at least a thousand times, though lately with less and less hope that he would ever hear, that he would ever wake. And it must have been as many times that she had leaned down over him as he slept and whispered, softly into his ear, “Leonard, Leonard.” But there was no Leonard there.

Now and then she had spoken his name while he was playing in their room, but never so much as a ripple in response, not even a questioning glance. Leonard was gone, really gone. She had lost him. Now there was only Brad, and even he would not talk.

Watching him now, safe and secure in his dreams, she remembered the first time he had spoken, Leonard’s first words. But the memory was filled with music and was by that association so painful that she almost turned away from it. But she had to look, had to, for now, she realized, there was nowhere else to turn. So she held the memory still and tasted it. There was homework in it, a music assignment, Handel. Handel’s Messiah that evening so very long ago now. That was the connection, wasn’t it? She remembered those two words that had scared the wits out of her, “Handel’s Messiah,” said by a Leonard waking up from that other life. And as she looked, and re-lived the memory, it turned less and less painful and in the end almost sweet.

Handel’s Messiah. She straightened and stretched, and as she did the question walked in and presented itself: could it work again?

No, she answered. No, she shook her head and almost said it aloud. No. How could it? He is gone. Leonard is gone. And even Brad was no longer the Brad that had once let Leonard in. This Brad was a damaged version, a broken Brad. No, she shook her head again, Handel would not reach him. How could he possibly?

[*:*]

A storm had brought unexpected early snow, and the city looked pure, she thought, as she walked home from school. Pure, and softer somehow. As if it had had its edge removed—or covered up, she realized. She liked the snow, it made her think of angels.

Handel had not left her all day. She had woken up with him in mind, and he had stayed with her through her four classes. Could she really rule that out? She could not afford to dismiss the possibility, could she now? Oh, but it would be remote, at best. So what?

And now, seeing her house down the street, its white roof like a welcome, she made the decision to try. The decision made, she almost ran the rest of the way.

Beth was in the kitchen, cleaning. She had been crying again, she could tell by her shoulders, there was something defeated about them. There often was lately.

“How are you doing, Mom?”

Beth stopped wiping the counter, looked up, wiped a tear with the edge of her apron, but didn’t answer.

“Mom,” she said. “I know you feel bad about Bill, but I’m sure he’ll be better soon.” That was a lie, and she hoped her mom would not detect it.

Beth gave her a dark look. Or a look Elsie interpreted as dark. On some level it felt like her mother blamed her. Rationally, she knew that she didn’t, but it sometimes felt like it. “Elsie,” she said, “I don’t know.”

“Mom, we have to move on, get on with our lives. Leave Bill up to the doctors.” She wasn’t sure that was the right thing to say.

“How can you say that? I have no life to get on with.”

“Yes, Mom, you do. Look around you. You have five beautiful children, me included. And we need you to take care of us.”

Beth looked up, her face almost startled. And then she smiled, or at least tried to.

“You’re right,” she said. “You’re right. We are still a family, aren’t we? We’re still together.”

“Yes, Mom, we are.”

Beth dried her hands again, then came over to Elsie and hugged her for a long time. “And now I guess you want your sandwich,” she said.

“Yes,” she said. “That would be nice.”

Her mother quickly cleaned the rest of the counter, then set about preparing the sandwich. Elsie, watching her, suddenly got the feeling that some piece, as if from a puzzle—long floating and disjointed—had suddenly found its place again, bringing the kitchen alive. As if her mother were smiling, though she was not. She took her sandwich, kissed her mother on the cheek.

“Brad?” she asked her.

“In your room,” said Beth.

Elsie went upstairs, still resolved to give Mr. Handel a try.

[*:*]

Brad was sitting on the floor and puzzling over a red plastic car that would not stay on top of another, a blue one, no matter what. She said hi and he looked up. Smiled. She hung her backpack over the back of her chair and put her sandwich on the desk. Then she went back out into the hallway to make sure that no one was there. It was empty. Tim and Sarah were watching cartoons on the television, Evelyn was in her room. Beth was still cleaning the kitchen.

She went back into their room and closed the door carefully. Then she took a plastic ruler and wedged it in between the door and the floor to make sure it could not be opened, not easily anyway. She did not want to be disturbed. She tested the door. Yes, it would hold.

Her hands were shaking, she noticed, as she got out her CD player and plugged it in. She found Handel’s Messiah and loaded it in the player, adjusted the headphones for Brad, bigger now, she reflected—he was almost four—and called for him to come. He complied, and she picked him up, so much heavier now than then, and sat him in her lap. Then she fitted the earphones over his ears and pressed Play.

And watched.

But there was no reaction this time. No reaction at all.

[*:*]

The warm noise filled him like wind. A friendly wind. Warm voices, warm strings. Soothing. But soothing with an edge. Instinctively, he listened for a threat he felt but couldn’t isolate. It wasn’t in the noise itself, it was hidden somewhere behind it, or deep within it, covering itself with it. Far deeper than he could hear.

His ears liked the melody and its many harmonies, the swirling strings, the beautiful organ, but his hands disagreed. In his hands the warmth turned to heat and the heat turned to pain. He twitched and flexed his hands to make the pain cease but it would not. With the pain the music turned to drone and his hands to small furnaces which reached up and tore the headphones from his ears in desperation. The noise stopped, and in its absence, his hands began to cool. He looked up at Elsie. Why would she hurt him?

[*:*]

She bent forward so she could see his face, and watched him intently.

Hope against hope.

Nothing. Nothing at all. At first his eyes seemed to wonder at an unfamiliar sound, nothing else. No recognition. She felt the first promise of failure.

In all fairness, she had known that it more than likely would not work. Still, there had been hope, she really had hoped; she realized now that failure loomed. But, who was she fooling, of course there was no reaction from Leonard. Bill had killed him.

Then she noticed his hands. Initially at rest in his lap, they twitched once, then again. Then he flexed them, and again. A few moments later they seemed to blush as with heat. She was about to reach for them when they shot up and ripped the headphones from his head. He threw them on the floor and looked up at her, confused, accusing.

She reached down and retrieved the headphones, tried to put them back on his head, but he would have nothing to do with them. He fought his way off her knee and backed away toward his crib, still confused. Still looking at her and wondering, why would she hurt him? She met his eyes and had no answer. He turned away, then sat down by his little cars again, apparently forgiving her.

[*:*]

She went over the last minute in her mind. And again. Something had happened, that was for sure. Somehow, the music had reached him, or at least his hands. It had touched him where nothing else had. Something had worked. Hope whispered again, perhaps. Yes, she would try again, she had to. Not now though, later.

Brad was back to stacking the red car on top of the blue—he was nothing if not persistent, she thought, intent on his task. She watched his little hands lifting the toy, then carefully placing it on top of the other, slowly, then letting go. And this time it stayed put. He smiled, then looked up and in her direction, happy, she thought, that she had seen his feat. Her experiment forgotten.

[*:*]

She tried again the following day. Again she closed the door and wedged it shut. Then she adjusted the headphones and called for him. He glanced up at her from his Lego project and smiled, then put his plastic bricks down and stood up to walk over to her. Halfway there he noticed what she held in her hands and stopped. No, he did not want to. She pleaded with him for a while but he was adamant. He would not come closer. She said okay, some other time. He relaxed noticeably and returned to his plastic bricks.

She put the CD player and headphones away in her desk drawer and called him again. He looked up again, curious but vaguely mistrustful now. Come here, she said. His eyes remained on her, searching, she knew, for the headphones. Not finding them, he stood up, and came over. She lifted him up and gave him a long hug and told him that she did not want to hurt him, ever, no matter what. He clung to her in return.

Over the next couple of weeks she tried twice, called him over with headphones in plain view. He took one look, shook his head and stayed put. But he would come once she put them away. She tried to understand. There was no doubt, something in the music had touched him, then scared him away. But it had touched him on some deep level, she knew that now. And with that came the new thought: who had it scared? Perhaps it had been Leonard.

It was almost a month later, after the holidays, and after many attempts, that he finally did venture over to her while she still held the headphones in plain view. Had his memory faded? she wondered. Had the ghost left him? She gently placed the headphones over his ears again, and it was as if he anticipated it, for he bent his head forward to receive them. Then she played the music again. She watched him closely, especially his hands. Again his eyes seemed to listen for something, then they relaxed.

Then his hands began to twitch. He flexed his fingers, worked them as if to rid himself of frost. He became agitated, and the hands began to flush, then move for the headphones. This time, however, she reached them before they got there.

They stung. It was as if an electrical charge leaped from his hands to hers. She almost let go but conquered the impulse. His hands were hot and pulsating, cradled in her larger, cooler palms. He relaxed again, as if she were draining them of fear.

The rattle at the door ruptured the moment. Someone was there. The knob turned and the door shook on its hinges. “Elsie?” It was Beth’s voice. She tried the door again. “Elsie, what’s wrong?” The ruler held it in place. The door shook again.

Brad did not notice, he was listening intently now. Elsie did not answer.

“Elsie. Is something wrong?” There was an edge to her voice now, almost a fear. Beth, she realized, faced with a locked door that had always been open, would have no way of understanding. She would have to answer.

The door rattled again, harder this time. “Elsie, why have you locked the door?” She rattled it again, and this time the ruler worked free. Beth almost stumbled into the room, wide-eyed. She stared at Elsie with Brad in her lap.

“Elsie.” She was visibly upset. “What on earth are you doing? Why did you lock the door?” She looked at Brad who, his hands still in Elsie’s, was listening to the Messiah.

Oh God, think fast. She removed the headphones.

“Sorry, mom. I was just listening to music and Brad wanted to hear, too.”

Beth looked at both of them, from one to the other, still not understanding.

“You’re listening to music? That’s why you locked the door?”

“I didn’t want to be disturbed.” That was true.

“Honey, you’ve never locked this door before.”

She had to lie. “But Mom, I have. Lots of times. It’s just that no one’s ever needed to come in before.” Elsie wasn’t sure that made any sense.

“You have?” She looked like she didn’t know what to make of it.

“Sure, Mom.”

“But… but why didn’t you answer? I called you and you didn’t answer.”

Think, girl, think. “He was so peaceful, mom, I just couldn’t disturb him.”

Beth looked skeptical, but seemed to accept her answer at face value. Then she relaxed visibly. “Just don’t do that again, Elsie. Please. It scared me.”

“Sorry.”

Evelyn was peeking in through the door behind her mother. “Mom, I’m hungry.”

Beth turned around. “Okay, honey, I’ll be right there.”

She looked back at Elsie and Brad, who was still sitting in her lap, uncertainty not entirely gone from her eyes, but she said nothing. Then she turned and left.

Elsie put Brad down and stood up to close the door behind her. Then glanced back at him. He seemed to take the intrusion in stride: wondering what it was all about, but calm. He then held his hands out to her and she took them again and cradled them in her palms.

[*:*]

They were talking over coffee. Karen had grown to be so much more to Beth than simply someone employed by City Services to help her; they had become friends. Karen, over the course of Brad’s young life, had become her listener, her adviser, her confidante.

Beth unburdened to her now, almost whispering.

“She’s doing something with Brad,” she said. “I don’t know what, I really have no idea, but why else would she lock the door?”

“She said she didn’t want to be disturbed,” suggested Karen.

“No, I don’t think that was it. I don’t think so.” She brooded on the image. “And Brad, sitting there on her knee. He was listening so intently. You should have seen his face. There was almost something unnatural about it.”

She looked back again at the image. “And Elsie, I know her well, I know her face. There was fear on it when the door came open, you know like you don’t know whether you’ve been found out or not.”

Karen nodded that she understood.

“She scares me a little,” Beth added.

“Elsie?”

“Yes.”

[*:*]

Over the next few days Elsie made him listen to the Messiah several times. Each time his hands began to twitch and then grew hot. And each time Elsie, harboring them in hers, nursed them back to coolness. After a while they didn’t turn so hot anymore, just warm, then they just twitched. Then they twitched less, then not at all. But that was all that happened. There was no waking up, no recognition, no voice. Brad remained silent, and Leonard, her miracle, remained lost.

[*:*]

Brad liked the sounds. Now that they did not hurt his hands, now that Elsie had made the pain go away, they were like a river that entered through his ears and filled him fuller and fuller. And in that softness lay a promise—no, not really a promise: a memory of a promise, or perhaps only a shadow of a memory of a promise, but it made him listen harder, listen for it, look for what it could be. The music whispered and promised and he listened deeper, as deeply as he could. Still, he found nothing, the promise was only air. Nothing to touch, nothing to hold, and whenever he thought he glimpsed something it turned out to be nothing but shadows cast by the promise itself, by the whispering strings, and not what he was looking for—though he didn’t really know he was looking. Then the music stopped and all was gone.

[*:*]

It wasn’t working. Handel wasn’t working.

Brad would listen all right, was even eager to, and would sit very still and listen intently, but apart from his hands not twitching or growing hot anymore, nothing else happened, no matter how many times she played him the Messiah, no matter how happily he listened.

She knew that this was not going to bring Leonard back.

[*Twenty-Eight ::

 

Though he tried and tried, Bill could not remember his father. No, it was worse than that, he could not remember being a child, wasn’t even sure he had had a father.

And, he had misplaced it. What exactly it was that he had misplaced, Bill was not altogether sure, but something, something very important had been misplaced, and he went looking for it.

First among the few things they allowed him to keep by his bed on the ward: his comb, his toothbrush and paste, his watch, some cough drops, the Bible—he had asked for one, at least he thought he had, and they had brought it to him, a used one though, it had underlinings all through it as if those were the only important parts and you didn’t have to read the rest. The Bible made him think of a priest he had known, and much to his surprise he remembered his name: Pastor Lawley. If only he could find this Pastor Lawley, maybe he could ask him what it was he had misplaced.

And he looked in his wallet—which had hardly any money in it, only six one-dollar bills all turned the same way and neatly folded. He looked among the coins in his drawer, forty-six cents, one quarter, two dimes and two pennies, no that made forty-seven. Among the petals from the wilting flowers the nice woman who said bill, bill, oh bill, had brought. He looked under his pillow, and under the blanket, even under the mattress. It wasn’t anywhere.

So he extended his search and began to look through other people’s drawers, under other people’s mattresses, and this didn’t go down too well with the nice people who gave him his medicine. Couldn’t do that.

But what he could do even less was stop looking for that misplaced thing—that thing that made everything all right, that thing that made him strong and certain, that thing now gone that left him hollow and hungry—so he kept right on going. Found his way into the kitchen once, looking through the pots and pans, and that apparently was it, for next he knew came the pin prick and more electricity.

[*Twenty-Nine ::

 

Elsie had tried the Messiah one last time. As usual Brad had been up for it, eager, in fact, to listen. Oh, he liked it all right. Still as a statue on her knee, open eyes not seeing, only listening. It was like he listened with his whole body, but even though she had played it for over twenty minutes, all the way through the second chorus—which she could hear herself, though faintly and muffled, through the earphones on his head, “And He shall purify”—there was nothing. No reaction. Not even a stirring.

She had turned it off: it was not going to happen.

Now she had nowhere to go.

Brad, happy with his musical treat, returned to a picture book Karen had given him for Christmas, all his attention on the trolls. He loved trolls, he did, and this book had nothing but trolls. Beautiful pictures of the big, ugly things. He seemed so content.

Was she to give up then? Was there nothing else to try? If there was, she could not think of it. She felt like she had come up against something rock-solid and uncaring. There was no way through or around it. She looked at Brad again, then around the room as if for something she had missed.

Her eyes fell on her keyboard. Abandoned on its stand in the corner, even a little dusty now—although she did clean it once a week, dust seemed to settle amazingly fast on the black keys. She looked back at Brad, and remembered, shuddered.

That night she dreamed that she was the happiest she had ever been, that Leonard was playing his amazing rendition of Mozart with his little fingers, and in her dream there was no Bill arriving to break any of them. Leonard simply played, and played, and even showed her how he wanted to modify some Handel scores to fit his little fingers. Her friend and soul mate was back, alive and well, and she had never been happier.

She remembered the dream in the morning, sat up in bed with it vivid still, looked over at the keyboard and wondered: What if she could she entice Leonard to play? Could she possibly bring him back that way? If she sat down with Brad, made him play, perhaps Leonard would arrive and take over. For who else would play?

[*:*]

The following evening, once dinner was over and the dishes all done, she made sure that the kids were all occupied with something or other and that Beth didn’t need her for anything.

“No, I’m fine honey.”

“I think I may try to play some again,” she said.

“Your piano?” Beth looked up from her mending, a little surprised.

“Yes. The keyboard.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful,” she said. “It’s been such as long time since you played, not since, since,” and then she swallowed and didn’t go on. Instead she continued her sock-mending with a glittering focus.

“You all right?”

“Yes, sure. You go ahead and play.”

This time she wedged the ruler very carefully under the door. Then, to make sure no one could get in, she tested the door several times. It held firm: there would be no intrusions.

She turned and faced the keyboard. Took a deep breath and walked over to its resting place in the corner. Grasped it with both hands and brought it out and placed it on the floor. This was the first time she had done more than just dust it since the day after the accident when she had scrubbed and scrubbed to rid it of stains. Dark, almost black, stains of dried blood. Leonard’s blood.

She shivered but by an act of sheer will rose above her internal phantom and took a closer look at the keyboard. Dusty indeed. She looked around for something to use as a rag, but there was nothing in the room that would serve.

So she unwedged the ruler, went down to the kitchen and picked up a dust rag from the laundry room.

“Done already?” asked Beth.

“It’s dusty,” said Elsie.

“Ah.”

Back in her room she wedged the door shut again. Tested it. Twice. It held. She sat down and began to dust the keys carefully, virtually one by one.

Brad took notice and grew curious. He left his book of trolls and came over to see what she was doing. Then, as he recognized the keyboard, he slowed, stopped, looked. Took another cautious step, looked at Elsie, uncertain, then back at the black instrument with its white keys.

Elsie finished her cleaning and looked up at Brad, who looked right back, anxiously now.

“Come,” she said.

Another step, and another. Smiling tentatively. Curiosity fighting the unknown within. “Come,” she said again, reaching for him with both arms.

He took the final two steps. Elsie put away the rag, then plugged the keyboard’s electrical cord into the wall socket and turned it on.

“Sit down,” she said.

He would not.

“Please,” she said.

No, this he would not do. He stared at the keys. She waited but he would not sit down, would not touch them. But he recognizes it though, she thought. He really does. She willed him to sit down, willed Leonard to come back, to play, but she did not move him, did not touch him. She knew that she could not force him to do this, it would have to come from within, or she would surely drive Leonard away forever.

Brad stood as if hypnotized by the keys.

Elsie stood up and went back to the corner to bring out the stand. It too was dusty, more so than the keyboard actually, and Elsie retrieved the rag. Brad was still looking at the keyboard, looking up at her every now and then.

She finished dusting off the stand, brought it out into the room and placed the keyboard on top of it. She pulled up her chair, sat down, and tried a fragment of her long-neglected lessons. The melody sounded sweetly out of the small speakers. Brad, more fascinated now than afraid, still watched intently. Elsie also noticed that his hands had begun to twitch, and were slightly flushed. And was there a hunger in his face? Elsie thought so, hoped so.

She stopped playing and looked at him. “Come here,” she said, indicating her lap.

He did not move.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said.

Half a step, maybe.

“Come and sit on my lap.”

Another step brought him to her. She lifted him up and settled him down on her knees. His hands were blushing now, twitching, and he was flexing them. Gently she took each of his hands in hers and held them for a while to cool them down. Kneaded them in hers to still the twitching.

When they had relaxed, she moved them slowly toward the keyboard. He resisted. She moved them harder. He resisted harder. But in her heart she knew that this was the moment. He had come this far willingly, but would not—could not, she realized—take the next step on his own. If she were to open the door—or rather, if he were to—she knew she would have to help him, and she strengthened her grip and firmly moved his hands nearer and nearer the keys.

His arms shook from the strain, he resisted so hard, but she was stronger by far and his hands came nearer and nearer the keys, until, in slow, strained motion, they touched.

At first it was only a wheezing, like an echo of a distant pain many hills away. Then it rose, slowly at first, then faster, then rushing, nearer and nearer to the surface of the present as it gathered strength and speed, and then, attacking, and as if breaking some seal, it entered the room, and he screamed. Fully and loudly, openly. Not a moan, not a whimper. A real, perfectly fantastic modulated scream.

Elsie, shocked at first by the violence of the sudden scream, nevertheless managed to hold his hands to the keys. They burned now, and shook. She could almost feel their pain entering hers—then could in fact feel it. Still he screamed. She tried to absorb it, to draw the pain into her, to ease his agony. She felt she did, she thought she did, her own hands were growing hot and painful. Still he screamed.

And it was the loveliest sound she had ever heard. She held his hands to the keyboard with conviction now. She filled them with love. It was working.

[*:*]

He sat in his sister’s lap seeing the keyboard through a haze, his hands in his lap. The black and white of the keys sprang from the instrument and entered his eyes. Through many veils and relays it finally reached painful memory and called sensation to his fingers. He could feel them itch with the heat, and now he wanted to leave, wanted to bring his hands off to safer ground, but his sister took them now in hers and this calmed them down. She drained the burning, worked the twitching away. Worked her magic.

Still the present entered his eyes and perhaps even fingers and stirred memory. There was danger in those keys, but there was also love in her hands, in precarious balance.

Then her hands betrayed his, and holding them very firmly now, began to move them toward the keys. The burning returned, intensified. The keys turned from threat to actual danger, turned to fire, there to eat his hands, into a row of sharp, hungry teeth. He tried to pull his hands away, but she would not let go, her stronger arms forcing them closer still. Closer and closer to the shadow of memory, then to memory, then—almost touching the keys now—into the big hand methodically snapping and crushing each finger in turn, working not only these fingers out of their sockets but also breaking and snapping those longer, slender fingers of hands he used to know, those hands he had remembered, those hands that now ached to return and that now, with the touch of keys under his skin, came rushing back and forced their way into his broken splinters. The pain of their return was unbearable.

The scream stirred and rose for the surface. It gathered speed, fought for air, labored with pain and murky water, but still it rose, rose like a swimmer nearly drowned, but who with at last a glimpse of surface refuses to let go and now desperately claws his way for it and its air, up there, up there. And so it battled and gathered speed. And then, lungs numb with pain now, it reached the seal, freed the memory that forged it and broke through. And into the air he screamed.

For he no longer had hands. His arms ended in fire. Again he saw, again he heard and felt each of his little fingers break in turn. And then he felt not only his little fingers but his larger fingers too, those that didn’t break after all, those that were still whole, the fingers that remembered and were now fighting their way back, no matter how much it hurt him. And still he screamed. And still his sister held his hands to the keys.

And then his slender hands arrived in full, lingering now within his smaller ones to finally form a bridge across the chasm, to once again let memory across, and at last, by degrees, older memory began replacing the fire. Keys under their skin, his new hands—his remembered hands—soaked and cooled in music, and he felt his fingers relax as the pain made its way for wherever pain goes when it’s done, and slowly those slender fingers began to search for a chord.

They found individual notes, they depressed the keys, and then the chord rang through the small speakers. Then a second chord, then a third, then music.

And it flowed across the chasm separating life from life and up through ceaseless earth and ceaseless water and into an upstairs suburban bedroom, this river of sound. And by now he had stopped screaming, though he had not noticed when.

[*:*]

Then he stopped screaming. Elsie watched as his fingers finally relaxed, then stretched as if from sleep. Then watched how they, as if shy, tentatively sampled the keys under them, testing first one then another, then finally settled into position and struck a chord. Then another. Then another. Then the music. And it filled her, the music. He was back. Thank God, he was back.

“Leonard?”

“Yes,” he answered. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew he was smiling.

It was only at that point that she heard the door. How long had the knocking and rattling been going on? She had no idea.

“Elsie! Elsie! Who’s screaming? Elsie! Why have you locked the door again? Open it! Elsie! Open it!” Her mother was very upset, almost hysterical. But Elsie was very happy that the wedge had held this time.

“Okay,” she answered quite loudly, “It’s okay. Just a second.”

Brad, Leonard again now, stopped playing at her loud voice answering and with near ritual slowness removed his hands from the keys, as if to savor every last drop of playing. She lifted him down from her knee.

“Elsie! What are you doing in there? Who’s screaming? Elsie, open up!”

“Okay, Mom, I’m coming.”

She had trouble unwedging the ruler, the shaking and pushing had lodged it even firmer, but she finally managed, and opened the door. Outside stood Beth, shaken, and Evelyn, wide-eyed with curiosity. Beth looked at Elsie and then around her at Brad, who stood in the middle of the floor, calmly. There was an instant’s relief in her eyes, but it was quickly replaced by anger. “What on earth are you doing in here, Elsie?” It was almost a scream. “Answer me. I want to know. Now!”

Elsie had certainly not planned for this and had no idea what to say. Looking at her mother, though, fear and anger in her eyes, she knew that her answer would be crucial; that something hung in the balance. She was too slow in answering.

“Answer me! What are you doing?”

“Mom, calm down. Please. Everything is all right.”

“I can see that for myself. I can see that. But what were you doing? And what was the screaming? Who was screaming?”

Her wits returned. “Once I got the keyboard all dusted off and set up, I began to play a little. Then Brad, seeing what I was doing, wanted to play too, you know, wanted to touch it, so I sat him on my knee and let him. But when he did he started screaming and screaming. I couldn’t stop him.”

Beth was listening, though frowning, not understanding.

“But, Mom,” Elsie said, looking back at Brad. “Mom, don’t you see? He screamed. He screamed his voice back.”

“What do you mean?”

“His voice is back.”

Beth, still frowning, slowly took it in. Then she looked over at Brad, still standing almost dead-center in the room, still as calmly, and a smile of comprehension spread slowly through her features.

“You mean he can talk again?”

“I think so.”

[*:*]

The full meaning of what Elsie was telling her now arrived at Beth’s door. She nodded and nodded and looked at her youngest son. A miracle. Yes, a miracle had taken place. And, yes, she had heard it herself through the door, for that had not been Elsie screaming. It had been Brad screaming with a real voice. It had come back to him then, his voice was back. Thank you God for that, thank you God.

And it was Elsie who had done it. But Elsie had also done something, she could tell, she had done something she didn’t want her or anyone else to see, for she had locked the door again. She didn’t care though. Brad’s voice was back, and that was what mattered.

Except, there was the one thing: a shadow, alive now, that reached up and kissed her, and so she asked before even thinking about it, “But Elsie, who was playing?”

Elsie didn’t answer at first. Then she said, “Why, me of course.”

[*Thirty ::

 

In an ideal world—in a world where time would have been ample to allow her to make plans and then implement them—she would be nursing two secrets now. But this was not that ideal world and one of the secrets was already out. Beth, for one, now knew that his voice was back. So did the kids. Anyone in the house at the time would have had a hard time not to hear that scream.

The other secret, however, was still intact, and Elsie knew that it would have to stay that way at any cost. And that secret was Brad, or rather, the lack of him.

Elsie discovered this the following morning when Brad stood by her bed at first light, shaking her lightly, whispering Elsie, Elsie, wake up. She woke from the stirring, turned, and found herself looking right into his smiling face.

“Brad? What’s the matter?”

He shook his head, still smiling.

“Brad? What are you doing?”

“No.”

“No, what?”

“It’s not Brad.”

Wide awake now, she eased herself up onto her elbow and rested her head in her hand, then looked at him very closely. “What exactly do you mean?”

“No more Brad, apparently. It’s only me now.”

“Leonard?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, my God. You’re Leonard?”

“Yes.”

“What happened to Brad?”

He was still smiling, “I really don’t know.”

The room was cool in the faint light. Elsie sat up and grabbed her sweater from the back of her chair. She dove into it and sat back on her bed, cross-legged. Then pulled the blanket up over her knees to retain some of her sleepy warmth and took a long look at her brother.

“You are all Leonard? Is that what you’re saying? I mean, you remember everything?”

“As much as before, yes.”

“And there is no Brad left?”

“No, not really. Not that I can find.” He smiled again. “Just this.” He indicated arms and legs.

“Oh, brother.”

“Yes, I know.”

“I don’t have to wake you up anymore?”

“Apparently not.”

“Oh, brother,” she said again. Then, with a smile, “no pun intended.”

“None taken,” said Leonard.

She sighed, “So, now what do we do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re still Brad to everyone else. The little guy who likes Legos.”

“So?”

“You’re the Brad who doesn’t, didn’t, make a sound. Brad who waddles around,” she had stopped thinking of it as limping, “smiling and pulling things off of tables. To the rest of the world you’re a four-year-old boy and all that goes along with that. Don’t you see? And now, if he is gone, what are we going to do? Or more to the point, what are you going to do? Can you play the part?”

His little face grew serious as she watched the mature thought form and settle. “I see what you mean,” he said. He brooded the point some more. “Yes, I see what you mean.”

They were both quiet for some time. Then he said, “And I assume telling them is not an option?”

“Tell them what?”

“Well, the truth. What happened. Who I am.”

“No,” she shook her head. “That is definitely out of the question.”

“Yes, I thought so.”

“How can we? Beth, for one, would never understand, never. Not in million years. And then there is Bill.”

“Bill?”

She didn’t answer.

[*:*]

Jolted by the dream, by the stark realness of it, he awoke. The room was still dark. Not quite morning yet.

It was one of Vivian’s monthly family dinners. One of those boring, drawn-out affairs where her two brothers, Luke and Vance, both successful in business and not very modest about it, would flank him with friendly advice about the real thing in life, money; where their wives, Karen and Alice respectively, would flirt with him, not quite seriously, he figured—though he had never put that theory to the test—but always outrageously. Vivian would blush, the guys would laugh and Leonard would feel not a little embarrassed, which, after all, he thought, was the whole point of it, wasn’t it?

Then he dreamed that he hung up the phone after lying to Vivian about not being able to make the dinner after all, even though her parents would be there, yes, even though he had promised that he would not forget. Then in his dream he turned and looked over at the scores of Handel lying on his coffee table. Then he woke up.

Lying in his bed, it was a crib actually, his hands—fingers interlaced—behind his head, he stared up at the ceiling. What he could make out of the ceiling held an odd mixture of the new and the familiar, as if he knew and didn’t know this particular ceiling. He turned his head and looked through the slats—which seemed like dark bars to him—into the room, its shapes now beginning to reach out of the darkness to greet the gray dawn light by the window. He made out a small study desk underneath it, a chair, clothes strung over the back of it. Another bed. Yes, that would be his sister’s. Sister? Yes, he did have a sister, didn’t he? Elsie. He could barely make out her sleeping shape but could hear her slow and steady breathing clearly. Yes, he certainly had a sister now. He turned his head back toward the ceiling. And then it came to him, out of these dark surroundings, out of this new not quite morning yet. A sweet, sweet certainty: I am alive. I am alive. I am Leonard and I am still alive.

The idea, so impossible and so natural, made perfect sense to him. If for no other reason than that it was undeniably true. He unlaced his fingers and brought one of his hands close to his eyes. Looked at it very closely. A small hand, attached to a small arm. He closed his eyes, as if trying to wake up again. But he was awake, wide awake now, and there was no getting away from it: he was still alive, still himself. Still very much Leonard.

So what had happened? He tried to remember. Tried to pry his way back into the dream he had just had, and which still lingered, quite vivid beneath the surface. He pried his way back to Los Angeles.

He remembered setting out for Long Beach, to see his agent. There had been a phone call. He had spoken to him about a potential recording deal to discuss. Yeah, he had had an offer from Sony Classical. And would he please come down and see him as soon as he could.

And he could remember driving down the Harbor Freeway, not too much traffic, must have been early afternoon, not rush hour anyway—he knew the rush hour and this was not it. Doing the speed limit plus. Then there was a tunnel. Unlit. No light at all, and no remote end that he could make out. But, he thought, there are no tunnels on the Harbor Freeway south of Los Angeles. Then he was here, in bed looking up at the ceiling trying to remember.

He went back to the Harbor Freeway, entered the tunnel again and tried to, but could see nothing inside it. A lightless tunnel on the Harbor Freeway. Then he knew, and the chill of this certainty made him shake a little: the tunnel was death. The tunnel was his death, and he had come through it alive.

He was sure of it. And it did have two sides to it. The one on the Harbor Freeway and the one that let him out again, here. And looking at it from this side, from the side of these little hands and these tiny arms, the tunnel was not lightless. He could see, no, not really see, but he could sense a light, a span of it, bridging some awful chasm, to allow the other side, his old side, to seep through. And his old life, his real life, supplied pictures of hands and piano keys and recitals, and of Vivian, and of phone calls. He did not understand how or why, but he did understand, and with increasing clarity, that he had come across that chasm by way of the light and that now he was Leonard again.

There was no doubt: he had died and was now reborn.

And when he thought about this new life, this life of small arms and hands, he saw big tits with nipples of warm milk and he felt the shit itching in his diapers, felt the hunger and the thirst that made up his early days. And he saw Legos and picture books and Elsie smiling and Beth smiling too, but all of it slightly out of focus, no not out of focus: removed, as if he was looking at someone else’s pictures. Were these Brad’s images then?—the newly born, the yet to gain self-awareness child? And not his. No, he realized, these were not Brad’s pictures. For the excellent reason that there was no Brad. Never had been. These images, too, were Leonard’s. A slightly befuddled Leonard, to be sure, but Leonard nonetheless. For it was he who had felt, had seen, had drunk and swallowed the warm milk—no doubt about it. So why did they seem so remote? He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it was as if Leonard, his real self, had fallen asleep and had only partially woken up—as Brad. And not only that, it was as if that portion of him that had woken up had then been told that he wasn’t Leonard at all, but someone, something else, like this little Brad—which on reflection was a compelling argument, what with a brand new body to prove it. Small arms and hands. Still, that was not true. There was no Brad, never had been. He was still Leonard, had been all along.

Another thought crept up on him, gently, almost: Who, then, was it that had woken up as Leonard at some point? Did this chain go farther back? How far?

He had absolutely no idea, nor any way of finding out, so he let that one go.

He looked over at his sister again, now more visible in the gaining light: Now to tell her about it.

[*:*]

“No,” said Elsie, as if answering herself after some deliberation, “you must remain Brad. Act like, talk like, seem like. There is no other way.”

“For Beth’s sake?”

“Yes. For her sake. More than that, though.”

“What?”

“Do you know what happened to Bill?”

“You mean… my father?”

“Yes. Bill.”

“No.”

“Well, he saw you play, and he went crazy. Literally. They locked him up.”

The picture of a dark shape hurting his hands loomed just out of sight, as if ready to harm him again. Bill went crazy? He tried to understand what he heard and didn’t answer.

Elsie continued. “Mom, as I said, would never understand. She would think… no, she wouldn’t think, she would know, that we were crazy, or that she was crazy, but she would never understand. She would never believe it. In fact, I can’t think of anyone that would believe you, us.” She paused, then added, “For heaven’s sake, I have a very hard time believing it.”

“But don’t you see what this means?”

She nodded slowly, then brushed back the hair that fell in her eyes. “I think I do, but probably not as well as you do.”

“Well, stop and think for a moment. This is totally incredible, Elsie. Here I am, standing right here in a body that’s way too small for me, talking to you as if I had just left LA, feeling like I’ve always felt, like me, Leonard. Don’t you see? It means… it means that I’ve come back from the dead.”

He stopped and thought it over. “No, that’s not it either. It’s—I died but I didn’t die. I, me, myself, I’m still alive, didn’t die.” He looked at her intently. “Elsie, I guess the real point is that death doesn’t kill you. There really is no such thing as death.”

When Elsie didn’t answer right away, he added, “Don’t you see? We can’t keep this a secret. People need to know.”

She didn’t contradict him, just looked at him with still, wondering eyes.

“Don’t you see?” he said again, when she didn’t reply.

“I do. I think I do. And of course, you’re right, we have to tell, eventually. Of course we do. But not right now, not until we’ve figured out the best way to go about it. I have a bad feeling that if we don’t do it the right way, no one will believe you, or worse, they’ll think you’re a lunatic just like Bill and will lock you up too.”

“Excellent choice of words.”

“I mean it.”

Now it was his turn to muse. He could see her reasoning, of course, this was simply too incredible. And not very easily believed, to use an understatement. They would have to go about it the right way, she was right, but he also saw the more immediate implication: Being Brad? That would mean a complete deception, he would have to live a lie. Did he have that in him? He wasn’t very good at fibbing.

“It strikes me as something much easier said than done,” he said at length.

“Playing Brad?”

“Yes.”

“Well, do you have a better suggestion?” She asked the question sincerely.

He took a look at that. “Maybe just a few?”

“Just a few what?”

“Perhaps we can let a few people in on it? I mean, so I don’t have to keep up the charade all the time. At least the guys in the house.”

“No,” said Elsie. “For one, the kids would not understand, and even if they did, they probably would not keep quiet about it. And, as I told you, Beth is out.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Well, think about it,” she said. “If you were Beth, and keep in mind that Mom takes a narrow view of the world, it doesn’t take much to spook her, believe me, and if you discovered that your son Brad, whom you’ve nursed and reared for going on four years now, was gone, and replaced by a Leonard, someone who plays the piano and used to live in Los Angeles? Would you understand? No.” She smiled cheerlessly. “No, her only conclusion, I have no doubt about it, would be that either Brad or Beth, or both, were crazy and in need of medical attention.”

“You are sure about that?”

“Yes,” she said slowly. “I am. Absolutely”

He sighed. “I see what you mean.” Then, “How about Karen?”

“You know about her?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“How?”

He stopped to think. “Don’t know, really. She’s been around a lot.”

“Yes, I know, but I thought, I mean, you were Brad then.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Elsie tried to understand. She had assumed that anything that happened to Brad had not happened to Leonard. Apparently it had. She couldn’t see how, but let it go and returned to his question about whether to tell Karen.

“Maybe,” she said, “but I don’t think so. Besides, that wouldn’t help you much; she’s rarely here anymore, and when she is, Beth is always around too.”

At first blush, the prospect of being Brad had seemed merely unpalatable, but now, facing the grim necessity of it, seeing that he would have to act an alien age, that he would actually have to be a four-year-old—an age he, as Leonard, didn’t understand very well and could not empathize with—the prospect worsened considerably.

“Elsie, seriously, I’m not sure I can pull it off. Even for a day. I don’t know the first thing about being a four-year-old.”

“But you have to, Leonard. We don’t have a choice.”

He had to admit they didn’t have a choice. “Yes, you’re right. I’ll give it a try.” Not with much enthusiasm.

[*:*]

“I think you’d better,” she said later that morning, pointing a teaspoon filled with red sticky stuff at this mouth.

“Why?”

“It’s your prescription.”

“My prescription?”

“From Dr. Carder, for your condition.”

“Listen, Sis, I don’t have a condition anymore. I’ve got my voice back. Not only that,” he said, “I can talk too.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I know, but there’s something wrong with that stuff. It makes me drowsy, cloudy.”

“It does?”

“Yes. It’s a drug.” And, suddenly apprehensive, he asked, “How long have I been taking this stuff?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Forever, I think. Ever since, well, a couple of years.”

“Oh, God. That’s no good. That’s got to stop” And then he added, “Wouldn’t surprise me if I’m addicted to it.”

“You think so?” she said, pouring the liquid back into the brown bottle.

He didn’t answer. Now he was worried about withdrawal.

[*:*]

Beth called Dr. Carder that same morning to tell him the good news. He was delighted, she told Elsie, and wanted to see Brad right away. To test and verify, and whatever else he said, and would she please bring him in right away.

Elsie just about panicked. This was out of the question. They needed time to plan, to work things out, prepare, for if anyone could see through a bad acting job on the part of Leonard, it was Dr. Carder.

Brad had to catch a cold in a hurry, she decided. A really bad one.

“But Dr. Carder wants to see him right away,” she said.

“Mom, he’s ill. He’s got a cold. Come up and take a look at him, he’s miserable,” she said while already on her way herself, too quickly for Beth to follow.

When Beth caught up with her there was no mistaking the cold, Brad was coughing badly, and huddled down in his crib, barely visible from under the blanket. Beth took one look and had to agree. Yes, he must get over his cold first. She called Dr. Carder back and made an appointment for Brad to come in the following Monday. The good doctor was not happy, but Beth turned quite adamant, Brad was ill and needed to get better before he was going anywhere. End of discussion. Elsie was relieved.

[*:*]

The next day and over the weekend, Leonard stuck to their room; whenever Beth or one of the kids came in, Leonard busied himself with Lego designs and performed whatever other tricks he thought would go well with a four-year-old, all the while coughing impressively.

Most of the time, however, was spent revisiting their problem and deliberating their options in hushed terms. A strategy of sorts was forming, over Leonard’s hushed protests.

“Walking around, doing things, building things is the easy part,” she said.

“Easy for you to say.”

“Easier, at least.”

“Easier than what?”

“Easier than learning how to talk, for example. Convincingly.”

He had to agree. They had looked at this before and it was one of the main problems they were anticipating.

Elsie said, “As I see it, the question is: in your situation, now that you have your voice back after two years, should you begin to talk sooner rather than later, and when you do begin, should you then start talking gradually or sort of all at once? We have to figure out what Brad would have done—without you.”

“Okay.” He agreed both because he could see the logic of it and because he really had no other choice. Now that his amazing circumstance had matured into what was in fact his day-to-day existence, he felt unnerved about the whole thing. Trapped, was the descriptive word of choice. There had to be, there simply had to be, another way. Whether Elsie agreed or not. He could not do this, he was growing increasingly convinced of it. And what about the piano? His music. It had gotten lost in these pragmatic discussions because Brad cared not one bit about music, but he, Leonard, burned to play again.

And what also tended to get lost was that he, Leonard, whatever they planned and decided, was not a four-year-old child. He was—hell, how old was he now? He added four to his last LA birthday, wow, he was thirty-two—over thirty years old, with mature needs to go along with that. Except, and this he realized with some relief, no sexual urges. Those were apparently tied to the new hardware. Not ready for prime time yet.

He wasn’t sure how to explain this to Elsie, though. So that she would really understand what he felt like, trapped and dying to play. How could she ever? Not being in his shoes. Then he thought of something else.

“By the way,” he said. “I need a proper bed. This crib is making me claustrophobic.”

She smiled. It was a great smile, and it made him feel better. “I’ll see what I can do. And don’t you ever use that word in public.”

Then he smiled too.

[*Thirty-One ::

 

“Before we bring him in,” said Dr. Carder, who had told them to have Brad wait in the reception area until he had had a chance to speak to them, “please tell me again what happened. I just want to make sure I get all the details straight, so please, tell me moment by moment what happened, as closely as you can remember.”

They did. The mother began, a little introduction, then the daughter, Elsie was it, took over. Well, she was, after all, the firsthand witness. Good-looking too. She’d grown into quite the specimen.

“Okay. I had just finished my homework, and was thinking about what to do next. Brad was playing with his Legos as usual, he always does, loves them. I looked around the room and I saw my keyboard there in the corner and thought that it had been a long time since I had tried to play. Not since, well, the accident, actually.” She looked over at her mother.

“Yes, Elsie stopped practicing after it happened,” she confirmed.

He was taking notes. “Fine. Then what?”

“Well, I wondered if there was still a chance that I might remember some of my lessons. Maybe it was time to start practicing again. So I took it out from the corner and dusted off the keys a bit—it had gathered a lot of dust.”

“She came down to the kitchen for a dust rag,” elaborated her mother.

“Yes, and so had the stand. So I went down to the kitchen, got a dust rag out of the drawer, and dusted off both the keyboard and the stand. Then I set it up, the stand and the keyboard on top of it. Plugged it in. Then I switched the keyboard on, got my lesson book out, and tried one of the lessons.”

Trying to keep up with his notes. Caught up. “Okay. Which lesson did you try?”

“Oh, I don’t remember. It was a scale, going up and down a scale, and something by Mozart, I think, not the full thing, of course, just the simple melody.”

“All right, then what?”

“Then Brad came up behind me and wanted to play, too, you know, like little kids want to do the same things as older kids.”

“And you let him?”

“He wanted me to lift him up into my lap.”

“And you did?”

“Yes.”

“And you let him touch the keys.”

“Yes, I let him touch the keys.”

“And what did he play?” He smiled. A little joke to lighten things up.

“What do you mean? He didn’t play anything. He’s just a kid. How could he?”

“Only kidding,” he said.

He noticed the faint flush, though, on her cheeks, and something in her eyes. Strange reaction to his joke, he thought, almost defensive. He made another note and looked up at her again. She seemed a bit uncomfortable. He wondered why. Maybe she didn’t like doctors, or questions, or appreciative anatomical glances.

“Then what?”

“He touched a few of the keys, just made some noises, and then he started screaming.”

“Did he let go?”

“What?”

“Did he let go of the keys?”

“Oh. Yes. Right away.”

“As he began to scream.”

“Yes.” He made further notes.

“For how long did he continue screaming?”

“I don’t know, twenty seconds, maybe.”

“Twenty full seconds?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“I heard him too,” her mother said. “He screamed for some time, that’s what worried me when I tried to get into her room.”

“Tried to?”

“Yes, well, Elsie had locked the door.”

“Ah.” He made a note of that.

“So I couldn’t get in.”

“Yes, I understand.” Finished his note. “But he screamed for a full twenty seconds?”

“At least,” the mother again.

“Anything else?” He directed the question to both of them.

“No,” said the daughter.

For a while he didn’t say anything. He leaned back in his chair and formed his little pyramid with his hands, while trying to assimilate what he had heard.

And what he had heard was extraordinary. Sensational, in fact. It seemed that the reenactment of the trauma, or an approximation of it, had unlocked what the initial experience had sealed. This, where all his own attempts at unlocking the voice had failed. He had, to be truthful, more or less given up on the kid, had in fact relegated him to his growing waste bin of the inexplicable. And now his voice was back. Just like that.

Looking at the mother and daughter looking back at him—wondering what he was thinking, no doubt—he also realized that he had read about cases similar to this. Ohio somewhere, and Vermont. Had there not also been two cases like this in New York City? Of course he needed to verify the details, but as he recalled there were definite similarities. How had they phrased it in those articles? “The mind locking and then unlocking by approximation of the locking?” Yes, something like that. Fascinating phenomenon. Interesting theory. Did he understand how it worked? To be honest, no, not really, but judging by what he had read, and by what had just unraveled before him, it certainly did seem to work that way.

Mother and daughter were waiting for him to say something. Now and then looking over at each other, uncomfortable with his silence. Then he smiled. Stood up. Turned his back on them and walked over to the window. Clasped his hands behind his back and smiled again. This time to the parking lot. For the boy out in reception was no longer just a patient, he was a study. Someone to explore, document, yes, maybe even polish and publish. And with publication, of course, he could taste it: renown. And with renown came respect, the true currency of his profession.

For it would appear that with this strange little boy finding his voice again, his fortunes had taken a nice turn for the better; what he had yearned for and worked toward for longer than he cared to remember was suddenly, and actually, within reach. This was an opportunity, something to nurse, something to guard, to bring to fruition.

As Brad Reilly’s therapist for the last many months—how long had it been? Fourteen, fifteen months? Something like that—he had studied the Reilly case in some depth. It had interested him a great deal, both professionally and personally. Down in the parking lot a woman in a red coat caught his eye as she dropped her car keys on the ground and stooped to pick them up, couldn’t find them, then found them and opened the door. Relieved, it looked like.

The boy sitting by an electronic piano, pretending to play. The father, believing that he actually played, like a grown-up, hands guided by the Devil, proceeds to break his son’s fingers in a protective rage. The boy loses all control of his vocal chords. Of course, that makes sense. Trauma, some trauma, to be sure, still not that uncommon. Uncommonly deep, though. Now, here the boy regains vocal control under circumstances almost identical to the original incident—the piano, the hands on the keyboard. The mind unlocking by approximation of the locking. That was it, wasn’t it? The woman pulled out of the lot in her blue—or was it very dark gray?—Mercedes.

His eyes followed the car while he felt himself quite blessed.

All he had to do now was to verify and document the details of the case, making sure it cast him in the best possible light, and then publish it. From there, if it was well received, and he felt certain that it would be, he could write his own ticket. Might even mean Council presidency at the next election, coming up soon, he reflected. And a few scores to settle.

Yes, he nodded to himself, then turned and faced the room, mother and daughter still waiting for him to speak, and smiled. Things were falling into place nicely.

[*:*]

He sat down again, placed his elbows on his desk and carefully rebuilt his hand pyramid. Still didn’t speak. Over the years he had found protracted silences to work small wonders in establishing his authority, and this seemed to be no exception. They both regarded him with a healthy dose of awe. And did Elsie, that was her name, wasn’t it, still look uncomfortable? No, he didn’t think so.

He dismantled his pyramid, lifted the intercom receiver and spoke to the nurse.

“Please bring him in now.”

He was in the habit of inflating even the simplest request with as much authority as he could muster, especially with an audience. He did so now too, knowing full well that the nurse more than likely would laugh to herself at what she saw as theatrics; well, did he actually know that she had caught on to him, or did he just suspect that she had? Moot point, really, and to hell with her. It always seemed to underscore his authority and this in turn spawned confidence, didn’t it? And confidence was especially important now, with these visitors, with this boy, with his discovery. Besides, he had to admit, he felt better when he could appear authoritative, seemed to operate better that way, yes, he definitely did—usually.

Having completed his mission, he carefully replaced the receiver, more slowly than usual, and looked back up at his charges.

Mother and sister turned in unison as they heard the door open. The nurse, smiling—did she smile at him in particular, or at his two visitors, or at the room in general?—hard to say, but he thought he detected a trace of ridicule in those very pretty eyes, actually.

She led Brad in, her hand on his left shoulder. With some irritation, he noticed, the boy shook the nurse’s hand away and proceeded on his own toward his desk, limping. Always limping, this boy. He sure as hell isn’t cured of that, now, is he? But there was something else about him, too, something different. He tried to put his finger on it. He knew the boy, knew his face very well from his many sessions with him—his many futile sessions over the last many months. Was it his irritation that had caught his eye? Was it a determination that had not been there before? He watched him closely as he approached his mother and sister. A change, yes, there was a definite change. He was more, more there somehow. How very interesting.

The nurse, realizing that there was nowhere for him to sit, scurried over to the wall and brought a third chair. The mother and sister—her name was definitely Elsie—moved aside indicating that he should sit between them. The nurse placed the chair between the two and stepped back. Brad looked up at her, then at the chair, and climbed up. She tried to give him a hand but again—Irritation? Self-assertion? he could not place the attitude—he refused her assistance.

The little thing, his project now, arranged itself all the way against the back of the chair, so that his legs stuck right out over the edge of the seat, then looked up and caught his eyes straight on. They sat so for a little while, looking at each other. The boy, it seemed, was almost, almost amused?

[*:*]

You remember Dr. Carder, right? Elsie had asked him over the weekend. Yeah, sure he did. Although Brad’s visits had taken place in that other world, the one that was pretty much gone now, the memory of them seemed intact, if a bit fuzzy, he had told her.

Well, you’ve been seeing him weekly for over a year, so you’d better not be too fuzzy about it, she suggested. And when you see him, she had added, really meaning it, whatever you do, don’t be Leonard. She had been adamant about that.

But who else could I be, he had replied, that’s who I am. Meant as a joke, at least partially. Did not go over too well with Sis. I know, but you have to keep Brad in mind all the time. Imagine what he would be like and what he would do and then act that way, it is crucial. Please. Of course, she had been right. And, of course, he had agreed.

So that’s exactly what he was trying to do now: to act like a four-year-old that he really didn’t know from Adam. So how was he supposed to look? Dumb, curious, smart? How would a four-year-old who just got his voice back after a prolonged absence look? Look to a shrink, that is. Damned if he knew. So instead of looking like anything, he now sat watching the doctor on the other side of the desk watching him in return, wondering what kind of impression he was supposed to make and what kind of impression he was actually making.

[*:*]

Again he formed a pyramid with his hands on the desk in front of him. He didn’t know when or where he’d picked up the habit, but it annoyed him when he caught himself at it. The pyramid dissolved and its component parts picked up a pen instead and rolled it slowly between right-hand thumb and index finger. He looked at Brad Reilly again, who was still looking back at him. Still amused? He never had been able to read the boy clearly, and this was even truer now, with that added—what was it: aspect, attitude, ingredient?—that he could swear was present but could not define.

“So Brad,” he said at last, “I hear you’ve got your voice back. Your mom here, and,” he nodded toward his sister, “your sister told me all about it. What do you have to say?”

Brad Reilly maintained his gaze but did not react in any way. Didn’t even flinch.

“Any comments?”

Not a flicker. This was not like him. He was usually quite responsive, quite willing to work along with him during the physical analysis.

“Hello, Brad. So, how are you doing? Do you understand me?”

Still nothing. Just feet sticking out over the edge of the chair and large blue eyes blinking once in a while.

He looked over at Beth Reilly. She looked decidedly uncomfortable now. So, too, he noticed, did Elsie, even more so. Annoyed was actually the better word.

“Do you want to do the cards again?” He asked Brad.

No reaction. Just two bright eyes looking back at him. He turned back to his mother.

“Since it happened, since he got his voice back, has he actually said anything?”

“Why, yes. Well, he screamed.”

“No, I mean, spoken. Words.”

Beth Reilly looked over at her daughter who shook her head. She looked back at the doctor and said, “No.”

He gave the impression of disregarding her answer. Instead he turned to the boy. He looked at him for quite a while. Studied him. Those eyes were bright. As if filled. As if they had something to hide.

“Okay, Brad,” he said. “This is not a fun game. Let’s stop playing it. I know that you understand me quite well, you’re a very bright boy.” Not true, he corrected himself, he was quite run-of-the-mill, but you don’t tell patients that. Still, he knew that he was bright enough to understand him, had had no problem with that for at least the last few months. “Just say a small something for me.”

Still nothing. Instead he dropped his gaze and looked at his shoes in silence. Almost bored, it seemed.

“Fine, then. Just nod that you understand me.”

No reaction. Still scrutinizing his shoes.

Then, suddenly, he shouted, “Brad Reilly!”

The boy’s head snapped up, and looked at him, startled. Always effective, this. Good authoritarian tool.

“So there’s no problem with your hearing anyway.” Mother and daughter jumped too at the impact of the near-scream and he pretended to apologize for his antics, just had to verify, he said. But he kept his eyes on the boy. Interesting. He could have sworn that a shadow of annoyance—could even have been contempt—had just crossed his face, or at least flashed in his eyes. That takes presence, lots of it. He had not observed that before. Something fundamental had changed. As a result of his voice returning? How very interesting. As if his trauma and silence had actually accelerated him in some way, now that it was broken? He seemed more aware, more, more sentient. Was this the result of the unlocking? He leaned back in his chair, keeping his eyes on Brad Reilly. Yes, he thought, making sure to keep the smile off his face, if that notion bore out, this case would make him famous.

He stood up and addressed the mother. “Good to see you again, Mrs. Reilly. Bring him back day after tomorrow. Wednesday,” he looked at his desk calendar, “the twenty-fourth.” Set up an appointment with Anne.” Then he added, by way of explanation, “My nurse.”

They stood up to leave and he offered her his hand. Brad had already maneuvered out of the chair and was heading for the door while they were still shaking hands. He let go, and watched the boy. Yes, he nodded to himself, he understands quite well, remarkably well, in fact. He remained standing as they left, that little limp leading the way.

[*Thirty-Two ::

 

As he had half-expected, Elsie was not a little upset with him when they got home and back upstairs. “Are you out of your mind?” she whispered. “What on earth were you thinking?”

“What do you mean?” he whispered back. A little defensively. “I thought I did great.”

“You call that great? You stonewalled him. They know you understand what people say, you did as Brad for sure, and Dr. Carder, of course, knows that. But now, not a word, not a sign. You acted like he wasn’t even there.”

She slowed down, then continued, “You did not behave like Brad Reilly would have behaved, and I’m sure he noticed. And now he probably wonders why. You’ve made him suspicious, that’s what you did.” She felt her cheeks flush with her agitation.

“Look,” he said. “Take it easy. I’m sorry, okay? I am not good at this. Let’s get that understood right now. I am not good at acting twenty-eight years my junior. And I wasn’t ready for this. I’ll be the first to admit it. I found myself way out there in the open, you know, exposed, in that office. The only safe tack I could think of was to not answer him at all. Honestly, I had no idea how to respond to this guy.” He looked up at his sister, “He’s a shrink for heaven’s sake. I felt it was the safest thing to do. So sue me. Maybe I just don’t like him. Maybe he’s wondering why I won’t listen to what he says. At least I didn’t give anything away. All he really knows is that I didn’t want to answer him.”

Elsie calmed down and felt the blush leave her face. She considered what he had said and had to agree.

“I’m sorry, too,” she said. “You’re probably right. Under the circumstances, it was the best thing to do. But we had better get smart fast. He wants to see you again on Wednesday, which only gives us today and tomorrow. But we had better be ready by then.”

Then she asked, “You can read, right?”

“Of course.”

“Yes, of course you can.” She realized it was a stupid question.

“Why?”

“We need to do some research, and this way we can split the duties.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“The talking thing. I still think our biggest problem, now that you have your voice back, is: when should you begin to talk? How fast should you develop a vocabulary? You know. We’ve gone over this before, but now we must find an answer. By Wednesday. We have to look for cases like yours, if there are any, and see what happened to them. You know, did they pick it up gradually or all at once? We have to find out what would be normal for you. You have to appear normal.”

He nodded, then looked back up at her. “This is really getting complicated,” he said. “Do you really think we can pull this off? To the point of fooling a shrink?” he added.

“This is complicated. We’d better face it.”

Then he had an idea. “Maybe the shrink is someone we could tell what’s actually happened?”

[*:*]

Elsie looked at her little brother, who wasn’t only her little brother but her best friend as well. A friend that she had saved from drowning and now felt responsible for. She didn’t care, didn’t even consider that he was “older” than she was, or that he had lived before; he was still her charge. And looking at him now, at his large intelligent eyes, at his fine arms, at his repaired hands, so vulnerable, she again saw her father, looming and crazy, baseball bat in hand, forcing the wedged door open, no locks can keep him out, and he enters the room to kill him. A monster, her father points at her brother, a monster, he keeps saying, a monster. Ungodly, evil, he says, and he raises the bat to kill the miracle. But before the bat lands her father dissolves into a mist which then becomes the world with all of its fathers and mothers and doctors and social workers and open-mouthed neighbors and stupid teenage girls chasing boys all with bats and she looks on helplessly as they storm through the door and walls and up through the floor and she knows that the world means to rid itself of this monster; for this miracle, this wonderful, beautiful miracle means nothing out there, it’s a mystery, an aberration that has no place there, and all she can do as they proceed is watch.

As the image finally receded, it left in its wake a foreboding that curled itself around her and found her stomach with a strong, cold fist. No. No, she knew, for the sake of her little brother who wasn’t her little brother, they could not tell anyone. No one. Especially not the doctor; the shrink as he kept calling him. She didn’t trust Dr. Carder. He was not an ally.

“No, Leonard,” she said, shaking her head free of the last misty strands, “He would not understand. I’m sure he would listen to you, take careful notes maybe, and then diagnose your illness. But he would not believe you.”

“How do you know that?” The emphasis of the question stung a little.

She looked at him again, trying to reconcile the small, fine lips, the dimpled cheeks and the shining eyes with the veiled and very adult stress on “know.”

“I don’t know that,” she answered. “I don’t know that, as you put it. It’s a feeling, a very strong and very bad feeling.”

“Strong feeling? Feelings? Elsie, on the one hand you’re talking about research here, and now, on the other… what, premonitions?”

“I can’t prove it to you,” she said, “if that’s what you mean. I can’t say for certain that Dr. Carder will lock you up the instant you open your mouth, but there is the chance that he will. That I know. I know it is only a premonition, as you call it, but it tells me that we have to be careful, very careful, and I really believe that.”

“I’m not asking you to prove it. It’s just that we’re talking about my life here and I wish we had something stronger to go on than feelings.”

He was hurting her, did he know that?

“Brad… Leonard. I know it’s your life. But you have to believe me, you’re my life, too. You’re the most important thing there is for me, you’re what I’ve lived for since you were born. You are my miracle as much as your own, and I will do anything to protect you. And I will do whatever I believe to be right to protect you. I don’t care whether you call it feelings, or instinct, or premonition. If those feelings say there is a chance that you’ll be hurt, again, like it or not, I will follow them.”

And it seemed to her that those feelings, those images, still lingered just out of reach, in the shadows of corners, screams and fingers speared at the tiny monster.

He looked at her in silence. Then nodded. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to argue with you. To be honest, I just don’t know whether I can go through with it.”

She ignored the corners. “You must,” she said.

[*:*]

He fell silent. He tried to digest what she had just said, tried to understand her vehement stance against telling and, despite his inclination to simply be himself and tell the world about it, he had to admit that she was probably right; they might well consider him a crazy rambling kid and have him locked up or whatever they do with disturbed children.

Still, how could you keep quiet about this?

It was the scope of the thing that was overwhelming: He was alive. He was actually still alive. There was no getting away from that. She was right, of course it was a miracle. God knows how it had happened. And one that, he also had to admit—and she was right there, too—would be very hard for people to believe. This was reincarnation, wasn’t it? That’s what it was.

Along with that thought, however, flashed before him numerous checkout stands and their racks of tabloids: outrageous headlines vying for attention. And wasn’t there, every week, some new wild proclamation about just this, reincarnation: Elvis returned as a gas station attendant in Oregon. Or, Liz Taylor was actually Cleopatra, new evidence. It was a damn joke and everybody knew it was a damn joke. In fact, you’d keep a close eye on anyone who actually bought one of these things, or even leafed through it, just in case we were not dealing with a full deck. And, also common knowledge, anyone who went so far as to believe these headlines would be certifiable. He’d seen them interviewed now and then on TV, three hundred pounds of white trailer park trash, tornado country somewhere, oh, yes, they believed it all right. They also believed the earth was flat and that man had never set foot on the moon. And the Holocaust was a Jewish conspiracy to fool the world, never happened.

God, he realized, Elsie was right, they never would believe him. What was that fable? He had heard it as a kid. Yes, he remembered. The little boy who cried wolf. Wolf, he realized, had been cried too many times, and too fraudulently, about reincarnation, for anyone to now take it seriously.

[*:*]

“It went pretty well at the doctor’s today, don’t you think?” Beth had taken the evening off and was doing the dishes. She handed the washed and rinsed plate to Elsie, who was drying and putting the dishes away. Brad was asleep upstairs.

“Yes, I think so.”

“Karen said that Dr. Carder is very interested in Brad’s case,” she stressed the word very, “and wants to spend more time with him. She said he wants to help him learn how to talk now.”

Elsie didn’t answer at first. She seemed a bit preoccupied. Beth handed her the next plate. Elsie took it and said, “Did Karen say anything about what we can expect now?”

“What do you mean?” She turned to face her daughter.

“Did she say anything about how long it will be before he’ll talk? What I mean is: will he begin to talk right away or will it be gradual like? I was thinking, even though he lost his voice, he still heard and understood us, so perhaps he has already built a vocabulary from listening to us, and maybe he’ll start to use it all of a sudden.”

Oh, that girl, always trying to figure things out. Who would have thought of that? It was an interesting thought, though.

“I see. No, she didn’t say. But I guess he would know some words already, right? That would make sense. I’ll ask her about that.”

Elsie said fine, finished drying the plate in her hand and put it away. Beth turned back to her dishes.

Things were getting better and better. Her heart had begun to heal from the loss of Bill, who, although she continued to visit him Sundays, still did not recognize her, or if he did, did not show it. But she was getting used to no Bill, and—she had to admit to herself—although there was a hole there, an emptiness around the sofa, an emptiness beside her in bed, it was not such a bad emptiness. There was no anxiety now, no outcome to fear, now that the worst had already happened. And no worry about his anger—and she really had worried about it—she realized now that the worry was gone. She had worried about it more, and longer, than she would ever have thought; most of her married life, in fact. No, when you got right down to it, it was not such a bad thing with Bill in the hospital. And they would probably fix him right.

And she was so happy about Brad. He really was God’s little miracle. God’s wonderful miracle. And she had not realized—not until now that he had found his voice again—how heavily his silence had weighed on her, how deeply it had disturbed her. And to think that he would probably talk real soon. She did not know what had happened, or how, and she really did not care; but it was, she had no doubts, God’s deed. Yes, Elsie had been involved, too, yes, she knew that, but whatever she had done, God had guided her, she was sure of that, too.

The only thing that worried her… no, it wasn’t really a worry, just something that would not altogether go away, something like a shadow that hung around and nudged against her now and then… it was the music. That music she had heard through the door after Brad had stopped screaming. Elsie had lied about that to Dr. Carder. She had told him it was a going up and down a scale, and a simple melody. That had been no simple melody, it had been real music, like you can hear on the radio. And then she heard herself ask again: But Elsie, who was playing? And she heard Elsie answer her: Why, me of course.

When did Elsie learn how to play like that? And why did she keep playing with Brad in such a state? These were bits that would not fit together. But they were also bits that didn’t really matter now, did they? So, she gently pushed them aside and instead turned her thoughts to things not quite so insubstantial: to pots and pans, and Brad, and Elsie’s bright question. Yes, she’s probably right; maybe he knows a whole lot of words already. Maybe he’ll just start talking tomorrow. Just like that. She almost giggled. And the kids, they were doing fine, too, growing, learning.

Yes, the important things were fine, her family, it was still holding together, it was still a family. Let the neighbors talk—oh, she knew they were talking—but what did they know about holding a family together, about trials? Even without a mate, her brood was fine. What could matter more? Certainly not some silly music.

[*Thirty-Three ::

 

They hit the books. Elsie went to the library that evening and brought back a small stack of them. Five to be exact. The Late Talker, Children and Language, How Children Learn, Trauma and the Young, and Speech Impediments and Your Child. That was all they had on the subject, but she was actually surprised to find that much. This was more than they could cover in a day, for sure. But that was all they had, a day. Not even a full day: she could not miss school, at least not the afternoon classes; she had an important test.

They had agreed that they needed to answer two questions: In his case, how soon could he be expected to begin talking, and, when he did, would he begin talking gradually or more or less at once?

Elsie read energetically, flipping from one index entry to the next, diving in and out of the text, hoping to shed some light. Leonard took a more methodical approach and read those chapters that appeared promising from the table of contents. Besides, she discovered, and thank God for that, he was a very fast reader.

By the end of the day they had established that he could start talking pretty much any time he wanted, the cases varied so much. But as to how, the books agreed: whenever talking, for whatever reason, was delayed, it seemed to erupt all at once when it finally arrived.

[*:*]

“You know, Brad did the cutest thing today,” Beth told Elsie that evening as she came back from returning the library books. “This afternoon I went up to check how he was doing, he was being awfully quiet, and there he was, sitting with one of your books in his lap pretending to read. He looked so serious about it, I burst out laughing.”

Oh, God.

[*:*]

“I know,” he said. “I know. It was a mistake.”

“To say the least. For crying out loud, you have to be more careful. Can’t I leave you alone for a minute?”

“Honestly,” he sounded distressed. “I didn’t hear her come up. I was just looking through that book on speech impediments.”

“You were reading.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Officially, you don’t know how, remember?”

“Believe me, Sis, I’m trying to remember. But it is so goddamn hard.” Goddamn sounded very strange coming from lips that innocent. Elsie almost smiled, but kept her attention on her brother. “I don’t know what to do with myself when you’re not here. When you’re here, and we talk, I can forget about this, this…” He looked down at his body and displayed his hands, then looked up at her with large moist eyes that bespoke an anguish that surprised her.

“I can’t play with these stupid Legos or do these silly puzzles. I’m not a four-year-old, Elsie, and I don’t remember the first thing about being one. I’m Leonard, I’m thirty-two years old, for crying out loud.” He tried to smile, but it fell short. “I really don’t think I can go through with this, Elsie. I don’t know if I can act the part.”

Elsie listened, intently now, but did not answer.

“I should be practicing my piano,” he continued, “I should be performing, or reading novels. I should travel the world, or take my girlfriend—or my wife for that matter—out to dinner. This,” he cast his eyes around the room, “isn’t my world.”

Elsie looked at him with fresh eyes. She hadn’t really thought about this, not looked at this through his eyes before, but she could see it now, he was right. He was trapped. And he was unhappy.

[*:*]

Lights were out, he was trying to fall asleep. Couldn’t.

There was no Brad left. Not one iota, not one speck. There was only himself, the same self he had always been, but in a small body; one with a limp and hands that sometimes ached a little when he thought about playing. It was all so fantastic, and it was all such a goddamn disaster.

Elsie did all she could to help, he knew that, and he could appreciate that. And did. But did she really understand? Could she really put herself in his position?

To still be alive was a gift from the gods or God or whatever or whomever it was that had deigned to give him a new lease on life—the cliché arrived uninvited and he smiled at how appropriate it was—and it was of course, simply put, miraculous. And it was something that, when you stopped to think about it, had tremendous ramifications. And he had thought about it: Did this just happen to him as a sort of divine fluke or does it happen to everybody? All the time? And, looking at it, he had the feeling—no, it was more than a feeling, it was a certainty, or at least a close relative—that he was probably not unique, that the old person was always there, on the far side of that chasm, and that—the thought dawned on him again—that there were probably many chasms. Perhaps no end to them. Perhaps immortality.

The more he thought about it, the more he looked at the room around him, and touched the plastic bricks and wooden clubs, and knew that he, Leonard, was the one doing the seeing and touching, the more certain he felt that death was nothing more than a forgetting. That, and the shedding of a body, like a shedding of clothes. Then donning new clothes.

And the new person is the old person, only the new person has completely forgotten this, and that’s what the chasm is all about: forgetting. And if that were the case, then—and this was imperative—then everybody should, had to, know.

That was the fantastic part. The disaster was the captivity. These little arms, these little legs were like bars of a cage. They were not meant to house a person, not a full person—he had trouble catching the concept in a phrase. A body this size was fine for someone unaware of his old self—forgotten on the other side of the chasm—waking up into a new world, from scratch so to speak, but it was not for someone who was already awake, who was still awake in the old world.

He just could not see himself faking it. Not for long anyway. He knew it would drive him crazy, literally.

And, more importantly, he kept coming back to this, he needed to share this miracle with the world. If this was in fact what always took place—and really, how could it be otherwise, how could he be the only one?—if people were reborn like this, then death is nothing but a chasm, a forgetting. A chasm that can be spanned. How, he had no idea, but he was living proof that it could be. And people simply had to know about it.

Could Elsie really understand this, could she grasp the fantastic importance of this? Would she help him even if he decided to go against her wishes and plans (though she didn’t really have any as yet) and tell the world? He didn’t like to put it so bluntly, but did she actually have a choice? She really couldn’t prevent him from talking now, could she?

But for now, he decided, he would keep his promise to her, and instead try to make her see that telling about it was the right thing to do. He fell asleep thinking about how to convince her.

[*:*]

They were both up early the following day.

The appointment with Dr. Carder was at eleven. They would have to leave by ten to be sure to make it on time, for it was snowing outside and traffic would be crawling. Still, this gave them a couple of hours.

Once back in their room after breakfast, he set out to tell her why the world must know. She had planned a tactics session, but seeing how serious he was, she instead listened to his arguments. She spoke little in return, only a soft question now and then. And in the end she did understand, she understood very well and she was very concerned.

In fact, she almost agreed. Almost. But the image of a world out to harm him would not leave her, and as long as her stomach ached at the thought of it, she could not agree. He could not tell. Must not. Not yet. And especially not Dr. Carder. He would be the worst person to tell, that certainty was an almost physical sensation.

Then he listened in turn, and once Elsie had had her say, he put his little hand over his heart and swore to behave, to do all he could to appear as normal as possible with the doctor, and hope to die, perhaps even talk a little. To buy them more time.

He saw, too, that if he—they, she corrected—if they were to tell the world, and in fact be believed, they would have to do it right. They would have to tell the right person, though he still was not convinced that Dr. Carder, or some other shrink, was not that person. They were the most qualified, he argued; Elsie disagreed.

They would have to offer the right information, along with proof. One mistake, a word to the wrong person, or at the wrong time, she stressed, could mean disaster.

“Checkout stands,” he said.

“What?”

“You know, tabloids.” He told her about his musings from the night before, and she nodded.

“Or a padded cell,” she said. “Or worse.”

“What could be worse?” he asked.

“Bill.”

And then she told him what they were doing to him. He shuddered a little.

It was that possibility, that a misstep could make them do it to Leonard as well, that made her stomach hurt.

[*Thirty-Four ::

 

They were seated in the same arrangement as before, mother, son, daughter. Mother smiling, son looking a little uncomfortable, daughter frowning, or trying not to.

He donned his most jovial self and began, then abandoned, a hand pyramid. Instead he leaned forward on his elbows, trying his best to look friendly.

“Hi, Brad.”

“Hi,” he answered, then glanced over at his sister.

Ah. There it is. There’s the voice. Amazing. And he was talking too. He had half-expected that.

“So you do understand what I say?”

The boy nodded. “Yes.”

To his right Beth Reilly was beaming. The stupid woman now a proud mother, he thought.

But he kept his smile in place and addressed her. “Well, this is a delight, Mrs. Reilly. This is very good. Indeed.”

“He has even started to talk a little,” she said, adding a quite unnecessary nugget of information. He could hear that for himself.

“Yes, indeed.” Then to Brad. “So, how do you feel?”

“Fine.” He looked over at his sister again. Odd look. Was it tension? Looked like tension, but he couldn’t make it out. He searched the boy’s face for that presence he had noticed the last time, that veiled amusement, but could not spot it. What then?

“Do you know how old you are?”

“Four. Soon.”

“Good.” Aware of age, he wrote on his pad.

“Sunday,” said the mother.

“What?”

“It’s his fourth birthday. On Sunday.”

“Oh, is it now? Excellent. Excellent.” He finished his note. “Mrs. Reilly.” He put his pen down, then lined it up with the top edge of his pad, carefully, took his time. “With your permission, I would like to do some short tests with Brad.”

“Oh, sure. That’s fine.” Still beaming.

“Good. And it would be much better if I could do these tests in private, without you and your daughter in the room. Is that okay?”

She looked over at her daughter, as if for approval. Her daughter frowned but said nothing. Not consenting, that’s for sure.

“Well,” she hesitated and looked back at the doctor.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re good friends. I’ll take good care of him.”

“Well, I guess that’ll be fine. Now?” she added.

“Yes, we’ll do it now. It’ll only take a little while. Go out, grab a coffee or something. Or you can wait in reception if you want. I’ll let my nurse know when I’m done.”

“We’ll wait just outside,” she said.

He watched them leave. The sister looked back at the boy twice on her way out. She seemed worried but tried to conceal it. Odd. They closed the door behind them and his eyes returned to Brad, who now sat in his much too large chair between the two empty ones.

“Do you know what your name is?”

He remained silent for a while, then said, “Brad.”

“Brad what?”

“Reilly.” He had trouble pronouncing it. Or so it appeared.

“So what is your name?”

He looked a bit annoyed. “Brad Reilly.”

“Good. Good.” He stood up and walked over to the wall cabinet. He picked up a stack of cards with dots on them, the same ones he had used in their physical analysis. He brought them over to the boy and sat down on the chair beside him. “Let’s see if you can count.” He held up one card. “How many dots?”

He looked it for a while. “Three.”

He held up another. “And this one?”

He looked at that one a little longer, as if adding them up. “Six”

“And this?”

A quicker glance. “Four.”

“Good. You do know how to count.” This was getting better and better. He picked up another stack of cards, illustrating adjectives. He held up one that showed snow and an igloo. “Tell me Brad, what do you think of when you see this picture?”

“I don’t know.”

“You have to look at the picture. Here, look at it.”

“Snow.”

“Good. What else?”

“Cold.”

“Excellent.”

“And what about this one?” He held up a picture of a desert, a big sun baking the sand.

“Sand.”

“Good. What else.”

“Camels.”

“Camels?”

He gave his little shoulders a shrug, but did not say anything in reply.

“What else?”

“Hot.”

“Good.”

“And this?” It showed a sea.

“Water?”

“What else?”

“Wet.”

He suppressed a grin. Jesus, he was advanced. “How about this?” He held up a picture of the jungle, animals—a lion, a tiger, a few monkeys—trees and vines.

“Jungle?”

“Sure. What else?”

“Wild.”

Oh, this was remarkable. “Good. Good. Very Good.”

He returned the stack of cards to its shelf, then walked back to his side of the desk, sat down and made some more notes on his pad. Then he leaned back in his chair and gave the boy a long, contemplative look. But he didn’t so much see the boy as his own future, and it was bright, and getting brighter by the minute.

He was remarkable, this Brad Reilly. The trauma had in fact not set him back at all. Quite the opposite. It seemed to have advanced him. How very, very interesting. He almost laughed. This was indeed something of a surprise, and something to pursue. What very fertile ground.

He lifted the receiver and told his nurse to show Mrs. Reilly and daughter back in again. Brad turned as they entered. Brother and sister exchanged glances.

“Mrs. Reilly. You have a remarkable son. Quite remarkable. In fact, I would like to borrow him for a while.” She looked alarmed. “No, no, not now. No. Next Monday. For the day if possible. I would like to do some more extensive testing.”

The woman was a mixture of pride and apprehension. Again, she looked over at the daughter, “I guess that would be fine.”

“Good, that’s settled then. Nurse will call you later with the time, but plan on the whole day.”

“Will you need me here the whole time?”

“I will not need you here at all,” he answered.

“Well,” she said. “Fine then.”

He rose and offered his hand across the desk. She rose too, and took it. “Till then,” he said.

“Thank you doctor.”

Again the little limp scrambled off of his chair and led the way out. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Reilly.”

She half turned, “Goodbye, Dr. Carder.”

His nurse held the door open for them. As the girl, who brought up the rear, reached the open door, she turned and their eyes met. She did not say goodbye.

[*:*]

“How did I do? Better?”

Elsie looked at her little, big brother, mighty pleased with himself.

“A little too well, I think.”

“What do you mean?”

“He seemed, well, almost elated.”

“I think I played him well.”

“I couldn’t tell. I wasn’t there for the whole thing, remember?”

“I know.”

“What did he do while we were out? What did you tell him?”

“He asked me my name, and I told him. He showed me some of the cards with the dots and wondered how many.”

“You told him?”

“Yes. But I took my time about it.”

“How many dots?”

“Six. Well, three, six, and four.”

“What else?”

“He showed me some pictures. One was with snow, one with desert, and the last one showed an ocean, and asked me what they made me think of.”

“And you told him?”

“Yes. After a while.”

“What was his reaction?”

“He seemed pleased enough.”

“That may be an understatement. ‘Mrs. Reilly. You have a remarkable son. Quite remarkable.’ I’m not sure I like it, Leonard.”

“What’s the matter? I thought I played it pretty cool.”

“You’re right. You probably did.” She thought for a while. “But I still don’t like it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I watched him really carefully when we came back into the room. It was as if he had gotten wind of something, something about you that was to his advantage. He looked way pleased, almost drooling.”

“Really, Sis. Aren’t you reading too much into what he said?”

“It’s not what he said as much as how he looked.”

“Happy.”

“More than happy, Leonard. Listen, I’ve got to tell you, I don’t trust him. Not at all. By the time we left today, Carder gave me the feeling that he’s not there to help you, that’s not what he’s drooling about. He’s there to help himself, you’re ‘quite remarkable.’ He’s like a miner who’s struck gold. Something is not right.”

“Feelings again?”

“Yes, feelings. But I know what I saw.”

“Hey, give the guy a break.”

“No, Leonard. Listen to me. It’s your life. How is it that I seem to care about it more than you do?”

His face dropped a little. Well, so it should.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You’re right.”

“Fine.”

They both fell silent. She was worried. He didn’t see the danger, was not convinced of it. How else could he have slipped up this way? From what he had told her, he had revealed too much Leonard. Shown too much intelligence, too much awareness. Carder’s antennae had shot way up, smelling it strongly. Also, she looked at him, Leonard was right, he was not a good actor, he was not good at deception.

Then she said, “We’ve got to get you out of these tests.”

“Think I’ll blow it, huh?”

“Yes.”

He sighed. “Yes, you might be right at that.”

[*:*]

“Mom, he can’t do it.”

“What on earth are you talking about.”

“Brad can’t do those tests.”

“But that’s absolutely ridiculous. What makes you say that?”

“He’s scared of Dr. Carder.”

“Elsie, that’s crazy. He was perfectly fine in his office yesterday.”

“He might have been then, but he cried all last night.”

Beth looked at her daughter, and tried to make some sense out of her. “Because of Dr. Carder?”

“Yes. That’s what he said. He kept saying that he was afraid of the doctor and that the doctor was going to hurt him. He thinks that the tests are going to hurt him.”

“He said that?”

“Not in so many words.”

“But what would he know about the tests?”

“I don’t know, he’s just terrified of them, and of the doctor.”

“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Maybe it’s all the more reason he should go then. After all, Dr. Carder is a doctor.” She was satisfied with that conclusion.

“No, Mom. You can’t make him go. Please.”

“Elsie! What’s gotten in to you? I don’t understand.”

“Brad is terrified of the doctor, Mom. You can’t force him to take those tests. Please. I’m really worried about him. You have to promise.”

She looked at her daughter, quite distraught, pleading. It would be easy to agree, for she was really worried about her brother, but a mother must know better, so she said, “No, I can’t promise that. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Now leave me alone, I have to think about it.” Then she added, “And please explain to Brad, if you can, that there is nothing to be afraid of. I’ll check with Karen, she’ll know what to do.”

[*:*]

“What did she say?”

“Too early to tell, but I don’t think she’s going for it. She’s going to think about it, she said, and check with Karen.”

“Well, it was a bit of a long shot.” He looked up at her. “Doesn’t look too good, does it?”

“No.”

“What are we going to do?”

She sat down on her bed and looked out the window, then back at her brother. “I don’t know, I really don’t know.”

They both fell silent; Elsie, the more pragmatic, searching for a way out and Leonard, the artist, the miracle, caught up in his sister’s mood, sensing her despair, and beginning to sense the danger, undefined as yet.

[*:*]

“Which do you want first,” said Elsie, “the bad news or the worse?” She was not smiling.

Leonard didn’t answer, so she went on.

“The bad news is that the tests are on. Mom spoke with Karen and Karen, I’m not surprised, is all for them, which means Mom has made up her mind: you’re going. There is no way we can get out of it. And not only that: according to Karen, it seems Dr. Carder thinks you’re unique. Unique, no less. He’s taking you on as a research project.”

“A research project?”

“Yes, that’s the worse news. That’s what she said. Apparently, according to Karen, Carder is fascinated with how well you’ve come out of the trauma and how well you now talk and understand. And now he wants to study this phenomena, learn all about it. For the benefit of science. The science bit definitely clinched it for Beth. She gave her consent.”

Yes, her mother would approve, she respected science. In her eyes it was something near-sacred, a cousin of her Christianity. Something you bow to and revere. And, really, how could Elsie argue against it? Beth, seeing this with her eyes, had a valid point. And there was no shaking her decision.

“What kind of tests?”

“I don’t know.”

He made a face and picked at his shirt. For all the miracle, she thought, he’s also a little boy. He looks so lost. He spoke to the floor at first, then lifted his eyes to hers. “So now what? How’re we going to handle this? What the hell am I going to do?” The curse so odd from such small lips.

But it was the question of the hour, all right. What on earth were they going to do? She had thought about little else since talking to her mom, and saw no clear-cut paths, save perhaps one.

“What I think you should do,” she said, while formulating the thought in her head, “is to maintain, as closely as you possibly can, the same vocabulary and level of intelligence that you did on Wednesday. You know, the same words, the same understanding. Nothing more, please, and nothing less. You gave him plenty enough last time.”

“We’ve been over that,” he said, still a little bit sore about it.

“Yes, I know. But it was obviously enough to make you ‘exceptional,’ since he now wants to study you further. Well, be the same exceptional kid you were last time. Don’t recede, but don’t spread it on any thicker either. And don’t, please don’t even think about telling him about Leonard.”

He nodded in agreement.

“Just be and act the same bright kid that impressed him the last time. Please?”

“Sure,” he said.

“No, please don’t be flippant about it. Don’t you see? It’s crucial. You have to agree not to do anything more. You cannot appear too bright, you cannot sit down and play Chopin for him. Even if you don’t agree, Leonard, you have to promise that you’ll play it safe, or, or I’ll never forgive you.”

That made the mark.

“Okay, Elsie. Okay. I’ll do my best.”

She gave him a long look. “Your best may not be good enough here, you must promise me to not change a thing. That you’ll do exactly that.”

He nodded. “I promise.”

[*Thirty-Five ::

 

Beth was up well before dawn that Sunday. It would be cake with lots of whipped cream, and four yellow and blue striped candles for the little birthday boy. She was humming to herself as she broke the eggs and started mixing in the sugar and flour. For her unique little birthday boy. And some cookies, too.

Elsie joined her half an hour later, sleepy still, sniffing the air as she entered the kitchen, then smiled. “Aaah,” she said. The air tingled with baking. “Morning.”

“Morning, sweetheart.”

Elsie found the coffee pot, and poured herself a cup. “Want some?”

“No, thanks. I still have some left.”

Elsie cradled the mug in both hands, blew on the steaming surface, then took a sip. Looked at the box containing Leonard’s new bed, his present. “It’s larger than I thought,” she said. “I think I had better put it together upstairs. I don’t think we can get it up the stairs otherwise.”

“I guess that would be fine, although it would be nicer to have it done when he comes down.”

“Yes, I know. Even so.” She took another sip. “What do you want me to do?”

“Check the cookies in the oven, if you would.”

She opened the oven door and re-tingled the air.

[*Thirty-Six ::

 

So far, the going was easier than anticipated.

Partly because he and Elsie had done some play-acting the night before, when Leonard had had the bright idea, if he might say so himself, for Elsie to be Dr. Carder and conduct mock tests. She had jumped at that and they had spent the rest of the evening—both sitting on his new bed, no less—Elsie wearing Carder’s self-important mien and dreaming up tests and questions, while Leonard did his best to act the same boy he had been last time.

Elsie had Carder down to a T, including the hand pyramids, and now he felt prepared and not so tense.

And partly because many of the tests turned out to be pretty similar to the card stuff they had done last time. The doctor showed him lots of pictures and asked him what they made him think about, and he told him. Nothing outlandish, just colors, numbers, houses, cars, faces, and stuff like that. And more counting dots. Then counting wooden toy bricks. All in all, pretty much the same.

So far.

Then they took the elevator up a couple of floors to where they had some serious sci-fi-type brain scan equipment. Out of some movie. Unbelievable. Carder and some technician in a white coat lifted him up and laid him on a sliding sort of table which moved him into this large circular thing around his head. Eerie, indeed. He had seen these things on PBS or something, but it was a damn sight more impressive in real life. It had almost looked painful on television but didn’t actually hurt at all. Made a lot of noise though, and took a long time. Then back down the elevator to Carder’s office and the dark wooden panels. For the hardest part.

Here Dr. Carder hooked him up to electrodes, or sensors or whatever they were, which attached to his temples and chest with some sticky stuff that he knew would hurt when it came time to remove them, like a Band-Aid. The wires led from him to this machine which traced his reactions on a moving paper graph. Like a lie detector—and he was just about to ask about it when he caught himself: Brad would not know about polygraphs, that was for sure.

Carder then proceeded to ask about the time Bill had broken his fingers. Now, that whole ordeal was not very clear to him. He remembered it vaguely, remembered the pain, but found the whole thing unpleasant, to put it mildly. The doctor prodded him through it while looking closely at his dials and ink trace and taking notes like crazy. Then he asked about when his voice returned, when he had screamed, and again he watched the dials and trace and took more notes. Then he wanted to go over those two incidents again, he said, he wanted all possible detail. This he refused to do and told him so, unequivocally, though in Brad terms. To his credit the doctor dropped the subject.

Carder left him hooked up to all these wires while he asked a lot of other questions which he answered from the rehearsed “average-bright-kid” viewpoint that Elsie and he had agreed upon. This went well, too, he felt. He managed to not understand things that would be too tricky for that bright kid, things like the capital of Sri Lanka, well, he didn’t know that anyway, but it was obvious that Brad would have no idea. He wouldn’t even know Sri Lanka, and he managed to convey the appropriate confusion.

There were other questions like this, things he would have had no way of knowing as Brad. He guessed that Dr. Carder tried to establish some sort of mental age with all this fishing around, and he worked at maintaining the age of the first tests, whatever that age had been.

Then he almost blew it. For some reason Carder asked him—it must have been on his sheet of questions—who his favorite composer was and he, like a complete and robotic ass, answered “Handel.”

Carder’s jaw dropped and his pen just about followed suit. Rather wide shrink eyes looked at him as if he had just given birth to triplets. What, he said. Did you say Handel? He nodded. The looked at the ink trace, the dials, then made a note, made another, looked at him again and then down at his list of questions. A little shaken. Then, luckily—for God, that was a close call—the next question wanted to know who his favorite painter was and he, with what he thought was a small stroke of genius, answered, again, Handel.

At that Carder relaxed noticeably, in fact, he actually looked relieved.

A few more questions and then they were done with the machine. Leonard steeled himself for what he knew would be a painful bout of electrode removal, but gosh, they must have invented some new adhesive stuff he’d never heard about, for this didn’t hurt at all, came off with nary a sigh.

The balance of the day was more tests, more questions and more tests again. Tests for reaction time, for vision and hearing, and several puzzles—he never had been much good at puzzles to begin with so there was little play-acting involved. Carder kept this up until around four in the afternoon when Beth and Elsie came to pick him up.

He looked very pleased with himself behind his big desk. Formed his little pyramid with his hands too, and Leonard knew that he must not look over at Elsie or he would not be able to keep his face straight. Then the good doctor stood up, thanked Beth profusely, and said he wanted to see him again next Monday. Not for the whole day though, a couple of hours would be enough. See Anne on your way out, she’ll find you a slot. Tell her, early afternoon.

[*Thirty-Seven ::

 

Carder studied his notes and charts and tracing with what was rapidly approaching elation. He felt it bubble and race as he read over them again and he was hard-put to stay clinical about it. The boy, in a word, was fantastic. In the ten-year bracket, at least, maybe twelve. And this with zero education, only infantile observation. It was actually hard to believe. No, he corrected himself, it was in fact impossible to believe, had the evidence not been unequivocal. And right here in his notes, on the polygraph printout, and in his taped recording of the day’s session, for his trusted Revox had picked up everything.

The amazing bottom line was that the boy’s trauma had produced, no, not a miracle, but something not far from it: a scientific wonder. A sort of boy savant. A “trauma savant.” Oh, he liked the sound of that. Trauma savant. He rolled it around on his tongue, yes, it had a certain class, a certain something he could not put his finger on, but he liked it. That should be the title of his paper, he decided. The Trauma Savant, by Dr. Anthony Carder; Traumatically Accelerated Development, a Study.

Over the next few days he cancelled all but his critical appointments in order to focus on this task. He had not felt this alive in years. He checked and checked again the boy’s answers to his questions, re-listened to the tapes, cross-checked his notes. The only minor disappointment during these days—it would have been so nice with something remarkable here too, but never mind—were the results of the brain scan which revealed nothing out of the ordinary, just the standard, run-of-the-mill, four-year-old specimen. No evidence there, but then again, he had more than enough as it was, and all as objective as you could want, right in front of him.

He put a fresh sheet of paper in front of him, unscrewed the cap to his fountain pen (this occasion called for the Mont Blanc), and began.

After several false starts, he finally found them, the title and opening paragraph of his paper, which began with a succinct statement of his well-founded conclusion:

 

The Trauma Savant

By Dr. Anthony Carder

 

Traumatically Accelerated Development

A Study

 

Trauma, such as stress or pain, if properly induced, and subsequently released by an approximation of the initial inducement, can substantially accelerate the development of both vocabulary and intelligence in the young child.

 

He held the sheet of paper out in front of him, both hands, at arm’s length, and read it again, aloud, almost reverently. Yes, oh yes, that did sparkle. And yes, this finding was succinctly stunning. It was revolutionary, in fact. And this, he reflected with a small shiver of delight, may even explain why Electro-Convulsive Therapy works, when it does. When the patient seems to improve. It would be the second shock, approximating the first, that does the trick. And if that were the case, and it did make sense, his paper could go a long way toward justifying the practice, or defending it rather, for—somewhat unjustly in his opinion—it had taken a bit of a beating lately.

He, Anthony Carder, Doctor of Psychiatry, would be the knight in shining armor riding, no, storming in to the rescue of this somewhat beleaguered practice. His colleagues would look up to him, revere him, would hang on his every word, would call him for his opinions on this and that. He placed the paper on his desk and read it again: “and subsequently released by an approximation of the initial inducement,” he liked that. Had a ring to it. And, he thought as euphoria touched him again—he almost shook from it—he had the evidence. Four years old, walking with a slight limp. He forced himself to calm down, to once again turn clinical, then he began his paper in earnest.

[*:*]

Now and then during these days, the clinical researcher in him tapped his shoulder ever so lightly and mentioned that perhaps a second test here, or another set of questions there—preferably conducted by someone other than him—would strengthen his argument, and yes, he concurred, that made scientific sense but, he retorted, he could not take that chance. This was the discovery of a decade, perhaps of a century, and you just don’t invite rival miners to verify that the warm, reddish-yellow, gleaming, heavy metal you had just unearthed in abundance was gold, at least not until you had clear title to the land. And the deed wasn’t in his name just yet. So he waived caution aside, and pressed on with his writing. He must publish this paper, and as soon as possible; before any of this leaked out. Publication was his deed. Then everybody could come and observe his wonder for themselves.

By Thursday he could see his way clear through to the end. His reasoning was all in place, documented facts supporting his minor conclusions along the way. And with every paragraph his conviction grew: it would be the crowning achievement of his career. Would be the crowning achievement of anybody’s career. No doubt about that.

Late Friday afternoon he assembled the small sea of paper covering his desk and the floor surrounding it and read through the draft once again. He was finally satisfied.

Although he had tried to keep the style as clinical as he could, his enthusiasm still shone through, here in a turn of phrase, there in the choice of some startling adjective. Oh, what the hell, couldn’t hurt, could it? The important thing was that this was his, all his: his from the outset, his discovery, his research, his paper. Of course it would spawn broader research efforts, he might even head some of them up, and those efforts would of course confirm his findings. But he would always be the herald, the discoverer. His writing deserved to shine.

He read it through again, still polishing as he read. Turning the last page over this time, he knew, really knew, that he would pull it off, that he had as good as pulled it off already. And in becoming style at that. A fresh euphoria rose and he could contain himself no longer.

He felt himself on a wave that kept surging, cresting, and felt that either he would have to vent some of this elation, or explode. He would just have to taste a little glory, gloat just a little, get just a little even, before he finalized it. Besides, he told himself, wouldn’t he have to reserve space in the Journal anyway?

Which is why he asked Anne—who had managed to keep almost everybody at bay this week, and bless her for that—just as she was preparing to leave for the day, to please place a call to Frank Mortimer, the head of the University Psychiatric Department and Chairman of the Council.

It was just a call to alert him to the upcoming paper and to reserve space for it in the Journal. That’s what he told himself, anyway. Just to inform him. To let him know that Anthony Carder was indeed alive and well, popular belief, and Mortimer’s wishes, to the contrary. But as his nurse, dressed to leave, stuck her head through the door to announce that Dr. Mortimer was on the line, he felt his throat constrict as from thirst, and his tongue suddenly seemed large and ungainly. He also saw his hand tremble a little as he reached for and lifted the receiver. It did not make it all the way to his ear.

He swallowed, or tried to, but there was no saliva to swallow. Anne, head still peeking around the door, looked at him questioningly, but he waved her away, I’m fine. But he was not fine. He couldn’t talk, he realized, he needed water. So without a word he put the call on hold, stood up and went to his private restroom and, turning on the faucet, he bent down and drank straight from the tap. Lifting his head again, he saw his reflection stare back at him, chin dripping, eyes wide and worried. He turned off the faucet. Frank. Dr. Mortimer. Once his friend, or so he had thought. Enemies now. A strong word, but accurate.

He could not let go of his reflection. Dried his chin with a hand towel, brushed back his hair with his hand. Had the moment of settling scores finally arrived? Was it fear or triumph that gazed back at him? His eyes twitched a little; worry, he thought. Stress. Just a little. He turned the cold water faucet back on, filled his cupped hands and splashed his face and scalp. Smoothing his hair back, he again re-examined his reflection. Better. Water glistened in his hair now, dripped from his nose. He turned the water off again and reached back for the towel. Much better. Now just get hold of yourself, Anthony. And he tried, very hard. But the moment was too large, he had waited too long, there was no calm to be found, nothing to steady his nerves. Not now. And with Dr. Mortimer on hold—and probably getting ready to hang up—he remained in front of the mirror, gazing at his reflection and through those eyes into a younger, devastated face, looking back at him from another bathroom mirror nearly fourteen years ago. He had just been laughed out of the conference room, crucified by professional ridicule.

[*Thirty-Eight ::

 

What he saw gaze back at him were eyes that seemed too large to belong to him, swollen by shame, welling now with warm humility. Mortimer had helped him write that paper. Mortimer had encouraged his research, had stood by him when doubts set in, had given him the occasional hand with references, had admired his effort, had applauding all the way. But Mortimer—he saw that now, as the first heavy tear left his eye and started out down his cheek—through smiles and winks, through friendly nudges and fatherly concern, had simply set him up.

[*:*]

“Mr. Chairman.” Mortimer, acting now as Council secretary, called attention to the next item on the agenda.

He was impeccably dressed, as usual, in a brown three-piece suit, a blue, stiff, button-down shirt with a red bow tie, expertly tied. His already graying hair was parted with precision, his gold-rimmed reading glasses resting toward the tip of his nose, by design. His accent was so crisp it was almost English. He was a polished, domesticated predator with cleanly parted hair.

Carder felt his heart begin to race: this was his moment. Mortimer would offer his paper for consideration.

“Dr. Mortimer—Mr. Secretary.”

“Yes, Mr. Chairman. The next, and last, item on the agenda is a paper proposed by Dr. Anthony Carder, our freshman colleague.”

“Another paper? We have already accepted three papers for consideration this evening.”

“Yes, Mr. Chairman. I am well aware of that. But this is Doctor Carder’s first effort, and I have promised him we would consider it.”

“You have no right to make promises on behalf of the council.”

“No, Mr. Chairman, I know that. I gave no guarantees.”

“Very well, let’s see it.”

Mortimer then cast him a friendly glance and indicated that this was the time, he should distribute the copies to the council members. He reached down into his briefcase and brought out the stack of his paper, neatly typed and collated between plastic covers. Almost solemnly he arose and walked round the table, handing each one of the by-now weary members—it had been a long meeting—their own copy.

The circle completed, he sat down again, his own copy in front of him on the shiny oak surface. It looked quite impressive. Forty-four pages, double spaced. He should know, he had typed them himself. The room was very quiet. He could hear the rustle of pages turning and his breath was shallow with expectation. He was perspiring slightly. Then the chairman looked up at him, confused, annoyed, and then his world fell apart.

“What is this?” said the Chairman, addressing him.

“What is what, sir?”

“This paper. Is it a joke?”

“No, sir. No. Why?” Someone to his right, he couldn’t make out who, snickered softly.

The chairman was turning a reddish color. “You are either a damn fool, Carder, or you are taking me for one. Which is it?”

“Sir, I don’t understand.” He looked around for support but there was none to be found. Instead, the snickers were spreading around the table. Only Mortimer looked serious, still reading.

“Even the headings are the same,” someone offered.

Headings, what did he mean? Mortimer had suggested the headings. What was wrong with them?

The chairman turned to his left and addressed Mortimer.

“You sponsored this, Mortimer?”

“Yes.”

“Did you even bother to read this paper?”

“No, sir, I’m afraid not.”

That was an outright lie. Carder, outrage gathering in his throat, drew breath to defend himself, but was interrupted by the Chairman’s voice, loud, angry but somewhat amused.

“Obviously not.”

“I’m sorry. Young Carder here was very insistent about it and as we had a slot on the agenda, I acquiesced.”

“Perhaps it would behoove you well to be a little more careful about what you acquiesce to in the future.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Mortimer and looked down.” I am sorry about this.”

Then the Chairman snickered, too, which gave everyone license to laugh, and laugh they did. And still, he had no idea what was wrong with his paper—only that it made him look like a complete idiot. Even Mortimer was giggling behind a delicate, well-manicured hand. Nobody looked at him, only at each other, smiling, snickering.

It was to preserve whatever little dignity remained, if any, that he rushed from the table and into the restroom where he remained until everyone had left, everyone except for Mortimer that is, who had the amazing nerve to remain and to greet him with a smile as he emerged from the restroom.

“Congratulations.”

“Congratulations?” What the hell was he talking about? “For what?”

“You will not be charged,” said Mortimer. “I managed to dissuade the Chairman from filing a formal charge against you with the society,” he said. Then added, in answer to Carder’s obvious confusion, “For plagiarism.”

“Plagiarism?”

Mortimer didn’t answer, simply went on, in his precise language, “He has agreed to only issue a warning. Perhaps,” he suggested, “you should have checked your references a bit better.” Then, with a thin smile and a single nod, he left.

He did not discover the truth until two days later. His theory about viral causes for certain types of deliria had apparently, and unbeknownst to him, already been published. As recently as last August, in fact, when a New York psychiatrist had published a paper in the New York University Journal, an issue he had not read but which he now realized Mortimer had been familiar with when he encouraged him to write the paper.

He had been caught, officially and publicly, at one of the few unforgivables of his profession. Stealing someone’s research. He gave some thought to challenging Mortimer but quickly realized he wouldn’t stand a chance. He had been outmaneuvered. Completely. He later realized that Mortimer must have seen him as a threat to be dealt with. And dealt with he had been. Expertly.

He left the Council even though his resignation had not been invited—wounded dignity demanded it—and withdrew to his practice, to lick his wounds and, as it turned out, to make lots of money. There was enough business to go around; competition was obviously not Mortimer’s problem with him.

Eight years later he was invited to rejoin, his transgression either forgotten or forgiven. Or both. He had mixed feelings about it, but by this time he had learned that in his field, status was not only important, it was everything and, after some deliberation, he accepted.

Mortimer, he was quite surprised to find, was still the secretary. The Council had a new chairman, Dr. Booth.

He attended Council meetings regularly from that point, but to be sure he never offered another paper for consideration.

Mortimer, much to Carder’s delight, was visibly frustrated in his secretarial role. He clearly had designs on the Chair, and it was commonly known that he had not taken being passed over for Booth very well. Mortimer was not well liked.

He did, however, manage to maneuver onto the Council those few who did like him, which is how, two years ago, he finally became the new Chair. Carder opposed this and led a futile movement against Mortimer’s election. It was outvoted by a two-to-one ratio.

They seldom spoke in the meetings and never outside. He privately pitied Mortimer’s patients.

He rediscovered his reflection. Straightened up. This was the time to settle the score. He had struck gold. And with that gold, with his deliciously effective gold, he could take the Chair away from Mortimer at the next election. Not at all impossible. That, he decided, and nothing less, would constitute getting even.

He returned the towel to its rack, and took a last look at himself. Almost calm now.

He was surprised to find Mortimer still on the line.

[*Thirty-Nine ::

 

“Mortimer?”

“Yes.”

“Sorry about that, didn’t mean to keep you waiting.”

“I was about to hang up.”

“Well, I’m sorry. I appreciate you staying on the line.”

“To what do I owe this I must say unexpected pleasure, Anthony?.” He paused for a moment, for effect. Then asked, pointedly, “What is it can I do for you?”

“Well, it seems I’ve had the temerity to put together another paper, one that you did not guide me through,” Carder said, hoping his voice would hold steady all the way through, “and I’m calling to give you a heads-up. I need some space in the Journal. Quite a bit, actually.”

“A paper? You? Oh, dear. I thought you kicked that habit some years back.”

“Some habits die hard, I guess.”

“Apparently. But perhaps we should have the Council review it before we decide to publish it, don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t think. The Council will not reject this paper.”

“Still, that is our policy.”

“I’m well aware of our policy, Frank. Trust me, they will not turn this paper down.”

“Policy is policy.”

“I will take it elsewhere.”

Mortimer didn’t answer.

“Completely up to you,” said Carder.

Another short silence. “You seem very sure of yourself. Perhaps even a tad carried away?”

“Oh, now, I wouldn’t go that far. Besides, those of us who are capable of discovering things for ourselves can afford a little confidence.”

Mortimer didn’t answer—stunned, or had he drawn blood, impossible to tell, but either way was fine with Carder, and encouraged, he continued. “Others, who for reasons we both know well shall remain nameless, but who seem to find sustenance only in humiliating others, as they can never find or write anything original to save their lives, may find that notion a bit hard to digest. But that’s their problem, don’t you think?”

He didn’t know that he had it in him. He was out-Mortimering Mortimer, and he felt a warm glow spreading. The other end remained silent. For the first time that he could remember, Mortimer was at loss for words. Not for long, however.

“I have no idea what you’re up to, Carder, but we’re playing this by the book. I’m not setting any space aside in the Journal until we’ve voted on the paper, and we won’t vote on the paper until it’s on the agenda, which happens to be very crowded over the next few months, if not years.”

“I’ll take it elsewhere,” he said again.

Again, Mortimer fell silent, and Carder knew his dilemma exactly: if the paper was sensational and he had refused to publish, he would lose some serious face. And for Mortimer, this was a life and death issue.

“Or perhaps,” added Carder while he had the upper hand, “could it be that you want to obstruct publication for some unstated reasons of your own.” This was something Mortimer, while serving as Secretary, and even as Chair, had been unofficially accused of, and while he never admitted anything of the sort, and while nothing was ever proven, the issue was nevertheless a sore spot with him, which Carder was well aware of.

“I didn’t say that. I said that we are going by the rules.”

“It would not surprise me, Mortimer, that once I make my topic known to our esteemed colleagues, they may wonder why on earth the Chairman does not want to see it published.”

“What exactly are you saying, Carder?”

He wasn’t exactly sure what he was saying. Then he decided. “I am saying that I am going to circulate a few copies of my paper tomorrow to let some of our members in on it, and I am saying that the paper had better be on the agenda come next Council meeting—Tuesday is it?—or you’ll be doing a very nice job of advertising your intentions.” At that he hung up.

Although his hand was so damp with sweat that it left a wet imprint on the receiver, he felt better about himself than he had in years.

[*:*]

Once he stopped sweating he picked up the receiver again and called Anne at home. She answered. Either the traffic was light or it was later than he thought. Could she, he wondered, by any chance, come in tomorrow, although it was Saturday, to finalize his paper.

Sorry, she said, plans.

It was very, very important, he pleaded—yes, pleaded, he surprised himself again—please. Another ‘please’ into her silence. And, all right, with not quite a sigh, all right.

When he arrived the following morning, she was already in, coffee made, looking very relaxed in jeans and a sweater, looking very, well, good-looking, Carder realized, but soon dismissed the thought. Work to do.

By noon the final draft was finished and this he went over again, word by word, one last time, handing her any corrected pages as he went. By three in the afternoon they were done, not a comma out of place. Thanks so much, Anne, really appreciate you help. And oh, by the way, could she call Mrs. Reilly before she left and postpone Brad’s Monday appointment for a few days, he would not have time to see him then. No problem, she said.

Back at his desk he heard her place the call while he, almost admiring the neat stack of papers on his desk, tried to resist the urge to read them through yet again. Anne’s head appeared at the door, she had reached Elsie, the daughter, no problem with the postponement. She had also told her they would get back to them about the next appointment in a few days or so. Excellent, said Carder. Excellent. Thanks again for your help. Much appreciated.

She smiled a thank you, and left.

Then he gave in, and read it again. Painstakingly. From beginning to end. Nothing to correct. Indeed done. The paper was clear, concise, impressive, revolutionary. Had he not had walking proof (he actually thought, limping proof, and enjoyed the joke) to back up his findings, he himself would have discarded them as bogus, but he did have proof, that was the whole point. And it was all there. Finished.

He gathered the pages, went out to the reception area and made several copies of it, then personally delivered his paper to four of the Council’s members, which took him into the evening. He did not arrive home until eight thirty, famished, but very pleased with the day’s work.

Of course, he did not give Mortimer a copy—though he knew that somehow one would find its way to him.

[*:*]

To say that his paper caused a stir would be to put it mildly. He received the first call later that night: Congratulations, Anthony. Brilliant. Three more calls followed on Sunday. More congratulations, and some questions. He accepted the praise graciously and answered the questions politely. Yes, he agreed, broader studies would have to be made, of course; yes, he could see the ramifications of his theory, of course; and yes, it could revolutionize treatment, he was aware of that too; and no, he had not discussed his findings with anyone outside the Council yet, it would come in due course, let’s keep it in the family until we get it published.

And, indeed, a copy did find its way to Mortimer, for by Tuesday night the agenda did include consideration of his paper, albeit as the last item. Nonetheless: Round One to Carder.

In the end it was a formality, almost a little like a letdown. When the final item on the agenda was called, he distributed fresh, nicely bound copies of The Trauma Savant to all in attendance, including Mortimer this time, and with a smile to boot—a gesture which to his great satisfaction was not wasted on the bastard.

It appeared the whole Council was familiar with the paper by now and the vote was unanimous, even Mortimer voted in favor. He had no other choice, of course, but it felt great nevertheless. It was further voted, as proposed by Dr. Brendor, and seconded by Fletcher, that the next issue of the Journal should be dedicated to his paper.

And that was Round Two to Carder, he thought. He smiled graciously to his colleagues and nodded curtly to Mortimer as he left the meeting.

[*Forty ::

 

Wednesday afternoon. Elsie was not home from school yet and Leonard sat on the floor in their room looking up and out through the window. It was a beautiful day outside. The winter sky was a crisp blue, not the hazy, brown-tinged, washed-out sort of blue you get used to in Los Angeles. This sky was clear, vast, closer somehow, you could tell it consisted of space, colored by air. A single cloud nudged its way into view from the right and slowly glided through his field of vision, to eventually reach the left window jamb to slowly disappear behind it. Its silent progress absorbed him completely and he didn’t stir until it was all out of sight and only then recaptured it by shifting a bit to his right. Until, inevitably, it disappeared again.

He sighed and looked around the room, down at his toys. They might as well have been a ball and chain.

Looked back around the room, at the window, at Elsie’s desk, at his brand new bed, better than the crib, that’s for sure, at the threadbare carpet, at the light-blue curtains. What the hell was he doing here? He could not reconcile himself to his situation. Undeniable though it was, sometimes it was all very dreamlike, leaning toward nightmare. And fantastic though it was, the very long and very short of it was that he was a grown person imprisoned in a small body.

Had it only been three weeks since—since what? he woke up? If felt more like three months, if not years. And he hated the acting. Was lousy at it. Knew it had to be done, sure, that was plain enough, and Elsie was quite convincing. But the clinical side of his brain would not strike a deal with the emotional, no matter how hard he tried, and the emotional wanted out. Wanted Leonard all the way, fully grown, strong and slender fingers, keyboard, concerts.

He looked at his chubby little substitutes. Flexed them. Twenty years of this?

He looked over at Elsie’s clock. She would not be home for another hour. Well, at least he could read. At least he could do that, if he was careful. But he must be very careful, yes Sis. He sighed, and stood up. And this damn leg.

He checked the door to make sure it was closed. Walked over to the pile of library books by Elsie’s desk and fished out Anna Karenina, borrowed by Elsie, ostensibly for herself, then climbed up into her bed, which he found more comfortable than his. He arranged her pillow against the wall and eased himself back into it with relish. Stretched his legs out in front of him, opened the book, found his place and began to read.

[*:*]

He was so quiet up there, always seemed so quiet, and always up in his room. Never down here like the others at his age, they were always getting in her way, little fishes around her feet, she remembered. Not Brad, he seemed to like things best by himself, and with Elsie, of course, always Elsie.

She listened again, not a sound. He must be asleep, she explained to herself, yes, that’s it, and decided to go up and check on him.

There were only Brad and herself in the house this time of day, the rest of her brood all in school now. The kitchen was clean, the living room vacuumed and dusted, the laundry done, the house, and the world outside, was calm and peaceful. A sense of the old familiar pride returned and filled her warmly: yes, they were doing all right after all. The lioness could smile.

Out of a mother’s habit—when someone’s asleep you walk quietly, it was hard enough to nurse them to sleep as it was, you don’t want to do it twice—she ascended the stairs almost noiselessly, and turned left for Elsie’s and Brad’s room.

The door was closed and there was not a sound from the room. He was definitely asleep, the little thing, probably on the floor too. She would put him in his bed.

She opened the door carefully, just a crack at first.

But that was wide enough.

Brad was not sleeping, not at all. He was sitting on Elsie’s bed, propped up against the far wall with a book in his lap, reading. Well, pretending to read, she corrected herself. She softly pushed the door open a little further and was about to enter and say something jolly about it when she realized that her little four-year-old was not pretending. For as his eyes reached the bottom of the page, a practiced hand turned it to let his eyes fall at the top of the next, where they continued their journey, line by line: he was reading.

She gasped audibly.

[*:*]

He looked up at the sudden intake of air and saw her. The door was barely ajar, but far enough to reveal her startled face, partially lit from the window, partially edged by shadow. It stared at him for several long seconds, while shock turned to horror, then withdrew. The door slammed shut and he could hear her running down the stairs.

[*:*]

“Karen, can you come? You have to come. As soon as you can. I think I’m going crazy.”

The edge in her voice was plain, the tip of a scream, and Karen knew that something was very wrong. “Beth. What is it? Tell me.”

“Can you come?”

She looked at her watch. She didn’t have to be downtown until two-thirty. “Okay, give me twenty minutes.”

“Thank God.”

“What is it, Beth?”

“I don’t know, Karen. I think I’m going crazy.”

“It’s all right, Beth, take it easy. I’ll be there soon.” Then she hung up and went to find her purse.

[*:*]

At the other end of the line, Karen hung up. The click loud in her ear, almost like a little pain. Then another click, several, like crackling, then dial tone, louder still, like a slap almost. It brought her back to the room, back from needing Karen more than anything right now. Back to needing Karen more than anything right now.

She moved to return the receiver to its cradle, but never did, distracted instead by her hand, shaking visibly now. It was also out of focus. Oh, God, was she going crazy? She must be going crazy. Must be. But, no. No, she was not losing it. She had seen him, on the bed, reading, that was real, wasn’t it? So she was not a crazy woman, no. She had seen what she had seen, how could she deny that? How could she not trust her eyes? Her eyes did not lie, knew truth, they always had. Even if no one had believed her, not a single one had believed her. Even if Dad had spanked her for lying, when she had told the truth all along. And she had not been crazy then either, had she? She had seen it with her very own eyes.

She hadn’t even known what it meant at the time, what the grunts and the yelps and the little boy’s tears, Ernie was his name, what his tears and pleas had all meant. She had been so young then, so happy in the fresh air of Northern spring, snow still melting, forming little puddles on the dirt road to the church. Mom and Dad a bit under the weather, said they would stay home today, but you go ahead, Beth, you can take your bicycle and still go to church. Mind your dress though, dear, and your shoes, that you don’t splash them. Many puddles out there.

[*Forty-One ::

 

The fields on her left reached for the horizon in a spread of procrastinating snow and dark earth, plowed since harvest last fall, only here and there disturbed by sections unplowed and fallow, where the cold grass, yellow and brown now, peeked up through the snow, sad perhaps to lose their wintry blanket.

The day was so fine she needed to stop and take it in. She braked her bicycle then stepped off carefully. Would not do to soil your shoes. She looked across the fields again and took a deep breath. They smelled of spring, they almost sang in the clear air. A week, at most, and the snow would be gone. And another week, and the deeper snow still lingering in the woods to her left would be gone too. Spring at last, as always, triumphant.

By the side of the road the anemones were already in bloom, and the air. She took another deep breath and smiled. It was filled with sun and the bickering of birds, and she, she felt as pure and as awake as everything she saw and smelled and heard. It was spring for sure and it was Sunday and God, laughing, had returned to their part of the world. She took a last deep breath, smiled again, and carefully remounted her bicycle.

The church came into view as she rounded the hill to her right. They called it Spring Mountain, though it was not at all a mountain, just a large hill; though she found the name very apt today. The pretty white church nestled in the folds of the country as if God had reached down and placed it there, cradled by his creation. She pedaled as fast as she dared now, mindful of puddles of course, for her dress was white and her shoes were white, and any splash, even the tiniest one, would show.

She arrived unstained, a little out of breath, and rolled her bicycle into the stand. She had made it in time.

The service: the hymns, the sermon, were as fine as the air outside. Yes, she knew, on this day God had kissed this wonderful land and she was so happy that she was alive and here to feel all of this. She wanted the service to last forever, it felt so good. But with the last psalm and the last echo of the little organ, folks, her neighbors from near and far, got up, got their things together and slowly made their way out into the April sun, talking politely and solemnly with each other as they filed out. But she couldn’t leave, not yet. She sat almost directly below the beautiful pulpit, the pride of the tiny church, and she examined the colors of the wood, the tears of Jesus etched in the grain of a tree, and she cried a little. She resolved that day to be good always, to be pure.

She was the last to leave and her light steps upon the wooden flooring were followed by tiny, creaking echoes. When she stepped out the sun was warm and everything was still, as if the world was inhaling her. Filled with the promise of life and the goodness of God she retrieved her bicycle and set out for home.

It was not until she was almost halfway there that she realized she had left her purse behind. On the pew where she had sat, she could see it, white and small beside her. She almost cursed, but only almost, it was an almost curse, not a curse, was it, would not do to curse, and she and the world remained blessed. She carefully turned her bicycle around and began to pedal back.

The church was abandoned now except for the pastor’s car and Ernie’s bicycle, same make as hers but older; she knew it well from school, the sole bicycle now in the stands. She parked hers beside his and opened the door. She walked into the same stillness she had left. The same tiny creaky echoes followed her down the aisle. She got to her pew and, yes, just has she had seen it in her mind, there it was.

She retrieved it and would soon have been back out in the spring air again, as light of heart as before, had not a nearly stifled sob reached her ears. She froze and listened. There it was again, coming from the vestry. And again, no longer stifled. And it stung her, to hear such grief on a day like this, and her instinct, her urge, was to succor. She walked towards the vestry door, almost closed.

Just as she got there, about to push the door open and enter, she heard another sound, a voice. It was the pastor. It carried clearly through the crack and it startled her.

“You’re a thief, Ernie.” It was like a crack of a whip, venom to her ears. “You’re a thieving sinner, Ernie. I know you’ve been stealing again from the offertory, I saw you, Ernie.”

She could barely make out Ernie, sobbing, through the tiny crack. Sobbing and nodding yes, yes in agreement.

“You know what happens to sinners don’t you, Ernie?”

She could see him nod again.

“I cannot hear you, Ernie.”

He nodded again and whispered a soft “Yes.”

The pastor was quiet for some time. Then Ernie spoke again, hard to hear among the sniffles. But she did make it out, “Please, please not again.”

The whipping voice again. “It’s your choice, my boy. Purged now or the sinner’s fire for eternity. Which shall it be?”

Ernie didn’t answer.

“Which shall it be, Ernie?”

Still no answer.

“Ernie?”

“Purged now.”

“I can’t hear you, Ernie.”

“Purged now.”

“Please.”

“Purged now, please.”

“Fine. Then I will. Take off your trousers.”

Beth watched in terrified silence as Ernie, a neighbor boy and a classmate, unbuckled his trousers and let them drop. Then he took off his undergarment and she saw, in a glimpse of pungent surprise, his tiny, hairless genitals flash by as he turned and bent forward over the table, his bottom facing the pastor.

She fully expected the pastor to now fetch a cane or a belt to switch poor Ernie and was about to tear herself away from his humiliation when shock compelled her to stay. The details of what followed were never too clear, for disbelief distorted the image. But she saw what she saw, and she knew what she was seeing. It did not matter how much her father later spanked her, or how hard her mother came to deride and threaten her, she could not, would not, deny what she had seen.

And what she saw was the pastor, grunting unnaturally, lowering his own trousers and holding his big… his big thing in his hand, spit on poor Ernie’s bottom and touch him there. Then he acted just like a bull on poor Ernie the little cow. And he spoke as he grunted and as Ernie yelped, and he said “One word of this, to anyone, and you will go to hell. You know that, don’t you, Ernie. The purge is sacred, the purge is between sinner and priest. You know that, don’t you, Ernie. One word is all it takes to ruin the purge forever, to cast the sinner into fire forever. Say that you know it, Ernie. Say it!” And Ernie, whimpering with pain, and bleeding now—she could see a red stain spreading on his buttocks and drawing tiny red rivers down the backs of his legs—managed to whisper, “Yes. Yes. I know.”

“Louder.”

“Yes. I know.”

Beth managed to finally break the spell and she backed away slowly. Then turned and walked down the aisle into a different world, through an unreal ether, and into an April that no longer held promise. She retrieved her bicycle, more sleepwalker than girl now, and set out for home.

She did not see the church fade behind her and vanish as she rounded the foot of Spring Mountain. She would never set foot in the church again.

She pedaled as if possessed: the more distance she could put between herself and what she had witnessed, the safer her breathing. She had no eyes for the road and she fell twice, once swerving through a puddle and once hitting a small rock. Her white dress was soiled with the splattered water and mud from her topples. Her purse was lost, she knew not where, and her eyes wet with the rush of air and by the tears of young, uncomprehending outrage. The beautiful April world of fresh innocence and sunlit beauty had ruptured upon a darkness she had not known, not ever suspected.

She jumped off and dumped her bicycle on the gravel outside her house and rushed into the kitchen. Her parents looked up in surprise as she stormed in, Daddy from his crossword puzzle, still in his morning robe, Mommy from pouring her coffee. She hastily put down the pot and came rushing over.

“What in God’s name? What happened, child?”

Beth rushed towards her mother, to bury herself in her arms, to find a shelter for her devastation. But her mother—and she never forgave her this moment—more concerned about her clean light blue robe than her daughter, backed off so as not to soil it, leaving Beth alone, in the middle of the floor, in her splattered white dress and muddied white shoes, desperately seeking comfort but with nowhere to go.

“What happened, Beth? What happened?” Her mother’s voice reaching her, but from a distance.

“Answer your mother.” Father’s voice, measured, farther away still.

She fainted then, they told her later, and slumped down on the floor. And that is what must have happened. She could still remember the woody smell of the scrubbed oak boards mixed with the odor of soft soap, the kind they used to wash the hand-woven throw rug her head landed on. Then all went black.

[*:*]

“Tell me what happened, child.” Her mother sat by her bed when she came to. It was nearly dark outside. For a moment she wondered if she had been ill, and for how long. What was she doing in bed? Was it morning or evening?

“Please, child,” her mother said. And then the horror returned.

She told her. She told her what she had seen, what she knew she had seen. And her mother grew angrier with every insistence. Her father arrived and her parents held a brief conference just outside her bedroom door in hushed but agitated tones.

Although they meant to keep their voices down—they always did whey they discussed her, their problem child, their retarded girl, their stupid little girl, mother had many names for her when she got upset—their voices soon rose, and now, as always, she could make out most of what they said.

“And now this,” she heard her mother complain.

“It’s not your fault,” consoled her father.

“I can bear her falling behind in school. Again,” she said.

“That is not your fault,” repeated her father. “She only has the brains that God gave her.”

“But now this, this. Lying.” She could tell that her mother was close to tears.

“I know. I know,” said her father, probably patting her shoulder.

Then he came back into the room, followed by her mother, and he demanded that she recant. That she stop her lying now and tell the truth. She cried and maintained that she was already telling the truth. How could she stop doing something she wasn’t doing?

She had never been spanked like that before, and God it hurt. Her father had used a belt on her bare buttocks and she had screamed with the pain. But she would not take it back. She would not lie.

She was not allowed to leave her room until she admitted to lying. But she would not admit, which earned her more thrashings with the belt. But she would not deny what she had said, what she had seen.

This incident formed a wedge between her and her parents which would never dissolve. Her parents were old even then and they had both passed away by the time Ernie, one of many who now brought allegations against the elderly pastor, came forth and testified against him, detailing the events of that April morning, and others besides.

No, she had not been crazy then, she knew what she had seen, she trusted her eyes, and she was not crazy now, although the receiver still shook slightly in her hand, was still slightly out of focus, shimmering through the tears that filled her eyes, beeping at her to put it back.

She did.

[*Forty-Two ::

 

He sat frozen, so much ice against the pillow, still staring at the closed door. The room very still with certainty: she had seen him. There was no doubt about it. And not only had she seen him, more than that: she had understood what she saw. He had seen her eyes. Wide with fear, her face, drained suddenly, leaving him no doubt, none.

He heard her footsteps recede down the stairs, running, a quick stumble, then into the quiet floor below. Then stillness. Then he heard her pick up the telephone.

He looked at the book in his lap and let it fall shut and onto the bed.

He heard her talking, but could not make out the words. On the kitchen phone, he thought. She was telling someone. He could still see her eyes and knew that he had blown it. Really blown it.

For a long while he sat unmoving, staring at the book, unable to think.

The voice of reason was faint at first, unhearable almost, more like an approaching murmur. Then he heard it. It said, yes, Leonard, no doubt you’ve blown it, and yes it is pretty unforgivable all right, no doubt about that either, and no doubt she saw you read, and yes, she knows she saw you read—or, thinks she does. For, really, let’s think rationally about this for just a second now, and let’s ask one important question: could she be absolutely sure, I mean absolutely? Absolutely can sometimes be a tall order. Yes, he answered, truthfully, yes, she was sure—he had seen her eyes and the realization they reflected—absolutely sure, and he meant it. No, it replied, you can’t say that, you cannot afford to say that (with stress on “afford”), for that would mean the end of all hope. No way out. And boy, I can tell you need something to cling to, or you might as well go blow your brains out right now. True enough, that’s exactly what he felt like doing. No, no, no, it said, nothing can be as black as that, such blackness simply does not exist, and besides, wasn’t there any way, any way at all, that what she knew she saw could sort of, well, you know, be reinterpreted?

He listened and took a measure of comfort from the suggestion. Also, some of his faculties returned. She had seen him, that was true, and she had seen him with a book on his lap, reading. Also true. Now, was there any chance that he could know how to read, at his, Brad’s age? Brad was four years old, after all. Could kids read at four? Not normally, he was pretty sure about that, but perhaps, would it not be possible? Of course, he looked down at the book lying shut now on Elsie’s bed, if they could they would not read Anna Karenina. No four-year-old, no matter how precocious, would read Tolstoy. So, say they could read, sort of, what would they read? That’s more like it, said Reason.

He climbed off the bed—he was still shaking a little, he noticed, as he crossed the floor—and returned Anna Karenina to the library pile. Then he looked through Elsie’s books for something more appropriate. Horses, Handel, romance, fairy tales. Ah, fairy tales. He pulled that one out. Pictures, lots of them. That’s better. He climbed back onto the bed and readjusted the pillow.

Any four-year-old can leaf through fairy tales, right? And that’s what Beth saw him “read,” if you can call that reading. And that’s all she saw. But what if she had seen the title, had seen that there were no pictures? He shook his head. No, said Reason, that was not possible, must not be possible.

Now, how do we show Beth what book he was really reading? He and Reason were about to put their heads together on that one when he heard the doorbell ring downstairs.

[*:*]

“What happened, Beth?”

They sat at her kitchen table, Beth’s favorite conversation spot. At first she did not, did not even seem able to, answer, and Karen could tell that something was terribly wrong. Her face was drained of color, and her eyes were fixed on her hands, which kept kneading each other, as if trying to work some pain out of them. Poor woman, she thought, it’s as if she’d seen a specter.

She finally looked up at her and answered, her voice a little too loud, as if she doubted her ability to speak. “I saw him reading, Karen. I saw Brad, up in his room, sitting on Elsie’s bed reading.”

“How do you mean, reading?”

“I mean reading. I mean like a grown-up person reads. He was reading a book.”

“Ah, come on, Beth. Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure, or I wouldn’t have called you.”

The pitch of her voice and her pale face agreed.

“Reading what?”

“A book.”

“What kind of book.”

“I don’t know. A book, a regular book. Blue,” she added.

“And he was reading it?”

“Yes.”

Karen, in crisis mode now, studied Beth closely and saw that there was no doubt about what she thought she had seen. But of course that was impossible, so what had she had actually seen?

“What’s he doing now?” she asked.

“I don’t know, I left him there.”

“Let’s go up and see,” said Karen and made ready to rise.

“No!”

Beth’s intensity startled her. She looked at her in surprise and saw the promise of terror in her eyes. Poor woman, she thought, she was distraught.

“Okay, wait here, I’ll go up and see.”

“It won’t do any good. He saw me, you know. He knows that I’ve seen him.”

“Okay, just wait here. I’ll be right back.”

She climbed the stairs rapidly, anxious to find a rational explanation. The door to Elsie’s and Brad’s room was shut. She opened it slowly and looked in. Brad, sitting on Elsie’s bed, looked up from his book.

“Hi, Brad.”

“Hi.”

“What are you reading?”

“Looking.”

“Looking at the pictures?”

“Yes.”

“Can I borrow the book for a while? I’ll bring it right back.”

He nodded. A bit reluctantly, she thought. Well, of course he wants to keep it, he likes the pictures. He held it out for her to take, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and she left the room with it. He was looking at pictures, just looking. She felt quite relieved.

Beth had not moved, and was still kneading her hands, watching them work each other over. She did not look up at Karen returning.

“Look,” she said, holding the book up for her to see, “This is the book.”

She placed it in front of her on the table, opened at the place he had been looking. “He was just looking at the pictures.”

Beth looked at the book, then up at her, then back down at the book, then back at Karen again. “It was smaller. Blue.”

Karen didn’t hear or didn’t understand, or both. “What was blue?”

“The book he was reading was blue. And smaller.”

Karen looked at the very red cover of Grimm’s in her hand.

She looked again at Beth. She had stopped kneading her hands and her eyes no longer held fear, it was as if she had passed into a deeper state, a sort of grim resignation. And when she spoke it was from that strange certainty, and with a measured, calmer voice, “He was reading, Karen.”

Karen tried to grasp the implications. They gave her trouble. As did her glasses all of a sudden, kept slipping down her nose. She pushed them back into place. Then she heard herself say, amidst a fresh rustling of memories, “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that this book, this picture book here, this fairy tale book here,” she waved at it with her hand, “is not the book I saw him reading. He wasn’t looking at pictures. I watched his eyes read the lines, many lines, I followed them. I saw him read line by line to the bottom of the page, I saw him turn the page, and the page he was turning had only text on it, no pictures at all, and I saw him begin again at the top of the next page. He was not looking at pictures, Karen. And it was blue.”

Her memories shifted with impatience and Karen had to fight them down. Pushed her glasses back, again. She tried to appear and sound as logical, as assuring as possible. “Which book was it, do you know?”

“I have no idea which book. But it was smaller and it was blue.”

You have to stay logical, she told herself. You have to stay calm and you have to think clearly. There is an explanation for this. There has to be. Other than the two that presented themselves and insisted on a hearing: that either Brad Reilly was reading fluently at the age of four, which of course would be quite impossible, or that his mother was worse off than she had ever realized, severely disturbed in fact, and was making all this up, which, too, for Beth’s sake, must be impossible.

Then the other thought caught her, unawares and with a terrible chill, the full implication of what Beth was saying: if, say, Brad could read, which of course he could not, but if he could, and if he had been reading a small blue book, and not the red one, then he must have switched books to conceal his ability. And why could he possibly have done this?

There was only one answer: Beth could not have seen him read. Could not.

“Okay, Beth, she said, “let’s look at this calmly.”

“I am calm.”

“I know.” She said it twice. “But I’m sure there must be a reasonable explanation to this.” Then she felt like an absolute idiot for sounding like a television show, but it was too late to take it back.

Beth looked at her closely, the corners of her eyes twitching, but she didn’t say anything. “Look,” Karen said, “I promised to return the book to Brad right away. I’ll be back in a second.”

She went up to his room.

As she handed him the book she had to ask, “Brad?”

“Yes.”

“Is this the only book you’ve been looking at today?”

“Yes.”

“You sure?”

He looked at her with clear, honest eyes. “Yes.”

“Where did you get it from?”

Brad pointed to Elsie’s book case. Karen’s eyes followed his arm and finger. No blue book there. Then the pile of library books caught her eye, neatly stacked on the floor by Elsie’s desk, and on top lay a smaller blue book. She went over to it and picked it up. Read the title. Anna Karenina. Looked back at Brad, who seemed to have just looked away, but she could not say for sure.

But that would be absolutely impossible.

“Brad.”

“Yes,” he looked at her again.

She held up Anna Karenina. “Have you looked at this book today?”

“No,” he said. Shook his head.

“Not even a little?”

“No,” he said. “Only this.” Meaning the Grimm’s in his lap.

Of course. Of course.

She put Anna Karenina back on the stack and returned to the kitchen. The child could not have read Tolstoy. Beth must have been mistaken, there was no other option.

When she returned to the kitchen she found Beth making coffee. She had set the table for two.

“I’m afraid I can’t stay long.”

“Just a quick cup.”

Karen had long noticed that Beth took comfort in the act of preparing meals, or coffee, of setting the table, of finding and serving biscuits or snacks or something refreshing to drink, so she sat down. “Sure.”

Beth served, then sat down too. Said nothing. Took a bite of her biscuit, noticed a crumb or two that had fallen onto her lap, brushed them off, looked up at Karen and broke the silence. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

She hesitated. “That’s a hard question to answer.”

“It’s a simple enough question, Karen.”

“Yes, I know, but there’s more to it…” she trailed off, a memory casting shadow again.

Then asked, “Was the book you saw him reading Anna Karenina?”

“I didn’t see the name of it. It was blue.”

“Wait here.”

Karen returned to Brad’s and Elsie’s room to fetch the Tolstoy. Brought it back downstairs.

“Was this the book?”

Beth glanced at it, and one glance was enough. “Yes.”

“You are absolutely sure?”

“Yes I am. That was the book he was reading.”

Beth was sure, there was absolutely no question about that. And that left Karen trying to reconcile Brad with Grimm’s with Tolstoy with Beth with memory with any reality that made sense. She failed miserably.

Beth waited for a Karen to say something. Then took a sip of her coffee, another bite of her biscuit. Waited some more. “So, do you believe me?”

“Beth,” she said, “I really believe what you told me you saw, but…”

“But I could not have seen it. Isn’t that what you think?”

There was no escaping the question. And she had to be truthful, Beth was too perceptive. “Yes, Beth, that is what I think. You could not have seen him reading this book.”

“But that’s the book,” she nodded in Tolstoy’s direction.

“But it cannot have been,” said Karen.

She did notice that facing the issue head-on seemed to calm Beth further. Her answer did not upset her as she had expected it to. Instead Beth said, “Yes, I know. It would be impossible, wouldn’t it? A four-year-old reading a book like that?”

“Yes, I would say so. Yes, it would be impossible.”

“Believe me Karen, I realize that too,” Beth answered. Then she reached over for Karen’s hand. Karen gave it to her and Beth grasped it with both of hers. “Karen, may God strike me dead if I lie. I know, I know what I saw, and it was real, it really took place. I saw Brad read. Please Karen, you must believe me.”

And for that one moment, and for the one moment following, Karen believed her. They were dealing with the impossible. But then Brad’s reply intervened, he had only been looking at that one book, the red one, none other, that’s what he and his clear, blue eyes had said, eyes that had seemed to take slight offense at being asked if he was sure, and that meant he was telling the truth, didn’t it? And once more Karen could feel the floor beneath her feet.

“I will speak to Dr. Carder about it,” she said. Maybe he has an explanation.

“You still don’t believe me?”

“I’m trying to,” she lied. “I am being honest with you, Beth, I am really trying.”

“But you don’t believe me.” No longer a question.

“We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

Beth let go of her hand.

[*:*]

Karen pulled away from the curb without signaling, remembering to once it was too late, then felt the car kick into next gear as she gathered speed. She looked at her watch and knew she would have to hurry to make her appointment.

Driving, she was still trying to make sense of it, to marry these many different truths into an impossible one. And joining them now: memory. Vivid now and complete, what she had seen, what she had heard and smelled, what she had felt. She is sitting at the top of the stairs in Beth’s house, next to Elsie, holding her. Elsie has just finished telling her and the police officer what had happened in her room only minutes before and was shaking and sobbing still, the horror of it still present. At the bottom of the stairs lies Bill Reilly, face down, handcuffed. And then he turns his head with some difficulty and says, “It was him playing that piano. She forgot to mention that. He was playing the Goddamn thing like a grown-up.” Then the man who has just broken each of his son’s small fingers seems to chuckle when he adds, “I had to drive him out, don’t you see? He was in his hands. I could see him in his hands. I had to drive him out. I had no choice. Don’t you see?”

And so the unbidden question, which now stirred other memories: Was there any truth to what Bill Reilly had said?

[*:*]

As she heard Karen’s car drive away she realized, with a sort of resignation—as if she had known all along—that her son could read, and that this was not the first time she had seen him do it. And now she was afraid.

And her fear found another question and fanned it alive: “But Elsie, who was playing?”

The question she had never felt truly answered. She remembered Elsie’s reply clearly, “Why, me of course.”

But you were not playing, Elsie, were you? You had not learned to play like that.

[*:*]

“What’s happened to Beth?”

When Elsie came home from school she had found Tim, Sarah and Evelyn bickering by the television. When they saw her they complained about being hungry and wondered what was up with Mommy.

She had found Beth in the kitchen scouring pots and pans. She had not looked up when Elsie entered, had seemed oblivious to everything but steel wool and cutlery. Elsie greeted her as usual, without response. Mom, she finally said, loudly, what’s the matter? Beth had looked up from her chore with an odd glance, part fear, part suspicion. Still, she had said nothing, had not even smiled, but instead returned to her task, all determination.

Leonard didn’t answer right away.

“Well, do you know?”

“She,” he halted, gathered new strength, and said, “saw me read.”

She did not let herself understand that. “What?”

“She saw me read, Elsie. I was on your bed, reading. She opened the door. I didn’t hear her. She saw me.”

“No. That cannot be true. Are you sure?”

“I am sure.”

“Oh, God.” She sat down, sank down, tried to think one thought at a time, but this was a disaster and everything came crashing. She had to lash out, “How could you be such an idiot?”

He didn’t answer. He didn’t look at her.

All she could do was shake her head. “This is bad. This is really, really bad.”

He looked up then and met her eyes. “What’s the matter with her? What is she doing?”

“What’s the matter with her? How can you ask that?”

“No, seriously. I want to know.”

She calmed down a little, looked at her little brother and saw the older person within. He was sorry, she could tell, he was very sorry and very concerned.

“She’s downstairs cleaning, cleaning like a mad woman. Didn’t answer me when I spoke to her. And then she looked at me like she was afraid of me. It was awful.”

Leonard looked at her steadily but didn’t reply.

Elsie shook her head again, trying to gain some sort of perspective on this awful, awful thing. “Leonard,” she finally said. “Tell me exactly what happened.”

He did and she listened. She only stopped him to clarify one thing. “Karen actually asked you whether you had looked at Anna Karenina?”

“Yes, she did.”

“And then she came back for it?”

“Yes.”

“Oh boy.”

“I know.”

“God,” she said, pushing her knuckles against her lower lip, fighting the truth. “That means, doesn’t it, that Mom knew what book you were reading. And Karen wanted to verify.”

“Yes, I know.”

“This is awful. I really don’t know what to do.”

She leaned against the wall, her jacket still on. Finally noticed, and took it off. Fell silent. For a while her thoughts cooperated, and she managed to keep them in some sort of order, managed to pry one question apart from another so that she could think each one through to the end.

And what it seemed to boil down to—and again she shook her head, why, why now? What it boiled down to was: who was the more important to her, Beth or Leonard?

But that was a question that had no answer. How could she possibly make a choice like that. Mother or brother? But the ugly truth seemed to be that in order to protect Leonard’s secret, to maintain that all there was to him was Brad, she would have to claim, or at least agree, that Beth had not seen him read, was seeing things, imagining things—going the way of Bill—and this she simply could not do. Not to her mom.

Were she, on the other hand, to put Beth’s welfare ahead of all else, she would have to sacrifice Leonard, either by telling Beth the truth, about everything, by exposing Leonard for what he was—although that, she knew, Beth would never, not in a million years, believe—or by explaining what Beth had seen some other way, some way—and she had no idea which way that would be, possession perhaps, or some other aberration—that Beth could understand, could believe. And this with little or no regard for what it might to do Leonard, what they might do to him as a result. What kind of cures would be brought to bear. And this she could not do. Not to Leonard. There was no choice.

And here is where her thoughts ceased to cooperate. Flatly. She sat on the floor, she did not know for how long, unable to think, able only to feel the waters rising.

Leonard, sitting on her bed still, watched her silently, worriedly. “What do we do?” he asked, finally. She didn’t hear, so he said it again, a little louder, more worried still.

This time she heard, and the question brought her back. She looked at him, as if a little surprised that he had spoken, then considered the question for a while. The one that didn’t have an answer. The one that led to many unanswerable directions. So in the end she said, “I wish you had not switched books.”

He agreed. Had probably thought of that himself.

“It’s made matters worse.”

“I know.”

“Beth is sure,” she said. “I can feel it. She is sure that you can read.” She drew breath to continue, but instead paused while she searched for the right words. Found them. “But she is also sure that you’re trying to hide it from her, and that, I think,” she paused again, as if confirming this with herself, “that, I think is what’s really gotten to her. She is scared, Leonard. Of you.”

She could see that he understood this and could see the deeper concern, along with a hint of fear, in his blue eyes. He was as worried as she was. “What can we do?” He said again.

“I don’t know,” she replied, “I just don’t know.”

[*:*]

Beth had misplaced her world and was looking for it everywhere. Looking among the plates and the glasses, among the pots and the steel wool. Among the mops and buckets in the cleaning closet, among the table and chairs of the kitchen. She searched for it in the comfort of cleaning, in the act of moving the wet mop across the linoleum tiles, in the grip on the mop handle, its colored wood strangely warm in her hands. She searched for it in her hunger to better her nest, its walls and windows; in the need to serve her family, her brood. Yet for all that searching she could not find it. But for now the searching was comfort enough, a place to breathe.

[*Forty-Three ::

 

Elsie and the kids were at school. Leonard was upstairs, in his room, on his bed. Beth was downstairs, cleaning. He could hear her moving things about, now mopping, now vacuuming, now dusting, and putting things back. She had been at it all morning.

They had not come to any decision the previous night, and this morning Elsie had slept late and had to rush to make it to school on time. They simply did not know what to do.

Elsie had shared her dilemma with him, the way she saw it: it was a choice between his safety and Beth’s. He wasn’t sure the choice was quite that black and white, but he could see her point and did concur. To him, however, that was not the real issue, the real issue was—and there was zero doubt about it—that this latest crisis was all his doing, that it was his incaution that had led to this, to this Goddamn mess.

As he heard her move about downstairs he tried to picture what might be going through her mind, what kind of damage he had caused, but soon realized that he didn’t know her well enough to form any sort of clear idea. To him, Beth was simply Elsie’s mother—and, yes, his own mother as well—but what little he, Leonard, actually knew about her, Elsie had told him.

She was an insecure woman, Bill had been very bad to her, he didn’t have all the details, but he knew Bill all too well and did not doubt his effect on her.

Elsie had never used the word simple, but had told him that her mother had been held over twice in school, third and fifth grades—something Bill apparently liked to bring up now and then to put her in her place—and had been quite the worry for her grandparents. She was a woman who clung to her beliefs, and to her routine, and as he formed his notion of her, it formed around a simple woman, around a mother who loved being a mother, who loved her children, her husband, and who loved caring for them. A woman who did not look further than that for her own meaning. Who trusted in God, and rose each morning before everyone else to usher into God’s new day.

And now this. It had shaken her profoundly. She was scared of him, and a bit scared of Elsie, too. Downstairs cleaning, looking for peace, as Elsie put it.

But she was scared of him because she didn’t know. She had seen something that was inexplicable to her, that perhaps had conjured up demons or insanity or God knows what, when the explanation, the truth, was so simple and so understandable, really.

She would never, not in a million years, understand, Elsie had said, and perhaps Elsie should know. But that’s where Leonard did not agree.

Besides, this was not Elsie’s problem, not their problem. This was his problem, his doing. And the more he dwelled on it, the more his first impulse—the one he had suppressed initially, knowing Elsie would never agree—made sense: Tell her the truth.

For he was not a good liar, never had been. Lying always stained him a little, made him uncomfortable. His personal policy—except with Vivian towards the end, he had to admit—had always been to serve up the truth and damn the consequences. At least he slept well at night. And here he was, caught in the biggest lie conceivable.

Elsie would hate him for this—he had promised her to not do anything rash, had promised to wait for her—but the more he thought about it, the more convinced he grew: the truth would set things straight.

He made his mind up. He would tell her. He would make Beth understand. If he did this right—calmly and clearly (like the Pathétique Adagio, he though, softly clear) so as not to scare her—she would see what had happened, and she would agree to keep him a secret, for now, until they could figure out how to tell the world about him. She would see sense.

[*:*]

Beth found comfort in her search. There was an earth under her feet, and the steps she now took across carpet, across linoleum, brought her from one known place to another, and the things she touched and moved and cleaned were things she knew, things that, like a life preserver, she could cling to. Nothing else really mattered.

But then he spoke. He had come down the stairs quietly.

“Beth.”

At first it was simply a disturbance, a ripple in her quiet cleaning. It wasn’t a voice at all. Then he spoke again, a little louder.

“Beth.”

This time it registered as a sound, as a significance with a source. She stopped dusting the floor lamp and looked over her shoulder. There was Brad, at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at her with intent blue eyes. The incongruity, the voice in conflict with what it said—for he had never called her “Beth,” only “Mom”—did not reach her at first, at least not all the way. It only touched her gently, feather-light fingers only slightly colder than the air.

But as she turned around to face him, their grip intensified, as she tried to spot the wrong thing, for something was wrong, something did not agree.

Then, as the discrepancy finally reached home, she turned cold.

She looked at her son as if she had never seen him before and she absorbed everything in brilliant detail. He was standing on the second step from the bottom, his small hand on the rail, his small feet on the worn, and as yet, she noted mechanically, un-vacuumed carpet. His hair needed combing, his shirt needed ironing. His eyes were blue—and uncertain now—and they were not her son’s eyes. They belonged to someone, something else, something mature.

“Beth,” he said again, clearly. Stabbing her silence in its very heart.

She was not aware of forming the word—she was only aware of the unnatural thing at the bottom of the stairs—but rather, almost in spite of herself, heard her mouth let go of her answer, “Yes.”

The life on the stairs in front of her looked at her, alarmed. “Beth,” it said, “don’t be afraid.”

She heard and didn’t hear. She heard impossible words, spoken by an impossible thing almost all the way down the stairs. She wanted to run, needed to run. She needed to scream, she could not remain in its presence. But shock had seized her, feather-light fingers iron now, she could not move.

“Please Beth. Please, don’t be afraid.” The apparition was pleading with her now, and the urge to flee grew painful. Still she could not move.

“Beth,” it said. “You are not crazy. You did see me read.”

It was talking to her about things it should not know.

“You’re not crazy,” it said again. “You’re not mistaken. I was reading a book when you looked in on me through the crack the other day. I was reading Anna Karenina, and I did change the book for another before Karen came up to check.”

It kept talking to her. It confirmed her suspicion. And it spoke to her as if to comfort, as if to reassure, but none of this—obviously—was taking place. That thought, thin though it was, brought along with it the curious question: how she could possibly imagine something this real. Then the thing which looked at her with such worried eyes spoke again.

“You were right, Beth. You were not seeing things. I was reading.”

Is this what it’s like to be crazy? Will the furniture talk next? Her mind was groping for the slightest relief, and she found it in the silly notion to indulge her madness. She almost laughed.

“Reading?” She said. She wasn’t altogether sure what the word meant.

“Yes,” it said. “I was reading, I can read.”

“But,” she asked the madness, “how is it that you can read?” The question rose out of an odd calmness that really seemed to want to know, and via her, her throat and mouth, into the room.

“Because,” answered the apparition, “I have lived before. My name was Leonard then, and I used to live in Los Angeles. I had a car accident and died, and I was reborn as your son. A little while ago I remembered who I had been, and I remembered what I could do, and that included how to read. Don’t you see?”

She did not see. She could only stare. She heard its words but did not understand them. She was talking to a dream, to a demon, to a something that looked like her son and knew her thoughts and spoke her fears with eyes that now seemed frightened and did not belong in such a young face. And then it came to her, an embrace by merciful fate, and she knew: She had gone mad.

In a way it was really nice to know that, nice to know what was wrong, she could stop wondering now. And she began to chuckle, then laugh, and laugh, and with each mirthless gasp for air the grip that had kept her shackled to the room melted a little and soon she was finally free to turn, to move, to flee out the front door and into cold February.

[*Forty-Four ::

 

Karen Anderson once had a vision.

For several years afterward it remained with her as vivid memory, alive as a breathing, as something she often turned to for sustenance. She still thought of it as her “vision” when she moved away to college, but by the end of her second year it had become an “interesting illusion,” and later still, sometime before graduation, simply a “delusion.”

She had been walking home from the bus stop.

[*:*]

It was the last bus of the day and for the last mile or so she had been the only passenger. She had moved up to the front of the bus and was watching its powerful headlights bore a lit, onrushing road out of the darkness. As they entered her stretch of forest and burrowed into the tunnel of trees and black sky she reached up and pulled the cord, signaling to the driver that she wanted off at the upcoming stop. He turned to her and nodded. Smiled too. She returned to the back of the bus to retrieve her bag.

As the bus approached the side road that led to her house, its brakes squeaked and puffed and it came to a smooth halt to let her off. She thanked the driver, who smiled and nodded again as she descended the three steps out into darkness. The ground received her and she moved away from the bus. Behind her the hydraulics hissed and groaned again as the driver eased off the brakes and the door squeaked and sighed and shut her out.

She watched the bus, lit like some colossal Christmas ornament, roll away from her, carrying now only the driver whom she heard shift gears several times to bring the bus up to speed. It grew smaller and smaller, the ornament, the fading taillights bright red. Then it dipped into a hollow, came back up the other end, turned a corner and vanished into the wall of forest. And now there was only the sound of the diesel, rising, falling, fading, fading, and then—she still had not moved—there was nothing. Only silence. Still she did not move, did not want to move. The stillness, dark and friendly, embraced her and all she wanted to do was to absorb.

There were no movements in the woods to either side of her, for the northern December night saw no bird or small animal about. The stillness was, to her mind, absolute. It rose as something holy and she drank of it with her body.

She finally turned toward her road and began to walk down it. Although it was narrow, it was paved to the same smooth surface as the main road and her rubber-soled boots made little noise if any; she felt herself a soundless movement. Looking up she could make out the top of the conifers against the stars, black silhouettes against scattered sparks. She looked into the forest on either side of her, trying without success to discern individual trunks. The darkness was intact and would not let go of individuals. She looked up again at the avenue of stars above her, hemmed on each side by these large, pointed sentinels.

From what she could later recall, walking down this road she did not think, not a single thought, she only looked and felt her movement across the earth and through cold air. She could make out her breath, but only just, as it rose toward the sky darkly. Slowly, she moved, almost groundless now, perhaps an inch or two off the pavement, toward the edge of the forest, now visible ahead, now closer, now closer, now here.

As stepped out of the night of trees into the spread of fields the sky opened above her in a brilliant display. And here she stopped. Where forest met field. There was no moon that night, but she could still make out the landscape spreading before her, dark barns dropped by some giant child here and there on the undulating, silvery white blanket of snow. A copse off to her far left, the road winding away from her. She still did not think, only absorbed. She later wondered if perhaps she had even stopped breathing.

And then she leaned her head back and entered the sky.

The Milky Way stretched clear across the heaven, white and colossal. The constellations of the northern sky shone, brilliant in their strange and intertwined display. Light from a million million sources entered her. She could hear it, she could actually hear the light. And it seemed she could tell how far away was each individual star; that one there, bright and glimmering, was far beyond that lesser light to its right. The sky had depth, was no longer a sprinkled black sheet stretched to hold the earth within. And these distances touched her. And there was life in the vibrating sky above her; of course there was life, of course there was life.

It came to her then. As whisper at first, a stirring, but then it grew, first with the attributes of thought, then with the certainty of vision. And as vision it arrived, complete in every aspect, and then she saw and then she knew this:

 

They were spirits, each and every one. Dimensionless units of thought, bodiless entities in vague, uncolored space. She was aware of herself and aware of others, awarenesses moving around her, sometimes through her. She was light and free. There were no boundaries, no borders. Only the soft limitless vista of nothing, expanding into forever.

But there was something wrong with Heaven. Despite the wonder of simply being, she sensed a rumble perhaps, a restlessness, a discontentment that shifted in and out among them, a state of affairs looking for and finding agreement, and yes, the agreement had a feeling, a distinct feeling and it had a name, this feeling, yes, that was its name: Its name was Boredom.

Heaven, if Heaven it was, was perfect, too perfect. A perfect everywhere populated by countless but bored citizens. And so they converged, as a multiple awareness, and agreed again—Agreed: they would create a wall, infinitely high, infinitely low, to surround them all. They would create, in this wall, a single door, and in this single door, a single lock, and for this single lock, a single key. And with this key they would lock this door, and then place the key beyond the door, on the far side of infinity. And once the wall was done, and the door was locked, and the key was flung, they would all will themselves a deep sleep to wash all memory of their agreement and deeds away. And the game was: who’d get out first.

Pleased with their resolution, they did this. They built the wall, and the door, and the lock, and the key. And once the door was firmly shut and locked—they all made sure of this—the key was hurled beyond the infinite, effectively imprisoning everyone. And as agreed—having come this far there was no reneging now—they all willed and sank themselves to the bottom of a deep memory-less nothing.

And the game, for so we have agreed, and so it became, and so still is: who will make it out first.

 

She still faced the sky, her eyes wide open. A million million stars slowly returned to their rightful places and there she knew the wall. It turned slowly on some enormous axis, a turning she could sense, in a stillness she could touch, for she was that stillness, she was those stars, she was the turning, and still she did not move. And everything, everywhere was the wall surrounding.

Later she could never say, not with any sense of accuracy anyway, how long she had stood there, still, frozen in her amazement at what she had seen in the depth of the stars. But when she came to she thought, yes, yes, that is exactly what we are doing here. And as she looked back up at the starry but infinitely high wall, she knew that she had glimpsed an answer, perhaps the only answer, and that she had awakened, if only fractionally, and only for a moment, from that long ago and self-induced sleep. Our long ago agreed upon sleep. The sleep we all still sleep.

The road returned to under her feet and she took one step, then another, then resumed her walking. Had she believed in God, she would have known that He had spoken. As it were, she felt newly born. Fresh with awareness.

And her soles squeaked softly now where they had been silent before, and the air kissed her lungs where before it had been inert, and her eyes saw light reflecting from every part of the landscape where before darkness had ruled. Because she Knew. She knew what we are doing here. And that was her Vision.

[*:*]

Thinking back on it, it seemed to Karen that she had floated down the road all the way to her house, and then, floating still, into the light and warm kitchen—so minuscule, so enclosed, too small, it seemed, to contain her elation.

Even so, her feeling did not leave her as she sat down to the leftovers her mother had saved for her. She ate her food in silence, each bite a small, surprising explosion of taste. And with each rush of flavor, as she could feel each swallow make its way down her throat and enter her stomach, thrilled by each of her new perceptions, her certainty grew. What she had seen that night was true.

[*:*]

She told no one. She was not one to confide even mundane things, much less something like this. Through high school it remained her most treasured secret and formed a pillar, a core against which all other things were measured. In a sense she felt immortal and out of that grew her mysterious smile. Karen, always removed, ever the observer, lambent smile playing on her lips. What is it, Karen Anderson, that you know?

To be sure, there were times during her senior year that her vision faded to plain memory, one among a thousand others, but only for a day or so at a time, never longer; then it burst alive again. By the time she arrived at college, it was still mostly intact. Revivable at will, every time, almost.

However, during her freshman fall semester she discovered that the vision, in and of itself, was no longer quite enough to live by. Questions arose—some of her classes opened her eyes to suffering and she also observed conflicts and jealousies she had not conceived of before—that the vision did not seem to answer, and at times she found herself, for the first time in years, unsure of direction, no longer guided as before by what she deep down knew. Whether by coincidence or not—it was a reach, but at times she told herself there was a correlation—this was also when she discovered that she needed glasses.

And it was at times like these, when the world grew too complex for her to fathom, when her inner calm deserted her, that she would take long, solitary walks away from campus and its lighted buildings and plead with the stars to let go once more of their story, but they, mute and blinking now, would not. And as winter turned into spring of her freshman year it seemed that every time she thought about it, every time she tried to remember the sky, every time she closed her eyes and opened herself—trying again to sense her vision—its immediacy, and relevance, faded just a little bit more. Sure, she remembered it, but memory, she realized, was not enough. Memory would not guide her, only her vision, alive again, would.

And still, she had told no one.

For the rest of that spring semester, and through the following summer and fall, she turned to religion. She studied first the Vedas, then the life of Buddha, then Zen, hoping to find a path back to her private certainty. However, although she could sense strands of her vision through those wise and distant eyes, they would not bring it alive. It remained memory, dimmer, it seemed, with each attempt at resurrection.

Sometime that fall, and she could never quite put her finger on when exactly this had happened, her search shifted both slightly and significantly: from finding a path to revive her vision, to finding an explanation for it.

And still she had told no one.

In the end it was her psychology professor—a gaunt individual in his early forties with bad skin, and who smoked far too many cigarettes, she thought—who became privy to her secret. She had enrolled in his class for the spring semester, to follow yet another path to recapture and revive her vision, for his class, in its summary description, had indeed suggested one.

And as she immersed herself in the subject she came to see psychology as something much more practical, more real, more tangible, than her Zen koans and their equivocal, always elusive pointers. Psychology suggested both a path to explaining what had happened to her (though she had yet to see her vision explained) and a path to something to do, and on this path she found a measure of peace, a sense of direction at long last.

Professor Arden struck her as enigmatic, in his baggy corduroys, always smoking, always with a smile that suggested that he, and he alone, held the key. Perhaps to her vision, even? She suspected that he might. Convinced herself that he did. So, for the better part of January, she worked on her courage: she would approach him. It wasn’t so much the approaching as the sharing. She had never told anyone: letting it out would be like losing her virginity, and with a much older man—she had to laugh at the image. For the better part of February she almost approached him.

Then, one afternoon in early March, she did. Right after class, sheer impulse. Yes, sure, he said, lighting yet another cigarette, he would be happy to talk with her. Right now? Sure.

They made their way to the campus cafeteria where they found an unoccupied table in a corner by floor-to-ceiling windows.

It had started to drizzle outside, part snow part rain, she was quite aware of this at first, then she was only aware of talking, of gushing really, and of his attentive face that at first only listened, then listened with increasing interest, then pulled back in what perhaps was judgment, though perhaps not, wearing a curious smile, a touch condescending perhaps, which now and then smoked yet another cigarette. Some portion of her wondered whether he believed her at all, whether she was making an absolute idiot of herself, but by then it was too late to stop. She had needed to tell someone about this for a long time, and now she had finally taken the plunge. The waters were freezing and turbulent but there was no climbing back out for her, she would have to reach the far shore. And so she swam, holding his eyes as well as she could, all the way to where she knew why we were spirits on Earth, to where she finally stood, dripping and exhausted on the other side of the river, exposed to his response.

In the silence that followed, his smile seemed to turn from listen to talk mode, and a touch more friendly as he carefully shook another cigarette out of his pack, packed the end of it by bouncing it against his thumbnail, placed it between his lips and lit it with his cheap, blue lighter.

“How old were you then? When his happened?” He asked.

“Thirteen, I think. No, fourteen.”

“Have you ever had this, this vision since?”

She shook her head, “No, never.” Then she added, “Though I’ve tried. I’ve been looking for it, everywhere.”

“But you haven’t found it?”

“No.”

“Ever nearly find it?”

“Not really. Not the actual experience. Images of it, yes. Vivid recollections, especially in the weeks and months right after, as if I could relive it at will. But not the vision itself.”

“But you long for it, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. It was the most important moment in my life.”

“I understand.” Then he asked, “Have you ever met or talked to anyone who’s had a similar experience?”

“No,” she shook her head. “It’s not one of those things I’ve told people about, or asked people about for that matter.”

He smoked in silence for a minute or so, still smiling at her, a friend. “I’ve encountered similar phenomena in my practice. Twice,” he said.

“Phenomena? That’s an odd word.”

“Well, I think that’s a better word than vision. Vision has such religious undertones. And vision, as we normally use the word, has objective connotations. One thing you need to look at is that the objective, as a whole, is just as illusory as any perception, or vision, you may have that suggests it.”

“That suggests what?”

“That suggests the objective. That there is such a thing.”

“But it was objective.”

“Was it?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“Well, I just know. It happened. I saw the sky, the stars, the snow.”

“Did you?”

“Sure.”

“And the vision, did it take place in the sky, on the snow?”

“No. It was a vision. The sky and the snow fell away, replaced by the vision.”

“How can something objective simply fall away?”

“I no longer perceived it.”

“Replaced by the vision?”

“Yes.”

“How do we really know there is such a thing as the objective?”

“We can see it. Hear it.”

“And how do we see? Objectively or subjectively?”

“Objectively.”

“Do we?” His smile, still friendly, patient, turned a little in another direction, she couldn’t put her finger on it, but sterner seemed to fit.

Do we? Don’t we? Karen stood on the brink of snowy fields under starry sky knowing her vision was soon to appear, would soon descend, objectively, from a starry past. But as she stood, and waited, she could sense it, shifting about as if in a cocoon, though not in the sky but in her stomach, in her lungs, in her head, stirring, then sprouting tendrils one after the other out through the long-ago shell and as it first touched then gripped her eyes and ears it heaved itself upright to appear before her, as subjective as anything.

“Don’t we?”

“Do we?” he asked again, while lighting another cigarette.

“Don’t we?” she repeated, not knowing what else to say.

“We internalize everything we see,” he said. “Everything we see, we see internally.”

“Yes, yes. I can see that.”

“Even the most objective thing, say this table, or this cigarette, as we grow aware of it, we internalize, it’s a subjective awareness.”

She nodded.

“Awareness is, and can only be, subjective.”

“But,” she protested, “we can both see the same cigarette.”

“Do we?” he asked. “Do we in fact see the same cigarette?”

“We see it from different angles, but it’s the same cigarette, sure.”

“How do you know. Really know?”

“I don’t really know,” she said, mimicking his stress on the word.

“What you do know,” he said, “is that you perceive, are internally aware of a cigarette. That is your subjective awareness. I see it, and I am internally aware of a cigarette, and that is my subjective awareness. When I see it—do you smoke by the way?”

“No.”

“Ever did?”

“No.”

“When I see it, I see something to be desired, something that gives satisfaction, something I subjectively crave. The cigarette does not, objectively, if it indeed exists objectively, inherently contain my craving.”

He was, she had to admit, beginning to fascinate her.

“No, I guess not.”

“But you,” he said, “when you see it, you probably see something slightly repulsive, or at least something that holds no attraction.”

“True,” she said.

“Even though this cigarette, this same cigarette that I see, does not contain, in itself, your aversion to it.”

“No, of course not.”

“So, in truth—if indeed there is such a thing—we see two different objects in this cigarette.”

She nodded again. “Yes. I can see that.”

“Perception, even of the objective, in the final analysis, cannot help but be purely subjective.”

Again, she had to agree. While her vision, her phenomenon, now standing over to the side, as if awaiting her verdict, more and more appeared to her as something sprung from within rather than from without.

Then he said, “Do you believe in the soul?”

“Why, yes. Don’t you?”

“Do you?”

“Yes. Sure.”

“Truly sure, or supposed to be sure?”

Supposed to be sure, she thought. Supposed to be sure. She could no longer tell what she truly believed. “I’m not sure,” she said. “And you?”

“No.”

But before she could ask why, he asked her, “Where do you think pictures come from?”

“You mean memories?”

“Yes. That too.”

“Well, we store them, don’t we? In our brain.”

“And dreams?”

“Where do they come from?”

“Yes.”

“Our brains?” It seemed like the expected answer.

“Precisely. They are basically chemically induced.”

“Dreams or memories?”

“Both. Memories are chemically stored. Dreams are chemically spawned.”

“In our brains? By our brains?”

“What else is there?”

“Even if, objectively, our brains may not even exist?” she asked, happy with herself for thinking of that question.”

“Even if, objectively, they may not even exist,” he confirmed, taking no offense at all. Rather, he seemed kind of pleased.

“You said you’ve come across this, this phenomenon before. Was that as personal experience?”

“No, patients.”

“I didn’t know you had patients.”

“Oh, sure. Well, no longer, but I did.”

“And what, how did…” She started again. “What were they, for them?”

He didn’t answer. Lit another cigarette. Gazed at her through the bluish cloud hovering between them. Seemed to make up his mind about something. “Your father,” he said. Inhaled so hard she could hear the cigarette burn, a tiny crackle. “Domineering?” With lots of smoke.

“My father?” She didn’t quite follow.

“What kind of a man was he?”

Tall, she thought. He was tall. And silent. Tall and silent. “Not one for gushing,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“The silent type. Tall and silent. A farmer.”

“You grew up on a farm?”

“Sure.”

“Did he ever abuse you?”

“What, me?”

“Yes.”

“Of course not.” Came out a little too quick, she thought. But he hadn’t. Never. Of course not.

“Would you remember if he had?”

“Of course.”

He shook his head. “No, you wouldn’t. There’s no memories more cleverly repressed, especially by young girls, than father abuse.”

She was about to protest.

“No, I’m not saying that he abused you. I’m saying that you should not jump to the unevaluated or uninspected conclusion that he did not, simply because you currently, from where you now sit, have no memories of that. Those sort of memories are what you’ll mine for in therapy. Those are the kind of revelations that often resolve cases.”

“Well, he didn’t.”

“Fine.”

“I would remember.”

“And your mother?”

And her mother. Well, she was another story altogether.

When she didn’t answer right away, he asked. “Did she abuse you?”

“What do you mean? Sexually?”

“Not necessarily.”

“What then?”

“She wasn’t very affectionate, was she?”

“No.”

“Not the hugging, cuddling kind.”

“No.”

“The odd slap, or spanking?”

“Yes. Though,” and it suddenly came back to her, quite clearly, “spankings were my father’s department.” Whenever her mother decided that slapping, or ear-twisting, or pinching, or hair-pulling, just wasn’t doing the trick, she’d call for the belt. Her father’s belt. She didn’t wear one, and besides, this was a father’s duty. To discipline the girl.

Her father had two questions, always the same two questions. First the resigned and uncurious one: what has she done now? And her mother would explain, exasperated, furious, or just coldly, what the current infraction was all about. And then the second question, always, as her father removed his belt, already bored with the task at hand: how many? And her mother, prosecution, judge and jury rolled into one vicious little package, would pronounce sentence, something she seemed to outright relish. Six, ten, twelve, nineteen once. Never reached twenty, though: either her mother or her father had drawn a line just about there. She remembered nineteen. Her teacher had asked her what was the matter, why couldn’t she sit still? Sit still? She couldn’t sit. But, of course, she never told. A family’s business was a family’s business.

“So, he did abuse you?”

“That’s not abuse, that’s discipline.”

“And your mother? Discipline?”

“No, she just didn’t like me.”

“Your father did?”

“Like me?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think he disliked me. She did. I think he felt sorry for me sometimes.”

“Why?”

“Because of my mother.”

“Why?”

“He thought she was too hard on me. At least, that’s how I perceived it. I never heard him actually say that.”

“Your mother. Tall? Like your father?”

“No.” She shook her head. “Not at all. Five foot, if that.”

“How tall was he?”

“Six foot two, I think I heard her say once. He was tall.”

“Odd match.”

“I’ve thought so too.”

Then, lighting a new cigarette from the butt of the one still burning, her professor leaned closer to her across the small table, and took her in with serious, and, she thought, quite compassionate eyes.

And said, “What is done to the infant child, in her first days, weeks, and months, forms her for life.”

When she didn’t answer, he went on. “It’s now been established that the brain we are born with is not the finished product it once was believed to be. The formation and structuring of the brain depends very much on what the person experiences during the first hours, days and weeks of his or her life. The external stimulus indispensable for developing, say, the capacity for empathy, is the experience of loving care. Especially from the mother. In the absence of such love, such care, when a child is instead forced to endure neglect, emotional starvation, and is subjected to physical cruelty, he or she will forfeit her innate capacity for empathy.”

She still could not answer, but he had all of her attention.

“It’s been documented that traumatized and neglected children display severe lesions affecting anywhere up to thirty percent of those areas of the brain that control their emotions. Trauma inflicted on infants leads to an increase of stress hormones which in turn destroy the existing, newly formed neurons and their interconnections.”

She found her voice again. “But I wasn’t traumatized.”

“Don’t be so sure.”

“I would know.”

“Would you?”

Would she? She was no longer sure.

“Your mother was not a nice woman,” he said. “She had, well, issues.”

“Yes, she did. Does.”

“We can assume, though you’d have to confirm this in therapy, that your mother was unloving and uncaring right out of the gate, and nothing can erase the unconscious emotions and memories resulting from such, well, I would call it abuse.”

“She wouldn’t have beat me as a baby.”

“Withholding much needed love and care amounts to pretty much the same thing.”

Suddenly Karen was on the brink of tears. Out of nowhere. Could feel her eyes well up. Something in what he said rang so awfully, terribly true. She managed to fight them down, though she was pretty sure he had noticed.

“One way of denying and repressing traumatic experiences in early childhood,” he went on, “and a very effective way at that, is to create for oneself larger-than-life scenarios, where one transcends, some marginally, some astronomically, the mundane and trivial world of abuse.”

“My vision?”

He probably heard her, but went on unhindered. “The lessons learned in the first three years of life are lasting. If the body of a child learns, from birth, that neglecting or punishing an innocent creature—for is there anything more innocent than an infant, or a young child?—is the right thing to do, and that the child’s suffering must not be acknowledged or assuaged, this lesson will stay with the child and will always be stronger than any intellectual knowledge acquired later in life.”

Yet another cigarette.

“The adolescent or adult person, carrying the burden of repressed emotional starvation, solves this internal pain in one of two ways. For the most part they unconsciously emulate their parents, or other tormentor, and will in turn abuse or traumatize their children, or people around them. Then there are those few that instead choose to impose magnificent realities upon their abusive present or painful past.”

He let the last sentence hang between them, a little like a hummingbird she thought, still in the air, facing her, facing her.

“My vision,” she said again.

“Could easily have been your way of rising above the mundane and painful. Your way of buffering yourself against your mother and that repressed horde of turbulent memories that never seem to go completely away.”

“My vision,” she said for a third time.

“Illusions can work wonders,” he said.

“How would I…?” she began.

“I no longer practice,” he said. “But I have a close friend, an excellent therapist, who could help you.” He patted down his pockets for a piece of paper, didn’t find one. “You got something to write on? I’ll give you her number.”

She handed him her notebook. “One the back, please,” she said.

By the end of the semester she had seen Arden’s therapist friend often enough to find out for herself. Her vision. Two words. She thought of it as two words. The two words Arden had wanted to convey, but instead chose for her to discover on her own:

Subjective illusion.

If this was growing up, well, so be it. It was a coming to terms with real life. She was actually relieved. It accounted for her inability to resurrect the moment, it accounted for its growing distance. And while it was not easy to let go of it completely, to allow a pillar such as this to crumble, she also felt freed of a burden, and in that freedom she also found and chose her new and final path, the path that had helped her resolve this long-running dilemma: she would major in Psychology.

Over the next few years she gave herself up completely to her studies and as she made her way through books and lectures she grew more and more practical, more and more concerned with chemistry and behavioral patterns, with childhoods and traumas, with statistics and trends, with explanations she could absorb and call upon, every one of them real and tangible, practical. She felt reassured each step of the way. There was agreement here, there was published opinion, there was proof, well, at least very sound deductions, and that was as close to proof as you could get in the field of the mind, wasn’t it? And at each step of the way she reaffirmed the rightness of her choice, for this was something you could do. This was the real world. And she felt complete, well, almost.

[*Forty-Five ::

 

The question had kept her up late the night before, the question she could not let go of: Had there been any truth to what Bill Reilly had said? And what if there had been?

What if Brad Reilly really had played that piano like a grown-up? And what if he could read? Of course, none of those things could have been the case, but what if? She fell asleep pondering possible meanings.

Now she was stuck in traffic, driving back home from an early staff meeting down at Social Services. Pretty much a waste of time as usual, those meetings always were, but her boss insisted on attendance, in person, none of those conference calls. We’re people, not voices, seemed to be her favorite expression, at least when it suited her.

She always took the streets home to avoid freeway accidents, but now one of them had made it onto the streets, a collision in the intersection up ahead. Police on the scene. All lanes but one closed. What a mess. They were hardly moving.

It had begun to drizzle, part rain part snow, and as if the snow brought it on, she noticed that she was cold and cranked up the heat a little. Total standstill now as the ambulance and tow trucks gathered on the scene as well. She would be there for a while. She idly watched the action, ten or so cars ahead, through the soft beat of her windshield wipers, torn between sympathy for and annoyance with the victims. Didn’t they realize what a mess they had caused? But what if they were badly hurt?

Still looking ahead but not really seeing, the question returned, as if refreshed by a good night’s sleep: Had there been any truth to what Bill Reilly had said? What if he had not, as everyone supposed, been delirious? What if he had actually seen Brad play? What if he had indeed told the truth? And what if Beth was right? What if Brad Reilly could read like a grown-up? She sure seemed certain enough. Was there actually something quite out of the ordinary (she smiled at the choice of words) going on with Brad Reilly? That was the question, and she just could not shake it.

The possibility upset her, though she could not put her finger on why. So what if Brad Reilly could read and play? Odd, yes, quite out of the ordinary, but not incredible, not unheard of. I mean, prodigies do exist after all. No, that was not the real issue. The issue was: if that were the case, what lay beneath? If he could play and read, how come? What does explain prodigies? Genes? What? That was the uncomfortable question, one that she’d rather not touch. One that brought distant echoes of a long ago winter night.

They had now gotten one of the banged-up cars loaded onto the tow truck ahead, and it was now finding its way out. Shouldn’t be too long now. The ambulance started up as well. No siren, so it seemed no one was badly hurt (or perhaps dead? — oh get a grip, Karen, no one was doing more than 20 miles an hour here, not in this weather).

What would allow such a thing? She could not seem to let it go. What, if anything, of all she had studied and knew, would explain such a thing as Brad, if indeed it were true—which if of course wasn’t?

Whether it was this question that brought it on or not, she wasn’t sure, but it was here, in the now quite warm car, while still keeping tabs on the action up ahead, and getting ready to get out of there, that she felt the long ago familiar stirring of her vision, so long dormant, so long filed under the label of delusion, illusion, so long relegated to fantasy, and it was this stirring that suddenly made her realize why Brad Reilly was upsetting her: if he could read, and could play, he would come from the land of miracles, of which her long ago vision was also a citizen.

But her vision was not a miracle, she answered herself, almost fiercely. She had many times explained it to her own satisfaction, and it had nothing to do with the unknown, or the strange, or the miraculous.

But her vision, shifting again inside memory more certain than memory, begged to differ.

[*Forty-Six ::

 

Beth slammed the door behind her, shutting the apparition inside. A step, and another, and another. The she slipped, stumbled briefly, but regained her balance and began running down the driveway. She reached the sidewalk, turned right, kept running.

Away. There was only one direction, away from him. Away was her only goal, repeating itself over and over like a pulse. Away, her blood sang at her temples. There is only away to go, only away can help me now, only away. Away to think, away to understand, away to think, to think. Beth, you have to think. She slowed to a quick walk. And you have to call Karen, she thought, yes I have to call Karen. But what can I say, what can I tell her? That Brad has turned ghost? She heard a short hysterical giggle and realized that it came from her, she must be going crazy. What do you mean going? She heard that giggle again. Or that Brad has returned from the dead? My God, what is he? Who is he? No—that giggle again—he was not the problem, he was Brad, he was still in his room, it was something the matter with her, matter, matter, matter, what was the matter, Beth? She had absolutely no idea, not even an inkling. She tried to focus, tried to grapple with these thoughts the size of mountains, gray and threatening, that moved and moved and would not let her see all of any one of them, looming and moving.

She bit her lip. And again, harder to cause pain, to punish herself for not comprehending, grinding her lip between her teeth as she walked, staring ahead but registering nothing under looming thoughts. Then the pain reached her with the warm taste of blood. She shuddered, cried out, and felt her eyes smart as the pain forced its way out and down her cheeks. Oh, what a mess. She fumbled at her dress pockets hoping to find a handkerchief or tissue but couldn’t find her pockets. Then she noticed she still wore her apron. Oh, what would people think, seeing her like this? She quickly untied it and pulled it over her head and dabbed her lip with it. The apron came away red though she no longer felt the pain. She couldn’t feel anything. She had to call Karen, yes, she must call Karen. She looked around for a public phone but saw none. But there, across the street, was Helleman’s. Had she already walked that far? She could use their phone, though. She stepped up to the curb but had to wait for the green light to cross.

Waiting, dabbing her lip with her apron, seeing none of the curious or concerned glances leveled at her, she saw him talking to her again. That’s how crazy she was. She knew that it had happened, there was no denying it. Just like she knew about Ernie the little cow. He had spoken to her, it was not a dream, only this time it was a dream, wasn’t it? Just like the priest, only he wasn’t one, he was no dream, he had happened. So how crazy was she? Why could she not think? Why would these clouds inside her head not stop moving, why were they slipping away from her when she looked in their direction? And why was her brood breaking up, out of her control? Because it was breaking up, the family, her brood, shattering, first Bill, now Brad, or her, and who knows who will be next. I have to call Karen, but what will Karen say, that I’ve failed, my brood has scattered into so many foster homes and what I need now is a good, long rest. And then she almost sat down, right there on the curb, letting go. Let them come for me, too, and I get to see Bill every day. I did my best and it was not enough.

But she didn’t sit down. Instead her one certainty finally reached all the way. Found her. She knew what she had seen. Ernie the cow, the priest. He had done those things to Ernie no matter how many spankings her father gave her, she had seen and she knew. And from the second to last step of the stairs in her house, Brad had spoken to her as a grown-up. Had talked about reading and Los Angeles, and crazy things that make no sense, but he had said them. That she suddenly knew, no matter how many spankings she’d get for knowing.

And this she grasped and clung to as you would a life buoy, for yes, that was true, that was true. And she was not the crazy one.

An older couple, also waiting to cross the street, spun around in alarm, and a well-dressed salesman to her left and the nanny and three children to her right only gaped as she shouted, almost jubilantly: “I’m not the crazy one. I am not the crazy one. He’s the one who’s crazy.” Then noticing the stares, Beth added, a little more calmly, “Don’t you see? I know what I saw. He’s the one who’s crazy.”

Then she realized that she was freezing.

[*:*]

There was a message on Karen’s machine when she finally made it back to her apartment. It was Beth and she sounded distraught.

“Karen, Karen, please, if you’re there, pick up, please, Karen. Karen, are you there? This is Beth, I guess you can tell.” Her giggle was more like a sob. “I am not at home, no, I’m at Helleman’s, Helleman’s Bar and Grill, do you know where it is? Not too far from the house. Well, a little bit far. A couple of blocks. Well, maybe a bit more. I’m here now and I’m not going home, Karen, no I’m not. I’ll be here. At Helleman’s. Please hurry. Please come as soon as you come home, as soon as you get this message. It’s important. It’s Brad. He’s gone crazy. Please, Karen.”

He’s gone crazy?

She was walking down a dark country road again, toward the forest edge, now visible ahead, now closer, now closer, now here.

[*Forty-Seven ::

 

She spotted Helleman’s rather graceless “Eat At” neon sign, lit and flashing through the falling snow. She parked, and found Beth inside. She sat at a small table by a window at the back of the restaurant. The table was not much more than a narrow slab of Formica-covered wood jutting out from the wall. A couple of waitresses in their early forties in brown, too tight and way too short uniforms, and with what management must consider cute little aprons, stood chatting by the edge of the counter. Not their rush hour exactly, she thought, just Beth and two other guests. One of the waitresses asked her if she needed a table, but she nodded in Beth’s direction and said, no I’m okay. The waitress glanced over at Beth and nodded, a glad you’re here nod.

She could still almost feel the cold air in her lungs and see the stars above her head and hear what they had to tell her as she made her way to Beth’s table, but was yanked right back into the present at the sight of her. She looked like something lost, something just dropped there by huge, uncaring hands. Intent on stirring the coffee in front of her, she did not look up as Karen approached. She sat slumped, elbows on the table, eyes following the spoon. The steam rose in thin swirls from the brown surface as the spoon traveled first this way then that. Beth must have had a recent refill, she reflected—she noticed things like that, and she noticed that she noticed things like that.

She sat down opposite the still figure, and Beth, disturbed by the close movement, looked up briefly before returning to her task. Karen saw her lower lip then, ruptured then soldered by dried blood, and drew a quick breath. What’s happened? Accident? Attack? Self inflicted? She studied her, her face, her hands—still stirring mechanically—trying to gauge: how badly off was she? Beth herself seemed absent.

“Hi, Beth.”

She stopped her stirring.

“What time is it?” She asked instead of greeting her. Her voice was hoarse.

“Time?” She looked at her watch and made a show of it. “Almost eleven.”

“Almost eleven? Oh, my. I’ve been here a long time.”

“I’m sorry, Beth, I just got your message.”

“Oh, yes,” she seemed to remember, “that’s right.” Then she fell back to the task in front of her, silent again.

“You called me. It sounded urgent.”

The spoon’s occasional tap against the side of the mug as she kept stirring was her only reply. Karen decided not to prompt further, to let Beth open—if open she would—on her own. Something serious had happened, that much was clear. She turned and caught the eye of the waitress; she pointed at Beth’s coffee and indicated one for herself with her index finger. The waitress nodded and turned to fill her order. Beth remained silent. The coffee arrived and Karen, who never used sugar or cream, lifted her mug and sipped as silently as she could.

“Karen?” It was little more than a whisper, hoarse and wounded. Karen set her mug down on the Formica.

“Yes.” She tried to make eye contact but Beth would not look up.

“You have to believe me.”

Karen waited for more.

“You have to believe me. It’s not me. I know what I saw. It is not me.” Then she finally looked up and met Karen’s gaze. “I’m not the one who’s crazy. I thought so at first, I was sure I had gone crazy. But it’s not me, Karen. It’s not me.” She paused again and took a deep breath. “He’s the one who’s crazy.”

Karen waited for more, but when nothing came, she asked softly, “Who, Beth? Who is crazy?”

The question was met by a strange scrutiny. As if Beth were searching for the source of the sound and at the same time found the question completely irrelevant. “Brad,” she answered at length. “Brad.”

“What about him?”

“He is the one who’s crazy.”

“I don’t understand, Beth. What are you talking about?”

The woman fell silent again, appearing to shift in and out of different and difficult courses, deciding several times to speak, even drawing breath to fill her words, only to abandon them in favor of silence. She was struggling with something monumental, she could tell, something too large, too painful for her to convey. She ached to prompt, to succor, to ask again, but she remained silent, letting Beth take her time, giving her whatever room she needed to tell it on her own.

When she did speak, she managed to gather herself and seemed strangely focused, lucidly down to earth.

“This is really hard for me to say, Karen. It can be so hard to be a mother.” She hesitated, as if she were anticipating tears, then she winced briefly at a pain that must have come from her lip, then continued. “But I think there is something wrong, something terribly wrong with Brad.” She paused again, it was an effort to speak. “Karen, I think my son has something wrong with him. Something with his mind, something in his brain has gone awfully wrong, Karen. I think he needs help.”

No, Karen thought, look at yourself, you’re the one who needs help, Beth. “What makes you say that?”

Beth didn’t answer, maybe she hadn’t heard.

“What makes you say that?” She repeated.

Beth’s eyes, which had resumed the supervision of her stirring, shot up to meet hers. Karen could not make out their expression, but fear was part of it, fear and suspicion. Beth was not sure whether to trust her. Then she made up her mind, and Karen felt that the decision went in her favor. “Because,” she hesitated, then took the plunge, “he spoke to me this morning.”

“Brad?”

“Yes. But it was more than just talked. He spoke to me like you, or Elsie, or anyone, any adult, would have. He spoke to me as a grown-up.”

Karen tried to add things up. For Beth he reads and he talks. And for Bill Reilly at the bottom of the stairs, he played. But Bill Reilly was disturbed too.

Yes, her miracle vision shifted inside her like shadows shift.

“What did he say?” she heard herself ask.

“He told me,” said Beth with some difficulty without raising her eyes. “He told me that he used to live in Los Angeles.” Beth then looked up and seemed to watch her for a reaction, as if this was a test of some sort. Karen kept her face as composed as she could, but she had no idea what to say, or whether Beth indeed expected an answer. Beth, apparently satisfied, continued.

“He said that he had died there, in some sort of accident, and had been born again, as my son.” Her voice began to quiver, “He said that he used to live in Los Angeles and that he remembered how to read, and that is why he could read.”

Karen said nothing, didn’t dare. Didn’t even dare to think.

“And now I wonder,” Beth added after two deep breaths, drawn to steady herself. “Now I wonder if Bill wasn’t right.”

Karen inhaled audibly.

“Wasn’t right about what, Beth?”

Beth did not answer this question, instead she lost her battle for control and began to shake violently. Her right hand, which had continued its slow stirring, knocked over the cup, sending a sheet of warm coffee across the table surface in Karen’s direction. The liquid raced over the edge and into her lap, a dark, wet heat, spreading.

Beth, still shaking, began apologizing profusely. Karen backed up as far as she could from the little waterfall. She grabbed some paper napkins from the tarnished metal holder and began dabbing first the table and then her lap, all done quickly, mechanically, her mental focus still on Beth, Bill lurking, almost intruding. Focus, she told herself. Stay with Beth.

Sighed inwardly: poor woman. I really should have been more alert, I should have seen it sooner. This has all been too much for her. This is not good, not good at all. And the family, what are we going to do? She assumed the worst and that scenario suddenly ran away with her misgivings. After a brief, disastrous course, she managed to slap them aside and returned her focus to Beth. By all accounts, the woman across from her, all will now, had managed to seize lucidity again and clung to it firmly. She stilled her shaking and looked at Karen with fixed, almost vibrating, eyes. Karen could not help but admire the effort expended on control. The woman had strength.

“I know,” Beth said. “I know exactly what you’re thinking. Poor woman, you’re thinking, gone over the edge. But the point is, Karen, I have not gone over the edge. I’m close to the edge, teetering, and I’m confused, yes very confused. Afraid, too. I’m scared to death and I admit it. That is why I’m shaking, Karen. Can’t you see how I’m shaking. And I’m shaking because when I think of Bill I think that maybe we’ve done him wrong. But I have not… I have not lost my mind, Karen. You have to believe me. You have to believe me.”

The waitress appeared with a towel and quickly cleaned the top of the table properly. Did Beth want another cup? Beth shook her head no. She waited for the waitress to withdraw, then said. “I cannot prove that Brad said what I just told you, but you have to believe me, he did. He did say those things, clear as day.” Her shaking threatened to return and she again willed it away. “Brad is not natural, what he said is not natural. And that’s what Bill said, not natural. Possessed. I don’t know if he’s possessed, or where it comes from. I don’t know what is wrong with his brain or what kind of sickness does this to a child, but he scares me, scares me bad, and he needs help. Don’t you see?”

Karen nodded that she did see.

“Will you help me?”

“Of course I will, of course.” She took Beth’s hand in hers and held it. “Of course I will.” Then, “First let me take you home and get you…”

Beth tore her hand away. “No, no. Not home. I can’t go back there, Karen. I can’t. You have to go back and get him. Take him somewhere, take him somewhere where he can be looked after and treated proper. Please Karen, I can’t go back with him in there.”

“I have no place to take him, Beth.”

“I can’t go back with him in the house.”

“But you can’t stay here.”

“I can’t go back with him in the house.”

Karen made her decision. “All right, I will go and fetch Brad and take him home with me. Would that be fine?”

Beth nodded.

“But how will you make it home, Beth?”

“What day is it?” Beth asked.

“Thursday.”

“Ah, that’s no problem then.”

When Karen’s face told her that she didn’t understand, Beth added, “Elsie should be home any time, early out of school on Thursdays. Just tell her to come over here and get me. But not until he’s out of the house.”

Karen nodded.

“And ask Elsie to bring my coat, if you would.”

“Sure.”

Karen opened her purse and put two dollar bills on the table to pay for her coffee.

“Oh, Karen, could you pay for mine too, and for me using their phone? I’m sorry. I’m a fool and I ran out of the house without a penny. I’ll pay you back.”

“Yes, of course.” She looked for and found three more dollar bills which she handed to Beth. “Will you be all right here?”

“I will be fine now.”

Karen smiled at her. “It’ll be all right, Beth. Elsie will be here soon.”

“I know,” she said, then looked out the window at the snow still falling.

Karen’s miracle vision shifted again, calling to the miracle boy, and some part of her wondered who was the more confused, she or Beth.

[*:*]

“Have you seen Beth?”

Leonard sat on the edge of his bed, looking at the floor. He didn’t greet her. At the question he looked up and Elsie could see that he had been crying.

“Leonard? What’s wrong?”

He didn’t answer at first. She waited.

“You were right, Elsie, I… I’ve really blown it. I mean, really, really blown it.”

“What are you talking about, Leonard. You haven’t…?” She couldn’t think of how to end that question.

Leonard didn’t hear, just continued, “She did not take it well. It… I scared her away.” His words came out one at a time, as if against their will, while his eyes, red-rimmed, wandered. He could not face her.

“Leonard,” something very cold touched her. “What exactly have you done?”

He still could not face her. “I told her.”

“You told her what?”

“Everything.”

“You mean…?

“Yes.”

And now she understood why she could not find her mother. “Oh, God,” she said. “What have you done?”

It was not a question, but he answered it nonetheless. “I’m not sure what I’ve done. I just wanted to set it right, to explain to her that she wasn’t crazy. But you were right. It was not the right thing to do. It scared her. She ran out.”

Elsie could only stare at him and shake her head.

“It was my problem, Elsie. It was my fault. I wanted to help you, to set it right.” He stopped and finally looked her in the eyes. He drew breath and continued. “And I figured—I really did—that if I told her that she had been right, that she had seen me read, it would help her.”

She was scrutinizing him now.

“And?”

“And I told her.”

“Did she say anything?”

“Only one thing really. She asked how come I could read.”

“She asked that?”

“Yes.” He paused to think. “But the question sounded strange, as if it came from a distance.”

“And what did you tell her?”

He sighed. “I told her the truth.”

“Oh, God damn it, Leonard!” She wanted to tear something, hit it, smash it, break it. She felt trapped, caged, crushed by her own prediction. She had known it, she had known exactly how Beth would react, and she was right. She looked at her brother, no longer an innocent four-year-old sorry about an accident he’s just had, but a grown and reasoning person, responsible for the unforgivable. And this was unforgivable. She wanted to hit him, to hurt him, to retaliate on Beth’s behalf. It was just before the urge grew unbearable that she turned away and looked at the wall above her bed instead. At the photograph of the Alps. Then at the door. She walked over to it, touched it, willed herself back. Tried to see this crime from his view, failed, and tried again. Failed again. She turned and leaned against the door, and saw Bill again, breaking each finger in turn, methodically driving Leonard back into death and realized, with a sigh, that her brother had already seen more pain than anything he could ever do to warrant.

She looked back at him. He watched her, startled or afraid, she could not tell which, and for a moment almost saw an innocent four-year-old who didn’t mean to knock the vase over. Almost.

But she found love for him again, barely. And she found her voice again. Measured now.

“I have told you, more than once, that Beth would not comprehend. That she would not be able to face the truth about you. And of all people. Did you ever listen?” She meant it to sting.

He said nothing, a picture of guilt on the verge of tears. “God only knows what you’ve done to her or what she’s doing to herself now.”

“I know,” he said. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“Well, sorry is not going to help now. You’ve really screwed up.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” It was a shout.

She looked at him. He was not only upset, he was scared.

“Yes, I think you do. I know you do,” she relented. He nodded.

“Okay,” she added. “I’m sorry.” He nodded again.

She walked over to her bed and sat down. Her head felt heavy in her hands. Heavy, and now all empty, the shock of what had taken place settling in, replacing everything else. Still, she forced herself to speak, to sound reasonable.

“Listen. Now we really have to think. I mean, we really have to think. We have to find a way out of this.”

But she found she could not think. Everything was blown to bits. Dust and disaster. For some time she could not catch and hold onto a single thought. And when she finally did, it was the source of the current catastrophe that she caught, held, and considered. She had to make sure that this never, never happened again. Looked at him, “Whatever you do, Leonard—whatever you do—do not tell anyone else, do you understand? No one is ready for this. No one.”

He nodded that he understood. He looked devastated. But she would take no chances. “Do you understand?” Loudly.

He looked at her again, it took an effort, and answered. “Yes, yes, I understand.”

“Not another word. Not to anyone. Not to Karen. Not to Carder. Not to anyone.” It was a demand. She didn’t know how to state it more strongly.

He nodded again. “I promise.”

[*Forty-Eight ::

 

The snow was coming down harder and Karen, now back in her car, was making her way over to Beth’s house, trying to grasp what was going on, with Beth, and with herself.

Her rational side—the trained and logical one, the vision-denying one that had majored in psychology—argued that Beth had simply cracked under the strain of years of abuse, of seeing her husband deteriorate into a very disturbed specimen—now where did that come from? A very disturbed specimen?

She braked for a red light and the car skidded a little before it came to a stop. Abuse like that, eventually something has to give, especially considering Brad’s trauma and recovery, and then Bill’s incarceration, and then his awful accident with his tongue. The woman’s been through a lot, and with everything accumulating; well, simply too much in the end for the poor thing. Something had to give under all that, and something had given, had brought on delusions, and these scared her. Of course they scared her, delusions always do. No, not always, she corrected herself.

However, her same rational side pointed out, the woman was in shock, or had at the very least recently experienced shock, that much was a fact. Her hands, her eyes, her efforts at calmness all pointed to it. And this didn’t quite add up: delusions were seldom, if ever, that vivid, not vivid enough to cause physical shock. So could it, in fact, have been a delusion? Karen could not reconcile these views.

At which point her other side—the one that does not deny visions, and so long silent—calmly offered that Brad might well have spoken like a grown-up, might well be reading like one, too. Taking miracles into account, of course he could.

The light turned green, but it was not until the car behind her honked—one long impatient complaint—that she eased the car back in motion.

And as she spotted Beth’s house down the street, not easy to make out through the steady snow, Bill’s accusation resurfaced: “He was playing the piano. She forgot to mention that. He was playing the goddamn piano like a grown-up.” Elsie, on the stairs beside her, wet with tears, had denied it, flatly.

She drove past the house to the end of the block and turned around, then pulled up to the curb by their walkway. And Beth, sitting across from her at the kitchen table, had been convinced that he could read. Terrifyingly so. She shivered at the recollection.

Of course, there are such things as coincidence, offered her rational side.

Bill’s accusation and Beth’s insistence she had seen him read?

Sure, why not.

Yes, she acknowledged, yes, of course, it could be coincidence. Would be. Most likely was. Well it just had to be, didn’t it?

Not necessarily, suggested her visionary side, awake now. Another scenario, undefined as yet, forming, surfacing, shifting, almost like an ache, gathering strength.

A star-filled sky, cold and crystal, as if it belonged there with her in the car, insisted that she take it into account. But she did not make the connection, could not. Her own delusions had nothing to do with this. She pushed the sky aside and forced herself to move her hand, to reach for the key, to kill the engine, to reach for the door, to look back through the snow at any oncoming cars, to open the door, and step out. She had a job to do, she had to stay focused, it was a coincidence, nothing more.

Had to be.

She locked the car and walked the short path up to the house, leaving tracks. She rang the doorbell. She heard the familiar bells sound from within the house.

After a while she rang again. A moment later Elsie opened it.

“Hi, Elsie.”

Elsie didn’t answer, but stepped aside to let her in, then closed the door behind them. She looked upset.

“Hi,” She said again, and made a short wave with her right hand. Elsie didn’t return the gesture.

“Hi, Karen.” Neither did she smile. “Beth isn’t here right now.”

“Yes, I know. I just came from her.”

This took her by surprise. “You just saw her? Where?”

“At Helleman’s. Over a cup of coffee.”

“Oh.” Then, “Is she still there?”

Though Elsie’s face was composed again, Karen could sense caution beneath.

“Yes, she wanted to stay a while.”

“Why?”

“Well, she’s had a scare. She called me from the restaurant and left a message. Asked me to come and see her right away.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, but she’s okay now.”

This brought relief to her face. Then, “What do you mean, scare? And why didn’t she come back with you?”

“She…” how could she put it? “She is still too scared to come home.”

“You said she was fine.”

“Well, she’s better.”

“I don’t understand.”

Brad appeared at the top of the stairs. Sat down, as if to listen in. Looked down at them. “Let’s go into the kitchen,” she said. Elsie nodded. They sat down at the kitchen table in silence. Karen looked at Elsie again.

“She was scared by something Brad did, or something he said, rather. Something she thought he said. Something unnatural. And, I’ll be honest with you, she’s afraid that something may be wrong with him. She’s scared, really scared, of him.”

“Scared of Brad? Why would she be scared of Brad? What did he say?”

“Elsie. At this point it does not matter.”

“I matters. I want to know.” Her voice had risen.

A hunch surfaced, offered up by she didn’t know which internal side, “Are you sure you don’t already know?”

Did she flinch at that? Did something cross her face, gone the moment it appeared? If it did, it did not leave a trace.

“What?”

“Are you sure you don’t already know?”

“Of course I don’t. How could I?” Then, “Why on Earth would you ask that?”

“I’m sorry. Really. It doesn’t matter.” Then, “I need to see him though.”

“Karen, why can’t you tell me?”

“It really doesn’t matter, Elsie. Trust me. But I do need to see him.”

“Why?”

“Because Beth asked me to bring him with me.”

“What?”

“Elsie,” she said, all professional now, taking her in with her eyes, “I think you know that something may be the matter with Brad, and I think you’re trying to protect him. And, trust me, I understand that. Really, I do. It’s admirable. But there may be something wrong with him. He needs help. He may need treatment. I am here to take him with me. Beth asked me to.”

“No, Karen. You can’t take him.”

“Oh, yes, I can. And I will.”

“Karen, you can’t.”

“Believe me. No harm is going to come to him. Trust me.”

“You can’t take him.”

“Yes, I can.”

“You have no right…”

“Elsie,” she raised her voice. “Your mother asked me to take him with me. That’s all the authority I need. She also said that she cannot return to the house as long as he’s here.”

This seemed to hit her like a slap and Elsie suddenly looked confused. Poor girl. Karen’s heart could not help but go out to her. But by her actions, and words, Elsie was confirming everything. She too had noticed something strange with Brad, only she had obviously taken it a lot better than Beth had. And, of course, she wanted to protect him. It all began to add up now. Something was the matter with Brad, that was growing very clear. Poor Beth was right. Her rational side, smug in victory, nodded her head.

Then smiled. “Come on, Elsie. Perk up. It’s not all that bad. Help me get him ready.”

Elsie stood up. “No. I’ll get him. Please wait here.” She turned and made her way for the stairs. Karen rose too, and walked over to the kitchen phone.

[*:*]

“This is Carder.” He almost dropped the receiver, but managed to squeeze it back between ear and shoulder while he kept writing.

“Dr. Carder?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I was expecting your nurse. This is Karen Anderson.”

“She’s got the day off.”

“Oh, I see. Well, I’m sorry to bother you, but I have a bit of an emergency, and I wondered if I could come in and see you.” Then, when he chose not to answer, “It’s Brad Reilly.”

“Brad Reilly? What’s the matter with him?”

“I’m not sure, doctor. But something is wrong. He scared his mother out of the house, literally.” She paused.

“What happened?”

“She told me he was addressing her like a grown-up, explaining to her that the reason he could read was that he had lived before, in Los Angeles. He could read because he remembered from before.”

“Wait, wait. Slow down. He said what?”

“He, this is according to his mother, told her that he had lived before and that that’s why he could read.”

“Could read?”

“Yes. Oh, I forgot. She also told me that she had seen him reading in his room. She swore to me that she had seen him read. But that was earlier, yesterday.”

“He was reading?” She made zero sense.

“No. Yes, that’s what she told me she saw.”

“Who?”

“Beth Reilly, his mother.”

“Saw him read?”

“That’s what she told me.”

“Was he?”

“No. No, of course not. He was only looking at pictures, I checked it.”

“And?” He tried to make some sense of her ramblings.

“And then he talked to her. Told her that she was right, she had seen him read, and that the reason he could read was that he had lived before, remembered how.”

What utter nonsense. “Sounds to me more like the mother is having some problems.”

“I know, I thought so too, at first. And I’m sure that she does have problems. Yes, well, of course she does. But I also noticed that her eldest daughter—you remember her, Elsie?—seems to be hiding something. She won’t say what it is, but I can see that she is aware of some sort of problem with Brad. And from what I can make out, something’s the matter with him.

He tried to grasp what was coming his way. Anderson’s ramble didn’t make it any easier. Had the boy actually had a breakdown? Or the mother? Or both?

“How do you know that the boy talked about what, Los Angeles? How do you know that the boy talked at all?”

“I’m only telling you what Beth Reilly told me. But she was scared, really scared. I think she had had a shock, looked like she’d seen a ghost, all the symptoms.” She paused. “She also told me that he had sounded like an adult. Yes, that he had addressed her like a grown-up. Her words.” She paused again, as if deliberating. “I don’t think she was making this up.”

“But the boy has just begun to talk.”

She remained quiet for a while. Kept him waiting, impatiently. Finally, “Yes, that’s true.”

“And how on earth would he know about Los Angeles, or reincarnation?”

“I don’t see how.”

“So it must be the mother?”

“As I said, I thought so too, at first, and I’m sure her condition has exaggerated her impressions, but when I spoke to her daughter, well, of course, I can’t say for certain, but I don’t think it’s the mother, or not only the mother in any event. I think there might be something wrong with him. I think you should see him.”

Oh, Christ. This was so exactly what he did not need right now, a madwoman on his hands. Still, if something was wrong with the boy it would be disastrous, literally. He had better see him. Then he remembered the Council meeting, at three. He had confirmed and could not miss it. That was not an option. And it could drag on.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll see him, but I have a previous engagement. It will have to wait until tomorrow. I can see him first thing in the morning.”

“Is there no way? I could be there right away.”

He looked over at the clock on the wall. A little past twelve-thirty. “How long would it take you to get here?”

“Twenty minutes. Half an hour at the most.” It would be pushing it, but he should still make the meeting on time. He’d see the boy.

“I’ll wait for you.”

“Thank you, Dr. Carder.”

He replaced the receiver. There is nothing wrong with the boy, he decided. There cannot be. It’s the mother. She had never struck him as particularly stable.

[*:*]

Halfway up the stairs she heard Karen pick up the kitchen phone, dialing. Carder, she guessed. She hurried up the remaining steps. She had only a few minutes to figure something out, to hit on a plan to protect him. She was cold with the certainty of disaster and had trouble thinking in any sort of sequence. But she had to find some angle, something.

She closed the bedroom door behind her and looked at him, still sitting on his bed, head hung low. He looked up at her and was about to say something but before he could speak, “We’re in trouble, Leonard.”

He drew breath again, to answer, but she waved him silent, she needed to arrange her thoughts. “Karen is here,” she said. “She’s here to take you with her. Beth is convinced that you’re ill, that you’re crazy, and now I think Karen believes that too. Beth won’t come back to the house unless you’re gone—she’s that afraid of you—and Karen is here to take you with her. Either to the hospital, or, worse, to Carder. I think she’s on the phone with him now.”

“I won’t go.” He sounded determined enough.

“You don’t have a choice.”

“She can’t force me.”

“Beth asked her to.”

“What difference does that make?”

“Please think. Beth is your mother, your legal guardian. And if she wants you—still very much a minor, remember?—to have treatment, you’ll have treatment. I’m afraid you have no say at all.”

“Oh.”

“Oh, is right.” She looked around the room for things she would need to pack, then back at Leonard. “We must decide what to do, how you should behave. Carder will be running more tests, I’m sure, and you must convince him that you’re normal. That everything’s fine. And…”  she opened her closet door and grabbed a tote bag, “we don’t have any time to think this through. None.”

“The truth?” He seemed serious.

She did not believe this. Turned on him. “The truth? Have you completely lost your mind?” She was almost shouting, but didn’t care. “You mean the truth you told Beth, the truth that caused all this? What on Earth is wrong with you?”

He started and stared at her, part defiant, part confused. Part four-year-old, part grown-up. “I have no idea what else to do.”

“We’ve got to think of something.” She shouldn’t have yelled.

Leonard fell silent. Thought. Then, “Maybe the best thing is to not say anything.”

“What do you mean?”

“To not talk at all.”

“Not at all?”

“Yes. Maybe I should regress into my earlier condition for a while. Not a word.”

She considered that while she grabbed socks and two tee shirts from his drawer and stuffed them in the bag. Now, that was a good suggestion. That would be the safest thing. The one thing that he could do and that would give nothing away. “Yes,” she said and turned to him. “Yes, I think you’re right about that. Very. You should have a relapse. Not a word. At least we’ll be sure you won’t say anything stupid.”

He almost smiled.

[*:*]

“Who did you call?” Elsie wanted to know.

“Doctor Carder.”

“You’re taking him there?”

“Yes.”

“Why? There’s nothing wrong with him.”

“He’ll be the judge of that.” She instantly regretted her tone of voice. Elsie looked a little stunned.

But recovered quickly, “Can I come? He’ll be happier if I’m with him.”

“No, Beth asked that you go get her at Helleman’s as soon as I’ve left with Brad. In fact, why don’t I drop you there on the way? Oh, and she needs her coat.”

“There is nothing wrong with him,” Elsie said again.

“Doctor Carder just wants to make sure of that.” That was a better reply.

Elsie did not answer.

“So do you want a lift?” she asked.

“No,” said Elsie. “I’ll walk.”

[*:*]

He sat in the back seat of Karen’s car. Cold. Junk on the floor, a shopping bag and what looked like an old sweater on the seat to his left. And a map. Elsie’s tote bag with his things in it, too. Well, there was no Elsie now, just her bag. He was on his own.

The seat belt was cutting across his throat, already chafing a bit. He pulled it down but it wouldn’t stay, so he grabbed it with his hands and kept it down. That’s better. He looked out the window to his right, the snow was still coming down. No sky to be seen, only snow, gray and white. Karen was saying something from behind the wheel, he didn’t quite get it. They stopped at a light.

To be honest, he was afraid, yes he was, no denying that, but he was also elated. This drive was a little like freedom. He was on his own, well sort of, he was his old self in this strange little body, riding in the back seat of a now warming up a bit car, driving through the snow—never any snow in Los Angeles—in a strange town, and very much, oh yes, quite alive thank you. Then he remembered Beth running away from him, and the elation took wing.

Karen said something again, talking to the windshield, meant for him. He still didn’t catch it, though, and he still didn’t care.

She pulled into a parking lot by a large brown building. Or gray. A hospital? No, not that large. More like a professional building. Didn’t look like Carder’s building, though. But then the snow was so heavy it was hard to make much of anything out with certainty. She found a spot and parked. Karen reached back and unbuckled him, then folded the front seat forward and helped him out of the car. She reached in to grab his bag, then changed her mind, then changed her mind again and did grab it, closed the door and gave him her hand to hold onto. Better take it. She walked slowly to allow him to keep pace. This damn leg. It didn’t hurt, not pain hurt, but it ached in whispers. And the pivot was all wrong. He wanted to step normally, like he’d always done, but the right leg always twisted slightly out of true, and it was shorter. Not by much, but noticeably. Bottom line: he had a limp all right. Not all that pronounced, but a limp nevertheless, and it carried a shadow.

Karen held the door open for him and he stepped inside. Now he recognized the lobby. It was Carder’s building all right. They had entered from the back of the building. Yes, those were the elevators. He was used to entering through the front. It struck him as amusing that he was a four-year-old with his own shrink, that would have gone down well back in LA. The elevator doors swooshed open and he was afraid again. He missed Elsie. He was on strange ground, and alone. And in trouble.

The elevator started slowly. Like everything else it seemed large to him. Karen was stamping her feet to rid her boots of snow, it made the elevator rock. Of course, from his height everything was large. Christ, he couldn’t even reach the top-floor elevator button. Karen said something again, to soothe him, he guessed. He missed it though. Besides, what was the use in listening, if you’re not supposed to talk. God, he must remember that, don’t talk. Well, maybe that’s the key. Just don’t listen. The elevator stopped with a little shudder. The door swooshed again, and they stepped off.

Carder met them in his office reception. No sign of his secretary, nurse, whatever, whom he, he must admit, liked a lot. She was friendly and cute to boot. Well, cute may be the wrong word, beautiful. Which is not what you would call Carder.

He was smiling down at him. On him. Neither did he strike him as friendly, never had. He told Karen he wanted to talk to her alone, and Karen told him to sit down on the sofa. And stay there, don’t run away. Where to?

Karen and the doctor went into his office and closed the door behind them. He could hear them talking, muffled voices on the other side of that door. Oak was it?

[*Forty-Nine ::

 

“Mom?”

Beth looked up at her. She looked drained, hurt, a spoon in her hand. She put it down on the Formica top. Slowly. It did not make a noise.

“Ah, there you are.”

“Mom, you don’t look too good.”

“I know. I know.” She gave the spoon a last glance, as if telling it to stay, then slid out of the booth. Once out she stretched and opened her hand to find the crumpled dollar bills Karen had given her. She placed them on the table, then turned toward Elsie.

“Your coat.” Handing it to her.

“Ah yes.” She took it and put it on.

Together they walked out of the restaurant and into the snowy afternoon.

[*:*]

Karen opened the door and waved for him to come. He slid off the sofa and walked into Carder’s dark, wood-paneled office. Two chairs in front of the desk, Karen was staying? He hoped so. He climbed into the one on the left and slid all the way back. Carder was making his stupid pyramid with his hands, trying to look impressive again. This was out of some TV show, he tried so hard to look fatherly or something. Karen looked nervous and kept glancing at him, fussing with her hands, looking away quickly and back over at the bookshelves, when she saw that he noticed her glances.

“So, Brad. What is this I hear about you reading?”

This is where we stonewall him. He looked back at him, trying to appear as innocent as he possibly could. But it was hard, almost impossible actually, not to laugh. The guy was so full of himself it was painful.

“Brad,” he said, a little louder. “What’s this about reading?”

All right. Will he be shouting next?

No, he didn’t shout. Didn’t even repeat the question. Instead he wrote something in his journal and said, “Brad, can you hear me okay?”

Keep looking at him, at his mouth moving. Don’t hear.

Carder said to Karen, “What’s with him?”

She looked over at him, then back at Carder. “I don’t know, doctor.”

It was weird, being discussed in your presence, as if you weren’t even there. But then again, that was the impression he was going for, wasn’t it? The doctor stood up and came around to stand by his chair.

“What is this, Brad? What are you playing at?”

That’s for me to know and for you to find out. But this thought barely had a chance to conclude before the pain shot up from his arm where the doctor had pinched him, and hard, and he let out a loud involuntary yelp.

“Ah. Nothing wrong with that voice, then. Good.” The smug bastard walked back to his side of the desk and sat down. More notes. Then the bloody pyramid again. He leaned forward and looked stupidly sincere.

“If I’m to believe your mother, you’ve been doing a lot of talking lately.” He waited for him to reply, then sighed and looked away. Then back at him.

“What’s your name? Do you know your name?”

Sure do, but I’m not going to tell you.

“Can you hear me Brad?”

Loud and clear.

“Brad, how old are you?”

Four and change.

“Brad. Brad.” Carder looked away again.

“Miss Anderson,” he said finally, “Do you have any idea what’s with the boy?”

“No, Dr. Carder. I only know what Beth, the mother, told me. What I told you on the phone.”

“Have you heard him talk today?”

“Sure. Oh, I’m sure I have.” Then she stopped and thought about it. “No, actually. No, I have not.”

“Heard him speak?”

“No.”

“So you have no idea, do you?”

“Only that something’s the matter with him, according to his mother. And from what I observed with Elsie, his sister.”

Hearing this, Leonard involuntarily spun around and looked at her. What had she observed with Elsie? Then immediately realized that he had made a mistake, and that the doctor had not missed his sudden movement.

“What about Elsie, Brad, what’s so interesting about Elsie?”

He looked back at the doctor, feeling found out, almost blushing at his own stupidity, but maintaining his silence.

“How interesting,” said the smug bastard. “I think what we have here,” and that damn pyramid again, “is someone who has elected not to talk.” He addressed Karen and stressed the word elected, all for his benefit, for sure. “I think we have someone here who understands us quite well but who chooses to ignore us. I wonder why?”

He glanced at Karen as the doctor spoke. She looked confused. He looked back at the doctor. Still stonewalling. Shifted in his seat.

“Why, Brad? Why won’t you talk?”

He looked up at the serious face. It seemed to shine. Was he sweating? Was he nervous? He didn’t look nervous. Then he glanced past it and through the window at the snowy world beyond. Had it let up a bit?

“Brad. Why the silence? I know that you understand us. Wave to me if you understand what I’m saying.”

Uh, oh. They hadn’t considered this. Well, there hadn’t been time to consider anything. So he waved. He wasn’t deaf, after all.

“Ah, that’s better. You hear, and you do understand.”

Should he have waved? He wasn’t sure whether that was a mistake or not. Leaning toward mistake.

“So why won’t you talk?”

Just look back at him, and look as stupid as you can.

“Brad. Your mom says she saw you reading. What about it? Did you? Can you?”

Just look stupid.

“Can you really read, or were you just looking at pictures?”

Just look stupid.

Carder scrutinized him, but said nothing for a while, then looked at his wristwatch, frowned.

“Miss Anderson, I have a meeting. I don’t know what the boy is playing at. He obviously hears and understands us just fine, but has for some reason decided not to talk to us. The one thing he is not doing, however, is rambling on about Los Angeles or reading.”

He could feel Karen’s discomfort beside him.

“I don’t think there’s anything the matter with him. He doesn’t want to talk right now, that’s all. I suggest that you bring the boy home and then check with my nurse when the next appointment is. I thinks it’s early next week. And,” he added as an afterthought. “Perhaps you should see what is the matter with his mother.”

“But Dr. Carder. I can’t bring him home. His mother was nearly hysterical when I spoke to her. She is terrified of the boy. I can’t bring him back there.”

“Nonsense. Of course you can. Let me give you something to give her if she acts up.” He stood up and went over to his wooden medicine chest. Came back with a couple of pills. “This will calm her down.”

“But, Dr. Carder…”

“No buts, Miss Anderson. There’s nothing wrong with the boy, tell her that. Hysterical, you said? You should know Miss Anderson, for I’m sure you’ve come across it before, that someone hysterical—and that was the word you used—can see or hear just about anything they wish to. So, you just give her these,” he offered her the white tablets, “and I’m sure that all will be fine. Then have her bring the boy back early next week. I want to run some more tests. Set up a time with the nurse, all right? And if she doesn’t want to bring him, why don’t you? But I would keep an eye on that woman. Something’s definitely the matter there. She’s obviously delusional.”

Karen looked decidedly uncomfortable, but she stood up and accepted the pills.

Leonard breathed an inaudible sigh. He had pulled it off after all, and he was out of there. Back to Elsie. Thank God. He was beginning to feel very good about the whole thing, and was getting ready to climb off of his chair when Beth’s face came into view, terror-stricken and staring, her mouth still and open, unaware of not breathing. Beth’s face, frightened by him, by something unreal, by something terrifying, before it turned and fled through the front door, leaving him standing on the stairs, empty and stunned.

And seeing again Beth run, then slam the door behind her in her desperation to get away from him, he realized what he had just accomplished, and his heart sank.

By stonewalling he had confirmed her derangement, had proven to Carder, and to Karen, the Beth was indeed crazy, that she had imagined the whole thing. He had managed to prove that she was the one in need of treatment, and had in fact accomplished the exact opposite of why he wanted to tell her the truth in the first place.

No, no. He shook the vision from his eyes. This he would not be party to, no matter what he and Elsie had agreed to. And had not the doctor just told Karen that Beth was delusional? That she was hysterical and imagining things? Christ, he had even given her medication for it.

No. He could not go back on those terms, he could not, would not, condemn Beth for listening to him, for hearing what he said. But he had promised Elsie. Damn it. What the hell was he to do? Yes, he was right, she was right, shutting up was the right thing to do, for him, for Elsie, for their secret. But not for Beth, and that was the crux. This had made it worse for her, a lot. Had hurt her even more. And that just wasn’t right.

And so he acted on his decision even before he knew he had made it.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll talk.”

Karen sat down again in surprise, causing the chair to yelp in protest under the sudden unexpected weight. Dr. Carder lost all smugness and just stared at him.

For a good ten seconds you could just about hear the snow falling outside.

“What did you just say?” Carder was the first to collect himself.

“I said, ‘Okay, I’ll talk.’”

“You’ll talk?”

“Yes, I’ll talk.”

In the still longer silence that followed he had plenty of time to realize that he had burned a whole heap of bridges by opening his mouth. And that he had just made yet another not minor mistake: He had spoken as himself, as Leonard. No doubt about that. As Leonard giving in. The ice under his feet felt very thin and it was swaying, cracking under his weight. The doctor was still staring at him, as if at an apparition. He ventured a look at Karen. Her eyes were closed and she seemed to have trouble breathing.

How the hell would he get out of this one? How would Brad react now? That was the question. But, Jesus, what a stupid one: how would Brad react if Leonard had just blown it? How the Hell would Brad know about Leonard. What was he thinking? No, but how would Brad react in this situation? He had to answer that question. How could he remain, or regain, Brad after this? That was the question. He must, somehow, manage just that. But he must also consider Beth. She was not crazy, that was all his doing.

[*:*]

Then the boy spoke. “Okay, I’ll talk.”

He did not believe what he just heard. Perhaps he had not heard it. He re-listened to the words, and again. No, the boy had spoken. Definitely. He looked over at Anderson, looking at the boy with her mouth open, which confirmed it.

Looking back at the boy he said, “What did you just say?”

“I said, ‘Okay, I’ll talk.’”

“You’ll talk?”

“Yes, I’ll talk.”

He sensed with a shiver, a slow, cold shiver that seemed to open something up, that he was no longer talking to a child. That a child had not said those words, and that a child had not answered his question. No, that was not a child’s use of the word “talk.” He used the word as meaning “confess.” “Okay, I’ll talk.” Okay, I’ll confess, Okay, I’ll level with you. There was no doubt about it, that’s what he had said, and that’s what he had meant. But he could not reconcile this with reality. Too large a gap. He looked over at Anderson again. She sat very still now, and had closed her eyes. He looked back at the boy for a long time. The boy looked back at him, right in the eye, and then over at Anderson. Then he spoke again.

“Beth is not crazy,” he said.

“My God,” Anderson said, instantly wide awake, “that’s what she said.”

“That’s what who said?”

“Beth, his mother. Those were her words. She pleaded with me to believe her, that she was not crazy.”

The conversation was unreal to say the least. It was getting away from him. In an attempt to reel it back in, perhaps, he heard himself ask the boy, “Why is she not crazy?”

“Because she did see me read. She did not imagine it.”

“She saw you read?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, doctor,” Anderson said.

“Wait a minute,” he said, remembering her earlier comment, “didn’t you tell me on the phone that you had verified that he had not read? Only looked at pictures?”

She looked at Brad and didn’t speak for a while. Then said, “Yes, I did. I went up to his room and he was looking at pictures, fairy tale pictures.”

“I switched books,” said the boy.

“From a blue book? Anna Karenina?” asked Anderson.

“Yes,” answered the boy, still with not a boy’s words.

“Why?” he asked. “Why would you switch books?”

“I knew she had seen me. She had seen me read. I wanted to make it look like I had not been reading, only looking at pictures.”

“Why?” It seemed like the only word left at his disposal.

“Elsie didn’t want her to know. She didn’t think she could handle it.”

“Didn’t want her to know what? That you, what, could read? Are you saying that you can in fact read?”

“Yes.”

He leaned back into his chair, closed his eyes and pinched the top of his nose briefly, then rubbed it with his thumb and forefinger in an attempt to clear his thoughts. Unsuccessfully. Too many, in too many directions. He opened his eyes, squeezed them shut again as if trying very hard to wake up, opened them again. The boy was still there, as was Anderson. Then it finally caught all the way up with him: The boy can read. That’s what he had just said. That he could read. How could that possibly be?

Sitting up again, he groped all around for an answer, in papers he’d read, in lectures he’d heard, in his years of experience, all answerless. What could possibly account for this? What in the world could possibly explain what he was listening to, looking at, right there, in front of him, and looking right back?

The answer, for it really was the answer, tapped him on the shoulder. Gently at first, just a brush really. Could I have your attention, please. Then, gradually with a little more daring, hey, this is it, this is the answer. And then, now that it had is attention, almost like shock: His paper. His paper had already answered the question. He already knew the answer, just not all the way.

And suddenly he realized how savant his Trauma Savant actually was. For if he could read, if he actually could read—and he could, he said he could— was not the trauma, and the subsequent approximation of that trauma, the factor responsible? He had not only regained his voice by the approximation of the original trauma, his abilities—talking, and reading for Christ’s sake—had accelerated exponentially by the looks of things. He stared at the boy now, rocked by the implication, then asked. “You can read?”

“Yes.”

“For real?”

“Yes.”

He stood up, just to make sure—doing all he could to subdue his growing excitement, for if, if the boy can read, man—went over to his bookshelf and selected a volume at random. He read the title: Crime and Punishment. That would do just fine. He flipped it open, walked back to the boy, and handed the book to him.

“Okay, read.”

And so he did. The boy—Jesus Christ, this was amazing—was reading. Loud and clear. Hardly a stumble. There wasn’t even a shadow of doubt about it. And if his ears weren’t proof enough, Anderson’s dumb amazement corroborated amply: she simply stared at him, mouth open, gaping actually—it did not become her, frankly.

And the boy had not lied, he could definitely read. Fluently. At, what?—what was he, four, just turned four?—and after nearly two years of trauma-induced loss of speech.

The implication sank in, all the way. This was better, more sensational than he could ever have imagined. Not in his wildest. His theory, his perfect theory, reached farther and deeper than he had initially conceived, much. His mind was racing, fueled by incredible promise. Reading, then, obviously, was something that trauma could induce, or at least hasten. Significantly. Well, obviously, it had happened. Evidence sitting right in front of him. He even had a witness. Still with her mouth open. Oh, wait, he had to get this on tape. He turned and walked over up to the recorder cabinet and turned on the Revox. Then pressed record and returned to his desk. The boy had stopped reading.

“Go on, a little bit more.”

He obliged, picked up from where he stopped, in the middle of Raskolnikov’s dreadful soul searching, and read on. Getting it all on tape now. His discovery, his discovery, his amazing and groundbreaking fucking discovery. For the next few minutes all that was heard in the room was the thin, completely improper voice, droning on about the cold of the St. Petersburg winter.

“Okay, Brad. Thanks. That’s enough.”

The boy stopped reading and looked up, book still open in his lap, which it nearly covered.

He still found it hard to believe—well, it was pretty fucking impossible—but believe he did. How could he not: his eyes told him, his ears told him. And how incredibly, bloody wonderful it was. What a discovery. He had to sit down.

Then neither of them spoke.

Until Karen Anderson, still staring at the boy, said to him, “And how is it that you can read, Brad?”

The boy did not answer right away. Then, “I don’t know.”

“But what about Los Angeles?” she said.

He hesitated again. “Huh?”

“Los Angeles. You told your mom that you had lived in Los Angeles.”

“Uh, uh. No. I told her I could read, that she was not crazy. That’s what I told her. She saw me read and she thought she had gone crazy. It wasn’t fair. She saw correctly, and I told her that.”

“You didn’t tell her about Los Angeles, about having lived there? About an accident?”

“No.”

Boy, would you listen to that vocabulary. And his mother—desperate, of course, to explain how her four-year-old son could be talking to her and admitting to reading—was obviously imagining this Los Angeles stuff, not surprisingly. Too many checkout stands. Poor woman. Hearing him speak like this would of course have given her quite a shock. And would have sent her reeling for explanations, no matter how far-fetched. Of course.

His thoughts returned to his paper, his now-incredible paper. Which had suddenly turned larger in scope, vaster in consequence. It had—he saw it spread out boldly before him, saw its new vistas—it had grown fabulous.

“Nothing at all? Not a word?” insisted Anderson.

“No.”

“So she imagined it,” Carder said to her.

“But she was so specific about it, so certain.”

“She was in shock,” he said. “Quite understandable under the circumstances. She had just heard him talk, like this.”

“I know.”

“Besides, you heard what he just said.” Then he turned back to the boy, with perhaps just a trace of a frown. “You did not say anything about Los Angeles? Nothing about living before?”

The boy shook his little head, seriously, sincerely, “No.”

“There you have it,” he addressed Anderson again.

“But how, how is it possible? If this is not reincarnation, what would account for… for this?” She nodded in the boy’s direction. The looked back at him. The woman was the picture of confusion.

“Well, I guess I can tell you, Miss Anderson. You deserve to know. But not a word about it anywhere, is that understood?”

She nodded, though she did not look capable of comprehension, period.

“This fits right in with my recent research. In fact, I’ve just finished outlining my findings in a paper. You should read it. It explains it.”

“Explains how he can read?”

“Yes, that too.”

Still confused. Skeptically confused.

“Believe me,” he said. “I know this is startling—to say the least. But we, well I, have made quite a discovery here.” Along with the certainty that indeed he had, he felt his faculties returning nicely, including his flair for making the right impression, verbally. “Perhaps I should say that I have significantly augmented my initial discovery this afternoon. And I guess I should thank you for that.”

Her eyes, still wide and wondering, looked at him through glasses that now kept sliding down her nose, and which she kept pushing back up. So he added, by way of explanation, “It has to do with the boy’s trauma, with which you, of course, are familiar, and the subsequent release of that trauma by an approximation of the original trauma.”

Her mouth, which couldn’t decide whether to stay open or shut, said she still had no idea what he was talking about.

“I’ll see that you get a copy of the paper as soon as I get a chance. Actually, why don’t you call my nurse tomorrow, I’ll let her know to send you a copy. For now, though, Miss Anderson, and this is vitally important, as I said, not a word about that paper, or about his reading, not to anyone. Not a word. I don’t want it known yet. Not a word.”

The woman still had trouble keeping up.

“Believe me, I have solved his ability to read, but I do not want it known yet. Not yet. I have some details to finalize.”

She finally seemed to understand. Nodded, “Okay.”

“And Brad,” he turned to the boy, “how are you holding up under all this scrutiny?”

“Fine.”

“Not a word to anyone, okay?”

“Uh-uh.” He shook his head.

“Okay. I will need to see you again tomorrow. We need to do some more tests.” Then to Anderson, “Do you think you can bring the boy over around nine?”

“Yes, I think so.” She fished her appointment calendar out of her purse and checked, “Yes, I’m fine.”

“Good, good. Then I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

“What shall I do with the boy?”

“Take him home. And give Mrs. Reilly the sedatives if she needs them.”

“Perhaps I should have him stay with me?”

“That’s fine, too,” he said. “Perhaps even better.”

He watched them leave, heard the outer door close, before he reached for the phone.

Two calls. One to the Council secretary, apologies, so very sorry, cannot make the meeting after all, a patient, you know how it is.

The other to the printer, who had expected the paper this afternoon so they could do whatever they do to run the Journal tomorrow, apologies, can’t get you the final copy of the paper today, a patient. Emergency, I’m sure you understand. Would tomorrow morning be all right? First thing? Yes, after a little lecture about how overworked they were, and how hard it would be to get the Journal out by tomorrow afternoon as it was, yes, that would be fine, but no later than nine, and only if everything on the diskette was absolutely ready to go. Fine. Sure, he could do that. Would messenger it over or bring it over in person. All ready to go. Thank you so much.

And a third: Home. Would be late. No, can’t say how late, something’s come up. May even stay here overnight.

[*Fifty ::

 

Oh, yes, Elsie would kill him, but really, what else could he have done? Beth was not crazy, she only seemed crazy because of him. And God knows what they would have done to her if he hadn’t spoken up. What if they had committed her, and given her the same treatment as Bill? Shocks. No, that was not something he could have lived with, end of story. But, yes, Elsie would kill him. Also true.

Well, at least he had steered clear of Los Angeles. He’d owed her that much. And that seemed to have gone over pretty well with Carder, if not with Karen. And, yes, understandable under the circumstances, as he had put it, that Beth could have imagined him saying something like that. Something to explain him talking, reading. Made sense to Carder. Which meant no one was going to lock her up for it. Bottom line: Beth was safe, and the secret was safe, so all things considered, a decent job of improvising, if he might say so himself, although it probably would take Elsie a bit of lip chewing to agree with him. But she would understand, and agree, he was sure of it.

By the time they reached Karen’s apartment building the snow had stopped. Looking out the car window he could even spot a strip of blue up there among all that gray, now off to snow on somewhere else, he supposed. Karen eased the car down the ramp to her underground garage, carefully. Either she was really into driving, or she was intensely preoccupied, for she had not said a word since they left Carder’s office. Fine with him. She pulled around to her parking spot and killed the engine. Pulled the hand brake, got out, let him out too, grabbed his bag, did not offer him her hand, and set out for the elevator. He followed her, half running, that damn leg, would he ever get used to it?

[*:*]

He looked around the apartment. Not very big, but nice. Karen put his tote bag on a small, round stool in the entry hall, walked into the kitchen on her left and finally said something from in there, about food.

“Sorry, what?”

“Are you hungry?”

“Yes.” Yes he was hungry, starving in fact.

“Okay,” still talking from the kitchen with her back to him. “Let’s see what I have.” She opened the door to her refrigerator, seemed to think better of it, closed it again, and instead reached for the telephone on the wall. Dialed. Must have been Beth on the other end. All was fine, she said. And you know what, you’re not crazy, not at all, she said. And not to worry, everything was fine with Brad, too. Was going to be just fine.

She hung up and returned to the refrigerator. Came out with butter and cheese, milk and jam. Got bread and peanut butter from the pantry. Set out to make sandwiches.

Still not a word about the meeting with Carder, as if it hadn’t happened.. It was an odd atmosphere, charged with unsaid things.

“Have a seat,” she said. “Please,” and indicated a chair by her round kitchen table.

He scrambled onto it, but could barely reach the edge of the table. “I need something…” he began.

She turned around, saw the problem, and looked around for something for him to sit on. “Ah,” her eyes fell on two rather thick phone books. “Will these work?”

They worked fine.

From over by the sink, measuring water for her coffee maker, she asked, “You don’t drink coffee, do you?”

“No.”

She got the percolator going, joined him at the table, and they dug in. Soon the kitchen was filled by the great smell of strong coffee.

She stood up to pour herself a cup. “You sure?” she said and held up her cup in his direction.

“Yes.”

It was an odd thing for her to ask, he thought, and then he almost asked for some, for it smelled really good and he had been a dedicated coffee drinker for years before he discovered green tea. Of course, that was before he, oh Christ, died. That would take some getting used to.

Back at the table she looked at him over the rim of her mug, pushed her glasses back up her nose, and asked him point blank. “You’ve never lived in Los Angeles.”

“No.”

“You didn’t tell your mom that you had?”

“No.”

“Do you believe in reincarnation?”

“What’s that?” He wasn’t sure whether that was a stupid answer or not, but whatever it was, it was contrived.

“You don’t know?”

“No.”

“It’s where you die and are born again.”

“Ah.”

“And that has not happened to you?”

“No.”

He could not tell, had no clue, whether she believed him or not. Her face gave nothing away. If anything, it seemed amused, but at what it was impossible to say.

He finished his sandwich.

“Want another one?” she wondered.

“Please.”

She took his plate, and soon returned it to him, replenished.

“Have you any idea what is going on?” she asked. Also point blank.

“What do you mean?”

“With you. You’re… you’re not a child anymore, Brad. Are you aware of that?”

Oh, oh, thin ice here. “No,” he said. The best he could think of.

“No, you’re definitely not a child anymore,” she said, then looking at her coffee mug, she carefully and without a sound put it down. “Amazing.” Picked it up again, sipped some more, looked at him over the rim, just looked. It was starting to get a little bit embarrassing.

“What’s so amazing?” he said.

“You are?”

“I don’t get it.”

“Well, you should hear yourself. Sure you don’t want some coffee?”

“Positive.”

“See, that’s what I mean. You should hear yourself. ‘Positive.’ What kid your age says ‘positive?’”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, neither do I.” She shook her head again, “Amazing.”

“Is… Mom okay?” he asked between bites.

“She sounds better.”

“That’s a relief.”

“There, you’re doing it again.”

“What?”

“You should hear yourself. Your vocabulary. It’s amazing.”

“Stop it, you’re embarrassing me.”

“How can you even know what ‘embarrass’ means, or implies?” Would not stop looking at him.

“I don’t know.” He finished the sandwich.

“All set? Or you want some more?”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He glanced at the kitchen clock, a little after four. Past his nap time, and yes, he was tired. That was one thing with this small body, needed lots of sleep. And food. Lots of growing to do. And that meant frequent snacks and afternoon naps. Not that he minded.

And now that he was well fed, that sort of topped up feeling came down on the side of sleep as well. “I’m tired,” he said. “Time for my nap.”

“Oh,” she said. Surprised, but catching on right away. “Of course. Sorry, didn’t think about that. I’ll make a bed for your on the sofa. Won’t take long.”

Karen left to rummage around for blankets and stuff. He remained at the kitchen table looking out the window. Evening was not far off, the light was already fading.

“Ready,” she said from the living room, and he climbed off the chair and followed the voice. Took off his shoes and clambered onto the sofa and in under the soft blanket. Yes, very tired, he thought. Did he need anything else, wondered Karen. No, thanks. No, just some shuteye, thank you.

In fact, even more tired than he thought, for he fell asleep almost at once and slept straight through the night.

[*:*]

Karen sat looking at the little guy on her sofa, asleep and peaceful in the late stillness, where the only sounds were his and her breathing, and the occasional muffled sound from the outside, where the snow had started falling again.

The day, the events of the last twelve hours, had caught her unawares and shuttled her back and forth with not much chance of reflection. It had turned her world upside down—then again, and again, and then again. Now, finally, she had the time to piece it together.

The first blow—Beth breaking down so badly—had shaken her harder than she realized at the time. Poor Beth, whom she really cared for, loved almost, derailing so completely. And she really had, everything corroborated: the panicked message, her appearance, spilling the coffee, her nearly frantic attempts at control.

But then, Elsie, with her strange protective behavior—she was hiding something for sure—turned everything on its head: told her Beth was fine, and had told her the truth, something was indeed the matter with Brad.

Carder however, begged—and for what she felt were not entirely the right reasons, he was a little too assertive, something—to differ. No, there was nothing the matter with the boy, absolutely not, other than his refusal to talk, that is, which apparently was no big deal. No, it was the mother, no doubt about it. Delusional. Obviously. And since Carder was the expert.

But then he talks. And reads, fluently, from Crime and Punishment. So Beth was right, had been all along, yes. Had indeed told the truth. Her world on its head once again.

And if Beth had told the truth, which by now she was certain of, then Brad, sitting to her left in Carder’s office, was—it had felt like an epiphany—living proof of, yes, reincarnation. Which in turn proved the immortality of the spirit, which in turn proved, yes, her vision.

It made sense, so much sense. Her two sides, both the logical and the one that had visions, finally agreed. Of course. He had lived before, in Los Angeles, and now he remembered how to read. Which is what he had told Beth. What she said he had told her.

But this he denied. World on its head again.

But Carder had it all explained. Knew what was happening, he said, or at least implied that he did. And it had nothing to do with past lives. Had to do with trauma and release of trauma, is that what he said?

Trauma and release of trauma? She watched the little chest on her sofa rise and fall and thought not. No, the explanation was much more beautiful than that. It had to do with a dark country road where she stood, head leaned back with her eyes to the stars. And as she drank their silence and heard their light the little man on her sofa made perfect sense. He had told Beth the truth. He had lived in Los Angeles, and he remembers. Of course. He’s a spirit. He’s one of the wall creators. Waking up.

[*:*]

She did not sleep much that night. An hour perhaps, if that, for her vision was stirring again, touched by the little miracle in her living room. And who can sleep when life rises from slumber and decides to sing?

And the particular song it sang for most of this February night was the one of life never-ending, coursing from shape to shape in its quest for final morning. For that was what her little guest was all about, wasn’t it? Reincarnation. The spirit immortal.

Watching him sleep, she thought about all she had read, all she had pondered in those days before she finally gave up, to shed her vision with the rest of her childhood fantasies.

And watching the snow fall, lighted softly from the lamp by her window, she revisited other nights, and there were many, spent reading everything from the Upanishads to Spinoza, spent contemplating everything from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Meister Eckhart, spent tracing the journey of the eternal soul, spent turning everything over, and over, and over again, ever hoping to find her vision underneath, or at least its resonance. Spent feeling more and more certain: she must have lived before.

Sipping her coffee, then watching thin arms of steam slowly leave the aromatic surface, she thought about Plotinus, that brilliant Egyptian—he had had visions, too, hadn’t he? And didn’t he see his past lives as well? She couldn’t remember, but yes, she thought so. And the Hindu, of course, as well as the Buddhist, they all accepted living over and over as an obvious fact of life. As did Zen.

And looking back over at her little guest she remembered how much sense it had made to her then. How certain she had been that, of course, she had lived before. Must have, it was the only thing that made any sense, the only thing her vision would agree to.

And it wasn’t only the Hindus, and the Buddhists; the early Christians, too, accepted reincarnation as fact, or did until—from what she had been able to make out—Rome decided that transmigration, their word for it, flew in the teeth of her financial interests; for if people lived again—if there indeed were no Hell—how do you frighten them into keeping the Church flush? Bottom line: Reincarnation was bad for business, and was declared Anathema. Problem solved. No more past lives. She remembered how appalled she had been by the sheer arrogance of it: that by the stroke of a quill, natural law was altered to fit dogma and purse. But wasn’t it always so?

But then there was her old quandary; and it, too, stirred again: If past lives were a fact, how come we can’t remember? What makes us forget? Does death do that to you? That was the question that, unsolved, had eventually turned her away from her path, she realized that. It was the one uncertainty that negated all other certainties. For if reincarnation existed, was indeed the way things were, you ought to remember, something. But no matter how hard she had tried, she could not see a thing before age three, or was it two. But nothing, nothing earlier. Black. Blank. If only. If only.

But “if only” never came, and that was, she saw this clearly now, why she had eventually called it quits and retreated to the agreed upon theories of psychology, so embraced by one and all. So concrete and so accepted—and by this time acceptance had become all-important to her. Had become was everything, especially if you were to function in this society. Make a living. Have friends.

But there, not five feet away, sleeping still: was he not living proof of reincarnation?

Her visionary side said yes, yes indeed. But the other side, the one with a steady job, the one with years of study invested in Jung & Co., the one that no longer rocked boats of any sort, the one that sought agreement, acceptance, the side that wanted to belong to this world, the real one: that side said no, there was no evidence of that.

Finally, around five o’clock in the morning, she tried to catch some sleep, but none would come. She was all motion by now, warring certainties, too much coffee, unsettled. She needed sleep, badly, she knew that, but could find no purchase. Then she remembered her old trick, the one she often resorted to in those searching days, the one of closing her eyes and reciting to herself—in silently thought phrases—a poem or a song.

She rummaged her memory for and found one. Maitreya. God, she had not thought about that poem for years. Maitreya, the Buddha returned.

Her mind drifted back to those beautiful pages, letters faded, of her old book of Eastern poetry—was it actually Eastern? She could not remember who had written it, or even when it had been written. Was it this century? She didn’t know, but did, to her amazement, remember the entire poem as she revisited it, line by line, and it sang to her.

 

Gracefully the years roll on

Echo ever after

Their distant rumble

leads you on

You rush you stumble

then you’re gone

so soon

 

Longing for the farthest door

Silent ever after

The oath you took

to wage the war

the fist you shook

so high before

the night you saw

belied by the moon

 

That night you saw

belied by the moon

alive again to sow

a seed

that we must know

 

Waiting for the clearest light

Certain ever after

the bodhi tree

repels the night

but all you see

is spirits in their plight

and dearth

 

Listening by the farthest door

Humble ever after

The sun you grew

The stars you wore

reflecting you

they shine the lore

of hope and love

to all here on Earth

 

The stars that shine

the promise of earth

alive again to sow

a seed

that we must know

 

And fine and pure

it must endure

under the strain and strife

 

That wise and true

the real you

may find the water of life

 

Behind your eyes

in stillness lies

a quiet pool of view

 

Though fine and pure

it will endure

what ever life ever knew

 

You

 

traveled by the faintest song

Learning ever after

to nurse the flame

and keep it strong

to glean the face

of endings that are long

begun

 

Leaving by the furthest door

Sacred ever after

Your final word

was nothing more

than waves we heard

caress the shore

you reached before

you sailed for the sun

 

That shore you reach

to sail for the sun

alive again to sow

a seed

that we must know

 

alive again to sow

a seed

that we must know

 

 

 

The last line left her in sleep’s peaceful antechamber, listening to starlight. Then she entered the main room.

An hour later her alarm clock buzzed.

[*Fifty-One ::

 

That Thursday morning he woke up in a strange bed, actually not really a bed, it was a sofa. He rose onto his elbow and looked around. Unfamiliar furniture in part shadow, part early morning light. Then he remembered. Karen’s apartment. He sat all the way up, rubbed his eyes, heavy still with a little too much of a good thing. Christ, he must have slept straight through. And man, he had to go to the bathroom, badly.

Karen was already up. He could hear her moving around in the kitchen, making what sounded like breakfast noises. Then the smell of freshly brewed coffee reached him, and yes, breakfast was coming up, definitely. But first things first, where was the bathroom?

[*:*]

She knew she should be tired, but she felt curiously awake, refreshed by a single hour of sleep, which like fresh water seemed to have slaked the thirst. From experience, however, she knew that this strange euphoria would not last all day, she would crash mid-afternoon, or sooner.

He was up now, too, she could hear him in the bathroom. Good thing he’s housetrained, she thought, smiled at the silly thought, and made some more toast.

She felt—what was the word?—cleansed, as if her night-long introspection had purged her of something, Or made her look again, perhaps that was it. Although she had not arrived at certainty yet, at least she was looking, and, yes, her vision had stirred, waking.

She sliced some cheese for the toast, found another jar of jam in the pantry—the one in the fridge was all but gone—and set the table. What else? Juice, some orange juice. She found some in the back of the fridge, checked the date, still good. Put it on the table as well. And, ah, yes, some cereal. Found it. And bowls and spoons.

Her vision. It was like welcoming an old, loved friend back into your home. And no, it had not been a delusion, or illusion, or any other sort of -usion. Whatever it was, it was not false. That much the little miracle man had proven to her. For, oh yes, something extraordinary was going on with him. Which side of her would have the final word as to exactly what was still to be determined. But at least she was looking again. Her eyes had opened, and she felt wonderful about it. Now for some coffee.

“Morning,” said Brad from the doorway.

“Morning.” She turned. “Did you sleep well?”

“Straight through, I don’t believe it. How about you? You’re up early.”

“We’ve got to be back at Carder’s by nine, and what with traffic,” she said.

“Right,” he said.

Now, would you just listen to that, she thought, she was having a conversation with a grown-up person. Just like Beth said. A grown-up. He acted, responded just like someone her age, for crying out loud. Unbelievable. And her warring sides engaged again, although on a more amicable scale.

She watched him eat, trying not to be too obvious about it. Looked at his eyes, looked through his eyes, thinking she could see the person, the real person behind them. Who was he?

“Brad.”

He looked up from his plate. Finished chewing, swallowed. “Yes.”

“Brad,” she put her spoon down. “Can I ask you something?”

He looked at her but did not answer.

“Can I?”

“Yes, sure.”

“It’s kept me up all night, and I really,” she paused for emphasis, “I really want to know. I have to know. It’s very important to me.”

“Okay, what?”

“Tell me the truth,” she looked at him as earnestly and honestly as she could, “Have you lived before?”

He did not answer, just returned her gaze. Then he looked at his cereal for quite some time, as if inspecting it very closely, and she had the sense not to interrupt.

When he finally looked up again, he said, “You have to promise not to tell Elsie.”

“What?”

“You must promise not to tell her.”

“Tell her what?”

“That I told you.”

“Oh.” Now she understood, or thought she did. “Oh, of course. Yes, I promise.”

He took a deep breath, as if about to take a plunge, then let it out. “Well, then. Yes.”

After bringing another spoonful of flakes to his mouth, then chewing it carefully, then swallowing, he looked back up at her and added, “In Los Angeles. I was Leonard then, Leonard Sanderson. Pianist.” Spooned another load of cereal.

She didn’t move a muscle. She let the certainty flood her, fill her, free her from something that now lay in tatters below. Then she smiled, as much to herself as across the table, and nodded slowly. “Yes,” she said. “Yes. That’s what I thought.”

And, of course, Elsie knows too, she thought. That was her secret. No wonder she was protective.

“You knew?”

“No,” she said, “I didn’t know. I mean, I didn’t know until last night. Well, I didn’t know last night either, but I suspected. Hoped, I guess.”

He smiled.

“I was up all night, just about, and that’s all I thought about. You know, what Beth told me.” She noticed a shadow cross his face at the mention of her name, but continued, “And about what you told Carder, and how you seemed to hesitate before you said you knew nothing about Los Angeles. I noticed that, you know. And the more I thought about it, the more I… hoped.”

“Believe me,” he said. “I have thought about it, too. It’s quite amazing. To say the least.” Then added, “But, you have to remember, not a word to Elsie, she would kill me if she knew I’ve told you.”

She laughed. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”

“Thanks.” He finished his orange juice. “So it’s back to Carder this morning?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t want him to know,” he said. “I don’t want you to tell anybody about this. About Los Angeles.”

“Oh, but you have to tell him. He will want to know. He has to know.”

“No.” He shook his head. “No way. I’ve been over this with Elsie, more than once, and she will not hear of it. For one, she doesn’t trust him, and for two she thinks they’ll lock me up for good the moment I open my mouth.”

Oh, yes, she thought, Elsie knew all right. Probably has for some time. And that’s what her protective behavior was about. Protecting the secret. This wonderful secret.

“But we can’t keep this under wraps,” she said. “It’s too fantastic. People, the world has to know.”

“Believe me, I agree. Those were my exact words. It’s Elsie who doesn’t like the idea. Well, of course she agrees that we must tell eventually, but she wants to make very sure we do it the right way, at the right time, and now is not the time. And I have promised her, I have sworn to stick to that.”

They fell quiet for a while. He finished his toast, she got up and poured herself some more coffee.

“Really,” she said when she sat down again. “I can’t think of a better person to tell.”

“What?” He said, still chewing.

“Dr. Carder. He is a doctor of psychiatry. He has studied just about all there is to study about the human mind and its condition. If we, if you, can convince him, and I don’t see how you could not, he has the credentials to convince others.”

He had stopped eating and looked at her intently. “Elsie does not trust the man, and frankly, neither do I.”

“I know he is a little full of himself,” she said, “but think about it. Who, if anyone, would be more qualified to get this, this phenomenon, your…” she groped around for words, but couldn’t find any.

“Miracle,” he suggested.

“Yes, yes, miracle. He, if anyone, can get them to understand. He’ll be believed, don’t you see? The medical community, the press and the public. They would listen to him. He’s got the credentials to make this known.”

She could tell that he agreed with her, but he was nevertheless shaking his head. “No,” he said. “No, I can’t do it.”

“It’s up to you, of course,” she said. “If you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s not only up to me,” he answered. “I’ve promised Elsie. This is more up to her than me.”

“Okay.”

“What is it Carder wants to do this morning?” he wanted to know.

“I don’t know, some more tests, that’s what he said.”

“What kind, do you know?”

Karen shook her head, no, didn’t know, sipped some of her coffee, steaming and good, looked over at the clock—still plenty of time—and smiled at Brad, or was it Leonard? It was as if her vision had taken human form and decided to pay her a visit. A little unreal, but oh, so very real.

“We really should tell him,” she said again. “He deserves to know.”

“Deserves?”

“He’s put in a lot of hours on you. I should know, I’ve seen the bills.”

“True.”

“And he’s written a paper, something about trauma and approximation of trauma, which apparently explains why you can read. If you don’t tell him, he’ll probably publish it, and it will be wrong.”

“Well…” he began.

“I really think you should tell him.”

“Let me call her,” he suggested.

“What?”

“Let me call Elsie first. See what she thinks.”

“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,” she answered after some thought. “I think it will take more than a phone call to convince her.” She knew Elsie quite well, and knew that if she didn’t trust Carder, she would never agree. “Besides, we’re going to have to leave soon. It’s up to you, of course, Brad, or should I call you Leonard? Which do you prefer?”

“Leonard.” Then he fell silent, looked uncomfortable. Picked up his nearly empty glass of orange juice, as if to finish it. Instead he inspected it for a while, then put it back. “I’d rather wait,” he said.

“And tell him what?”

“Just do whatever tests he wants.”

“And not tell him.”

“I don’t know.”

“You’ll be deceiving him. His paper, the one he’s written about you, will be wrong. This has nothing to do with trauma and approximation of that trauma.”

“I know.”

“It’s better to tell him. More honest. I really think so.”

“Let’s call Elsie,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I want to ask her first.”

Karen hesitated, then from she did not know which side of her: the solution to the problem. For calling Elsie would be a problem, Elsie would not agree to tell Carder, this she now knew. “Okay,” she said, and stood up to make the call.

She walked over to the telephone and dialed the local time recording. Heard the female voice tell her the time for forty odd seconds, then replaced the receiver. “No answer,” she said.

“Damn,” said the four your old at her kitchen table. He gave his glass another thorough inspection. “Okay,” he said.

“Okay what?

“Okay, we’ll tell Carder.”

“Good. It really is the right thing to do. Besides, he’s probably one of the very few people who could handle something like this. Think about what happened to Beth when you told her.”

Leonard shuddered visibly and Karen wished she hadn’t said anything about that.

[*Fifty-Two ::

 

Technically, the Council should approve his revisions, but there was no time for that. The paper was due at the printer in less than an hour, and the messenger service was already on its way.

He had worked through the night, fueled by adrenaline and coffee, reviewing, revising and, primarily, adding to his paper to include his new, astonishing finding: The boy could read. Had a vocabulary far beyond his age, and could read. That, and its complementary—and groundbreaking—theory: The boy’s ability to do so sprang from genetic potential, released by the approximation of his initial trauma. He had sweated over this one, but nothing else would account for it. And there was no doubt about the ability, he had it on tape, had listened to it many times over the last several hours. The boy, inexplicably—well, at first glance—could read, and very well at that. And this could not come from nowhere, this ability, or his vocabulary, so it had to have been genetically present, and released by the approximation of trauma. The only thing that made sense; and sense it made, now that he had documented it, beautifully.

As he read through the final draft he knew that his paper could—no, he corrected himself, would—revolutionize psychiatry. There was no doubt in his mind: this paper was the making of the new, the famous, the celebrated Dr. Anthony Carder.

Once upon a time, we’re talking college years now, he had been a decent typist but he soon discovered how rusty he was, and it had taken him until five in the morning to get everything said and typed and spell checked and cleaned up and then spell checked again. And then another hour or so read it once more and move a few things around. And now another hour to read it over again, to make sure, and to savor. And it was a great paper. Really. He saved the final version to a diskette, put it in a sturdy envelope, which he addressed and left on Anne’s desk.

It was a little after seven when he called the messenger for an eight-thirty pickup.

Pleased, and very awake, he shaved—without cutting himself—then took a good look at himself in the mirror, smoothing back his graying but still, he told himself, rather full hair. His eyes were bloodshot, well, that couldn’t be helped. That’s what no sleep does to you.

There was one more thing he had to do. Ah, yes. Just to be safe. He found and mounted a new 15-inch reel tape on his old Revox and made sure that the speed was set at 1 7/8 inches per second. It would record pretty much all day if needed. He checked his watch again, almost eight-thirty.

The messenger arrived just on time, and he handed the envelope to the uniformed brat—how could he possibly have a license to drive? Didn’t look a day over fifteen.

Anne arrived just as the messenger was leaving, and gave him a curious look but a nice “Good Morning.”

“Morning.”

He went back into his office and closed the door behind him. Perhaps he could catch half an hour of sleep before the boy and Anderson arrived. He leaned back into his armchair, closed his eyes, and immediately abandoned any such hopes. He was far too excited.

[*Fifty-Three ::

 

“Would you please repeat that,” he said.

“I said, I’m sorry but I wasn’t quite truthful with you yesterday.”

“About what?” Carder looked over at Anderson, who had asked if she could stay. He had seen no problem with that and consented. She looked happy about something, which made him uncomfortable.

“About my reading.”

“What about it?”

“Well, actually I know how come I can read. Karen asked me yesterday, remember?”

He looked back, remembered. “Yes.”

“Well, I know why.”

“And,” he didn’t sense the danger, not just yet, his world was still in great shape, “how is it that you can read, then?”

“Well, Karen was right. I have lived before, just like she said.”

“You have what? What did you just say?”

“I said, I have lived before. In Los Angeles. I remember it quite clearly. That’s how come I can read. I remember how to do it.”

His analytical self somehow managed to scramble back onto its feet and was now playing catch-up, sifting through what he was hearing. And arrived at two things:

His first conclusion was that the boy was serious, and actually meant what he said. It was not a joke. His second conclusion was that his research subject had snapped, for lack of a better term.

He looked over at the Anderson woman, who was nodding in gleeful agreement. Then back to his kid, his project, this tiny person now, all vocabulary, all adult, and gone very wrong. He didn’t understand how, or where precisely, no, not yet, but gone disastrously wrong.

His next thought: His paper. By now it was already at the printer, and if not actually on the presses, at least in the final stages of preparation. And here, right in front of him, staring back at him, next to this stupidly smiling Anderson woman, sat the very point of his thesis, mouthing absurdities. And then he remembered his paper’s eloquent invitation to his colleagues to “continue this fascinating research with him.” And then he looked from the one idiot to the other in front of him. Oh, Jesus Christ. Jesus, fucking, Christ. The world dissolved around him. This was catastrophe.

The room was literally shifting in the corners of his eyes and he had absolutely no idea what to do next, or if in fact there would ever be a next. And in this sickening silence he was amazed to hear his professional self take over in a surprisingly calm voice.

“You’ve lived before, you say?”

“Yes.”

He even watched himself make a note of that.

“In Los Angeles?”

“Yes.”

Another note.

“And you… you were the same person then, presumably?” Pen ready to record the answer.

“Why, yes. But, well, I was called Leonard then. Or Len.”

“Leonard?”

“Yes.”

“Or Len.”

“Or Len, that’s right.”

“Leonard. Got it.” Made the letters on his pad L-E-O-N-A-R-D.

Looked at it. Read it out loud. “Leonard.”

“Yes.”

He wrote the name down again, anything to appear rational. Calm and collected, that was the battle cry right now, whatever it took, whatever you do, keep up appearances. But underneath the exterior going-through-the-motions his thoughts came tumbling, one boulder after the other, an avalanche of catastrophic conclusions, or lack thereof.

He had absolutely no idea how this could have happened. For some reason or other, the boy had gone over the top, into fully fledged psychosis. His accelerated state must have been precariously balanced, more delicate than he could possibly have predicted and easily influenced by.. by what? He tried to grasp what, how; he scanned all the facets of the case, trying to make something, anything fit.

Fact: Something else had taken place, had triggered the boy, had pushed him beyond mere savant. It’s well known—indeed, he reflected, it’s an “everybody” knows—that genius and insanity are next door neighbors, and here was living proof. The wall separating the two states must be paper-thin. Some chemical influence or reaction he had not allowed for had ruptured it, the proof staring back at him, looking a little worried now.

He fingered his pen while appraising the boy with calmer eyes. There was no outward evidence of the breakdown, he was all boy, looking over at Anderson, then shifting in his chair, a little uncomfortable, but quite normal by all appearances. Then he thought about his paper again, and looked at his watch. Should he call the printers? Try to stop it? Could he stop it? Oh, he could picture Mortimer’s grin if he pulled the paper back at this point. No, that was not an option. He would be the laughingstock of the professional community, he would be ostracized, finished.

Oh, Goddamn it, why had he not listened? This must have happened yesterday. This Anderson woman had even tried to tell him. Los Angeles. She said he had told his mother about Los Angeles.

The two of them were waiting for him to say something.

Carder felt the first few drops of a new emotion. No, not really new, but it was as all-encompassing and physical as anything he had ever felt, and as it entered the room, he wasn’t sure from where—looking for him, though, specifically—he knew it had a name. He recognized it from a dark and rainy parking lot a long time ago. Its name was Panic.

The boy, mute and staring, had turned nightmare on him, and if he were to remain in this condition… he could not even conceive the scope of that catastrophe. He had no choice, it was the lesser of two evils: the paper must not go to print.

He found the number, reached for the phone and called the printer.

While it was still ringing he looked over at his guests, slightly surprised they were still there, but of course they would be. Why should they have left? They were watching him in a sort of stupid wonder, he thought, probably trying to figure out what he was doing. Well, let them wonder. At this point he could not care less. His life was at stake.

They answered on the third ring. Oh, Dr. Carder. Good news. Turns out we had reserved just about exactly the right amount of space for you, only needed a small filler which we already had on disk, as it happened. Perfect fit. No problem at all. Done in a second. So it’s up and running. On the press already. Stroke of good luck, I’d say. The Journal will be out on time, no problem, if not early.

He did not answer.

“Dr. Carder?” A note of concern in his voice.

“Thank you,” he answered. “Excellent.” And replaced the receiver. Carefully.

He could not stop it. There was no way he could stop it. He had painted himself into the proverbial corner, absolutely nowhere to go. Pulling the paper now, when it was already on the presses, would alert everyone, including Mortimer of course—and God, he could see him, gloating, demanding his head. Which was worse? Ending his career by trying to kill the paper or ending his career by not killing it? Somewhere within him someone snickered at the all-too-perfect definition of a dilemma: a problem with two equally distasteful solutions, distasteful indeed.

Anderson and the kid were still looking, still wondering. His glance lingered on the boy. There was the problem, the disaster, the certain catastrophe, unless—his eyes rested on him, pondering, without really seeing—unless there was some way to fix him.

Unless he could fix him. He made up his mind. Stood up, addressed Anderson.

“Would you leave, please.”

“Uh, why, Dr. Carder?”

“Because I request it, that’s why.”

“But you said.”

“I know what I said.”

She and the boy exchanged worried glances.

“Maybe we should come back later?”

“No, the boy stays.”

“Why?”

“I need to make some additional tests. Any other questions, Miss Anderson?”

She suddenly looked very uncomfortable, but he was not going to take any shit right now.

“What about, well, Los Angeles?”

“What about it?”

“Well, shouldn’t you?”

“Shouldn’t I what?”

“Hear him out.”

“I need to make some additional tests.”

She stood up, fished her car keys out of her pocket, handled them nervously. Spoke again.

“When should I come back for Brad?”

“Give me an hour.”

She hesitated. Looked at the boy. Lingered. It almost looked like she was about to tell the boy that she was sorry, but nothing came of it. Instead, she touched his shoulder and left. He watched her close the door behind her.

The door opened a few moments later and Anne snuck her head through the crack. “Do you need anything?”

“No. Just make sure we’re not disturbed.”

“All right.” She didn’t leave right away. “Was Miss Anderson all right?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

“She looked a little upset.”

“She’s fine.”

“Okay,” she said, and closed the door silently behind her.

He sat back and surveyed the boy, the panic retreating a little now that he had chosen a course of action. Whatever it took, he would fix him, and that began by ascertaining what the hell was going on. What had gone wrong?

“Now what?” said the boy.

“Now what?”

“Yes, what do we do now?”

He was actually frightening. Sitting back in his chair, the boy’s feet barely cleared the leathered edge, black soles still wet from the snow. He was the very picture of a child. Yet, the words, the attitude, the persona, was that of a perfectly mature adult. It was as if the boy were possessed. He wasn’t, of course—he was convinced there was no such thing—but it would have been a convenient, if not very practical, explanation.

What exactly was he looking at? He tried to corral his circling thoughts again. He was looking at a pseudo-precocious state, evident in his words and gestures, even in his eyes. He was looking at a forced maturity, almost too real to be true. Well, of course, it was too real to be true; it was not the boy talking, of course it wasn’t: something in his brain was over-stimulated, too heated, and that was what he heard and saw now. Something, and he wish he knew exactly what, needed calming. Urgently. It was as if the savant in him, brought about by the approximation of trauma—which made sense—had gone too far, had crested far too high, resulting in something that did not make sense, something, yes, freakish was not a bad word. He needed to take the edge off it, bring the savant in line with his paper. If he could do that, yes, if he could do that, then all would be well with the world.

Something to take the edge off. In a hurry. He rummaged through his mental inventory of possible prescriptions and made his selection. “What we do now,” he answered. “What we’ll do now is take some medicine.”

“Why?” The boy shifted in his chair, and he noticed how some droplets of melted snow shook loose and dripped onto the carpet. “What kind of medicine, doctor?”

Jesus, listen to that, he’s calling him “doctor.”

“A calming agent to…” then he caught himself. He had been about to explain his treatment to a—to a what?—to a medical condition for Christ’s sake. He had to get a hold on himself.

“Just some medicine,” he said. “Some medicine.”

“Why?”

He didn’t answer. Instead he punched the intercom button to his secretary, well, nurse now. He knew just what to try. Something that would take the edge off. He calculated how much he could chance with a boy this size.

“Yes, doctor?”

“Would you please prepare an injection of ten milligrams of methadone and thirty milligrams of meperidine.”

She did not respond right away, then, “For the boy?”

None of her business.

“Yes, of course for the boy.”

“But, isn’t…” He cut her off.

“Nurse, please, that’s ten milligrams methadone and thirty milligrams meperidine. As an injection. Am I clear?”

“Yes, doctor.”

“And be quick about it.”

“What’s methadone?” the boy asked.

“Just a calming agent,” he answered reflexively. Oh God, here he is talking back to the medical condition again.

His nurse was still on the line, and she had the gall to ask again. “But isn’t that a bit too much for someone his size, thirty milligrams meperidine? With the methadone.”

“Please,” he said, as icily as he could. “Let me be the judge of that. Just prepare the shot, or do I need to do it myself?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll do it right now.”

“What sort of calming agent, and what’s meperidine?” he asked.

He looked back at the boy, who seemed a bit worried now. Worried? How could he be worried? He shouldn’t even know what worry was. He thought of asking him to shut up but said instead, “It’s nothing to worry about. The mixture is just a mild sedative.”

“I’d rather not,” said the boy.

The thing at the other side of his desk was growing outrageous. “You’d rather not? Do you think you have a choice?”

That’s when the boy scrambled out of the chair and hobbled at what must have been top speed for the door. He leaped up from behind his desk and charged after him. The boy was surprisingly quick, but not quick enough. They reached the door at the same time. He put his hand on the door to keep it shut. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m not having any shots.”

“Look. You have no idea what you want or don’t want. You don’t even know what you’re saying. Hell, you’re not even saying what you’re saying.” That struck him as very true. “You are not quite well, Brad, and I’m your doctor.”

“Really, I don’t want it. I don’t need it. I’m fine. Really.”

The boy looked up at him through his by now full-blown psychosis. He was frighteningly real. Just like an adult in a small body. He felt a trickle of sweat making its way down his back and his hands felt clammy.

“Is it the LA thing?” he continued.

“What?”

“Is that why you think I’m crazy now?”

“That has absolutely nothing to do with it,” he lied.

“Look, I take it back. Let’s pretend I never said it.”

This was getting worse, rapidly. It was like arguing with a nightmare. He could feel the panic preparing a new assault, if indeed it ever really left. The little nightmare still looked up at him. The little nightmare with adult intelligence and powers of observation. By impulse, just to check his own sanity, he touched the boy, just to make sure: he was actually there. He wasn’t only some strange figment or a projection. No, he was there all right. And whatever was going on with him needed treatment fast, before he spun completely out of control—if he had not already.

He grabbed the boy by the shoulder and pushed him back into the room, but the boy, desperate now, seized his arm and struggled to get past him to the door. “Nurse!” Carder yelled through the closed door. “Where is that shot? I need it now!”

She opened the door almost immediately. “Right here, doctor.”

The boy still struggled to get past him and the nurse looked anxiously at him. “What’s wrong?”

“He’s afraid of shots.”

He kept fighting and jostling to get past him and away and was quickly turning into a major pain in the ass. And then he screamed.

“Nurse, help me. Please help me!”

The nurse looked at him, alarmed, syringe in hand. “What’s the matter, honey?”

The boy calmed a little and was about to say something when Carder realized that he could not have him talking to anyone right now, not in his state. So he simply heaved him up in his arms and clamped his hand over the little mouth, keeping in whatever was threatening to come out.

“Okay, Nurse, give him the shot. Now!”

She hesitated.

“NOW!”

She complied. And the bastard was biting him. Fuck it. Fuck it. The pain from his little teeth shot up through his hand. The little fuck was biting hard. Then, finally, he felt him relax in his arms, as the drugs took over. He brought the boy over to the leather sofa by the wall.

“Jesus,” he said to the nurse. “You’d think we were trying to kill him.” He showed her his hand. “Please get me some stuff to clean this with, and a bandage.”

She ran off to comply, still visibly upset. Well, screw her. Looked at his hand again. Winced. Christ, what a mess.

But his nurse—who was nothing if not professional—did a good job cleaning and dressing his wound. Though it still hurt like hell, he breathed a bit easier now. The boy, still awake, but barely, looked up at him, absently, droopily. That’s better. That took the edge off of him all right, no more ramblings from this one.

[*:*]

“You’d rather not? Do you think you have a choice?”

And then he knew, with a certainty he had last felt on the Harbor Freeway at the end of another life, with a certainty that spread like a cold inhaling, knew that something very bad was about to happen, and that Elsie had been absolutely right.

He scrambled out of the chair and made for the door. He pictured himself flying through the door, through the reception and out to the elevator well before the doctor would have much chance to react. But that was Leonard, with Leonard’s long and healthy legs. Instead he heard Carder lumber out of his chair and come up fast behind him, and before he could reach the door those much longer legs caught up with him and a large flat hand held the door shut.

To fight was futile, he had nothing to fight with but feeble arms and breakable legs, but what choice did he have? Elsie had been right, Carder had not believed him, not for a moment, and now he wanted to do something to him. He had no idea what the shot would do, but it was more to silence than help him, he knew that. His life—his life as Leonard—was threatened, hung in a terrifying balance. And he could not, would not, surrender it without a fight.

And fight he did for a few futile moment before Carder had had enough of that and hoisted him up into the cradle of his left arm. Carder, surprisingly strong, gripped him like a vise; he could not move. Still he struggled, to free his arms, to get at him somehow, hit, scratch, something, but the man was much too strong. His left leg could kick, but not nearly hard enough for the doctor to even take notice, and his right leg was jammed against his side, impotent. As panic seized him, he screamed.

The doctor’s hand, large and salty with sweat, came down over his mouth and slapped it silent. He could barely breathe, but he could bite, and bite he did. The hand jerked but stayed put. He bit down harder and tasted warm blood, metallic. The hand jerked again but did not let up, if anything it tightened its seal. The doctor shouted something at the nurse, then again, louder. Then the prick, in his left thigh somewhere, followed by a stinging, then a heat that quickly spread from the puncture in one warm wave after another. Waves that now seemed to form talons, deep and distant at first but rising and soon close enough to reach, to touch, to catch. And then it was over.

As he sank, mute and numb, deeper and deeper, down through the ceaseless water beneath and down through the ceaseless earth beneath and down into vast sleeping darkness below, he let go of everything. Elsie, Karen, Carder, snow and stoplights. And by the time he reached the chasm separating life and life, there was nothing left but blackness.

[*:*]

Karen was lingering by the elevator outside the doctor’s office, alternatively staring out the window at the bright, cold morning, and pacing back and forth along the hallway, waiting for the hour to pass, wracked by the turn of events that she—yes, she, Karen Anderson, no one else—had brought about. She could not make herself leave the floor. And that is how she heard the scream, muffled through two closed doors, but still his voice, there was no doubt. Leonard’s voice.

“Nurse help me. Please help me.” She froze almost mid-stride, held her breath and listened harder. Nothing more followed. Only silence. What had they done to him?

She rushed back to the doctor’s office and yanked the door open. The nurse was just returning from Carder’s office, syringe in hand.

“What happened?”

The nurse looked up, startled at first, then she recognized her. “Poor thing was afraid of shots.”

“Shots? He was getting a shot?”

“Yes.” She held up the syringe as if to proved it.

“What did you give him?”

“It was a mix of methadone and meperidine. Doctor Carder sometimes uses that to calm his patients.”

Methadone, meperidine. She tried to remember. Were they strong, weak? How were they used? Oh, God. She recalled. Methadone was used to help addicts come off heroin or morphine. As potent but not as habit-forming, ostensibly. And meperidine? Also a narcotic, a sedative as far as she could remember.

“How much did he give him?”

“The methadone was ten milligrams and the meperidine thirty.”

How much was that? Again she tried to remember. She wasn’t sure, but from what she could recall it sounded like a very high dosage. “Wouldn’t thirty milligrams of meperidine knock someone his size right out? And why on earth the methadone? How could you?” Karen was shaking her head, more at her own stupidity than at the nurse.

“I said the same thing, but doctor insisted.” The nurse looked apologetic, concerned. “He is such a little thing.”

That is when the morning finally added up, and Karen Anderson’s world—already shaken by the doctor’s reaction to Leonard’s story—collapsed altogether. She stood absolutely still among its shattered fragments, looking right at the nurse but not seeing her. Nothing existed now but the terrible knowledge that this had been her idea, that it was she who had insisted on it. And he, the miracle, the wonderful proof that the spirit indeed is immortal, he had trusted her, had trusted her despite Elsie’s warnings, which he had wanted to heed, but which she, Karen, had deceivingly vetoed. But Elsie, precocious, calm and responsible Elsie, her brother’s protector, had been right, for Carder had not believed him, not in the least. And he had screamed for help. Loudly. She had heard him through two closed doors and away by the elevators. She felt like a traitor. No, she corrected herself, she was a traitor, there was no other word for it, no milder judgment. No euphemisms deserved. She was a traitor who had no idea how to set things right. Absolutely no idea.

She started crying; in front of the bewildered nurse, syringe still in hand.

[*:*]

A brief knock, but the door opened immediately, he had no chance to respond one way or the other. He barely had time to look up.

His nurse appeared, alarm on her face. “Doctor. It’s Karen Anderson.”

“Look, nurse. I just told her to leave. I made it very clear to her that I need to be alone with the patient.”

“She heard him scream and…”

The door pushed open all the way and Karen Anderson entered. “Is he okay? I heard him scream.”

Was the woman crying? He stood up. “Miss Anderson. Brad is perfectly fine. He had an aversion to shots, that’s all. He’s fine now.”

“Can I see him?” She was looking in the direction of the sofa.

“No. No you cannot see him. Relax. Please. He is perfectly fine, but I want to be alone with him now.”

“But you gave him thirty milligrams of meperidine.” It was an accusation. “The nurse told me,” she added hastily. She glanced at her, and the nurse in turn looked down, uncomfortable. What the hell? She had no business telling Anderson anything.

“I gave him what I deemed necessary under the circumstances, Miss Anderson. Now, if you would please leave me to my work, I would greatly appreciate it.” He stressed greatly. “That goes for you too, nurse,” he added.

She looked toward the sofa again, then turned and left without another word. He frowned in the direction of the nurse, who, looking apologetic, then turned and followed Anderson out of his office. Pulled the door closed with a soft sound, as if sealing him in.

He sat down again behind his desk, contemplated the closed door, making sure it stayed shut, then looked over at the boy. Quiet now, of course, staring at his feet, or at something in that direction. Very still.

Though his eyes remained on the boy, they soon ceased to perceive him as his questions took over. What had happened? What could possibly have engendered those ramblings? He honestly had no idea. He shook his head, then tried to relax, tried to collect himself, to force himself to analyze this problem with the clinical detachment needed for a solution. He knew he had to find an answer, his professional life—Christ, his life, period—depended on it, and slowly his professional self found at bit of purchase and he began to reason.

Surely—the sofa, and the boy in it, swam into focus again—the symptom he had observed, rambling about Los Angeles, about having lived before as the reason he could read, and the very unnerving precocity he had displayed, must have been due to over-excitement from too much stimuli, leading to, perhaps—no, he realized with a mild shiver, not perhaps, it would make perfect sense—scrambled genetic memories.

He leaned back in his chair, regarded the ceiling, and did his best to arrange his thoughts in logical order. Well, if the accurate release of trauma can release genetic memories of reading—and that was the very point of his paper, wasn’t it—it could of course follow, would follow, that an over-stimulation of those genetic memories could scramble them into disarray. The way heat agitates molecular motion, the more heat you apply the more agitated the molecules. And heat, of course, is a form of stimulation. Yes, it did make sense.

And when agitated, these memories were likely to confuse the present with the past. Naturally. So the boy had seen Los Angeles on TV, or heard of it, and now he has lived there. Agitation. Yes, indeed. And the treatment for that was, well, already in progress. He had to be calmed down. Take the heat off, back to a simmer. He felt pleased with himself, and for the first time this morning he allowed himself to smile, albeit tentatively.

His glance left the ceiling and returned to his ward. Very still. The boy had not moved since he placed him on the sofa, back against the wall. He took a closer look at him. His large blue eyes were vacant, somewhat dilated. Had the mixture been too strong? Strong, yes, but probably not too strong. Let things simmer down a little, he’ll be fine. But he did look very—he tried to find the right word—vacant.

“Brad?”

No reply.

“Brad?” again.

There was no change at all in those eyes. No reaction at all. Well, it would take a little time for his nervous system to settle, and once it had he would lessen the dose, of course. Once his balance was restored.

His thoughts returned to the paper and the Journal which would soon be in everybody’s hands, and he realized with a grimace—as if the thought hurt—that he really had no choice now, no choice at all: he simply had to restore the boy, would have to make him match his findings, or the others, the others whom he stupidly, stupidly, in his—well, he had been confident, hadn’t he, but why had he not taken it just a little bit easier—whom he in his need to get even had invited to join him in his research would find not a unique and fantastic boy to examine but a rambling nut, disproving everything. That thought was physically painful: they would crucify him. Jesus, how big of him and how incredibly stupid. And come they would, he was certain of it, Mortimer at the head of the line. They would come, fawning, smiling and congratulating. All except Mortimer, who instead would be circling, looking for any kind of weakness, for any way to discredit him. Yes, he grimaced again, he had no choice, none at all. The boy must be made right.

So he made up his mind, and stabbed at the intercom button again.

“Nurse.”

“Yes.”

“Please arrange for a bed at St. Francis for Brad Reilly. I want to keep him a few days for observation. And make sure it is a private room. I don’t want any disturbances around him.”

“Okay. But…?”

“But what?”

“Don’t we need consent?”

Oh, Christ. This is not the time to worry about the details. Then he remembered. “We already have consent,” he said. “His mother asked Miss Anderson to bring him to me for treatment.” Not entirely true, but not entirely false. “Let me know when we have a room confirmed. And let them know that I will bring him myself.”

“Okay.”

He looked again at the boy looking down at his feet. I’ll dig you out, don’t worry. For as you go, go I, he added to himself.

[*:*]

The chasm separating life and life grew wider still. The bridge, so recently spanning it, had first crumbled, then evanesced, and was now replaced by darkness—a strange, walkable darkness—which like sediment, thick, warm, spreading, permeating, obscuring, filled him.

The surface—if indeed a surface it was—hovered somewhere far above him, barely a glimmer of what might be daylight. Not that it mattered, for he didn’t see it. He didn’t look for it. He didn’t try, nor think. He didn’t anything.

He just sat in a sofa, back against a wall, not seeing feet.

[*Fifty-Four ::

 

Karen turned and left Carder’s office, struck dumb. The nurse followed and pulled the door shut behind them, then said something that Karen didn’t hear. She said it again, but Karen still did not notice.

All Karen noticed—for everywhere and everything had become it—was her suffocating impotence: there was nothing, there was absolutely nothing she could do.

“Are you all right?”

The nurse’s voice finally reached her and she looked around, tried a smile, failed, nodded instead. “Sure.”

“You don’t look all right.”

“No, I’ll be fine.” Her smile finally made it. “I’m just a little worried about, about Brad, is all.”

“I will keep you posted.”

“You have my number?”

“Yes, I do.”

She smiled or said, “Thank you,” then looked around her as if unsure where the outside door was. Found it, headed for it, and left.

By the time she made it halfway to the elevators the painful truth again caught up with her, and with renewed force: Brad, Leonard, the miracle, had trusted her, and this despite Elsie’s warning; he had taken her advice, and she, stupid and shortsighted, and naïve, had been wrong, so absolutely and utterly wrong.

And she had deceived him to make him tell. Had lied to him about the phone call.

Carder had not only not believed him—or her, for that matter; he had looked at her as if she were deranged, yes, she had noticed that—had not only not believed him, he had taken his news about Los Angeles as something gone wrong, as a symptom, as something to treat. Yes, that is what the mixture was, treatment. What was it again? Ten milligrams of methadone and thirty milligrams of meperidine? She couldn’t say for certain, not without checking her references, but they sounded like awfully large dosages for his size. And why the mixture? She had never heard of mixing them. She reached the elevator and absently pressed the down button, calling for it.

It arrived and the doors slid apart silently. A mouth, hungry. She entered, thankful that it was empty.

Once inside she closed her eyes and leaned against the back wall. She felt the handrail in the small of her back. The elevator doors closed, but the carriage remained stationary. It took her a few seconds to register that it did not move, and she opened her eyes. She had forgotten. Her finger reached forward, pressed the lobby button and let go. It lit up, and the elevator shuddered slightly. Then she felt the beginning of slow descent.

[*:*]

She drove across town, slowly, not noticing the snow-clearing crews still in full swing after the previous day’s storm. She drove as in a dream, refusing to think, for every thought was painful, every thought sprang from the knowledge that she had betrayed him, had deceived him and betrayed him, every thought pronounced her guilty, and in the end she let herself go numb, completely numb, an automaton steering a car in certain directions. You have to be aware of pain to feel it.

After a while, no telling how long, she recognized her street, her building and her parking garage. She pulled in, turned the engine off, leaned back and, mercifully, her left hand still clutching the steering wheel, fell asleep.

[*:*]

Sleep did her a great kindness. It turned everything off, emptied her out and washed her slate clean.

She started back into the world two hours later. Looked about her. Did not recognize the car she was sitting in, nor the garage where it was parked, nor at first, herself; her world seemed a blank, guiltless canvas.

Then, bit by bit, as her life flowed back into her from recent sleep, she set to work to reconstruct her universe, and it was as if sleep had handed her power of choice: which bits to choose, which to discard. This bit here: true, this bit there: suspect, and this bit here: no, not at all. And so she leaned her head back against the headrest and assembled memory, slowly, calmly, step by step, discarding all the pieces of guilt and hopelessness, accepting only those objective fragments that allowed her to take stock, more or less logically, of what she had done, of what had actually happened. Not what she felt had happened, but what had indeed, actually, taken place. Her logical side fully in charge, dwarfing the visionary.

And it was this methodical selection, this stern application of logic, that brought back to her a sense of self, that indeed rescued her; for she could—and did—discard her excitement about Leonard, along with her vision, as flimsy, intangible and illusory bits. She had to—had to, had to, she told herself—had to stay real, had to stay focused on reality, on the actual, or she would never come to terms with herself again.

Her head still against the headrest, she eyed the garage wall, dirty, the paint flaking. She could barely make out her allocated parking space number “B 6” in the spotty and smeared brown and gray of sustained neglect. After all, she told the wall, and herself, what really had happened, all that really had happened, was that Brad was now with Dr. Carder and that Carder had not believed him, wasn’t it? Hadn’t believed his reincarnation story, about Los Angeles, about why it was he could read. And why, she asked herself, all logic now—and still no thoughts of leaving the car—why did the doctor not believe him? Because, and she almost chuckled, because it did not make any sense, none whatsoever. That’s why.

And why had she thought that Brad, who had called himself Leonard, had made sense? What had made her so certain? All through the night, so apparently certain. It was all too plain in this logical light of day: her vision. Her supposed vision, her—she corrected herself—delusion.

She sat up and shook her head to rouse herself, to clear it of illogic. Of course. Of course the doctor had disagreed. And had he not been right to? He saw things logically, clearly. Her emotions, her imbalances—and lack of sleep, she added—had gotten the better of her, that was all. Her own delusions running away with her again. That’s what it was.

And finally she felt a sense of ground under her feet.

The doctor knew, he obviously knew better than she, and he knew what to do. She had been crazy to get carried away like that. Was it a sign of stress or of too many worries? Was she getting too involved again?

Then she noticed, as if for the first time, that she was still in her car. God, how long had she slept? She checked her watch. It was a little after one. So, a couple of hours. Never mind. Now she knew what to do. She would call Dr. Carder’s nurse—what was her name again?—to get a copy of that paper he had mentioned. That he said would explain what was going on with Brad, why it was that he could read, for that part was real, wasn’t it? Yes, he could read, Carder had said he could, so it must be true. Yes, that was exactly what she was going to do. The right thing to do. Get hold of a copy of that paper. Understand what was going on with Brad. That was the right thing to do. Logically.

She got out of the car and made sure both doors were locked. Checked them twice.

[*:*]

There was a message on her machine from Elsie.

“Karen, this is Elsie.” She was whispering, covering the mouthpiece at the other end, as if not wanting others to hear. “Please call me as soon as you get this message and let me know how Brad is doing. I’m worried to death about him. Please call.”

Then there was another message from Elsie.

“Karen. This is Elsie again. Please, please call me the moment you come in and let me know how Brad is doing.”

How Brad is doing. She looked over at the couch. Brad had slept there, and she had sat up most of the night looking at him and dreaming about irrational magic. She tried to suppress a yawn, not very successfully. Well, she was paying for that now. She still felt drained, despite the nap in the car. Oh, it had been a mistake to get so little sleep, she thought—she should have remembered that she never did well on anything less than seven hours. Always made her drag the next day.

She looked over at the couch again. His blanket, still there, half on the couch, the rest spilling onto the floor, making a mess. Not like her. So she walked over and picked it up, folded it and put it away in the closet, where it belonged. That was better.

Turned back into the room. It was very quiet. And warm. She could hear faint noises of other people in her building moving about, and there was the sound of engines outside, cars moving down the street, stopping, starting. She sat down on the couch remembering, though not specifically, that there was someone she was to call, about something important, when the phone rang, startling her. She was going to let the machine take it, until she heard Elsie’s voice.

“Karen? This is Elsie again. What’s happening, Karen? Is Brad okay? Why don’t you return my calls?”

She rose and reached for the phone. The machine squealed in feedback—God, she hated that, couldn’t they make the things not do that. She found and pressed the stop button to kill it. That shut it up.

“Elsie?”

“Karen? Oh, you’re there.”

“Yes. I’m sorry, I just got back.”

A brief silence at the other end of the line, then, “How is he doing?”

“Don’t worry. He’s just fine.”

Another silence. “Is he there? Can I speak with him, please.”

“He is not here, honey. I’m sorry.”

“Why not? Where is he?” Impatient with concern. She sounded worn, tired.

“He is with Dr. Carder.”

Again, a silence. Longer this time. Then, “Why, Karen? What’s he doing there?”

“Don’t worry Elsie. He’s just having some tests done.”

“When is he coming back?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? I don’t understand. Who’s bringing him home then?”

She realized she didn’t know and paused for a moment. She had left him with Carder. No arrangements.

But what she said was, “Don’t worry. The doctor will call me the moment he’s finished, then I’ll go and get him.”

She realized that she had never lied to the girl before. It was not a good feeling, but one that she decided she could live with under the circumstances.

The phone line leaked a faint conversation of complete strangers into the pauses while Elsie said nothing. Could she tell that she was lying? No, she thought not. She could hear the conversation again, faintly, about a sale. She would have to call the phone company about that. Then Elsie spoke again.

“You told Beth last night that everything was fine. That she was not crazy.”

“Yes.”

“What made you say that? How did you know?”

“How did I know what?”

“How did you know that she was not crazy? What happened?” Urgently.

Careful now, she thought. What had she told Beth on the phone last night? Only that he was fine, and that she was not crazy. That was all, wasn’t it? She tried to recall the conversation, didn’t quite succeed, but definitely did not hear herself saying anything else either. So what was Elsie after? What was she afraid might have happened? Elsie knew that he could read, and that he talked, Brad had said as much. But did she actually believe that he had lived before? Or did she know that he was crazy, and afraid that he might let it show, that he might talk about having been Leonard in Los Angeles? Then she remembered their breakfast conversation. For heaven’s sake, Brad had told her that Elsie had agreed with him that the world should be told, but not just right now. So of course she believed that he had lived before. No wonder she was worried about what Brad might have said, about what Carder might be doing, was doing. And, she recalled, Elsie didn’t trust Carder, not at all.

“Karen?”

“Sorry. I was thinking about what you said.”

“So something did happen then?”

“No, I didn’t say that. What would have happened?”

“Did he do anything? Say anything?”

“Well, that’s just the thing,” she said, glad that she suddenly remembered. “He didn’t say anything. Not a thing. The doctor thought he may have had a relapse.” Another lie, but quite justified.

Elsie didn’t answer. But it was a relieved silence, at least that’s how she perceived it. Then she added, “Don’t tell Beth though. I told her what I did to reassure her. You must understand.” And that lie came naturally.

“Yes,” said Elsie. “I understand.”

As she sensed a note of gratitude in Elsie’s voice Karen felt strangely soiled by her deception. As if she had violated some fundamental contract between her and Elsie. As if she had just betrayed an ally, as if she had just severed her ties with the girl. As if she had taken sides against her. Well, she had, had she not, she had taken sides now, against her supposed vision. Against the illusory. For reality against fantasy. And what was wrong with that? Karen shook the feeling from her head and affirmed to herself that, based on the evidence, Brad was a disturbed little boy, and that she was doing the right thing. She had even been right to deceive him about the phone call this morning, for he did need treatment, didn’t he?

“Thanks,” she said. “I knew you would. Tell you what. Let me check with Dr. Carder when Brad will be ready to come home, and I’ll call you right back. Are you at the house?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, then.”

“Thank you, Karen. Thank you. I’ll speak to you soon.”

“Bye.”

She hung up. She felt good about that exchange. Well handled. Even so, an aftertaste of betrayal lingered stubbornly. Why? She was justified, surely, she was doing the right thing. It was for Elsie’s own good. She was still only a child, really, wasn’t she? She wouldn’t understand. How could she? Things just weren’t black or white. There are so many shades of compromise between them, and that’s where you had to live, that’s where life was lived, in and among all that gray, all that compromise. She sat down, she looked at the floor. Needed vacuuming.

Then she remembered whom she was to call. Carder’s nurse answered. No, she told her, that would be no problem. Carder had left her the instruction. Be happy to make her a copy. Would she stop by and pick it up, or should she mail it? Sure, I’ll have it ready for you when you come.

She thanked the nurse and hung up. Got her car keys and left for Carder’s office.

[*Fifty-Five ::

 

He came to. Slowly. Above him, hovering on the other side of uncooperative eyes, he could almost make out a surface. But as he tried to focus it moved away, as if scrutiny was not allowed, and melted into green. Not that he particularly cared. Or could care. He was about to turn his head when the surface, now unstudied, returned and swam back into focus, a ceiling. A ceiling, unfamiliarly green. Higher too than ceilings he trusted. He let his head fall, with effort, to his right, and again tried to focus. He could make out a white shape—no, several shapes—moving, shimmering like wraiths. Again they swam away, then returned as curtains, swaying gently with the warm air rising from vents in the floor, as if in a breeze. They hid, though not very well, a large window, shut against the cold afternoon outside.

He righted his head. The ceiling remained ceiling, far above him. His eyes found a light fixture, not very clean, a fly, long dead, trapped inside the glass. Must be hard to get to, he thought, that fixture on the far side of all this warm air, so far away, so very far away. How on earth do you clean it?

Curiosity pulled his head to the left. He saw a small table, or more like a small cabinet with a Formica top—one of those they have in hospitals, on casters, with a small drawer for your personal belongings, and room for your books—this one bare but for a lamp, which shone with a weak light. There was also a wall, unfriendly, with a chair against it. Where was he? How was he? His right cheek itched suddenly, or had itched for some time and he only now noticed. A hand found it and scratched. He looked at it. It was a small hand. His hand, wasn’t it? It could scratch just fine, sent the itch on its way. He put the hand back to where it came from. But where was he? He turned his head to the right again, watched the curtains for a while, tall like sentinels and as unspeaking. Shimmering still. As if they were under water, gently, silently, softly, lulling him back to sleep.

[*:*]

The sudden sound yanked him awake. A large door beyond the foot of his bed stood open, framing a face, faintly familiar. The face grew a body complete with neck and arms and legs, which now stepped into the room letting the door fall closed behind it. He could hear the soft sound of the jamb catching what he now saw was a very large, substantial piece of door. Then the face. It looked down on him, came closer. Then closer still. He could smell stale, disagreeable breath. Then the face spoke.

“Brad.” A man’s voice from a man’s face. He had seen this face before, but where? It spoke again. “Brad. How are you feeling?”

Brad? He was talking to him, so that must be it. Brad. It sounded right. But there was more. There was more to him than Brad. And slowly, rising from somewhere darkly deep, fighting currents and broken bridges, it approached him, arrived: Leonard. The itch returned and he noticed his hand again, on its way to put it out.

He noticed again how small his hand was. Small hand like this meant mother looking down on him, placing a thermometer under his tongue and putting her much larger, soft, cool hand on his head, and she was smiling, feeling sorry for him, he knew, and then he fell asleep with the thermometer still in his mouth. Yes, he was so tired, and this face, which was not his mother’s, still looked down on him from not very far away, and still breathed on him and then called him Brad again. And he looked up at the face which didn’t know his real name and told him, just to let him know, for maybe he had made a mistake or something, told him, working very heavy tongue and lips.

“No, sir. Not Brad. I’m Len. Leonard.”

The face jerked a little, as if startled or afraid suddenly, and pulled back, farther and farther, and then it turned away from him and was gone. The heavy door closed behind it with the same soft hug, and again he noticed how warm it was, and how tired he was. He looked from the door to the ceiling to the light fixture and again wondered how on earth they kept it clean, well obviously they don’t, but then the ceiling, and the fixture with it, slipped again and began to rise, higher and higher, into a green, then into a more distant green as he fell back asleep.

[*:*]

Carder pushed on the heavy door and opened it slowly, as if afraid to wake someone. The room, not well lit, was definitely warmer than the corridor outside, a little stuffy actually. He made his way around to open the window a bit, but saw that the snow—it had started up again on his way over, new storm moving in they said on the radio—was driving straight against the pane, and it wouldn’t do to let it in. Instead he turned and faced the boy: so small in the large metal bed, he almost looked comic.

He was still asleep. Well, that was hardly surprising considering he had ordered a second injection after seeing him this afternoon, when again he had told him his name was Leonard.

No, sir. Not Brad. I’m Len. Leonard.

He should not have said that. That should not have happened. But it had, and now he had a career-threatening problem on his hands. The Journal, featuring his paper, would be on everybody’s desk no later than tomorrow morning, possibly even tonight. And that was a fact; Ferguson, all congratulatory and happy for him, had somehow gotten hold of an advance copy and had called just before he left his office to come here.

And there lay the amazing boy, his project, his discovery, his monster. If he didn’t keep his wits about him, it would devour him.

What the hell would put him right?

[*Fifty-Six ::

 

It was early evening and Karen had not called back as she had promised. Elsie had tried her apartment several times but had only gotten her machine. Why wasn’t she calling back? Was the doctor still running tests? Was Leonard still holding up? God, she prayed he was. And why didn’t she call? She had promised to call her right back. But she hadn’t. She had not called right back, she hadn’t called back at all.

It was the not knowing that was driving her crazy. She was nearly numb with worry about him and had thought of little else since the day before when Karen had left with him to take him to Doctor Carder. Elsie had turned on the stairs to see Leonard look back at her, not at all as worried as he should have been, before slipping out around Karen as she pulled the door shut behind them. Then heard Karen start up her car and drive away. And now Karen wasn’t calling back as she had promised. There could be a million reasons why, and none of them good enough. She could only hope, pray, that he was holding up, that he was keeping his silence as agreed. For his sake, for her sake, too. But mainly for his sake.

She could hear Beth down in the kitchen, cleaning, polishing, doing what she always did when she was worried, only more so. Now clearing plates out of the cabinet, washing down the shelves, putting it all back. Her kitchen world.

The phone rang.

[*:*]

Please God, please help my little boy. Please God, please help my little boy. Please God, please help my little boy. Her prayer, revolving, revolving, formed a wreath, a shield around her. Please God, please help my little boy. She did not speak the words but her lips moved slightly, as if only suggesting them, or trying to catch up with them. Over and over while she watched her hands do their chores. Scrubbing the tile, scouring the stove, emptying everything out of the fridge, please God, please help my little boy, please God, please help my little boy, cleaning the crisper, watching the hot water form little steam clouds in the cold freezer, please God, please help my little boy, cleaning out the ice container, dumping a large lump of icy half-moons welded together by frost, now useless of course, into the sink with them, please God, please help my little boy, please God, taking out all the plates and cleaning the cabinet shelves, putting the plates back, please God, please help my little boy, please God, please help my little boy. And she was not crazy, she knew she was not, she knew what she had seen and Karen, bless her heart, Karen had told her too that she was not crazy, but she then had also told her everything was going to be fine with Brad, was going to be fine, and going to be fine meant things were not so fine with her little boy, and please God, please help my little boy, who was not so very fine, who was going to be fine, but who needed help, real help, please God, please help my little boy, please God.

The phone rang.

[*:*]

She rushed down the stairs and answered it before Beth had a chance to.

“Mrs. Reilly?”

“No, this is Elsie. Her daughter. Who is this?” She recognized the voice, but could not place it right away.

“This is Doctor Carder. Can I speak to your mother, please?”

“Doctor Carder. This is Elsie, her daughter. I came with Brad to see you. Do you remember me?”

A brief silence. “Sure I do.”

“How is Brad doing? Is he done with his tests yet?”

“What tests?”

“Karen said you were doing tests on him today.”

Another, briefer, silence. “Oh, yes. They went very well. Very well.” Then, “I really need to speak to Mrs. Reilly.”

“Has Karen been by to pick him up yet?”

“What?”

“Has Karen picked up Brad yet?”

“No. Brad needs to stay with me for a while.”

“Why?” Then she heard herself almost yell into the receiver, “She said she would pick him up as soon you were done testing him.”

“Listen, Elsie. I’m sorry, and if you don’t mind, I’m in a hurry and I need to speak to your mother. Is she there?”

“Yes.”

“Could you please get her for me?”

Elsie didn’t answer, but placed the receiver by the side of the phone and went to tell her mother.

Beth turned away from her cleaning and looked at her as she entered the kitchen, grave, as if expecting bad news.

“It’s for you.”

“Who is it?”

“Dr. Carder.”

“I see.”

Beth put the rag on the counter and quickly dried her hands on her apron, then reached for the kitchen phone on the wall.

Elsie returned to the living room and gently lifted the receiver. She softly placed her hand over the mouthpiece and brought the receiver to her ear. This was not okay, but she had to know. She heard her mother’s voice.

“This is Beth.”

“Good evening, Mrs. Reilly. This is Dr. Carder.”

“Oh, yes. Elsie told me.”

“Mrs. Reilly, I need to see you as soon as possible.”

“Why, what’s happened?”

“Oh, nothing bad, I assure you. Nothing bad.”

“Then why do you need to see me?”

“We need you to authorize some treatment. It’s just a formality.”

“For Brad.”

“Yes.”

“What is wrong with him?”

“Nothing serious, I assure you.”

“Why do you have to treat him then?”

“It’s a special treatment.”

“Special treatment?”

“Mrs. Reilly, it’s kind of hard to explain on the phone. I really need to see you. Maybe you could come to my office?”

Her mother had not heard him. “What kind of special treatment?” she said.

“Look, Mrs. Reilly. We’ve given your son some sedatives, some mild sedatives, and he is responding very, very well. Couldn’t be better. The sedatives, however, are not a cure, they just calm things down. He needs a different treatment to cure him. And in order to give him that we need your written authorization.”

“What is wrong with my son?”

“He’s had, well, a little relapse?”

“What do you mean?”

“Honestly, Mrs. Reilly, I cannot discuss this over the phone.”

“I don’t understand,” she said. “What kind of treatment is it that you can’t discuss over the phone?”

“No, his condition, it’s hard to discuss his condition over the phone.”

“What is wrong with my son?” she asked again.

Elsie froze. She suddenly knew what kind of treatment the doctor was talking about, that needed consent. He called it special treatment, he meant severe. An operation of some sort or electric shock. It had to be. And that’s when she knew something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. She grasped the receiver harder and found it hard to breathe.

“Mrs. Reilly, I really don’t want to discuss it over the phone. We must meet.”

“Please, doctor. Tell me. I don’t understand.”

She could hear the man sigh at the other end of the line. Impatiently. She could see his damn fingers forming a tent, looking down at them, mere mortals, from his side of the desk. If he had hurt Leonard, she vowed, she would kill him.

“I am sorry. I cannot say more now. We simply have to meet.”

Beth didn’t answer for a long time. Then, “When?”

The bastard sighed again, she could make out the relief. “Tomorrow morning. My office. Around nine?”

“Yes, Okay. I’ll try.”

“It’s very important. I’ll send a cab if you want.”

“No, that won’t be necessary.” Her mother sounded offended. “I’ll be there.”

“Very well, Mrs. Reilly. Thank you. I’ll see you then. And Mrs. Reilly, please, there is nothing to worry about. Everything is fine.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

She hung up.

[*:*]

Carder was back at St. Francis to check up on him. The room was still too warm, too stuffy. He thought of letting the duty nurse know, but shook his head, it was not that important. Instead he sat down by the bed.

He was fighting down the sickening feeling that had stalked him all afternoon. That horrible, long-familiar feeling, absent in recent years but now threatening a glorious comeback: Failure. It was just around the corner, waiting for him, arms wide in welcome. As if it had always known he would return. Where he belonged. He fought it down again while he studied the boy. Sleeping still, breathing with a dry, open mouth.

But, it was more than just failure that haunted him. It was the stakes, the tremendous implications, that made him sick, yes, actually—he had to admit it—physically ill. He simply could not fail. It was not an option. There was no plan B.

Then he noticed that someone had opened the window a little, snow was forcing its way onto the sill, melting quickly and forming a puddle, now dripping onto the floor. The room was still stuffy, though, or was it him? He watched another drop leave the sill for the floor, heard it land, louder than it had any right to. He looked back at the boy, heard him fight for breath in little rasps, saw his chest expanding, then collapsing again from the effort, and too rapidly. Had the last dose been too much?

The chair was uncomfortable, to say the least. He shifted, shifted again. His eyes still on the little chest, rising, falling. His breath was too shallow, and too rapid, it was not right. And he noticed his lips too, chapped, parched, as if dehydrated. Symptoms. Though he was not sure exactly what they added up to.

Then the boy’s eyelids twitched, fluttered, then opened onto startled eyes struggling to orient themselves. He rose from the chair and looked down at him.

“Brad.”

The boy’s eyes shifted toward his voice, seeking its source.

“Brad.”

His eyes found him. Looked at him blankly.

“Brad. Can you hear me?”

His face expressed nothing. His eyes were empty, blue and empty.

“Brad. Can you hear me?”

Blue and empty and looking at him. No recognition. But he drew breath as if to speak, as if to ask, though no words resulted. He tried again, yes definitely, tried to say something, licked his lips, drew breath, but nothing. A notion, a specific fear, shifted within him.

“Brad. This is Doctor Carder. Can you see me?”

Again, the boy made to answer, but didn’t. Didn’t speak.

The specific fear rose to the surface, announced itself: didn’t speak, or couldn’t speak?

“Brad. Can you hear me? Tell me.” He heard himself almost shout.

The boy only looked at him this time, as if worn out from trying already. His eyes left his face and looked up into the ceiling. Still struggling with bearings by the looks of them.

Didn’t answer, or couldn’t? He didn’t want to know, but had to. He lifted the blanket, exposing the boy’s bare arm, and pinched hard. The boy jerked, soundlessly.

His head turned to the source of pain, his eyes looked up at him, alarmed. He gripped the little arm with one hand, and pinched again, harder than before, with the other. The boy jerked again, and pulled his arm as hard as he could to free it, but, again, not a sound. And this dispelled any doubt: he had tried to scream. His mouth had opened and he had drawn breath, but nothing but a whimper. The voice was lost again.

Oh, Christ. This was not happening. He has not relapsed. But he has. He has.

He sat down again and squeezed his temples with the tips of his fingers, as if probing. No, he told himself, this was not actually happening, it could not be. He was not observing what he had just observed. It was some sort of freak occurrence. It was a mistake.

Quickly, he reached out and pinched again, expecting, fully expecting him to scream out, to vocalize. But the reaction remained constant, as observed: the jerk, the grimace, the pull of the arm. The voiceless whimper. It was true.

He started to sweat. It was the cold and clammy perspiration of panic. He was in trouble now, he told himself. An understatement, he corrected. The truth was that his reputation, his professional life—his life, period—lay very close to ruin.

And the snow kept landing on the sill, to drip onto the floor.

[*:*]

Something, someone in the room, touched him, roused him, tendrils from without.

He floated for the surface and opened his eyes, or tried to. It was difficult. First they would not respond, or rather, it was as if something held them closed and he was fighting against it, like some extra, small gravity working only his eyelids.

He finally succeeded. Saw a ceiling. The ceiling. Familiar. Green. Saw movement. Saw a face, large one moment, distant the next. Its lips were moving. Sound came in his direction.

Suddenly the pain, bright and novel, rushed up his arm. He jerked and gasped for breath, to scream the pain out into the air. But he could not find the organ to scream with. Only a whimper. Then a new pain, duller, harder this time, shot again from his arm. He tore to retrieve it, but it was held fast by the hand, on the arm, on the shoulder, on the man with the face. Again he tried to rid himself of the hurt by screaming, but voice no longer to be found. A third pain, another voiceless moan, and then silence, and then it seemed that silence was all he had ever known.

The face with the words pulled back and the pain grew smaller, and again he looked up at the ceiling. Green and wide far above him. Cold air touched his cheek, but then gravity won the battle for his eyelids.

[*:*]

He had not moved from the chair, and was still massaging his temples when the thought first nudged him. It had moved in slowly, from far beyond his perimeter, vague at first, no more than a notion, a rustle of leaves. Then the cold nose against his cheek.

It was quite plain that he had lost the boy. He was, no, not really coming to any sort of terms with that, but straining to acknowledge fact; though mostly he had been cursing his luck, his awful, stupid bad luck; then the cold nose. His attention, or a small part of it anyway, flittered toward the rustle, hearing it better now. Was the boy really lost? it asked, or whispered. Are you really sure about that?

No, he answered, he was not absolutely, beyond all reasonable doubt sure, but not far from it. Well, rustled the notion, how was it that the boy had blossomed in the first place? This he knew: It was through an initial trauma followed by its approximation and release, that’s how. That’s what his paper was all about, his disastrous bloody paper, probably in everybody’s hands. He looked at his watch, yes, the Journal would be out now.

So what happened, wanted the Rustle to know.

Carder took another look at the boy, asleep again. There was a very, bad luck, unfortunate reaction to the medication, he said. Then he backed up: unfortunate, my ass, it was a disastrous bloody reaction to the medication, and that’s how come the boy had now receded completely. Back to voiceless, back to he had no idea what.

But was he really lost? the rustle ventured. Really really lost? Was there nothing that would bring him out?

No, he could think of nothing. The medication had been his solution, to calm him down a little, clip his wings a bit, and that had not worked, not at all.

Then the rustle crystallized and spoke.

Yes, of course. He let go of his temples and sat up, the first light of hope in his veins. Do what worked, repeat the process. Induce a trauma, then approximate it, of course. That should work. No, he corrected himself, that would work. He was sure of it. Because it already had worked, once. Yes, of course. And would that not also form the perfect proof of his theory? If inducing trauma and then approximating it would bring the boy back, then, of course. He just about laughed. Can’t break his fingers again, of course. No, no, of course not. He smiled at his own joke. No, but he could do better than that, said the rustle, much better. There was another trauma, a much better, and not quite so messy trauma, which would suit his purpose to perfection.

ECT.

Oh, there was some elegance to that. He would use ECT, not to treat the boy’s delusion—which would have been a normal course of events, accepted practice. No, and this was the wonderful thought, he would improve ECT by using it properly. It had always been hit and miss, he knew that. Sometimes it seemed to work and sometimes it was a disaster, that was accepted fact—although a closely guarded one as far as the public went. But what if he were to follow up a regular ECT—which was traumatic, no doubt about that—with an approximation of ECT, say at lower voltage? Should he not then achieve a release of the original trauma, of the original ECT? And would that not bring the boy, voice and all, back again?

He stood up, and began a slow pace by the end of the hospital bed. Yes. The more he considered it, the more he reviewed his theory and the evidence at hand, the more convinced he grew. He stopped pacing and looked down at the boy again. He made up his mind. That’s exactly what he would do. Exactly. Besides—and that was another comforting thought—what did he in fact have to lose? It was the next logical research step, after all, which even if it failed, it dawned on him, even if it failed, might salvage his reputation. He smiled again. Oh yes. For he could back up what he had written so far with evidence, with the tapes, and with Karen Anderson’s testimony if needed. Yes, his conclusions were sound, his colleagues had already agreed, and by the tone of Ferguson’s congratulations, his expansion of the paper, to include the boy’s amazing ability to read, had gone down very well too.

He would simply put his conclusion into practice, apply his theory, put it to the test. And if he succeeded—which he had no doubt he would—so much the better. And if he failed? No, it would not be disastrous, he was just doing honest research, after all. Who could blame him for that?

Plan B: He would reduce his medication, give him just enough to keep him calm, then administer the ECT to prove his paper.

There was just the one catch. He couldn’t simply go ahead; he would need consent for this, his mother’s consent. That, though, should not be too difficult. He rose, took a last long look at the boy, and left the room to find a phone.

[*:*]

“No, mom. No. You can’t. They’ll kill him! Look what they’re doing to Bill! Do you call that treatment?” Elsie was very close to shouting.

“He didn’t say that. No, Elsie, he didn’t say that at all!”

“He didn’t have to. What kind of treatment do you think he’s talking about, that needs your written consent? Anything less than that he could just give him, he wouldn’t need your permission. No, Mom. They’re either going to shock him, just like they did with Bill, and what a great cure that was, he doesn’t even recognize his own wife now. Either that or they’re going to operate. It doesn’t matter which, they might as well kill him right now.”

“Don’t say that!” Her plea was nearly a scream, it filled the kitchen. “Elsie! You can’t say that!”

“If you give your consent…” She stopped, and gathered the words that would best level her threat. Then she began again, all cold desperation now, only marginally aware of the pain she was inflicting on her mother, “If you give your consent, mom, it would be the same as killing him. You would kill him. You might as well drag him out the back and shoot him. And if you do, mom, I will leave. I will leave you. I will leave this house, for I refuse to live under the same roof as my brother’s killer. I promise you that, I will leave immediately, and I will never return. Never.”

Beth gasped, fighting for breath, her face suddenly pale, staring at her daughter through wide eyes. Elsie stared back, livid in her defiance. She knew that nothing else mattered now, if she lost this battle he would die. Whatever had happened, however it had come to this, she was fighting for Leonard’s life now; it had all reduced to that clear simplicity, and nothing else mattered. Not her mother, not her home. Not herself.

Beth finally found her voice. “Elsie, how can you? How dare you?”

She felt an icy calm, it was otherworldly. “Mom. Don’t for a moment think that I’m speaking out of anger, or that I don’t mean precisely what I say. If you give your consent tomorrow morning, you will never see me again. It’s as simple as that.”

She hoped, she really hoped that would do it. Then she noticed the devastation she had brought on her mother, how she trembled in search for words, for support, and she hated herself for it. She was hurting her, hurting her very much. But her brother’s life mattered more.

Beth sat down then, fumbling with the chair. She brought her hands to her face and her shoulders sank. It was as if all the air had finally gone out of her, she looked deflated, lost.

As she watched her mother agonize over impossible choices, Elsie felt her love for her well up like physical pain, almost choking her. She wanted to touch her, hug her; she ached to beg her forgiveness, but she knew that she could not, must not. She had to keep her feet to the fire with as much pain as possible. She had to make the consequences of Beth’s giving her consent too unbearable for her to consider. And she could not chance that anything less might do. She fought back the impulse to touch her mother’s shoulder, then lost. She reached down, just a brush with her fingers. Beth jerked as if stung. She looked up at her, terrified. Elsie, clearing any trace of sympathy from her eyes, looked down into her face and added, coldly making sure, “I’m serious, Mom. Don’t forget that.”

[*Fifty-Seven ::

 

Beth didn’t sleep much that night, if at all. Lying stiffly on her back, eyes open to the darkness, again and again she saw Bill’s face, hollow eyes sunk within their gray and shady caves, looking down at her. Gray stubble covered his cheeks and chin, down toward his neck, and he was drooling a little, unaware of it and never wiping his chin, not unless she told him and found a tissue in her purse, which she handed him across the table, and which he most of the time looked at a little surprised, as if he’d never seen one of those before, and did not use them.

Then he spoke, or tried to. She could hear his amputated words, a shaking language of urgency; could hear them form on his crippled tongue and make their way across the table, fighting through the noise of the visiting room, to enter her like insects. They made no sense. Not as words. Not as sentences. She tried to listen, tried to pry each meaning loose from the pain they rode on, but could not.

But despite that, he did speak to her that night, urgently, viciously, about death, about killing and about Brad. And the way he spoke about Brad was that he became Brad, no, not entirely, just his face became Brad’s. His eyes became Brad’s eyes, sunk in Bill’s caves, blue pools at their bottoms, looking up, pleading for help. His cheeks were smooth, just as Brad’s would be, he wasn’t old enough for a beard yet, of course not, but they were as gaunt, as gray. It was her son, pleading for his life through Bill’s face. She tried, and tried again, to shake free, but the face would not leave her be. Now and then it would give her some breathing room, but not for long. Then it returned.

Elsie was there, too. Her darling, her own darling. Her strength, her pillar. And there she was, in the same visiting room, behind her father, holding a gun to his head, or was it Brad’s head, telling her she might as well pull the trigger and be done with it, and if she signed the consent, she said, she would pull the trigger, and then she would leave, forever.

Bill, gray and drooling, didn’t notice her daughter at all.

She awoke to that Friday exhausted and afraid.

[*:*]

Her daughter could not sleep either.

Elsie called Karen several times that night, again without success. Why on earth would she not answer? Instead, she got her machine, every time. Twice she left messages: she needed to see her, immediately, urgently. Please, please, please return her call. The rest of the time she simply hung up as soon as she heard the hiss that told her the recorded message was soon to follow.

Something was terribly wrong, that much she knew, but she didn’t know specifically what, and she had no way of finding out. Other than Karen.

And again, going over all that had happened since Beth saw Leonard read, she realized that she needed to talk to Karen for another, equally important, reason. She saw, with increasing and frightening clarity, that she could no longer handle this alone. Not the way things were now. And there was no one else to turn to.

She would tell her everything, she decided, everything, then ask her for help. She knew that whatever treatment Carder was planning—she feared it would be electric shock—would destroy Leonard. Karen must help her stop him.

Other questions surfaced. Did this mean that Leonard had talked after all? He must have. But when? Last time she had spoken to Karen she had said the problem with Brad was that he hadn’t said a thing, that the doctor thought that he might have had a relapse. Had he spoken since? She didn’t know, had no way of knowing, and the only person that could help her would not answer her phone.

Shortly after four in the morning she gave up on sleep altogether and decided to try Karen again. She went down into the front room and dialed. This time, to her surprise, she answered. She sounded tired.

“Karen, this is Elsie.”

“Elsie, for heaven’s sake. What time is it?”

“About four.”

“What’s the matter? Has something happened?”

“Karen, why didn’t you call? You said you would call.”

A brief silence. “I know, I’m sorry, I…”

“I need to see you, Karen. Now.”

Another short silence. “Elsie, it’s four in the morning.”

“I think Dr. Carder is planning to give Brad electric shock. It would kill him. I need your help to stop him.”

“What are you talking about? Why on earth would you think that?”

“He called Beth last night. I answered the phone, then listened in on the other phone while they talked. He needs her consent for some treatment, special treatment he said, but he wouldn’t tell her what it was. Only that it would cure him. She has agreed to see him first thing in the morning. At nine.” She paused for a moment. “And there is more. Other things I need to tell you. Karen, I need your help. Please, can I come over and see you?”

“Okay,” she answered. “Okay. I’ll come over and get you.”

[*:*]

What was the girl talking about? What treatment? Karen returned the receiver to its cradle, but remained standing, looking down at the phone, not really seeing it. Shock treatment did not make any sense. Her gaze finally let go of the phone and instead wandered left onto the desk and the paper she had just finished going through again, for a third, or was it fourth, time.

She sat down again and, still not really seeing, took in the desk and its light and shadow. Then she took closer note of the many little shadows. It struck her that they all tried to flee the bright desk lamp, casting themselves away from it but unable to uproot themselves, they remained in place, tearing and tearing to get loose.

Carder’s paper. She had read it from beginning to end several times, many parts more than that. In fact, she had done little else since she got back from Carder’s office with the paper in a large brown envelope provided by his secretary. She had fixed herself a quick meal, had turned the answering machine volume down so she wouldn’t be tempted to answer, and had sat down to read.

It was a good paper. No, it was a great paper. It was well written and it made a lot of sense. It seemed to explain everything. Beautifully. Even the reading. If that were true—and she had no reason to believe otherwise—if such abilities were genetically inherited, the paper was a sensation. And all without the ambiguous areas of past lives or visions, she reflected. Yes, she thought, it was an amazing paper.

And he must be right about Brad, he needed some sort of treatment. Los Angeles did not fit in. Not at all. Perhaps some sort of psychosis. Must have been.

But electric shock? Now, that did not make sense. And Elsie was right, if Carder needed consent, more than mere medication was involved. Granted, she had not studied all there was to study about the mind and the brain but she had seen ECT do more damage than good, and for Brad it would surely be out of the question. It just did not make sense. Elsie must have heard wrong or jumped to some crazy conclusion.

She squared up the pile of papers and straightened a few things up to neaten up the desk, debated briefly whether to leave the desk lamp lit or not, decided on lit, found her car keys, decided on turning it off, grabbed her coat and headed down to her car.

[*:*]

The drive across town was eerie, vaguely unreal. The snow had stopped falling and the sky was clearing. The clouds, heading east, now and then revealed a nearly full moon which cast an almost blue light, brightly reflected by the newly fallen snow. She drove carefully since she did not have winter tires on her car, but even so, she skidded several times when braking for lights and stop signs. She only saw six other cars, plus one snow removal crew, up early and heading for the freeway.

She was not tired, which she found a little odd.

[*:*]

“I have to tell you something,” said Elsie as she climbed into the car. And during their drive back across town, and during the first hour or so after arriving at Karen’s apartment, Elsie told her. She left nothing out.

[*:*]

And Karen listened. First out of concern for Elsie.

Then, as Elsie’s story took hold, as it began to ring true, and as she began to believe—for there really was no way you could doubt her, she was too sincere, you could tell she was making none of this up, and that she was not even vaguely crazy, just very, very concerned—more and more out of concern for Brad, for Leonard.

Then finally, when the sobering knowledge that her initial notion had been correct, when the certainty that she had been right the night before set in: he was a miracle; and as she saw with a frightening and increasing lucidity what she had done, then—when the terrible consequence of her vacillation strode forth—out of concern for herself.

And by the time Elsie had finished telling her how, while Karen was waiting downstairs in the kitchen, they had decided that Leonard should play it safe and have a relapse, that he should not speak a word, she no longer had any doubts: She, Karen Anderson, by her stupidity and shortsightedness, had brought this on. Of the two, though only half her age, Elsie was the more astute judge of character. She didn’t trust Carder, she said, hated him in fact, and now, looking back in this light, Karen would have to agree. Carder’s behavior when he threw her out of his office—for that was in fact what he had done—and then administered the strange mixture to Brad, for no good reason it seemed now, was suspect in the extreme. And yes, it had been Brad’s confession about Los Angeles—as prompted by her—that had changed everything for Carder. Up to that point everything seemed to have worked out just fine for the doctor, with Brad’s reading his breakthrough.

Los Angeles brought it down in flames.

And now he was planning to administer electric shock. She could think of no good reason why he would, but she had to agree with Elsie, that was what it looked like. Either that or some other kind of severe treatment, perhaps lobotomy—though that she could not even imagine, not for a child anyway—or he wouldn’t need written consent. But why on Earth would he do that? Perhaps, and she trembled at the thought, perhaps Carder wanted to silence the boy. Perhaps his only purpose was to prevent him from talking about Los Angeles, about a past life that didn’t fit the theory and would invalidate his paper. Could that really be it? Could anyone be that wicked? Could anyone be that—yes, that was the word—evil?

Elsie had finished her story, and Karen had refilled their coffee cups. She took a sip, for strength. “I must tell you something, too,” she said. “I have not been completely straight with you.” She put her cup back and took a deep, deliberate breath. This was not easy to admit, but she had to. “Brad was not silent with Dr. Carder. Not silent at all. He told him he could read. Proved he could read.”

“But, you told me…”

“I know, and I’m sorry Elsie, I really am. I was wrong. I didn’t want to tell you because Brad told me that you were dead set against it.”

“Oh, God. Karen! Why would he do that? Why? I knew this would happen, I told him.”

“I know why,” she answered. “Because of Beth. He didn’t want Carder to think she was crazy. Said he couldn’t do that to her.”

Elsie was shaking her head slowly, back and forth, back and forth. She began to say something, but no words came; only the motion, back and forth, reflected her turmoil.

Karen watched her but remained quiet until Elsie finally looked up.

Then she spoke again: “One more thing. Once Carder had verified that Brad could read—he asked him to read aloud out of Dostoevsky, which he recorded, I saw him turn on a tape recorder, and he must have microphones God knows where—I recalled what Beth had told me about Los Angeles, about him having lived before in Los Angeles, so I asked him how come he could read, but he gave no answer to that, none at all, and we left the doctor’s office shortly after that. Then, yesterday morning, here in my apartment—and by that time I had convinced myself that it was probably true—I asked him outright, had he lived before? And he told me, told me about Los Angeles, and told me not to tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“That he was telling me about Los Angeles.”

“Ah.”

“And once he had, and I believed him all right, I suggested, strongly suggested, that he tell Carder as well.”

“Why?” Elsie was on the verge of tears. “Why would you do that?”

“It was, well, it is, too fantastic not to tell about.”

“I know, but why Carder?”

“I thought that he, if anyone, would understand, could understand.”

Elsie didn’t answer.

“He didn’t agree at first, and mentioned that you were dead set against it. But in the end,” Karen had to swallow, “in the end I managed to convince him. And so he did. When we got back to Carder’s office yesterday morning, he told him he knew why it was he could read, told him about Los Angeles, about having lived before, about remembering how to read.”

“So it was you, your suggestion?” She was struggling to comprehend.

“Please, Elsie. I thought I was doing the right thing, I thought Carder would understand, I really did. I thought he, if anyone, would understand. But I see I was wrong, and I am so sorry.” Karen thought briefly of also telling Elsie that she had deceived Leonard about the phone call to Elsie, but could not bring herself to confess to that level of duplicity.

Elsie said nothing.

“But,” she continued, “not only did he not understand, he saw it as some sort of insanity, and he gave him some medication.”

Elsie was looking at her more intensely.

“I was standing by the elevators when I heard him scream, for help. I rushed back and they had just given him a shot.”

Elsie’s look was now of alarm, but she still said nothing, so she continued. “And then I didn’t know what to think. Believe me, the last forty-eight hours have been completely chaotic for me. First I thought something was wrong with Beth, then I thought something was wrong with Brad, then I realized, I really knew, that Brad was fine, and Beth too, and that he had indeed lived before. I knew he was a miracle. But then, when I saw Dr. Carder’s reaction—I mean, he’s the one who really knows about these things, isn’t he?—I had to look it all over again, and then I wasn’t so sure, about anything. I mean how could it be? And then, after I read Carder’s paper, which made a lot of sense, I was back to Brad being ill somehow. What was I to think?” She noticed her own tone of voice, pleading.

But what Elsie said was, “Carder’s paper?”

“Yes, he’s written a research paper about Brad. He gave me a copy. It makes a lot of sense as you read it, shows everything that has happened to Brad in a scientific light. Of course, Carder had no idea about Handel and about Brad playing the piano.” She stopped, halted by an old question. “You know, I have wondered about that. About what your dad said, that he was playing like a grown-up. So he was right?”

Elsie stared in front of her for a short while. “Yes, he was.”

Karen felt sure that they were both looking at the same picture, down the same flight of stairs at the same cursing man at its bottom, prostrate and making outrageous claims. But they had been true, while Elsie had denied them. She reached across the kitchen table and took Elsie’s hand. “I understand, I do. Don’t worry about it, you did the right thing.”

Elsie returned from her emptiness and looked at Karen, a quick, thankful glance.

“But you know,” Karen continued, “I wonder, actually I think that even if he had known about him playing that keyboard, he would have come to the same conclusion. The one thing that the paper does not allow for is Los Angeles, not at all. That is what makes Brad crazy.”

“Crazy enough for electric shock?”

“No, and that scares me, that does not make sense. I don’t know why Carder wants that, not for sure. Though it may be to silence him, to stop him from contradicting his conclusions, from invalidating his findings and ruining his paper.”

There, she had said it all.

They fell silent. Elsie was looking at her, as if trying to make up her mind about her.

“Elsie,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’ve really screwed up, I know. But I had to tell you, I had to be honest with you. And, now that I see what I’ve done, please believe me, I will help you, I will do anything I can to set things right.”

Elsie kept her eyes on her, and Karen looked back, wondering, silently pleading. Then, she couldn’t really tell how, but she knew she was forgiven. This girl, this woman almost, had accepted her and her remorse. And in that moment she felt a bond form, and she felt the relief of it wash through her, fresh and cleansing, the only discoloring element the phone call.

Elsie was the first to stir. “Okay,” she said. Then, slowly. “What do we do?”

Yes, that was the question, wasn’t it? “When is Beth going to see him?” she asked.

“At nine.”

Karen looked up at the kitchen clock. Seven twenty-five. “What are the chances, do you think, that Beth will sign a consent?”

“I don’t think she will. I’ve threatened to leave home if she does.”

“You’ve told her that?”

“Yes.”

“Poor woman.” It slipped out before she had a chance to think.

“Yes, I know.” Elsie thought for a while. “But I’m not sure that it will work. She respects Dr. Carder, that’s the problem. He is a doctor, after all, and Mom, well, you know Beth. He might convince her.”

Karen thought about that and answered, “Whatever we do, or can do, will be of absolutely no use if she signs that consent. So we must make sure that she doesn’t.”

“How?”

Karen looked at the clock again, more out of habit than need. Then out the window. The sun was up now, making the world sparkle with light on the snow. Snow everywhere. Clean and white and soft. She looked back at Elsie, and then, light from her confession (if only she had not faked that phone call; no, again she could not bring herself to tell her, to make a completely clean breast of things; she pushed the phone call aside, away, it was not important, not really), and fresh with Elsie’s forgiveness, it was clear to her what do to.

“All we really have time to do is call Beth from here. She must be getting ready to leave. You call her. Tell her the same thing again, whatever threat you can level that will prevent her from signing anything. I cannot stress enough how crucial that is. If she signs a consent this morning, Brad could be receiving treatment by ten o’clock. She must not agree. That’s our only chance.”

“Why don’t you tell her? She’ll listen to you.”

Karen nodded. “She may, but she will also tell Carder that I’ve advised her not to, for one, and for two, Carder’s authority outweighs mine by a mile. Carder will tell her that I don’t know what I am talking about and that I have no right to advise her on medical matters, one way or another. Besides, I don’t want Carder to know where I stand, just in case.”

Elsie looked back at her, considered what she had heard. “I’ll call her.”

Karen watched her dial and heard her ask one of the kids for her mother.

“Yes, Mom,” she said into the handset, “it’s me.”

Then Beth must have asked her where she was.

“No, I will not tell you where I am. In fact, Mom, I only called to tell you one thing.” The words that followed were spoken slowly, and each word was pronounced carefully, evenly, and with severe intention. Karen had to admire her, she was aiming for precise effect, and was very cool about it, although it must have hurt very much to say it. “Listen very carefully, Mom. If you sign a consent with Dr. Carder this morning, if you sign anything with Dr. Carder this morning, these will be the last words you will ever hear me speak.”

Then, without waiting for a reply, or reaction, she hung up. She turned and looked up at Karen, eyes glistening. “I pray, I really pray, that will do it,” she said.

Karen said nothing. Just walked over to her and hugged her long and hard.

[*Fifty-Eight ::

 

“Good morning, Mrs. Reilly. Please, have a seat, and thank you very much for coming on such short notice. I really appreciate it, as I’m sure Brad will, too.”

To be honest, he was relieved that the woman had come alone. He didn’t care for the daughter—Elsie, was it?—who usually came along. The mother on her own should not be too hard to handle. He could tell she was of the old school, she would bow to authority. He indicated the left-hand visitor’s chair. She looked uncomfortable as she sat down.

“Well, Mrs. Reilly, as you know, Brad is not so well. He has had a little…” he went looking for the best word, “…breakdown.”

She looked up him, alarmed, but said nothing.

He continued, “And as I mentioned on the phone last night, I have given him some medication which has calmed him down, but that will not do much to cure him. We need to proceed with a treatment for Brad.”

“Calmed him down?” she said, more to herself than to him.

She fidgeted with her purse, casting quick glances up at him. What was with the woman? Then he remembered that, of course, she had had her share of excitement over the last couple of days, which would explain why she looked overwrought.

Then she spoke to her purse, in a loud but quivering voice. “I will not authorize any electric shock operation.”

“Pardon?”

“I will not authorize electric shock operation.”

Where the hell was that coming from? He hadn’t even mentioned ECT yet.

“Now, Mrs. Reilly. Who said anything about operations?”

“That’s the treatment you’re talking about, isn’t it?”

“No, Mrs. Reilly. We will definitely not need to operate. No need at all.”

“What then?”

“What is normally prescribed in Brad’s case is a short and mild series of ECT, adapted to his special case.”

“Isn’t that electric shock operation?”

“It is not an operation.”

“Is it electricity? Electric shock?”

“Well, yes and no.” No, he did not want to be, must not be, quoted as saying that ECT was not electric shock, besides, what if she actually read the consent. “Well, actually, yes.”

“I will not authorize electric shock.”

“Why, Mrs. Reilly? I don’t understand.”

“I will not authorize electric shock!” She was almost shouting.

Jesus, she was going hysterical on him.

“Mrs. Reilly, please understand. Please listen. Brad needs help. You’ve seen that for yourself. He says strange things, he talks about having lived before, he pretends to read.”

“No, he was reading. I saw him.”

“Not really, Mrs. Reilly. You think you saw him read. His condition can be very, very convincing. But read? No. Not at his age, not after what he’s been through.”

He had her attention now. Good sign.

“I have researched Brad’s condition and found many similar cases, both here in America and in Europe. In nine out of ten cases the successful treatment was a brief series of ECT. A week or two of daily treatment, good as new. Believe me, Mrs. Reilly, it will help your son. It is the only thing that will help your son.”

She was doing battle, that was plain. But what was her problem? What was there to deliberate? Then he remembered her husband. Her husband had been given ECT and had not responded too well.

“I know you must be thinking about your husband.”

Startled eyes found his quickly. Ah, that was the problem then.

“You must know, Mrs. Reilly, that your husband’s circumstances and Brad’s are very, very different. Your husband was diagnosed as a manic depressive, which is very different from Brad here, who simply has a little chemical imbalance. Very different. The ECT success rate in your husband’s case is fifty-fifty. By now I am sure they are exploring different avenues of treatment.”

“Yes, they are talking about operating now. A lobotomy, they called it.”

“Yes, precisely. Lobotomy. So you see, you should not compare the two. You must not compare the two. They are very different.”

“But Brad is his father’s son. Maybe he’ll respond the same way as his father.”

That surprised him, especially coming from her. Not a bad piece of reasoning, it even had some merit. So he lied.

“There is no such risk here. Father and son are usually quite different genetically; it is much more common to find genetic similarities between, say, son and grandfather, skipping a generation. Don’t ask me why, that’s just the way it is.”

“Oh,” she said. Then her stubborn determination returned, “Well, I cannot authorize any electric shock.”

Cannot? Strange choice of words.

“Cannot or will not?”

“I will not authorize any electric shock.”

“But, please be reasonable. Please. This is your son we’re talking about here. His life. His cure. You cannot withhold a known cure, perhaps the only cure, from him. It is not right, Mrs. Reilly.”

He touched a nerve, he could tell. She wavered again. So he pressed on.

“And if we don’t act decisively and quickly his condition may degenerate beyond a cure. We need to start treatment within a week or it may be too late.”

That hit her as well. She was doing battle again. He could see the fors and againsts scurrying across her face, reflected in her eyes, which, he knew by their expression, were looking at mental images. Then she began to cry.

“No, Dr. Carder,” she said after a while. “I just cannot, I simply cannot authorize this treatment. Yes, I know what you have told me, I understand all that, but I just cannot.” She meant it.

Well, fuck her. “Listen, Mrs. Reilly. I don’t like to have to do this, but if you don’t authorize this treatment, I will have no choice but to go to court and have a judge give me the authorization I need to treat him. You see, I, for one, care about your son. I cannot stand by and let him go uncared for.”

She looked at him with shiny eyes. “You cannot do that.” She looked afraid.

“Oh, yes I can, and I will. I will simply claim that you are not competent to decide the best course of treatment for your son, which seems to me rather obvious, and apply for court approved treatment. Happens all the time.”

“But I am competent to decide what’s best.”

“I don’t think so, Mrs. Reilly. I have outlined your son’s treatment. He needs it. It will work. Only you can’t see it.”

“I see it. I am competent.” It was a plea.

“Well, authorize the treatment then.”

“No, I cannot. I cannot.” The tears returned.

There it is again. “Cannot? Or will not?”

She tried to make him out through the tears. Didn’t answer.

He leaned forward on his elbows and spoke very clearly, “Mrs. Reilly, I am going to ask you one last time to sign this consent.” He turned the form around and pushed it across the desk toward her along with a pen. “If you don’t, I will proceed with legal measures to get Brad the treatment he needs.”

She just shook her head. She cried and shook her head.

He looked at her, shivering in his chair, and realized that there was something quite vital that he had to do, right now. As a matter of course, in these situations. Oh, yes, what a fuckup if he had forgotten. He looked at the sobbing woman in front of him. “Excuse me,” he said, “I just have to check on something.” She didn’t seem to notice. He stood up and walked over to his tape recorder cabinet, opened the left-hand door slowly and set his Revox recording. Then he strode back to his desk and sat down.

“Mrs. Reilly. Why are you afraid of your son?”

“What?” She looked up with blurry eyes. Dabbed them with a tissue.

“Your son scares you. Karen Anderson told me. Why?”

She looked bewildered. “She told you that?”

“Yes, she told me everything, but I would like to hear it from you, personally. Tell me. Please.”

Her voice quivered again. “He is not natural, doctor. He says strange things.”

“Like what?”

She misunderstood his question. “But Karen Anderson said I wasn’t crazy, she said he was crazy.”

“Yes, yes, I know. I want to hear what he said. Just tell me what he said to you.”

“He told me,” she stared out. “He told me he could read, that I was right—I had seen him reading you see—and that I was not seeing things, and that he could read because he had lived before, in Los Angeles, and died in an accident and had been reborn as my son, that’s what he said. And he talked to me as a grown-up would, calling me Beth, and sounding unnatural.”

Perfect. “Thank you, Mrs. Reilly, that’ll do. I just wanted to know.”

“You’re not going to?” she began.

“I’m going to do exactly what I said,” he replied, then reached for the intercom and called his nurse.

“Yes, doctor.”

“Please call a cab for Mrs. Reilly. She’s leaving.”

[*:*]

“Jim Asten, please. This is Dr. Carder. Anthony Carder. Yes, I’ll hold.”

Finally.

“Asten here.”

“Jim, this is Tony Carder.”

“Tony, it’s been a while. How have you been?”

“Fine, thank you. And you?”

“Getting along. What can I do for you?”

“Jim, I need a favor. I need to get a quick court order for treatment of a minor without guardian consent.”

“You don’t need an attorney for that, Tony. Just file normally. You know the drill.”

“No, I mean quick. I don’t have the time for that.”

“Why?”

“It may be better for everyone concerned if you didn’t ask that question.”

“All right. I get the picture. So what is it that we’re dealing with, precisely? Actual objection or unwillingness to sign?”

“Well, both.”

“And how are you getting around it? Incompetence?”

“Precisely.”

“Do we have grounds?”

“Oh, yes. The mother is quite unbalanced, and the father is already committed to full-time care. Quite a family.”

“Okay. Can you substantiate the mother’s condition?”

“Quite easily.”

“You’re going to need verification, you know that?”

“Yes, I know. That should not be a problem.”

“Fine. As soon as I get your medical analysis and diagnosis of the minor, and the verified diagnosis of the mother, I should have a signed order to you within a week. Oh, and a record of the father’s institutionalization.”

“A week? No, Jim. I can’t wait a week. I need it a lot sooner than that. A couple of days, at most.”

“Listen Tony, nobody can push through an order from scratch in two days. If it’s that urgent, why don’t you go ahead and do what you have to do. We can always clean it up afterwards.”

“Wish I could, but the kid is at St. Francis, and as you of all people should know, they’re sticklers for protocol. I had no idea it would come to this or I would have chosen a more lenient facility.”

“Why don’t you move your patient to another facility?”

“Wouldn’t look too good, Jim. To move him for the sake of treatment, if you know what I mean. Raises flags. I’m afraid we’ll have to do this one by the book. But honestly, I cannot wait a week, you have to get this done sooner than that.”

“I’ll try, but I can’t guarantee anything. And don’t forget, you have to get me your diagnoses first.”

“I know. You’ll have them later today.”

[*:*]

“Nurse, can you come in here for a second?”

She entered. Reluctantly, it seemed. What was her problem?

“Yes, doctor.”

“I need you to listen to this portion of a tape recording, and tell me if you recognize the voice.”

He had copied his recent conversation with Beth Reilly from the Revox to a cassette and he now placed this in the cassette recorder on his desk and pressed Play.

The woman’s voice filled the room and the nurse listened intently.

“That’s Mrs. Reilly’s voice.”

“You’re absolutely sure.”

“Oh, yes.”

“Fine. Would you please write up a brief attestation to that effect, and clearly indicate that it refers to his particular cassette, marked Exhibit A, dated February 9, 1990.”

She looked at him, a faint frown that could have been a question, could have been disagreement, he didn’t care which. He didn’t wait for her to speak.

“Please, Nurse, just do it.”

“Okay.”

[*:*]

“Allen, thanks for dropping by. This will only take a minute of your time. I really appreciate it.”

“No problem, Tony. Always willing to help a fellow professional.”

Allen Brisk was a practicing psychiatrist one floor down with whom he had occasional dealings. They had done each other favors here and there in the past, and this was one more in the same spirit of professional cooperation.

“Thanks. As I said, you’re doing me a great favor. I really appreciate it. Here,” he indicated the cassette recorder on his desk, “I’m going to play you a brief conversation. Based on what you hear, what would you say about the woman’s mental condition? And, oh, yes, let me tell you. The he she is referring to in this conversation is her four-year-old son, who is also my patient.”

“I know,” said Brisk. “You’ve mentioned him. Father broke his fingers?”

“Yes, that’s the boy. And let me assure you, he would never have said anything like what she claims to have heard.”

“All right.”

He played the brief conversation with Beth Reilly. When it was over Allen Brisk looked at him a little dumbfounded.

“This a joke?”

“No, I assure you it is not. The woman was in absolute earnest.”

“Well if she was, then there is no doubt, either she, or the boy, is having some pretty serious delusions.”

“As I said, it is not the boy.”

“Then it’s the woman.”

“You would say for a fact that this woman is delusional?”

“Based on what I’ve just heard?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then. Absolutely.”

“You don’t mind signing a brief deposition to that effect, would you?”

Brisk looked at him questioningly. “This is all above board, isn’t it? This is an actual conversation, right?”

“Allen, I swear to you. I had this exact conversation not an hour ago with Mrs. Reilly. My nurse has already confirmed, in writing, that it is Mrs. Reilly’s voice on the tape. Believe me, it is all exactly as it seems.”

“Well, in that case, no, I don’t mind stating my professional opinion in deposition form.”

“Thank you very much, Allen. I owe you one. This will help me treat a youngster who desperately needs treatment that his mother, Mrs. Reilly here, refuses to authorize. As you yourself observed, she is in no condition to judge whether treatment is needed or not.”

“No, I would say not.”

“Again, thanks a million.” Then to the intercom, “Nurse, please come in here for a second, and take a short deposition from Dr. Brisk.”

[*:*]

The messenger service picked up the diagnoses, the cassette tape and Dr. Brisk’s deposition from Dr. Carder’s office at one-fifteen in the afternoon and delivered them to Jim Asten, attorney at law, at three o’clock the same day.

[*:*]

The door pushed opened and the sound of feet across the floor, and rapid movements through the air, brought him awake.

Someone stood over him. He was big and full of white and now reached down for him with hairy arms that lifted and held him—he could feel the steady rhythm of a heart, and he perceived, faintly, the suggestion of sweat, not unpleasant, no, it was life, another life—while someone else, another white movement, worked around his bed, pulling, stuffing, stretching. The someone else folded back the sheet and blanket and the hairy arms put him back in the bed, cool now with fresh linen. The face that went with the arms looked down at him, just a face, not friendly, not hostile, just a face. Said something, either to him or to the other someone, he didn’t catch exactly what, and was soon gone. The room was empty again, the air still again. The light above was white, in the middle of an empty ceiling, a wide empty space, of green.

[*Fifty-Nine ::

 

She answered on the fifth ring, out of breath. She must have just come back home, and hearing the phone ringing inside, would have hurried, fumbled with the keys, run to the phone. Elsie could picture her, wearing her coat, her Sunday coat, clutching the receiver, front door still open, probably. Beth could not stand missing a phone call, it could be something important, you never know.

“Mom?”

“Elsie.”

“What did you tell him, Mom?”

She was getting her breath back. “I told him, I said to him that I would not authorize electric shock.” She paused again, two more breaths, slower still. “I did what you asked me, Elsie. I did what you asked me.”

Elsie closed her eyes in relief and then nodded to Karen who watched her from the kitchen door. Karen relaxed noticeably.

“Mom, that’s good. That’s very, very good. You did right.”

“But there is bad, too.” Beth fell silent again, for several seconds, before she continued. “He said he would get the court to order treatment for Brad. He said that he cared about Brad and that I didn’t, that Brad needed the treatment badly and that he would get the court to order it because I was an awful mother which he didn’t say but is what he said.” She stopped again. Then, “Elsie, he said that he cared more about Brad than I did. It was so hard, but I did what you asked me. But why did I have to do it? You have to tell me.”

“Mom, I’m coming home right now, we’ll talk about it then. You did the right thing, Mom, believe me. You did the best thing you could do for Brad. And, please don’t for a moment believe the doctor. You care more for Brad than he could ever do. You did the right thing.”

When her Mom didn’t answer, she added, “Don’t worry, we’ll be right there.”

She put the receiver down and looked up at Karen. “She didn’t sign anything.”

Karen nodded, “That’s a relief.”

“Yes, but Carder told her he would go to court. Get them to authorize the treatment. Can he do that?”

Karen, still in the kitchen doorway, took that information in, then shook her head, not negating what Elsie said, more in despair. “Yes,” she said finally. “Yes, he can. It happens a good deal in his line of work. When parents disagree with prescribed treatment or are deemed incompetent to agree or disagree. Well, it usually amounts to the same thing. When a parent, or parents, disagree with a psychiatrist’s professional opinion, they are normally assumed to be incompetent, legally. For who would be more competent to adjudicate treatment than a doctor? At least in the eyes of the law. Which makes it fairly easy to obtain court orders.”

“You mean, he’ll claim that Mom is incompetent?”

“Yes. At least that is what he will try. Although—and I know this is not much of a silver lining—even if he is successful, it usually takes at least a couple of weeks, maybe longer, to get a court order. So we have some time.”

Elsie looked around for her jacket. “Can you drive me home?”

“Sure.” She looked at her watch “Let me just call my supervisor first. I’m going to call in sick for a while.”

[*:*]

Beth was not doing well. Elsie could see that the moment they entered the living room. They found her sitting on the couch, still in her coat, her Sunday coat, her hands cradled restlessly in her lap, her head bent down in reverie. She started and looked up as they entered. Her face was pale and it seemed to have shed weight even since yesterday. Her eyes, glittering and confused, regarded them briefly, then returned to her hands.

Elsie’s heart went out to her. She could see that the wound she had inflicted with her threats was deeper, much deeper, than she had allowed for. Than she had ever meant.

“Mom,” she said. “We’re back.”

Beth looked up again. Close up, Elsie could see that she had been crying, the red of recent tears evident. “Elsie, you’re back.”

“Of course I’m back.”

Beth smiled weakly. “Why did you say those things, Elsie? Why did you have to say those things?”

How could she explain? She looked around at Karen briefly, who met her eyes, then made a point of turning away and walked through to the kitchen, to leave mother and daughter alone.

Elsie sat down by her mom. “Karen agrees,” she said. “Electric shock would not have helped Brad. It would only have made things worse. Remember what it did to Dad. It would not have helped.”

“Dr. Carder said it would. He said there were similar cases both here in America and in Europe that were all cured, he said. By that treatment. He said it had to be done, it was the only way. And he said that it had to be done within the next week or it would be too late.”

“He said that?”

“Yes.” Then a shadow settled on her. “And he said that I didn’t care about my son. Said that only he cared. Cared enough to cure him. He said I didn’t care enough to make him well.”

Her mother began to cry again, and at that moment Elsie hated Carder more than she had ever hated anyone in her life. The white intensity of it, the wish to see him dead, no, not dead, dying painfully, startled her. Elsie tried to free herself of the feeling but failed, failed because she actually didn’t want to let it go. She took several deep breaths and forced it out of the way, to bring her mother back into focus.

“He had no right to say that, Mom. No right at all. He has no idea what he’s talking about.”

“But he’s a doctor.”

“That’s doesn’t matter Mom, he was wrong. Completely wrong. You love Brad more than anyone. He said that to make you feel bad for not signing.”

“Why would he do that?”

That was an interesting question, wasn’t it. Elsie’s immediate answer wasn’t fit for sharing, so instead she said, “Because he is insensitive and arrogant.”

Beth nodded, a little comforted. Then asked, “What did he mean, though, by Brad must be treated within a week, or it’s too late?”

“I don’t know, Mom. I don’t know what he meant by that. But we will find out, I promise you. We will do what is right for Brad. And you did the right thing, Mom, to not give in. I’m proud, so very proud of you, and grateful.”

“And there’s another thing,” said her mom.

“What?”

“He said Brad couldn’t read. Said I had just imagined that. Does that make me crazy?”

Elsie returned to the specter of Carder suffering in agony forever. Hell was intended for people like him. What possible motive, what possible reason would he have for hurting her mother? How does any human being get that way? She could not fathom anyone, not one’s worst enemy, wanting to hurt you that badly.

“No,” she said, “No, you’re not crazy. Not in the least. The only really crazy person here is Dr. Carder.” Then she gave her mother a long and warm hug.

It seemed to heal the wound, or to at least stem the bleeding.

[*Sixty ::

 

“But what do we do? What can we do?”

They were in Elsie’s room, sitting on her bed. Elsie, using her pillow as a makeshift chair, was leaning back against the wall, and speaking with her eyes closed. Karen, cross-legged at the foot of the bed with her head in her hands, did not answer right away. Even with her eyes momentarily shut, Elsie was acutely aware of the little bed against the opposite wall where up until just a couple of days ago Leonard used to sleep. She had noticed Karen glancing at the bed, too, from time to time.

Elsie was about to ask again when Karen looked up, drew breath and spoke into the room.

“First,” she said, “we have to find out to which facility Brad has been admitted. And I think his nurse may help us there. She would know for sure and may very well tell us.” She turned her head to Elsie. “She doesn’t like Carder, you know. I’m sure of that.”

“I think you’re right about that,” said Elsie.

Karen fell quiet again. Apparently studying the floor. After a while she continued, “It’s probably St. Francis, though. He does have privileges at other hospitals, as far as I know, but from what I understand he deals mainly with them.” She paused again, as if lining up her thoughts. “Once we know where he is, we have to convince Beth to demand his release, so we can bring him home.”

“You know,” said Elsie. “He told Beth that she had imagined seeing Brad read.”

“But he knows he can read.”

Elsie shrugged, but didn’t answer.

“Why would he do that?” said Karen.

“I have no idea, thought you might.” Elsie paused, and then shook her head and smiled in cynical disbelief, “You know, he is not a nice man.”

“I’m beginning to see that,” said Karen.

They both fell silent again.

Karen returned them to the issue at hand. “Once we find where he is, Beth, as his legal guardian, must demand his release.”

Elsie looked back at Karen. “I’m not so sure she will go for that,” she said. “If anything, she’s convinced by now that Brad is ill, and that he needs some sort of treatment. And I’m not sure she could take it, you know, having him in the house again. Unless he’s well again. He really scared her, badly. Well, you know that.”

“Yes, I know. But we have to convince her that it’s the best thing for Brad.” She looked thoughtfully at the carpet for a while, then lit up. “Do you think it would help if we told her that I’ll stay here at the house for a while to help look after him?”

“Yes,” Elsie answered, brightening too. “That’s an excellent idea. I’m sure that would put her mind at rest. And I’d feel better, too, if you’d stay here awhile.” She looked at the empty bed across the room as she said this.

“Okay. That’s what we’ll do then.”

“I agree.”

“Then,” Karen continued, “we have to find out how long it might take Carder to come up with a court order. We need to know how much time we have.”

Elsie nodded, agreed there too. Then asked, “What happens when he does get the order?”

“That is the real problem. We have to make sure that he doesn’t, for if he does, then there is nothing stopping him from going ahead with treatment.”

“I see.”

“So we must, somehow, prevent him from getting the order issued in the first place.”

“How?”

“That I don’t know yet. But let’s look at it logically.” She tapped her left index finger with her right to begin the count: “First, to get the court to issue an order for treatment, he’ll have to present a clear diagnosis that Brad needs the treatment. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.” Then she sighed. “That, unfortunately, would present no problem to him, as he can prepare that himself.”

Elsie found that hard to believe. “Is that true?”

“Yes. He can tell the court whatever he wants, because he is the authority that the court will listen to.”

“No way.”

“‘Fraid so.”

“Couldn’t we demand a second opinion?”

“Beth could, but not if she is deemed incompetent. For,” and she tapped her left middle finger, “if Carder can show, if he can prove to the court that Beth is incompetent to determine what is best for Brad, then her requests and wishes don’t matter.”

“Can he diagnose her as well?”

“No, luckily he’ll need someone else to make that diagnosis. So, I suspect that he’ll have someone call her, or come to visit her to establish that she is temporarily unbalanced or however he is going to present it.”

“Doesn’t that give us an angle?” asked Elsie. “Can’t we just make sure that Beth doesn’t see anyone?”

“Yes and no. That would work for a while, as a stalling tactic, but not indefinitely, because if she cannot be found, or seen, Carder can claim irresponsibility on her part and still obtain the order.”

“Jesus, this is crazy.”

“I know.”

“But at least we can buy some time by keeping her incommunicado.” Elsie as much asked as stated.

“Yes.”

“Okay,” Elsie sat up. “We buy some time. But how do we prevent Carder from getting that court order in the end, even if it’s later rather than sooner?”

“I don’t know,” said Karen.

Silence returned. Elsie perceived the mounting obstacles as an oppressive presence, as if they filled the room. It was unfair, so Goddamn unfair. It was so wrong. She looked over at Karen, but she was lost in her own thoughts. Elsie was glad she was here, clear-headed, experienced. She would think of something.

Then another thing occurred to her, and not for the first time, and at length she spoke, tentatively.

“What if we could prove that he lived in Los Angeles?”

“Huh?” Karen looked up, a little startled.

“What if we could prove it, could find evidence to corroborate what he’s told us, that he lived in Los Angeles?”

She had her attention now. “Now, that’s a thought.”

“Say we could prove, beyond a doubt, that he must have lived there. If we could find people that he knew, or things he owned there, anything, and took it to the court.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think so. Not the court.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too fantastic. I don’t care what kind of evidence you brought, I doubt the court would even consider it, much less believe it.”

“Why not? I don’t get it.”

“There are lawyers now whose only job, whose only skill, really, is to invalidate evidence. Whose job it is to shake your confidence in your senses, in your perceptions, and if they can tear apart hard, pretty much irrefutable, physical evidence that people can and want to believe—and they do every day—imagine what they could do with something no one, including the judge, actually believes can exist. It would never hold up.

“But,” she continued, her face lit up with the new thought, “maybe that kind of evidence could convince Carder. Convince him to back off.”

“Carder?” Elsie felt herself blush as her animosity, hot and quick, sprang to life. “Please, Karen. I don’t trust that bastard further than I can spit.”

“I know. I don’t trust him either. Not anymore. But I don’t think he is stupid. He would recognize facts if they were presented to him, I’m sure.”

“No, Karen. There is no way.”

“Well,” she looked down again, at her hands this time, “you’re probably right. But let’s keep that as an option for now.”

Elsie didn’t answer, so Karen continued. “So what else could we do with evidence like that, assuming we could get it?”

“The press?”

They both looked at that. Elsie had visions of the National Enquirer and the Globe, and the rest of the tabloid pack, something Leonard had also brought up, and shook her head.

“They may accept it,” she said. “They may even print it, but who would believe it?”

“You’re right.” Karen sighed. “No one gives these stories a second thought nowadays.” She mused on that for a while. “You know, it’s like we’ve grown completely calloused to the outrageous, and now we can’t see the truth if it looks in the least fantastic.”

“I know,” said Elsie. “How about TV?”

“I think it’s the same, I mean with all the tabloid and interview shows. They’re more like syndicated sideshows. Would anyone take it seriously?”

Karen was right, she thought. Even if they could find this evidence, people were just too jaded to believe. She felt the oppressive air close in on her again. Then her eyes fell on the empty bed across the room and she thought about Leonard, God knows where now, alone and under medication. At that bastard’s mercy. She roused herself, and cleared the air with determination: They must find him and get him, right now. Before anything else.

“Karen,” she said abruptly. “I’m worried to death about him. Let’s find out where he is, right now, and go get him. We can decide what’s next once he’s here. Once he’s safe.”

Karen took a look at Elsie, didn’t think very long, and agreed.

[*:*]

“Carder here.”

Karen quickly hung up. Damn. She had hoped his nurse would pick up. Next, following her hunch, she called St. Francis Hospital in her official capacity as a City Services employee, and there she had better luck. After giving her ID number, and after the hospital verified it, she was informed that, yes, Brad Reilly was an inpatient at the hospital, admitted by Dr. Anthony Carder. What room number? she asked, pressing her luck. Sorry, they could only give out room numbers to immediate family. She should know that. Of course. Well, Elsie or Beth could find that out.

[*:*]

“Why do you have to be so stubborn, girl? Why do you ask me to do this?”

“I’ve told you. It’s for Brad’s sake, Mom. He would be better off at home, he would feel safer, I know it.”

“Honey, now you’re being unreasonable.” She dried her hands and put the towel on the counter. “Dr. Carder knows what he is doing. Don’t you understand? Brad needs help, the doctor told me so himself, and keeping Brad for observation is not the same as electric shock now, is it? I did what you asked me about that, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did.”

“So, please don’t ask me to take him out. He is ill and he is being taken care of by people who know what they’re doing. And I’m sure he’s fine there. He must stay in the hospital, for his own good. I’m not having anyone tell me I don’t care about my son again. I’m not.”

Elsie noticed a slight tremor in her mother’s hands, and decided not to remind her that Carder was going to court to get the order for treatment. That he was far from fine where he was.

“By the way,” said Beth, “what are you two doing upstairs?”

“Just talking, Mom. Just talking.”

“That’s nice,” said her mother, and returned to her world of pots and pans.

[*:*]

“She won’t do it.” Elsie returned to her room.

“Oh, God.” Karen sighed. “Do you want me to try?”

“No, we can’t push her. If we do Carder will have a case,” she said bitterly. “She is not doing too well, Karen.”

“Well, that doesn’t leave us much of a choice.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ll have to go and get him anyway.”

“What do you mean, go and get him anyway? Like, kidnap him?”

“We’ve got to get him out of there, right?”

“Yes.”

“So, we’ll have to get him out of there.”

“Just like that?”

“Any better ideas?”

“I see what you mean.”

“Please call the hospital, here’s the number.” She wrote it down on a slip of paper and handed it to Elsie. “Ask what room he’s in and if you can come over to visit this afternoon.”

“Okay.”

[*:*]

Elsie replaced the receiver, slowly, letting it hover above its cradle while she stared at it. Then she let it fall the rest of the way and went back upstairs.

“They won’t give me his room number.”

“Did you tell them you were his sister?”

“Sure.”

“Why then?”

Elsie sighed. “No one is to see him. Carder has ordered no visitors.”

“What?”

“Doctor’s orders, they said. No visitors. He is to be kept in seclusion and not to be disturbed, by anyone. The only ones who can see him, according to the person I spoke to, are the doctor himself and the nurses on duty. For health reasons, she said.”

“That’s outrageous. I’ve never heard of restricting family visits. This is really, really not good.” She shook her head, then pushed her glasses back in place. “There is no reason on earth, no medical reason anyway, that I can think of. And they’re still giving him that medication?”

“I didn’t ask.”

“Let me try again.”

[*:*]

Karen, however, ran into the same wall. In the end, all they would do was confirm that yes, like they had told her previously, there was a Brad Reilly admitted to the hospital. As for room number and medication, these were not to be divulged.

“I work for the City,” she said. “I am his case worker. I have a right to know.”

“In that case, Miss Anderson, I suggest you file an official request for information.”

“That would take weeks, and you know it. We need to know now.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Not as sorry as you will be,” said Karen, for no good reason that she could discern, just to bite back. Then she slammed the phone down.

[*:*]

Back with Elsie, Karen suddenly brightened. “I know someone who works there.”

Elsie looked at her, and Karen continued. “We were quite close before she got married, she also worked for City Services then. Then she was offered a job at St. Francis. More money, better benefits. We still get together on occasion.”

Karen stopped and began to chew her bottom lip. “The more I think about it,” she said at length, “the more I think she may be willing to help us if we explain the situation, if we can convince her that Brad may be in danger.”

Elsie didn’t answer. Waited for more.

“Carder’s no-visit order is out of the ordinary, to say the least. I’ve never heard of it done with children. And the fact that they won’t give me any information at all.” Karen’s eyes widened as something seemed to strike her. “You know what he’s doing? He’s hiding him. That’s what he’s doing. Sedating him and hiding him. Suspect, to say the least. I think she will listen. And I think she’ll believe me. And if she does, then she’ll help us get him out.”

“What if she doesn’t believe you?” Elsie asked. “What if she tells Carder, or the hospital, that we’re trying to get him out?”

“She wouldn’t do that.” Karen seemed a little affronted at the idea.

“Do you know? For sure?”

“No. Not for sure.”

“Then it’s too risky to involve her.”

Karen didn’t answer.

“Don’t you think?”

Karen sighed. “You may be right. Well, at least I should talk to her. She might tell me his room.”

Elsie looked up at her, suddenly interested. “You, I mean City Services, keep a file on Brad, right?”

“Sure. Yes. Of course.”

“Which should contain all relevant information about him.” More a statement that a question.

“Yes. Exactly.”

“And the way you complain about those mountains of paperwork sometimes, these records must be pretty important.”

“To my boss they are.”

“Then your friend, who’s worked at City Services as well, would understand.”

“Would understand what?”

“Why you need the details, which room, what medication, and so forth, on Brad. How he’s doing. For the records. And since the hospital isn’t exactly forthcoming.”

“I see what you mean.” Karen smiled, too.

[*:*]

There were moments, brief moments, when the room swam into focus and he could feel the blanket under his hands. Soft and wooly, but for this he had no words. He stroked the gray cloth to feel the texture of the fabric. It was a comfort, it was the only thing he really knew, that and the ceiling which hovered above him like a lawn in the air, and the light fixture like a small local sun in the grassy sky. Then a fresh wave of the chemicals that now ruled his body would gather and wash it all away.

[*:*]

“Jim, it’s Tony Carder on the phone for you,” his wife said from the doorway to their bedroom.

What an asshole, he thought, why the hell is he calling me at home, and, he looked at his watch, at this time. He put down his book and reached over for the phone on his bed stand.

“This is Jim.”

“Jim, this is Tony. Listen, I’m really sorry for calling you at home. Really am. I just wanted to make sure that you got the package.”

“Yes, I got it.”

“Did you get a chance to look it over?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“Looks okay. However, basing the woman’s character determination on a tape-recorded conversation may be stretching it a bit. They’re not all that fond of that.”

“They have accepted that in the past. Who is it? Judge Nelson?”

“I didn’t say they wouldn’t accept it, I said they don’t like it. But luckily the opinion of—Dr. Brisk, was it?—seems unequivocal enough. I don’t think there’ll be a problem.”

“When do you think we’ll have the order?”

“I told you, probably within a week. From Monday morning. That’s when we’re filing.”

“You haven’t filed yet?”

What the hell is it with this guy? “No, there were other pressing matters I had already committed to.” He let that sink in. “I drafted the motion this evening and we’ll finalize it and file it on Monday. The court is closed over the weekend.” He couldn’t help himself.

If Carder noticed his sarcasm he didn’t let on. “Okay. Thanks. Now, is there any way we can get it done sooner than a week?”

Jesus. “Listen, Tony, there are always ways. It depends on how much you want to spend, you know that.” He could not resist following through with his lecture. “Normal filing with the court takes, at best, two weeks. But, at least, it’s free. If I file it for you through my channels, it takes a week and will cost you my normal fee. That’s what we’re doing. If you want it through faster than that, then you need to invest further.” He let his line of reasoning hang mid-air.

“How much?”

Man, he really is in a hurry, how interesting. “Two grand. That would give you the order in three days, maybe four. Probably by Thursday.”

He could hear Carder breathing deeply in the receiver. There was no answer for some time. Then, “Okay, two grand. But I have to have it in three days.”

“All right. I’ll see what I can do.”

“No, it can’t be you’ll see what you can do. It has to be in three days, you have to guarantee.”

“I cannot guarantee that, there are too many variables, and you know that. But three days is my best estimate. I would be surprised if it took longer.”

“Fair enough.” Reluctantly.

“Tony, by the way, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s the hurry?”

“It’s for the kid, I told you. He needs this ECT treatment urgently, and the mother, as you know, will not, cannot, cooperate rationally.”

“Right.” Likely story.

[*Sixty-One ::

 

He woke up into a beautiful Saturday morning. February was at its best, and had he noticed, his heart would have leapt to greet it. A trailing front of snow had powdered the city overnight and as the sun rose into a clear blue sky it was greeted brightly by every available surface. The city outside his window now literally sparkled. But he didn’t notice. He barely noticed the two voices talking by his bed. One voice then turned and faded as its owner, not dressed in white, walked away toward the door. The words “every four hours” reached his ear but they didn’t mean a thing to him. That voice did not speak again, and he could see the door close behind it. The white shape to his right had a voice, too, nicer, which answered “Yes, doctor,” but that didn’t mean anything either. And that was it for the voices. The owner of the second voice, the nicer one, didn’t leave, however, but instead stood still by the side of his bed and looked down on him. He tried to make out the face. It was a pale moon, halted in its orbit, then a face, a woman’s face. It looked kind, he thought—or felt—and it looked concerned, but he had no word for either.

[*:*]

The face belonged to Ellen McDaniel. She had explained to the duty nurse that her friend at City Services was not able to get enough information through official hospital channels to keep her records up-to-date. Yes, she was the boy’s case worker, and now she was getting hell from her boss for sloppy and tardy paperwork. Dr. Carder, for some reason, wanted everything under wraps for now. Yes, just an update on his condition. See the boy for herself, to let her friend know.

The duty nurse, all too familiar herself with the paperwork of things, didn’t mind. Ellen could accompany Dr. Carder in her stead this morning.

[*:*]

Back in his office, Carder was waiting for Jim Asten to come on the line. His wife had already apologized twice, he was on the other line, would be with him momentarily.

Finally.

“Jim.”

“Carder.”

“I messengered the cash over to your house half an hour ago. In hundreds. Have you got it? If not you should have it any minute.” His heart rate was up, he noticed. He was nervous, too fucking nervous. His palms were sweaty. He wiped them again on his trousers. He had to calm down. Maybe take something. This was really getting to him. Well of course it was getting to him, for Christ’s sake.

“It just arrived, thanks,” the lawyer told him. “And, please, don’t make a habit of calling me at home.”

“Sorry. So, what do you think?”

“What do I think?”

“Three days?”

“Yes, three days. I told you. But don’t count the weekend.”

“Right. Yes, of course. So, when do you think?”

“Late Wednesday afternoon. That would be,” he paused, probably checking his calendar, came back, “the 14th, or early Thursday the 15th. If all goes well.”

If all goes well? He had to wipe his hands again, they were leaving moist little tracks on his desk. “Any reason why it shouldn’t?”

“None that I can think of.”

“Good.” He felt a little better, though not much, and hung up.

His phone rang almost immediately.

[*:*]

“Carder!” The voice, suspiciously cheerful, literally sang into the phone. It took him a second to place it, but once he did he was all on guard. Mortimer was at his most dangerous when he appeared the least so. “I’ve read your paper, Carder. Very interesting. Very, very, interesting. Quite impressive, actually.”

“Thank you.”

“In fact, I find it so interesting that I would like to see the boy for myself, at your earliest convenience, of course. This afternoon happens to be free. Okay with you?”

His earliest convenience, my ass. “I’m afraid not, Frank. I’m in the middle of a series of tests which I can’t interrupt with visits.”

“Maybe I could come by and watch, you know, fly on the wall sort of thing?”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea either.” Oh Christ, he was sweating, and he was acutely aware that his right hand was shaking as it lay on the desk in front of him, trying to keep from doing just that. “I’d like to spend another week with him before I let you wolves into the pen.” He prayed that his voice did not betray his nerves.

“Jealously guarding your prey, hey?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, me and some of the boys here have gone over your paper in some detail—you realize, of course, that you disrupted most of our day yesterday—and if it verifies,” with ever such a slight emphasis on if, “if it verifies—you understand, of course, that we’ll have to pick the boy apart to make sure your theory checks out—but if it verifies,” for the third time, “and I’m sure it will, you’ll have broken exciting ground, Carder. Exceptional ground, as a matter of fact.”

“You embarrass me, Frank.”

“Oh, I doubt that.”

“No, really. You’re too kind.”

The underlying tension highlighted the pretense, but they both kept it up.

“I’ve always known that you had it in you.”

“Yes I know. Just a matter of time, right?”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“Well, Frank. Looks like that time is now.” Then he just couldn’t keep up the charade any longer, couldn’t keep up that stupid balancing act. “And there is fuck-all you can do about it.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Oh, cut the crap.”

“Such language.”

He couldn’t find the right barb in time, so Frank Mortimer spoke again, with his stupid, pretend British accent which wasn’t British at all. “Well, I do hope—for your sake, naturally—that your little boy holds water.”

“Don’t worry, he will.”

“Fine. Let’s set a date then, shall we. A week from today? How about we say next Friday, six days from now, that would make it the 16th?”

“That’s fine.”

“What time?”

“I’ll have my nurse call you.”

“Fine.” Mortimer hesitated, then surprised him. “Our differences aside, Carder, you are to be congratulated. Much as it pains me to say it—and it does—it is a good paper.” Carder had no idea whether Mortimer meant that or not. Wasn’t sure how to respond. Fumbled.

“I thank you, Frank. Yes, that’s most kind.”

“Not at all.”

Then dial tone. For a second he wasn’t sure who had hung up, then—seeing his own hand on the telephone set, finger on the switch hook—he realized it had been him. He replaced the handset and willed his hands to stop shaking. Tried to anyway.

He closed his eyes, leaned back and thought again about the boy, his theory, his treatment. It must work. It simply had to work. For now he knew, with Mortimer fresh on his heels, that if it did not, he would be dead. Just about literally.

[*Sixty-Two ::

 

Ellen McDaniel agreed to meet Karen during her morning break.

She was a pretty, brown-haired girl, woman really, whom marriage had turned just a tad short of plump. Although happy to see Karen, she was a little agitated: why couldn’t she just tell Karen over the phone, and who was she? Frowning in Elsie’s direction.

“This is Elsie Reilly, the boy’s sister.”

Ellen smiled, though only just enough to not be outright rude. Elsie smiled back.

“Coffee?” Karen asked.

“Can’t stay.”

“So how is he?”

Ellen sat down. “He’s sedated.” She looked over at Elsie. Was this for her ears as well? Then back at Karen. “Doesn’t look too good, frankly.”

“Do you know what medication? How often?” asked Karen.

“A mix of five milligrams methadone and ten milligrams meperidine. Injections. Four times a day. Eight, noon, four o’clock, then eight at night.”

Karen wrote this down.

Looked up at Ellen again. “What room?”

“446.”

Another note.

“Why couldn’t I just tell you this on the phone?” Ellen wanted to know.

“Elsie needs to see him,” said Karen.

“No visitors.”

“That’s why we need your help.”

Ellen looked over at Elsie again, who now seemed on the verge of tears. Back at Karen. Suddenly looked a little cornered.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No.”

“Listen Karen, I’ve just stuck my neck out a mile, to help keep Rachel off your back.”

“I know.”

“And now, what are you asking? I don’t get it.”

“We need you to help us get Elsie in to see her brother.”

“You’re out of your mind,” she said. Looked over at Elsie as if to include her in her verdict.

Elsie, as planned, a picture of dejection. Staring down on her lap. A tear or two even. How did she do that?

“She is worried sick,” said Karen, indicating Elsie with a nod of her head. Elsie didn’t seem to hear.

Ellen looked from Elsie to Karen to Elsie, not happy.

“You’re still out of your mind.”

“And her mom, too. Worried sick. She has got to see him.”

“Look, I just saw him. I saw him with the doctor. There’s nothing else to see. Sedated. Sleeping. Pale. Small.”

“Did he say anything?” Elsie asked feebly.

“Of course not.”

“Is he going to live?” As feebly.

“Of course he’s going to live.”

“I have to see him.” Elsie looked up at her, real tears in her eyes, as worried a sister as there ever was.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

“Can you help us?” said Karen.

“I don’t think so. What could I do?”

“How does she, we, get in to see him, unnoticed?”

“She’s going alone?”

“No, I’ll be with her.”

Ellen McDaniel did battle with herself, while Elsie kept up her desperation act, which, come to think of it, thought Karen, really was no act after all. Then Ellen decided, much against her better judgment apparently.

“How can I help?”

“Just that,” said Karen. “How can we get in to see him unnoticed? And when would be the best time?”

Ellen stared off into space, considering things. Karen recognized that face from working with her. All practical now, dealing with the problem at hand. She was very good at these things.

Elsie studied at her as well, a little too intently. She had to keep up appearances.

Without preamble, Ellen started talking. Fast. As if already due back at work.

“He will be fed at noon and then have his injection immediately after the meal, standard practice with noon medication. Probably about a quarter after. The lunch detail will probably have cleared away the tray and dishes by quarter to one, no later than one in any event. My best estimate is that one-fifteen would be the best time. No one will have any reason to enter his room until his four o’clock medication.”

“Okay. With you so far.” Karen’s heart was racing, she could not believe she was doing this. But, she noticed with a thrill, she had not felt this alive since, well since she didn’t know when. This was a good feeling, she was actually doing something. And, she was setting things right. She felt very good about herself.

“The best way to get to his room unseen is by the service entrance on First Street. Do you know where that is?”

Karen couldn’t picture it. “No, but I’ll make sure I find it.”

“It’s not that hard to spot. It’s about fifty yards from the corner of Willmore along the north side of First Street. Blue door. Metal.”

“I’ll find it fine.”

“Once you’re inside, you’ll see a passageway leading straight ahead.”

“Okay.”

Ellen pressed on. “Immediately to your right is another hallway, smaller. Take that one. At the end of it is a service elevator. Take it to the 4th floor.”

“Okay.”

“Here it gets tricky.” She paused briefly to brush some straying strands of hair aside. Continued. “Although you can’t see the service elevator doors from the nurses’ station, you can hear them, and unless you step to the left immediately after you get off, the duty nurse will see you. Anyone who walks right out of that elevator will walk into plain view of the nurses’ station.”

“Are there no stairs? Wouldn’t those doors make less noise?” Elsie asked.

Ellen looked over at her, as if surprised to see her. “The stairs, unfortunately, let out in plain view of the nurses’ station, they couldn’t miss you if they tried. If you’re seen, that’s it. That’s just not an option.”

“But won’t they be curious if they hear the service elevator open, with no one stepping off?” Elsie asked.

“Happens all the time. You know, wrong floor, meant to go to five, that sort of thing. We’re used to that. Sometimes, I swear, people press wrong floors on purpose, to waste time.”

Elsie looked at Karen, nodded, satisfied.

Ellen glanced at her watch. Yes, definitely late by now. But continued. “You must not be seen. If they see anyone out of uniform outside of visiting hours, they’ll hit the alarm to alert security, probably even before they ask you what you’re doing there. But just after one is a good time of day, the nurses will just have cleared away lunch and will usually try to grab a bite themselves. Also, it’s Saturday, and they’ll be one nurse short—weekend roster.”

“Out of uniform?” Karen thought aloud. “Do you have any we could borrow?”

“Not a chance,” said Ellen. “If you’re caught, they’ll have my name on them.”

“What if we remove the name tags?” said Elsie.

“They’re not tags. The names are embroidered directly onto the uniform.”

“Ah,” said Karen. Then she asked, “Are they regular whites?”

“Yes.”

“I may still have mine from my stint at Fenmore.”

“Well, if you do, I would use them.”

“Okay,” said Karen. “What then? We’re out of the elevator.”

“Stay close to the wall to your left, for about another ten feet or so, till they can no longer spot you from the nurses’ station, then go to the end of that corridor. His room is the last room on your right. Room 446.”

“And back? Same way?” Karen wanted to confirm.

“Yes, there’s no other way out, unseen.”

“Any tips if they see us?”

“That’s not an option.”

Neither Karen nor Elsie replied.

“And if you’re caught,” said Ellen. “Not a word about me. I could lose my job for this.”

“I am aware of that, Ellen. Don’t worry. And, thanks.”

Elsie thanked her as well.

Ellen left. In a hurry. Not happy.

[*:*]

There was still not a cloud in the sky, and the snow had begun to melt, especially in the streets and on the sidewalks, as they rounded the corner of Willmore and First Street.

At first glance, they looked like two nurses hurrying, late for their shift, but only from the knees up. They had rushed home to Karen’s place and she had found her white uniforms packed away in a suitcase, but could not for the life of her find white shoes, or for that matter, white stockings or pantyhose. But it would have to do. Elsie was intent on getting to Brad today, and would not risk delaying, not knowing what Carder might do. The lesser of two evils was an incomplete disguise. They both agreed.

Karen spotted the service entrance easily enough, it was one of only two doors that side of the building, and the only blue metal one, and stopped in front of it. “This is it, Elsie. You want to go through with it?”

Elsie suddenly looked like the nervous teenager she was. She only nodded in reply. Several short, quick nods.

“Okay, here goes.” She grabbed the handle, pressed it down and pulled toward her.

The door was locked.

Karen looked back at Elsie. “Oh, God. Why didn’t we think of that?” She tried again with the same result.

“Knock,” suggested Elsie.

“What, and be seen?”

“It’s the service entrance. Does it matter if we’re seen down here?”

She glanced at Elsie, she was right. “True.” She knocked hard with her bare knuckles. Nothing. Then again. Her knuckles stung. Nothing. She looked around her to see if anyone thought them suspicious. In her mind they stood out like elephants in a snow field, but the few people around seemed more concerned with getting to wherever they were going than with two nurses who had forgotten their keys. She knocked again. Hard. Finally.

The old woman looked up at them with a scowl.

“Sorry, forgot my key,” said Karen.

“This is for laundry and kitchen staff only, and you know it. You shouldn’t have a key to this door.” She looked at the two of them, from one to the other. “And I am sick and tired of you folks too lazy to walk another half a block to your own entrance.”

“Sorry,” repeated Karen.

“Sorry,” said Elsie.

The scowling woman turned around without another word and left them at the open door. Karen and Elsie exchanged glances. Karen nodded and they both entered the hospital. The old woman vanished ahead of them in the direction of the laundry. They turned to their right and spotted the service elevator some thirty feet ahead.

Karen pressed the up button, which lit up, and they waited in silence. Karen could hear distant clatter and clinking and the timbre of a male voice giving some instruction or other. The kitchen, she thought. Elsie, by her side, looked nervous, staring at the elevator door. She struck Karen as a child, caught up in a life too deep for her. Then she realized: she was only a child. Sixteen. Sixteen’s a child. Really.

The elevator finally arrived and the large, scratched-up brown door slid slowly to the right with a long, loud screech. Karen started at the violence of the sound. This was way too loud, there’s no way we’re getting off this elevator unnoticed. Elsie, by the look on her face, shared the same thought. Then, Karen almost laughed when she realized it. “Good thing,” she whispered to Elsie, “that these doors don’t come with the elevator.”

“They don’t?”

“No, I just realized that. The doors stay here.”

Elsie thought that one over. “Yeah, you’re right.” A small smile.

They stepped inside the large cubicle and Karen pressed the button for the fourth floor, which lit up, too. The door began its slow screech again.

Someone rounded the corner. “Hold the elevator, please!” He ran the last few yards and got his hand in between the closing door and the jamb. He looked at the two of them. “Thanks for waiting,” he said.

Karen didn’t know how to take that; they certainly had done nothing to slow the doors down. Yeah, she realized, that was his point, wasn’t it. Then the more sinister reflection: We’ve been seen, twice. Do we go on? Elsie wasn’t looking at her. The guy pressed the button for the third floor. Elsie still not looking at her. Okay, we’re still on then.

The service elevator was not so noisy from the inside. Quiet even. It rose smoothly up to the third floor, where the doors slid open without the ruckus of the street level. The guy stepped out. He had not looked in their direction again, but had stared straight in front of him as people usually do in elevators. The world’s strangest environment. The door had just begun to close when an older nurse, dressed in impeccable white, shoes and all, stepped on. “Going up?”

“Yes,” said Karen.

The nurse looked at Karen, then at Elsie, and at Elsie’s shoes, and back at Karen, then at Karen’s shoes, then pressed the sixth-floor button, all in silence. Karen felt a strange tension. A dislike.

“You two must be new here,” the nurse finally spoke, with a frown. “Nurse Richardson won’t let you get away with that.” She indicated the shoes.

It was Elsie who came to first. “I left my tote bag at the gym. It had both our shoes and hose in it. I could kick myself.”

“You should,” she retorted, and said nothing more.

The elevator came to a smooth stop, and the lit button for the fourth floor went out. This was it. The door, bless it, slid open without a noise. Karen stood closest to the door, but didn’t move, thought about moving, hesitated. Elsie was waiting for Karen to step off. The nurse, frown still firmly in place, looked at them, one to the other. There was no sticking suspiciously close to the wall with an audience, thought Karen. No furtive exit. She fought down a brief gust of panic. They were done for. Then Elsie virtually pushed her out of the elevator. The door began to close behind them. Karen looked to her right and immediately saw the nurses’ station. It was empty. No, not empty. Empty except for a hill of blond hair, its owner busy examining something in front of her, the countertop shielding all but the crown of her head. They had not been seen.

Karen turned left and started walking down the hall, as resolutely as she could. Elsie followed suit. She heard the elevator door slide all the way closed behind her, and heard Elsie almost by her side. Okay, so far so good. Doing great. So far so good.

But then savage reality set in: Every step they took was illegal, every breath against regulations, every heartbeat a conspiracy. Back in Elsie’s bedroom, and while shaking the information out of Ellen, the thought of this had been exhilarating, had filled her with life, and the elation had remained with her—much to her surprise, actually—even going up the elevator. She had never done anything like this before, never. She had never thought herself capable. But the necessity to set things right—and this was setting things right, wasn’t it—had driven her upward and past many of her internal barriers. She could and would do it. It was a fresh certainty with her. It filled her. Strong and growing, alive and invigorating. That is, until now.

The insanity of what she was doing suddenly filled her like a trance, that and the danger. Every step was another step into a trap, escape that much more distant behind them. Suddenly there was no elation left, all replaced by fear. Fear—a long-familiar feeling—seemed to seep in through her skin and gather in her stomach. The air seemed to be made from it. One more step, she felt an oncoming sickness. One more step, she forced herself not to turn, not to turn and run back for the elevator. Any second now, she knew, she knew, they would come charging for them.

One more step. Her ears were straining to catch everything in the tense silence, ready for flight. They caught their shoes squeaking on the clean linoleum, they caught the soft swish and then another and then another of stockinged leg against stockinged leg as she moved; they caught the hum of the elevator, a TV in one of the private rooms to her left; they absorbed every sound and every sound turned into threat. She heard, more than felt, her own heart racing. She felt faint and was beginning to perspire.

She looked over at Elsie. For support, she realized. Oh, God, she’s a cool one. She looked as poised as anything. Looked back at her, didn’t smile. What happened to the young girl down by the elevator? She looked ahead again. God, what am I doing here? Myself out of a job? We’ll be caught, for sure. She glanced over at Elsie again, who did not look back at her this time. Her features were set, filled with purpose, and Karen seized on them for strength, for their reason for being here, and regained some measure of control.

They were coming to the end of the corridor. The door on their right read 450. The next one, 448. The next one, at the end, 446. They stopped and turned. They were there.

They looked at each other. Karen felt nausea fighting its way back, clawing its way up, demanding her surrender. Then she bit down her fear, and opened the door.

“You there!” The voice was loud, commanding, and it came from somewhere behind them. Karen was halfway into the room and saw Brad, small, so small, in that huge bed. Asleep. Then the voice reached her and her heart burst. Panic made it all the way up from her stomach and spread throughout, seized her and dragged her down, down. She stumbled forward and had to grab the rail at the foot of the bed in order not to fall. The voice sounded again, but this time she didn’t understand the words. Still, they reached her and told her they had lost.

[*:*]

“You there!” Elsie spun around. Karen had already entered the room before her, and the door leading to her little brother was half open. She looked back at the blond nurse, only a few feet away now. Was it the same nurse they had seen in the elevator? No.

“Where are you going?” she demanded. “You can’t go in there.”

Elsie looked into the room. There he was, Brad, Leonard. He looked lost to the world, surrounded by a sea of bed. And there was Karen, deathly pale. She was, Elsie suddenly realized, about to faint, holding onto the foot of the bed for support. She turned back to the nurse, now at her elbow.

“We’re looking for Edward Anderson, room 546.”

“This is the fourth floor,” said the nurse.

“Pardon?”

“This is the fourth floor. Room 546 is on the fifth.”

It took all she had to look at the number on the door and appear bewildered. “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re right.” She looked back into the room, at her brother. Then she turned back to the nurse, a quick, embarrassed smile. “That is not Mr. Anderson, believe me. Not even close.”

The nurse looked at her, top to bottom. “Who are you? Do you work here?”

“No,” said Elsie. “We work at Fenmore. We’re just here to see Mr. Anderson. He’s her uncle.” She indicated Karen, who still gripped the end of the bed like her life depended on it.

“How did you get in?”

“Get in? Nobody said anything about not getting in.”

“They probably thought you worked here,” muttered the nurse.

“Come on.” Elsie turned to Karen. “This is the wrong floor.”

At first Karen didn’t seem to understand. She was looking back at her blankly, as if the world had suddenly turned incomprehensible. “Come on,” she repeated, touch of anger. Then she stepped up to Karen and jammed her elbow hard in her ribs. That seemed to do the trick: Karen started from the pain, and looked at Elsie, sudden recognition. “Let’s get up to the right floor,” Elsie said, “I’m sure he’s going to be easier to find there.”

Karen didn’t answer, but seemed—she hoped—to look appropriately embarrassed at their mistake.

The nurse eyed them silently as they filed past her out of the room. Elsie headed back for the elevator. On the way she spotted the entrance to the stairs by the nurses’ station and headed there instead, opened the door and held it open for Karen, who quickly stepped through. Elsie followed and as the door swung shut they were already well down the stairs.

[*:*]

They stepped out into what was still a brilliant afternoon. Elsie, however, didn’t notice, all she perceived was danger. So close behind. And she had to move, had to put distance behind her and the nurse who could so easily check on Edward Anderson, who didn’t exist on the fifth floor. She was expecting another “You there” any second all the way down First Street and it was not until they were safely two blocks up Willmore, and could see the red parking structure where they had left Karen’s car, that she finally slowed down, to let reality catch up: They had failed.

[*:*]

“We’re looking for Edward Anderson, room 546.”

The words came from far away and floated into his chemical darkness on a wind so soft they meant nothing to him. But the wind, the voice and its timbre, brought something else. Something not voice, not sound, but warmth, touch, comfort. He tried to hold onto them, tried to focus on these words, to cling to them and clutch them to himself, to breathe this wind, but he could only grapple a little in their direction and then they were gone. He fell back again into silence, dark and moist.

But the wind rose again, “Pardon?” it said. Then, “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re right. That is not Mr. Anderson, believe me. Not even close.” It came louder this time, closer, familiar. An urgency burst upon his land and spoke of things he knew, or had known. Spoke of people, of love, of help, and of the need to open his eyes. But he could not find the will to do it, nor could he find his eyes. He could not find anything, could only grapple a little.

And again. “No. We work at Fenmore. We’re just here to see Mr. Anderson. He’s her uncle.” It was fainter this time. He tried again to open his eyes, he knew he had to, but still could not find them.

Another voice answered, a different timbre, a different promise. Then the soft wind again. “Get in? Nobody said anything about not getting in,” the other voice replied, faint. The wind again. “Come on. This is the wrong floor. Come on.” Stronger now, much stronger, almost touching him. Then he knew it, knew it as a voice. He knew that voice. He tried again to find his eyes, to open them, couldn’t.

“Let’s get up to the right floor, I’m sure he’s going to be easier to find there.” It was more distant now, and fading. But in fading, the wind left a face and a name, and he found it, in the very trail of her presence. He grasped it and wrapped it around him and loved that voice, that face. Elsie.

The door closed and all was quiet again.

[*:*]

They reached Karen’s car, still a little out of breath. She opened the passenger door for Elsie, who slid into the front seat while Karen skipped around and got in behind the wheel. She looked over at Elsie and saw that she was crying.

The rush down the stairs and through the cold, sunny air had worked wonders with Karen’s composure, had almost brought it back to normal. Looking back, she couldn’t quite believe it, that she had really lost it in there, almost fainted. It was Elsie, cool and resourceful, who had saved them. Christ, left to her they would be in the middle of a security interview by now. That was the sad truth of it, and she disliked herself for it; quite intensely. But looking over at Elsie again, she also knew that this was no time for self-pity. She wanted to say something, something soothing, something comforting, but couldn’t think of a thing. Nothing offered itself up as suitable. Instead it was Elsie who spoke first.

“He looked so lost.”

Karen reached out and placed a hand on hers, but Elsie didn’t notice. “He looked almost dead,” she said. At that she turned and looked at Karen. “Almost like he was dead. Did you see?”

Karen only nodded. She just didn’t know what to say.

“We have got to get him out. We have got to get him out of there. They’re killing him. We have got to get him out!”

Then, as if something within her finally reached a boiling point and had to vent, Elsie, with what was like an explosion in the confined space of the small car, slapped the dash in front of her with both hands and screamed at the windshield, “Can’t you see, he’s killing him!”

Karen, a little shocked and still at a loss for words, said nothing, but nodded rapidly, started the car, backed it out of the narrow space, and drove out of the garage. Elsie started to cry again.

Didn’t cost anything on Saturdays, she noticed, as they went past the unmanned booth. She turned left on Willmore and headed for her apartment.

[*:*]

They were back in their own clothes. Elsie was still alternately dejected and inflamed, pacing the kitchen. She reminded Karen of a caged animal, pacing its prison, weighed down by apathy but intermittently raging its frustration, sending gaping spectators a foot or two away from the bars, pointing. Karen was fixing them some hot chocolate while also checking the mail. There was a letter from Dr. Carder.

She ripped it open. Actually, the letter was from his nurse, postmarked the previous day. It was written in a large, pleasant hand on his stationary and mailed in his envelope, but Karen noticed that it was signed simply, “Anne.”

She leaned back against the counter and quickly read through the letter. Then again. This was bad news.

“Oh, Christ,” she said.

“What is it?”

“It’s a letter from Carder’s secretary.”

“What does it say?”

She read it to her.

 

February 9, 1990

 

Dear Miss Anderson,

 

I’m not sure whether I should be writing this to you, but from seeing you Thursday morning I know you are very concerned, and frankly, so am I. I looked for your phone number in our files but could only find your address and since your number is not listed, a letter will have to do.

 

There are several things I feel you should know about. First, Dr. Carder is preparing to file a petition with the court to obtain an order for Brad Reilly’s shock treatment. He intends to file this via a lawyer, Jim Asten, who specializes in these matters. In this petition he is using a deposition from a colleague of his, Dr. Brisk, who has declared Beth Reilly unfit to determine what is best for her son, based on statements she made in a tape-recorded conversation between herself and Dr. Carder this morning. I know this because Dr. Carder asked me to authenticate Mrs. Reilly’s voice, and I also took the deposition from Dr. Brisk.

 

In my experience, when these petitions are filed by his special counsel, the order is usually returned from the judge within anywhere from five to seven business days.

 

This petition will probably be filed Monday morning, which would mean that the order may be issued as soon as the following Monday, the 19^th^, but more likely we won’t see it until the following Wednesday, the 21^st^.

 

You should also know that Dr. Carder has committed Brad Reilly to St. Francis Hospital where he has been assigned room 446. The doctor has ordered that no one but himself, and the nurses assigned to his care at the hospital, may see the boy. He has ordered medication every four hours, but I don’t know specifically what, possibly a mixture of methadone and meperidine, which is what he gave the boy yesterday.

 

I am not sure exactly what is going on here, but I know that something is not right and I cannot be a silent party to it.

 

I know that you are working with the boy’s family and that they, too, must be concerned. I hope that this information will be of some assistance to you.

If I can be of any help, please call.

 

All the best,

 

 

Anne

 

P.S. Please do not tell anyone that I sent you this letter.

 

 

Elsie had stopped pacing and listened attentively as Karen read, then re-read her the letter, her eyes fixed on the floor. Then there was only silence. She remained still and her eyes remained downcast. Finally she looked up. “We have eight days,” she said, then paused, as if she had just received the news from her own lips. “We only have eight days.”

Karen didn’t answer. To her the news of eight days seemed terminal.

“But at least we have another friend,” Elsie added.

[*:*]

The next hour was one of thinly veiled despair interspersed with unsuccessful stabs at what to do. All they could establish was what not to do.

Ruled out was any variation of the horribly failed tactic of simply walking in and trying to abduct him. By now it would have been determined that there was no Edward Anderson in the hospital and that they had been on the fourth floor illegally. Security, for sure, would have been stepped up. Dr. Carder might have been alerted—oh, there was no doubt, he would have been. No, they could not, should not, be seen anywhere near the hospital.

Also ruled out—after a brief spell of entertaining ways to possibly—was trying to convince Ellen McDaniel to abduct him: after all, she had access. But Karen knew that she could never ask that favor, much less expect Ellen to agree to it. They abandoned that notion.

Also ruled out was trying to find another doctor, preferably with more experience and clout than Carder, to officially question his treatment and bring the case out into the open, which would possibly forestall any violent treatment. For one, said Karen, Carder has treated Brad for well over a year now, that makes him the authority. Also, she added, psychiatrists tend to band together. It would be nearly impossible to get one to challenge another, especially publicly.

After a while they resorted to voicing any and all things that came to mind, no matter how impractical. Elsie suggested hiring Bruno, the local Mafioso, to do the job; break in, grab Brad and shoot his way out. Karen almost smiled. Karen then suggested they rob a bank and then bribe their way in and out with the proceeds. Elsie almost smiled.

They continued to toss ideas around, some more realistic than others, some from sheer desperation, some from fear of silence. And some, Elsie realized at length, in order to steer clear of the unavoidable.

Which is how, finally, they arrived at their only real option. Elsie voiced it and Karen agreed: they would have to convince Beth to demand Brad’s release. There was simply no other way. And, to make matters worse, they would have to lie to her, they would have to trick Beth into rescuing her son.

[*Sixty-Three ::

 

“They were not even going to let us see him at first,” Elsie looked over at Karen, who nodded her confirmation, “but we made such a ruckus that they finally had to give in, me being his sister and all. And now we know why, Mom, why they didn’t want us to see him. They keep him locked up. He is strapped to a bed. A small child! And heaven knows what else they are doing to him.” Karen’s grave face nodded again.

Beth was listening to her daughter, but could only see her son, shaped by Elsie’s words into a tiny criminal, punished for being ill, bound and caged and helpless. She looked over at Karen, her friend, who had come over with Elsie, and her face confirmed everything Elsie was saying.

“But why?” she asked, “Why?” She could think of nothing that made any sense. It was true that Brad was not well, but he was not sick like that, not like an animal sick. Tied to his bed. Why would they do that? There was nothing she could hold onto, steady herself against, no clue within reach. Nothing that would tell her.

“I don’t know, Mom. Dr. Carder must have made some terrible mistake, that’s all I can think of, all we can think of.” She looked back over at Karen. “He must have misdiagnosed him or something. He has made a terrible mistake, Mom. And now they are going to give him electric shock, just like they did Bill. You have to get him out of there, Mom. You have to!”

Bill visited her briefly, his hollow eyes, unseeing, his shadowed face, his open mouth, crippled tongue protruding. She closed her eyes to make him leave.

“But they can’t!” It was a shout, and she recognized her own voice. She had to fight for control. “I said no,” she said. “Just like you asked me.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Karen said. “Dr. Carder will have a court order by tomorrow morning, authorizing him to administer the shock treatment.”

She looked from one to the other. “How?” She didn’t understand. And tomorrow? Isn’t tomorrow Sunday? How could that be?

Elsie answered. “He recorded your last conversation with him, then edited it to make it sound like you were crazy. Another doctor has testified that you are not well enough to care for Brad, and today a judge told Dr. Carder over the phone that he’ll give him full authority to prescribe and administer the shock treatment. It’s just a formality now, Mom. The judge told the doctor he can pick up the order first thing tomorrow morning. You have to save him, Mom. Only you can save Brad now.”

They were arriving too fast, these many words, disaster words, pain words, and she tried to fend them off, first by shaking her head, then by covering her ears. But they got in anyway, each and every one of them.

She tried to not believe them but they came from her daughter, who never lied, and from Karen, her friend, who nodded and confirmed. So, they must be true. But they cannot be true, for these things cannot happen, not here, not with the doctor and the hospital. Dr. Carder is trying to help Brad. He told her so himself. She’s the one who doesn’t want to help him. She looked up at Elsie and Karen looking anxiously at her.

A question surfaced, a dark one, for it said that perhaps they were lying to her. “How is it that you know these things?” she asked.

Elsie answered right away. “Dr. Carder’s nurse called us. She felt bad about what she knew was happening to Brad, and she called to warn us.”

“She called me,” Karen said.

Then it must be true, she thought. But said, “It can’t be true.”

“I’m afraid it is, Beth,” Karen said. “And if we don’t act now, if you don’t act now, what will happen to Brad would be an atrocity.”

Again Bill looked back at her from the corner of the room, the tormented tongue guessing at her name. And by his side, with broken fingers and a crippled leg, his eyes filled with tears, sunk into their wet, murky hollows, stood Brad, trying again and again to ask her for help, but no sound ever left him. His eyes did all his pleading.

She looked again from Elsie to Karen, and back to Elsie. Bill and Brad would not leave her, and when Bill finally lifted his arm to point her out, to accuse her, she closed her eyes again to shut them out.

“Please, you must believe me, I never meant for this to happen,” she said. Then, after a long sigh, “What do you want me to do?”

Elsie stood up and came around to her side. Beth felt her warm arms around her, and heard her murmur, “I know you didn’t, Mom, I know you didn’t. And I know you can get him out. I know you can. We’ll do all we can to help you. You’re the best mom there ever was. None of this is your fault, and I knew you’d set it right again, like you always do.”

Like I always do, she thought. Yes, it was true, wasn’t it? She had always kept them together, always protected her family. Lioness.

[*:*]

It would have sped things up if they could have called the hospital ahead of time to get the paperwork going, but had they done so, the hospital would more than likely have alerted Carder to their coming, and that was a chance they could not take.

As they had already agreed, Karen and Elsie told Beth exactly what she must say, how she was to proceed, instructions which Beth didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she was eager to get it right and they went over the entire procedure several times until it seemed like Beth would do just fine. And Elsie would be right there with her, to help as needed.

[*:*]

Karen drove up to the main entrance of St. Francis, and let them out.

They had given some thought to the risk of Elsie’s being recognized as one of the two Fenmore nurses caught illegally on the fourth floor earlier in the day, but it was now after eight in the evening and surely that nurse would no longer be on duty. Just to make sure, however, Karen had called Ellen McDaniel at home, who informed her, in very uneasy terms, and before Karen had a chance to ask, that there had been an “incident” on the fourth floor that afternoon, and that security around the boy, on Carder’s insistence, had been heightened. They had not mentioned her name, had they? Of course not, Karen assured her. Of course not. By the way, who was the nurse they had run into on the floor? What did she look like? Karen told her. That would have been Nurse Richardson, said Ellen. Why? Well, Elsie and her mom were going to come during visiting hours, on the hope that, perhaps, you know, they could see him. Just wanted to make sure the nurse wasn’t going to recognize Elsie. No, she would be off duty by now. And what the hell was Karen mixed up with anyway?

One other person had seen them, in the elevator, said Karen. But she couldn’t describe her well enough for Ellen to identify. There were a lot of older nurses at St. Francis, sticklers for protocol all of them, and she could have been one of several. Probably off duty too by now. Just keep me out of it. Of course, said Karen.

Still, there was the risk, and they had weighed it against letting Beth go it alone. But one look at Beth, eager to help her son, but quite nervous, settled it. Someone had to go with her, and of the two, Elsie was the better choice. Karen was the getaway driver.

Karen watched them approach the foreboding entrance, brightly lit in the February night: daughter, slender—she was as tall as mother now—and mother, thin too, but weighed down by burdens, so evident in her shoulders. She had had a hard life, she reflected, wishing she could do more for her. The front doors slid apart as they approached, and they stepped inside.

A car behind her honked. At her? One short mechanical shout. She started out of her reverie, looked in her rear view mirror and caught onto the driver’s request for her to get out of the way. She put her car back in gear and headed for the parking lot. It must be visiting hours, she reflected as she saw the car behind her pull up to the doors and discharge its cargo of relatives or friends.

She searched for and found a parking space with a clear view of the entrance and the lobby inside. She pulled the hand brake and killed the engine. Looking across the entranceway and through the glass doors, she saw Elsie leaning over the counter talking to the evening receptionist. Beth stood back a little, looking around, shy and uncertain. So much, so much depended on the next few minutes. Karen was exhausted, but wide awake, mysteriously awake, and her eyes were now fixed on the scene behind those glass doors.

[*:*]

“Yes, Brad Reilly. R-E-I-L-L-Y.”

The receptionist cleared her screen and keyed in the name again, slowly, carefully. She pressed another key, then waited, staring intently at the green, luminous surface. The screen was slow in returning with the requested data. The receptionist, not much older than she was, looked up at her with an apologetic, what can you do, sort of expression. Finally the screen populated again.

“No, I’m sorry,” she said. We don’t have a patient by that name.”

“You do, I know it.”

“Could he be under another name, perhaps?”

Elsie turned back and looked questioningly at her mother, but could not catch her eyes as they wandered around the lobby, walls, ceiling, entrance, distracted. No, she wouldn’t know anyway. Elsie noticed the family of four come through the glass doors, must be visiting hours. They headed straight for the public elevator. She turned back to the receptionist. A thought struck her.

“Try Carder. He’s the admitting doctor. Maybe he registered him under his own name.” Or changed the registration to that after this afternoon, she thought.

“I doubt that,” answered the receptionist.

“Please try anyway.”

“All right.” She punched in the letters—and waited.

“Sorry, no one by that name either.”

Elsie looked at the screen and the name the nurse had typed. “No, that’s Carder with a ‘d’ not a ‘t’.”

“Carder?”

“Yes. C-A-R-D-E-R.”

“Okay, Carder.”

She re-entered the name, hit the return key and waited. And waited. The screen returned. “Well, I’ll be darned. Pardon my language.” She almost giggled. “Here he is. ‘Carder, as guardian for Brad Reilly’,” she read. Her eyes scanned down the screen, and she hit the return key for further information. She read the following screen as well. Then, “I’m sorry. You cannot see him. He’s not allowed visitors.”

“We’re not here to visit him, we’re here to take him home.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Sure we can. I’m his sister and this,” she indicated Beth, who moved forward toward the counter on cue, “is his mother.”

The receptionist looked bewildered, uncertain. She looked at the screen again, and then up and past Elsie and Beth at some new arrivals who apparently also needed to see her. Then she looked at the screen again. “Just a minute,” she said, and reached for the phone. “Let me call the duty nurse for his floor.” While she was waiting for the phone to answer, she addressed the man and woman who had lined up behind Elsie and Beth. “Can I help you?”

They wanted to know if they had a gift shop. Second floor, to the right, she told them. They thanked her and walked off in the direction of the elevators.

Someone answered. “Hi, this is Kim downstairs. Who’s the duty nurse tonight? Fine. Can I speak to her?” She covered the mouthpiece with her hand and said to Elsie, “They’re getting her.”

It seemed to take minutes and minutes, but everything moved in slow motion for Elsie now, maybe it was only a matter of seconds. Still, the silence felt embarrassingly stretched and she looked at Beth who was scrutinizing the potted cactus on the counter to their right. Strange place for a cactus. Then back at the receptionist, Kim, who was doodling on a hospital message pad. Maybe it had been minutes, she had doodled a lot, or were some of those inky curls and circles from a previous session, how could she know and why should she care? She was getting nervous, she could feel her stomach tensing. It was taking too long, it became a not moving, it became a standing still, it was escaping your pursuer in a nightmare, legs pumping in panic without purchase, no progress; the girl, Kim, kept doodling, looked up at her, smiled, then, finally, spoke again.

“Hi, this is Kim at the reception desk. I have Brad Reilly’s mother and sister down here, and they say they have come to take him home. Yes, Brad Reilly. Reilly.”

Elsie could hear the nurse’s voice faintly in the phone, but could not make out the words. “Yes, I’ve told them that, but they said they’re here to take him home.” Again, Elsie heard the nurse reply, at some length, but could make nothing out. “No, I haven’t asked. Okay, just a second.” She covered the mouthpiece again, and looked at Beth. “Do you have any I.D.?”

They had planned for this, and Beth was quick to deliver her driver’s license and Brad’s birth certificate, little black footprints on each side of his name.

The receptionist took up her conversation again. “Yes, she’s his mother all right. Yes. Yes. Okay. Thanks.”

“She’ll be down in a minute. You can take a seat over there.” She indicated the waiting area, pretty under an indoor tree, modern furniture, but Elsie didn’t take it in. Her stomach was too tight, the pitch too high.

They sat down, Beth quite comfortable by the looks of it. She picked up a magazine and started to leaf through it. Elsie had to concentrate—it took a definite effort—to look casual and unperturbed. And that was all she managed to do.

The minutes dragged on again. The large glass entrance doors slid open and closed with soft sighs as people came and went. The elevator doors did the same, smoothly swallowing or discharging visitors. Every time she heard the entrance doors whisper, Elsie looked anxiously in their direction, making sure it was not Carder.

After what must have been ten minutes, Elsie looked up at the receptionist but couldn’t catch her eye. Two minutes later she couldn’t stand it any longer and walked over to her.

“Could you please check what happened to her?”

“She’ll be right down.”

“You said that a quarter of an hour ago.”

“Okay, I’ll call again.”

Elsie thanked her and returned to the waiting area. Beth was taking this awfully well, she thought. She sat down again. More people came in through the sliding glass doors. The ping of another arriving elevator filled the air, and Elsie turned to see who it would expel this time. It was a nurse, all in white, and she headed straight for the receptionist. And, thank God, it was not Nurse Richardson. She asked the receptionist something and she, in turn, pointed in their direction. The nurse came over to them.

“Mrs. Reilly?”

Beth stood up, tentatively, as if she wasn’t quite sure what would happen next.

“I’m Beth Reilly,” she said.

“Mrs. Reilly. The receptionist told me you want your son released.”

“That’s right.”

Elsie wasn’t quite sure what gave her away, maybe it was her eyes moving back and forth between Beth and herself and the sofa behind them and the wall and the picture upon it, never resting on any one thing very long. Maybe it was the way she stood so still, the kind of still that takes a definite effort, she didn’t know how she knew, but the nurse was nervous, and she was trying not to let it show.

“Well, Mrs. Reilly,” she was looking back and forth between them again, as if an attack was imminent, “I’m afraid that’s impossible.”

“Why?”

“He’s sleeping right now.”

“Sleeping? Does it matter? I don’t understand. He can sleep at home.”

“I’m afraid the doctor has ordered that he must not be disturbed while sleeping, it’s very important that he sleeps through his medication without interruptions and that when he wakes up it’s on his own, not by being awoken.”

“I see,” said Beth, bowing to the holy authority of the medical profession. Elsie had noticed it often: for her mom and for her mom’s friends as well—maybe it held true for her mom’s entire generation—doctors were like priests, keepers of some holy secret, to be revered and heeded beyond question, to be knelt before, owners of divine hands to be kissed and of divine voiced to be obeyed. It made her sick.

“I don’t see,” Elsie said, “I don’t see at all. This is Brad’s mother you’re talking to. Her son has been placed in this hospital without her consent, by a doctor who has represented himself as Brad’s guardian. He is not his guardian, still, that is how my brother is registered. How come? It is very simple, nurse. Dr. Carder is not Brad’s legal guardian, his mother is, and she’s here to bring him home.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“What, precisely, is not that simple?”

The nurse shifted and looked uncomfortable.

“This is actually very simple,” said Elsie. “This is Brad Reilly’s mother, her legal guardian. She is here to bring her son home. What part of that is not that simple? Do you need proof that she’s Brad’s mother? Is that it? Mom, show her your driver’s license, and Brad’s birth certificate.”

“No, no, that’s not it at all. Of course I believe that you’re his mother. If nothing else I can see the resemblance.” She tried a smile. Elsie realized that the nurse was actually afraid.

“Well, what is it then? Don’t give me ‘he mustn’t be disturbed while sleeping,’ you can do better than that.” Elsie realized that her voice had risen: some people about to leave had turned around in her direction, looking at her; one of them, a mother, pulling at someone’s elbow, come on, let’s not get involved in this. She wasn’t sure where she got the strength but she knew she was right in her questioning the nurse’s motives, and that knowledge didn’t ask around for agreement, it simply acted. Beth, she was marginally aware, was staring at her as well.

“But that’s true. That’s what the doctor has ordered.”

“You don’t believe that yourself for a second,” said Elsie, pointedly, but in a softer voice. “Please arrange for Brad’s release right now, if you don’t mind, or we will call the police.”

That did it. She looked at Beth but addressed Elsie. “Please, you must understand. We cannot release him without the doctor’s authorization. We called him and he’s on his way here now.”

“You’ve called Dr. Carder?”

“Yes.”

“To release him?”

The nurse didn’t answer her question. Instead she glanced toward the entrance—hopefully, Elsie thought—then said, “He wants to see you.”

Things fell into place for Elsie. What had been but a notion a few moments ago, grew into an understanding, a full scenario, a certainty. And she suddenly knew that she was not paranoid, the danger she sensed was acute. They were being stalled, right now, by this nurse—those were her orders, and that’s why she was so nervous—there was no doubt about it. They were to be kept here until Carder could arrive. And Carder, said the scenario, was rushing here this very moment, not to release Brad, but to commit her mother. He had the tape, and he had a deposition, to prove her unfit to make judgments as to her son’s health, yet here she was trying to get him released against the doctor’s explicit orders, for God knows what unbalanced purposes. Elsie felt sick, but knew that she was right. Carder was going to use this situation to commit Beth to his care. Remove that obstacle. She wasn’t sure whether he could actually do that, legally, but she wasn’t about to find out.

“I don’t think we care to see him right now,” she told the nurse. Then to Beth, “Come on, we’re leaving.”

“But Elsie, what about Brad?”

“Not now, Mom, we’re leaving.”

“No, I’m not leaving without him.”

“Please, Mom. Please.”

“What is with you, Elsie? First you want me to get him out and now you want me to leave him.”

“Mom, listen to me. We must leave now.” She glanced at the nurse, who obviously didn’t know what to think.

“But what about the electric shock? Tomorrow morning. They’ll kill him tomorrow, Elsie. They’ll kill him in the morning.”

The nurse went from confused to alarmed, she was looking around as if for help.

“Mom, I’m telling you, we’ve got to go.” She grabbed Beth by the elbow and began pulling her in the direction of the entrance.

“Elsie, what are you doing? Elsie, stop it. They’re going to kill him, we can’t leave him here, we can’t leave him!”

The nurse was signaling something to the receptionist, who appeared to understand. Then she heard the glass doors slide open again and Elsie looked in their direction: Carder. He must have seen them from the outside, for he headed for them without breaking stride.

“We’re leaving, Mom. Now!” She seized her elbow with force this time and was shoving her mother in front of her.

Carder stepped right into their path. “Why, Mrs. Reilly. Where are you going?”

Beth was shivering in her grip. Beth, unable to grasp what Elsie was doing or why, was in a bad way now and getting worse, she could tell, and Elsie herself felt close to panic. Carder, she saw, was gesturing to the nurse, who obviously understood and disappeared. They did not have much time. She looked up at Carder, so damn confident, then past him and through the glass doors where she could make out Karen’s car, passenger door open. Thank God she was aware of what was happening. Okay, it’s now or never.

“You get the hell out of my way!” she yelled, and barreled into him with her left shoulder, without for an instant letting go of her grip on Beth. Carder, more startled than hurt, reeled back a few feet, confidence gone. Elsie headed for the doors, which, thank God again, quickly slid open to let them through into the cold evening. Karen had folded the passenger seat forward to allow back seat access and Elsie almost threw Beth into the back of the car. She then quickly folded the seat back, jumped in beside Karen, and slammed the door shut. She looked back and saw Carder running toward the sliding doors, a couple of male nurses just behind him. Carder was pointing in their direction and yelling something, but it was lost in the sound of the engine, which Karen gunned to get them away. Her old car wouldn’t leave any tire tracks, but it did well enough. Elsie again looked through the back window and saw Carder and the two nurses standing in the driveway where they had been just a few seconds ago.

[*:*]

He could not believe that she got away. Christ. He looked at the nurses at his side. “That woman,” he said, “is a danger to herself and others.”

“Which one, the old one or the young one?”

What, was he trying to be funny? But he said, “The old one, the mother.”

“Ah.”

He had received the call not half an hour ago. Someone, presumably Mrs. Reilly they said—she had shown proper I.D. and a copy of the boy’s birth certificate—was downstairs at reception and was demanding Brad Reilly’s release. What were they to do? He shuddered at the thought, what a Goddamn disaster that would have been. Possession, he reflected, is ninety percent of the law in his line of work, as well as in real estate. With the boy at home, court order or no court order, it could have gotten really messy, especially with local papers and television, which always liked to get involved in these family dramas, especially if there were no disasters or scandals somewhere else to report.

That woman, he had told them over the phone, is extremely unstable, try to detain her, I’ll be right over. She needs treatment. And try to keep her away from others, keep a safe distance. He liked that touch. And, of course, don’t release the boy to anyone. To no one, did they understand? It appeared that they did. He had hung up and rushed to his car, and had, in the light evening traffic, made good time, even though the streets were not all cleared yet of the slushy snow.

But she had gotten away. Damn it. It would have been so tidy. Mother under observation, under medication, obviously not in any shape to determine her son’s treatment and thus neatly and effectively out of the way. He had smiled to himself on the way over. The initial scare had turned into an opportunity. Work it to your advantage. Yes, that was exactly what he had intended to do. But the stupid fools at the hospital had blown it.

Still, he had to remind himself, he still had the boy. Nothing was actually lost, or even disturbed, really. He frowned, more for appearance than anything else, and went back through the sliding doors to complain about their incompetence.

[*Sixty-Four ::

 

Beth was recovering from what seemed to be mild shock in the back seat of Karen’s car. Elsie had never manhandled her mother before in her life, had never conceived of the possibility—especially in light of what Bill had done to her—and now, in the last few minutes, she had done violence to her. But there had been no other choice, for she knew, in her gut she knew, that Carder was a real threat to her mother, that he meant her ill, and that was all the permission she needed to use any means to save her, to get her out of the foyer and into the car. She had succeeded, but at what cost? She turned and looked at Beth, who still didn’t seem to have quite caught up with events.

Then she glanced at Karen, who was looking straight ahead, and just like the nurse inside had done, was concentrating very hard on doing what she was doing to keep the activity from falling apart.

Beth was straightening up: Elsie felt her mother’s hand touch her shoulder as she grasped the back of her seat to pull herself up. “What on earth is going on, Elsie?” Her voice trembled a little, and it was pained. “Why did you do that?”

She turned again to face her mom. “I’m sorry, Mom. We had to get out of there.”

“But that was Dr. Carder you ran into. You pushed him.”

“I know.”

“But why? The nurse said they needed his authorization to let us take Brad home. Why didn’t we ask him for it?”

“Because he wouldn’t have given it to us.”

“How do you know that, Elsie?”

Her mom sounded more collected than she could have hoped, at least her questions were rational enough.

“I know because he’s been hiding Brad from us. I know because he’s planning to have you declared crazy,” she didn’t mean it to sound so harsh, but she had to make her understand. “I know because he showed up too quickly, not to help us, but to prevent us from taking Brad home.”

“But you don’t know that! You didn’t even ask him what he was doing there.”

“She’s right, Beth.” Karen’s voice, surprisingly calm, had just the right effect.

Beth sat back, bewildered. She looked out the window, at the office buildings, dark now for the most part, at the street lights, then she pulled herself up again.

“But what about Brad? Why are we leaving? He’s still in there.”

“I know, Mom. We’ll get him out.”

“But what if they treat him with electricity tonight? Is there any chance they might do it tonight? You said it might kill him if they treat him with electricity. We have to go back and get him.”

“He won’t do it without the court order,” Elsie answered. “And he won’t have that until tomorrow.”

“But what if they decide to treat him tonight?”

Beth, visibly agitated now, no longer saw sense and Elsie had run out of answers. Karen looked over at her from her driving, seemed to notice as much, and pitched in.

“They never administer electric shock at night,” she said. “They only do it in the early afternoon. So we have till then.”

That was a lie, of course, thought Elsie. But again it had the right effect on Beth. Her mother received the assurance with apparent gratitude, slumped back again against the back of the seat and closed her eyes.

[*:*]

She closed her eyes.

She felt caught in a whirl of events in which she had little say. And when had Elsie grown up? She hadn’t noticed. She opened her eyes and looked at the young woman in the passenger seat. That was her daughter there, that was her Elsie, her oldest child. And now she was running her world. She didn’t understand how, or exactly what was happening, and she was so tired. She closed her eyes again. Things were so confusing, too confusing, would not sit still one bit. Too much for her. But Elsie, she was startled to realize, Elsie could sort them out. She could leave everything up to Elsie, she could close her eyes and drift asleep, for her oldest daughter would do the hunting tonight.

[*:*]

They got home a little after nine-thirty. Tim, bless his heart, had done what they had asked him to—he really was a good kid—and they were all in bed, and asleep. She saw Beth up to her bedroom and put her to bed too. Poor Beth, she was exhausted, and she was asleep as well within a few minutes.

And so it was not until almost ten, when she had turned out the light in her mother’s bedroom and gently closed the door behind her, and had slowly trod down the stairs, that the day in its catastrophic entirety caught up with her and Elsie slumped down in the living room armchair and cried.

[*:*]

Karen was torn between comforting her and letting her grief run its course, then decided to say nothing, to just be there if needed. She sat down on the couch and leaned back. What were they to do next? Was there in fact anything they could do? She rose again, more to distract herself from oncoming despair than anything else.

She decided to make herself a bed on the couch, and looked around in the cabinets and closets for blankets. The only thing, the only person, she could think of, as she pulled a light-blue bedspread—she couldn’t find any blankets—out of what seemed to be a linen closet, was Anne, Dr. Carder’s nurse. She had written that letter. She had offered to help. Perhaps, perhaps.

The bedspread brought with it a sheet and a few towels which ended up in a small pile at her feet. She brought the bedspread to the couch and returned to scoop up and put back the sheet and the towels. Anne—she didn’t even know her last name—that’s who they must call.

She looked at her watch, as if hoping that she could be reached at Carder’s office, as if hoping this was not a Saturday night and that the hour was not this late.

She began making up her bed on the couch. Elsie noticed and stood up to help; her eyes, bruised by tears, met hers with a touch of embarrassment. Karen smiled at her. “How’re you doing, honey?”

“I’m okay. Let me give you a hand.”

“No, I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.”

“What are we going to do, Karen?”

She finished tucking in the blue thing that she would sleep under, then sat down on top of it. “We should call Anne.”

“Anne?”

“Dr. Carder’s nurse.”

“Oh, yes.” Elsie sat down beside her. “Do you think…”

“I don’t know. Perhaps.”

“I had forgotten about her,” said Elsie. “Her letter.”

“We’ll call her first thing in the morning.” Karen could see Elsie’s hope rise again, could see her interest, her brightness, return. “But now we need some sleep, both of us. Let’s get up early and decide what to do next. Do you have an alarm clock?”

Elsie looked like she was about to object, sleep was out of the question, but then thought better of it. “Yes.”

“Set it for five.”

[*:*]

Sunday morning.

To her surprise, Beth was already up when Elsie came down to wake Karen up. She was in the kitchen polishing silver, of all things. She looked content, as if all the world was just fine.

“Morning,” she said, looking up from her chore. “You’re up early.”

“Morning, Mom. I could say the same for you.”

“This is my favorite time of day. It is so calm, so peaceful. The house is asleep. Time to get things ready for the day.”

She looked at her mom. It was as if the previous night had never occurred. Was she all right? Yes, she decided, considering everything, she was. And she knew, as she watched her return to the spoons and rags and cleaners on the kitchen table, that she was watching an essence, what her mother, when you peeled everything else away, consisted of. What defined her. What Elsie had grown up with, come to depend on, and what was still very much there, even if only held in place right now by some amazing effort.

“I’ll have to wake Karen up,” she said. “Could you make some coffee?”

“Oh, yes,” said Beth, almost to herself. “That’s right, she’s on the couch in the living room. I didn’t know she was an early riser.”

[*:*]

Elsie went into the living room and gently shook Karen’s shoulder.

“Time to get up.”

Karen murmured and turned over. Elsie shook again and she came awake.

“Morning. Time to get up.”

Karen looked up at her through puffy eyes—how different people look in the morning, Elsie thought, without makeup, still half asleep—then around the room in order to find out where she was. Then she looked back at Elsie in recognition and smiled faintly. “Morning,” she said.

“Morning.”

Elsie went back into the kitchen to help Beth with the coffee. Karen came in as she was pouring the cups and said good morning to Beth. Beth looked up and smiled.

“Don’t you want some coffee, too?” Elsie asked her mom.

“No thanks, hon.” Beth again returned to her chore.

Karen looked at Beth and then at Elsie, an unspoken question. Elsie smiled, shrugged, and grabbed the two cups, one of which she offered Karen. Beth, immersed again in her silver, did not even look up as they left her to her world and headed up to Elsie’s room with their steaming cups.

[*:*]

“How well do you know her?” Elsie wanted to know.

“Not at all, really,” she answered. “As I far as I know she has not been with Carder all that long, a little over a year perhaps. I’ve only met her a few times.”

“She was there when Brad first visited him.”

“She would have just started with him then.”

Elsie nodded in agreement. Then, “I wonder what prompted her to write that letter?”

“She was concerned, remember?”

“I know,” she replied. “But how deep does it run? I wonder how far she would be willing to go to help us.”

“That’s what we have to find out.”

They both fell silent, sipping their coffees.

Karen sat on Elsie’s bed, looking over at Elsie now and then, marveling at her maturity. She had grace and intelligence to match anyone she had met, regardless of age. Of course, she thought, she had helped her mom raise her siblings, not an easy task considering the father. She was one of those unique people you hear leap from childhood to adulthood, skipping adolescence altogether. And as she watched her ponder the problem they faced, she suddenly felt glad to have met her, fortunate in fact. Then Elsie brightened up, and spoke again.

“They said at St. Francis that only Carder could authorize Brad’s release.”

“Yes, I can believe that.”

“Well,” Elsie said, “if Anne is willing to go along, I think there is a way.”

[*:*]

Before they could find out if Anne was willing to go along, they had to find Anne. A task in itself since they didn’t even know her last name, and since it was Sunday morning, and still too early to call people who might know.

Karen waited until just after eight o’clock to call her supervisor, the one person who she thought would know, and who would be in early, even on a Sunday. No reply though. She waited half an hour, tried again. Same result. Well, it was still early.

She had a feeling her third call around nine o’clock would get answered, however, and sure enough, she picked up after two rings. In truth, Karen had hoped to avoid this call, since it might entail some awkward explaining, but there was no help for it now.

Somehow she stumbled through it, yes, felt much better, yes, would probably be back next week, although she still ran a fever so not by tomorrow, and oh, by the way, Anne, you know who works for Carder, what’s her last name, do you know?

“Wilson?”

“I don’t know, is that it?”

“I think so. Been with him for a year or so.”

“Yes.”

“Anne Wilson, yes, I’m pretty sure.” And now for the tricky question, especially since her supervisor was like a badger in this respect, would not let go of anything until she heard bone crunch, and Karen knew this would come: “Why on earth do you want to know?”

And had an answer ready. “I picked up her gloves by mistake when I was over there last Thursday with young Reilly.”

“I thought you called in sick Thursday.”

“That was later. I came down with this in the afternoon.”

“Ah. All right.”

[*:*]

There were three Anne Wilsons in the directory. Neither of the first two worked for a Dr. Carder, and one of them was rather upset at being called this early on God’s day. Which left them the Anne Wilson they were looking for.

The earliest Anne could see them was at eleven, she was meeting someone for breakfast, which she couldn’t cancel. But she wanted to see her, yes, she wanted to meet them, she wanted to help. Say a quarter past, at Silverston. Northwest corner by the pond?

Karen said great, they’d see her then, hung up, looked over at Elsie and nodded.

Elsie tried to smile.

[*:*]

Although the weather was warming, and the sun felt good on her face, the air still had a bite to it and snow still covered most of the ground. And you could see vapor rising from the water, stirred by a few hardy ducks.

Karen and Elsie had arrived a few minutes early and were waiting tensely on the bench when they saw her walking toward them. She looked solemn, nodded a greeting and sat down beside Karen.

A few awkward moments passed while no one seemed to know what to say. The hardy ducks clamored for food. Several children, siblings was Karen’s guess—a couple stood a little way off, keeping an eye on them—were tossing chunks of bread into the water, the two boys trying to hit the ducks. A few gulls swooped in and out looking for spoils as well. Elsie broke the spell by running straight at the heart of the matter.

“We need your help to get Brad released.”

Anne looked from Karen to Elsie. She had expected Karen to do the talking. “Anything I can do,” she answered.

“Anything?” Elsie was earnest.

“Well, anything is quite an encompassing word. Within reason, I guess.”

“Do you have any idea,” Karen asked, “why Carder is going to court for an order?”

“No. And that’s what worries me,” said the nurse. “That boy is not crazy. Believe me, I’ve seen crazy, and Brad Reilly is not one of them.”

“So, why?”

“I don’t know, I really don’t know.” She glanced over at the bread-tossing children. “It does not make any sense to me.”

“You agree then,” said Karen, “that shock treatment would be wrong?”

Her eyes widened, “Oh, absolutely.”

Elsie said, “We need a release. Signed by Carder.”

Anne Wilson looked at Elsie, then said at length, “You want me to forge one?”

“No, a forged one won’t do. They could trace that to you. No, a release actually signed by Carder.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” she said.

“Are there,” Elsie searched for the right words, “standard release forms that you use?”

“No, not really. They usually vary from hospital to hospital.”

“Do you have any for St. Francis?”

She thought about that before answering, “Yes, I think so. Yes, I’m sure we do.”

“Well, what we were thinking…” Elsie paused again and looked at Karen. “…What we were hoping was, that you would type up a release authorizing Karen to take charge of Brad, for some good reason. Maybe Carder wants him in another hospital, or back in his office, or whatever, you would know better than we would.”

“And?”

“And then you have Carder sign it.”

“Just like that?”

“No. Well, yes. We were thinking that if Carder is as preoccupied with Brad as he seems to be, then he might not notice what he signs if you brought him say a stack of things, urgent things, you know, to sign. So urgent that you would have to stand there and wait for him. Deadline, I don’t know.”

Anne frowned. Elsie noticed and looked away at the ducks.

“Boy, I don’t know,” Anne said, then fell silent again. Still frowning. Two gulls seemed to be shouting at each other.

Elsie looked back at Anne. “Could it be done, do you think?”

Anne, still considering, did not answer.

The waiting turned painful for Karen. Elsie, as calm as anything, still looked at Anne. Surely she must feel the tension too, thought Karen. She can’t be as calm as all that.

Then Anne began to nod, slowly. “It might be possible,” she said. “It might be at that.” And for the first time, she smiled.

[*Sixty-Five ::

 

Anne Wilson never meant to become a nurse. Far from it. She had meant to, was meant to, had been destined to, become a violinist.

From the age of five, her family had known that they had a prodigy on their hands; by the time she was eight, she was even a little bit famous, at least among those who cared for such things. Her touch, they said, her feel for the strings, her love for the fingerboard, made her playing more a dance of fingers than studied technique. She would, they said—and nobody had cause to contradict—in time become one of the greats. Her life was a set course, and there were no questions or doubts about it, until a day in January of 1970.

She was twelve then, and had for the past two years attended a private school where a relaxed curriculum and fewer hours had allowed her to practice her violin six hours a day, minimum. She did all right academically, nobody complained, but then nobody really cared either: her career was cast, she knew it, and she rejoiced in it. The violin was her life. She felt her instrument as another limb—she played it as naturally as she walked—and she delighted in exercising her mastery. To her the six hours of daily practice easily vanished between two of her heartbeats.

[*:*]

It was noon and a slow, freezing rain was falling. School was over for the day, and even from within the lobby’s glass doors, she spied her mother’s car by the curb.

As each super-cooled drop of rain reached the ground, it turned to ice, sheeting the ground. Anne knew nothing of freezing rain, she only saw the drizzle, and the car, and knew she had to dash or get soaked. So she flung the doors open and charged.

The moment she cleared the canopy she knew she would fall. Her feet met nothing but ice, slippery as grease. Then there was only air as she sailed forward.

Her next sensation was curious: it was a quick snap. Really nothing. A sharp snap and then nothing. She later remembered taking a deep breath, prone on the ice, hoping that her books had not gotten wet. Nothing was as yet wrong.

Then the pain arrived, and she fainted from the wave that swept up through her left arm from her broken little finger. That’s how they found her a few seconds later, a teacher and her mother both.

She would never do her fingerboard dance again, although she didn’t know it at the time. For there was hope—they said, around the x-rays, pointing now at this fragment, now at that—strong hope. Current surgical techniques could either remove or restore each of those little bone fragments, could set the finger right again. Especially since she was still so young.

The finger healed beautifully. She did regain full use of