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Safe Passage

by

Ellyn Bache


 

CHAPTER 1

At four-thirty on Sunday morning Mag came up from sleep with her heart thumping and sweat pouring from her, the way she'd awakened years ago when her son Izzy was out delivering newspapers and she found him two blocks away lying on the street with a broken ankle. She sat up in bed, wide awake, sick to her stomach. She hated motherly premonitions; she thought she was through with them. Except for Simon, the seven boys were grown.

She pulled her gown in and out from her chest to cool her-self, but the sweat kept coming. Once you had children, you were vulnerable forever. Alfred, her oldest, her most depend-able, was plunging a knife into her heart, plotting to get her house away from her so he could live in it himself with a divorced woman and her two sons. Percival was off to war; Simon was debating his ear operation. The others were not currently in states of crisis, but you never knew. Even Gideon was so over-wrought that all he thought about was running races.

Patrick, snoring beside her, turned over and groaned. He groaned when he dreamed about going blind-a possibility, not a certainty. For the past year, without warning, his pupils would close to pinpoints and then shut entirely, leaving him with va-cant blobs of color in the centers of his eyes, but no light-absorbing black. Minutes or hours later the pupils would begin to reappear, though he did not see well until the next day. At the Wilmer Eye Clinic in Baltimore, where they'd been going since the problem started, the doctors said, finally: "This is something you just never see." But Patrick believed you either solved a problem or ignored it. When he wasn't changing his diet or experimenting with other possible cures, he pretended the blindness didn't exist. He even waited out the actual attacks with jokes and sarcasm, which the rest of the family was supposed to find amusing. But in his dreams he groaned.

Mag fanned herself, and Patrick flung a hand into her lap, making a high, wheezing sound like a child's whine. For a mo-ment she believed his thrashing was what had awakened her. It seemed unlikely. Normally his noises and bumping roused her only enough to move away so he could dream on, because maybe his dreams were a kindness that made the reality less harsh. Certainly his nightmares never left her sweating, or with this lingering sense of menace. A hot flash, probably; she'd been expecting them sooner or later. Relax, go back to sleep. Don't spaz, Mother, the twins would say. Then she thought: Why should she sleep? Was she a masochist, that she had to stay in bed with her heart palpitating and her husband groaning and sweat running down the inside of her gown?

She put on her robe and went barefoot down the dark stairs to the family room. Outside a heavy rain beat against the house. She would turn on the lights to make it seem warmer, a trick she'd learned in their poverty-stricken years. The darkness was absolute. She passed through the hallway, walked around the coffee table, touched nothing. Patrick often wandered around in darkness like this, negotiating the rooms blind. A soft, unex-pected lump at ankle level. She tripped. "Oh, shit, Lucifer!" Flying, flying, catching herself on the edge of the couch. Cats! For ten years Lucifer had believed, erroneously, that the only way to get food was to put himself directly in the path of any possible provider. She flung a foot out to kick him. Missed. Heard him scurrying off. Rage filled her. An image came to her of Patrick being knocked flat by such an encounter during a blind spell-of Patrick flailing around on the floor with people looking on. No. The cat would have to go. In this house at least, the terrain was familiar and Patrick had a right to be safe.

But even security seemed impossible. For weeks, responsi-ble, clean-cut Alfred had been pretending that he would be doing them a favor by watching the house for the winter while Mag and Patrick vacationed, but clearly he was only finagling to move his big-busted girlfriend Cynthia in because this house was a better place for raising her children than a little apart-ment. She couldn't understand it-that Alfred would try to snatch Patrick's sanctuary from him in his very time of need. Alfred, of all people, snared by an oversized bosom. Percival she might have imagined; or Izzy with his fickleness. But Alfred!

Then her rage was replaced by the sense of menace that had awakened her. No ordinary fear this, but a terrible prickling beneath the skin, called up by some awful aberration in the course of things-not imagination but something real, she knew it-and when the knowledge came it would be destructive, deadly, black. The feeling lit momentarily on Percival in the Marines, on Gideon at school in Utah, then settled on Alfred, convincing her he was probably lying dead somewhere on a rainy street. Her heart did double-time in her chest, and sweat drenched her gown. She'd never wanted children. Half her life she'd wished they would leave her alone. But Alfred was her firstborn. How could she hate him when she was having pal-pitations? Why-now that she had raised them-did she spend her time imagining the horrors of her sons not being there, in some permanent way?

She turned on a light, which made her feel more logical. Al-ways be logical, Patrick said. Probably she'd gotten up in a sweat not because of premonition but because Alfred made her feel guilty. It was unthinkable-wasn't it?-to expect his par-ents to move out of their house for the winter when one of them might be going blind. Unthinkable to want to move the di-vorced mother of two in in their place, just because Cynthia needed more room for raising her boys. Alfred didn't put it that way, but there it was. Naturally Mag was resentful, no matter how benevolent Alfred made it sound. Any mother would wake sweating in the middle of the night.

But she didn't feel better for thinking it through. Her breath was ragged and uneven, edging out of control. Already she had said terrible things, and if something happened to Alfred, there would be no taking them back. "You're only twenty-four years old, the last thing you need is a ready-made family," she had screamed. "The next thing you know, you'll want kids of your own, and you'll be stuck with half a dozen of them and you won't be able to do a damned thing for yourself." Her tone had been cruel, sarcastic, unmotherly. But it was no idle threat. Mag had married young and had seven unplanned sons, and the mo-ment they started coming, her spirit was enclosed and she hadn't been able to do a damned thing for herself. Why should she take anything back?

"Cynthia and I are sensible people," Alfred had said. "We believe in birth control. We believe in abortion." Alfred had al-ways been practical. He had learned to dress himself at two be-cause he didn't like to be left in pajamas while Mag tended to Izzy. Later he'd taught himself to cook French toast and eggs because his brothers were hungry in the morning and Mag was busy with the current infant of the house. At the time, Mag had been grateful for his help. Now she feared her inattention had made him too practical and superficial, leaving him with a set of rules he followed but no inner life at all. When he was nine she had started him on piano lessons to develop his soul. It was too late. He practiced dutifully, listened intently, but always (she was sure) in the interest of being able to imitate the sound, never because he was carried away by the music as she had hoped. Abortion! As if there were no more to such decisions than logic. She herself wouldn't have had abortions even if they'd been le-gal, no matter that she hadn't wanted children. She didn't tell him that; she wanted to let him wonder. But where was the sat-isfaction in that, if he was lying dead somewhere on a rain-soaked street?

The logical thing, if she was so worried, would be to pick up the phone and call him. That was what Patrick would say.

Never.

It was Alfred's idea that Patrick, blind, would be happier in the Keys. Patrick had mentioned briefly that moving south might be nice, at least for the winter. In the Keys even a sight-less man could feel the sun, Patrick said. Perhaps do some fish-ing.

"Nobody but you is convinced you're going blind," Mag said.

But Alfred seized the moment. "No telling what a blind man could invent for fishermen," he told his father. Patrick had been inventing things for twenty-five years and could never resist a challenge. Mag realized that Alfred had always had a diabolical mind.

"Listen," Alfred continued. "If you really want to go down there, go ahead and go. Cynthia and I will move into your house. Simon can stay with us to finish school." But Mag would no more have left Simon to Cynthia's care-sweet Simon, her baby, her love-than cut her own throat.

"Then, if you change your mind and come back, nothing is lost." Coming from Alfred, the offer sounded generous and sensible.

Mag said, "We've had money exactly twice in our life, Alfred, and not all that much, either time."

"Of course we would pay you rent," Alfred said. He meant: not veiy much rent. He was a teacher and Cynthia was a psy-chologist, with salaries that barely paid for their little apart-ment. They would never be able to afford a house of any size this close to Washington.

"The Keys are something to think about," Patrick said. The idea of wintering in the tropics intrigued him. He had once been a Hemingway fan and saw himself in a thatched-roof bar, drinking lime juice and mineral water, being Papa Patrick Singer. But what did Patrick know?

Mag squinted out the sliding glass door to the rain coming down on the deck in the dark. She had insisted on a house with lots of windows-an excellent decision, though right now she could see only bubbles of water on the glass and blackness be-yond. When the boys were little, she'd been able to watch them play in the yard while she cleaned. She'd been able to supervise the babies in the family room and still catch the news on TV while she cooked in the kitchen. Later, after she went to work, she'd been able to get away with vacuuming the mottled carpets only once a week. It was a perfect house.

"I moved here from a chicken coop," she'd said to Alfred, trying to explain her attachment. "You don't remember, you were too little, but we moved here from a chicken coop."

Alfred never believed her, never understood her need for the place, but it was true. She was twenty-three at the time and they had no money. Alfred was three, Izzy was a baby, she was pregnant with Percival. They lived in a two-bedroom apart-ment on what had once been a farm, in a long single-story building, with a laundry room at the far end and a row of clothes lines outside in the back. Mag's life consisted of traveling from the apartment to the laundry room, from laundry room to clothes lines, then back to the apartment. She cooked meals, fed children, put them down for naps, cleaned up. She listened to classical music on the stereo in order to remain sane. She never watched TV. She got out twice a week-on Saturdays when she took the car to the grocery store, and on Tuesday nights when she went to her English literature class at the college.

After she got pregnant with Percival, she began to notice the odor of poultry in the apartment on cold mornings before the heat came up-a dank, raw smell like the meat case in the su-permarket. Usually she felt all right when she was pregnant, but the chicken smell made her queasy. All day the odor rose and fell with the uneven heat from the radiators, as if chickens were running through the rooms at various times, pecking at the lin-oleum floors for feed-the ghosts of a thousand chickens.

"You're losing it, baby," Patrick had said. Patrick couldn't smell a thing. In those days he had nothing to do but go to work at the electrical supply company he was with at the time and then invent things, whatever pleased him. Her classroom on Tuesday evenings smelled of chalk, floor polish, cologne. "You can't tell me I don't know the difference between perfume and poultry," she said when she got home. Patrick laughed and wanted to make love. Even if Mag was not in the mood, she al-ways acquiesced. What harm could it do? She was already pregnant. "I can't help it if my nose gets sensitive at these times," she said afterward, expecting sympathy in the mellow afterglow of orgasm. "Maybe you're under too much pressure, Patrick told her. "Maybe you should quit going to school." She said she'd keep taking classes even if she did go crazy; she'd get her degree pregnant or barefoot or both.

She continued to hate the smell of chickens and therefore be-gan to envision herself leaving her family behind. She saw her-self fleeing, alone, with a backpack on her shoulders, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, knee-high socks, and sneakers. Maybe she was going crazy. She was young, she'd never wanted babies in the first place, never even wanted Patrick. One day at the clothes- line she said to her neighbor, "Somebody must have had a freezer full of chickens in our apartment before we moved in-the place smells like they're still there, it really does."

And her neighbor said, "Well, it's no wonder, with this place being a chicken coop for twenty years."

The neighbor told her the whole story.The developer who'd bought the farm had decided it would be cheaper to turn the chicken coops into apartments than tear them down. That was in the days before stringent zoning regulations. The old farm-house was rented out, too-a ramshackle white building down the street. The barn, being unconvertible, had been torn down.

Mag felt as if she'd been slapped. She whisked Alfred and Izzy back to the apartment, put them in the playpen, and turned Gaiete Parisienne on the stereo so loud it drowned out both her thoughts and the boys' cries. When Patrick came home Mag was still in the chair, the music playing for the sixth or seventh time, and Alfred and Izzy were both still in the playpen, asleep. "God, what a racket!" Patrick screamed over the stereo. "Do you want to get us kicked out of here?"

"I won't live in a chicken coop!" she yelled back. "I mean it, Patrick. I'm not raising babies in a chicken coop. You've got to get us a house."

After that Mag focused all of her energy on houses. She focused on houses the way years later her son Gideon would fo-cus on running, the kind of narrow focus that stubs everything else out and makes failure impossible. By the time Percival started thrashing around in her stomach like a windmill, Patrick had sold his disposable-diaper patent to a manufacturing com-pany. Commercial disposable diapers didn't become popular until years later, and even then it was someone else's design-not Patrick's-on which they were modeled, but the patent brought them enough to build a house. Mag insisted on big rooms, two stories, lots of windows, plenty of yard. Outside she planted anything she could buy cheaply at K Mart-azaleas, wisteria, willows and euonymous and maples. They moved here less than a month before Percival was born-a good thing, con-sidering there were four more babies to come but no more money until last year, when Patrick sold the patent for the Vel-cro sweatsuit he'd invented when the middle boys were in high school. For twenty years she'd hated being confined to house-wifery when she wasn't at work, but she'd always loved the house-the space, the multicolored rugs, the yard where her plants grew in wild disarray (she did not learn until later about pruning), where carpets and even grass survived years of trampling, shouting, chaos. . . where even the overgrown forsythia gave her pleasure, hanging on in the shade of the maples, with its sparse yellow freckles of bloom.

Alfred was twenty-four now, older than Mag had been when she'd been overrun by children and ached with need for this place. Watching him, his finely chiseled features hiding what might have been pain, Mag usually felt a wrenching in the back of her throat. She decided it must be Cynthia, not Alfred, who really wanted her leafy backyard and rooms with space, and that Cynthia had bewitched Alfred into asking for it . . . so she managed to choke her sympathies back. Her sons were her own flesh and she'd had no choice but to find a place to raise them. Alfred, on the other hand, could still choose his freedom until a childless woman came along.

Didn't he see? But of course she never mentioned this to him directly.

"Face it, Mother," he'd said. "Even the twins are grown now. You always said once the kids graduated from high school they were out of your hands."

"Yes, but Simon."

"He'll be better off here with us than if you tried to drag him to Florida to switch schools for half a year.

"We couldn't leave you with the responsibility."

"Even if anything happens, you're only a two-hour flight away. Listen, Mother-nothing is going to happen." But that wasn't the point. She'd needed the house then to raise her chil-dren. And now for a different reason. If Patrick went blind in Key West, in unfamiliar surroundings, how would either of them survive?

Someone was watching her. When she turned around, Pa-trick was standing at the far end of the family room, wrapped in his old blue terrycloth robe. He tied it tighter and then tight-er again, as if he hoped to find a twenty-inch waist in the mid-dle. His hair did not seem so gray ruffled up like this, before he combed it. His face was unlined-or maybe just puffy from sleep. "I'm closer to fifty than forty," he often said, but he looked all right. "The father of champions should stay fit," he sometimes told her. He liked to bemoan the fact that he couldn't run with Gideon anymore. Then she would say, "No father is required to keep up with champions," and they would smile at each other. They didn't talk in detail about Gideon's winning a running scholarship to Weber State in Utah, but they were both proud. "I never thought I'd get left so far behind so quickly," Patrick would say. "And I was such a good miler." "So eat more Wheaties," Mag would tell him. And Patrick would pretend to worry about his running and not to worry about his eyes.

"God, I hate when you sneak up on me," she said, though for once his sudden appearance hadn't made her jump. He had been moving stealthily ever since his eyes had started acting up, de-veloping his blindman mode. When he thought no one was looking, he went around the house with his eyes closed, touch-ing the furniture and the walls. He wanted to be self-sufficient no matter what. He looked like a maniac, waving his arms in front of him, sniffing like an animal at a world he couldn't see. He experimented with his manner the way he had once exper-imented with their toaster when it wouldn't produce enough toast for all the boys at once, trying to turn it into a model that would brown ten slices at a time. The result had been an un-recognizable wire contraption that took up half the kitchen counter, with makeshift metal grooves for extra slices of bread and insulated tape over exposed wires that stuck out in odd di-rections. The contraption worked, but Mag had always thought it a miracle that it didn't electrocute anybody, and eventually she threw it in the trash. Now Patrick was transforming himself from sighted inventor to eccentric blindman in the same dogged way-and she feared the final, transformed version would be as grotesque as the toaster. Lucifer rubbed against Patrick's hairy ankles, and Mag shuddered, getting a rerun in her mind of Pa-trick tripped by the animal and sprawled blind on the floor. Pa-trick gave her a curious look and leaned down to pet the cat. "What's the matter?" he asked.

"Why should anything be the matter? You were groaning in your sleep. I was trying to imagine Simon's ear. I was having visions of Percival shooting Arabs with a gun." She sighed. Patrick did not believe in premonitions, so it was no use telling him. Better to steer conversation in a more productive channel.

"Alfred's trying to con you," she said.

"Number one, I don't believe that. Number two, even if it were true, it wouldn't be the first time somebody tried to con me. I wouldn't mind living in Florida."

"I wouldn't trust him, Patrick," Mag said.

"Why not? He's always been trustworthy."

"He wants the house because his bimbo needs more room to raise her kids."

"Alfred? Honorable Alfred?"

"Even Adam ate the apple."

"Yes, and a year from now you'll deny this whole conversa-tion when you find out he was just trying to do us a favor."

"It'll be you doing the denying, after Alfred suggests we re-tire to Florida so he and Cynthia can live here permanently."

Patrick smiled. "We're too young to retire. Anyway, after they get married I'm sure they'll want a place of their own." It was true that a summer wedding had been mentioned, but no date had been set, and Mag did not regard the matter as settled.

Then Patrick tied his bathrobe again, and it was such a sad gesture that her anger disappeared. He had lost weight, no question about it. He could play at being a blindman, but the truth was he was getting desperate in his effort to find out what was wrong with his eyes, now that the doctors obviously couldn't. Disappearing pupils were not as easy to invent solutions for as the wet bottoms and later the sweaty legs of his sons. And in spite of his cheerful pose, it was obvious to everyone that, for the first time perhaps, Patrick was afraid.

The eye problem had begun last fall-a year ago-just when the sale of the sweatsuit patent seemed assured. Patrick had been jubilant over the prospect of a commercial success, what with so many boys off to college or about to be. He owned a small manufacturing business where people brought their vans to be upholstered in such fabrics as shag carpeting or fake fur. It was successful enough (though not so lucrative that the money from Mag's jobs didn't help), but the recession had been a setback. The manufacturer buying the sweatsuit patent was promising a big push. There would be full-color magazine ads and even TV commercials. Male models would demonstrate the Velcro fas-tenings that replaced the seams in the pants and shirt, showing how easily a runner could rip the suit off, leaving him free to run just in shorts and T-top when he got warm. Similar sweatpants were worn by professional basketball players, but they had never been made quite this way, or quite so cheaply, so as to be mass-marketed for runners. The garments were being pro-moted under the trade name RipOffs, which Patrick said was another inspiration sure to make money, even if the name had come from Madison Avenue and not from Patrick Singer him-self.

So they had not expected trouble. It was fall, and Patrick had taken a week off from the plant to conclude a series of meetings about the RipOffs. The day the problem started, he had one conference in the morning and then some domestic errands he'd agreed to do because Mag was at work. He took Lucifer to the vet for shots, had lunch, and then drove Izzy back to his apart-ment near the University of Maryland, an hour away, where Izzy was a graduate student and where his car was on the blink. Mag expected Patrick home early in the evening. Instead, just after dark, the phone rang. Simon answered it.

"Dad says he's staying over in a motel," Simon yelled at her. "He says the fog is too thick to drive home."

Mag's first thought was: He's found some woman. She'd al-ways known eventually he would. The outlying suburbs were often foggy, but Patrick liked the challenge of driving in fog or snow or downpour. At one time he had even invented some in-teresting-unsuccessful-fog lights for their car. She took the phone.

"What the hell do you mean, the fog's too thick?" she asked.

"It's not the fog," Patrick told her. "I have a splitting head-ache and I think there's something wrong with my eyes. You know how the pupil closes down when you go into the bright sunshine? Well, mine seems to be doing that now, only it's dark outside. I think it's some sort of migraine."

"Patrick, at least go back to Izzy's. What if you need a doc-tor? Izzy can call a doctor."

"No, Izzy has some girl there. I'll just wait it out. I've al-ready paid for this place, I might as well stay. I'll come home in the morning when the weather clears up. I should be fine by then. I'll see the doctor at home."

They hung up. Mag was not at all sure she believed the story about his eyes. She had never heard of a migraine that caused the pupils of a person's eyes to close. She pictured Patrick with another woman. She didn't sleep. She didn't know until later that Patrick's pupils had shut down all the way after they talked. He spent two hours sitting in the motel room, completely blind. He did not call a doctor or an ambulance or anyone else. When she asked him later what he thought about, he said, "I don't re-member. I was scared shitless, of course." He said that in such a matter-of-fact way. But he never really told her anything. When she pressed, he said finally, "I wished to hell I wasn't al-lergic to liquor and could have had a couple of stiff drinks." Later that night his eyes had relaxed and the pupils gradually opened. His vision had stayed blurry, but he could see. He took two aspirin and went to sleep. The next morning he drove home. He didn't go to a doctor until it happened again nearly three weeks later. Now, after a year, they didn't know much more than they did then.

They moved into the kitchen, and Patrick put the kettle on. He could never get out of bed without immediately preparing himself a cup of tea. He stood by the stove until the water boiled. He took a mug from the rack and a tea bag from the cannister. He poured the water on top of the tea bag and dan-gled it up and down in the cup six times. He always did pre-cisely that. Then he let the bag steep. When the water was almost black, he threw the tea bag into the sink. Later Mag would remove the tea bag to the trash. They had been doing this for twenty-five years. She had always hated cleaning up after him. She had resented his freedom to leave trash in the sink and her need to remove it. But she didn't hate it now. She thought: He'll be able to make tea for himself even if he can't see. He could do it in his sleep. She thought often of the tasks she would have to perform for him if he went blind and those she wouldn't. He would hate needing her help-he was so independent-and she would resent giving it. For years the boys had demanded so much from her that a clinging husband would have been unbearable. Now, with the boys mostly grown, she looked for-ward to abandoning her domestic-servant role, and she did not relish the thought of taking care of a blindman. She was ashamed of herself for being glad he would at least be able to make his own tea, but she couldn't help it. Her sense of menace clung to her. Patrick would say she must not imagine things. She must be practical. They must discuss the issue of Alfred as if he were all right.

"I'm too young to be a step~grandmother," she said.

Patrick squinted at her. "You're not that young. You have a few wrinkles."

"Blond hair, though. No gray." Patrick said he had married her because of her blond hair. She believed this. He said he stayed married to her because she had a nice ass. Her ass was not as nice as it had once been, and this was frightening in its way but not something she dwelled on. At the same time, she -had married him partly because of his turquoise eyes-and if he went blind, that would be frightening, too, or perhaps only -ironic.

"Alfred is really acting like a prick," she said.

Patrick got up from the table and brought over an Olan Mills portrait the seven boys had given them for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary a few months ago. He pointed to Darren and Merle. "My sons the twins," he said. A finger on Gideon's face: "My son the athlete." Percival: "My son the Marine. Izzy and Simon, my sons the students. And this is Alfred the oldest. My son the prick."

Mag gave him a disdainful look.

"There are worse things he could do than support another man's kids," Patrick said.

"I hate when you try to make me laugh." She got up and turned away from him, walked into the family room, turned on the television. A test pattern. A real-estate pitch. The twenty-minute workout.

Three perfect-looking women in leotards and leg warmers were doing jumping jacks against a background of pure white: white floor, white walls, as if they were exercising in midair, perhaps on clouds; maybe they were angels. The camera fo-cused on their faces. They were smiling; sweat trickled down their cheeks. A shot of their glistening shoulders, a close-up of their legs, their rear ends.

"That's more like it," Patrick said. The music was simple, a pounding rhythm punctuated with screeches, parrots screaming in the jungle. Beasts. Mag was a music lover. The pounding was so jarring that she was amused. She felt calm. It was true that she had gotten up in a sweat when Izzy's ankle was broken, but no permanent harm had come of it. Her premonition over his broken ankle then had meant nothing-and her waking in a sweat now would come to nothing, too.

The perfect-looking exercise women disappeared. "We inter-rupt this program," a voice said, "for a special news bulletin." A man in a newsroom appeared on the screen.

"Forty-three Mariries and fifteen French soldiers are dead this morning after a dawn explosion at the Beirut airport where the American contingent of the multinational peacekeeping force . . .

"That's where Percival is," Mag said. She spoke but did not register the information in a logical way. Her premonition had not been about Alfred after all, but about Percival. The morn-ing Izzy had broken his ankle, she had rushed into the twins' room first. Her premonitions were never very specific. Percival was off to war. She had woken because of Percival. Of course.

"The blasts apparently occurred when a terrorist suicide force drove into the two buildings with trucks loaded with explo-sives."

"Oh, my God," Mag said.

Patrick was holding Lucifer in one hand and pressing the top of his nose with the thumb and forefinger of his other. "There are over a thousand men there," he said woodenly. "Only forty-three were killed. That isn't so many. It probably wasn't Per-cival." But he kept pressing on his nose, which was what he did when his eyes were starting to bother him.

"Preliminary reports indicate that the blast leveled the four-story administration building where an undisclosed number of Marines were sleeping. Other Marines, housed in a nearby bar-racks . . .

"It isn't even supposed to be a combat zone," Mag said. She had not wanted Percival to join the Marines, but had thought to herself: At least it isn't wartime.

"Did he live in that building? Did he say?"

Patrick shrugged. They had his address, of course, but it was just an FPO box number, and his letters home were never very specific about his location. Percival would turn twenty next month; he was not yet twenty and they didn't know where he lived.

"When he was little," she said woodenly, "I used to throw him out of the car when he started acting up. I used to leave him miles from home sometimes. I used to make him walk."

"He never minded," Patrick said.

"If he was sleeping in there-he could have died in his sleep."

"Oh, Christ," Patrick said. He was still squeezing his nose.

She could not bear for Percival to die in his sleep. As a child he'd never had a clear concept of tomorrow. "You mean when it gets night and gets morning?" he would ask. Later when he cut school so much, she believed it was because he still didn't understand an abstraction like tomorrow: the consequences that would come tomorrow. Maybe even now he could only relate to concrete darkness and light.

She thought of him sleeping, and willed him to wake up. She refused to see an explosion, a bomb, limbs detached and cata-pulted through the air. This is what she believed: that if any-thing bad happened to her children, no matter that they were thousands of miles away-if anything bad happened, it would be her fault. She had not wanted them in the beginning, and the sins of the fathers (in this case the mother) might well be visited on her sons. She had listened to music when she should have been tending babies-and Simon had been born without an ear. Her sons swam in a sea of menace-pastel cartoon figures in a video game, surrounded by black mouths that grew larger and more menacing the more they escaped. Having not wanted them, she could not protect them, only wish them safe passage through their lives. There were no guarantees. When she learned Simon's ear could be rectified by a surgeon's knife, she should have known another son would become the sacrifice. . . but she would not have predicted Percival. Percival had always been active and skinny, had never been charming; he had been bright and bored and given to tantrums. He had not been able to run as fast as Gideon. His life had not been easy. She had loved him the most.

Outside the darkness was absolute and a heavy rain poured onto the wooden deck. In the family room Simon appeared be-fore her. She thought for a moment she was hallucinating, be-cause Simon liked to sleep until the moment he had to wake up to deliver his papers. Sometimes he liked to sleep longer. But it was Simon all right. He had even put on his bathrobe over his underwear. He was stretching and yawning and snapping his fingers. He always snapped his fingers when he was content, though he never knew he was doing it. He arched his back. He had grown so much that he looked even skinnier than usual, al-most anorexic: tall, lazy, lovable Simon, nondescript and still prepubescent. His dark hair hung straight down over the ear that wasn't there.

"What's going on?" he said. And even in that moment, when she missed Percival as if he had been cut from her, in that mo-ment she could think only of how it would be to tell Simon what had happened, because then he would stop snapping his fin-gers-maybe for good. He had been snapping since he learned at six or seven and was still doing it at fourteen. Knowing that, she could hardly bear to tell him, because Simon was the most beloved . . . and if Gideon had appeared, or Izzy or Alfred or the twins, she would have known at once that they were the most beloved, until her mind bogged down with it all. Each was the most beloved.

"They've bombed the headquarters in Beirut," she said. "Where Percival is."

Simon stopped snapping. He looked at Patrick. "Is he dead?"

"They didn't kill that many," Patrick said. "We don't know. They don't know anything."

Patrick had stopped holding his nose now and put his hands to his temples. The cat jumped to the floor. Patrick turned his face toward Mag, and she saw that his pupils were growing smaller, as if he'd looked at the sun. The turquoise irises grew larger and the pupils kept contracting. The headache had come, and now the blindness.

"Dad's eyes," she said to Simon.

Simon stood there for a moment and then opened the door to the little phone room-the room she'd had put in specially, off the family room, because with seven boys in the house, how else could anyone hear?

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"I'm calling Alfred."

Whenever there was a crisis, everyone called Alfred.

She had been foolish to think something terrible had hap-pened to Alfred. Alfred handled crises, he did not get em-broiled in them. Alfred would come over and make everyone feel calm. It was good Alfred was all right. She did not think she could stand for Percival to be dead.

Patrick was trying to look at her and then at Simon, but Si-mon was in the phone room, out of sight. Patrick's head bobbed awkwardly, in odd directions, like Stevie Wonder's. The pupils were shutting to pinpoints, little by little, like muscles pulling more than their accustomed weight.

"I never wanted children," she told him. "This is the punish-ment."

Patrick opened his eyes then, but the pupils were gone. The turquoise irises for which Mag had loved him had become two round blanks with no pupil in the middle, the perfect dead blue of cataracts. She had not wanted children and had not wanted Patrick, and this was the price.


 

END OF SAMPLE



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