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Dream Fragments - Stories from the Dream Series by J.J. DiBenedetto

This box is very small. I do not like it. I do not like it. I do not like it!

I hear people. They are very loud. The other people were loud, too. I was scared of them. They yelled when I pooped in the house. I don’t want to poop in the house. But I have to poop. If I poop in this box, they will yell at me. I will be BAD. I don’t want to be BAD!
Dream Fragments - Stories from the Dream Series
Dream Fragments - Stories from the Dream Series by J.J. DiBenedetto
Something is happening! I hear a person. She is right outside the box. She is loud, like the other people. But her loud does not hurt my ears like the other people. She is opening the box. She is opening the box! She is opening the box! This is not where I was! I am somewhere else! There were bars and everything was gray and hard and sharp. This is not-gray and the floor is soft and there are no sharp things. There were many many small furry people at the other place. I am the only small furry person here. There was only one big, not-furry person at the other place. But there are many big, not-furry people here. There are two smaller big people. One is a boy with a little not-gray fur on his head. The other one is a girl. She is bigger than the boy, and she has more not-gray fur on her head. She smells friendly. She is picking me up! She is kissing my head! She is yelling at me, but it is nice yelling. There are many bigger big people. I do not know how many. I know one, and I know two. I do not know what is more than two. There are many of them, and they smell happy. They are making a noise I do not know, but they are smelling happy, so it is a good noise. The smaller girl big person is not yelling anymore. She is making noise, but it is more quiet. I do not understand her. If she could talk properly, like all the small furry people at the other place, I would understand her. But she… “Good dog!” I understand that! I know what Good Dog means! It means I am GOOD! I am GOOD! I am GOOD! I want to be GOOD! I want to be GOOD all the time always! I will be GOOD, and the small not-furry girl will like me and she will always smell friendly and everything will be GOOD always and always! She is petting me and rubbing my belly and scratching under my jaw and saying Good Dog over and over. That means she loves me! I am licking her face. That means I love her! I like this new place! All the not-furry people smell happy. But I like the small not-furry girl best, because I love her! She smells happy and friendly and full of GOOD! I see something else. I see a tree! I know what trees mean! But it is inside. Trees are always outside. Outside is where I poop and I pee. And trees are the best place to poop and to pee. This is a tree. It is a big tree and it is not-gray. It is the best place to poop and pee. But it is inside. This is a new place. It is not like the other place. I had to poop and pee outside. But there is a tree here. And I am telling them now that I have to poop and I have to pee, too. I am telling them and telling them, and they are making noise that I don’t understand. But they all still smell happy. I guess I am supposed to poop inside, by the big not-gray tree. They are yelling! The biggest not-furry person said I am BAD! I do not want to be BAD! But the not-furry girl is petting me again! She is saying I am GOOD! She smells friendly. She smells not-angry. She is not yelling. She is my friend! She loves me! (December 1989) “Helen, the boy is eighteen years old. You ought to be glad he’s met a girl. It’s past time.” Helen Alderson gaped at her husband. How could he say that? How could he even think it? That’s how they had lost Jack. It started with a girl, and it went downhill from there. Did he really not remember what happened with their eldest son? How he’d signed up for Junior ROTC because of some girl in his tenth grade history class, and two years later he was enlisting in the Army? Helen found her voice. “Wonderful. I get to watch Brian throw his life away, just like his brother did. It really makes all the work we did raising him worthwhile.” “I’d hardly say that Jack has thrown his life away,” Ben Alderson said, in the same calm tone he nearly always employed. “He has a good job, a wife, and two beautiful children.” Helen was not calmed. “How do we even know they’re real children? We’ve only ever seen pictures!” Even to her own ears, her words sounded absurd, but she continued on regardless. “People do that. They fake photos. They hire whole fake families. I’ve read about it! It was in Time Magazine last year!” Ben shook his head and walked into the living room. Helen followed. Ben sat on the couch, picked up the remote control, stared at it for a moment, as though weighing what, if anything, he should say next. He set the remote back down, sighed, and said, “I read that article. Sensationalist nonsense. They took a silly phenomenon in Japan and made it sound like a trend sweeping the world. Our grandchildren are real, Helen.” Her husband’s words sounded reasonable, just as they always did. But Helen could not bring herself to be reasonable at the moment. “Japan! Exactly! And Jack is in Germany. They were allies. They fought together in the war. If the Japanese do it, the Germans can do it, too.” Ben shook his head. “There’s a big difference between Japan and Germany,” he said. “But let’s leave it for now. ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ is on. Wouldn’t you rather watch that than argue about whether our eldest son has hired a fake wife and fake children?” It was her favorite movie. She let Ben turn on the TV, and it wasn’t until almost half an hour into the film that she remembered her concern wasn’t Jack’s possibly fake children, but Brian’s very real new girlfriend. But, she knew, she would get nowhere with Ben on the topic tonight. She’d just have to plan her next move more carefully, gather as much information as she could, so that when she raised the issue again, he’d see she was right. Because she was right. Jack was several thousand miles away, they hadn’t seen him in person for years, and ultimately all because of a girl. She wasn’t going to stand idly by while it happened to Brian, too. She’d bided her time for a week, but enough was enough. The moment Brian got out of the car, he ran into the house and went straight for the phone. And not just any phone – the one in Ben’s office. With the door shut! The entire ride back from the airport, she’d been expecting to hear about his final exams, and what grades he thought he’d gotten and all the other details about his college life. She heard none of that: what she actually got was a solid hour of “Sara this” and “Sara that.” This was exactly like Jack in high school. Exactly. That girl – Helen refused to say the name, even in the privacy of her own mind – completely ruined Jack’s life. And now it was happening all over again. She couldn’t imagine what horrible path this “Sara” was going to try and lead her son down, but the girl had to be stopped. The only good thing about the drive home was that she, finally, had Sara’s last name, and some information on the girl’s parents. She didn’t recognize the name, “Barnes,” but she had a guess as to where the father worked. He was a sales manager at a chemical company, according to Brian, and based on where he lived, there was really only one place it could be. Luckily, Helen knew someone who worked there: Michelle Sandberg’s husband. Michelle could be flighty - her term as treasurer of their chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, two years ago, had been a rocky one – but when you absolutely needed the latest gossip, there was nowhere better to turn. So she called Michelle. She asked her to find out what she could about Mr. Barnes the sales manager. “I’m just curious,” Helen said when Michelle asked her why she wanted to know. “You’re never just curious,” Michelle replied. “I didn’t want to say anything,” Helen lied, “but his daughter is in Brian’s dormitory. She might be able to help Brian get a job there this summer. Get his foot in the door. I’d just like to know a little more about her, first.” Michelle accepted that answer, perhaps a little bit too easily. At her next bridge club meeting, she would probably wonder aloud why Ben and Helen needed any help to get their son a decent summer job. But it couldn’t be helped, and, anyway, that was far better than the truth. Helen was in the middle of cooking dinner when Michelle called back, with – no surprise – a detailed report. The Barnes family lived exactly where Brian had reported, in a “pretty nice” two-story house. The father, Howard, was forty-three years old and well-regarded at his company. His title wasn’t merely “sales manager” but Regional Sales Manager. He drove a two-year-old Toyota which he kept in good condition. He had two children: the girl, who was a junior in college and planning to go to medical school; and a son who was still in high school and “a little weird.” The family owned a Golden Retriever who was poorly trained. The wife, Betty, stayed at home, kept a neat house, attended nearly every company event at which family was expected and was a year older than her husband. While she finished preparing the lasagna and got it in the oven, Helen considered everything. There were definite red flags there. The girl was two years ahead of Brian, and on top of that, everyone knew that girls matured faster than boys. The two year age difference might as well be four or five years. For all practical purposes, her son was really dating a twenty-three or twenty-four year old woman, for Heaven’s sake! And obviously it ran in the family, with the mother being older than the father. And, if the parents were only forty-three and forty-four, that meant they’d had their first child when they were barely out of college. If they’d gone at all. And then there was the dog: a badly trained dog was clearly a sign of laziness, selfishness or worse. Helen gave Ben the report the moment he got home from work. “They sound like a lovely family,” he said. She didn’t understand how he could not see any of the blatantly obvious red flags. He was blind to the danger that this girl – and her family – presented to Brian and to the life he ought to have. “Ben…” “Helen, it seems to me that our son picked a real winner here. A pre-med student? A solid family? What else do you want? We ought to be happy for him.” She sighed heavily. He just wouldn’t understand, not until he saw them all up close, when they would – she was certain – reveal themselves, warts and all. Yes – that was it! She smiled, as the plan came together. Bring them all here for Christmas Eve dinner. It would be worth spoiling the family tradition just this once, to show both Ben and Brian the error of their ways. One fiasco of a dinner was a small price to pay to save her son’s life, wasn’t it? Helen picked up the phone; there was no time like the present to make the arrangements. A woman’s voice answered the phone. It couldn’t be the daughter; that wasn’t the voice of a twenty-year old. “Hello?” “Mrs. Barnes? This is Helen Alderson.” She wondered what the girl’s parents thought of all this. They probably weren’t any happier than she was. They were probably shocked that their daughter was dating a much younger boy. How could they be pleased about that? But better to let them be the ones to disapprove. The thing to do here, Helen knew, was to sound as though she approved of this madness, and force them to show their hand. “I’ve heard so much about your daughter from Brian, I feel like I know her already. I’m sure it’s the same for you,” she said, hitting the ball squarely into Betty Barnes’ court. “What?” It came out automatically, instantly. Helen knew at once that it was a genuine reaction. “I – I’m sorry, you must have the wrong number.” “No,’ Helen said, with a laugh. In five seconds, she’d won. The girl obviously hadn’t told her parents about Brian. That meant one of two things. Either that she wasn’t serious about him, and that would come out soon enough; or she knew her parents would disapprove, which would end the relationship just the same. “Brian is my son. He just came home from college today, and all he can talk about is Sara. So I thought it would be nice to have her and her family here for Christmas Eve dinner. You’re all invited – you and your husband, and your son, too, of course.” It was perfect. Let the woman wonder how I know everything about her family, Helen thought, but she knows absolutely nothing about the boy her daughter is seeing. “Oh – that Brian. Of course,” Betty said. Helen heard the hesitation, and the too-casual laugh. The woman was a terrible liar. Helen supposed that was a good quality. But then, everyone had some good qualities – that didn’t mean one had to mix with them socially. “That’s a very kind invitation, but we couldn’t possibly impose on you like that.” “Oh, it’s no bother,” Helen said, in a firm tone. “No bother at all. I insist.” And when Helen Alderson insisted, that was the last word on any subject. Helen had to admit that she was a little concerned Brian was still talking non-stop about Sara. She’d expected that not seeing the girl for several days would help get her out of his system. She knew what went on at colleges these days, especially with co-ed dormitories. The girl probably wandered around half-dressed all the time, showing herself off to every boy in the building. It was no wonder that Brian was so taken with that – how could he not be? It hadn’t been like that at Lehigh. At least, it hadn’t been like that for Helen. Boys were strictly forbidden in her dormitory, and the house mother, Mrs. Donatello, enforced that policy without exception. She also seemed to have eyes not only in the back of her head, but strategically located throughout the building. It was a very different era; she hadn’t even properly kissed Ben until her junior year. God alone knew what the students got up to these days. But whatever the girl was doing to – or, worse, with – her son, it would end soon enough. In just a couple of hours, if Helen had anything to say about it. Dinner was almost all prepared, and the Barnes family was supposed to arrive at two o’clock. At five minutes to two, Helen heard a car coming up the driveway, and, sure enough, there was the two-year-old Toyota. Helen walked out to the entrance hall, where her husband and her son were already opening the door. She took her place beside Ben, looking over the Barnes family as introductions were made. The father wore a nice, if somewhat dated, suit with a Christmas-themed tie. It galled her to admit that he was better dressed than Ben – who insisted on wearing the horrendous sweater his sister made for him. The mother was also conservatively dressed, in a long skirt and a white sweater. Helen did notice the diamond earrings, which were, she conceded, quite understated and tasteful. If she were being honest, they were exactly the sort of thing she herself might pick out. The son wore his suit as though it were something alien – which went along with the report of him being weird. Obviously he was more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt, as so many of the kids were these days. She turned her attention to the girl. The mother must have dressed her, because she was extremely neat and demure. Her skirt went down to her ankles, her sweater was feminine without being too tight or cut too low and even her shoes were both flattering and at the same time very sensible. She looked nothing like the tramp that Helen knew she must be. While Brian took the girl in a brief tour of the house – not quite as brief as Helen would have preferred, however – she introduced the Barneses to her brother-in-law and his wife and daughter, got them drinks and showed them into the living room. A few minutes later, dinner was served. The girl had to have been coached by her mother; she was on her best behavior. She spoke politely, used all the proper utensils when she ate, didn’t spill a drop of her water or a crumb of her food. She talked about her plans after college, which Helen already knew. “So you’ll be in school another four years, and a resident for four years after that, before you’ll have any time for a social life,” Helen said, and the girl showed surprise for the first time. It was clear to Helen what was going on: the girl thought so highly of herself, it hadn’t occurred to her that Helen would see right through her. She obviously hadn’t planned on that. Brian might be a naïve boy whose head could be turned by any girl willing to lounge around the dormitory in her underwear, but Helen Alderson wasn’t so easily fooled. The girl continued to be surprised throughout dinner, and dessert. She seemed to genuinely not understand Helen’s suspicions. Obviously she thought that Brian was lucky she even deigned to speak to him, and that his parents ought to be equally grateful. Helen knew why the girl believed that: Crewe University had twice as many boys as girls – it had been a big point in that school’s favor when Brian was applying, as far as Helen was concerned. The downside to that ratio was sitting at her Christmas Eve table, however: while there were less girls around to distract Brian, if one of them did set her sights on him, how could he possibly be expected to resist? After dessert, everyone moved into the living room, where, to Helen’s annoyance, Ben turned on the TV to watch the stupid Philadelphia Eagles. And – this was unexpected, although, probably, she should have anticipated it – Ben and the girl’s father began to bond as they watched. She’d seen it before, two men of vastly different stations in life, becoming fast friends thanks to their shared love of a bunch of overgrown apes in green and white uniforms. But the worst was still to come. When the game ended – with Ben and the father talking about trying to get together next week to watch another game – the girl ran out to their car and returned with a wrapped package. It had to be a gift for Brian. Worse, she saw that Brian had a gift for her, too – a small box. There was only one thing that came in a box that size: jewelry. Helen had to fight down a sudden fear: what if it wasn’t merely jewelry in that box, but a ring? A diamond ring? Brian didn’t have the money for anything like that, and to even imagine such a thing was madness, but that didn’t mean it was impossible. Brian opened his gift from the girl: an autograph of some baseball player, which Brian and Ben and the girl’s father all fawned over. And then the girl opened her gift from Brian. Helen held her breath, saying a silent prayer, and for a moment she thought she’d been answered. It wasn’t a ring – she could tell immediately from the type of box it was. But it was jewelry, and – Helen knew at once, with a single glance – expensive jewelry. An emerald – small, but perfect, on a chain that was unquestionably real gold. The girl gasped and then – Helen was sure this was an act – pretended to nearly faint. And then she turned her head to let Brian put the necklace on her, and she collapsed into her son’s arms. Helen had no idea where he’d gotten the money. She knew he had money in the bank to buy a used car this summer. Surely he hadn’t spent that – thrown it away on some girl he barely knew? That wasn’t possible. And yet the scene playing out in front of her said otherwise. The girl was putting on a very good show of looking as though she was completely smitten with Brian, and Brian was – Helen had to accept it – head-over-heels in love with her. What a disaster – Helen had expected this dreadful little romance to be over by the time the Barneses went home. She’d expected Brian to be upset for a day or two – perhaps even to cry a little – but then he’d get over it, focus on his schoolwork again and everything would be back to normal. But this – this was as far from normal as Helen could imagine. How was she supposed to keep Brian on track now? What could she possibly do to be rid of this terrible, impossible girl? There had to be a way, and Helen would find it. That’s just all there was to it. (March 1991) I take the photos out of the envelope and hand the first one to Beth. “So this is show and tell?” “Yes,” I tell her. “Because you won’t believe me without the pictures.” It’s too silly, and too - well, too something, anyway. The first photo is looking out from the lobby of the dorm. Mostly, what you can see is snow piled nearly halfway up the window. “I heard about the ‘freak snowstorm in the midwest,’ but I didn’t think you guys got hit.” Last week was Spring Break, and Beth got a jump on things. The Thursday before break, she blew off her afternoon classes and caught an early flight down to the Bahamas. She beat the start of the storm by twelve hours. “But you didn’t care enough to call and check on me,” I say, putting a theatrical pout into my voice. “No. I was too busy in the casino,” she shakes her head sadly. “I figured out how they can offer unlimted free drinks.” I beat her to the punchline. “Because they’re not really free.” She nods. “How much did they cost you?” “Let’s see,” she starts counting on her fingers. “I had one, two – call it ten drinks, counting Friday and Saturday night. And I lost my whole gambling budget, and the buy-souvenirs-for-friends budget, too,” she says, shrugging. “Sorry, by the way.” I’m not surprised. Two summers ago, when I went with her and her family on a cruise, we spent a little time in the ship’s casino. She was not the most savvy gambler. Clearly, nothing has changed. “So that was $400 before I quit for good and stuck to the beach. Forty bucks a drink. But on the bright side, at least they weren’t watered down.” No, I imagine not. “I don’t feel so bad about being snowed in now. We were going to – I don’t know, go somewhere for a night or two, but once the snow hit…” Beth looks at the next picture. It’s the lobby of the dorm after Brian, John from New York and Melody Katz got through transforming it, last Sunday afternoon. There’s two inches of sand covering the floor in front of the horrible purple couch, and right in the middle of that, a plastic inflatable kiddie pool filled with water. “It was Brian’s idea,” I explain. “I was whining about how you were sitting out on the beach living it up, and we were snowed in and how horribly unfair it was. My last Spring Break, totally ruined.” I wasn’t really whining, and I certainly didn’t expect Brian to actually do anything about it. But of course he did. As if I needed any more reasons to love him. “It had just started to clear up Sunday morning, but there was a chance of more snow by the evening, and he said, ‘Maybe there’s something we can do. If we can’t get you to the beach, let’s see if we can get the beach to you.’” Beth whistles. “He did that, all right.” “He told me to just be patient, give him three hours or so. You know me, I had a textbook open the minute he left. It was about two in the afternoon when he got back. He came in, told me to get my swimsuit on and get ready to go to the beach.” I didn’t argue; I never do, with Brian. The next picture is me, in my bikini – the one Beth bought me for my honeymoon. It barely covers anything; I’d never have bought anything like that for myself. To tell the truth, I’ve always favored one-piece bathing suits. That bikini is the only one I actually own. Anyway, in the photo, I’m laying out on a towel atop the sand in the lobby, with Janet Black and Melody Katz, also in bikinis, right next to me. Brian’s in his bathing suit – and nothing else – sitting in the kiddie pool. “Wow,” Beth says, laughing. “He wasn’t kidding. Where’d he find the sunlamps?” There were four of them; two are visible in the photo. “I have no idea. I didn’t ask. I figured that way, if he gets in trouble and there’s a disciplinary hearing, I can’t testify against him.” “Good thinking,” Beth grins. There wasn’t any trouble, although we did have to vacuum the lobby six times to get all the sand up. But it was worth it. My expression in the next picture – total relaxation – says it all. It’s just Janet and me, each with a drink in our hand, and – naturally – a paper umbrella in each drink. I didn’t ask Brian where he found those, either. In the picture, we’re on our beach towels, surrounded by shredded paper – the remains of our MCAT review books. Since they’re apparently changing the format of the test starting next year, there’s no point handing them down to anyone. Tearing them up, page by page, and tossing the shreds into the air like confetti, was a lot of fun. More than it probably should have been. “It was really nice,” I say, remembering how wonderful it felt to just lie there and relax. I barely did any schoolwork all week. Just two or three hours of reading each day – that’s nothing. I really needed the break, too. I know I’ll have my honeymoon in June, but between now and then, there’s the rest of the semester, finishing my Senior Thesis, sorting out all the final details for medical school and getting ready for graduation. Oh, and my wedding, too. Can’t forget that! And after the honeymoon, that’s it. Medical school starts the beginning of August, and there are a million things I’ll have to do to prepare for it, once we’re back from the honeymoon. I have no idea how they’ll all get done. Once med school starts, it’ll be endless work for four years. Then endless work as a resident for three or four more years. “I can see that,” Beth says, noticing how my eyes have glazed over. “Did anybody ever tell you, you work too hard?” “I think you might have mentioned it once or twice,” I say, turning over the next picture. It’s Brian and me, on my towel, wrapped in each other’s arms and entire oblivious to the fact that we were being photographed. If Beth needed any proof how much I’ve changed from the shy, uptight, overstressed girl who walked into room 208 four years ago, this picture would be it. “Who took the picture?” “Janet said it was her. I’m choosing to believe that,” I say. Honestly? I don’t care who it was. Brian’s my fiancé – I don’t care who sees me kissing him. And we had our clothes on – not many of them, true, but everything we did have on was exactly where it was supposed to be. The last picture is from Thursday night – the last night of our homemade beach. There are a dozen of us there, and in the corner of the photo, the blender is just visible. It got a good workout that night. We went through four bottles of margarita mix, I think. “I should’ve stayed here. You had a better time than I did,” Beth says. I can see she’s not just joking. And I see something else in her eyes. She’s looking back at the picture of me and Janet. She’s – not jealous, exactly. She is sad, though. After my wedding, we’re going to go our separate ways; I’m going to the Crewe School of Medicine, while Beth will be at Ohio State starting in the fall, to work on her doctorate in psychology. Maybe there is a little jealousy there. Janet’s got into Crewe Med as well. We’ve already talked about being dissection partners when classes start in August. I can’t pretend that it won’t be nice to have a friend, someone I’ve known for four years, to go through medical school with me. But Janet can never replace Beth as my best friend – nobody can. I take the picture out of Beth’s hand and give her a hug. “I wish you were here, too.” I let her go, giving myself enough space to put my hand on my heart. “But you’ll always be here. You think I could ever forget everything you’ve done for me?” “I should be the one saying that,” she answers. I shake my head. She helped me learn to enjoy myself, to come out of my shell. She taught me to balance schoolwork and my personal life, and she helped keep me sane. And all that was before the dreams and Dr. Walters and almost getting killed a year ago. “Beth, I mean it. I love you. I always will. I know people always say they’re going to keep in touch after college and they don’t, but I’m giving you my word. And you know I never, ever break my word. You’re never going to be rid of me.” She hugs me back, kisses my cheek. “I’m not real big on breaking promises, either. You’ve got my word on that, too.” Well, that’s that, then. Neither of us has ever broken a promise to the other. We’re not going to start with this one. (December 1992) Betty could not rest. She could not dismiss all her fears, no matter how logical her husband’s arguments against them were. It was true that Sara’s doctor had declared, repeatedly, that everything was fine. But doctors could make mistakes. It was also true that, twenty-four years ago, Betty’s own due date had come and gone before Sara made her first appearance in the world. But that was small comfort, compared to the sight of Sara lying in bed, in obvious pain, and nothing to be done to ease it. It was even true that forty-seven was not too young to become a grandmother. But Betty didn’t know anyone else as young as her who had a grandchild. For Heaven’s sake, Miriam Renberg from the garden club was having another baby herself, and she was only two years younger than Betty. “Betty,” Howard said, in the oh-so-patient tone that, more often than not, only served to upset her further, “that girl has been through things we could never dream of. She’s going to be fine, and so is our granddaughter.” “But what if…” Howard cut her off with a wave of his hand. “I worry about her just as much as you do. But she’s strong, and she’s got a good doctor taking care of her. And don’t you think she’d know it, if something was wrong? She’s almost halfway to being a doctor herself.” He gave her a gentle smile – his most gentle smile, the one she could never resist, no matter how annoyed or upset or frightened she was. “Besides, we’ve always trusted her before, and she’s never let us down. This isn’t going to be the first time.” As he spoke, his hand went to the switch on the bedside lamp. Betty didn’t say anything, but her nod was answer enough. Howard turned the switch, and the hotel room faded into darkness. Betty laid down, her head on the extra-large pillow that she still wasn’t used to after three nights in this room, and she held on to her husband’s smile, and his calm tone. She let those things carry her into sleep… Betty is in a hospital room; she recognizes it immediately. The tiled floor, the electronic monitors, the chilly air – even without the bed, she would recognize this place instantly. Not just any hospital room, but Sara’s – her daughter is sitting up, looking tiny and frail despite the size of her belly, in the huge bed. Sara doesn’t seem to see Betty; she looks right past her mother without any recognition at all. She’s looking for something else, Betty thinks. And that something else comes walking in the room, without so much as a knock or a word of greeting. It’s an older man, with short gray hair and a malevolent air about him. He’s wearing the requisite long white coat of a doctor, but Betty doesn’t recognize him, and he gives no indication that he even sees her. He marches straight up to Sara’s bed, a sneer on his lips. “Mrs. Alderson. You missed class again today.” Sara sits up straighter, with evident difficulty, and she begins to answer him, but he cuts her off with a derisive snort. “Spare me. I told you when you when you informed me of your pregnancy that it was a mistake.” “Dr. Morris, I’ll make up the class!” “No, you will not, Mrs. Alderson,” he says, a thin, cold smile on his face now. “I came to inform you in person, rather than wait until you received the letter.” Sara’s eyes go wide, and Betty notices her daughter beginning to tremble. “Wait a minute,” she calls out to the loathsome little man. “You can’t talk to my daughter this way!” But neither he, nor Sara, seem to hear her. Sara just continues to shake, more violently now, and she begins whimpering – whether in fear or in pain, Betty isn’t sure. “These childish theatrics only confirm to me that my decision is correct, Mrs. Alderson,” he says, showing no concern whatsoever for Sara or her obvious distress. He does, finally, begin to pay attention when the monitors begin blaring in alarm, and three more doctors come rushing into the room. One of them, a dark-skinned man, goes immediately to Sara’s side and takes her hand. “Coddling her as always, Dr. Morgan? I will never understand your tolerance for weakness and frailty,” the hateful man – Dr. Morris – hisses. “As much as I hate to admit it, he’s right,” a second doctor, this one a tall, very severe-looking woman, says. “It was a mistake to try and have a child in the middle of medical school, and now both she and her baby are paying the price.” The third doctor, another woman, this one with a more kindly face and manner, ignores the others. “Sara, you’re going to be fine. Don’t listen to them. Just concentrate on breathing.” Sara, breathing very rapidly now, doesn’t look as though she can concentrate on anything. Tears are streaming down her face; she’s in a full panic. “Mom! Mom, I need you! Please! Mom!” Betty runs to the bed. “I’m here! Sara, honey, I’m right here!” But her daughter does not hear her, cannot see her. Betty doesn’t understand; this is the strangest dream she’s ever had. Despite her worry for her daughter, despite being very close to bursting into tears herself, she is aware enough to realize that it doesn’t feel like any other dream she can remember. It’s almost as though she’s not part of it at all; as though it’s a movie she’s watching rather than a dream of her own that she’s participating in. “Mommy!” Sara shouts it out at the top of her lungs, and, this time, she is answered. Betty’s eyes widen in surprise as she sees herself. Another Betty comes into the room, runs in, nearly out of breath. She grabs the tall, severe-looking doctor by the waist and tosses her aside. Without breaking stride, she marches up to Dr. Morris, pulls back an arm, and punches him right in the mouth. Without a word, without even a sound, he slumps to the floor, unconscious. She glances at the other two doctors, the kinder ones, and says, “She doesn’t need you, either. She needs her mother, and I’m here now.” The two doctors acknowledge her with nods, and file out of the room. “I’m here, Sara. I’ll always be here for you. You’re my baby,” the dream-Betty says, leaning down, hugging Sara, ruffling her hair. “I know, Mom. I knew you’d come…” Betty sat up, leaned over Howard and reaches for the light switch. Then, with one swift motion, she was out of the bed and halfway to the closet. Her husband began to stir. “Betty? Wha – what time is it?” “I don’t know,” she answered. “But Sara needs me. She’s…” No, Betty realized. It was just a dream. It was the strangest dream she could ever remember having, but, still, that’s all it was. Just her fears getting the better of her. The phone rang, and Howard picked it up. “What?” Betty turned back to him. She knew who the phone call had to be from, what it had to mean. “When?” She had no doubt. She supposed it made sense; that’s what the dream was telling her. It was time. “Where are you now?” Betty turned back to the closet, began to dress. It was obvious where Sara and Brian were. “We’ll be there right away.” Yes, they would be. Howard hung up the phone, joined Betty in front of the closet, began grabbing his clothes. “How did you know?” “I dreamed it. Sara was…” Betty blushed, even though the idea that Sara preferred her to all the highly trained doctors at hand was only in her own head. “The dream was telling me. I knew it was time. A mother always knows, Howard.” She only hoped they would get there in time; she intended to be there for her daughter, and her granddaughter, and woe be unto anyone who tried to get in her way. (May 1995) It really is over. I never truly doubted myself. Honestly, I always knew I’d make it. But – as I’ve learned in thousands of ways, large and small – knowing and doing are two very different things. It’s over. Four years of endless work, and two or three hundred pages of reading a night, and ninety or hundred or hundred and ten hour workweeks on my clinical rotations – and having life and death in my very inexperienced hands. And two and a half years of doing all that while trying to keep up with a dark-haired, green-eyed bundle of energy named Elizabeth Kathleen Alderson. At the moment, I’m carrying her down the hallway of the administration floor in the medical school, her arms wrapped around my neck. She would rather be elsewhere. “Milkshake!” Of course she wants a milkshake. I’d like one, too. But I have paperwork to fill out for graduation, which I’ve forgotten to take care of for the last month. If I don’t get it done today, I won’t be able to walk with my classmates, and I’ve worked far too hard to miss that. Not to mention that my parents – and Brian – would never forgive me. When I get to the main office, I see that I’m not the only one who’s waited until the last minute. There are at least a dozen of my fellow students here filling out their graduation forms. Lizzie is unimpressed. “Milkshake!” A dozen heads turn, and I get a dozen knowing smiles. Everyone in my class knows Lizzie, and if there’s one of them she hasn’t managed to charm, I don’t know about it. “Soon, honey,” I coo. “As soon as Mommy is done.” One of my classmates, Dominick, a fellow survivor of the first-year Introduction to Clinical Practice course with Dr. Morris, comes up and tickles Lizzie’s chin. “Don’t you want your mother to graduate?” “I want milkshake!” “She’s got a one-track mind, doesn’t she?” Dominick pats me on the back. “I can’t imagine where she got it from.” I just shake my head; I’ve been known to be stubborn myself, on occasion. “Like I said, honey, as soon as we’re finished here, we’ll go and get a milkshake.” “Choc-choc-chocolate and pea butter!” “Yes, honey, chocolate and peanut butter. I promise.” She really does take after me, doesn’t she? I tickle her and talk to her to try and keep her occupied – and quiet – so my fellow students can finish their paperwork in peace. It mostly works, and twenty minutes later, I’m filling out my forms while Dominick very graciously amuses Lizzie. “Where’s your nose?” is pretty much guaranteed to occupy her for at least ten minutes at a time. According to my mother, it was my favorite game as a toddler, too. I go over the forms three times, making sure I’ve dotted every “i” and crossed every “t.” Then I thank Dominick, and pick Lizzie up. “Wasn’t that fun, honey? Say thank you to Dominick.” “Thank you. Milkshake!” “Good luck,” Dominick says, ruffling Lizzie’s hair before he leaves. I grab my purse and get ready to head out myself, but before I do, my least favorite person in the whole school walks into the office. Even after I saved his life – twice! – and then earned his respect by coming into his hospital room and openly challenging him, he still hasn’t had a single kind word for me in four years. I’ve told myself, over and over, that it’s a sign of respect. I even believe it. But that’s not the kind of respect I want, and I hope it’s not going to be the norm in my residency, or for the rest of my career. “Dr. Morris,” I say, smiling just like I always do with him, even though it never does any good. I’d have thought he would lighten up after he became Dean of the school, back in the spring of my first year. Most people, when they achieve their lifelong goal, act pleased about it. Not Dr. Morris. If anything, he became more sour once he got his dream job. Honestly, I’m kind of surprised that nobody else has tried to kill him during the three years he’s been in charge of the school. “Mrs. Alderson,” he answers. “Tardy as ever, I see.” Lizzie wriggles around in my arms, trying to get a look at Dr. Morris. “Ta-y. Ta-dy. Tady.” She’s so quick; she only has to hear something once or twice to pick it up and start repeating it. “Tady?” “Tardy, honey. It means late.” Dr. Morris rolls his eyes. That’s fine. One more week, and I’ll never have to see him roll his eyes, or do anything else, ever again. “I’ve said it many times, Mrs. Alderson. I thought you were a fool to try and have a child while you were in school,” he says, scowling. “My opinion has not changed. But,” the scowl relaxes, a little, “I will admit that you’ve managed your responsibilities adequately. You will graduate on time and in good standing,” he says. Then he peers closely at Lizzie for a few seconds before continuing, “And your child appears to be healthy and progressing normally.” It takes me a moment to process what he said. It was a backhanded compliment, but it was a compliment all the same. And it deserves a response. I walk over to him, lean right in and kiss his cheek. “Thank you, Dr. Morris!” His scowl returns, full force. “Really!” “I couldn’t help myself, Dr. Morris. I’m sorry,” I say, fighting back laughter. Lizzie doesn’t bother to try and fight her own reaction. She reaches out towards Dr. Morris, calling out as loudly as she can, “Doctor Moo! Doctor Moo!” And now I can’t help myself; I break into giggles. Doctor Moo! It’s perfect. Obviously he doesn’t think so; he’s not just scowling now, he’s giving me – and Lizzie – a death stare. My daughter is unfazed. She’s still trying to wriggle out of my grasp, and I have to set her down on a chair before she escapes and falls onto the floor. She pulls herself to her feet, hanging onto the armrest of the chair for support, and stares up at Dr. Morris. And then – oh, this is just the icing on the cake! – she sets her face into her best imitation of his icy glare. “Doctor Moo,” she repeats, in a low growl. “Doctor Moo!” Dr. Morris just stands there for a minute, staring back at her, watching her imitate him. And then – I don’t believe I’m seeing this – he crouches down, getting to eye level with my daughter. “If you must do that, do it correctly, Miss Alderson.” He reaches out and tugs on her cheeks, pulling her face into a nastier expression, and then adds, “show your teeth,” while pulling her upper lip. “And never break eye contact.” He steps back. “Much better. You’re a quicker learner than your mother.” He’s right – she’s now wearing exactly his trademark scowl. “Doctor Moo!” I don’t know what to say. There are just no words, and Dr. Morris notices the fact. “Well, this is a first,” he says, turning his attention back to me. “You, speechless? How refreshing.” I want to – I don’t know. Thank him? Slap him? I settle for not doing anything at all, and letting him have the last word. “Yes, most refreshing,” he says, heading for the door. “I shall see you at graduation, Mrs. Alderson. Good day.” Lizzie hops down off her chair and runs after him. She throws herself at him, clutching his leg. “Doctor Moo good day!” He’s got one more surprise for me: he pats her head and says, “Good day to you as well, Elizabeth.” I didn’t think he even knew her first name – but of course he did all along. I still can’t think of a single thing to say; I just watch him detach my daughter from his leg and walk out of the office, smiling. I had no idea the man even had the capability to smile. I guess Doctor Moo had one last lesson to teach me. (January – August 1997) “I’ve got it all worked out, Sara. It’s foolproof!” “No.” It feels like we’ve had this conversation every single day since I told Mom and Dad about the dreams, three weeks ago. I am so far beyond tired of it that I can’t even put it into words. I wish I hadn’t told Dad. I wish Mom had been able to keep it all a secret. I’ve even started screening my calls and letting them go to voicemail when I see it’s Dad. I’ve never done that. But I can’t ignore him when he’s over at our apartment. I can’t just retreat into our bedroom and lock the door, as much as I want to. I have to talk to him. And despite three weeks of constant, unfair, totally irrational harassment, I do still love him. Still, if he asks me to use my ability to visit dreams to try and spy on the Eagles’ next opponent one more time, I – I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m sure I’ll find out, though, because there are eight months until football starts up again, eight months of pestering and annoyance, unless I figure out a way to stop it for good. “Sara, they’re your team, too. And Lizzie’s.” No. That’s going too far. It’s the first time he’s played the grandfather card. “Dad? Seriously? You’re going to try that?” “She’d want you to do it. She wants them to win every week just as much as I do, Sara. Think how proud she’d be.” Even if I were willing to entertain this ridiculous idea for one second, which I’m not, it wouldn’t work anyway. I don’t have any control over the dreams. I can’t pick and choose where I go. And I certainly can’t see anything except what the dreamer is dreaming about. I can’t change their dreams, I can’t read their minds and pull out whatever secrets I want to. But that’s what Dad wants. He thinks I can do all that. He really thinks I can just decide to home in on the dream of the opposing coach, and steal all his team’s plays. And even if that were possible, how would we get that information to the Eagles anyway? None of that matters, because I will never, in a million years, give this madness the slightest consideration. “No, Dad. And if you ask me again, I swear to God, I’ll – I’ll disown you! “ He smiles. He actually smiles at that. I could hit him right now! “You can’t disown me. Parents disown children, not the other way around.” I have to hold back a scream. It is not easy. “Fine! I won’t disown you! There must be a word for kicking your parents out of your life.” I walk over to the bookshelf and pull the dictionary down. “I’m sure it’s in here. I’ll look it up, and that’s what I’ll do! OK? So stop asking!” It’s the morning after Valentine’s Day, and I’m not sure why, but I’m nervous about going to pick up the kids. Mom and Dad very kindly watched all three of them last night, so Brian and I could have a romantic night out. It was, too. We got a hotel room in downtown Philadelphia, and we pulled out all the stops – the full “Romantic Escape Special.” It cost over seven hundred dollars for one night, but it was worth it. More than worth it. So why am I worried now? Dad opens the door, my youngest daughter squirming in his arms. I grab her. “How’s my little girl? Were you good for Grandpa, Steffy?” Her big sister, carrying Ben in her arms, runs up behind Dad. “She pooped five times. And she threw up twice.” That sounds about right. “I’m sorry, Dad. But other than that, how was she?” Dad smiles. I’m not sure I would after a night like that. “She was good, just like always. And so were Ben and Lizzie. Perfect little angels, all of them. And how was your night out?” “Very restful,” I say. That’s not precisely true, but there are some things I don’t need to talk about with my father. “I’m sure it was. That’s a lovely hotel. Did you know that most of the visiting sports teams stay there when they’re in town?” I can feel my face fall. I was right to be nervous. He hasn’t brought it up for three weeks, I guess he decided that was long enough. “Dad! No! I bet you thought I’d be so grateful for the night out that I’d give in, but I’m not doing it. And,” I look at Lizzie, smiling up at me, “if you said a word about it to Lizzie, I swear I’ll…” “The reverse of disown. I know.” He shrugs. “You can’t blame me. I had to try.” Lizzie’s voice calls out from the back seat, and I turn to hear her ask, “Why did you yell at Grandpa Howard, Mommy?” I can hardly blame Lizzie for noticing. I did do it right in front of her. “Grandpa Howard likes to tease me sometimes. I guess I was just a little sensitive today,” I lie to her. I don’t normally do that with her, but this is a special case. And anyway, it’s a lie that’s more or less true. “You know, Sara,” Brian starts, but I don’t let him say another word. I give him a glare that stops him right in his tracks. “Don’t,” I whisper. “Just don’t.” And – thank God – he doesn’t. I have to admit, this is fun. I’m not sure if it’s worth the triple shift I’m going to have to pull tomorrow to make up for it, but I am enjoying myself. Dad got tickets to Opening Day for the Phillies, and we’ve been here since noon, watching batting practice, going right up to the railing to see the players from just a few feet away. Some of them – not that I recognize any of them – talked to the fans and signed autographs. Dad just about shoved Lizzie at them, and she got half a dozen autographs, including one player who signed her baseball cap. I let her have all the fun, and, to my surprise, Dad did, too. He didn’t try to get any autographs for himself, even though he probably could have. Right now, he’s telling her about each of the players she talked to, and he – and of course Brian, too – know all their statistics from last year. How do they have room in their brains for that nonsense? “I bet you’ll dream about baseball tonight,” Dad tells my daughter, patting her head. “What do you think?” She nods enthusiastically. But she doesn’t realize what he’s saying. I grab his arm, pull him away from Lizzie. “Dad, let’s go get something to eat. Brian can watch Lizzie.” He can tell it’s not a request, and he lets me drag him up the steps towards the concourse. When we’re out of earshot, I let him have it. “What are you doing?” “Sara?” He gives me a blank look, but I’m not buying it for a second. “You’re putting ideas in her head! You want her to visit one of the players, so you can prove that your stupid idea will work!” When I told him about everything, back in January, I explained everything I knew about how I think it works. How I have to see someone, register their presence somehow, before I can go into their dreams. And I told him that, I assumed, it worked the same way for Lizzie. And for Mom, too. “You said yourself, it only happens when something important is going on, right? You don’t just dream all the time. If there’s something really important about one of the players, if he’s hurt and the team doesn’t know it, or – or anything – wouldn’t it be good to know that?” “Dad, for the last time, no! I’m not going to be your spy so you can help the team cheat! Even if one of us did dream, how on earth would you tell them about it?” Oh, no. That was the wrong thing to say. I see the glint in his eye now. “So you have thought about it! Come on, Sara, is it really asking so much?” “Yes!” Something else occurs to me, which makes Dad’s idea even more horrible than it was. “These baseball players, you know what they probably dream about? I bet I do. I bet it’s like that movie with Susan Sarandon and the baseball team, where she sleeps with all the players.” I don’t remember the title, but Dad knows exactly which movie I mean. “Do you want your granddaughter seeing that?” I threatened Dad with everything I could think of, up to disowning him. And I can call it that. I looked it up, and one of the meanings is “repudiate,” so that fits. But I haven’t gone nuclear. Until now. Training camp for the Eagles started yesterday, and he asked me six separate times about using the dreams to help them. He’s given me no choice. I have to resort to the ultimate weapon. I’m in their kitchen, sitting at the table with Mom, feeding Ben his lunch. “Mom, you have to tell Dad to stop. It has to end.” “What has to end?” I take a deep breath. I can’t shout at her, as much as I want to. “You know perfectly well, Mom. The dreams. You have to make him stop asking me to try and dream about the Eagles.” She looks at me as though I’m speaking Greek. Or maybe Martian. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Why would he want you to…” It comes to her, and she doesn’t exactly laugh, but almost. “It’s not funny, Mom!” Now I want to hit her as much as I want to hit Dad. I don’t feel any better when she pats my arm. It’s only the fact that my son is in his high chair and watching me intently that I don’t completely lose it. Mom knows that, which I think is why she does start laughing now. “You know how he is about sports, honey. It used to drive me crazy, too. But I’ve learned to accept it. We’re none of us perfect, you know.” I thought she got it, but obviously not. “He isn’t joking, Mom. He’s asked me about a million times since we told him about the dreams after New Year’s. I try to tell him that’s not how it works, and that it’s not a joke anyway, but he doesn’t get it. Can’t you explain it to him? Get him to behave himself?” Her laughter fades. “We haven’t talked about the dreams. I haven’t had one except the one time I saw you. I try not to think about it, to be honest. After what you told me, I hope I never have one ever again.” I had no idea. I assumed that she and Dad talked about this. Maybe not every night, but at least once in a while, like Brian and I do. It never occurred to me that Mom would want nothing to do with it – even though that’s how I felt when I first started having the dreams back in college. “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t know. But it sounds like maybe you need to talk about it with Dad. Maybe we all need to talk about it. Lizzie, too.” I sigh. “Because you probably will have them again, and so will she and so will I.” Now I smile, almost. “Just not on command like Dad wants us to.” She’s quiet for a while. She’s lost in thought, and I watch my son eat his mashed bananas. I wonder if he’ll have the dreams one day, too, or his twin sister. Is it only the women in this family who get them? I guess we’ll find out in a few years. But in the meantime, we all need to clear the air. And Dad needs to be stopped. Mom looks at me, and now there’s a glint in her eye. “Maybe you should give him what he wants. You know that old saying, ‘be careful what you wish for?’” What? What is she – oh! I think I know exactly what she means… “No! You must have misunderstood what you saw. Tell me again, Sara.” I sigh theatrically and pick up the sports page of the newspaper. I point to the picture on the front page. “I saw him. The guy with the headset. He’s the head coach, right? Ray somebody?” “Ray Rhodes,” Dad says. I nod. “Ray Rhodes. It was definitely him. We saw him when we went to the practice the other day.” Dad was shocked, but obviously very pleased, when I agreed to come with him to the open practice session the Eagles held. “And I remember the dream exactly, Dad. I’m sorry. But he was in the unemployment office. He got to the front of the line and he handed in his form and the clerk started going over it. And then the clerk asked why he got fired.” Dad cringes, and it’s all I can do not to laugh. “And he said, because the Eagles didn’t win a single game. But he kept saying it wasn’t his fault, the players just weren’t good enough and he knew from the first day of training camp that the whole season was going to be a disaster.” Dad looks as miserable as I think I’ve ever seen him. “You’re sure? That’s what you saw?” I shake my head in what I hope looks like sadness. “I’m sorry. That’s it. Except the clerk felt sorry for him, and he said he understood, he knew the team was hopeless this year. So the clerk gave him his unemployment check, and that’s when I woke up.” It takes Dad a long time before he speaks again. He looks like he might cry, and – I know this isn’t nice – I don’t feel bad at all. “It’s all my fault,” he says. “I should never have asked you to do it. I’ll never say another word about it. I just wish – God, I wish you hadn’t seen it. That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” I force myself to frown, and I even manage a sniffle or two. After a little while, I hug Dad. “I know it’s awful. I wish I hadn’t seen it either. But let’s just – you think you can forget about it? Put it out of your mind?” He stares at me in disbelief. He won’t forget it. He won’t put it out of his mind. And he also won’t ask me to dream on command ever again. Mission accomplished. (September 1997) I knew it. I knew, the moment I stepped into the bath, something would happen. The only thing I didn’t know was what form the interruption would take: the doorbell, the phone, the smoke alarm or maybe flying saucers landing on the roof of the building. It’s the phone. I probably shouldn’t have brought it into the bathroom with me; I suppose I was tempting fate. But I answer it anyway. I don’t recognize the woman on the line. “Mrs. Alderson?” “Dr. Alderson,” I say, automatically. “I’m sorry,” the caller says, in a tone that indicates she’s not sorry at all. “I’m Principal Keating’s assistant. She needs you to come down to the school. We’re having a problem with your daughter.” Already? I expected to get a call at some point about Lizzie, but not on the very first day of kindergarten! I only dropped her off an hour ago, and she was excited and happy and we’d gone over how she ought to behave a thousand times. “I’m leaving right now,” I sigh. I don’t wait for an answer; I hang up the phone, climb out of the tub and start drying off. This was supposed to be a restful day. I don’t have to be back at the hospital until tomorrow afternoon; Mom’s got the twins for the day, and I wasn’t scheduled to pick Lizzie up until after noon. Oh, well… I walk into the Principal’s office, but she’s not there. “Dr. Alderson?” A weary-looking middle-aged woman calls to me from behind a desk. It was her voice on the phone. “Yes.” “They’re in the nurse’s office. Four doors down, on your right.” I’m already headed out the door. “Thank you,” I say over my shoulder. I follow the directions, and, sure enough, there’s the nurse’s office. Sitting in an armchair, clutching the arms so tightly that her hands have gone white, is my daughter. She’s somehow managing to look both frightened and defiant at the same time. Standing behind a cluttered desk, turning their heads to me, are the Principal, who I met last week, and a tall woman with kind eyes, who I assume must be the nurse. “What’s going on?” The nurse answers me. “One of your daughter’s classmates cut himself, and she followed him here. It was just a scratch, but she insisted on staying to watch me take care of him. But when I did, she had a fit. She shouted at me. I’ve never seen the like in fifteen years working at this school.” “Lizzie?” Lizzie looks up to me, the defiance winning out over her fear. “She was doing it wrong, Mommy!” Oh, God. This is my fault. It’s all my fault. This is what I get for bringing her to the hospital and encouraging her. “Lizzie, that’s very wrong,” I say. I try to keep my voice soft; it doesn’t really match the words or the situation, but I don’t want to traumatize her. “Mommy!” She’s almost wailing. “She didn’t wash her hands first! You say and say and say, if you’re gonna be a doctor, you have to wash your hands! You say it all the time always!” She has to stop to take a breath, but before any of the adults can speak, she starts up again, “And she didn’t! I was watching! You say and say and say! If you don’t wash, then people get infested!” What am I supposed to say to that? She’s absolutely right. I have told her that, over and over. It’s second nature to her – and she’s also right that the nurse ought to be doing it. “Lizzie, I understand. But you can’t yell at your teachers. We talked about this,” I say. “It’s just like at the hospital. You have to be on your best behavior, and you have to listen to all the grown-ups. Even when you don’t want to. Do you understand?” I’m staring hard at her, trying to impress on her how important this is, without raising my voice. She starts to say something, but I don’t relax my gaze, and she closes her mouth, thinks for a minute, then, very softly and extremely reluctantly says, “Yes, Mommy.” “Good girl,” I tell her. “And I want you to apologize,” I add, reaching down and patting her arm. “I’m sorry,” she says, after another moment’s consideration. “But my Mommy is a doctor, and she really does say all the time you have to wash your hands or else you get infested. And then you have to go to the hospital. I didn’t want Tommy to go to the hospital.” I turn away from her and give the nurse and the Principal an apologetic look. “I do tell her that,” I shrug. I can’t read either of their expressions. The Principal finally speaks. “Lizzie, are you going to behave, like your mother said?” “Yes,” Lizzie answers. The Principal smiles. “Good. Why don’t you go back to your class? Your mother can walk you there,” she says, then, to me, “It’s two floors down, room 109.” Obviously I’m expected to come back up here after I’ve dropped Lizzie off. “Come on, honey, let’s get you back to class,” I tell my daughter, and she obediently follows me out of the office. “I’m proud of you for remembering about washing hands, but what I said about listening to the grown-ups is really important,” I say as we walk. “I’ll listen,” she agrees. We get to her classroom, and I open the door. “You be a good girl, and I’ll be back when school is over to pick you up. I love you, honey.” “I love you, Mommy! I’ll be good!” At least for the next two hours, I’m absolutely certain she will. I close the door, wave to her and head back upstairs. The Principal is still with the nurse in her office. “I am sorry,” I say again. “I’m doing my residency at Children’s Hospital, and I’ve been bringing Lizzie with me sometimes. She - well, she loves to help, and she’s picked up so much. I guess when the little boy hurt himself, she just couldn’t help herself. But I’ll talk to her again when I get home, so this won’t happen again.” The Principal smiles indulgently at me. “It’s a big adjustment for many children, starting school, having to follow rules for the first time and so forth.” I don’t respond to the veiled insult there. I can’t get into an argument with Lizzie’s Principal, certainly not on the first day of school! “Like I said, I’ll make sure she understands,” I say, keeping my voice calm and level. “And I’m very sorry she shouted at you,” I say to the nurse. “It’s fine,” the nurse says. “She seems like a very sweet girl. She’s just a little excitable, but she’ll learn.” Lizzie is not – oh, who am I kidding, excitable is the perfect word to describe her. “Well, I am sorry, but it won’t happen again,” I say, turning to leave. But – I can’t help myself – just as I’m through the door, I look back to the nurse. “She was right, though. You really do need to wash your hands before every patient you take care of.” I don’t wait for an answer; I’m down the hall, down the stairs and halfway to the car before it hits me. With one smart remark, I’ve gone and made life much harder for myself than it needed to be. Oh well, it’s not as though it’s the first time I’ve done that. (December 2000) Dear Kat, I know when I get home, you’re going to want to hear every detail of our trip. And I don’t want to let my best friend down, but the memory isn’t quite what it used to be. So I’m going to do something I haven’t done since – I don’t even remember when. Maybe high school? See what I mean about memory? What was I saying? Funny, right? Anyway, I’m going to just add to this letter every day, like the diary I used to keep whenever it was that I kept one. Right now, we’re somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Fifty-five years old, and finally I’m out of the country for the first time. According to the little computerized map, the closest land right now is Iceland, but it doesn’t look all that close. Howard is asleep, but I’m wide awake, despite two glasses of wine and two of those herbal supplements that are supposed to help you sleep. Howard took just one, and it knocked him right out. I don’t mind admitting that I’m very jealous at the moment. The supplements were Sara’s idea, of course. She refused point-blank to prescribe actual sleeping pills; you know my daughter, always following the rules. And she’s especially careful about prescriptions, after what happened two years ago. I wish she’d been willing to play a little loose in this case, though. I’m going to be a wreck when we arrive if I don’t get some rest soon. I’m going to close my eyes right now. It didn’t work. It’s fifteen minutes later, and I’m still wide awake. I don’t think we’re any closer to Iceland, if that’s what we’re heading towards. So I may as well keep writing. Did I tell you how this whole thing got started? I don’t remember. See? Memory again. That’s probably going to be a running theme. Anyway, it was almost a year ago – back in January. I got sick of seeing the mess in Sara’s apartment – she really does try to keep things neat, but with two careers, four kids and a dog, well, things fall by the wayside. So I went upstairs to the apartment at lunch one day, and I started throwing stuff out. She had a stack of catalogs nearly a foot high, Kat! I threw them all in the garbage, but at the bottom there was her college alumni magazine, and she had a page marked. You know me – always curious. So I opened it up, and there was a big photo of a young woman, in jeans and a ratty t-shirt, wearing a floppy sunhat, looking over a rocky field with holes dug at regular intervals all across it. I recognized her – she must have been one of Sara’s friends from her college dorm. Her name was Jane Barnaby, which I didn’t recognize, but it’s been several years, after all, and I only ever would have met her in passing. But what got my attention was – you have to promise not to laugh – the way the picture made me think of Stewart Granger. I imagined him lurking somewhere right outside the frame of the photo, making eyes at Jane. I’m sure I’ve told you this, but you’ve probably forgotten - “King Solomon’s Mines” was the first movie I ever saw. I was six years old, and it was the most amazing, thrilling thing imaginable. For weeks afterwards, I had dreams almost every night about it. I was always Allan Quartermain’s clever, plucky daughter, right next to him exploring dark jungles, escaping from stampeding elephants, sneaking through booby-trapped ancient temples and fighting it out with bandits and tomb-robbers. I saw it again when I was sixteen, and I had dreams for weeks afterwards then, too. But I wasn’t Allan Quartermain’s daughter anymore. Do I need to say anything more? I’m sure you can guess what those dreams were like. And, to tell you the truth, I still have them every so often. Sometimes Howard is Allan Quartermain – but sometimes it’s Stewart Granger. What can I say? You never forget your first…never mind, I’m getting off track here. I’m just glad Howard’s asleep and he can’t see how red I am right now. Anyway, I suppose I was just enthralled by the idea of archaeology, even though there was a distinct lack of ancient temples, stampeding elephants and bandits in the article. It was still fascinating, and the most fascinating thing was that they welcomed volunteers – regular, average untrained people could come and dig with them. So I started investigating. I had to talk Howard around to the idea. He kept saying, “Why would we pay someone $2,000 for the privilege of doing manual labor for them?” Sara never said that, but I’m sure she and Brian were wondering the same thing. I finally convinced Howard, and he even paid for the whole trip, as a combination birthday and anniversary gift to me. He won’t admit it, but I think by now he’s almost as excited as I am. The only downside is that we’re going to miss Christmas with the kids and grandkids. But they don’t mind. We live half a mile from them, after all, and we see them every day. This is the first time Howard and I have ever been out of the country, and they weren’t going to begrudge us the opportunity. We’re nearly over Iceland (if that’s what it is) now. We’ll be landing in London in two hours, and then we have forty minutes to get to our connecting flight to Barcelona. I’m going to try and get some sleep again – I feel like maybe it’ll happen this time. Talk to you soon. I never did fall asleep, and I almost paid dearly for it. We’re on another plane now, somewhere over southern France, and we should be landing in Barcelona in an hour or so. But it was quite the adventure getting onto this flight. Neither of us was very alert when we got off the plane in London. Howard had just woken up and he was still groggy, and I was barely conscious. So, naturally, we followed the wrong sign and went through the customs check. Luckily, the line was short, and the kindly young man in the booth took pity on us. I assume that, dazed and lost as we must have looked, he didn’t think we were trying to smuggle anything into England. Unfortunately, that put us outside the security area, and we had to go through the metal detectors and show our passports again, and this time there was a line. And when we got to the front, with only ten minutes before our flight, the young man waiting for us was not very kindly. I don’t enjoy being sneered at, but being sneered at in a British accent is much worse. I know how silly this will sound, but it felt like he was squeezing two hundred years of contempt - for America having the gall to rebel against Britain, I assume - into every question he asked. I was sure we were going to miss the flight, and that’s when Howard stepped up. He leaned up to the window and started whispering to the man. Behind the window, our unfriendly passport control officer began nodding, and the sneer dropped right off his face. Then, without a word, he passed us through. As we were walking away, I heard him whisper to Howard, “Godspeed, mate.” Once we were on the plane and in our seats, I asked Howard, “What did you say to him?” “Do you remember what the guy – whatever his name was – what he did in that movie after they killed the girl in his apartment? We were watching it the other night, the Hitchcock movie.” You know if it’s up to me, I’ll have an old movie on the TV every night. We were watching “The 39 Steps” last week. Howard usually doesn’t pay too much attention, but he likes spy stories so he was really watching. “Yes,” I said. “You remember what he told the delivery guy, so that he could borrow his uniform and sneak out of the building,” Howard said. I don’t know if you know the movie, Kat. Robert Donat is a regular guy who gets mixed up with a woman who’s a British spy. The Germans kill her, and frame him for it. So, when he sees the milkman coming into the building, Robert Donat tells him that he’s just been with his mistress, and he needs to borrow the milkman’s uniform so nobody will recognize him coming out, and it won’t get back to his wife. “Howard, what exactly did you say?” He smiled at me. “I said that I saw one of my girlfriends right as we were coming out of the gate, and I had to get out of sight before she saw me and blabbed everything to you, so I went out the wrong exit to throw her off the trail. I told him, ‘Son, I’m asking you for a favor here, man to man.’” I wasn’t sure whether to kiss him or slap him. I ended up just taking a deep breath and saying, “I guess he bought it.” “From the look on his face, I think he’s been in that situation himself a time or two. He absolutely bought it.” The look on his face was so smug, I had to close my eyes and count to twenty before I felt like I could speak without saying something I’d regret. “That was quick thinking, Howard,” I said. “But if you ever even joke about having a girlfriend again, I’m going to take the surgical kit from Sara’s office and cut your heart out.” You’d be proud; I said it with a completely straight face, and calmly as you please. He was still smug, and he said, “That sounds a little harsh, Betty.” You know that I normally like his joking; it’s nice that he still does it, even after all these years. But I guess between fatigue, and annoyance at waiting in line, I was not in the best mood, and I just didn’t find it funny right then. I was still perfectly calm, though. I said back to him, “No, it’s not. If I was being harsh, I’d cut something else off.” And that smug little smile fell off his face in no time at all. I’ll apologize to him later, after I’ve gotten some rest and I feel like myself again. Probably. We’re here, in Barcelona. We’ve checked in at our hotel, the Le Meridien Barcelona. It’s beautiful, inside and out. Our room looks out onto the cathedral – we’re going to walk over there later. Right now, Howard is downstairs, exchanging money. It must be confusing for the people here, because they’re using both those new Euros, and their old money, the peseta. This room, for example, costs 62,000 pesetas a night. I figured out what that works out to in dollars, but I didn’t believe the amount I came up with, so I asked Howard to double-check my math. I was right - it works out to around $400. I had no idea it was so expensive. But, like Howard said, it’s only one night, and since this is our first trip to Europe, we might as well live it up a little. We’re even going to open up the mini-bar, if you can believe that! I just wanted to keep up with this; I can hear footsteps right outside the door, and I’m sure it’s Howard, so I’ll write more tonight. It’s tomorrow morning – I know that doesn’t sound right, but you know what I mean. I never had a chance to write last night, after everything that happened. I don’t know what time it is right now. I didn’t change my watch, so it still says two-thirty, and my body thinks it’s around five in the morning. OK, I looked. It’s seven-thirty. Howard is in the shower, so I have a few minutes to catch you up on yesterday. After Howard came back up to the room, I took a little nap, and when I woke up, I was still a little annoyed at him for his joke back in London. And I think he could tell, and he was starting to get a little annoyed at me for being annoyed. The nice thing about being married for thirty-three years is that we know each other so well, and we both realized that we had to do something to shake ourselves out of it. And we were both starving, so we ventured out to find a restaurant. There was no shortage of choices – we’re staying right in the heart of the city. I already mentioned the cathedral – we walked by it, and it’s – I’m not sure how to describe it. “Huge” and “massive” and “enormous” don’t begin to do it justice. I remember when they had the Olympics here – I think it was 1992, maybe? – they kept showing the cathedral, but seeing it on TV is nothing compared to the reality of it. I wanted to go inside – I figured that there must be regular tours – but Howard wanted to eat first. I was all ready to argue with him, but my stomach betrayed me. It let out a growl that you could hear clear across the street, so I had to give in. We went into the very next restaurant we saw, which (we later discovered) was one of the top ten rated restaurants in the city. There were no prices on the menu, which normally would have turned us off on the place, but, as Howard kept saying, “We’re on vacation.” Some of the menu items turned us off as well – who ever thought of eating kidneys? They were right there on the menu – Lamb kidneys in a white wine sauce. I know how I sound, Kat, but there are just some parts of the animal you shouldn’t eat! We both opted for less exotic dishes – I had ravioli with sausage and mushrooms (absolutely Heavenly), and Howard had the Argentine Angus steak. Of course, we both had dessert, and after all that food – and a bottle and a half of wine – neither of us was in much condition to move, let alone do any sightseeing. At least, not until the bill arrived. When Howard looked at it, it was like he got an electric shock. He showed it to me, and I nearly jumped out of my seat. 50,000 pesetas – over $300! For lunch! Now, you know that we’re far from frugal, but $300 for lunch is just out of hand. But it was our own fault, and Howard – very grudgingly – pulled out his credit card and paid the bill. It took the waiter probably twenty minutes to pick up the card, and another ten to come back with the receipt. That was just as well; we needed the time to digest our meal! Howard signed the receipt, and we waddled out of the restaurant. On our way out, the waiter actually came up to us and asked Howard if he’d made a mistake. We were both confused, and Howard asked him, “What’s the problem?” It turns out that we over-tipped. By a lot. I’m sure there’s something about that in the Frommer’s Guide, but I didn’t read it all the way through. Obviously Howard didn’t change the amount, and his generosity made us a new friend. At that point, Howard wanted to go back to the hotel and take a nap, but the cathedral was right there. I said, “Who knows how late the tours run?” and I started to head up the steps. He was behind me, maybe fifty feet, and that’s the only reason that what happened next happened the way it did. If he’d been next to me, he wouldn’t have seen anything, and he wouldn’t have been in a position to – sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Anyway, I was about halfway up the steps, and Howard was behind me. All of a sudden, right ahead of me, a young man started shouting, pointing at me, or past me, I couldn’t really tell. It wasn’t Spanish – I couldn’t tell what language it was. I looked up at him. I couldn’t help it – that’s what you do when someone shouts at you. It’s automatic. So while I was looking at him, and kind of startled, I didn’t notice his accomplice. I had no idea anything was going on until a leather strap fell off my shoulder and onto the stone steps. At the same moment, I heard Howard yelling, “You stop right there!” I had no idea what had happened. You’ve already figured it out, I’m sure, but in the confusion of the moment, I wasn’t thinking clearly. I looked down at the leather strap, wondering where it came from. It was the same color as my purse, and it hit me. It was my purse. The shouting was a distraction, so the second man could cut the strap and run off with it. By the time I understood that, Howard was already chasing after the thief. I swear to you, Kat, I have never in my life seen him run that fast. Not even when he was twenty-one and he actually was running regularly. I followed along, as quickly as I could. I had to be careful on the steps – all I needed was to trip and break my ankle. By the time I got down to the street, the thief was almost out of sight, and Howard was right behind him. Closing on him, even. People were stopping and staring – I suppose a mad chase down the street isn’t something they see every day. They were almost in front of the restaurant we’d just eaten at, when Howard finally caught up to him. I saw him reach out and grab the thief’s jacket and then take his arm and turn him around. I was afraid Howard was going to just punch his lights out, right there in the middle of the sidewalk (and also kind of hoping he’d do it, just like Stewart Granger would have, if someone had dared to steal Deborah Kerr’s purse). But he took a step back, and by this time I was close enough to see why. The thief wasn’t a man. She wasn’t even a woman – she was just a little girl. I don’t think she was any older than Grace, to tell you the truth. Howard clearly didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t going to hit a girl who looked like our granddaughter, even if she did steal my purse. So he just stared at her, and she stared back. There was surprise in her eyes, and then I heard a whistle, and I saw a moment of panic flash across her face. But it was gone as quickly as it appeared. She threw my purse down on the ground, said something to Howard – I was close enough to hear it, but I had no idea what she said or even what language she was speaking. And then she ran for it. She shoved past a couple of onlookers, ducked under the arms of a couple more and, just like that, she was gone. A moment later, after Howard had picked up my purse and I caught up to him, two policemen came up to us. One of them, the shorter and younger of the two, spoke English. “Are you a fool?” “She stole my wife’s purse!” He rolled his eyes at Howard. “A purse is not worth a knife in the belly,” the policeman answered. “This is not America. Some things – some people - are best left alone.” For one stupid moment, I wanted to ask how he knew we were Americans, but I thought better of it. We do stick out, don’t we? The older policeman said something in Spanish, and his partner translated for us. “He said, ‘It is unwise to trifle with Gypsies. Consider yourselves fortunate.’” Then they walked off, both shaking their heads. Howard wanted to continue the conversation, but I grabbed his arm and whispered to him, “You got my purse back. That’s good enough.” Actually, it was better than “good enough.” Stewart Granger probably wouldn’t have chased after the thief at all. He’d have given Deborah Kerr a lecture about being more careful, and told her it served her right, getting robbed because she wasn’t paying attention. And then it would come out that the map to the treasure was in the purse, and he’d have to stage a daring midnight raid on the gypsy camp to get it back – no doubt complaining about Deborah Kerr all the while. Howard’s approach was much better! Howard didn’t look convinced, but what was he going to do? He shook his head, and then he noticed that our waiter from earlier was among the crowd of onlookers. “Did you hear her, before she ran away? What did she say?” Our waiter looked uneasy. “It was a curse,” he said. He didn’t want to tell us what it actually was. I don’t know if he thought that we’d be better off not hearing it, or that it might rub off on him, too, if he said it out loud. But Howard stared hard at him, and he took a deep breath and told us. “She said, ‘May your sleep be forever troubled, and your dreams never again your own.’” He looked almost ill as he said the words, but I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing, and so did Howard. Our poor waiter was horrified. I reached over and patted his arm. “We’ve already got that curse,” I said. “Someone beat her to it.” Well, it’s true, isn’t it? Here comes Howard. It’s my turn in the shower now, and then we’re going to try to see the cathedral again. And this time, I’ll leave my purse locked up here in the room. Talk to you soon. The cathedral was amazing, Kat. Just the most – I don’t know the words for it. I could write for ten pages and I don’t think I’d even scratch the surface. When you see the pictures, you’ll have some idea. I can definitely understand why it took a hundred and fifty years to build! That was our main sightseeing. We spent nearly two hours there. The tour was one hour, and then we just wandered around and I took two full rolls of pictures. And then we had to get back to the hotel, pack up and go to the airport. We’re at the gate now, waiting for our flight to Palma, which is the main city of Mallorca. The only city, really, as far as we can tell from the maps and the guidebook. I didn’t quite finish telling you about yesterday, by the way. After our adventure with the gypsy thieves, our waiter bought us a drink, if you can believe that! And he made the sign of the cross over us three times, to ward off the curse. I don’t think we did his nerves any good by not taking it seriously, but I could hardly tell him that my dreams already aren’t my own, and they haven’t been for almost four years now, ever since I discovered I shared Sara’s talent. He finally gave us up as a lost cause and we went back to the hotel. We were both - I think “wired” is the word the kids use these days. I’ve heard Sara say it, anyway. Our adrenaline was still pumping, and the minute I sat down on the bed, Howard was – well, he was all over me. We were like a pair of horny teenagers, Kat! And – I know you won’t say anything, but you have to promise me you won’t tell another living soul! – when it was over, right at the end, I was so loud that I think everyone on the whole floor heard me. The people in the next room over definitely did – they started banging on the wall, and I could hear them very clearly shouting at us. It’s funny – even though I couldn’t make out any of the words or even the language, I could tell I was being cursed at. That’s never happened to me before. I’ve never made so much noise that I upset the neighbors. Here’s something else you can’t tell anybody, ever – I kind of liked knowing that I did. And there’s one more thing – I don’t know why I’m putting this on paper, but I just have to tell someone, and I will deny it to the grave if you ever mention it after reading this letter. Anyway, after we packed up and we were leaving, I was out in the hallway and Howard was doing one last check of the room to make sure we didn’t leave anything behind. Our next-door neighbors, the ones who were cursing at us last night, were just coming out, too. They were young, in their thirties, I’d guess, and they were French. You could just tell at a glance. I can’t put my finger on why I thought so, but if you saw them, you’d know exactly what I mean. And they were just so stylish – they looked like they stepped right out of the pages of Vogue or something. I wouldn’t be surprised if the woman’s scarf cost more than my entire wardrobe. And the rest of her outfit probably cost more than my car. Let’s not even talk about her shoes. Anyway, they looked at me, and the man made a face, but the woman really gave me a thorough going-over, up and down. And then she walked over, right as Howard was coming out of the room. He met her eyes for a moment and then shrugged. What else was he going to do? She grabbed my arm, pulled me aside. Then she took my left hand and held it up. She was staring at my wedding ring, then over to Howard, at his hands. “He is your husband?” I nodded. I had no idea where this was going. “And – forgive me. I know this is rude, but I must ask,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “you were not just – how do you say it? – acting out? Making a show?” I went beet-red. Here was a total stranger asking me if I was faking it with my husband! I should have – I don’t know what I should have done. Laughed at her? Slapped her? Turned on my heel and walked away? I honestly have no idea why I didn’t do any of those things. What I did do was shake my head weakly, while avoiding her eyes. And then she said, very softly, “Last night, when we heard, I tried to imagine who you were. To picture you. I thought you must be…” she trailed off and went quite red herself; I have no idea what she thought I must have been. I don’t think I really want to know. “Never mind,” she said, when she found her voice again, “I am sorry. I just had to know.” After she said that, she was the one avoiding my eyes. She dropped her head, patted my arm and muttered, “Merci.” The she turned and walked back to her – boyfriend? Husband? I wasn’t looking at her hands, so I have no idea if she had a ring or not. We started heading towards the elevator, and she was talking – yelling, really – at him, and gesturing towards us. Towards Howard, actually. And I remember enough from high school French that I could understand what she was saying, more or less. It took every ounce of self-control I possess not to react. Howard waited until we were in a taxi and halfway to the airport before he asked me if I knew what the woman had said. I can’t lie to him, you know me, but I couldn’t quite look him in the eye. “She was saying that it was too bad we were leaving, because if we weren’t, she would have paid you to give him some pointers.” His expression when I said that – I can’t describe it. I won’t even try. I don’t think there has ever been more smugness and self-satisfaction on another face in the history of mankind. But after everything yesterday, I can’t begrudge him. He really did earn it. So now you’re up to date. They’re calling our flight now. I’ll catch up with you later. We’re here, in Mallorca. The flight wasn’t even forty-five minutes. They barely had time to bring the drinks cart once down the aisle before they had to get ready for landing. We went through customs, again, and now we’re waiting for all our fellow volunteers. We’re being met at three o’clock, or at least that’s what the letter we received last week said. There should be eight other people joining us, and I think I see one of them now – he’s wandering towards us, looking all around, not exactly lost but not completely sure where he ought to be. He’s tall, and he has huge, and I mean really absurdly huge, curly black hair. He’s got a light blue denim shirt and black jeans, and he reminds me of – what’s his name? The painter, the one we always make fun of whenever we see him on TV. The “happy trees” painter. This man looks like his long-lost twin. For all I know, maybe he actually is the happy trees guy. I finally remembered. Bob Ross is the name I couldn’t think of. That’s the happy trees guy. The man we saw is not him; his name is Tom. But he was part of our group, and, oddly enough, he actually is a painter. He had some postcards with pictures of his work. It’s not my thing, but you’d probably love them, Kat. It’s all abstract with odd shapes and vivid colors. Kind of like those Mark Rothko prints you have in your living room. They’d blend right in. I’m up in our room. I’ve only got a few minutes – we’re going to take a walk into the town with some of our fellow volunteer archaeologists. So, after Tom showed up and we introduced ourselves, the rest of the group arrived pretty quickly. There’s a mother and daughter – Vanessa and Lynn. The mother, Vanessa, has to be in her eighties. I didn’t have the nerve to ask exactly how old she was. The daughter is our age, give or take. There’s Claire, from Australia, whose accent is almost impenetrable. It was clear after one minute that she’s incapable of sitting still; she has more energy than that rabbit in the battery commercials. There was another pair. The older one was Claudia, who’s just stunningly beautiful. How anyone could look as fresh as she did – not a single one of her perfect blonde hairs out of place – after twelve hours on a plane is a mystery. She’s probably Sara’s age, at a guess. She had her niece, Megan, with her. Megan’s a senior in high school and while there’s some family resemblance, she didn’t get all of her aunt’s looks. She’s pretty, but that’s the most she can hope for, I think. Her aunt, on the other hand, ought to be in magazine ads. She might already be in them. Finally, there was Joe, who’s English and just out of college; and William, who’s recently retired, and has been on twenty of these Earthwatch trips (all over the world, not just here). According to him, this particular project is known as the “Club Med” of Earthwatch. And after just an hour here in Bill Welldon’s house, I can see why. Bill is the head of the project – the girl (sorry, I can’t help it – I mean “woman”) from the magazine article, Jane, is his right-hand-woman. When Bill called her that, I said, “So she’s your girl Friday.” He laughed at that, and he has the biggest, merriest laugh I’ve ever heard. “Basically,” he agreed, “My very own Rosalind Russell. Sadly for her, I’m not exactly Cary Grant.” That went right over her head, and none of the other young people in our group got it, either. Oh, well. I think I’ve gotten off track a bit. We were at the airport, all ten of us, and Jane walked in, dressed the same as she was in the magazine photos. Bill – he insisted we call him Bill, and not “Dr. Welldon” or “Professor” – followed right behind, along with his wife Jackie. We were divided up, and four of us followed Jane – Howard and I, and Vanessa and Lynn. Everyone else went with Bill. On our way to the parking garage, we told Jane we recognized her from bringing Sara to college, and she remembered Sara very well. “When you get back home,” Jane told us, “ask her if she still remembers how to pick a lock with a credit card.” Howard and I looked at each other, and we had the same question on our faces: did you know about that? Obviously, neither of us did. Did you know about it, Kat? I know Sara told you lots of things she never told us. I’d really like to know why she felt it necessary to learn how to pick locks. I’m off track again. We got into the car – a Land Rover, an old and very beat-up Land rover. “Bill doesn’t let me drive the new one,” Jane explained. “Back when I first met him, this was the new car, and he had me drive it all the way from Oxford to here. It – let’s just say the car wasn’t quite in mint condition when I got it here. So he doesn’t exactly trust my driving.” Bill’s house is in a tiny town in the mountains, Deia, and the roads were twisty and incredibly dangerous-looking. I was holding onto the handle above the window for dear life. I’m not ashamed to admit that I began to panic just a little when we hit cloud level. I’m not making that up – we were at the same height as the clouds, and then we were above them. If it’s not the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, it’s in the top ten. And I panicked more than a little when the tour bus came driving up in the other lane and passed by us with maybe half an inch to spare. Did I mention that there are no guardrails on the road? Just the mountain on one side, and a drop off the mountain on the other side with nothing in the world to hold you back. We did arrive in one piece. I’m not sure exactly when I started breathing again, but since I’m here writing to you, I must have! Anyway, we’re here, and Bill’s house is amazing. He built it himself. It’s all beautiful stonework outside, with blue glass bottles set into the stone to provide light. It’s really something – you’ll see when we come home. I took a roll of pictures just in the first half-hour we were here. We had a brief orientation lecture – what our schedule will be, how meals are handled (they’ve got a chef from a fancy restaurant to cook lunch and dinner for us every day – “Club Med,” remember?) and so forth. And now we’re on our own until dinner, which will be at eight tonight. So it’s time to go exploring. Howard’s washing up before bed, so I have a couple of minutes to catch you up. Where did I leave off – oh, I can just read back, can’t I? We went exploring. Deia is a tiny town. There’s one street, with a handful of shops, a bar and some restaurants, and a winding path up a hill that leads to the church and the cemetery. Joe, our recent graduate, wanted to visit the gravesite of Robert Graves. I’m embarrassed to admit that Howard had to tell me who he was. You probably already know – he was a poet, and he also wrote “I, Claudius.” I think I remember when that was on TV, but I had no idea at the time who wrote it. He lived here for a long time and he was buried here, so up we went to see. I can see why they built the church on top of the hill – it’s got a commanding view of the rest of the town. And whenever anyone looks up, that’s the first thing they see. Very clever. The cemetery is small and well kept, but Robert Graves was the only recognizable name there. But there are other very recognizable names in this town. And we found that out when we went back down the hill, then past the main street of the town and a couple of hundred feet up the road to La Residencia. That’s a hotel – a five-star hotel. Jane mentioned that Princess Diana used to visit once a year and stay there. We went onto the grounds and to the hotel bar, and if there was ever a less-likely group of people to be sitting in the bar of a five-star hotel, I can’t picture it. We ordered overpriced drinks, and Howard bought the first round (I should start making a tally of the times he’s said “we’re on vacation” to justify spending money like it’s going out of style!). While we waited for our drinks, I looked around, and I saw him, not ten feet away from me. I swear to God I’m not making this up, Kat. It was Michael Douglas. Michael Douglas! And, before you ask, I don’t mean some random person who also happened to be named Michael Douglas. I mean the actor Michael Douglas. Son of Kirk. Star of “Fatal Attraction.” Thank God the waiter came back with our drinks right then, before I could say or do anything stupid. I took my glass of sangria (we’re in Spain, what did you expect me to be drinking?) and downed it in two swallows. Howard saw how excited I was getting and I pointed our Mr. Douglas to him. “He’s got a house here. Didn’t you hear Jane telling us in the car?” Obviously I hadn’t. I was too busy hoping not to die in a fiery wreck after a thousand-foot drop off the side of a mountain. “I must have missed that,” I said. I’m very proud of myself. I didn’t make a scene, or attract any attention to myself at all. I just sat there, ordered another sangria, and basked in the glow of sitting ten feet away from a major movie star. He finally left, maybe five minutes before we did. And when he was gone, it hit me. I felt so disappointed. I should have gone up to him and at least asked for an autograph or something. I’m still annoyed at myself now. It was just like in high school. You remember how upset I got when Billy Jackson showed up at the prom alone, because he’d broken up with Marlene Kirkwood two days before, except I didn’t know it. You remember her, she had the lazy eye and her mother always cut her hair. And you remember how upset I was afterwards, knowing that I’d missed my chance to go with him? That’s how I feel right now. It’s a beautiful morning! Everything is right with the world, and I could not possibly be happier. I was feeling bad last night, but Howard came back from the bathroom and saw my mood immediately. He sat down next to me on our bed (as the only married couple, we get our own room. Everyone else has to share, dormitory-style). He asked me, “Betty, what’s going on?” “Nothing,” I said. “Just feeling sorry for myself. Or mad at myself. I’m not sure which. Maybe both.” “That’s an awful way to start our time here,” he said. I was all ready to make a smart remark back to him, but he turned his back to me and started looking for something, and if I was going to yell at him, I wanted to do it to his face. And, also, after three sangrias and then a couple more glasses of wine at dinner, I wasn’t the most quick-witted woman in the world at that moment. By the time he turned around, I had just about come up with what I was going to say, but he had something in his hands. I thought it was a piece of paper at first, but it was a menu from the hotel bar. Drunk as I was, I knew what it had to be and I grabbed it out of his hands. “When did you…?” Obviously it was an autograph from Mr. Douglas (I’m not sure why I’m calling him that. It just seems proper somehow, you know?). “When you went to the bathroom, right before he left. I saw he was getting ready to go, and I figured you’d kick yourself the whole rest of the trip if you didn’t at least have his autograph. So I got it.” “You spoke to him?” Howard nodded, and I looked at the autograph more closely. It wasn’t just his name. He’d written, “For Betty. Next time we meet, you can buy me a drink.” And, he signed it with “Love!” When we get home, I’m having it framed and hanging it in the living room where everyone can see it. Maybe I should have it insured, too, just in case. “Do I need to be jealous?” Howard was smiling, that same self-satisfied smile he had in the taxi yesterday. And – I forgot to tell you this – he’s been standing really straight, his shoulders up, and taking bigger strides when he walks, ever since then. I gave him an even more smug (“smugger?” Is that a word?) smile right back. “Maybe I could have you guys fight over me. You would, right? You’d fight a movie star for me, wouldn’t you?” I’ll skip the details of what happened next. You can probably guess. That catches you up. Now it’s time for breakfast and then we’ll go out and do some archaeology! It’s tomorrow morning again (you know what I mean!). I really enjoyed digging, not that I found anything exciting. But it was only the first day, and nobody found anything spectacular. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find – Bill isn’t exactly looking for ancient treasures here. And anyway, we’ve still got twelve more days to go. But I did plenty of digging in my square. That was the very first thing Bill told us. We all dig in one-meter by one-meter squares. They’re all marked off, so that if we do find something important, he can identify exactly where it was. But we had to call them by their proper name. We could say “square” or “unit” or “trench” or even “pit.” Anything except “hole.” That word was forbidden, and Bill said that he would fine anyone who used it a dollar (he’s American; I mentioned that, didn’t I? Well, he is). When we broke for a snack at noon, Jane told us, “He’s serious about the ‘h-word.’ He bought the new Land Rover with dollars he collected that way.” But she was grinning the whole time, even when she messed up a half-hour later and had to pay him a dollar herself. We chatted with her in the afternoon, and she told us a couple more stories about Sara that I’d never heard before. Did you know that she spent her first two weeks of college mooning over some boy named Mark? I don’t recall her ever mooning over any boys, except Brian, of course. That’s something else we’ll have to ask her about when we get home. When we were done, around two o’clock, we headed back for lunch. This is why they eat dinner at eight – they start the working day at ten in the morning, and have lunch at two in the afternoon. Then, we went up to “the lab,” which is next door to Bill’s house (as is the Deia Archaeological Museum and Research Centre where Bill displays the results of thirty years of work here). We had an hour of Bill lecturing us about the history of the island, and what he’s trying to accomplish. It was very interesting, but I’ll tell you all about that when I get home and I can show you the pictures and maps and everything he gave us. It’ll make much more sense that way. I think it’ll be helpful for us, because now we know why we’re digging where we are, and what it would mean if we find what Bill is looking for (a very specific and rare kind of pottery). After our lecture, we had time to ourselves until dinner. We walked down a long, rocky path to a tiny beach, along with Claudia and Megan. I just wanted to see the beach, and Howard was humoring me, but once we got down there, Megan took off her jeans and sweatshirt to reveal a bathing suit underneath, and she went straight in the water. I’m shivering in sympathy as I write this. It was a beautiful day, and the sun was out, but it was still only sixty degrees or so. So the water couldn’t have been any warmer than that. The girl just went right in, as though swimming in frigid water with God knows what sort of sea creatures lurking under the surface was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. And then Claudia took off her jeans and her sweatshirt. I honestly wasn’t angry at Howard, not even in the moment, not even for a second, when his eyes almost popped out of his head. Because mine did, too. I just hope the Devil gave her a good deal when she sold her soul for her looks. Not that I’m jealous. Not one tiny bit. If I were her age, though? And single? I think I’d have to kill her. And that would be a shame, because she’s so sweet, and polite, too. There’s literally nothing wrong with her. No flaws at all, physical or mental or emotional. If I had to compete with her, I’d definitely have to kill her! Today is December 22nd. So I’ve missed writing for three days, I think. I should have been dating this as I went along, but it’s too late now. Anyway, it’s almost bedtime and I wanted to tell you what’s been going on before Howard comes back to the room. Three nights ago, after our walk down to the beach, and a wonderful dinner and a drunken game of charades (don’t ask), we went up to bed. Howard shut the door and came over to me. I was already on the bed, and he sat next to me. “Betty,” he said, “you want to know something? That girl,” Claudia, obviously, “is really something. But she’s got nothing on you.” He was staring into my eyes, losing himself in them the way he always has, right from the very first time we met. I believed him, even though the objective truth is that if you gave me a team of plastic surgeons, every product in the beauty department at Nordstrom’s, a time machine and three wishes from a genie, I still could never compare to that girl. But in Howard’s world, I’m the only woman there is. And he’s the only man for me. Still, you know me, Kat. I looked up at him, batted my eyes, and used “the voice” on him. You know exactly what I mean. Remember how we used to sit up all night in your bedroom practicing until we got it perfect, so that no man would be able to resist us? I can still do it! “You’re just trying to get me into bed, Mister,” I said. He gave it right back to me. “I’ve already got you in bed, lady.” He certainly did! And then - well, we made it three days in a row. The last time we did that was - I don’t even remember. Maybe ten years ago, after we got back from taking Sara and Bob to college, when he was a freshman and we had a truly empty house for the first time in twenty years? Afterwards, I said to Howard, “You know something? Even if Michael Douglas came and knocked on the door right now – and I mean the younger him, from ‘The Streets of San Francisco’ or even ‘Romancing the Stone,’ - I’d tell him ‘No, thanks, I’m taken,’ and put the bar on the door.” I should have saved that to tell him that the next day. We might have gotten up to four days in a row! I think that would have been a new record for us. But what we actually did that night was almost as nice. Maybe even better, to tell the truth. We took a walk outside, after everyone else had gone to bed. We didn’t go far, and we didn’t go anywhere in particular. We just looked up at the stars. There were so many of them, Kat! I’ve never seen anything like that night sky. The moon was just past new and casting almost no light at all. And we couldn’t see any lights from the town. It was simply breathtaking. We just walked and stared and at some point we realized we were holding hands and both barely breathing. It was so silent, too – the only sound we could hear was our own footsteps, and our hearts beating. We didn’t say a word, either of us, the whole time. I know we were both thinking the same thing: how peaceful this was, and how incredibly lucky we were to be able to see it, and to share it with each other. You’re almost caught up. We went to bed, and both of us were asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. Then, yesterday, Howard found some very nice pottery while we were digging. It wasn’t exactly what Bill was looking for, but it was a very big piece and it was from the right time period, so Bill was still happy about it. He passed it all around, and it was very exciting to hold in my hand something that’s almost 4,000 years old. That was the big excitement - oh, and emailing Sara. Bill let me use his computer, and I spent an hour typing out a heavily edited version of everything I’ve told you. I would have emailed you, too, but I know you only check your email once every six months or so, and only then if someone harasses you into it. You really do need to join the 21st century, Kat. If I’ve done it, you have no excuse not to. Although, technically, we’re still not in the 21st century yet – as Bill has reminded us several times, the new century doesn’t begin until January 1st, 2001. Anyway, that gets you all caught up. Now back to digging. I’m in the hospital as I write to you now. Don’t worry – it’s not me or Howard who’s injured. It’s one of our fellow volunteers – Vanessa, whom we now know is actually ninety-one years old. By the way, it’s Sunday afternoon, Christmas Eve. It happened this morning. We were just coming back upstairs after breakfast, and we heard a shout, a thump and another shout. It came from the room that Vanessa, Lynn and Claire were sharing. I opened the door, and poor Vanessa was lying on the floor. I held my breath for a moment, fearing the worst, but as soon as I got a good look at her I could see that she was breathing, and I relaxed slightly. I went over to her just as her daughter came in from the bathroom. “I slipped,” Vanessa said. “I was taking off my shoes, and I lost my balance.” I’ve been working in Sara’s office for more than two years, and I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about injuries of all kinds. I looked at her feet, and her left ankle was already swelling up. She looked as though she was going to try and get up, and Lynn was moving to help her. “Don’t,” I said. “I can see from here. Your ankle’s broken.” If it were just a sprain, it wouldn’t swell up that quickly. Vanessa didn’t want to hear it. “I appreciate your concern, young lady, but I know my own body.” She actually called me “young lady!” I had to fight to suppress laughter. Her daughter wasn’t laughing at all. “Mother, maybe we should listen to her. She does work in a doctor’s office.” By this time, Claudia and Megan had poked their heads in. I recalled something Megan had said a couple of days before – she’d sprained her ankle a few months ago, and she always carried around an ace bandage just in case. I asked her, “Megan, can we borrow your ace bandage?” and five minutes later I was wrapping Vanessa’s ankle. I was as gentle as I could be, but her reaction to my touch confirmed that I was right. When I was done, we discussed what to do. Bill and his wife were both gone until the afternoon, and Jane was nowhere to be found. But Bill’s old Land Rover was parked in the garage downstairs, and the keys were hanging by the front door. “She needs to go to the hospital,” I said. “I’ll drive,” Howard volunteered. He didn’t have to think about it, he just decided. Exactly the way he always does, when something important needs to be done. He picked Vanessa up and carried her down the stairs, outside and into the back seat of the Land Rover. I found a map in Bill’s bookshelf on the main floor of the house, and got into the car. It was very odd sitting in what ought to be the driver’s seat, as a passenger. The drive was slightly less tense than the trip from the airport to Deia, because we were on the opposite side of the road. There was much less chance of going over the edge and plummeting to our deaths. Thinking about it rationally, we would have been just as dead if we were rammed into the side of the mountain, but somehow that prospect didn’t bother me nearly as much. Between the map and the sometimes-confusing road signs, we somehow managed to get to the hospital in Palma. Visiting the emergency room in Spain is the same as visiting one back home – plenty of waiting. Luckily, the doctor who examined Vanessa spoke English, and he rendered the verdict: I was right, a broken ankle. “I have not broken a bone in ninety-one years,” Vanessa said when she heard the news. “I had hoped to live out my life that way. To do it tripping over my own feet like this, it’s undignified.” The way she said “undignified,” she made it sound like one of the seven deadly sins. Bill and Jane showed up a little while ago, and they’re in with Vanessa right now. I expected him to be angry that we commandeered his car, but he wasn’t. “Good man,” he told Howard after we explained everything. “Calm under fire. You’re welcome to drive back, if you want. I’m sure Jane won’t mind.” No, but I might! Merry Christmas, Kat! It’s very strange not being with Sara and the kids on Christmas Day, and it’s also strange because December 25th isn’t a big deal here. In Deia, they have their big celebration on the 12th day of Christmas – what my grandmother used to call “little Christmas,” and what everyone else calls the Feast of the Epiphany. But Bill and Jackie had small gifts for all of us to open, and in a little while we’re going to go back to the hospital and bring Christmas dinner to poor Vanessa. I just got off the phone with Sara and the kids. It was so wonderful to hear their voices! I’m glad I remembered to include the phone number here in my email to her so she could call us. I wish I could call you, but I don’t want to presume on Bill’s hospitality and run up his phone bill. Can you forgive me? Of course you can. You forgave me for accidentally letting it slip that you were the one who broke the driver’s side mirror right off of your father’s car back in tenth grade, right? Right? Anyway, we’re off to the hospital, so I’ll talk to you later. Merry Christmas again! This is the last night of the trip. We’re going downstairs for dinner in a few minutes, but I wanted to write while I had the chance. We’ll have our full complement of volunteers tonight. Vanessa returned from the hospital about an hour ago, with a walking boot on her ankle. Joe, our young man fresh out of college, has been assigned as her transportation. He’ll carry her up and down the stairs tonight and tomorrow morning. Howard offered to do it, but I vetoed the idea. His back was very sore after we got back from the hospital. There’s no point in making it worse, especially when we have a young, strong and healthy man to do the job instead. We had a great morning. It was our final day of digging, and at about eleven o’clock, I made the biggest and best find of anyone on the whole trip. We’d all been finding pottery, and tiny bits of glass dating back to Roman times, and all kinds of animal bones and Megan found a Roman coin. But I finally found a good-sized piece of the pottery Bill was looking for. I saw the tiniest hint of something, and I very carefully dug it out with my fingers. It took half an hour to get it free, but I wasn’t going to take a chance on using any tools and ruining it. I knew as soon as I saw it – the piece is about three inches square, with an intricate design etched into it, exactly like Bill showed us when we got here. I stood up and shouted, “Take that, Stewart Granger! Look what I found!” Howard smiled, and Bill couldn’t control himself; he dropped to his knees in laughter. Everyone else looked at me blankly. “’King Solomon’s Mines?’ None of you ever saw it? Seriously?” I started to explain, but then Bill recovered his composure and saw what I was holding up. “This is it, Betty. You got it. That is genuine, four-thousand-year-old Beaker pottery, lady. You did good.” He clapped me on the back, and I felt a surge of pride – I’m still feeling it now. My find opened the floodgates – about half the group found something in those last couple of hours (but none of them were as big, or as nice, as mine!). So Bill was in the best mood we’d seen him in this whole time – and that’s saying something, because he’s never not in a good mood, as far as I can tell. That really capped off the trip. I think we did pretty darned good for our first ever vacation out of the country! We had quite the celebration last night at dinner. I was handed a bottle of champagne to open – it was my honor because I made the best find of the trip. I couldn’t quite manage it, so I gave it to Howard and – my hero! – he had it open in an instant. As a group, we went through four bottles toasting one another. Poor Megan had the first hangover of her life this morning, but it has to happen to all of us sometime, right? We all shared phone numbers and emails. When Claudia gave Howard hers, I laughed and said, “I’ll be tearing that up later.” She smiled at me, and with a perfectly straight face, she said, “Please don’t. I want to keep in touch with you. I need to know how you still look like that at forty-five.” She said it without even the slightest wink or roll of the eyes. She really is a sweetheart. I hugged her and kissed her cheek. What else could I do? “Claudia,” I said, “if my son wasn’t already married, I’d have to follow you home and kidnap you for him.” Her last words to me were, “Yeah, I get that a lot.” I’ll bet she does! So we went upstairs to our room on a high note, and we finished the evening on an even higher one. And right now we’re waiting for Jane to arrive so she can drive us to the airport. Nothing’s perfect, I suppose. We had to have a bad day, right? I’m glad it didn’t come until we were on our way home. Everything was fine right up until we got to the airport. Since we had the earliest flight out, it was just Howard and I in the car with Jane. The drive wasn’t bad, and we heard more old college stories that we’ll have to ask Sara about, so that was entertaining. We said good-bye to her and I promised to email her once we got home, and then we checked in. That’s when things started to go downhill. One of our suitcases was too heavy, and we had to open it up right there in the check-in line. We had bought four bottles of wine to give as gifts, but now we only have one. One of them fell on the floor and shattered, and two more “disappeared” in the confusion. After all that trouble, we had to run to make our flight, and we did, barely. We had to squeeze our way up the aisle, and Howard banged his thigh on an armrest (don’t ask) which he complained about for twenty minutes. Then we hit turbulence, and he had to literally run to the bathroom. He spent the next ninety minutes in there. When he came out, he looked pale as a ghost. It was too late to get him something to drink – the flight attendants were starting to get ready for landing. So he suffered for the remainder of the flight. As soon as we landed and got off the plane, he went straight for a bar. He had three shots of scotch, a can of Coke and two bottles of water in the space of five minutes. You can guess what happened next. We had an hour before our flight back home was supposed to board, and Howard spent most of that time in the bathroom. We barely made it to our gate – we were the very last people on the plane. And we hit more turbulence, and we ended up circling Dulles Airport for an hour due to –I don’t know why. The pilot never actually said. This time, Howard was clever – he squirreled away three bottles of water from the drinks cart, so he was set even though the flight was an hour longer than we expected. He spent another twenty minutes in the bathroom before we went through the customs line, and I think that helped; his color was slightly better by the time we made it through the line and saw Sara waiting for us. Seeing her brought home just how much I missed my daughter and my grandchildren and my home. And Howard looked like he was about ready to drop to his knees and kiss the ground. It really was a wonderful – an excellent - adventure, but like Dorothy said (it always comes back to movies with me, doesn’t it?), there’s no place like home. All my love, Betty (January 2001) Most people hated hospitals, but not Lizzie Alderson. To her, a hospital was a good place, a safe place. The place where she spent the majority of her toddler years, following her mother along on rounds. First in Cleveland, at University Hospital, and then in Philadelphia, at Children’s Hospital. Her mother didn’t work at a hospital anymore; she had her own medical practice, working as partners with her old boss Laurie Kensington –or “Dr. Laurie,” which Lizzie still called her even though, at eight years old, she was well past such a childish thing. Lizzie was here at Arlington Hospital because of her mother today. Right now, her mother was upstairs, two floors up, recovering from emergency surgery last night to repair her shattered right arm. Lizzie wasn’t worried about it. Her mother had explained, with Dr. Laurie’s help, precisely what the doctors had done to repair her arm. In great detail. “It’s going to be good as new in a few weeks,” she had told Lizzie, before the latest round of painkillers kicked in. With her mother asleep, Dr. Laurie had taken Lizzie out of the room and on a trip down here to the pediatric ward. “I’m doing a favor for Kate,” she’d told Lizzie. Kate was Dr. Laurie’s friend. Her older sister, Grace, sometimes referred to Kate as Dr. Laurie’s girlfriend, but when Lizzie asked what the difference between “friend” and “girlfriend” was, Grace never answered. It didn’t really matter to Lizzie; Kate was very nice, and she was never anything but friendly to Lizzie, so what did it matter? Lizzie was a little bit confused, however. She knew Kate didn’t have any kids, so what sort of favor could Dr.Laurie be doing for her in the pediatric ward? She looked up at the red-headed doctor, who answered the question she was about to ask. “It’s more a favor for Kate’s boss. His son is here.” Dr. Laurie stopped just outside a patient’s room. “Let’s see how much you remember from Children’s Hospital. I’ll tell you how Seth is feeling right now, and you tell me why he’s here.” This was how Dr. Laurie taught her mother, back in Philadelphia, Lizzie recalled. “Okay! Tell me!” “Well, he’s probably sleeping right now, because of the pain medication. He’s got a very sore throat, and he can’t eat any solid food for a few days. Any ideas yet?” Lizzie grinned. She knew exactly what it was. She had even watched it done once, on TV. “He had a tonsillectomy , right?” The answer earned her an affectionate pat on the head. “You got it. But,” Dr. Laurie went on, trying to hold back a giggle, “do you remember what you used to call it, when I first met you? Remember how you had trouble saying the word right for a while?” Lizzie remembered that, too, and she could not hold back her own laughter. “I called it a turtle-ectomy.” Dr. Laurie took Lizzie’s hand again and led Lizzie into the room. “Let’s see how our turtle-ectomy patient is doing.” The boy – Seth, Dr. Laurie had said – was not quite sleeping. Lizzie wasn’t great at judging age, but she guessed that he was probably around her own age. He had light brown hair and pretty eyes that were half-open. “Hi, Seth!” He turned his head to see who was addressing him, but he couldn’t lift it off the pillow. Lizzie turned her attention back to Dr. Laurie. “You said he’d be sleepy,” she whispered. “Tylenol with codeine,” Dr. Laurie answered, before walking over to the bed. She examined the boy’s chart and checked his monitors. “Dr. Lizzie? Want to check for yourself?” Lizzie did. She knew what the all the monitors showed, and what the numbers on them ought to look like. “They all look good,” she pronounced, nodding her head. “You’re doing fine, Seth,” she told the boy, keeping her voice low. “Don’t try to talk. You’re not supposed to, yet. Just rest and eat your jello and your ice cream and you’ll be back to normal really soon.” Dr. Laurie nodded her agreement. “She’s absolutely right. You’re recovering nicely. Just do what Dr. Lizzie said, and you’ll be fully recovered in no time.” The boy tried valiantly to focus on his visitors. He finally managed to meet Lizzie’s eyes. His lips moved, mouthing the words: “Dr. Lizzie?” Lizzie smiled brightly, patted his hand. “At your service. You just follow my orders, and you’ll be fine. It was very nice being your doctor today.” He held Lizzie’s eyes for a moment longer, before his fatigue caught up with him. His eyes slowly closed, and they remained shut. “Good work, doctor,” Dr. Laurie whispered to Lizzie, as they backed away from the bed. “Thank you, Dr. Laurie,” Lizzie answered. “You were right, how tired he was. Do you think he’ll remember us? His regular doctor will be confused if he’s asking for me when he wakes up.” “I doubt it,” Dr. Laurie said as they walked back towards the elevator. “Tylenol with codeine is pretty strong, especially for an eight-year-old. I doubt he’ll remember a thing…” (June 2012) Ever since the twins hit junior high school, we’ve tried to have a family movie night every Thursday. Now that they’re about to turn sixteen, it’s often the only night of the week that all three of our kids still at home are together in one place. There’s almost always an argument, because everyone has an opinion - usually a very strong one – about which movie to watch. More often than not, Matt wins. As the youngest, I think the twins feel sorry for him. They get to do all kinds of things that he’s still a ways away from doing: dating, learning to drive, you name it. So getting to pick the movie is at least a consolation prize for him. I think they feel even sorrier for him with Lizzie home from college for the summer. I’ll admit that I’ve fawned over her even more than usual since she got home, because she had an announcement for us when we picked her up at the airport. She’s pretty sure she’s going to apply to medical school. Obviously, I was thrilled, and I’ve spent every free moment with her talking about it. I’m fairly certain that Matt knows they’re only letting him win out of sympathy. Last week, for example, Grace showed up for movie night. I know that she was drawn here as much by the promise of a good, home-cooked meal as anything else. After paying her share of the rent on her horrible little apartment down in Manhattan, she barely has enough money for ramen noodles every night. And she won’t take money from us. She’s very proud of supporting herself – but I guess she has to relax that rule every so often and eat real food. Anyway, everyone spent dinner asking her every question imaginable, and poor Matt felt ignored. So he got to choose “Captain America” for the movie. He’s sitting on the couch now, in the best spot, with our brand-new dog on his lap. We just brought him home from the shelter on Sunday, and he doesn’t even have a name yet. His tag simply reads “Beagle. D-104.” Stephanie comes in, still panting from her post-dinner run. She plops herself down next to Matt. “So what are we watching?” Matt answers immediately. “What about ‘Captain America?’” Oh, God. Not again! My words come out without any conscious thought: “Matthew Brian Alderson, how many times have you seen that movie already?” Ben, stretched out on the floor next to the couch, pipes up in defense of his younger brother. “Mom, I don’t think that was called for. Using his full name, just because you don’t want to see it again?” I sigh heavily. I guess he’s right. All he did was ask for the same movie we watched last week. That really doesn’t warrant the middle name. “Maybe you’re right. But if we have to watch a superhero movie for the millionth time, could we at least put ‘Thor’ on, instead?” That way I – and Stephanie and Lizzie and my Mom – will have something nice to stare at while we suffer through it. “I’d much rather look at him,” I can’t remember the actor’s name, but everyone knows exactly who I mean, “for two hours.” Brian knows I’m kidding – mostly, anyway. The guy who plays Thor really is pretty amazing, and even my husband would admit that. “Not that he’s got anything on you, of course.” Right on cue, Brian flexes his arm, to general laughter. I pat his muscles, which are awfully nice. And, unlike Thor’s, they’re mine whenever I want them. Nobody responds, so I pick up the remote control and pull up the on-screen TV guide. And I see a much better choice, on the classic movie station. “Look at that! ‘Magnificent Obsession!’ There’s a real story.” Brian rolls his eyes. He went along with my joking about Thor, but I guess this was a step too far. “How many times have you seen that one, Sara? And anyway, a ‘real’ story?’ A rich playboy decides to go to medical school and become a brain surgeon so he can operate on the blind woman whose husband he accidentally killed? Yeah, that’s very believable.” Well, when you put it like that, it does sound silly. But the medical parts are really good – if not exactly realistic, even for the time the movie was made. From the back of the room, my mother pokes her head in from the door to the apartment. I guess she heard us. “Ooh, Rock Hudson! I vote for that!” Stephanie speaks up. “Forget that! Mom, you always want to watch a doctor movie. You made us watch that stupid one where they’re in medical school ten times!” “Gross Anatomy,” which is a great movie. And it is pretty realistic, too. With Lizzie planning for medical school, maybe we ought to watch that tonight instead. Start to get her thinking the right way. But Stephanie has other thoughts. “What about ‘Breaking Dawn?’ I’ve had the DVD of Part One for three weeks and I haven’t been able to watch it yet! How is that fair?” It’s very fair. I had to sit through the first three “Twilight” movies, and as far as I’m concerned, the most recent one can stay in the box until doomsday. “We could do a double-feature,” Lizzie chimes in. “The last two Harry Potters. We all like those, right?” Yes, we do. I could live with that, if I can’t have a good doctor movie. Ben again speaks up on Matt’s behalf. “Well, I vote with Matt. So that’s two for ‘Captain America’ and two for Mom’s old, boring doctor movie.” The beagle adds his opinion, barking repeatedly, with the occasional break to lick Matt’s face. “Make that three for ‘Captain America.’ I think that decides it.” It takes another five minutes, but it’s finally decided that “Captain America” is the least bad choice. And I do have to admit that our new dog seems to like it. He barks all throughout the movie, and when Captain America rescues his best friend from the lab where the Red Skull is experimenting on him, the dog goes crazy. The screen freezes, and I’m not sure what happened, but then Matt says, “See, I knew it was the right choice! Now we know what to call the dog. He’s Bucky!” Matt’s got the remote control in one hand, and he’s petting the dog with the other. As he does so, the dog flops over onto his side, baring his stomach to Matt. “He likes it! He likes the name!” The dog is certainly happy. I can’t argue that. Matt goes on, explaining his choice. “Dogs are man’s best friend, right? And Bucky is Steve Rogers’ best friend. And, his last name is Barnes, just like Grandma and Grandpa! It all makes sense.” It does, I guess. The character’s name is Bucky Barnes, that’s true. And nobody’s been able to agree on a name up until now, or even who ought to name him. Everyone is silent; we’re all staring at Matt and the dog, watching my son rub his belly, listening to Bucky bark contentedly. “I think you’re right, Matt,” Brian says, finally. “I think he’s definitely Bucky. I also think he’s overdue for a walk. Bucky, outside?” The dog is on his feet, off the couch and out of the room in the space of two heartbeats. Brian stares down the hallway after Bucky. “Maybe we need to call him Barry instead,” he says. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. Neither does Stephanie. “I’m sure you’re going to tell us why, aren’t you, Dad,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Barry Allen? The Flash?” Brian looks back at us. I shake my head slowly. It’s always comics and superheroes with him. No wonder his son wants to watch “Captain America” every week. But I still don’t exactly get what Brian means. He gives me a hopeful smile. “The fastest man alive? Because…he’s so fast? Because he ran to the door…in a flash? No?” No. I mean, I get it, now. It does sort of make sense. Still, no. “Really? Well, I thought it was clever. But I guess we’ll stick with Bucky.” I think so. And I think Bucky the beagle agrees. The excited barking from the kitchen is all the answer any of us needs. (September 2013) Howard Barnes stood, looking out at a vast crowd surrounding the U.S. Capitol. They were all there for him, waiting for him to take the oath of office. Next to him, Bible in hand, stood the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Although Howard had never met the Chief Justice before this morning, the man nonetheless seemed very familiar. It felt, to Howard, as though he’d seen the Chief Justice often. Maybe even every afternoon, for a while. The Chief Justice smiled at Howard, and led him through the oath. “I, Howard Barnes, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Then it was over, and he was President. Just like that. “Good job,” the Chief Justice said to him. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got six episodes of ‘The People’s Court’ to tape this afternoon. I couldn’t quit. The Supreme Court doesn’t pay that well, you know.” Howard watched the man walk off, leaving him alone, except for a black-suited Secret Service agent. For a moment, he wondered what he should do first; he hadn’t really given much thought to how one actually spent his days as President. No, that wasn’t true, he realized. There was one thing he knew of that every past President did. “Mr. Smith,” he whispered to the agent, “I want to play a round of golf. You think if I called down there, I could get a tee time at Augusta National? They have to let me play there, right? I’m the Commander in Chief. If they give me any backtalk, I can send the Marines to set them straight, can’t I?” Agent Smith sighed deeply. “That would be frowned upon, Sir.” “Really?” Howard gave the agent a hopeful smile. “Yes, Sir. Really.” His face fell. Clearly, being President wasn’t going to be nearly as enjoyable as he’d imagined… “So Sara tells me we’re going to have a new mayor?” Howard sat down at the kitchen table and answered his son-in-law. “We are. It’s weird. Greg’s been the mayor since we moved here. Ten years.” At last night’s town meeting, Greg Townsend announced that he wouldn’t be running for re-election. He and his wife and children would be moving to California, to be closer to her parents. “I wonder who’ll run against him? I don’t think he’s had an opponent since 2005, has he?” Brian shook his head. “Nope. There wouldn’t have been any point. Everybody liked Greg. But now, who knows?” Brian finished his breakfast and left for work, leaving Howard all alone with his thoughts. His daughter was already at the hospital, all the grandchildren still living at home were in school and Betty was down in Pennsylvania visiting with her best friend, Kat. His thoughts this morning centered mainly around golf. But he also had a strange urge to go onto the internet and find a photo of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. When he did so, he was surprised. The man looked nothing like what Howard expected, and he still had no idea why he wanted to know in the first place. After a couple of hours at the driving range, and then a late lunch that violated every rule of his diet plan, Howard’s odd thoughts were forgotten. He’d hit a few truly spectacular drives, ate a very satisfying meal and he’d have three grandchildren waiting for him when he got home. What more could a man ask for? “I shouldn’t say anything,” Sara said as she cleared away the dishes after dinner. “But there were three dreams, three different people, and they were all pretty much the same.” It had been seventeen years since his daughter first revealed her ability to visit other people’s dreams, and in all that time Howard had never really gotten used to it. He had come to fear it, every time she talked about the dreams, because it generally meant trouble wasn’t far behind. He asked, trying to keep the nerves out of his voice, “What were they about?” “Arlene Buntz.” The poodle woman. He had long ago learned to give her and her dogs a wide berth, especially when he was walking his own family’s dogs. Her poodles were ill-tempered, every one of them. “Apparently she’s going to run for mayor. Or at least, everybody I saw in the dreams thinks she’s going to.” “We were talking about that this morning, wondering who was going to run,” Brian said, handing the last of the dishes to Sara. “I don’t like her,’ Howard said. “Bad dogs, bad owner, bad person. She’s got no business being mayor.” The table cleared, Sara led the way into the living room. Howard followed. “That’s what Shelly and Candy and Isaiah think, too. They don’t want her to be mayor.” “They’d better find somebody to run against her, then,” Brian said. “If it’s just her on the ballot, it doesn’t matter how many people don’t like her.” Entirely unbidden, the words “I, Howard Barnes, do solemnly swear…” came into Howard’s mind suddenly. He dismissed them with a shake of his head. He had no idea why he’d thought of them. They made no sense. And, anyway, he didn’t know if there even was an oath of office for the mayor of Aisling, New York. A town of only eight hundred people didn’t really have much need of an oath, did it? Howard almost felt guilty, as though he shouldn’t be enjoying this as much as he was. But it had to be done. It wasn’t just for his own benefit, after all. It was for the good of the town. He stood up from the chair, ignoring the warning look from George Stephanopoulos, sitting at the head of the table in the moderator’s seat. “I have here a list,” Howard said, waving the papers in his hand. “Twenty-nine separate incidents. Twenty-nine violations. Failure to control a dangerous animal, failure to obey leash laws, failure to properly remove dog waste from a public sidewalk. I could go on,” he slammed the papers down on the table, “but I think the point is made. You can’t be trusted with something as simple as walking your dogs. How on earth can you be trusted to run our town?” Across from Howard, Arlene Buntz seethed with rage, but she could find no words to answer him, not even when the moderator turned to her and asked, “Ms. Buntz, your rebuttal?” And in that moment, Howard Barnes knew he’d won the debate – and the election. “Hey, Grandpa!” Howard looked up to see his grandson standing over him. “Sorry, Ben. I was just…” “I know. You get so into your spy books.” He’d been reading the latest Jack Reacher book. It was just getting good, too. “What’s up?” “Here,” Ben said, handing him a folder. He opened it. It contained a form. An application? “What is it?” “The deadline’s Friday. Sixty days before the election. I heard Mom talking to Grandma Betty, and they don’t think you should run, but I think you’d be a great mayor. Why don’t you do it?” “Yeah, Grandpa.” He heard the voice of Ben’s twin sister. And here she was now. “Why not? We’ll help you with the campaign.” An image drifted into Howard’s mind – him standing across a table from Arlene Buntz, in the middle of a TV studio. He had no idea where the thought came from. “I don’t know a thing about politics,” he said. But, then again, how much power did the mayor of a town of eight hundred people really have? How much responsibility? Honestly, even if he were the worst mayor in history, there probably wasn’t very much harm he could do. Stephanie scoffed. “What’s to know? Do you really think Greg Townsend actually knows anything about politics, either?” That was true. The man had a full-time job besides being mayor. It just couldn’t be that difficult. “Maybe. But I don’t know anything about campaigning, either.” It was Ben’s turn to scoff. “Grandpa, when you take out everybody who’s too young to vote or who isn’t registered, there’s probably only six hundred voters in the whole down. So you only need to convince three hundred people. Divide that by sixty days, that’s five people a day you need to get.” “Exactly,” Stephanie agreed. “And you’ve already got yourself and Grandma, Mom and Dad and Lizzie, and Uncle Bob and Aunt Susan. It’ll be easy!” That was also true. It probably wouldn’t be that difficult He had plenty of friends just on his own, even before you took into account his family’s good reputation in town. Getting three hundred people to vote for him would be a piece of cake. It all made sense. Except for one thing. “Ben, you said your mother didn’t want me to run?” His sister answered for him. “Mom saw you dream.” That explained everything. The image that his mind had conjured up – it must have come from his dream. A dream with him in a TV studio, and the other likely candidate for mayor sitting across from him. A debate! “Well, I’ll just go and have a talk with your mother.” Ten minutes later, Howard was sitting in his daughter’s office at the hospital. “Sara, you owe me an explanation.” To her credit, she understood exactly what he was talking about, and she didn’t try to deny it, either. “Mom told you?” No, his wife hadn’t told him. That would be a whole other conversation. “The twins, actually. So why didn’t you tell me what I dreamed about last night? And why don’t you want me to be mayor?” “It’s not like I want to see what you’re dreaming about, Dad. You ought to have your privacy. It’s just – you have no idea how weird it is.” He couldn’t really argue the point. “And it’s not that I don’t want you to be mayor. It’s just – Dad, you know you get carried away sometimes. You were really going after Arlene Buntz in the dream. It was vicious.” “Someone ought to go after her,” he said. “She’s too irresponsible, letting her dogs run free all the time. She’s got no business being mayor. Someone has to run against her, right?” “I guess,” Sara said, sighing. “But why does it have to be you?” “Why not?” There wasn’t any reason why not, was there? None at all. “I’m serious. Look, if I run and I win, what’s the worst that can happen? I hate it, I’m terrible at it, and I quit, and then Arlene can take over if she still wants to.” Sara thought that over for a while. “If you’re sure, Dad, I guess – like you said, why not? I’ll help, too. I know the kids will. I bet they already volunteered.” Howard smiled his answer and Sara nodded. “All of us will help. Except one thing. No dreaming. And if I do see anything, I can’t tell you. I have to draw a line somewhere. Fair enough?” Howard walked around to his daughter, hugged her. “Fair enough. Now let me get back home and start figuring out how to run a campaign.” (October 2040) From the day that I gave birth to Lizzie, I knew that my own birthday would never be a big deal again. When I hit a round number, there’s always been little bit of a fuss, sure. Two years ago, for example, on my seventieth birthday, my children all got together and threw me a fantastic party. And Brian always makes me feel special on my birthday – but he does that every day anyway, so it doesn’t really count. Still, my twenty-fourth birthday – two months before Lizzie was born - was the last time everything was all about me. And that’s fine. I’ve never had any complaints. Not even last year, when my birthday was finally and completely eclipsed, once and for all. It happened exactly a year ago today, when John Taylor - Lizzie’s son – and his wife Sheila had their first child, a beautiful, perfect angel named Amanda. It’s still hard to believe. One year ago, my little baby became a grandmother, and I became a great-grandmother. And my father – it’s even harder to believe this – became a great-great-grandfather. Today was Amanda’s first birthday, and even though we had the party at our house, nobody paid much attention to me. That’s fine, though – big, loud birthday parties are for the young. And, honestly, I didn’t even really like big, loud parties when I was young. I’m in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher and enjoying the peace and quiet after all the activity of the day. And here comes Brian. “So how’s my birthday girl?” “Tired.” I lost count of how many people we had in the house today. All the kids were here, even Matt. He only stayed for a half-hour before he was called back to the hospital; I’m guessing he’s still in the operating room right now. I suppose I’ll find out tomorrow; he still reports to me every morning, even though he’s my boss, and he’s been for the last four years. Everyone else stayed for the whole party. Grace and her daughter Christina were here, and Lizzie and Seth and their other four children. The twins were here: Ben and Celia and their four children, Stephanie and Max and their own twins, arguing the whole time just like their mother and their uncle used to do. And Michael, too, and his fiancée, up from Florida just for the day. Besides Amanda, the other guest of honor was, of course, Dad. It’s not as though he had far to come; he still lives here, in the little apartment out back. But he got winded very quickly. He managed an hour, and even held his great-great-granddaughter on his lap for a few minutes, but that pretty much did him in. As soon as I’m finished in here, I’m going to go check on him. Brian smiles at me; the same smile I fell in love with back in college. “Not too tired to celebrate once the house is empty, I hope?” No, never too tired for that. Not even at my age. It may not happen as often as it used to, and neither of us have quite as much energy as we once did, but we still do pretty well for ourselves. Well, we celebrated, and I can honestly say – as usual – we did quite well for ourselves. Now Brian is drifting off to sleep. I watch him, watch his chest rise and fall, watch his eyes slowly close. I don’t really need to watch, though; I know every inch of him, head to toe, by heart. If I had ever learned to draw, I could render a perfect sketch of him from memory. He’s so beautiful; always was, always will be. Not just on the outside, of course; as handsome as he is, his real beauty is inside. It radiates out from his heart, and I knew it from the very first moment I ever set eyes on him. And I know he’d say the same about me. About my beauty, and my heart. And I know he could draw a picture of me from memory, just as well as I could. I’m sure that’s what he’s carrying with him into sleep right now – just like I am… Sara is in a McDonald’s, sitting at a table, waiting for someone. She knows this place – this specific McDonald’s – and she knows who she’s waiting for. Sure enough, after a moment, here comes her father, carrying a tray. He places it down on the table, sits across from Sara. It’s not her father as he was today; the ninety-four year old man who could only last an hour at the party. No, it’s her father from half a century ago, and from one particular day. It was 1989, and it was right before Christmas, Sara recalls. She was home from college, and she and her father were driving back from Philadelphia. They’d gone to a sports memorabilia show, and she’d gotten an autographed photo of Mike Schmidt as a Christmas gift for Brian. A gift that, even then, she knew would only be the first of many. Sara wonders where the dream-version of herself is. If she’s visiting her father’s dream, and he’s remembering that day so long ago, where is the twenty-one year old Sara? She looks down at herself, at her unwrinkled hands, at the Crewe University sweatshirt she’s wearing. Then she glances at a window and sees her reflection, and she knows. There is no dream-Sara; there’s only her. And she looks exactly as she did fifty years ago. She hasn’t only brought herself here, she’s set the scene. This is as much her dream as her father’s. And she knows why they both look as they do. This was the moment that she stopped being a little girl in her father’s eyes. And the moment she stopped feeling like one. When she told her father that Brian was in her heart, and she began to imagine how their relationship might one day be as close and as deep and as lasting as her parents’ marriage. But why has he – or she – chosen this place, this day? “Dad?” “I was wondering when you’d show up,” her father says. “It’s funny, how – how normal this feels. I thought it would be weirder.” Sara isn’t sure how to react to that. This dream is definitely weird enough for her. She still doesn’t understand – she knows why she and her father are both young, but why is she here in the first place? Why does her father feel so perfectly at home here? And how did he know to expect her? The answers come to her immediately. He isn’t surprised, just as, all those years ago, Margaret Black wasn’t surprised to see Sara in her dream. Or Paul Sorrentino a decade later. And that means… “No! Dad, no. No! You – stop it!” He smiles at Sara kindly, reaching out and patting her hand. “Stop that, Sara. You know better. Don’t fight this. Don’t argue. Listen to your father.” His tone is so gentle, and yet so strong, exactly as it always has been, her entire life. “I’m ninety-four years old, honey. I’ve known this was coming.” Sara wants to shout at him, to protest, to do something – anything. But all she does is sit there, and listen as her father lectures her. “Seventy years old, and you’re as slow as ever on the uptake. All your children know. Why do you think they all came today? Why do you think Michael flew up here? Just for a birthday party? You’re the only one who didn’t figure it out.” He chuckles, smiling all the while. “Just like always. It’s time, Sara. You have to know it. And…” now his voice catches for a moment, “your mother is waiting for me. She’s been waiting for eight months, now. That’s long enough. And, anyway, I kept my promise. You remember?” Sara doesn’t, at first. She sits there, fighting back tears, trying to obey her father’s wishes. She strains to recall the promise he’s talking about, and now it comes to her. “Yes, Dad. You did.” After his heart attack, all those years ago, she made him promise to live long enough to see the birth of his first great-great-grandchild. “You never broke a promise to me, not ever.” “No,” he agrees. “I never could, not to you. Any more than you or Brian could break one to each other.” He takes both of Sara’s hands in his. “I can’t complain, Sara. I’ve had a long life, and a good one. And no – almost no regrets.” “What do you regret?” Sara asks, not sure she really wants to know. Her father’s smile is even more kindly now. “Only two things I can think of at the moment. I wish I could stick around another eight months or so. I’m going to miss your big party next summer. How many parents can say they saw their child’s fiftieth wedding anniversary?” Sara squeezes her father’s hands tightly, and closes her eyes to try and forestall the tears. “What – what – what’s the other one?” She knows she doesn’t want to know this. It’s taking everything she’s got not to begin sobbing uncontrollably; she’s afraid his next answer will destroy all her self-control. But she opens her eyes and waits for his words anyway. “It would have been nice to see the Eagles win the Super Bowl,” he says, shaking his head. Despite herself, Sara laughs. Then, however, the tears do begin to leak from her eyes. “But I’d probably need to live another ninety-four years to have any chance at that.” “OK, Dad,” Sara says, trying vainly to keep her voice level. “Let’s do that. We can take it one day at a time. Start with today. One more day, and then tomorrow, and the next day.” Her father shakes his head again, and now Sara’s tears begin to pour out. “How am I supposed to live without you?” “Sara…” Sara wipes her eyes, tries to compose herself. She does not succeed. “You told me – do you remember? When we were here? Way back, all those years ago? You said you never wanted to imagine a world without me in it. Do you remember that?” Her father nods. “Well, how am I supposed to live in a world without you?” He’s still smiling; his voice is so soothing, Sara feels comforted by it despite everything she’s feeling. “I’ll still be here, Sara. You know that. I’m in your heart. I’ll always be there. And I’ll be watching you. You know that, too. You never stop watching your children, worrying about them. I doubt you stop even when you’re on the other side.” Sara can’t argue with him anymore; the only thing she can do is stand, walk around to his side of the table and throw herself onto him, clutch him as tightly as she ever did in waking life. She holds her father, and he holds her, for a very long time. And then she pulls away from him. She imagines a window opening, sunlight shining on her, illuminating every corner of her life. She stares at her father, expecting him to react, but he doesn’t. Before she can say anything, she realizes why he’s not reacting. She realizes that, once again, her father is way ahead of her. “I know what you’re doing, Sara. But you don’t have to. You don’t need to show yourself to me. You’ve always been open to me. I’ve always seen you. I’ve seen everything you are, from the moment you were born. And I could not be prouder of you. No one could be prouder of you, honey.” Now, finally, his tears begin to flow, and Sara’s start again. They stand there, crying, and they reach for each other’s hands. “I’m proud of you, Dad,” Sara says. And now she tries to open another window, but, again, her father doesn’t react. Nothing opens – because there is nothing to open. Just as her father has always seen her – all of her – Sara has always seen straight through to her father’s heart. And she knows something else. That was his gift to her, from the day she was born. He showed himself to her, everything that mattered. And that, Sara finally understands, is how she knew what she had when she found Brian. And more, too. “God, Dad. You’re right about me. I’m so slow. I – I never thanked you. You – you taught me, my whole life. You taught me what a man should be, so I knew to find Brian. And you taught me how to love, every day, no matter what happened. You taught me how to make a life with him, how to be a parent, how to – just how to be. You – you and Mom, you taught me that.” “Then I did good,” her father says. “I did everything I was supposed to. I can – forgive me, honey – I can die happy. And I am. I truly am, Sara.” He pulls her into a hug – one final hug – and whispers into her ear, “I love you, honey. I always have, and I always will. Goodbye, Sara.” Sara feels his hold on her loosening, and all around her, the restaurant begins to fade away. She calls out, and by the brightness of his smile, nearly blinding her now, she knows he hears – she knows these are the last words he will ever here - “Goodbye, Daddy. I love you, too. I always will.” Sara’s eyes remain open as her surroundings disappear, but her father’s final words, and hers, echo through the now-empty space. And Sara knows, for the rest of her life – however many years it will be – those words will always be with her. Just as they always have been.


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