“Why Monday?” she asked.
“I can read now. The twisties are gone."
“They'll be back."
“But over the weekend, maybe I could read a few last books."
He knew the titles that he wanted: “Tunnel in the Sky, Between Planets, Starman Jones. “
Carrying him to the window, gazing up at the stars, the moon, she said, “I'll always read to you, Barty."
“That's different though."
“Yes. Yes, it is."
Heinlein dreamed of traveling to far worlds. Prior to his death, John Kennedy had promised that men would walk on the moon before the end of the decade. Barty wanted nothing so grand, only to read a few stories, to lose himself in the wonderful private pleasure of books, because soon each story would be a listening experience only, no longer entirely a private journey.
His breath was warm against her throat: “And I want to go back home to see some faces."
“Uncle Edom. Uncle Jacob. Aunt Maria. So I can remember faces after ... you know."
The sky was so deep and cold.
The moon shimmered, and the stars blurred-but only briefly, for her devotion to this boy was a fiery furnace that tempered the steel of her spine and brought a drying heat to her eyes. Without Franklin Chan's full approval but with his complete understanding, Agnes took Barty home. On Monday, they would return to Hoag Hospital, where Barty would receive surgery on Tuesday.
The Bright Beach Library was open until nine on Friday evening. Arriving an hour before closing, they returned the Heinlein novels that Barty had already read and checked out the three that he wanted. In a spirit of optimism, they borrowed a fourth, Podkayne of Mars.
In the car again, a block from home, Barty said, “Maybe you could just not tell Uncle Edom and Uncle Jacob until Sunday night. They won't handle it real well. You know?"
She nodded. “I know."
“If you tell them now, we won't have a happy weekend."
Happy weekend. His attitude amazed her, and his strength in the face of darkness gave her courage.
At home, Agnes had no appetite, but she fixed Barty a cheese sandwich, spooned potato salad into a dish, added a bag of corn chips and a Coke, and served this late dinner on a tray, in his room, where he was already in bed and reading Tunnel in the Sky.
Edom and Jacob came to the house, asking what Dr. Chan had said, and Agnes lied to them. “There are some test results we won't have until Monday, but he thinks Barty is going to be all right."
If either of them suspected that she was lying, it was Edom. He looked puzzled, but he didn't pursue the issue.
She asked Edom to stay in the main house, so Barty wouldn't be alone while she visited Maria Gonzalez for an hour or two. He was pleased to oblige, settling down to watch a television documentary about volcanoes, which promised to include stories about the 1902 eruption of Mont Pelee, on Martinique, which killed 28,000 people within minutes, and other disasters of colossal proportions.
She knew Maria was home, waiting for a call about Barty.
The apartment above Elena's Fashions could be reached by a set of exterior stairs at the back of the building. The climb had never before taxed Agnes in the least, but now it took away her breath and left her legs trembling by the time she reached the top landing.
Maria looked stricken when she answered the doorbell, for she intuited that a visit, instead of a call, meant the worst.
In Maria's kitchen, still just four days past Christmas, Agnes let dissolve her stoic mask, and wept at last.
Later, at home, after Agnes sent Edom back to his apartment, she opened a bottle of vodka that she had bought on the way back from Maria's. She mixed it with orange juice in a waterglass.
She sat at the kitchen table, staring at the glass. After a while she emptied it in the sink without having taken a sip.
She poured cold milk and drank it quickly. As she was rinsing the empty glass, she felt as if she might throw up, but she didn't.
For a long time, she sat alone in the dark living room, in the armchair that had been Joey's favorite, thinking about many things but returning often to the memory of Barty's dry walk in wet weather.
When she went upstairs at 2:10 in the morning, she found the boy fast asleep in the soft lamplight, Tunnel in the Sky at his side.
She curled up in the armchair, watching Barty. She was greedy for the sight of him. She thought she would not doze off, but would spend the night watching over him, yet exhaustion defeated her.
Shortly after six o'clock, Saturday morning, she stirred from a fretful dream and saw Barty sitting up in bed, reading.
During the night, he had awakened, seen her in the chair, and covered her with a blanket.
Smiling, pulling the blanket more tightly around herself, she said, “You look after your old mom, don't you?"
“You make good pies."
Caught unaware by the joke, she laughed. “Well, I'm glad to know I'm good for something. Is there maybe a special pie you'd like me to make today?"
“Peanut-butter chiffon. Coconut cream. And chocolate cream."
“Three pies, huh? You'll be a fat little piggy."
“I'll share,” he assured her.
Thus began the first day of the last weekend of their old lives. Maria visited on Saturday, sitting in the kitchen, embroidering the collar and cuffs of a blouse, while Agnes baked pies.
Barty sat at the kitchen table, reading Between Planets. From time to time, Agnes discovered him watching her at work or studying Maria's face and her dexterous hands.
At sunset, the boy stood in the backyard, gazing up through the branches of the giant oak as an orange sky darkened to coral, to red, to purple, to indigo.
At dawn, he and his mother went down to the sea, to watch the rolling waves filigreed with foam and gilded with the molten gold of morning sun, to see the kiting gulls and to scatter bread that brought the winged multitudes to earth.
On Sunday, New Year's Eve, Edom and Jacob came for dinner. Following dessert, when Barty went to his room to continue reading Starman Jones, which he had begun late that afternoon, Agnes told her brothers the truth about their nephew's eyes.
Their struggle to put their sorrow into words moved Agnes not because they cared so deeply, but because in the end they were unable to express themselves adequately. Without the relief provided by expression, their anguish grew corrosive. Their lifelong introversion left them without the social skills to unburden themselves or to provide solace to others. Worse, their obsessions with death, in all its many means and mechanisms, had prepared them to expect Barty's cancer, which left them neither shocked nor capable of consolation, but merely resigned. Ultimately, in great frustration, each twin was reduced to fragmented sentences, crippled gestures, quiet tears-and Agnes became the only consoler.
They wanted to go up to Barty's room, but she refused them, because there was nothing more they could do for the boy than they had done for her. “He wants to finish reading Starman Jones, and I'm not letting anything interfere with that. We're leaving for Newport Beach at seven in the morning, and you can see him then."
Shortly past nine o'clock, an hour after Edom and Jacob had gone, Barty came downstairs, book in hand. “The twisties are back."
For each of them, Agnes put one scoop of vanilla ice cream in a tall glass of root beer, and after changing quickly into their pajamas, they sat together in Barty's bed, enjoying their treats, while she read aloud the last sixty pages of Starman Jones.
No weekend had ever passed so quickly, and no midnight had ever brought with it such dread.
Barty slept in his mother's bed that night.
Shortly after Agnes turned out the light, she said, “Kiddo, it's been one whole week since you walked where the rain wasn't, and I've been doing a lot of thinking about that."
“It's not scary,” he assured her again.
“Well, it still is to me. But what I've been wondering ... when you talk about all the ways things are ... is there someplace where you don't have this problem with your eyes?"
“Sure. That's how it works with everything. Everything that can happen does happen, and each different way of happening makes a whole new place."
“I didn't follow that at all."
He sighed. “I know."
“Do you see these other places?"
“Just feel 'em. “
“Even when you walk in them?"
“I don't really walk in them. I sort of just walk . . . in the idea of them."
“I don't suppose you could make that any clearer for your old mom, huh?"
“Maybe someday. Not now."
“So ... how far away are these places?"
“All here together now."
“Other Bartys and other Agneses in other houses like this-all here together now."
“And in some of them, your dad's alive."
“And in some of them, maybe I died the night you were born, and you live alone with your dad."
“Some places, it has to be like that.” some places it has to be that your eyes are okay?"
“There's lots of places where I don't have bad eyes at all. And then lots of places where I have it worse or don't have it as bad, but still have it some."
Agnes remained mystified by this talk, but a week before, in the rain-swept cemetery, she had learned there was substance to it.
She said, “Honey, what I'm wondering is ... could you walk where you don't have bad eyes, like you walked where the rain wasn't ... and leave the tumors in that other place? Could you walk where you have good eyes and come back with them?"
“It doesn't work that way."
He considered the issue for a while. “I don't know."
“Will you think about it for me?"
“Sure. It's a good question."
She, smiled. “Thanks. I love you, sweetie."
“I love you, too."
“Have you said your silent prayers?"
“I'll say them now."
Agnes said hers, too.
She lay beside her boy in the darkness, gazing at the covered window, where the faint glow of the moon pressed through the blind, suggesting another world thriving with strange life just beyond a thin membrane of light.
Murmuring on the edge of sleep, Barty spoke to his father in all the places where Joey still lived: “Good-night, Daddy."
Agnes's faith told her that the world was infinitely complex and full of mystery, and in a peculiar way, Barty's talk of infinite possibilities supported her belief and gave her the comfort to sleep. Monday morning, New Year's Day, Agnes carried two suitcases out of the back door, set them on the porch, and blinked in surprise at the sight of Edom's yellow-and-white Ford Country Squire parked in the driveway, in front of the garage. He and Jacob were loading their suitcases into the car.
They came to her, picked up the luggage that she had put down, and Edom said, “I'll drive."
“I'll sit up front with Edom,” Jacob said. “You can ride in back with Barty. “
In all their years, neither twin had ever set foot beyond the limits of Bright Beach. They both appeared nervous but determined.
Barty came out of the house with the library copy of Podkayne Of Mary, which his mother had promised to read to him later, in the hospital. “Are we all going?” he asked.
“Looks that way,” said Agnes.
In spite of major earthquakes pending, explosions of dyn**ite hauling trucks on the highway, tornadoes somewhere churning, the grim likelihood of a great dam bursting along the route, freak ice storms stored up in the unpredictable heavens, crashing planes and runaway trains converging on the coastal highway, and the possibility of a sudden violent shift in the earth's axis that would wipe out human civilization, they risked crossing the boundaries of Bright Beach and traveled north into the great unknown of territories strange and perilous.
As they rolled along the coast, Agnes began to read to Barty from Podkayne of Mars: “ 'All my life I've wanted to go to Earth. Not to live, of course-just to see it. As everybody knows, Terra is a wonderful place to visit but not to live. Not truly suited to human habitation.“'
In the front seat, Edom and Jacob murmured agreement with the narrator's sentiments. Monday night, Edom and Jacob booked adjoining units in a motel near the hospital. They called Barty's room to give Agnes the phone number and to report that they had inspected eighteen establishments before finding one that seemed comparatively safe.
In regard for Barty's tender age, Dr. Franklin Chan had arranged for Agnes to spend the night in her son's room, in the second bed, which currently wasn't needed for a patient.
For the first time in many months, Barty didn't want to sleep in the dark. They left the door of the room open, admitting some of the fluorescent glow from the hallway.
The night seemed to be longer than a Martian month. Agnes dozed, fitfully, waking more than once, sweaty and shaking, from a dream in which her son was taken from her in pieces: first his eyes, then his hands, then his ears, his legs....
The hospital was eerily quiet, except for the occasional squeak of rubber-soled shoes on the vinyl floor of the corridor.
At first light, a nurse arrived to perform preliminary surgical prep on Barty. She pulled the boy's hair back and captured it under a tight fitting cap. With cream and a safety razor, she shaved off his eyebrows.
When the nurse was gone, alone with his mother as they waited for the orderly to bring a gurney, Barty said, “Come close."
She was already standing beside his bed. She leaned down to him.
“Closer,” he said.
She lowered her face to his.
He raised his head and rubbed noses with her. “Eskimo."
“Eskimo,” she repeated.
Barty whispered: “The North Pole Society of Not Evil Adventurers is now in session."
“All members present,” she agreed.
“I have a secret."
“No member of the society ever violates a secret confidence,” Agnes assured him.
Throughout Agnes's thirty-three years, strength had often been demanded of her, but never such strength as was required now to rein in her emotions and to be a rock for Barty. “Don't be scared, honey. I'm here.” She took one of his small hands in both of hers. “I'll be waiting. You'll never be without me."