He was being unfair, more than unfair, a little irrational due to a world-class case of nerves. Everyone in the attorney's office was there to help him and Lindsey. Father Jiminez, the rector of St. Thomas's Church, who raised much of the annual budget of the orphanage headed by Sister Immaculata, was really no more ominous than the priest in Going My Way, a Latino Bing Crosby, and Father Duran seemed sweet-tempered and shy. In reality, Sister Immaculata looked no more like a bird of prey than she did a stripper, and The Nun with No Name had a genuine and almost constant smile that more than compensated for whatever negative emotions one might choose to read into her piercing stare. The priests and nuns tried to keep a light conversation going; Hatch and Lindsey were, in fact, the ones who were too tense to be as sociable as the situation required.
So much was at stake. That was what made Hatch jumpy, which was unusual, because he was ordinarily the most mellow man to be found outside of the third hour of a beer-drinking contest. He wanted the meeting to go well because his and Lindsey's happiness, their future, the success of their new life depended on it.
Well, that was not true, either. That was overstating the case again.
He couldn't help it.
Since he had been resuscitated more than seven weeks ago, he and Lindsey had undergone an emotional sea change together.
The long, smothering tide of despair, which had rolled over them upon Jimmy's death, abruptly abated. They realized they were still together only by virtue of a medical miracle. Not to be thankful for that reprieve, not to fully enjoy the borrowed time they had been given, would have made them ungrateful to both God and their physicians. More than that—it would have been stupid. They had been right to mourn Jimmy, but somewhere along the way, they had allowed grief to degenerate into self-pity and chronic depression, which had not been right at all.
They had needed Hatch's death, reanimation, and Lindsey's near death to jolt them out of their deplorable habit of gloom, which told him that they were more stubborn than he had thought. The important thing was that they had been jolted and were determined to get on with their lives at last.
To both of them, getting on with life meant having a child in the house again. The desire for a child was not a sentimental attempt to recapture the mood of the past, and it wasn't a neurotic need to replace Jimmy in order to finish getting over his death. They were just good with kids; they liked kids; and giving of themselves to a child was enormously satisfying.
They had to adopt. That was the hitch. Lindsey's pregnancy had been troubled, and her labor had been unusually long and painful. Jimmy's birth was a near thing, and when at last he made it into the world, the doctors informed Lindsey that she would not be capable of having any more children.
The Nun with No Name stopped pacing, pulled up the voluminous sleeve of her habit, and looked at her wristwatch. “Maybe I should go see what's keeping her.”
“Give the child a little more time,” Sister Immaculata said quietly. With one plump white hand, she smoothed the folds of her habit. “If you go to check on her, she'll feel you don't trust her to be able to take care of herself. There's nothing in the ladies' restroom that she can't deal with herself. I doubt she even had the need to use it. She probably just wanted to be alone a few minutes before the meeting, to settle her nerves.”
To Lindsey and Hatch, Father Jiminez said, “Sorry about the delay.”
“That's okay,” Hatch said, fidgeting on the sofa. “We understand. We're a little nervous ourselves.”
Initial inquiries made it clear that a lot—a veritable army—of couples were waiting for children to become available for adoption. Some had been kept in suspense for two years. After being childless for five years already, Hatch and Lindsey didn't have the patience to go on the bottom of anyone's waiting list.
They were left with only two options, the first of which was to attempt to adopt a child of another race, black or Asian or Hispanic. Most would-be adoptive parents were white and were waiting for a white baby that might conceivably pass for their own, while countless orphans of various minority groups were destined for institutions and unfulfilled dreams of being part of a family. Skin color meant nothing to either Hatch or Lindsey. They would have been happy with any child regardless of its heritage. But in recent years, misguided do-goodism in the name of civil rights had led to the imposition of an array of new rules and regulations designed to inhibit interracial adoption, and vast government bureaucracies enforced them with mind-numbing exactitude. The theory was that no child could be truly happy if raised outside of its ethnic group, which was the kind of elitist nonsense—and reverse racism—that sociologists and academics formulated without consulting the lonely kids they purported to protect.
The second option was to adopt a disabled child. There were far fewer disabled than minority orphans—even including technical orphans whose parents were alive somewhere but who'd been abandoned to the care of the church or state because of their differentness. On the other hand, though fewer in number, they were in even less demand than minority kids. They had the tremendous advantage of being currently beyond the interest of any pressure group eager to apply politically correct standards to their care and handling. Sooner or later, no doubt, a marching moron army would secure the passage of laws forbidding adoption of a green-eyed, blond, deaf child by anyone but green-eyed, blond, deaf parents, but Hatch and Lindsey had the good fortune to have submitted an application before the forces of chaos had descended.
Sometimes, when he thought about the troublesome bureaucrats they had dealt with six weeks ago, when they had first decided to adopt, he wanted to go back to those agencies and throttle the social workers who had thwarted them, just choke a little common sense into them. And wouldn't the expression of that desire make the good nuns and priests of St. Thomas's Home eager to commend one of their charges to his care!
“You're still feeling well, no lasting effects from your ordeal, eating well, sleeping well?” Father Jiminez inquired, obviously just to pass the time while they waited for the subject of the meeting to arrive, not meaning to impugn Hatch's claim to a full recovery and good health.
Lindsey—by nature more nervous than Hatch, and usually more prone to overreaction than he was—leaned forward on the sofa. Just a touch sharply, she said, “Hatch is at the top of the recovery curve for people who've been resuscitated. Dr. Nyebern's ecstatic about him, given him a clean bill of health, totally clean. It was all in our application.”
Trying to soften Lindsey's reaction lest the priests and nuns start to wonder if she was protesting too much, Hatch said, “I'm terrific, really. I'd recommend a brief death to everyone. It relaxes you, gives you a calmer perspective on life.”
Everyone laughed politely.
In truth, Hatch was in excellent health. During the four days following reanimation, he had suffered weakness, dizziness, nausea, lethargy, and some memory lapses. But his strength, memory, and intellectual functions returned one hundred percent. He had been back to normal for almost seven weeks.
Jiminez's casual reference to sleeping habits had rattled Hatch a little, which was probably what had also put Lindsey on edge. He had not been fully honest when he had implied he was sleeping well, but his strange dreams and the curious emotional effects they had on him were not serious, hardly worth mentioning, so he did not feel that he had actually lied to the priest.
They were so close to getting their new life started that he did not want to say the wrong thing and cause any delays. Though Catholic adoption services took considerable care in the placement of children, they were not pointlessly slow and obstructive, as were public agencies, especially when the would-be adopters were solid members of the community like Hatch and Lindsey, and when the adoptee was a disabled child with no option except continued institutionalization. The future could begin for them this week, as long as they gave the folks from St. Thomas's, who were already on their side, no reason to reconsider.
Hatch was a little surprised by the piquancy of his desire to be a father again. He felt as if he had been only half-alive, at best, during the past five years. Now suddenly all the unused energies of that half-decade flooded into him, overcharging him, making colors more vibrant and sounds more melodious and feelings more intense, filling him with a passion to go, do, see, live. And be somebody's dad again.
“I was wondering if I could ask you something,” Father Duran said to Hatch, turning away from the Satsuma collection. His wan complexion and sharp features were enlivened by owlish eyes, full of warmth and intelligence, enlarged by thick glasses. “It's a little personal, which is why I hesitate.”
“Oh, sure, anything,” Hatch said.
The young priest said, “Some people who've been clinically dead for short periods of time, a minute or two, report … well … a certain similar experience. …”
“A sense of rushing through a tunnel with an awesome light at the far end,” Hatch said, “a feeling of great peace, of going home at last?”
“Yes,” Duran said, his pale face brightening. “That's what I meant exactly.”
Father Jiminez and the nuns were looking at Hatch with new interest, and he wished he could tell them what they wanted to hear. He glanced at Lindsey on the sofa beside him, then around at the assemblage, and said, “I'm sorry, but I didn't have the experience so many people have reported.”
Father Duran's thin shoulders sagged a little. “Then what did you experience?”
Hatch shook his head. “Nothing. I wish I had. It would be … comforting, wouldn't it? But in that sense, I guess I had a boring death. I don't remember anything whatsoever from the time I was knocked out when the car rolled over until I woke up hours later in a hospital bed, looking at rain beating on a window-pane—”
He was interrupted by the arrival of Salvatore Gujilio in whose office they were waiting. Gujilio, a huge man, heavy and tall, swung the door wide and entered as he always did—taking big strides instead of ordinary steps, closing the door behind him in a grand sweeping gesture. With the unstoppable determination of a force of nature—rather like a disciplined tornado—he swept around the room, greeting them one by one. Hatch would not have been surprised to see furniture spun aloft and artwork flung off walls as the attorney passed, for he seemed to radiate enough energy to levitate anything within his immediate sphere of influence.
Keeping up a continuous line of patter, Gujilio gave Jiminez a bear hug, shook hands vigorously with Duran, and bowed to each of the nuns with the sincerity of a passionate monarchist greeting members of the royal family. Gujilio bonded with people as quickly as one piece of pottery to another under the influence of super glue, and by their second meeting he'd greeted and said goodbye to Lindsey with a hug. She liked the man and didn't mind the hugging, but as she had told Hatch, she felt like a very small child embracing a sumo wrestler. “He lifts me off my feet, for God's sake,” she'd said. Now she stayed on the sofa instead of rising, and merely shook hands with the attorney.
Hatch rose and extended his right hand, prepared to see it engulfed as if it were a speck of food in a culture dish filled with hungry amoebas, which is exactly what happened. Gujilio, as always, took Hatch's hand in both of his, and since each of his mitts was half-again the size of any ordinary man's, it wasn't so much a matter of shaking as being shaken.
“What a wonderful day,” Gujilio said, “a special day. I hope for everyone's sake it goes as smooth as glass.”
The attorney donated a certain number of hours a week to St. Thomas's Church and the orphanage. He appeared to take great satisfaction in connecting adoptive parents with disabled kids.
“Regina's on her way from the ladies,” Gujilio told them. “She stopped to chat a moment with my receptionist, that's all. She's nervous, I think, trying to delay a little longer until she has her courage screwed up as far as it'll go. She'll be here in a moment.”
Hatch looked at Lindsey. She smiled nervously and took his hand.
“Now, you understand,” Salvatore Gujilio said, looming over them like one of those giant balloons in a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, “that the point of this meeting is for you to get to know Regina and for her to get to know you. Nobody makes a decision right here, today. You go away, think about it, and let us know tomorrow or the day after whether this is the one. The same goes for Regina. She has a day to think about it.”
“It's a big step,” Father Jiminez said.
“An enormous step,” Sister Immaculata concurred.
Squeezing Hatch's hand, Lindsey said, “We understand.”
The Nun with No Name went to the door, opened it, and peered down the hallway. Evidently Regina was not in sight.
Rounding his desk, Gujilio said, “She's coming, I'm sure.”
The attorney settled his considerable bulk into the executive office chair beside his desk, but because he was six-feet-five, he seemed almost as tall seated as standing. The office was furnished entirely with antiques, and the desk was actually a Napoleon III table so fine that Hatch wished he had something like it in the front window of his shop. Banded by ormolu, the exotic woods of the marquetry top depicted a central cartouche with a detailed musical trophy over a conforming frieze of stylized foliage. The whole was raised on circular legs with acanthus-leaf ormolu joined by a voluted X stretcher centered with an ormolu urn finial, on toupie feet. At every meeting, Gujilio's size and dangerous levels of kinetic energy initially made the desk—and all the antiques—seem fragile, in imminent jeopardy of being knocked over or smashed to smithereens. But after a few minutes, he and the room seemed in such perfect harmony, you had the eerie feeling that he had recreated a decor he had lived with in another—thinner—life.
A soft, distant, but peculiar thud drew Hatch's attention away from the attorney and the desk.
The Nun with No Name turned from the door and hurried back into the room, saying, “Here she comes,” as if she didn't want Regina to think she had been looking for her.
The sound came again. Then again. And again.
It was rhythmic and getting louder.
Lindsey's hand tightened on Hatch's.
Someone seemed to be keeping time to an unheard tune by rapping a lead pipe against the hardwood floor of the hallway beyond the door.
Puzzled, Hatch looked at Father Jiminez, who was staring at the floor, shaking his head, his state of mind not easy to read. As the sound grew louder and closer, Father Duran stared at the half-open hall door with astonishment, as did The Nun with No Name. Salvatore Gujilio rose from his chair, looking alarmed. Sister Immaculata's pleasantly ruddy cheeks were now as white as the linen band that framed her face.