After seeing the last patient of the day, a follow-up visit with an engaging thirty-year-old woman on whom he had performed an aortal graft last March, Jonas Nyebern entered his private office at the back of the medical suite and closed the door. He went behind the desk, sat down, and looked in his wallet for a slip of paper on which was written a telephone number that he chose not to include on his Rolodex. He found it, pulled the phone close, and punched in the seven numbers.
Following the third ring, an answering machine picked up as it had on his previous calls yesterday and earlier that morning: “This is Morton Redlow. I'm not in the office right now. After the beep, please leave a message and a number where you can be reached, and I will get back to you as soon as possible.”
Jonas waited for the signal, then spoke softly. “Mr. Redlow, this is Dr. Nyebern. I know I've left other messages, but I was under the impression that I would receive a report from you last Friday. Certainly by the weekend at the latest. Please call me as soon as possible. Thank you.”
He hung up.
He wondered if he had reason to worry.
He wondered if he had any reason not to worry.
Regina sat at her desk in Sister Mary Margaret's French class, weary of the smell of chalk dust and annoyed by the hardness of the plastic seat under her butt, learning how to say, Hello, I am an American. Can you direct me to the nearest church where I might attend Sunday Mass?
She was still a fifth-grade student at St. Thomas's Elementary School, because continued attendance was a strict condition of her adoption. (Trial adoption. Nothing final yet. Could blow up. The Harrisons could decide they preferred raising parakeets to children, give her back, get a bird. Please, God, make sure they realize that in Your divine wisdom You designed birds so they poop a lot. Make sure they know what a mess it'll be keeping the cage clean.) When she graduated from St. Thomas's Elementary, she would move on to St. Thomas's High School, because St. Thomas's had its fingers in everything. In addition to the children's care home and the two schools, it had a day-care center and a thrift shop. The parish was like a conglomerate, and Father Jiminez was sort of a big executive like Donald Trump, except Father Jiminez didn't run around with bimbos or own gambling casinos. The bingo parlor hardly counted. (Dear God, that stuff about birds pooping a lot—that was in no way meant as a criticism. I'm sure You had Your reasons for making birds poop a lot, all over everything, and like the mystery of the Holy Trinity, it's just one of those things we ordinary humans can't ever quite understand. No offense meant.) Anyway, she didn't mind going to St. Thomas's School, because both the nuns and the lay teachers pushed you hard, and you ended up learning a lot, and she loved to learn.
By the last class on that Tuesday afternoon, however, she was full up with learning, and if Sister Mary Margaret called on her to say anything in French, she would probably confuse the word for church with the word for sewer, which she had done once before, much to the delight of the other kids and to her own mortification. (Dear God, please remember that I made myself say the Rosary as penance for that boner, just to prove I didn't mean anything by it, it was only a mistake.) When the dismissal bell rang, she was the first out of her seat and the first out of the classroom door, even though most of the kids at St. Thomas's School did not come from St. Thomas's Home and were not disabled in any way.
All the way to her locker and all the way from her locker to the front exit, she wondered if Mr. Harrison would really be waiting for her, as he had promised. She imagined herself standing on the sidewalk with kids swarming around her, unable to spot his car, the crowd gradually diminishing until she stood alone, and still no sign of his car, and her waiting as the sun set and the moon rose and her wristwatch ticked toward midnight, and in the morning when the kids returned for another day of school, she'd just go back inside with them and not tell anyone the Harrisons didn't want her any more.
He was there. In the red car. In a line of cars driven by other kids' parents. He leaned across the seat to open the door for her as she approached.
When she got in with her book bag and closed the door, he said, “Hard day?”
“Yeah,” she said, suddenly shy when shyness had never been one of her major problems. She was having trouble getting the hang of this family thing. She was afraid maybe she'd never get it.
He said, “Those nuns.”
“Yeah,” she agreed.
“Tough as nails, those nuns.”
“Nails,” she said, nodding agreement, wondering if she would ever be able to speak more than one-word sentences again.
As he pulled away from the curb, he said, “I'll bet you could put any nun in the ring with any heavyweight champion in the whole history of boxing—I don't care if it was even Muhammad Ali—and she'd knock him out in the first round.”
Regina couldn't help grinning at him.
“Sure,” he said. “Only Superman could survive a fight with a real hardcase nun. Batman? Fooie! Even your average nun could mop up the floor with Batman—or make soup out of the whole gang of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
“They mean well,” she said, which was three words, at least, but sounded goofy. She might be better off not talking at all; she just didn't have any experience at this father-kid stuff.
“Nuns?” he said. “Well, of course, they mean well. If they didn't mean well, they wouldn't be nuns. They'd be maybe Mafia hitmen, international terrorists, United States Congressmen.”
He did not speed home like a busy man with lots to do, but like somebody out for a leisurely drive. She had not been in a car with him enough to know if that was how he always drove, but she suspected maybe he was loafing along a little slower than he usually did, so they could have more time together, just the two of them. That was sweet. It made her throat a little tight and her eyes watery. Oh, terrific. A pile of cow flop could've carried on a better conversation than she was managing, so now she was going to burst into tears, which would really cement the relationship. Surely every adoptive parent desperately hoped to receive a mute, emotionally unstable girl with physical problems—right? It was all the rage, don't you know. Well, if she did cry, her treacherous sinuses would kick in, and the old snot-faucet would start gushing, which would surely make her even more appealing. He'd give up the idea of a leisurely drive, and head for home at such tremendous speed that he'd have to stand on the brakes a mile from the house to avoid shooting straight through the back of the garage. (Please, God, help me here. You'll notice I thought “cow flop” not “cow shit,” so I deserve a little mercy.)
They chatted about this and that. Actually, for a while he chatted and she pretty much just grunted like she was a subhuman out on a pass from the zoo. But eventually she realized, to her surprise, that she was talking in complete sentences, had been doing so for a couple of miles, and was at ease with him.
He asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she just about bent his ear clear off explaining that some people actually made a living writing the kinds of books she liked to read and that she had been composing her own stories for a year or two. Lame stuff, she admitted, but she would get better at it. She was very bright for ten, older than her years, but she couldn't expect actually to have a career going until she was eighteen, maybe sixteen if she was lucky. When had Mr. Christopher Pike started publishing? Seventeen? Eighteen? Maybe he'd been as old as twenty, but certainly no older, so that's what she would shoot for—being the next Mr. Christopher Pike by the time she was twenty. She had an entire notebook full of story ideas. Quite a few of those ideas were good even when you crossed out the embarrassingly childish ones like the story about the intelligent pig from space that she had been so hot about for a while but now saw was hopelessly dumb. She was still talking about writing books when they pulled into the driveway of the house in Laguna Niguel, and he actually seemed interested.
She figured she might get the hang of this family thing yet.
Vassago dreamed of fire. The click of the cigarette-lighter cover being flipped open in the dark. The dry rasp of the striker wheel scraping against the flint. A spark. A young girl's white summer dress flowering into flames. The Haunted House ablaze. Screams as the calculatedly spooky darkness dissolved under licking tongues of orange light. Tod Ledderbeck was dead in the cavern of the Millipede, and now the house of plastic skeletons and rubber ghouls was abruptly filled with real terror and pungent death.
He had dreamed of that fire previously, countless times since the night of Tod's twelfth birthday. It always provided the most beautiful of all the chimeras and phantasms that passed behind his eyes in sleep.
But on this occasion, strange faces and images appeared in the flames. The red car again. A solemnly beautiful, auburn-haired child with large gray eyes that seemed too old for her face. A small hand, cruelly bent, with fingers missing. A name, which had come to him once before, echoed through the leaping flames and melting shadows in the Haunted House. Regina … Regina … Regina.
The visit to Dr. Nyebern's office had depressed Hatch, both because the tests had revealed nothing that shed any light on his strange experiences and because of the glimpse he had gotten into the physician's own troubled life. But Regina was a medicine for melancholy if ever there had been one. She had all the enthusiasm of a child her age; life had not beaten her down one inch.
On the way from the car to the front door of the house, she moved more swiftly and easily than when she had entered Salvatore Gujilio's office, but the leg brace did give her a measured and solemn gate. A bright yellow and blue butterfly accompanied her every step, fluttering gaily a few inches from her head, as if it knew that her spirit was very like itself, beautiful and buoyant.
She said solemnly, “Thank you for picking me up, Mr. Harrison.”
“You're welcome, I'm sure,” he said with equal gravity.
They would have to do something about this “Mr. Harrison” business before the day was out. He sensed that her formality was partly a fear of getting too close—and then being rejected as she had been during the trial phase of her first adoption. But it was also a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing and unwittingly destroying her own prospects for happiness.
At the front door, he said, “Either Lindsey or I will be at the school for you every day—unless you've got a driver's license and would just rather come and go on your own.”
She looked up at Hatch. The butterfly was describing circles in the air above her head, as if it were a living crown or halo. She said, “You're teasing me, aren't you?”
“Well, yes, I'm afraid I am.”
She blushed and looked away from him, as if she was not sure if being teased was a good or bad thing. He could almost hear her inner thoughts: Is he teasing me because he thinks I'm cute or because he thinks I'm hopelessly stupid, or something pretty close to that.
Throughout the drive home from school, Hatch had seen that Regina suffered from her share of self-doubt, which she thought she concealed but which, when it struck, was evident in her lovely, wonderfully expressive face. Each time he sensed a crack in the kid's self-confidence, he wanted to put his arms around her, hug her tight, and reassure her—which would be exactly the wrong thing to do because she would be appalled to realize that her moments of inner turmoil were so obvious to him. She prided herself on being tough, resilient, and self-sufficient. She projected that image as armor against the world.
“I hope you don't mind some teasing,” he said as he inserted the key in the door. “That's the way I am. I could check myself into a Teasers Anonymous program, shake the habit, but it's a tough outfit. They beat you with rubber hoses and make you eat Lima beans.”
When enough time passed, when she felt she was loved and part of a family, her self-confidence would be as unshakable as she wanted it to be now. In the meantime, the best thing he could do for her was pretend that he saw her exactly as she wished to be seen—and quietly, patiently help her finish becoming the poised and assured person she hoped to be.
As he opened the door and they went inside, Regina said, “I used to hate Lima beans, all kinds of beans, but I made a deal with God. If he gives me … something I 'specially want, I'll eat every kind of bean there is for the rest of my life without ever complaining.”
In the foyer, closing the door behind them, Hatch said, “That's quite an offer. God ought to be impressed.”
“I sure hope so,” she said.
And in Vassago's dream, Regina moved in sunlight, one leg embraced in steel, a butterfly attending her as it might a flower. A house flanked by palm trees. A door. She looked up at Vassago, and her eyes revealed a soul of tremendous vitality and a heart so vulnerable that the beat of his own was quickened even in sleep.
They found Lindsey upstairs, in the extra bedroom that served as her at-home studio. The easel was angled away from the door, so Hatch couldn't see the painting. Lindsey's blouse was half in and half out of her jeans, her hair was in disarray, a smear of rust-red paint marked her left cheek, and she had a look that Hatch knew from experience meant she was in the final fever of work on a piece that was turning out to be everything she had hoped.
“Hi, honey,” Lindsey said to Regina. “How was school?”
Regina was flustered, as she always seemed to be, by any term of endearment. “Well, school is school, you know.”
“Well, you must like it. I know you get good grades.”
Regina shrugged off the compliment and looked embarrassed.
Repressing the urge to hug the kid, Hatch said to Lindsey, “She's going to be a writer when she grows up.”
“Really?” Lindsey said. “That's exciting. I knew you loved books, but I didn't realize you wanted to write them.”
“Neither did I,” the girl said, and suddenly she was in gear and off, her initial awkwardness with Lindsey past, words pouring out of her as she crossed the room and went behind the easel to have a look at the work in progress, “until just last Christmas, when my gift under the tree at the home was six paperbacks. Not books for a ten-year-old, either, but the real stuff, because I read at a tenth-grade level, which is fifteen years old. I'm what they call precocious. Anyway, those books made the best gift ever, and I thought it'd be neat if someday a girl like me at the home got my books under the tree and felt the way I felt, not that I'll ever be as good a writer as Mr. Daniel Pinkwater or Mr. Christopher Pike. Jeez, I mean, they're right up there with Shakespeare and Judy Blume. But I've got good stories to tell, and they're not all that intelligent-pig-from-space crap. Sorry. I mean poop. I mean junk. Intelligent-pig-from-space junk. They're not all like that.”