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They endured an awkward silence, and then Danny said, “I haven't had lunch yet, and I'm starved. I'm going to slip down to the coffee shop for a half hour or so.”

When Danny left, Thelma said, “He's not really hungry, is he? He just knew we wanted a girl-to-girl talk.” Laura smiled. “He's a lovely man.”

Thelma put down the railing on one side of the bed and said, “If I hop up here and sit beside you, I won't shake up your insides, will I? You won't suddenly bleed all over me, will you, Shane?” “I'll try not to.”

Thelma eased up onto the high hospital bed. She took one of Laura's hands in both of hers. “Listen, I read Shadrach, and it's damned good. It's what all writers try to do and seldom achieve.” “You're sweet.”

“I'm a tough, cynical, hard-nosed broad. Listen, I'm serious about the book. It's brilliant. And I saw Bovine Bowmaine in there, and Tammy. And Boone, the child-welfare psychologist. Different names but I saw them. You've captured them perfectly, Shane. God, there were times you brought it all back, times when chills ran up and down my back so bad I had to put down the book and go for a walk in the sun. And there were times when I laughed like a loon.”

Laura ached in every muscle, in every joint. She did not have the strength to lean away from the pillows and put her arms around her friend. She just said, “I love you, Thelma.”

“The Eel wasn't there, of course.”

“I'm saving him for another book.”

“And me, damn it. I'm not in the book, though I'm the most colorful character you've ever known!”

“I'm saving you for a book all your own,” Laura said.

“You mean it, don't you?”

“Yes. Not the one I'm working on now but the one after it.”

“Listen, Shane, you better make me gorgeous, or I'll sue your ass off. You hear me?”

“I hear you.”

Thelma chewed her lip, then said, “Will you-”

“Yes. I'm going to put Ruthie in it too.”

They were silent a while, just holding hands.

Unshed tears clouded Laura's vision, but she saw that Thelma was blinking back tears too. “Don't. It'll streak all that elaborate punk eye makeup.”

Thelma raised one of her feet. “Are these boots freaky or what? Black leather, pointy toes, stud-ringed heels. Makes me look like a damned dominatrix, doesn't it?”

“When you walked in, the first thing I wondered was how many men you've whipped lately.”

Thelma sighed and sniffed hard to clear her nose. “Shane, listen and listen good. This talent of yours is maybe more precious than you think. You're able to capture people's lives on the page, and when the people are gone, the page is still there, the life is still there. You can put feelings on the page, and anyone, anywhere, can pick up that book and feel those same feelings, you can touch the heart, you can remind us what it means to be human in a world that's increasingly bent on forgetting. That's a talent and a reason to live that's more than most people ever have. So ... well, I know how much you want to have a family . . . three or four kids, you've said ... so I know how bad you must be hurting right now. But you've got Danny and Christopher and this amazing talent, and that's so very much to have.”

Laura's voice was unsteady. “Sometimes . . . I'm just so afraid.”

“Afraid of what, baby?”

“I wanted a big family because . . . then it's less likely they'll all be taken away from me.”

“Nobody's going to be taken away from you.”

“With just Danny and little Chris . . . just two of them . . . something might happen.”

“Nothing will happen.”

“Then I'd be alone.”

“Nothing will happen,” Thelma repeated.

“Something always seems to happen. That's life.”

Thelma slid farther onto the bed, stretched out beside Laura, and put her head against Laura's shoulder. “When you said it was a hard birth . . . and the way you look, so pale ... I was scared. I have friends in LA, sure, but all of them are show-biz types. You're the only real person I'm close to, even though we don't see each other that much, and the idea that you might have nearly ...”

“But I didn't.”

“Might've, though.” Thelma laughed sourly. “Hell, Shane, once an orphan, always an orphan, huh?”

Laura held her and stroked her hair.

Shortly after Chris's first birthday, Laura delivered The Golden Edge. It was published ten months later, and by the boy's second birthday, the book was number one on the Times bestseller list, which was a first for her.

Danny managed Laura's book income with such diligence, caution, and brilliance that within a few years, in spite of the savage bite of income taxes, they would be not just rich-they were already rich by most standards-but seriously rich. She didn't know what she thought about that. She had never expected to be rich. When she considered her enviable circumstances, she thought perhaps she should be thrilled or, given the want of much of the world, appalled, but she felt nothing much one way or the other about the money. The security that money provided was welcome; it inspired confidence. But they had no plans to move out of their quite pleasant four-bedroom house, though they could have afforded an estate. The money was there, and that was the end of it; she gave it little thought. Life was not money; life was Danny and Chris and, to a lesser extent, her books.

With a toddler in the house, she no longer had the ability or desire to work sixty hours a week at her word processor. Chris was talking, walking, and he exhibited none of the moodiness or mindless rebellion that the child-rearing books described as normal behavior for the year between two and three. Mostly he was a pleasure to be with, a bright and inquisitive boy. She spent as much time with him as she could without risk of spoiling him.

The Amazing Appleby Twins, her fourth novel, was not published until October 1984, two years after The Golden Edge, but there was none of the drop-off in audience that is sometimes the case when a writer does not publish a book each year. The advance sales were her biggest yet.

On October first, she was sitting with Danny and Chris on the sofa in the family room, watching old Road Runner cartoons on the VCR-“Vooom, vooom!” Christopher said each time Road Runner took off in a flash of speed-eating popcorn, when Thelma called from Chicago, in tears. Laura took the call on the kitchen phone, but on the TV in the adjoining room the beleaguered coyote was trying to blow up his nemesis and was blowing himself up instead, so Laura said, “Danny, I better take this in the den.”

In the four years since Chris was born, Thelma's career had gone straight up. She had been booked in a couple of Vegas casino lounges. (“Hey, Shane, I must be pretty good because the cocktail waitresses are nearly naked, all boobs and butts, and sometimes the guys in the audience actually look at me instead of them. On the other hand maybe I only appeal to fags.”) In the past year she had moved into the main showroom at the MGM Grand as an opening act for Dean Martin, and she had made four appearances on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson. There was talk of a movie or even a television series to be built around her, and she seemed poised for stardom as a comedienne. Now she was in Chicago, opening soon as the headliner at a major club.

Perhaps the long chain of positive developments in their lives was what panicked Laura when she heard Thelma crying. For some time she had been waiting for the sky to fall with a horrid suddenness that would have caught Chicken Little unaware. She dropped into the chair behind the desk in the den, snatched up the phone. “Thelma? What is it, what's wrong?”

“I just read ... the new book.”

Laura could not figure what in The Amazing Appleby Twins could have affected Thelma so profoundly, and then she suddenly wondered if something in the characterization of Carrie and Sandra Appleby had offended. Though none of the major events in the story mirrored those in the lives of Ruthie and Thelma, the Applebys were, of course, based on the Ackersons. But both characters had been drawn with great love and good humor; surely there was nothing about them that would offend Thelma, and in panic Laura tried to say as much.

“No, no, Shane, you hopeless fool,” Thelma said between bouts of tears. “I'm not offended. The reason I can't stop crying is because you did the most wonderful thing. Carrie Appleby is Ruthie as sure as I ever knew her, but in your book you let Ruthie live a long time. You let Ruthie live, Shane, and that's a whole hell of a lot better job than God did in real life.”

They talked for an hour, mostly about Ruthie, reminiscing, not with a lot of tears, now, but mostly with affection. Danny and Chris appeared in the open doorway of the den a couple of times, looking abandoned, and Laura blew them kisses, but she stayed on the telephone with Thelma because it was one of those rare times when remembering the dead was more important than tending to the needs of the living.

Two weeks before Christmas, 1985, when Chris was five and then some, the southern California rainy season started with a downpour that made palm fronds rattle like bones, battered the last remaining blossoms off the impatiens, and flooded streets. Chris could not play outside. His father was off inspecting a potential real estate investment, and the boy was in no mood to entertain himself. He kept finding excuses to bother Laura in her office, and by eleven o'clock she gave up trying to work on the current book. She sent him to the kitchen to get the baking sheets out of the cupboard, promising to let him help her make chocolate-chip cookies.

Before joining him, she got Sir Tommy Toad's webbed-foot boots, tiny umbrella, and miniature scarf from the dresser drawer in the bedroom, where she had been keeping them for just such a day as this. On her way to the kitchen she arranged those items near the front door.

Later, as she was slipping a tray of cookies into the oven, she sent him to the front door to see if the United Parcel deliveryman had left a package that she professed to be expecting, and Chris came back flushed with excitement. “Mommy, come look, come see.”

In the foyer he showed her the three miniature items, and she said, “I suppose they belong to Sir Tommy. Oh, did I forget to tell you about the lodger we've taken in? A fine, upstanding toad from England here on the queen's business.”

She had been eight when her father had invented Sir Tommy, and she had accepted the fabulous toad as a fun fantasy, but Chris was only five and took it more seriously. “Where's he going to sleep-the spare bedroom? Then what do we do when Grandpa comes to visit?”

“We've rented Sir Tommy a room in the attic,” Laura said, “and we must not disturb him or tell anyone about him except Daddy because Sir Tommy is here on secret business for Her Majesty.”

He looked at her wide-eyed, and she wanted to laugh but dared not. He had brown hair and eyes, like she and Danny, but his features were delicate, more his mother's than his father's. In spite of his smallness there was something about him that made her think he would eventually shoot up to be tall and solidly constructed like Danny. He leaned close and whispered: “Is Sir Tommy a spy?”

Throughout the afternoon, as they baked cookies, cleaned up, and played a few games of Old Maid, Chris was full of questions about Sir Tommy. Laura discovered that tale-telling for children was in some ways more demanding than writing novels for adults.

When Danny came home at four-thirty, he shouted a greeting on his way along the hall from the connecting door to the garage.

Chris jumped up from the breakfast-nook table, where he and Laura were playing cards, and urgently shushed his father. “Sssshhh, Daddy, Sir Tommy might be sleeping now, he had a long trip, he's the Queen of England, and he's spying in our attic!”

Danny frowned. “I go away from home for just a few hours, and while I'm gone we're invaded by scaly, transvestite, British spies?”

That night in bed, after Laura made love with a special passion that surprised even her, Danny said, “What's gotten into you today? All evening you were so ... buoyant, so up.”

Snuggling against him under the covers, enjoying the feel of his nude body against hers, she said, “Oh, I don't know, it's just that I'm alive, and Chris is alive, you're alive, we're all together. And it's this Tommy Toad thing.”

“It tickles you?”

“Tickles me, yes. But it's more than that. It's . . . well, somehow it makes me feel that life goes on, that it always goes on, the cycle is renewed-does this sound crazy?-and that life is going to go on for us, too, for all of us, for a long time.”

“Well, yeah, I think you're right,” he said. “Unless you're that energetic every time you make love from now on, in which case you'll kill me in about three months.”

In October, 1986, when Chris turned six, Laura's fifth novel, Endless River, was published to critical acclaim and bigger sales than any of her previous titles. Her editor had predicted the greater success: “It's got all the humor, all the tension, all the tragedy, that whole weird mix of a Laura Shane novel, but it's somehow not as dark as the others, and that makes it especially appealing.”

For two years, Laura and Danny had been taking Chris up to the San Bernardino Mountains at least one weekend a month, to Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, both during the summer and winter, to make sure he learned that the whole world was not like the pleasant but thoroughly urbanized and suburbanized realms of Orange County. With the continued flowering of her career and the success of Danny's investment strategies, and considering her recent willingness not only to entertain optimism but to live it, they decided it was time to indulge themselves, so they bought a second home in the mountains.

It was an eleven-room stone and redwood place on thirty acres just off state route 330, a few miles south of Big Bear. It was, in fact, a more expensive house than the one they lived in during the week in Orange Park Acres. The property was mostly covered with western juniper, Ponderosa pine, and sugar pine, and their nearest neighbor was far beyond sight. During their first weekend at the retreat, as they were making a snowman, three deer appeared at the edge of the looming forest, twenty yards away, and watched curiously.

Chris was thrilled at the sight of the deer, and by the time he had been tucked in bed that night, he was sure that they were Santa Claus's deer. This was where the jolly fat man went after Christmas, he insisted, and not, as legend had it, to the North Pole.

Wind and Stars appeared in October of '87, and it was a still bigger hit than any of her previous books. The movie of Endless River was released that Thanksgiving, enjoying the biggest opening-week box office of any film that year.