Posted: May 5-11, 2000
Spoliers: "The Choice"; a couple of details swiped from "Number One with a Bullet"
Disclaimer for the suits: Early Edition isn't mine; it's Sony Tristar's. Gary and Marissa aren't mine, but they really aren't Sony's, either; they're Kyle Chandler's and Shanesia Williams's. I'm not making any money from this, nor do I wish to.
Disclaimer for readers: This story was conceived, and part of it
was written, in the summer and fall of 1999; GTA members can vouch for me.
It got tucked away in favor of real life and another story for several months.
Now that it's done, I just want to say that the ideas contained herein came
from me, long before I heard the spoilers that sparked me to finish this,
and not from any possibly similar events you might see in the "Time" episode
of Early Edition. I don't know how this kind of thing happens, except
that maybe it's a matter of everyone involved making logical deductions based
on what we know of the characters
Think of it as happening during the winter 2000 (season 4) hiatus.
Translations into Spanish by www.freetranslations.com, but I take full responsibility. Please feel free to enlighten me if you find any errors.
...to GTA members Earlydues, inkling, and Maryilee, for an unforgettable trip to Chicago that included Ferris wheel scoping;
...to Ann Hanson, Research Assistant Extraordinaire, whose post about what she saw of the filming of an upcoming episode led directly to the panic-stricken inspiration that got this puppy finished--it's all your fault, Ann!;
...and to inkling (again)--beta reader, fairy godmother to Bohemians, and all-around good friend.
Feedback is A Good Thing. I'd love to know what you think.
Okay. I'm done now. Read.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Providence of Sparrows
by peregrin anna
Providence: "Foresight, prevision, esp. anticipation of and preparation
for the future; the foreknowing and beneficent care and government of God
or of nature; divine direction, control, or guidance; a person who acts or
appears in the character of Providence" ~ Oxford English
Not a whit; we defy augury. There is a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow.
~ Hamlet, V:ii
"Mrs. Miller! Mrs. Miller, wait up!" Gary was running as fast as his legs would carry him, but the elderly woman had a two-block head start. "Hey! Mrs. Miller!"
She must have been hard of hearing. The streets were nearly deserted, but she didn't turn her curly grey head to look back over her shoulder, and kept up a brisk pace despite the two sacks of groceries she carried. Gary pistoned his legs into quicker motion. He nearly tripped over a rake that lay in the middle of the sidewalk, but an awkward hop-skip kept him from going down.
"Mrs. Miller!" he gasped when he was just a few feet behind her, and finally, she heard.
"What in the world?" She shifted her load and lifted her sunglasses to peer closely at Gary as he bent over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. After a moment, he was able to hand her a small white paper sack.
"This--this fell out of your stuff, back by the mailbox," Gary panted. He finally straightened up. Reaching for the proffered item, Mrs. Miller smiled indulgently at Gary. She wore blue jogging pants and a "Spirit of 1776" T-shirt. Her eyes widened when she got a close look at the sack.
"Oh, my heavens! This is George's prescription. Thank goodness you found it!"
Running a hand through his hair and down to the back of his neck, where sweat was dripping uncomfortably behind his shirt collar, Gary nodded. "It looked important." He wiped his hand on his jeans, and the sweat transferred black newspaper-ink stains from his skin to his new jeans. Drat.
"It is. It's his heart medicine, and the old bottle was all used up. If he'd had any problems today and we hadn't been able to find it--oh, dear, I don't want to think what would have happened."
Gary didn't quite know how to respond to that, but he didn't have to. A screen door slammed across the street and a familiar voice called, "Gary Hobson! Come home right this instant! You still haven't finished your homework!"
"Aw, Mom--" It was the first truly warm day they'd had all spring, after weeks and weeks of rain, and the thought of going inside to wrestle with fractions and decimals was too dreadful to be borne.
"Let me take care this," Mrs. Miller said with a conspiratorial wink. She handed one of the grocery sacks to Gary and they crossed the tree-lined street together, without looking either way. It was Hickory, Indiana, after all--no one checked before jaywalking. If a car came, it would stop for them.
"Good afternoon, Lois. How are you, dear?"
Gary and Mrs. Miller stopped where the walkway to his home joined the sidewalk. His mother stood on the front porch step, arms akimbo.
"I'm just fine, Elaine. It's a lovely day, isn't it?" Her tone dropped to a lower, more ominous register. "Gary, your math." She gestured at the screen door, behind which lay the dining room table, and a jumble of numbers and symbols waiting to be lined up in neat columns and added together. Gary sighed, but Mrs. Miller put a hand on his arm before he could obey his mother.
"Now, now, Lois, the boy was just helping me carry my groceries home, weren't you, Gary?"
He nodded quickly, and a shock of dark brown hair flopped in his face. Transferring the grocery sack to his left arm, Gary pushed the wayward strands out of his eyes, before his mom could get after him about needing a haircut, too.
"Well..." She was starting to cave. "I suppose a few minutes couldn't hurt."
Gary widened his eyes in his best innocent look and bit back a grin. Even if it was only carrying a sack of groceries the two blocks to the Millers' house, the reprieve was entirely welcome. "Here, Mrs. Miller, let me take the other sack, too."
"You have quite a helpful son, Lois," Elaine Miller called with a warm smile as she handed the second bag to Gary. "I'm sure he's going to grow up to be a wonderful young man. He'll do great things someday, mark my words."
"He won't do anything unless he gets through the sixth grade," Gary's mother said dryly. "He was only supposed to run the old newspapers over to the recycling station. But I'm glad he can help you out. Gary, you come right home, do you hear me?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said earnestly.
Mrs. Miller waited until they were a few houses away from Gary's before she told him, with another broad wink, "I think math homework can wait an extra minute or two. I have cookies cooling on the kitchen table."
This time, Gary's "Yes, ma'am" was quite a bit more enthusiastic.
"I meant what I told your mother, Gary," said Mrs. Miller as they climbed the worn cement steps to her shingle-sided bungalow. "I see great things in your future."
So did Gary, actually. For starters, he wanted to live in a city where he would have to look both ways before crossing the street. But he wasn't sure if that was what she was getting at, so he simply nodded.
"You're a good boy," she told him, patting his shoulder as he juggled
the bags to hold the front door open for her. "With that heart of yours,
I just know you're going to do things that will make us all proud."
Ignoring the sign that read, "Delivery Trucks Only", Gary steered his jeep onto Navy Pier and gunned the engine, desperate to reach his destination on time. In the bleak, freezing dark, there was no one around to stop him.
He didn't need signs to tell him where to go; the Ferris wheel loomed over the pier like the skeleton of a full moon, its white metalwork glowing against the indigo sky. Slamming on the brake when he reached the stairs to the ride, Gary nearly forgot to put the car in park before leaping out and sprinting toward the stairs.
A young boy, the article had said, but it had given no name. The pier's shops and restaurants had long since closed for the evening, and there wasn't another human being in sight, let alone a kid. Taking the treacherous, icy steps three at a time, Gary emerged on the upper deck of the pier out of breath and frantic.
No signs of life up here, either, but there was someone, there had to be. Gary hurried over to the Ferris wheel, hurdling the low white fence that surrounded it in one easy leap. The wheel rotated slowly, as it often did even in off hours, just for show. Its red cars swung back and forth in the stiff January wind.
"Hey!" Gary called, cupping his hands around his mouth and directing his voice upward. "Hey, kid, are you there? C'mon, I know you're here somewhere!"
There was no response, only the metallic creak of the cars and the distant slap of waves against the pier.
Yanking the paper out of his back pocket, fumbling with the thin pages through his leather gloves, he located the article.
Unidentified Boy Falls From Navy Pier Ride
"Late last night, security personnel at Chicago's Navy Pier
discovered the body of a young boy near the pier's famous
Ferris wheel. Police are still searching for the family of the
child, who was described as somewhere between the ages
of four and six, and probably of Hispanic descent. The
Medical Examiner's report indicates that the child must have
fallen from one of the cars or the structure of the ride, although
how he could have climbed to such a height is unknown."
That part wasn't hard to figure out. If they kept the Ferris Wheel turning like this all night, the boy could have climbed into one of the cars when it was still close to the ground, and then been carried up high enough to...Gary shook himself, not wanting to think about how badly the boy's body must have been broken for the ME to judge that the height of the fall had been at least thirty feet.
The real questions were, where had the security personnel been when the boy had snuck onto the ride, and why was no one out looking for him--parents, family, anyone? Since no one had come forward to identify the child, there was no name, which was what Gary really needed. The wind gusted harder, trying to tug the paper from his hand. Long fingers of cold air played with his hair, raising goosebumps on his skull.
"Kid! Hey kid! I know you're up there!" Gary hoped his shouts would attract attention and possibly help, but right now the pier was deserted. Smashing the paper into a careless roll, he forced it into the inside pocket of his parka.
The wind picked up even more, and the cars swung crazily back and forth. "C'mon, kid, where are you?" The weather report had predicted a couple inches of snow, temperatures in the single digits, and wind chills dropping well below zero. Up here, he could believe it. Almost hoarse now, Gary decided to try another tactic. He hurried to the control booth that operated the ride. It was, of course, locked. Although he could have easily smashed the glass and reached inside, the control panel itself had locks that needed keys, and he had no idea how to hot-wire it, so that idea was out.
Stepping away from the Ferris wheel so that he could look all the way up, Gary scanned the huge circle for some sign of a child or an open car. He was about to run and look for security personnel when he heard a sound under the creaking and moaning of the metal bars. It was a whimper, small and scared, but definitely human. He hurried around to the other side of the Ferris wheel and finally located the car with the open door. If the wheel had been a clock, the car would have been situated at two, it was that far up. A dark splotch stood out against the red metal cage, but Gary couldn't make out any features.
"Hey, get back in the car! Wait until it comes down here, to the ground!" He was shouting with all his might over the wind that carried his voice out to the lake, but there was no response other than the boy's whimper, rising to a keening cry, more hair-raisingly eerie than the gale.
"Kid, c'mon, get back in the car!" Gary waved his arms in a pushing motion to illustrate his point. Still no movement. Then, to his surprise, his voice was joined by another. Higher-pitched and frightened, it carried over the sound of the approaching storm.
"Nardo! Bernardo, what are you doing up there? I told you to stay on the bench!" Gary turned to see a young girl, all skinny legs and long black hair whipping in the wind, gloveless hands cupped around her mouth as she shouted to the child above them.
"You know that boy?" Gary asked, but even though she wasn't looking at him, the girl seemed to sense his step toward her, and she moved away the exact same distance, never taking her eyes off the car.
She took a deep breath and shouted again, this time a stream of Spanish that left Gary's long-ago high school class in the dust, punctuated at the end with English. "You heard me, get down from there now!"
"No!" Gary shouted. "No, you can't tell him that! Tell him to get back in the car until it gets closer to the ground." He covered the distance between himself and the girl in three long strides. Transfixed, she watched him with huge, dark eyes. Her worn canvas coat, far too thin for a night like this, billowed about her in the wind. "It's okay," he told her, lowering his voice. "I want to help."
"He's my brother. He--he's still learning English." Her eyes, desperate and confused, darted from Gary to the ride.
"Then can ya tell him in Spanish? Tell him to sit down." Gary turned back to the Ferris wheel, where the car titled dangerously back and forth. "Sit down!" he yelled again, not knowing if he would be understood by the other child, but hoping the girl would get it.
"Bernardo, Siéntese abajo!" Her call was cut short by a scream. Gary whirled to see short legs dangling out the door of the car, which was only marginally lower, just past three o'clock. "Nardo!"
"Tell him to hold on!" Another barrage of Spanish, commands that all ended, or maybe began, with "Bernardo", was directed at the tiny child. His keening cry was louder now; the car was coming around, around, moving excruciatingly slowly toward the ground, long seconds passing like molasses. Gary moved under the car, trying to gauge where Bernardo would land if he fell, a task made all the more difficult as the car swung under the combined forces of the wind and the boy's weight. He wished he would have paid more attention in physics as well as Spanish. He also wished he would have brought a net, and a few firefighters for good measure.
When it happened, Gary didn't have time to think about angles and impact. He was trying to get as directly under the car as he could, getting dizzier by the second from watching Bernardo cling to the door as it swung open and shut, open and shut--when the little boy turned to look toward his sister's voice.
He moved too quickly, and that, coupled with a strong gust of wind, was too much for the delicate balance of child, car, and gravity. The car tipped to one side, and Bernardo lost his grip, tumbling the remaining twenty feet to the pier in a tangle of dark hair and skinny limbs and denim and sweatshirt and screams, his own and his sister's.
Time, which had been crawling a split second before, now moved too fast for thought. Gary did the only thing he could do; he held out his arms, hearing the admonition of every baseball coach he'd ever had to keep his eye on the ball. The ball had appendages and a siren wail this time, but he did it; managed to catch the boy and take the brunt of the fall himself, grabbing on tight to the solidity of flesh as the child tumbled into his arms and they rolled into a snowbank, dispersing the momentum of the fall.
Forgotten, the Ferris wheel still did its slow turn above them as a sob sounded in Gary's ear. "Hey, it's okay, you're okay," he managed to soothe, when a new set of hands helped untangle man and child.
"Bernardo, you stupid boy," the girl began when her brother was standing before her. Still trying to catch his breath, Gary knelt on the pavement, hands on his knees. She continued in Spanish, and Gary looked up to see the little boy's lower lip quivering as he listened, head down, to the scolding she delivered.
"Hey," he interrupted gently. "Go easy on him, he's scared. He could have died." The girl stared at Gary for a moment, resentment in her dark eyes.
"I could have saved him."
Taken aback, Gary stammered, "Well, uh--yeah, sure, of course you could have, but--" But she wouldn't have. And they wouldn't have found Bernardo's family because she would have run when she failed to catch him.
"I don't know what you thought you were doing, mister." Her lilting accent did nothing to soften her fierce, determined scowl; she clenched her hands into fists at her sides. "I can take care of my brother just fine."
The little boy's quivering lip was moving faster now, and he sucked in great gulps of air. "L-L-L-Lucy?" he finally blubbered. "Y-yo soy arrepentido, Lucy, yo soy tan arrepentido!" Dissolving into sobs, he threw himself at his sister, wrapping his arms tightly around the girl's waist.
It didn't take a native Spanish speaker to figure out what was going on--Gary knew an apology when he heard it. Poor kid. Pushing himself off the pavement to stand, Gary brushed snow from his sleeves, then realized that he was much better protected against the cold than the children. They were not only poorly dressed, they were both as skinny as rails. Absorbed in comforting her brother, her long hair spilling over her shoulders to cover both their faces, Lucy was mumbling softly in Spanish, crooning almost, while the little boy's sobs subsided.
"What was he doing up there, anyway?"
Lucy's head came up, and there was something in her eyes, something frightened and a little bit...wild, Gary decided. Sniffling, Bernardo somehow managed to turn and look at him without releasing his hold on his sister.
"Where are your parents?"
Lucy pried her brother's arms off her waist. Still holding one hand, she pulled him behind her, staring up at Gary in rebellious silence.
"Look, it's really cold, and you know you shouldn't be out here. Why don't we go find your mom and dad, huh?"
"Mama?" Bernardo whimpered. He peeked out from behind his sister, staring at Gary like a field mouse cornered by a hawk.
"Hey, c'mon kid--Lucy, right? Why don't you come with me, and I'll help you find your folks." Gary took a step toward the pair, one hand out in what he intended as a sign of friendship, an offer of help. Instead, Bernardo ducked back behind Lucy, and Lucy, well--
There was no other word for it; she cringed, withdrew into herself, stared at him with almost-black eyes, equal parts defiance and fear, and seemed to shrink to half her size. She stepped backward, pushing her brother along behind her. "Stay away from us," she whispered.
"Wait a minute--" Befuddled, Gary froze. Why in the world would anyone be afraid of him? "I'm not--Hey, it's okay." He dropped his hand back down to his side, but the action engendered no relief in the children. "I'm just trying to help."
Lucy stood up straight again and shook her head. Strands of her dark hair slapped her in the face. "We don't need any help."
"Mama!" Lucy stood on tiptoe, waving at someone behind Gary's back. "Mama, over here!"
Gary wheeled to see who it was she was trying to flag down, relieved beyond all telling to know that these kids had a parent, negligent though she might be.
No one was there.
The upper deck of the pier was as deserted as before, and Gary turned back quickly, only to see a wave of black hair disappearing down the pier steps. He jumped to follow the kids, but didn't quite clear the fence this time. Stiff from the fall and the roll on the cold ground, he tripped over the thigh-high railing and sprawled on the icy pavement.
"Damn!" Scrambling up as best he could, he hurried down the stairs, ignoring the jarring pain in his elbow where he had tried to stop his fall. "Lucy! Bernardo!" he called. "I wanna help you, c'mon, where'd you go?" But there was no one, not on the steps or anywhere near them. Gary ran to the other side of the stairway, checked the doors to the inside shops, which were locked, so they couldn't have gone there. He got into the jeep and covered the length of the pier, even the parking garage, but there was no sign of the children. They had vanished. Even the security guard he finally found and convinced to help search, once the guy had seen the door of one of the Ferris Wheel cars swinging open, couldn't track them down.
Discouraged, Gary thanked him, and checking the paper one last time, headed home. It was after two in the morning; long past closing time for McGinty's.
Parking his jeep under the streetlight in the alley, Gary took the keys out of the ignition and sat in the rapidly-cooling car for a long time, just thinking.
Never came the winter stars more clear
yet the stars lost themselves
midnight came snow-wrought snow blown
~ Carl Sandburg
The night kept its promise several times over. While Gary dozed in fitful sleep, the wind shifted, the air warmed, and the snow fell. And fell. And blew, and fell some more. By the time the alarm went off, Gary's room was bathed in a weird, soft light, the streetlights' beams catching the glint of snowflakes through his windows as they fell with serious purpose to the ground below. He peeked at them through half-open eyes, then threw the covers back over his head, muffling the chipper female voice from the radio.
"Well, Chicago, I'd say good morning, but I'm not sure how good it's going to be. Old Man Winter decided to pick on our rush hour today, and if you're planning on being somewhere anytime soon, it's not going to happen. At least ten inches have fallen already in the downtown area. They're up to a foot at O'Hare, and it's still coming down, folks. This storm took everyone by surprise, including meteorologists and the city road crews."
Gary blinked into flannel-soft darkness, rubbing his face in the pillow. Surprise was right--not even the Sun-Times had managed to catch this one for the morning edition, or he would have known just how bad it was going to be. Of course, his attention had been focused on more than weather reports the night before.
"Most area schools are closed, and the mayor's office has declared a snow emergency, so no one should be out on the roads unless it's absolutely necessary. If you're parked on a designated snow route, you'll need to get that car shoveled out and moved before the plows come. Might be next spring before you see your vehicle if you don't."
Anyone dumb enough to park on the streets this time of year without a good shovel handy deserved what they got. Still not quite awake, Gary found himself grinning at a memory--Chuck stumbling into McGinty's just after another January storm, crusted in white from hat to boots. He'd walked all the way from his apartment because, although he'd planned ahead enough to have a shovel, he'd left it locked in the trunk of the Lexus, which ended up buried in an inch of ice and two feet of snow. Well, at least Chuck didn't have to worry about that in California.
The grin faded as the familiar "meow-plop" from the landing brought Gary fully awake. He wasn't sure which he dreaded more--a day full of disasters, or one that left him too much time to think about what he hadn't done.
Not that it mattered, he thought as he swung his legs out from the warmth of the covers. It wasn't as if he had any choice, one way or the other.
Padding across the hardwood floor to the door, he felt the chill as the gale battered the windows and snuck in the cracks, wrapping itself around his bare feet. He really needed to caulk around those openings; he might as well be out in the snow himself at this rate--
The thought pulled him up short. Damn. People were out in the storm--specifically, two scared kids that Gary should have found last night. He hurried to open the door, hoping that the paper would prove true to form--the form it'd had right up until the last few weeks, anyway--that it would give him some clue about how to help Lucy and Bernardo. Cat scurried inside without a second "meow" and jumped up on the bed, settling into the warmth Gary had left behind. Ignoring it, he flipped through the pages in hopes of seeing a name, a description, a headline that would ring a bell or touch a nerve.
But there wasn't any. There was nothing. Just one rescue that he needed to worry about, and it wasn't until later in the day. One teenager mugged over near Wrigley, not a big deal at all. The snow was going to stop hours before it happened. Dropping the paper onto the coffee table, he flopped into his overstuffed armchair with a sigh of frustration.
This was getting damn weird.
Since the big 2000 New Year's run of minor, party-related disasters, his duties had been light, almost ridiculously so. At first, he'd thought he was just readjusting to a normal load after the holiday rush, but it had been three weeks since the paper had given him anything resembling a busy day, and there was definitely something else going on here. It was almost as if whatever sent him the paper was trying to tell him something, but he didn't know what it could be.
Fine. Not like he wanted to be running around in the snow anyway.
Gary propped his feet on the coffee table and picked up the remote.
Roused out of a stupor that he wanted to blame on the still-falling snow and grey skies, Gary didn't realize at first that it was the ringing of his phone that had brought him back to awareness. The answering machine was clicking on when he finally reached for the handset.
"Gary, you're home." It was both a statement and a question.
"Way to go, Nancy Drew."
He tried to make it sound teasing, but he heard the hesitation before Marissa answered, and hoped it didn't mean she'd taken offense at the edge in his flip reply.
"It's just--with the storm and all, I thought maybe you'd be busy with the paper today."
Gary cast a resentful glare at the Sun-Times, being put to use protecting the table's finish from a long-since-cooled mug of coffee. "No, not until three or so."
Another hesitant pause, as if there was something else he was supposed to tell her. "Okay," she finally said, "I was just calling to let you know that I thought we should probably declare our own snow day. I've already contacted everyone who's supposed to work today, to tell them not to come in. I didn't think it would be worth someone getting hurt trying to get through the mess outside. Just walking Reilly to the corner this morning was tough going."
"Sounds good. Thanks." Gary was about to say more, but his attention was caught by something on the television set, and he reached for the remote, turning up the volume. Here she was again, the same reporter who'd been on the scene all morning...
"...you all right? Gary?"
"I'm fine," he mumbled. His jiggling foot knocked against the table, and drops of coffee landed on the front page story about the snowstorm.
Marissa's voice grew sharper. "What's going on? Are you--is that the television?"
"CNN. Did you hear about this?" he asked abruptly. He pointed at the television set with the remote, as if that would explain everything.
"Hear about what? What in the world--"
"Memphis, this train derailed in Memphis. Amtrak. They think there was ice on the track. There're forty people in the hospital and three dead." Gary closed his eyes, but the pictures wouldn't go away. He changed the channel to Headline News, which was just as bad.
"That's terrible." He knew Marissa meant it; unlike other people who tut-tutted over the misfortune of strangers, she really was troubled by the news. "I didn't know. I've been listening to the local news, and that's all about the weather."
"And a bomb went off in Belfast. Nobody knows who did it, and so they're all running around trying to blame the IRA, and the IRA's trying to blame the--the other guys, but it was probably just someone trying to make one side or the other look bad. Thing is, it went off right in the middle of a busy store--"
"Gary." Marissa's tone was knife-edged now, demanding his attention. "What is this about? Have you been sitting around stewing over this all morning?"
"I'm not stewing." He made the screen dark and silent with a frustrated stab at the remote and stood, glaring at the still-snoozing cat on his bed.
"Then what is it, what's bothering you?"
He paced around the coffee table, past the metal shelving that served as an entertainment center, and wiped condensation off the window that overlooked the alley. The trash dumpster was half-buried in snow, and the pile on its lid climbed even further up the building.
"None of it was in the paper," he blurted out by way of explanation. "Not the bomb, not the train, not even the storm."
"You mean yesterday's paper."
"The one you got yesterday."
"No. I mean, yes, that one, but no, those stories weren't in it."
"Well, there are a lot of stories that don't make it into your paper, aren't there?" Gary opened his mouth to reply, but Marissa rushed on. "We've talked about this before. There's a reason you don't see everything. There's no way you can handle every problem in the world. You're going to give yourself an ulcer as it is, doing what you already do here in Chicago."
Shaking his head in frustration, Gary stalked away from the window, all the way across the loft to the bed, scowled at Cat for a few more seconds, then began pulling clothes out of the armoire. "That's just it. Lately I haven't even been doing what I do. It's all piddly stuff--D'you know, two days ago I stopped a fender bender out in Cicero just for something to do?" He looked down at what he'd gathered to wear for the day--jeans so old they had holes in the knees, a red plaid flannel shirt, and a navy turtleneck sweater. Brilliant fashion statement. Throwing the whole lot to the ground, he took a deep breath, trying to find the words to explain what was bothering him. This was Marissa, who knew him and the paper better than anyone else, and it was still hard. "It's like the paper doesn't need me for anything important anymore. Even when it's important, it's not--it's not enough, you know?"
There was another moment of hesitant silence. "No, I guess I don't," Marissa said slowly. "Gary, what in the world are you talking about?"
"I don't know--it's--it's about the big stuff, and it's about little stuff, too." He stared out the window by his bed, watching the snow sift through the air. "Lucy and Bernardo."
"These kids, last night on Navy Pier. Remember when I left right before closing?" Feeling lost in his own apartment, Gary wandered back to the living area as he related the story, rushing through the rescue and focusing on what had happened afterward. "They weren't in the paper again this morning," he finished. "How do I know they're okay?"
"I--I guess you can't," Marissa said, her tone softer now, "unless you trust the paper. You can't fix everything, as much as you might want to. Besides," she added with a forced attempt at cheerfulness, "the odds are they went right home and are busy keeping the whole thing secret from their parents. I bet that's why they ran off. Didn't you ever keep secrets from your folks because you didn't want to get into trouble, or to worry them?" When Gary didn't answer, she asked pointedly, "Like, say, the fact that you get tomorrow's news?"
"Yeah, yeah, I get it." He'd kept that from his parents for a year. Gary plopped back down in his chair, picked up a pencil from the end table, and tapped it against the overstuffed armrest. "But you didn't meet those kids, Marissa, and you didn't see the way that girl flinched back when I reached out my hand. I think they've got more to worry about than being grounded. What if their parents are the reason she was afraid of me?"
"If you think that, then why didn't you--"
"Look for them? I did, most of the night. I didn't get back here until after two, and I went over the pier from one end to the other at least three times."
"You saved that little boy's life. It might not be everything he needs, but believe me, it matters. Maybe it's all you can do for now."
The pencil stopped. "What good is it, if it just sends them back to a life that makes them cower? What good am I? And it's not like I can say I was doing something more important, like stopping that train wreck or getting the people who were hurt in the bombing out of that grocery store."
"In Belfast, Gary--" He could hear the confusion in her voice.
"But that's the kind of stuff I should be stopping, isn't it? With phone calls, or...or something. Or going there, if I can." Leaning forward, he started beating the pencil against the edge of the coffee table. One and two and three and crack. The top half went flying and bounced off the TV screen while Gary stared at the broken end in his hand. Shaking his head, he tossed it on the table. "I could have gone to Memphis and--"
"Is that what you want?" He could almost hear Marissa's eyes widening. "You're already covering the entire city of Chicago--now you think you should be running around the whole country, or the world?"
"I don't know, I--" Gary sighed. He was getting tired of thinking about it. "Look, I should probably head downstairs, make sure everything's okay down there and get the walk shoveled."
"I'll be okay. I just don't know what's going on with the paper these days, that's all."
"That's a pretty big 'that's all'." Marissa's attempt at sarcasm couldn't mask her concern.
"Yeah, well, I'll just take it as it comes, I guess."
She waited, and Gary knew she wasn't satisfied with his attempt at resolution, but she didn't press the issue. "Where did you say you had to go this afternoon?"
"Somewhere west of River North, some alley." Heaving himself to his feet, Gary yanked the paper out from under the mug and knocked it over. He muttered a half-hearted curse at the pool of coffee that dripped from the table to the floor.
"What's wrong now?"
"Nothing, just spilled some coffee." Phone tucked under his chin, he tromped to the kitchen, returning with a towel.
"So what's the story, what do you have to stop?"
"It's just a mugging. Hold on a sec." Kneeling to swipe at the mess, Gary reached under the table to make sure he got all of the spreading pool, and his hand brushed a handful of papers free. Collecting the pages of sunflower stationery and newspaper clippings with his free hand, he stood and picked up the phone.
Marissa didn't miss a beat. "'Just?' Gary, you--"
"So that's where the damn thing went."
She sighed. "You know, you'd think being on the phone wouldn't be any more confusing than being in the same room with you, but I'm completely lost--again."
"Sorry," Gary mumbled as he flipped through the pages in his hand. "I just found the letter my mom sent after Christmas. You know how she is; she had to send clippings from the social section of the Hickory paper, all about the people I went to school with and how they came back to visit over the holidays and what they're doing with their lives. Oh, and don't forget, how many grandchildren they've given her friends."
A rueful chuckle sounded in his ear. "Oh, no."
"Oh, yeah." Gary didn't find the situation amusing at all, at least not right now. "She always mentions the grandchildren. I can never tell if I'm supposed to be impressed by the fact that Tommy Barnes is a doctor, or if that's supposed to be some kind of hint, but the grandchildren--there's nothing subtle about that at all." Gary tossed the letter and clippings onto the table and perched on the arm of the chair.
"She just wants what's best for you."
"What she wants is to be able to show off pictures and newspaper clippings of her own." Every year it was the same thing. It also happened after every high school reunion, none of which he'd ever attended. "I guess I can't blame her, but there's not a whole lot I can do about it." Glancing at his watch, he added, "I really gotta get a shower here and take care of a couple things before I go."
"About that mugging, Gary--"
"It's no big deal," he assured her. "Most of the time these guys see someone else around and run."
"Well, you should still be careful." Gary almost smiled--he hadn't needed a magic paper to know that was coming. "You know," Marissa continued, in a tone that was almost as casual as she probably intended it to be, "that neighborhood's not so far from my place. Why don't you stop over when you're done? I'll make hot chocolate or something. It might be nice to just visit like normal people for once."
Gary's mouth twisted into a wry grin. He could give her bonus points for the hot chocolate, but a major deduction would have to be taken in the subtlety category. The real purpose of the invitation was almost as transparent as his mom's prodding. Not that he was winning any points right now, not for anything. "If I can. No promises, though."
"None necessary," she answered lightly. "Just stop by later if you get a chance."
It didn't escape Gary's notice that she waited for his good-bye before
saying her own, nor that she let him hang up first. Marissa usually
didn't do that, but he knew he had her at least a little worried.
Well, he'd been trying to figure out what was going on here for the past
few days, and now the snow had slowed him down enough that he didn't have
much else to occupy his time. Maybe having someone to talk it out with
wouldn't be such a bad thing.
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
~ T. S. Eliot
By the time the snow stopped early that afternoon, there was a foot and a half of it sitting on top of downtown Chicago. The wind died down and the plows got to work, thoroughly annoying the citizenry by not plowing some streets, and doing the job so well on others that mountains of snow blocked the driveways. From the sounds of the editorials and "person on the street" interviews in the next day's Sun-Times, the mayor and other assorted city bureaucrats were going to hear plenty of complaints about how long it would take to get traffic moving again.
Gary didn't have time to wait for the road crews to get their job done. The El took him part of the way to his destination, but he had to trudge the last half mile on foot, through drifts that often came up to his knees. He remembered what fun he'd had tromping through snow storms like this when he was a kid, imagining, with his friends, that they were mighty explorers crossing the Alps with a train of elephants and camels behind them. Okay, so their geography and zoology had been a bit mixed up. It had still been fun.
There weren't many kids out in this part of town. In the past twenty years or so, River North had gone through several distinct transformations, from abandoned warehouses to starving artists' lofts to an upscale yuppie neighborhood. The artists could no longer afford to live above the galleries that sold their work, and the people who lived here now didn't seem to think children went with their "lifestyle." Today the area was quiet; the boutiques, galleries, and coffee shops were empty. With everyone in hibernation, Gary had the snow banks and the streets all to himself.
He made his way through the world of chic lifestyles and double lattes and into the more run-down neighborhood to which those who'd been misplaced by the trendification of River North had migrated. Here the shops were darker, outside and in; there were no Starbucks, and the galleries had hand-painted signs and erratic hours. Blank and broken windows marched up the sides of buildings above tobacco shops, convenience stores, and used book sellers. But people lived up there; the lights against the still-grey sky told Gary that most of them were huddled inside. He wondered briefly how many of the low-rent lofts around here had adequate heat, and shivered, grateful for his thick blue parka, his stocking cap, his gloves--even for the bright red scarf his mom had made so many years ago.
It was an eerie, almost alien landscape, this grey-white version of Chicago. The lines of the buildings were softened; the brick walls seemed to be leaning against the snow banks, instead of the other way around. Every once in a while a stiff breeze would pick up the top layer of snow and cast it around in a fine, lazy swirl, but otherwise the winds of the early morning had died down.
And everywhere, Gary realized, he was looking for a shock of long dark hair cascading down the back of a too-thin coat, next to a blue sweatshirt and dirty sneakers. He couldn't believe the paper would have dropped Lucy and Bernardo just like that, but they were nowhere to be found. He told himself firmly that Marissa was right--he needed to focus on the business at hand, instead of worrying about what he couldn't change. But no matter how much he wanted to dismiss what had happened last night, he couldn't shake the image of a girl shrinking back from him in fear.
The story that had brought him here was about another girl, seventeen or eighteen, who'd been--or rather, was going to be--stabbed several times, beaten, and left unconscious in what appeared to be a mugging. She'd be found, face down in an alley, at 3:30, so Gary had come plenty early; it was now just past three. The farther he walked, the more dilapidated the neighborhood became. He hurried down a street of shops, barely tended from the looks of them, and almost nothing was open. The paper had given cross streets, but not the actual alley, and there were plenty of them here--plenty of dark, hidden spaces, obscured even more by the snow banks.
Finally, he heard voices and slowed his footsteps. Between a boarded-over nightclub and a hardware store with caged windows, in an alley barely wide enough for the fire escapes on both buildings, stood a man and a girl. From the corner around which he peeked, Gary could see the impending disaster. The man loomed over the girl, while she pressed against the brick wall, her head darting back and forth, looking for an escape that refused to present itself. Her voice was high and breathless.
"Please, please Eric, I swear I'll do anything--"
His eyes adjusting to the gloom, Gary saw that the man had one gloved hand braced against the wall, blocking the girl's escape with the small knife he held. The other hand had been in the guy's pocket, but now it shot out and grabbed her shoulder.
"You know the rules, baby. You don't go to nobody else." He twisted his wrist, pressing the knife against the girl's ear, and Gary realized that the sound he could barely hear was her whimpering.
This was more than a mugging. Gary had to do something, fast. There was a wasit-high snow bank blocking the entrance on his side, and he wasn't sure he could get through it without attracting attention. On the other hand, he didn't want to take the time to go around the block. Hoping against hope that the man would turn out to be the kind of sewer rat who'd disappear at the first threat, Gary kicked his way through the pile, yelling at the same time. "Hey! Get away from her!"
The man turned without releasing his hold on the girl's shoulder. Free of the deepest snow, Gary simply ran straight at him--and hit a patch of ice. His feet flew out from under him, and he landed face first in the alley.
Callous laughter rang above his pounding head, but so did frightened gasps of breath. Gary scrabbled for footing, but rose only halfway before something cold and metallic pricked his nose. Hands spread out to the side, he froze, staring down at the knife point resting on his skin. Okay, maybe this one wasn't the sewer rat type--even though he looked it, with a thin black mustache and beady gray eyes.
"Who the hell are you?" he snarled at Gary.
"Trying to hone in on my territory? Stealing my client?"
Gary dared to let his gaze flicker over to the girl, huddled now against the wall as if she wanted to disappear into it, but still watching the scene before her with huge, round eyes framed by dark circles. She was so skinny her pea coat seemed to swallow her up, her cheeks hollow, dishwater blond hair limply framing a face devoid of makeup. Not that kind of client, then--this guy wasn't a pimp.
"I'm not gonna let you beat up an innocent kid--"
"Innocent?" scoffed the man, pressing the knife point a fraction further into Gary's skin. "She's hardly innocent. What d'you care about her for, anyway?"
Gary didn't have a ready answer, and he knew he couldn't stay crouched much longer--he'd turn into a popsicle and fall over. So he jumped forward, grabbing for the guy's knees. The knife point scraped across his nose and away as Gary tackled the man to the ground, shouting to the girl, "Get out of here, get some help!"
He heard her footsteps and ragged breath pass him, then fade away; he got to his knees, reaching for the guy's wrist. He managed the grab just before the knife would have been in his eye. Gary squeezed hard and the weapon popped out and fell off to the side. Pushing the man's other shoulder down with one hand, Gary fought to hold onto his wrist as well, knowing his opponent would just as soon blacken his eye as cut it.
For a moment they remained that way, opposing forces equally balanced. Gary tried to decide which would be worse--to try to hold onto this guy, or let him go? He didn't have long to worry about the choice. Squirming and struggling, the wiry man below him finally managed to roll over and turn the tables as he pinned Gary to the ground, one knee in his stomach.
"You--you..." His stream of none-too-polite names was interrupted when Gary got an arm free and went for his face. Apparently he valued his looks; he ducked, leaving Gary with enough momentum to shove him off and to the side. Scrambling to his feet, Gary braced himself for another attack, but as the man ran at him, something wet, cold, and white exploded between them.
Gary's hands came up to keep the snow out of his face, and he staggered back against the building. He felt the bricks pressing through his parka; heard shouts, and then snowballs hitting their target with soft "thump"s. Bringing his hands down, he saw the snow-coated attacker dashing for the far end of the alley, running and slipping as fast as his feet would carry him.
"'Bout time. Your aim sucks, dude."
"I'm not the one who hit the good guy!"
Gary turned toward the chortling shouts of triumph. Three men were coming toward him at a trot. He allowed himself to relax, brushing snow and the feeling that the knife point was still on his nose off his face.
One of the trio approached, holding out a mittened hand. "You okay?"
Gary nodded. "Thanks." The young man before him had spiky blonde hair and several earrings on each ear; he wore a dark brown barn coat and a brightly striped scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. He reached over and clapped Gary on the shoulder.
"No, man, thank you. Trini came running out and said that sleazeball had come after her--she could'a been dead meat if you hadn't stopped him."
Heart pounding, still trying to catch his breath, Gary asked, "Trini? That girl? Yeah, he had a knife. He was gonna hurt her."
The other two had come to join them. They were all older than the girl, Gary decided, probably in their early twenties. The tallest of the group, who had longish brown hair with one white streak down the side, looked more panic-stricken than victorious. "Shit." Turning to look behind him, he said, "You'd better lay low for a while if he--Trini? Where'd she go? She was right behind us!" Without another word, he ran back to the street.
"Hey--" Gary took a step to follow, but the blond kid stopped him, a hand on his arm.
"It's okay. Rob'll find her, and Eric's not gonna show his face for a couple of days now, not after we spread the word that we ran him off with a few snowballs." A wide grin spread across his face, and he released Gary's arm to hold out a hand to shake. "I'm Jeff, and this is Luke." He nodded at the kid standing next to him, who shook Gary's hand in turn. This one had an earring too, a bright silver hoop against warm brown skin, accented by short cropped curly hair.
"Gary." He nodded toward the end of the alley where the third one, Rob, had disappeared. "You guys friends of that girl? Because I think there's more wrong with her than just some pimp or drug dealer or whatever he was--"
Luke closed his eyes and shook his head, while Jeff's grin faded a bit. "Yeah," he said softly, "there is. And you got it on the second guess."
It took a minute, in his befuddled state, for Gary to figure out what that meant. Apparently reading his confusion, Luke offered, "Drugs. Heroin. She's eighteen going on eighty, the way that stuff's eating up her life. Stupid shit."
So, someone else he'd saved from one fate, only to leave them to something that might be just as bad. Gary's shoulders slumped, his adrenaline draining away.
"Hey, man, your nose is bleeding." Jeff reached up and swiped at his own face, indicating the location of the cut.
Gary couldn't even feel it, he was so cold. "It'll be fine," he said with a shrug.
Jeff and Luke exchanged a glance. "Well, heck, come have a cup of coffee or something and get warm, okay? We were just heading over to Luigi's. He's gotta be open; he lives right above the hole in a wall he calls a restaurant."
"Bistro," said Luke. "Remember? He thinks it's classier if he calls it something Italian."
"Last month it was something French," Jeff told Gary. They all climbed over the snowbank at the end of the alley. "Café Quelle Domage or something like that."
Still staring off in the direction Rob had gone, Gary asked, "You sure they're gonna be okay?"
"Oh, no worries, man. She'll listen to Rob play his guitar and they'll kiss and make up, for a couple of hours at least. It'll be days before Eric shows up here again." Jeff grinned and pointed down the block, shouting, "Sally ho and tally forth, men! Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we--we freeze! Besides," he added, glancing at Gary over his shoulder, "you probably gotta go back to work at the office before too long, don't you?"
Gary blinked. "Office? What office?"
"Oh, sorry, dude. You just look like someone who works a niner-fiver. You know, Cubicle Man." They rounded a corner, and headed down another snow-blanketed street of shabby buildings.
"I--well, I used to be, but I don't exactly keep regular hours these days." Gary was starting to shiver; the snow that had slipped under his collar, cuffs, and boots during the scuffle in the alley was melting against his skin.
"That's cool," Luke said with a nod. "You in television?"
"Yeah, man, you look like some kinda anchorboy. You in the news?"
Gary couldn't help but snort. "Not exactly." If they only knew.
"Nah, he's too cool for that," Jeff answered for him. "No anchorman would be stickin' his pretty face in an alley for Eric to knife." He turned to Gary with a frown. "Why were you down here, anyway? I mean, how did someone like you--"
"Actually, I run a bar," Gary filled in hurriedly, hoping to forestall any questions about how he'd known what was going to happen in the first place. "Kinda downtown, it's called McGinty's."
"So you're slumming, or what? How'd you end up here on a day like today?" Jeff pointed at a badly-lettered window in a building across the street. Sure enough, it read "Luigi's" in faded blue paint, with "Bistro" underneath in bright red.
"Oh, I was--uh--scouting new locations, I guess, and I kinda got lost," Gary fumbled as they crossed the street, not even bothering to look for oncoming traffic.
Jeff shot another frown at him as he held the door open, but Luke elbowed his friend as he went past. "Give him a break, man. He saved Trini's butt out there--d'ya really care what he was doing on our turf?"
"Nah, guess not." Together, they led Gary into the dimly-lit bistro.
"Whacha doin' here?" The gruff greeting came from the dark recesses of the room. That's all the place was, Gary realized as his eyes adjusted to the gloom--a room, and not a very big one at that. A handful of card tables, surrounded by rickety folding chairs, were scattered about the place. Travel posters with ripped edges hung on the walls, and candles in red glass holders lent the only hint of warmth.
"Chill it, man, we just came for something to drink." Jeff's tone was casual, as was his slouch. "You got coffee ready?"
"Not for you." The man who emerged from the far corner wore a dirty white apron over an ill-fitting grey sweater and slacks. A full head shorter than Gary, he glared up at the trio with his arms folded across his chest.
"Aw, c'mon, we're your regulars." Luke's grin said he enjoyed teasing the shorter man.
"Regular pests is what you are. Come in here and take up my tables and never pay."
Jeff ran a hand through his spiky, ash-blond hair, and it stood up straighter than ever. "Oh, yeah, like you got a waiting list or something."
"I got a real customer here." Luigi gestured behind Jeff, and Gary turned to see who'd come in after them, but the man grabbed his arm, leading him to what he must have considered a good table.
"Oh, no, wait, I--I'm with them." Gary pointed at Jeff and Luke, who were watching the scene with amusement. Luigi dropped his arm like a hot potato. He conveyed his disappointment with a look that Gary had previously thought could only come from his mother.
"What, you stupid or something? You go buying snow sculptures from this artist?" He spat out the word as he waved a meaty hand at Jeff.
Snow sculptures? Gary turned a perplexed look on his new friends. "I--uh--"
"Dude, he is so not stupid," said Luke, indignant. "He just--"
"Dropped by to see me, he's my cousin," Jeff filled in quickly, eliciting a confused look from his buddy.
"Yeah," Gary confirmed. "That's right, and I--I'm buying."
"Molto Buono!!" Luigi's demeanor changed utterly; he pulled out a chair and beamed at all three men. "Sit, sit, I make you my best lunch, I promise you--"
"No, no, I just want a cup of coffee," Gary protested. "And a place to clean up." He rubbed his nose; now that he was someplace relatively warm, the small amount of blood from the knife cut was itching where it had dried.
"Over there." Luigi pointed at a door in the corner that still had a French sign: Hommes. His enthusiasm was somewhat more subdued, but not gone altogether, and he whistled as he made his way through a set of swinging doors to what Gary assumed was the kitchen. The aroma of tomato sauce wafted out, and as he opened the door to the men's room--which issued another, less tempting odor--Gary turned to see Luke and Jeff staring longingly at the kitchen.
"Uh, on second thought?" he called.
"Sì?" Luigi poked his head out.
"Lunch. For all of us."
Gary ignored Luigi's wide, triumphant grin, and the incredulous stares directed at him from the table. Shutting the door, he allowed himself a moment to just breathe in the quiet, if not the stench, before turning on the water. Unable to find any paper towels, or even a dispenser for them, he settled for splashing water on his face and wiping it off with the neck of his sweater.
He peered into the scratched and cracked mirror for a minute, his own
reflection staring back at him like a Picasso painting. No, he told
the distorted face, he was not trying to make up for what he hadn't done
for Lucy and Bernardo. Those guys out there just looked hungry, that
was all. No big deal. Checking the paper, he found no new articles,
so he rolled it up, stuffed it in the back pocket of his jeans, and returned
to the dining room.
To dream, to hope, to imagine, to swoon,
to lie, to hold hands, to kiss, to create,
to allow, to accept, to be alive, to be aware,
to be present in my own life
This is my life--
The one we're in
We're here to learn
Meant to be.
~ Jonathan Larson
The pasta that appeared at their table a few minutes later was certainly not the best Gary had ever had, but his companions devoured it with gusto. Remembering how hard it had been to get by when he first started out, even with a job that paid a decent wage, he found himself wondering just how often they ate balanced meals.
Gary picked at the food on his own plate, having downed a sandwich before he'd left home. "So--uh--snow sculptures?" he finally asked Jeff, whose blue eyes lit up at the question.
"I've been experimenting," he explained through a mouthful of garlic bread.
"Oh, yeah, experimenting." Luke snorted. "You gonna eat the rest of that?" He pointed with a fork at Gary's plate.
"Nah." Gary pushed it across the table.
"Experimenting," Jeff reiterated, picking up his water glass and gesturing with it for emphasis, "with natural media. The ephemeral nature of the snow sculptures, for example, adds to their poignancy. It's pure process." He flung his arms wide, his voice reverberating off the restaurant walls, his water sloshing over the tablecloth. "I'm just throwing my work out into the universe, until it all just kind of merges into one giant affirmation."
Gary raised his eyebrows. He wasn't sure if the explanation had gone over his head, or if the kid was just bullshitting.
"Translation: he's broke," Luke offered. "Can't afford scrap metal and welding supplies." He turned to Jeff. "The least you could do is make ice sculptures for weddings--you know, something you could actually get paid for?"
"Oh yeah? When's the last time one of your poems brought in any rent money?"
"When's the last time we paid the rent?"
Jeff clinked his fork against Luke's water glass. "Touché ."
Luke's eyes narrowed like a gunfighter challenged by his rival. " Flambé."
"Monet." Luke pointed at Gary. "Your turn."
"Uh..." Gary got what was going on, but he wasn't sure about the why. "Doris Day?"
The other two burst into laughter. "I dare you." Jeff pointed his fork at Luke. "Double dog."
Luke chewed on Gary's spaghetti for a moment, then swallowed. "Okay. Got it." He thumped a rhythm on the table with his fork and knife and recited,
Kiss my flambé,
Touch the flame, José,
Blur the edges, Monet,
Que sera, baby,
Be my Doris Day."
He finished the rhyme or rap or whatever it was with a flourish of rattling silverware.
It was awful; even Gary knew it. Jeff shook his head. "Man, I keep telling you, no one wants rhymes anymore. It's all about free verse."
"But dude, there's freedom in the structure. I could sell the stuff as song lyrics if Rob would ever get off his butt and write me some melodies."
"Speaking of Rob--" Jeff nodded at the door, which swung open to let in two figures and a swirl of wind and loose snow. "Here's the maestro now." The girl from the alley and the third snowballer headed toward the others, while Luke pulled a second table up to theirs.
"Hey," Luke nodded at Rob, but he was watching Trini closely, as were Jeff and Gary. "Everything cool?"
Rob nodded while Trini tossed her hair back from her shoulder, brushing snow off her pea coat. "Yeah," she said in a wispy cobweb of a voice. "Cool."
Rob held out a chair for her, then reached over to shake Gary's hand. "Thanks."
"Not a problem."
Trini spared a furtive glance at Gary, and even nodded at his "hi", but she didn't say anything, and quickly averted her eyes.
Luigi sidled over to their table, eyebrows lifted hopefully. "Hey, José and Doris Day, you eat, too?"
"Who?" Trini looked as confused as Gary had felt, so Luke performed his rap again, to catcalls and giggles.
"That completely sucked," Rob offered by way of comment, while Gary nodded at Luigi, waving his hand to indicate he should bring lunch for the newcomers.
"Well, if I could get you to write me some decent tunes, it wouldn't be so hard to come up with this stuff. What was your latest masterpiece? Something in the key of F flat diminished? I mean, who the hell is gonna buy a song they can't even play? Charlotte Church couldn't have hit the high note in that one!"
"You just didn't get it. I keep telling you--opera rap. It's gonna be the next big thing."
The discussion continued while Gary sat back, one hand warming as he wrapped it around his coffee cup, a chipped white mug with a logo from the Chicago World's Fair wearing away on its side. He wondered absently if it was an original. Looked old enough.
This wasn't the kind of place he would ever have walked into on his own, and these weren't the kind of people he would have sat with, but he liked them. They might not have had two cents to rub together, and they probably weren't going to make much of a name for themselves as artists, but they didn't seem to mind. Plus, they looked after each other. Jeff and Rob were soon giving Trini advice about how to get Eric off her case, though from the distracted way she replied to their exhortations, Gary wasn't sure they were having any impact. The girl tuned in to the conversation swirling around her every now and then, but mostly she sat and stared at the travel posters.
At least she was there, Gary reminded himself. That wouldn't have been the case if not for the paper. She was painfully thin, strung out or in need of a fix or something that Gary wasn't experienced enough to diagnose, but at least she wasn't lying unconscious in an alley.
Advice dispensed, the guys turned back to their rhyming game, which seemed to involve as many different beats, tunes, and directions as there were people. The impromptu party was getting boisterous as they all tried to pound out rhythms on the table, glasses, and, because he was shorter than the other two, Luke's head.
Every once in a while, Rob would lean over and say something to Trini, try to draw her into the conversation, but she remained aloof. Gary noticed that she was shivering long after the food and relatively heated room should have warmed her, and he elbowed Rob, nodding in the girl's direction. Rob got the point immediately. "Hey, how about some hot chocolate?" he called to Luigi.
Hot chocolate...on a day like today, that sounded even better than...oh, drat. Gary glanced at his watch; he'd totally forgotten Marissa's invitation. She wouldn't mind, she'd said she wouldn't, if he didn't show up, but she would worry.
"Hey," Gary asked when Luigi showed up with a tray full of steaming mugs, "you got a phone around this place?"
Luigi shook his balding head. "No phone. Too much."
"Yeah, besides, it might pull in customers," Rob cracked.
"Okay, well, then, I better go." Gary stood, and the others looked up at him, surprised.
"Dude, we're just getting started," said Luke.
"Well, uh, dude, you keep right on going, but I told a friend of mine I'd come over, and she's gonna wonder what happened to me."
"Oh, a friend?" Jeff elbowed Luke, who lifted his eyebrows and made sloppy kissing noises. The pair of them looked like a couple of fifth graders.
"No, really, she's just a friend, she's my partner at McGinty's." With a disgusted shake of his head, Gary turned to Luigi, who was hovering behind him, clearly distressed at his departure, and handed over some bills. "This cover it?"
"Sì, sì, buono, molto buono!" The beneficent smile was back; he took the money and then pumped Gary's hand in his own sweaty grip. "You come back?"
"Uh, well, maybe," Gary managed, disentangling himself and backing toward the door.
To his surprise, Jeff got up from the table and followed him. "Hey, man, I'll walk with you a ways. I wanna show you something."
The younger man wrapped his rainbow-striped scarf around his neck and called, "Be back in a few," to his friends.
It was nearly five o'clock, and the shadows were lengthening with the sunset. Jeff pointed toward the opposite end of the block. "This way--there's a park there. The El's just two blocks down from it," he added when Gary looked dubious. Shrugging, Gary figured whatever it was must have been important if it was enough to tear the kid away from his friends and the warmth of the bistro.
They'd only taken a couple of steps through the deep snow before Jeff said, "Hey, Gary, look, I just wanted to say, don't be offended or anything if Trini didn't say much to you. She may not even remember what happened. She does that blocking out thing really well."
"I wasn't offended." Gary watched Jeff out of the corner of his eye, wondering what he was really getting at. "I was just hoping she'd be okay." Faint hope, he knew, not on the path that girl was taking.
For a few silent moments, they struggled through drifts that came up to Gary's knees. By mutual, unspoken agreement, they stepped into the deserted street, where a few cars had worn a more reasonable track. Gary was watching the shabby buildings for signs of life when Jeff said, "I grew up in Lake Forest, you know? Suburb kid. I like this part of town, it's more alive--well, most of the time--and inspiring, and everyone here is in it for the moment. But I don't get the drugs and stuff either. Some people feel like they can't get out, I guess. We're trying to help Trini, but I don't know if it makes any difference."
"It matters," Gary told him, wishing he felt more sure of his words--well, they were more Marissa's than his own--wishing he could believe them. "Just trying matters."
Jeff was quiet again, digesting, Gary supposed. Then he surprised him by saying, "Thanks for everything. I mean it. Buying lunch, that was like...wow. You have no idea. Plus, you probably just doubled Luigi's monthly take."
Gary shrugged. "It's no big deal."
Jeff grinned. "Maybe not, but it matters."
They came around a corner and there was the park; an oasis of evergreen in the middle of the city. The playground equipment, perched in a clearing only a few feet from the sidewalk, was ancient. The metal was rusting in places, half the swings were gone, and the merry-go-round tilted precariously on its side, poking out of a snowbank. But behind all that there were pine trees, clustered tightly together and going back at least half a block. Their branches hung heavy with snow, and for a moment Gary was so absorbed in the picture-postcard at the back of the park that he didn't notice the strange figures dominating the playground. But Jeff clapped him on the shoulder, drawing Gary's attention to the foreground with a wave of his hand.
"This is what I wanted you to see. I mean, I know I'm not supposed to brag--I'm supposed to let the work speak for itself to whoever happens by, but I thought...I thought maybe you might be interested, since you asked, you know? Just to...to see them."
Gary barely heard what the man next to him was saying. He was too busy looking. The setting sun was coming through the cracks in the cloud cover, painting the snowy figures that dotted the playground in shades of orange, yellow, and pink. Gargoyles and trolls, mounds with abstract collections of spheres and pyramids, and what looked like a robot, were strewn among the playground equipment and the copse of trees.
"This is...this is pretty amazing," he said. He walked through the open gate for a better look, thinking that he should call Miguel Diaz. The guy would have a front-page photo for sure, and maybe Jeff would get some recognition. "I mean it, I'm impressed."
Jeff shrugged, but his eyes sparkled at the praise. "It's not that big a deal. Like Luke said, it's just 'cause I'm out of materials right now, until one of the galleries manages to sell something and I can buy more. But I like these, the ones I did today, better than most of what I've done the past year, if you can believe it. It was a good day," he added, arms crossed over his chest as he surveyed his kingdom with obvious satisfaction.
Wishing he could say the same, Gary stopped before a troll, whose white features glared up at him with unexpected venom. The thing looked alive. "So it doesn't bother you that you spend all this time on this stuff and nobody sees it, it doesn't last?"
"That's not the point. I mean it's nice and everything, but it's really the process, you know? Watching it take shape under my hands--that's what it's all about. And if it doesn't last, well--there'll always be more snow in Chicago."
Gary snorted. "That's for sure." He scanned the playground, the trees, and wondered why they looked so familiar. Pointing to the tiny forest, he asked, "There's--there's a pond or something back there, isn't there?"
"Yeah, there were even kids here today who cleared it off and were playing hockey around the edges. I don't know how safe it was, but they seemed to be having a good time. You've been here before?"
"I guess so." It must have been a save; after the first year or so, a lot of them had just blurred together in Gary's memory. He shook off the feeling that there was something about the park he should remember, and turned back to Jeff. "I really need to go. But thanks for the tour. It was definitely...interesting. I'm impressed."
"Thanks, man. For everything." They shook hands and Jeff headed
back the way they'd come, hands stuffed in the pockets of his battered coat.
Gary took one more look around the park, then left the disapproving troll
behind and crossed through the park to the El stop.
We've got two lives, one we're given
and the other one we make
And the world won't stop, and actions speak louder
Listen to your heart, and your heart might say
Everything we got, we got the hard way
~ Mary Chapin Carpenter
Stomping and scraping snow off his boots, Gary buzzed Marissa's intercom.
"Gary? Is that you?"
The door was opened almost immediately. "I'd just about given up on you. Come in quick, it's cold."
"You're telling me." Peeling off his gloves, Gary rubbed his hands together, grateful for the warmth of Marissa's home. His day, it seemed, was bound to be a series of freezings and thawings. He made sure he stayed on the welcome mat in the foyer; the tile and hardwood floors in the place would be a mess if he tracked snow all over them.
"I'm--uh, well, I'm sorry about being late. I kinda got sidetracked. Can I use your phone?"
Marissa gestured at the table to his right. "Sure." Leaning against the archway that led to the living room, she listened without comment while Gary fumbled through his wallet for the right card, then left a tip on Miguel Diaz's voice mail about the snow sculptures. When he finished, she picked up the conversation where they'd left off. "As far as being late, you're actually just in time for dinner, if you want to join me, but then I'm going to have to leave for choir practice."
Gary had bent down to remove his boots, but now he stood up again, frowning. "You're going to choir tonight? It's a mess out there, Marissa. I don't think you'll get a cab even if you call."
"You don't know Gail. Come hell or high water, we have practice every Tuesday." Marissa grinned. "Rain, sleet, snow, and dead of night have been known to stop the post office, but not Gail. Besides, I've been cooped up in the house all day, and I don't mind taking the El."
"There's more than a foot of snow out there, and that's where it isn't drifted. Nobody's shoveled their sidewalks, either. How are you gonna manage?" He knew the question would probably irritate her, but even though being blind didn't stop Marissa from doing almost anything that she wanted to, Gary didn't see the point of taking this kind of a chance.
"How did you manage, Gary?" she asked archly, eyes flashing.
"C'mon, Marissa, I'm just looking out for you."
"I know you are, but sometimes you overdo it. I have dealt with snow before. Although," she added, her indignation disappearing as quickly as it had come, "I can't say I'd mind some help this time."
Marissa asking for help? That didn't happen every day. "Is that an invitation? What are you trying to do, convert me?"
"Of course not, Gary. It's just that it's too deep out there for the dog, and--"
"Doesn't matter," he grunted, bending down again to peel the boots off. "I'm all yours." Anything was better than going back to his loft alone and brooding over the paper. Besides, he was supposed to be paying more attention to his friend, isn't that what he'd promised? And when he thought about the consequences when he hadn't, he shuddered. Nope, no more of that. Lesson learned. "We'll manage together."
That seemed to be enough for Marissa; she led him through the living room and into the warmth of the kitchen, shooing away his offer to help with dinner. "Sit down and relax; it's almost done. I thought tomato soup and grilled cheese would be good comfort food on a day like today."
"Sounds great to me." Flicking on the overhead light in the grey dim, Gary tried to relax as ordered, but he couldn't help taking one more look through the paper. He noticed that Marissa raised an eyebrow when she heard the pages shuffling, but she didn't ask, just buttered bread and unwrapped cheese slices until Gary finished. There was nothing--again--and once again, he didn't know what to make of it. Tossing the paper onto the table, tapping the pine surface with impatient fingers, he noted that it had already been set for two. Sometimes Marissa's intuition was uncanny.
Her new guide dog, a golden retriever who'd been dozing on his pillow in the front room, padded into the kitchen and greeted Gary by plopping his head in Gary's lap, feathered tail wagging.
"Heya, mutt." Gary scratched the top of Reilly's head while the dog tried to lick his other hand. After a few casual inquiries about McGinty's and the storm, Marissa launched into detailed questions about the afternoon's save. By the time Gary finished telling her about Luigi's, there were sandwiches and hot soup on the table in front of him, and Reilly had settled in at his feet.
Marissa laughed when she heard about Luke's rapping game. "You weren't dancing on the tables, were you?"
"Huh?" Gary asked through a mouthful of grilled cheese.
Shaking her head, Marissa dismissed her own question. "They sound like that kind of a crowd--and not that I'm criticizing, Gary, but they don't sound like your kind of crowd. What made you stay?" She put her spoon down on the straw place mat deliberately, folded her hands in her lap, and turned her full attention on Gary. "What's really going on?"
Gary thought for a minute, peeling crusts off his sandwich and slipping them to an appreciative Reilly. The dog licked every trace of butter off of his fingers while Gary tried to explain. "It's like I said this morning: something's wrong with the paper. At least, that's what I thought, but now I'm thinking, maybe something's wrong with me. Why couldn't I really help those kids last night? Or that girl today, Trini? I mean, even when I'm only doing little things, I can't do anything that matters."
Marissa went still, her eyes widening. "Gary Hobson, how in the world can you say that? That paper is a gift--"
"And I can't return it."
"But you want an exchange."
Wiping his fingers on his jeans, Gary stammered, "I--I didn't say that."
"That's what this is about though, isn't it? That's enough, Reilly," she added when the dog's nose followed Gary's hands back into his lap. Reilly sank back to the floor, still watching Gary with hopeful brown eyes. "Okay--when did all this start?"
"Right after New Year's." Gary slurped down a spoonful of soup, tangy and hot, but it wasn't as comforting as it should have been, not now that they were treading this terrain.
"That makes sense."
He frowned at Marissa. "What, are you saying the paper had a Y2K glitch?"
"Not the paper--you." At that, Gary fumbled with his water glass, nearly dropping it, and it clinked against the thick ceramic bowl. Marissa leaned toward him, gesturing with her spoon, becoming more animated as she worked through her theory. "Remember all the news pieces and programs that were on television around that time, about the major events of the past year? The past decade? Gary, how many times did you hear that and wish you could have known--about the plane crashes, the school shootings, the refugees, the natural disasters?" He didn't answer, squirming uncomfortably in his chair. "That's what you've been doing, isn't it? Eating your heart out over what you haven't done--even though you had no control over it at all?"
"Well, no, I--I mean, uh--"
Marissa pursed her lips, her expression impatient as she put the spoon in the bowl. "Don't even try to lie to me."
"Okay, the thought did cross my mind, but--" But he wasn't going to tell her, because he could hardly even admit to himself, just how hard it had been to see the retrospective the Sun-Times had done about all that stuff, a slap in the face that had told him just what he hadn't been adequate enough to fix. "But why has it stopped giving me anything to do? Are you saying the paper is punishing me for not being able to do more?" He had to chew on his lip for a second before he could ask, "Marissa, do you--do you think the paper's lost faith in me?"
"No." The swift shake of her head was definite, but her impatience was gone. "That's not what I'm saying at all. You know--I know you know--that you can't do everything; you can't stop every bad thing that happens." She waited for a moment, then, when he didn't respond, she said, her voice gentle, "But I think you heard all that, and you started questioning, and--Gary, it sounds as if you've lost faith in yourself."
"I haven't--not exactly, anyway. It's hard to explain. It's like--well, today, for example. That girl still has bigger problems than I can help her with. I can stop one mugging, or a single traffic accident, but thousands of them still happen. It doesn't really end anything." He heaved a sigh and sat back in the chair, admitting, "I just--I don't know what the paper wants me to do anymore."
Marissa bit her lip, ran a finger around the rim of her glass. When she spoke again, her voice was more tentative, as though she wasn't sure of what she was about to say. "You want to know what I think?"
"Of course I do."
"Well, first of all, if the paper doesn't give you enough to do, I'm sure you can find ways to help people on your own, if that's what you want. And I have a feeling that is what you want, because that's the kind of person you are. The paper is a gift because it guides you in doing what you already want to do--whether you'll admit it or not," she added with a faint grin as Gary opened his mouth to protest. "But the second thing is, I think maybe this time is also a gift, like everything else that comes from...wherever the paper comes from. It's a chance to mull things over, and maybe to choose."
"To choose," Gary repeated flatly. He had no idea what his friend was getting at.
She nodded. "I was thinking today about when the paper first started coming to you. You had to make a pretty serious choice soon after that, remember?"
"Yeah." Gary cringed at the memory of carrying Amanda Bailey through congested streets while images of a plane crash echoed in his head. "Yeah, but that all worked out in the end. I saved the girl, and that stopped the plane crash."
"The point is, you didn't know it would work out. But you went with what you had to do, what your heart told you was right. And I think that set you on a course that you've been following ever since. For the most part, you help individuals--specific people, not mass hordes. People with faces you can see, who have problems that might seem small in the cosmic scope of things, but still--what you do matters to those individuals."
He knew it did, and he didn't think that was the point. "But is it enough?"
"That's what I think you have to answer for yourself. That's the choice I think you need to make now."
"Wait a minute." Gary shook his head, trying to get it clear; this was almost too big to grasp. "Are you--are you trying to tell me that you think that if I want to, I can change the kinds of stories the paper shows me?"
The expression on Marissa's face changed to one of pleased indulgence, that of a teacher whose pupil had finally seen the light. "That's it exactly. Look, I know you grumble about not having a choice when the paper shows you what's going to happen, but do you honestly think that getting that paper precludes your own free will?"
Gary shrugged. "No, I guess not."
"So, let's say I'm right, just for now. You had to make a choice once. Would you choose differently this time? If you were up on that El platform and saw Amanda, and you didn't know that saving her would solve everything, right now, would you still give up the chance to stop the plane to save her?"
"But that's not a fair question." Suddenly restless, he disentangled himself from the furry paws and head that had laid claim to his socked feet, and went to the sink to refill his water glass. "That day--I wouldn't have made it if I'd gotten on the train. You guys got stuck, remember?"
Marissa shifted in her seat, keeping her face toward him. "Chuck and I did, yes. But Gary, I truly believe that if you'd gotten on the train, you would have made it to the airport and stopped that flight."
Gary stared at his friend; leaned back against the sink and took a sip of water as he processed what she was saying. He couldn't believe she'd put so much thought into this. "But not Amanda's death."
"No. And that's the point, Gary. You chose someone you could see, right there in front of you, over a couple hundred people. That's the kind of person you are--or at least, it's the kind of person you were then. Your compassion for an individual outweighed every other consideration. It was impulsive, but in a totally real, completely understandable way."
It might have been the point, but to Gary it seemed like a moot one. "But in the end it did stop the crash."
She nodded. "I think that was the paper's way of telling you that it was okay to choose Amanda, to pick one person over hundreds, to be who you are. It set you on a course, but I don't necessarily think you have to stay on that course if you don't want to. That's what you have to decide."
Again, Marissa nodded, her faith in what she was saying clear in her quiet pose and calm expression. How she could be so certain about it all was beyond Gary. It was a huge responsibility, and he wasn't sure he wanted it--or if it was even real. But Marissa seemed so sure. He drained his water glass, then returned to the table. "What do you think?" he hedged.
"It's not about what I think. It's about what you want. There's really not a wrong answer. The only failure would be to make no choice at all, and maybe that's why the paper's been so slow lately."
Gary thought about it for a minute, trying to imagine how different things might be. "So, you think if I sort of...ask...the paper would show me different stories, and I could maybe save more people?"
Marissa nodded. "Leading to all kinds of different consequences."
He fingered the sawtooth edge of the Sun-Times, where the innocuous story about snow removal still graced the front page. "I could save a lot of people at once, if I could stop stuff like, like that train crash." His mind was racing now, catapulting over possibilities. "Or school shootings, or if I could warn people about earthquakes and tornadoes--"
"Gary, wait." Marissa held up a hand, her eyes growing wide with alarm. "You need to think this through, before you make any hasty decisions. Yes, you could help a great many people if you were to choose differently. But think about what you'd be exposed to--more publicity, more danger--think about that, okay?"
"It's numbers, though." Gary's foot started jiggling with impatience to get on with this. If Marissa was right...it would be great to be able to say he'd stopped some of the devastation that got paraded on the national news every evening. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"
It was the hesitation in her tone that finally curbed his runaway thoughts. He peered at her more closely. "There's a 'but' in there somewhere."
"Gary, it is your choice. I'm more convinced of that now than ever."
"But?" he prompted.
"But...well, it's just...I do see your point. And given the choice, most people would save the plane, the people in that grocery store in Belfast, or the ones on the train. And they wouldn't be wrong. You wouldn't be wrong. But what happens to everyone else? To the homeless kids and the starving artists and the careless photographers and...and..."
Her fingers were toying with the edge of the place mat. For once, it was Gary's turn to make an intuitive leap. "And blind people who get in the way of idiot drivers?"
"I didn't mean--" But she ducked her head, embarrassed, and he knew he'd been right. He reached across the table, touching her hand so she'd know he was serious.
"I'll always be here for you, Marissa, no matter what."
"I know that." She closed her eyes for a moment and squeezed his hand, then smiled. "And I also know that it's easy to sit here and play devil's advocate when the decision's not mine to make. It's yours, and whatever you choose, I know it'll be the right thing, as long as you go with what's in your heart."
"You know, you're always saying stuff like that. What if I don't know what I want?"
"But you do." Marissa stood and gathered dishes to carry to the sink. "It's just that you're the only one who does. Give yourself a little time, Gary, and you'll figure it out."
"Yeah, right." He got up to help clear the table. "What am I supposed to do in the meantime?"
"In the meantime," Marissa said, frowning as her fingers brushed the dial
of her Braille watch, "You can help me get to church before Gail kicks me
out of the choir."
When I rise, I rise in glory
If I do, I do by grace
Time will wash away these footprints
And we'll leave without a trace
Between here and now and forever
There's such precious little time
What we do in loving kindness
Is all we ever leave behind
~ Carrie Newcomer
The church was warm, well-lit, and busier than Gary had expected. In addition to the choir members milling up front, whom Marissa hurried to join as soon as he'd taken her coat, there were assorted husbands and kids hanging around, probably tagalongs like Gary who had been brought for navigation, protection, or lack of baby-sitters. Gail's son Chris was with a knot of kids back in one corner, huddled over their ubiquitous Pokemon games. A group of men created a slightly larger mirror image as they gathered around a tiny portable television in the vestibule to watch the Bulls' away game. There were others scattered around the pews, many of whom were poorly dressed, and seemed to have come in simply to get out of the cold.
The air smelled of lemon polish, wet wool, and every pot luck supper that had ever been held in the basement. The elegant carving on the pews and the scuffed floor indicated that Mt. Moriah had been around for a long time. Up in front, the choir members sorted themselves according to voice, and the piano led them through warm-ups. Gary found a pew and sat--not in the front, not in the back, but solidly in the middle. Just like when he was a kid. His mom would have preferred to sit front and center, while his dad wanted to be in the last row so he could beat everyone else to the parking lot the minute the service was over. They'd compromised.
Thinking about his parents reminded him of the letter his mom had sent, which reminded him of his conversations with Marissa, which reminded him of the paper...and that was no good, was it? It certainly wasn't comfortable to think about, not in a place like this. Despite the amicable buzz of activity around him, this wasn't a mall food court. It was the kind of a place where people--and whoever else might be around--had...expectations.
Gary distracted himself by checking out some of the other stray souls. The pews were sprinkled with people praying, listening, or, maybe just thinking. An older couple in the back were reading a Bible together, heads touching as they bent over the book. One woman, bundled in layers of clothing so thick that Gary had no idea what her true shape was, watched the choir in rapt fascination from a front pew, a bundle at her feet. At the end of the same pew an elderly man, frayed around the edges, swayed back and forth in time to the first song, something about moving up and praising God that included clapping and plenty of Alleluias. Gary would have to tell Marissa that they'd had an appreciative audience tonight.
Another woman, in a loose-fitting grey trench coat that was patched at the elbows with squares of blue gingham, was kneeling on the cold linoleum a few rows back from Gary, head bent, lips moving silently. She had dark hair, shoulder length, that hid most of her face, and she was fingering a rosary. Its silver cross and a few black beads were draped over her folded hands. Common sense would have declared her decidedly out of place in this Protestant church, but somehow she fit right in with the blend of socializing and spirituality, and no one seemed to mind her presence.
"You're Marissa's friend, aren't you?" The voice had come from just to his right, and Gary turned and found himself looking into a pair of kind brown eyes--the pastor of the church, he remembered from a couple of past visits.
"Yeah. Hi, Reverend." Hoping he'd used the right title, Gary stuck out his hand. He would have stood, but the minister motioned him to stay where he was, and joined him on the pew instead. "Gary Hobson," he added as they shook hands. "I--uh, I hope it's okay that I'm here."
"Reverend Nicks, and it's always okay, Gary. As you can see, our choir brings its own entourage with it, and nights like this, I try to keep the church doors unlocked as late as I can, even if there are no activities. But on choir nights we seem to get a few more." He nodded at the woman in the front row. "You've probably noticed this church is on a bit of a borderline, neighborhood-wise. We try to help whoever we can; it's part of the Lord's work."
Gary nodded, watching the woman across from him on her knees. Though the music had risen to a rousing, joyous conclusion, she'd buried her face in her hands. Reverend Nicks sighed.
"She's been in here every night for a week, and every once in a while before that, but she won't talk to me. No doubt she'd be more comfortable over at St. Bridgit's, but Father Cleary is getting on in years, and he worries about vandalism--locks the doors at sundown. That's usually when she wanders in. I wish I knew how to help her."
"Yeah." Gary knew that feeling all too well, and that reminded him--"Have you seen a couple of kids around here?" It was a long shot, especially considering how far this church was from Navy Pier, but Gary had to ask. "They're Hispanic, a girl and a boy..." But the Reverend shook his head at Gary's description.
"No, son, I'm afraid I haven't. Friends of yours?"
Gary rubbed his chin. "Not exactly. But I think they need some help."
"Then I hope you find them soon." Cocking his head, Reverend Nicks listened to the choir run through the end of the song one more time before he said, "Our Lord told us that not a sparrow falls without the Father's notice, but sometimes it is hard, to see so many falling here. We do our best to catch them when we can." He smiled, and the assurance in his eyes reminded Gary of the faith Marissa always seemed to have in the paper and its origins. "Sometimes I believe the Lord Himself needs a little help."
"Catching sparrows," Gary murmured.
"Indeed. Some of us are called to worldly greatness, but I believe there is also greatness to be found in the smallest acts of kindness." He stood, his mouth twisted into a rueful grin. "And I should do you the kindness of practicing my sermons solo, shouldn't I?"
"Oh, no, I--"
"No, no--it's true." Brushing invisible dust off the sleeve of his black jacket, Nicks grinned and winked at Gary. "I have a terrible habit of thinking my theology out loud, even in casual conversation. Certain members of my congregation think I'm getting in extra preaching, but really--I'm just as lost as anyone else much of the time."
He left Gary and went to sit next to the praying woman. Placing one hand on her shoulder, the Reverend sat, head bowed--praying with her, Gary decided. She started at his touch, but when she turned and saw who it was, she relaxed and went back to her rosary.
Reverend Nicks didn't look lost. He looked as if he knew exactly what he was doing, and as if that was exactly what he wanted and needed to do.
Gary watched the rest of the choir's rehearsal, but he couldn't have said what the songs were about, or even what faults Gail had managed to find with the singers. His mind was on choices and sparrows.
He didn't even realize the rehearsal was over until he heard Marissa call his name. Blinking out of his trance, he saw her standing a few yards away next to Gail, who was trying to bundle Chris into his coat. The kid didn't want to lift his thumbs off his Game Boy, so it wasn't exactly an easy struggle.
"Over here, Marissa," he called, gathering up their coats. All the cold-weather gear was cumbersome, and as he fumbled with the pile, the paper fell onto the seat, then slid off the polished wood onto the red carpet. When Marissa showed up at the end of the pew, he gave up the attempt to carry everything, concentrating instead on helping her on with her coat and untangling her hat, mittens, and scarf from his own.
Keyed up from the music, Marissa was bouncing on her toes and talking faster than usual. "I'm so glad I came--thanks, Gary--I mean, it's just been such a long day sitting inside the house, and I don't even mind the cold, do you? I can even smell it in here. It's amazing how the snow brings out the best in people. Mrs. Hayes didn't complain once about the tenors being off-key, like she does every week--though usually it's her that's off."
Gary had seen this adrenaline-enhanced version of Marissa once or twice, and usually it amused him. This time he had other matters on his mind. "Hey, uh, Chatty Cathy?" he asked, dropping his voice and handing over her mittens. "You didn't--you didn't put the good Reverend Nicks over there up to anything, did you?"
That brought her up short, and she stopped winding her scarf around her neck to ask, "What are you talking about?"
"He came over here to say hi and we ended up having a little talk--actually, Reverend Nicks did most of the talking." If he thought about it as Marissa's intervention, the whole conversation might make more sense. "You orchestrated the whole thing, didn't you?"
Marissa stood with her mouth agape for a moment, then protested, "Gary, I swear, I didn't say a word--I wouldn't--well, how in the world would I even begin to explain what's going on with you to someone who knows nothing about the paper? And I wouldn't presume to talk to anyone else about your problems like that, let alone 'orchestrate'--"
"Okay, okay." Gary held up a hand. "I, uh, plead temporary insanity. I believe you. It's just that it was strange, the way he came over and started talking about sparrows and stuff, after what we were talking about earlier, you know?"
"You discussed bird watching with my pastor?" The confusion on her face, what he could see of it between her beret and scarf, eliminated the last of his doubts.
"No, you know, sparrows, like in the Bible."
"You mean Matthew?--'Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge.'--those sparrows?"
"Not in so many words, but, yeah," Gary muttered, bending to retrieve the paper from the floor. Several pages had scattered, and he gathered them up, checking each one for any new developments.
"That's...wow, Gary, that's just like what we were talking about earlier. So what did he have to say about it all?"
Gary straightened up slowly, reading an article that hadn't been there before. A dumpster fire; it wasn't much, but considering the location, he was pretty sure he needed to be there. He zipped up his coat and offered his elbow to Marissa. "I can tell you along the way, if you don't mind a detour."
Step on a crack.
In a city of concrete it is impossible
to avoid disaster indefinitely...
Finally, you must choose between
standing still in the one solid spot you
have found, or you keep moving
and take the risk:
Break your mother's back.
~ Judith Ortiz Cofer
After Gary had summarized his conversation with Reverend Nicks, he told Marissa about the article in the paper. For once, there was no need to keep their voices down; they were alone on the El. "It starts in a trash barrel and catches on some old crates and spreads--does minor damage to the kitchen. They think vagrants start the fire and then it gets out of control or something."
There was a pause, nearly a block rattled by, then Marissa asked, "You decided, didn't you? That's why there's something more in the paper."
Gary gaped at his friend, who sat next to him, facing the otherwise empty El car with an infuriatingly calm expression. Her matter-of-fact attitude about something so completely bizarre was going to make him nuts. "I didn't--it's not like I filled out some cosmic survey or something." Arms crossed over his chest, he slumped back against his seat. "This is just a stupid trash fire."
"Behind the same restaurant where you spent the afternoon partying with a bunch of--"
"I was not 'partying', I was buying lunch for some hungry, slightly whacked-out kids. I should have asked if they were friends of Patrick," he muttered.
Marissa would not be deterred. "If you ask me, there's a reason for this."
Gary grunted. "You always say that."
"And am I wrong?"
"There's a 'but' in there somewhere," she said.
Gary acknowledged her echoing of his own earlier words with a half-laugh. "It's just that I was thinking, after I talked to Reverend Nicks--that choice you're talking about? I really did make it a long time ago. Maybe I just needed to be reminded that it was a good choice."
"And are you convinced, now?"
"Well, I--I guess so."
"You guess so? Isn't that why we're headed to the scene of a trash barrel fire?"
He was saved from having to answer as the El shrieked to a halt. "This is it." Refusing to acknowledge the faint, satisfied smile on Marissa's face, he led her off the train and down to the sidewalk.
The night was cold, much colder even than the day that had preceded it. The wind had died down, leaving Chicago shrouded in the stillness that only comes in deep winter. The clear air was so sharp that deep breaths hurt, and small sounds--car doors, footsteps, and even the click of a traffic light changing--rang with piercing clarity. Once again Gary tramped through the barely-plowed streets, a half-step ahead of Marissa as he tried to steer her along the clearest path.
The lights were still on in Luigi's, and from the looks of things, the party had not only continued, but grown. Young people were crowded at the tables, and voices and laughter could be heard even through the walls. Gary thought for a second or so about going in and getting help, then dismissed the idea. This was just a small fire, after all; at least it would be if he could get there in the next couple minutes. He was pretty sure that in the time it would take him to convince the owner to find an extinguisher--if he even had one--the blaze would already have spread to the kitchen.
"C'mon." Tugging Marissa's hand, he led her around the corner and down the darkened alley, lit by the lone streetlight behind them and a few flickering flames halfway down the narrow passage. The drifts here weren't as deep as they'd been out on the sidewalks and streets. The buildings that framed the alley had blocked the snow from accumulating too much, which might explain why a homeless person would try to shelter here. The thing was, there were no people around that Gary could see--just the barrel, snow-covered drifts of trash against the brick buildings, and haphazard jumbles of wooden crates on both sides of Luigi's back entrance. In the faint light cast by the flames he noted the bare, broken bulb that hung over the dented wooden door.
"I can smell it the fire--can you see it?" Marissa asked as they approached the barrel.
"It's right here," he told her, releasing her with a gentle shove toward the relative safety of the opposite side of the alley. "Hold on." He tried to haul the barrel away from the empty wooden crates stacked next to Luigi's back door, but the metal was already too hot, even through his gloves. Whatever was burning in there was popping and crackling like a bowl of Rice Krispies on steroids, and sparks and embers were shooting out into the alley. Gary looked around for something to smother the fire, and, finding nothing else, he started scooping snow from the small drifts along the opposite building into the barrel. Sparks kept landing at his feet, and he stomped at them, all the while trying to keep an eye on the stacks of wooden crates.
"Move down to your left," he called to Marissa, hoping he was directing her out of reach of the flying embers.
She sidled a few yards down the alley, keeping one hand on the wall of the building for guidance. "Can I help?"
"Nah, I've almost got it." Gary reached for another armload of snow. The only problem with putting out the main fire was that doing so cut down on what he could see. There were no more flames leaping past the barrel's rim, and the popping was settling down, too, but he could still hear a crackle--and it wasn't coming from the barrel.
Peering at the maze of ancient, dried out wood and rusting nails, Gary finally saw it--a board at the top of the pile that had caught fire and was about to send fingers of flame to the rest of the crates. Snow wouldn't do the trick this time. He whipped off his coat and beat at the boards with it, once, twice, and then a third time; but he underestimated his strength and overestimated the stability of the pile. It toppled toward him and Gary fell backward. The crates crashed to the ground and he rolled into the opposite wall.
"Gary? What happened, are you okay?"
Before he could draw breath to answer, there was a second crash--the pile of crates on the other side of the door came tumbling down, and quick footsteps echoed at the dark end of the alley.
Quick, light footsteps...the sound set off warning bells in his brain, but for a moment--just a small, dark moment--Gary stayed where he was, clutching his coat to his chest, letting his heart pound, trying to wish away the cold and the nagging pain in his knees and elbows. Then he decided that he'd spent quite enough time lying in alleyways for one day, and with a muffled groan, he pushed himself to his feet.
The ground around him was littered with splintered boards and the contents of the trash barrel, which had been upended by the falling tower of crates. Luckily, the snow that Gary had dumped in there had melted and all that threatened the alley now was a pile of soggy muck. His boots sloshed through it as he tried to make his way in the dark. "Marissa?"
"Here." She was pressed up against the wall, and he had to negotiate his way through the debris to get to her. When he finally got past the worst of the second pile, he could make out little more of her outline than he'd been able to from ten yards away.
"Yes." She turned her face toward the end of the alley. "There was someone here."
"Behind a stack of crates; that was the second crash you heard."
"Not just heard, I felt it, Gary. I was trying to get to you and then when that stuff came tumbling down I think I jumped back six feet. Whoever it was brushed past me on the way out, and it sounded--and felt--like--"
She nodded. "It sounded like a couple of them, or else very small adults. You saw them?"
"It's so dark back here I can barely see you. But I can hear footsteps too, you know."
Marissa reached for his arm; when she touched his sweater, she drew her hand back. "Put your coat on; you're going to freeze."
He was sweating from exertion and being so close to the fire, but obeyed anyway. "Marissa, you don't think those kids--I mean, they couldn't have been--"
She seemed to be waiting for him to make a decision, but for the life of him, he didn't know what he could do. It was too dark, and whoever had set the fire and knocked over the crates had too much of a head start for there to be any reasonable chance of finding them. "Let's go home. I think I've had enough for one day."
Just in case, though, Gary took the opposite way out of the alley, emerging near the park where Jeff's sculptures still stood, transformed by the moon and a couple of streetlights into ghostly monoliths. He slowed as they passed the entrance, and Marissa tilted her head to one side. "What is it?"
"Oh, nothing, it's just that guy, the one I met earlier--this is the park where he did those sculptures." It was late and cold, he should have moved on, but his feet wouldn't go. "It's driving me nuts, Marissa; I swear I've been here before, but I can't remember when."
"A save?" she asked. They had slowed to a halt at the park gate.
"That's what I thought, but I sure can't remember what it would have been." He shrugged. "Oh well. I suppose we better get--"
"Wait, Gary. Do you think I--I mean, would your friend mind if I got to know his sculptures?"
It took Gary a minute, but he got it. "Oh. No, I'm sure he wouldn't. C'mere." He led her through the gate and onto the playground, guiding her hand to the head of a giant frog. "There're its eyes, and the legs, the flippers..." Marissa knelt in the snow, grinning as she felt the icy outlines through her mittens. Next Gary brought her to the troll, and then the robot. She gave him her cane so she could kneel next to the sculpture, totally absorbed in exploring its lines with her hands. It was cold, bitterly so, and the temperature was dropping quickly, but they were both having a strange brand of fun, the kind of opportunity that rarely presented itself. Gary was just reaching for her hand to help her stand when a sharp crack shattered the still air.
Then a scream, high-pitched and terrified.
Marissa's grip tightened around his fingers. "Oh my God. That came from--" She was already on her feet, turning toward the trees. Gary didn't waste any time agreeing, just tugged at her hand, dragging her along with him as he ran for the pond he'd remembered, thinking about what Jeff had said about the kids playing hockey earlier, and mentally kicking himself for not looking at the paper after the fire.
"Gary, what's happening?" Marissa was breathless, and he knew she was hard-pressed to stay on her feet as he pulled her down the slim footpath among the trees. She grabbed his upper arm with her free hand, her fingers digging into the nylon and soft down of his parka.
It was impossible, though, for Gary to slow down, not after that scream. "Tree," he warned as he yanked her away from a potential collision with the trunk of an evergreen. All the while, a thought nagged at his brain--he knew this trail, it had been here for decades, he knew that, but how? "There's a pond back here; Jeff said there were kids earlier."
"At this time of night?"
"You said it was kids in the alley." Gary skidded to a halt, Marissa bumping into him from behind, as they broke from the cover of trees.
There was, indeed, a pond, no more than a hundred feet in rough, misshapen diameter. Piles of snow dotted the perimeter, a couple of nearby benches had been dusted off, and the surface of the pond had indeed been cleared for skating. It was smooth as glass--except for the star-shaped opening in the middle and the small shadow crawling toward it.
The shadow was sobbing, reaching for the opening, long hair dragging on the ice...
Recognition hit like an avalanche. After a breath that drew icy knives into his lungs, Gary shouted, "Lucy!"
Marissa gasped in his ear. The shadow stopped; the girl looked back at him, but only for a moment, and then she was crawling toward the hole again.
"Lucy, no! Stop!"
Still clutching Marissa's hand, Gary maneuvered them both over the snow piles and onto the first ring of ice. It felt solid enough beneath his feet, but Gary knew better. He hadn't grown up in northern Indiana and spent winters camping with his dad without hearing all the warnings about thin ice.
"Stay here," he told Marissa, and took a few steps farther onto the ice. It held, but Lucy was yards ahead of him, nearly to the dark opening. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what had happened.
"Lucy, you gotta stop. Stop! We'll get your brother--"
Up ahead of him, the ice cracked again, and even though it held, Gary dropped to his knees, then all the way down.
If the ice starts to give, get down, his dad had told him when he'd gone after a puck that had slid far out onto the lake. You have to spread out your weight. Use as much of the ice to support yourself as you can.
He was close enough now to hear splashing from the opening in the ice over Lucy's incoherent sobs, and he thought he saw a dark head break the surface of the frigid water. Flat on his stomach, he crawled toward them, closer, closer, but not close enough, not fast enough. Lucy, too, was lying prone on the ice, reaching for the open water, inching closer to the hole as she tried to grasp a pair of tiny, flailing hands.
Gary scooted forward as quickly as he dared. He was within an arm's length of Lucy's ankle when she moved again, too far and too fast. The ice gave way beneath her with another sickening crack and she disappeared.
The water before him churned as both children panicked and fought to escape.
"Gary, what is it? Gary!"
He had to get to them, but he knew the ice wouldn't support his weight for long. Over the splashing and screaming, he shouted instructions and stripped off his gloves. "Marissa, I need you to crawl out here. Don't walk, it isn't safe, you have to get down...straight ahead, grab my ankles, can you do that? To your left--that's it." He thought that maybe if he could extend his reach, redistribute his weight, there'd be a better chance for all of them. Though it seemed like hours, it was only a few seconds before he felt Marissa's hands lock around his legs, right above his boots, and he dared to inch closer to the opening, just a few feet in front of him now.
"What are we doing, Gary? Where are the kids?"
"In the water--just hold on, okay? I'm almost there."
It seemed to Gary that he could feel the ice beneath him getting thinner as he scooted forward with Marissa in tow, the spiderweb of cracks before him spreading, threatening to open into a gaping maw that would put both of them in the frigid water with the kids. He was close enough now to spread his fingers over the edge of the opening, but he couldn't reach anything solid.
"Lucy, c'mon! Bernardo--somebody get my hand!"
He could see movement, that was the frustrating thing. Throwing caution to the wind, he pulled himself forward a foot more, then another, plunged his arms into the water, dragging Marissa behind, hoping he wouldn't regret this..."Gotcha!"
What he had was the shoulder of a soaking-wet sweatshirt. It was enough to yank Bernardo's head above the water. With his other hand, he got a grip under the little boy's arm and hauled him up and to the side, using a burst of adrenaline to toss him like a wet pillow so that he slid to thicker ice, to safety. Gary turned back--and the water was still.
"Lucy! Lucy, c'mon, where are you?" Pawing through the water with hands that had gone numb, Gary tried futilely to locate a wrist, hair, a coat, a shoe, anything. Behind him, he could her the little boy sobbing--thank God he was breathing--and he could feel Marissa, tugging the hems of his jeans, and then the ice splintered again, the vibration resonating through Gary's chest. It was all going to give way, they'd both go in--
"Marissa, let go!"
"No! Gary, you can't--"
"Let go and back up! Get the boy off the ice."
She released his ankles only long enough to readjust her grip, to wrap both arms around his legs.
"Damn it, Marissa--"
The ice under Gary's ribs gave way.
He fell down into the water, head first, arms outstretched. He opened his mouth in shock and cold rushed in, hitting every nerve in his throat, his sinuses, his brain. Around him the water was black and cold, colder than he'd even known cold could be, so cold it burned through every cell in his hands, his face, his neck. Hell had frozen over, and he was falling into it.
But he didn't fall far. Instead, he hung from the waist, the upper half of his body in the water, and he realized that the ice under his legs still held. It was thicker there, and Marissa hadn't let go. Some part of his brain, through the stabbing cold, felt her tugging his ankles; he was being dragged backward, through the water and out toward solidity, and with that movement, his outstretched hand bumped against something in the water--an arm.
He grabbed it more tightly than he would have if it had been a life preserver. With every ounce of warmth and awareness left in his body, he commanded his frozen muscles to move, and he lifted himself and then Lucy up through the water, breaking the surface as Marissa pulled on his legs. They, too, were able to work even though he couldn't feel them, and somehow they were all moving back, away from the danger. He heard Lucy coughing and choking even before they were clear of the hole. He kept the girl locked in his frozen grip as they all slid back, until he was sure it was safe to sit up.
"Gary?" Marissa was on her knees, reaching out--her mittens were gone, Gary realized when her fingers brushed his face, ice touching frozen ice. "My God, Gary..."
"It's okay," he choked out, the new air in his lungs still unbelievably sharp.
He pulled Lucy into his lap. She leaned, limp and exhausted, against his chest, for just a moment. The air seemed to register on both their wet bodies at the same time, for they began shivering in violent unison. Lucy sat up, coughing, wide-eyed.
"He's okay," Gary told her. By now they were both shaking so badly it might as well have been an earthquake. Marissa got to her feet and moved in the direction of the little boy's broken sobs, and Gary saw that he was curled into a tight ball. "Over there." He pointed, and as soon as Lucy saw her brother, she wrenched herself free of his grip, stumbling awkwardly past Marissa and sliding the last few feet on her knees to wrap her brother in her own wet arms.
Gary knew if he didn't move, he'd freeze right to the spot, turn into one of Jeff's sculptures. He pushed himself to his knees, then his feet, staggering into Marissa.
"Whoa." She reached up to steady him, grasping his upper arm, but though he could see her hand, he couldn't feel a thing. "Are the kids all right?"
"They're alive, they're--yeah." Gary struggled with another bout of coughing as his lungs fought against the knife-like air. The violent trembling resumed as his body tried to create its own heat.
"We have to get you all warm and dry, Gary, right now," Marissa insisted, some of the earlier panic still in her voice.
"You're shaking, too," he noted.
"No, that's you."
Maybe it was, but Marissa didn't look all that great herself--the front of her coat was wet, her hair was a dripping mess, and her hat was long gone.
"Marissa," he began, tentative but incredibly grateful, "if you hadn't--"
"Don't, Gary. I don't want to think about what could have happened."
"Yeah, well--thanks for not listening to me back there." Gary took her elbow and led her to the two children, huddled together and shaking, too cold, this time, to run away.
"Lucy," he said softly, "let's go get warm." The two trembling kids stared up at him. Lucy's anxious gaze darted between Gary and Marissa, but she didn't move.
He crouched down, holding out a hand. "Look, my name's Gary, okay? This is my friend Marissa, and we're not going to hurt you. We just want to help. You can't stay out here, Lucy, you know that." He could barely force his frozen jaw to work the words out.
Bernardo twisted in Lucy's arms and whispered something into her ear. "No," she said, shaking her head. "No."
"Lucy, take a good look at your brother," said Marissa. She was struggling out of her coat. "He's freezing, and so are you. You cannot stay here another minute, or you will both freeze to death. Now let's go." She held out her coat, and Lucy hesitated only a moment more before she stood, pulling Bernardo up with her, and walked over to take the coat. She would have put it around her little brother, but Gary reached down and picked him up, enveloping the boy in his frozen arms and hoping a little body heat would do them both some good. Lucy watched him with narrowed eyes as she wrapped Marissa's coat around herself. She started and stared when Marissa held out her hand.
"You'll have to help me, Lucy. I think my cane is out in the park, and it sounds as if Gary has his hands full." Gary watched in surprise as Lucy scanned Marissa's face, understanding dawning on her own. She laced her fingers through Marissa's, then leaned against her side for a split second before starting across what was left of the ice and through the trees. Bernardo had Gary's neck in a stranglehold and his legs around his waist, so, not quite steady under the burden, Gary followed Lucy and Marissa down the footpath.
The little group tromped through the trees and onto the playground, Gary-half blind between the head of wet black hair in his face and the mind-numbing cold. His limbs didn't seem to want to obey his brain, and more than once he tottered off the path. Once he stumbled into a tree and got turned around; found himself facing the way they'd come and was sure, yet again, that he'd seen that pond before. There had been a big log on one of the rocks, hadn't there?
"Gary? Where were we out here? Where's my cane?"
He turned himself around and followed Marissa's voice to the playground, guiding her and Lucy to the snow sculpture they'd been exploring when they'd heard the kids. When Lucy bent to retrieve the cane, the street light caught icicles in her hair. Gary saw them through the veil of ice on his own lashes. Bernardo was making small whimpering sounds against his neck, his breath creating the only warm spot on Gary's body.
"...and you have to go first, because you're the only one who knows where we're going."
Gary blinked. Why was the snow robot talking to him?
Now the robot was waddling back and forth and back and forth, doing a quick, stiff robot snow dance.
"Gary! Please answer me, say something. You have to move."
He blinked again, and the robot was just a weird snow sculpture. Marissa was shaking his shoulder, alarmed at his failure to respond.
"It's okay, I know what I'm doing."
...was what he meant to say.
Thanks to his frozen jaw, what actually came out was, "O'ay, mow wha mooing."
Marissa was practically shouting now. "Gary, if you don't move, if we don't get somewhere warm now, these kids are going to be in real trouble, and so are you. Where was that restaurant?"
Kids--Bernardo was dead weight against his chest. Lucy, nearly lost in the long wool coat, was clutching Marissa's hand and staring at Gary and her brother with scared, bewildered eyes. Focus, Hobson, he told himself. One foot in front of the other.
Just like the Winter Warlock in that old Christmas special.
"Gorra hurry," he mumbled, alarmed at the image of a dancing white warlock marionette appearing in his head. Where had that come from? He managed to move, one foot, then the other.
"Yes, we have to hurry," Marissa agreed through chattering teeth. "You go first, and Lucy can help me." She stuck close through the playground and onto the street, one hand on Gary's elbow. But he only knew that it was there because he could look down and see it. He couldn't actually feel it. He had never, never in his life, been so cold. If he were to knock his head against a wall, his frozen hair would shatter and leave him bald.
Marissa was talking to him, to all of them, and he knew, in some part of his brain that the ice water hadn't reached, that she was trying her best to keep them all focused, grounded, and aware. But her words got caught in the cloudy vapor of her breath, splintering into shards of ice around his ears. He couldn't connect with them; couldn't form a response for all the noise swirling through his own brain.
Luigi's, he thought. It was just a block or so away. Put one foot in front of the other...
"It's okay Lucy," Marissa soothed. "We'll be warm soon."
Soon you'll be walking 'cross the floor...
"We'll get you some dry clothes, too, and something to eat. Do you like hot chocolate?"
Did Winter Warlocks drink hot chocolate? Or would it melt them from the inside out?
He would welcome melting at this point. He would be happy to be a puddle of goo on the floor, as long as it was a warm floor and he could be warm goo.
Two buildings down, the lighted doorway shone like a homing beacon. "'Mos'ere," he told Marissa.
He stopped, nodded. "Here." But he couldn't make his hand reach the doorknob. He couldn't force it from the sniffling form wrapped around his neck, his chest, his torso. He and Bernardo were going to be Siamese twins, frozen like this, together forever.
It was Lucy who opened the door, looking up at Gary with a question in her eyes and waiting for his stiff nod of confirmation before she turned the knob.
Out of the restaurant rushed a tornado of light and sound that left Gary's
numb senses reeling. Somehow he was moving, but he wasn't sure it was
under his own power. Other hands peeled Bernardo from his arms and he
tried to explain what had happened, to ask for help, to tell the indiscriminate
forms before him to look out for the kids, to get them warm, but the words
wouldn't come out. He left explanations to Marissa while the colors
and the light and the words and the warmth, warmth, warmth engulfed him and
he just let it all happen, losing track of the reality swirling around him,
no longer caring if he ever put one foot in front of the other again.
Continued in Installment 2
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