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Incorrigible

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I. Prolegomena

 

Meg Murry O'Keefe stirred in her sleep.

El Rabioso ... El Zarco ... a fire of roses ... a girl with striking red hair like Calvin's, standing on the lakeshore among the People of the Wind, pleading with a pale-skinned boy ...

Meg's dreams were no less troubled tonight than they'd been the night before. Maybe it was only indigestion, like that of Dickens' Scrooge: a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. Not that she'd ever impugn the safety of Mother's Bunsen-burner cuisine -- a woman with two doctorates to her name could surely exceed the FDA standards for food safety -- and Meg thought she'd long since passed the nausea of the early months, but a tender stomach did number among the myriad physical discomforts of pregnancy. There were other discomforts that she could blame instead. Her drafty old attic bedroom, plus the twins' solicitude, made for a plethora of blankets on the bed. Too many, Meg realized dimly.

Tangled in the folds of her sweat-sodden nightgown, she threw off the topmost patchwork quilt and sat upright, rubbing at bleary eyes. Hadn't Charles Wallace fixed everything? He and Mom O'Keefe -- Beezie -- had prevailed, with the power of Patrick's Rune ... or had that only been another dream? Surely the phone call from the President had been proof of that. Blue for birth, blue for mirth ... She needed reassurance.

Even as Meg reached out impalpably for Charles Wallace's mind in a clumsy attempt to kythe with him, the soft controlled creak of the seventh stair announced her brother's ascent. Equally familiar sounds followed: the slap he gave the rocking horse, the single dart thrown, each sound a welcome herald.

"You're awake," Charles Wallace noted, unsurprised.

"Yes. Charles Wallace ... do you think it didn't work after all? What you did ..." She hesitated. She couldn't fully remember what it was Charles Wallace had done, though she knew she remembered more than the twins or her parents could know.

"What you helped me to do," he corrected with gentle warmth. "And Gaudior helped me to do."

Meg remembered: Gaudior, a greater joy.

"The unicorn," Charles Wallace clarified, as always sensing her uncertainty before she could voice it. "You helped me, by kything with me, and Gaudior carried and guided me. It wasn't really me knowing what to do, anyway, it was the wind. I only had to listen, and stop trying to control everything." Meg groped for the glasses she kept by her bedside. Putting in contact lenses wasn't practical, in the middle of the night; you couldn't fall back to sleep while wearing them, or Meg couldn't, anyway. By the fuzzy light of the lantern he'd brought upstairs, Meg saw what Charles didn't say. He was troubled, just as she was.

"Then if you and Gaudior were able to prevent the crisis, why does everything still seem wrong, somehow?" Her voice quavered.

"I think there's more to it than we'd hoped. Maybe. I can't tell. All I'm sure about is that the Echthroi aren't going to give up so easily. They've found another life to ruin -- lives, not a single life," he decided. He seemed to be listening to something Meg could not hear. "And it all ties in together, it's all interconnected."

"But just last night you went through so much! The Teachers can't call on you again so soon, you haven't had a chance to regain your strength!"

Charles Wallace shrugged. "Maybe they don't have much of a choice who they call on. Ours is not to question why." But she could hear the fatigue behind the words. Silently, she completed the line in her thoughts: Ours is but to do or die.

"Let me help you," she offered quickly. "Like I did before. It's the least I can do. Oh, Charles Wallace, I'm so afraid -- do you really have to go back out to the star-watching rock?"

"No. I don't know yet why it's so important, but this time ..." A worried frown. "This time, I think I'm supposed to stay in the attic."


II. Pulchrior

 

"Tell me about Gaudior," urged Meg. "It's important. Is it --"

"He --"

"Is he like Progo?" Sorrow over Proginoskes had never truly left Meg. "Did he have to ... to X himself?"

"No, I don't believe so."

"Then why isn't he here, instead of ..." She gestured wordlessly toward the being who'd appeared in the shadows of the attic bedroom. Its noble head bowed to clear the ceiling. It was not a unicorn like Gaudior. Neither was it an amalgam of pegasus and centaur, as Mrs. Whatsit had once revealed herself to be. Rather, it somehow managed to combine features of all three. Meg couldn't think what to call an animal like this, a unicorn with the face of a woman but the body of a horse and the wings of a bird. A sphinx, a harpy, a chimaera?

"I am a harpsicorn," the creature informed them. "My full name isn't comprehensible by humans. You can call me Pulchrior."

"More beautiful," translated Charles Wallace, a little dubiously.

The harpsicorn shook her flaxen mane and whickered, a thoroughly equine sound through the slight and upturned human nose. "Your planet is considered a hardship assignment. Since Gaudior had completed his task with you, he had earned assignment elsewhere."

"That's why you're here?" Meg glanced toward her brother. He kythed her a pulse of silent confirmation. Strange as the harpsicorn was, there was no stench of Echthroi about Pulchrior.

"I am here to carry Charles Wallace to another Where. We must prevent another Might-Have-Been. Margaret Murry O'Keefe, you must keep watch over your brother's physical body as his awareness travels Within others."

"I'm ready," said Meg, "but is this really a good idea? Can't you find someone else? Charles Wallace is only a boy! It's not fair to ask so much of him, one mission right after another!"

Charles Wallace gave his sister a fond look. "She forgets how old I am," he explained to Pulchrior. "I know I look young for my age, but I'm fifteen already. She was younger when we went to Camazotz than I am now. And besides," he said, turning to Meg, "if there was another or better choice, I'm sure it would have been made."

No appeal could be made. Keeping her silence with ill grace, a worried Meg watched Charles Wallace curl up at the foot of her bed, a place and a position more suited to the dog Ananda than to Meg's fragile and beleaguered brother. In moments, he was unconscious, and the figure of Pulchrior had vanished. They'd gone Elsewhere, or Elsewhen, or maybe even both. Not too far afield, Meg hoped ...


III. In an Attic

 

Who am I? Charles Wallace was Within. Already he felt his awareness settling and fading into the background, part of the unseen mental furniture of his host's mind. He was --

Christopher Doll?Christopher Doll. He was standing in an attic -- his own attic, the attic of the house that he, Chris, had bought with his earnings as a doctor -- and he was staring at something horrible. Charles Wallace, Within, could not at first understand why the sight of two twin beds in an attic should be so horrible, only that it clenched Christopher Doll's stomach and set his heart galloping. Near the beds sat an old picnic basket. Memory conjured the crisp thin sweetness of powdered sugar on Chris' tongue.

A blonde danced madly with a dustmop. She'd togged herself out in white leotards and toe shoes, and her pirouettes came dangerously close to smearing all that whiteness against a dusty wall. The scene was nothing short of surreal. But to Christopher Doll it all had an immediate significance, mercilessly clear. The beds, the basket, the dance, even the dustmop with which the woman now tried to fend off Chris' attempt to still her wild flailing.

"Cathy," he gasped, "you must stop this!" He meant more than just the dancing. And as he said it, as he knocked aside the dustmop and reached for his sister to enfold her in arms stronger than hers, he knew his words were in vain. It was too late to stop her, too late to put a stop to any of the madness that surrounded the two of them. His sister, his wife, his tormentor. His everything.

(A thread of skepticism unwound from somewhere at the back of his mind: why had he made her the center of his universe? Wasn't that a choice he'd made for himself? It wasn't only Cathy who needed to stop.)

Alas, Chris dismissed his moment of self-questioning as part and parcel of the usual guilt he carried around. He was perpetually guilty, perpetually ashamed, an eternal and irredeemable sinner. Before redemption there must come repentance, and Chris could not repent. He commenced to argue with Cathy now, about the twin beds and the picnic basket, but he could not withdraw the essential component that made her mad endeavor possible: his consent.


IV. Intermission

 

Resurfacing from Christopher Doll's mind was like breathing fresh air after the suffocating staleness of that attic. Charles Wallace shook his head. "Pulchrior, I don't understand. What was wrong with Chris? There wasn't any Might-Have-Been I could affect. He had his mind all made up. The way his thoughts work, I couldn't even untangle them."

Pulchrior whuffled. "We will have to go back to a prior When. He might be more reasonable at a younger age, before he started having such disturbing feelings."

"Disturbing is a good word for them. Disturbed might be a better word. What Chris feels isn't really love, even though he calls it love and thinks of it as love. It's not agape or philia. There's eros in it, but not only that, or else it wouldn't have lasted so long."

"I see why they say this planet is a hardship assignment," said Pulchrior ruefully. "Humans are so odd. You have a sister and you are very close. Are you and your sister the same as Cathy and Chris? Margaret does not dance with dustmops."

It took all Charles Wallace's innate empathy and goodwill not to recoil in horror from the harpsicorn's question. "I love Meg very much. She's always been there to protect me, and I protect her too. What Chris and Cathy feel toward each other isn't protective, it's destructive and possessive. I can't imagine ever feeling something so warped toward Meg as that." He focused on his brotherly love for Meg, projecting so that Pulchrior could see it:

- Meg in braces and thick glasses, angry at Mr. Jenkins for the bullying Charles Wallace had been suffering in elementary school;

- Meg sullen and frustrated at her own studies, gratefully accepting the tomato sandwich that a thoughtful Charles Wallace constructed for her;

- Meg fighting for the life of Charles Wallace's farandolae, putting her own spirit on the line, willing to die for her brother;

- Meg radiant at her wedding to Calvin, and Charles Wallace happy for both of them, thankful that his sister had a fit helpmeet, a match she deserved;

- Charles Wallace talking to Calvin the night before the wedding, solemn and joyful at the same time, telling him that Calvin would need to take good care of Meg in the years to come, because Charles Wallace was going to go very far away indeed when he grew up;

- and Calvin remembering, with friendly laughter, how the five-year-old Charles Wallace had once snapped at Mrs. Whatsit for asking Calvin to do the exact same thing, because taking care of Meg was Charles Wallace's department.

Joy, laughter, respect, love, friendship, caring. The song of farandolae and the music of the spheres. The Murrys sitting at their Thanksgiving table the night before, singing Dona nobis pacem in a round.

(And in her attic bedroom, keeping her vigil over Charles Wallace's unconscious physical form, Meg laughed too with delight, sharing remembered joy as he kythed with her. Yes! That is what family is. That is what brothers and sisters are. I love you.)

Pulchrior sighed. "Is it because I am so young, or because I am not a human, that I cannot see why the Dollanganger Sheffields are so different from the Murrys?"

"Maybe they don't know it can be another way." Charles Wallace felt cleansed and renewed by the kything. "Maybe that's why I was chosen -- to show them how it can be, if they'll let it." He was ready, now, to continue.


IV. The Big House

 

Charles Wallace had braced himself to re-enter the grimy, slimy swamp of confused and overheated emotion that made up Christopher Doll's psyche. With a shock he found himself seeing the world through yet another pair of eyes, this pair not so high off the ground as Chris'.

It was the first time he'd ever gone Within a female host. He found it harder to adjust. He sensed his consciousness as a separate entity that refused to merge with hers, like water poured into oil, finding its lower gravity but remaining separate even after submergence.

This one was more disturbing and more disturbed even than Chris. Her mind seethed and suffered. Men stared at her with hungry eyes wherever she went, and her chiefest desire in life was to turn the tables, to make them the prey and herself the predator.

Within, Charles Wallace projected his anguish and bafflement toward the watchful Meg, and was answered with grim understanding. Yes. That is how many men do look at women. Anywhere she goes in public, men are going to look at her, and some of them are going to make comments too. And many women are taught to believe it's even worse if men don't look at you than if they do. Charles Wallace had understood that intellectually, of course, but intellect was a far cry from experience, as he now learned.

Oh, Cathy. Catherine Doll.

She pranced about. She flaunted her body -- she knew she was flaunting it; she thought of it in exactly those terms, flaunting. Beauty was rebellion, visibility was defiance. She took inordinate pride in her conquests, while Charles Wallace watched and despaired. Didn't she realize these were no conquests at all? When her middle-aged guardian allowed her to seduce him, didn't Cathy realize who was really being seduced? Doctor Paul was grooming her. Methinks the Doctor doth protest too much, thought Charles Wallace, as Paul Sheffield issued yet another volley of self-recrimination and feigned demurral.

A steady flow of outrage and anger from Meg sustained Charles Wallace through Cathy's misadventures. Without Meg's kything, Charles Wallace was sure, he wouldn't have been able to do anything for Cathy at all. Whatever Might-Have-Been he'd been sent Within to prevent, he was helpless to identify it, much less to change its course. There was one thing he did do, and he wasn't sure whether it was something he did intentionally or something he couldn't help doing. Whenever Cathy touched Doctor Paul, or sat on his lap, or flitted about him in skimpy clothes, her body betrayed a reluctance at odds with her words and actions. She recoiled from him without knowing she recoiled.

Chris noticed it. Sadly, it only gave him hope, which gave Charles Wallace despair. His despair colored Cathy's reactions toward Chris, and she thought the ambivalence was her own. She fended off her brother's unbrotherly advances.

Charles Wallace was as surprised as anyone when the police showed up on Paul Sheffield's doorstep. It seemed someone else had noticed Cathy's odd behavior, too, and no one noticed her noticing. They were all used to underestimating Henny.

My own doctor-son very good doctor, but not good man as I hoped, she wrote miserably, as Paul was handcuffed and taken away. I not let children be hurt by grown man. Henrietta Beech was a kind-hearted woman. She'd brought the children to Sheffield for help. When she realized it was abuse and not help he was giving, she couldn't stand by and watch.

"Turns out Henny had her suspicions about Doctor Paul's first wife," Chris summarized from the housekeeper's notes, after the police had left and a weeping Henny retreated to her room. "But she loved him and she trusted him, and his wife never confided in her, so she could never know for sure and she decided she must just be seeing things that weren't there. Seeing what was happening with you, Cathy, it all came back to her."


V. Opportunities

 

"Oh, Henny, I love you!" cried Meg. The housekeeper's decisive action had surely saved Cathy and Chris, and little Carrie too, from that broken future Pulchrior and Charles Wallace needed to repair. Hadn't it?

"Hadn't it?" echoed Charles Wallace, elseWhere and elseWhen, to Pulchrior. "Wasn't that a major change we've just seen? Yet I still sense a darkness."

The harpsicorn wept. "It's terrible! Oh, they don't become destitute as they feared without Paul. Christopher still goes to medical school, and Cathy still becomes a dancer. Carrie comes out the best of the three, as she lives with Henny now, and isn't concerned as much with Cathy. In the end it saves Carrie's life. But ahead of them, there are still those two twin beds in Christopher's and Cathy's attic."

"That means they still will share an attic." Charles Wallace was troubled.

"Yes. We haven't changed that."

"Not yet." The determination in the set of Charles Wallace's jaw was Meg's determination, too. "Something happens to those children, doesn't it? Cathy's children, the ones Chris was afraid for, that he was thinking about when he saw the beds in the attic."

"Along the present course, it does."

"And when one of those children grows up, he becomes dangerous, the way El Rabioso was dangerous. On a global scale."

"The son of Bart Winslow becomes a very powerful man," confirmed the harpsicorn, still weeping. "A lawyer turned politician, more powerful than the father and mother combined."

"With his brains and her looks ..."

"He'll make lots of money."

"I'm afraid," said Charles Wallace soberly, "that's not all he'll make. Unless we change his upbringing, that is. Maybe, just maybe, we can ..."


VI. Good Intentions

 

On a cold Manhattan night, the painter Davin Tomasso took a blonde home for the evening.

She was a dancer, her name was Catherine Dahl, and she'd been introduced to him by the wonderfully fierce madame who owned and ran the ballet company where she'd once danced. Now Catherine was no longer the prima ballerina, thanks to an accident Davin would've found hilarious in the abstract -- her husband stomped on her feet? oh, really, that was beyond irony and well into the realm of farce. She had gone home to the South, gone home to seed, everyone thought. Not so: she maintained her physique and kept up her dancing as well as she was able, the dance world found when she resurfaced as a self-made teacher. But it was true she'd borne a child and was pregnant with a second, and the fathers of both were dead.

Her story did not fascinate Davin. It was, one must admit, a diversion; and diversions were scarce, when one had lived as Davin and his wife had lived, vibrant hungry lives exhausting every experience within reach. Nonetheless, Catherine was not nearly as intriguing as she obviously believed herself to be.

Within Davin, Charles Wallace sadly concurred, and his grief ameliorated Davin's disdain.

The doorman did not register surprise to see their guest. "Good evening, Mr. Tomasso," was all he said as he held the door politely for Catherine. Davin smiled. He wondered if the doorman was aware Davin knew his wife was home. Indeed, it was Max he'd brought Catherine to see, against all appearances.

Max, Maxa, Metaxa. Maximiliana Sebastiane Horne. Davin had insisted his muse and mistress keep her name when they wed, because she was a painter in her own right, and she'd already begun to be known by that name. To make her Mrs. Tomasso would diminish her, he felt. "If anything," he'd laughed, "I ought to become Mr. Horne, a good respectable old-money name." He'd regretted the joke as soon as he'd said it. Max did not have fond memories of Mr. Horne, her father. "It's because you're nothing like him that I love you," she'd retorted, taking his gaffe with good grace and making it into a rueful joke to relieve them both. "Mr. Tomasso, my dear."

Sorrow had hollowed her eyes and etched fine lines between her brows, but Max could rise to any occasion, and did for this one, the arrival of the unexpected and very pregnant guest. "Welcome," and she drew Catherine into their elegant little apartment, taking both the girl's thin hands between her thinner ones, warming the room with a smile. "I'm Maximiliana Horne, but you must call me Max, or Maxa. Davin hasn't told me anything about you, which I must say I prefer. I always like to make my own first impressions, don't you?" And immediately they were talking like old friends, so that Davin could easily slip away into the small kitchen and pour everyone a tonic water.

I like her, Charles Wallace thought of Max, as Davin arranged twists of lemon at the rims of their tonic glasses and thought much the same, an overlay of warmth on warmth. Being Davin was so much easier than being Cathy. He knew everything very simply. The Horne-Tomasso menage of two had hoped soon to become three, and the longed-for child had sadly died. Davin had brought Cathy home not as a plaything for himself or for his sophisticated wife, but for the sake of the child she carried. If she were truly as hard up for cash as Madame said, perhaps she'd be willing to give the child for adoption. The respectable if small fame he and Max had earned in the art world, combined with the Horne fortune, might appeal to Catherine even if an ordinary placement would fail to move her. Deliberately he lingered a long time in the kitchen, giving Max's charms a chance to do their work.

When he returned to the living room with his tray and three glasses, Max was holding Catherine's hands in hers again, sitting with her on the sofa, their knees angled toward one another, and Max was saying quietly: "You mustn't worry I'll think any less of you. At that age, what else could you have done? My father was like that man, too. Some people think money will get them anywhere, and I'm sorry to say the world validates their assumptions more often than it spurns them. My father had his house and his money, and he could do what he liked. It's so fortunate that you had this woman, this Henny, to take care of you."

She angled a sharp glance toward Davin. Clearly the bent of the conversation did not favor the purpose for which he'd brought Catherine home, and Max meant him to know it.

After they'd packed the ballerina off in a taxicab, fare paid in advance, Davin tsked at Max. "What sob story was she giving you? There were two different men she told me about, the father of her first child -- Julian Marquet, the one who ruined her career -- and the heartless attorney who'd fathered her second. She's something of a black widow, for all her damsel-in-distress airs."

"She wasn't telling me about either one of them, but about the man who gave her the original legal name she'd had: Sheffield. Dahl is only her stage name. There was a man named Doctor Paul Sheffield who was rather older than she -- in his late middle age, I think she said -- and he took all her siblings in as orphans. Colorful, I know, but I do believe she's telling the truth." Max sipped her tonic water. "He was their benefactor, you see. Now he's in prison."

"For?"

"Molestation, or attempted molestation. Of Catherine."

"I see." Davin had chalked up Catherine's excesses and defects of personality to a flawed artistic temperament, a taste for forced melodrama.

"It's tragic. Whatever she was like before Doctor Sheffield, she's ruined now, that much is plain. She's become terribly bitter, and it makes her ugly inside; and I think she could have been beautiful, once."

Leave it to dear Maxa, he thought, to burn through surface appearances and see at once into the heart. And he loved his Max all the more for it, though his disappointment also was bitter. With nature against them, would he ever be able to beg or borrow the child she so needed? Such a great heart she had, with so much love to give.

Max's thoughts were elsewhere. Earnestly she turned to him. "Davin, don't ever let me use my money that way, no matter how much good I think I'm doing at the time. It's too easy to feel entitled, to cross the line."

"'Yet, taught by time, my heart has learned to glow / For others' good, and melt at others' woe'," Davin quoted to her. "Homer. Don't stifle your charitable impulses, Max darling."

"True. True. And yet, there is that homelier proverb, about the paving of the road to hell." Max stared moodily into the fire, and Davin let her have her silence. Slipping an arm about her bony shoulder, he found himself recalling idly the crushed-shell driveway of Beau Allaire.


VII. Regrets

 

"I didn't want to leave them, not just then," Charles Wallace said sadly. "Surely there's got to be something I can do for them."

Pulchrior was adamant. "The Might-Have-Been has passed. Max and Davin Tomasso will not adopt the Winslow child."

"What happens to them?" Charles Wallace wanted to know, and Meg echoed his curiosity through the distance-spanning bond of their kythe. "I hope they turn out all right. They deserve happiness."

"They cease to be partners," answered Pulchrior. "The word you are thinking is divorce? That may be correct, if divorce is a word you can use for a parting with no grief in it. They grow away from one another and need to be separate for their further growth."

"Does Max get to have a child, ever?" Charles Wallace asked for Meg as much as for himself. Far away, in her attic bedroom, she hugged her belly.

"Not a child to raise as her own, but one day, a child will meet her who benefits greatly from the friendship and mentoring Max can give her, not only Max's money. And ..."

"There's something else!" Charles Wallace realized, excited.

"Yes!" Pulchrior rejoiced with him. "The wind is telling me that because Cathy told Max the story of Doctor Paul, Max will remember that story in a time of crisis, in her own life. Something dark she might otherwise have done, she will now be able to refrain from doing. She will be especially vigilant. The child will be safe with her."

"Then we did change something, after all."

"It does not prevent the vision," warned the harpsicorn.

"The twin beds in Cathy's attic." The boy's happiness deflated a bit. "All right, onward and upward. I wish I could see Max again, though. Just to see how she's doing. I liked her very much."

"I liked her too," Meg whispered. She wished she could look up Max's paintings, the way she'd looked up Matthew Maddox's work when Charles Wallace kythed with him. But that would mean leaving Charles Wallace in the room alone while she went for the encyclopedia, and Meg couldn't do that. It was unfortunate. She suspected that unlike Charles Wallace, after tonight she wouldn't remember much of what she'd seen, just the way she'd so soon forgotten that Gaudior had been a unicorn.


VIII. Before the Fall

 

Within, again.

Another attic, a far bigger attic. Another Where and another When, in a familiar host: Chris again, thinking of himself already as Christopher Doll. He was much younger now, not too much older than Charles Wallace, and Cathy was young too. Someone or someones -- Chris himself, and Cathy too, it came to him -- they'd cleared the furniture and other obstacles from a large area of the floor, and scrubbed that floor to shining, to clear a space for Cathy's activity.

A phonograph played its tinny accompaniment as Cathy danced. Her leotards were too small, and she'd cut out the top. Chris looked on with keen interest. Charles Wallace winced Within.

Meg's anger and disgust bled through the intervening veils of distance and time. How can they not know how wrong this is? Why does she enjoy him looking at her like that? Why doesn't he look away? They're incorrigible!

Not incorrigible, sent Charles Wallace, despairing. They can't be incorrigible, or else there's nothing we can do to correct what's gone wrong. Help me, Meg! Help me, sister mine ... Just as on Camazotz, it's not your anger I need now, but your love ...

Cathy whirled and twirled, whipcord-thin everywhere except where she jiggled, and that was where Chris's eyes wanted to linger. Charles Wallace wanted to throw up, partly because of what he was seeing and what Chris was feeling, partly because it seemed Chris had eaten something that didn't agree with his stomach.

Help me, Meg, he cried again.

I can't love them! They're repulsive!

But you can love me, he pleaded. Not their way. Our way. Please, Meg, help me show Chris what brothers and sisters should be like! And he shared anew with her everything he had shared with Pulchrior.

In the way of siblings browsing over a photo album or watching home movies, Meg found her own memory prompted by the memories Charles Wallace shared. Tomato sandwiches, adventures with Calvin, nights on the star-watching rock. The dance of the farandolae, the music of the spheres, the planet's tilting and the stars coming out. Augmenting these were visions of other siblings, loving purely and without sin: Beezie and Chuck playing make-believe. Sandy and Dennys planting broccoli together, tending their garden.

Meg had memories of her own that Charles Wallace could not share, too. Unlike Charles Wallace, and unlike Chris, Meg knew what it was to love and to be loved in all three ways: agape, philia, eros. What she felt for Calvin and what Calvin felt for her was a different kind of love. She did not want to show them these moments, which belonged only to Calvin and to herself. But she could at least share her awareness that it existed, and that it was good, and that all things could be right with the world. (Charles Wallace, who had known the nature of Calvin's feelings for Meg before Meg could recognize them or admit them to herself, only laughed Within. So silly, so shy, they'd been, his sister and his friend: he'd felt that romantic love was immensely impractical, at the time. He suspected it'd still be impractical for himself, personally, for a long time to come. As Progo had said, Meg's purpose was not Charles Wallace's purpose.)

A verse that had been read at Meg's wedding leapt to mind. Charles Wallace gladly took up the inner refrain as she remembered the words:


Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails ...

Chris's confusion flared brightly, fueled by anger. That was what he felt for Cathy, he insisted to himself (for so he thought it was: an inner dialogue; the inner self-torment to which he'd regularly subjected himself ever since he and Cathy had found that pornographic book beside Mother's swan bed.)

Meg persisted, slogging the flood of emotion:


When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Chris faltered.

When I became a man, I did away with childish things ...

"Cathy?"

The ballerina ignored him, her pirouettes spiraling out of control.

"Cathy!" His voice firmed. "You've got to stop that. It's ..." He cleared his throat. "Well, it's kind of gross."

That got her attention, all right. "How dare you say that to me! You're just as bad as the grandmother!"

Chris coughed again. "There's nothing wrong with the human body itself. I'm going to be a doctor, I know that better than anyone. What's gross is the way you're acting. It's almost like you want the grandmother to be right. And ..."

Love never fails.

"I love you, more than anything. We haven't got anything here except each other." He spoke with the halting care of a person iterating for the first time thoughts that had been until then inchoate. "I love you enough to say this to you. I think the poor nutrition and bad air and adverse living conditions are affecting our mental development, and we have to be extra careful or else we'll go nuts. Permanently."

Cathy conceded so far as to stop dancing. She stared at her brother. Her lips went slack. "Golly gosh, you really mean it, don't you?"

Chris nodded. It helped to look at Cathy's mouth, unattractively gaping, and not at her breasts. "Actually I think the grandmother may be counting on it. Isn't that what families do in old novels, shut up the lunatics in the attic? She thinks we're degenerates already. Once we go soft in the head for real, we won't be any trouble to her any longer."

"That mean old witch!"

"We've got to get out of here, now. Tonight. It doesn't matter if we have enough money. No amount of money in the world can fix a broken mind, I know that much."

The purposeless energy that had driven Cathy's pirouettes found a new focus. Cathy was removing all the paper decorations from the attic walls, as swiftly as she could without tearing them. "You're right, Chris, you're right. For the twins, we've got to get out. And we're going to make that witch sorry!"


IX. Almost Over

 

Charles Wallace gasped for air. What was wrong with his lungs? Had he gotten caught Between, or had he been attacked by Echthroi, en route to his own body in the Murrys' own dear house? "It's smoke!" he choked out. "Someone call the fire department, quick!"

"Everything is fine, I promise." The beloved voice of his sister reassured him from very close by. He forced his eyes open to discover she'd ceded the entire bed to him and was sitting in a rocking chair beside it. "Pulchrior brought you back at last. The mission is over ... I hope?"

Pulchrior whinnied from the shadows just outside the lantern's circle. "The Might-Have-Been was isolated and forestalled. Chris and Cathy Dollanganger will not marry one another, and will not have an attic of their own one day. The future son of Bart Winslow will not be imprisoned in an attic and made into a monster."

"That's ... fantastic news," said Meg, a little nonplussed, and therefore not quite so enthused. "So, um ... we defeated the powers of incest by selective use of Scripture?"

"And saved your planet thereby!" Pulchrior's joyous neigh resounded unto the rafters. "And in the process, you helped me pass my qualifying exams! I'm now eligible for certification as a Planetary Resident Advisor!" Mincing into the light so as not to knock anything over or jostle Meg's chair, Pulchrior pivoted to expose one hind flank. Where once had been smooth unblemished skin, now there stood a curious heraldic device. It was a five-pointed star, with two stylized eyes and a stylized smiling mouth.

"Congratulations," said Meg. "You know, Calvin always used to say those kinds of exams really weren't given until the committee was reasonably sure the candidate would pass --"

Charles Wallace gave her a look that said If I could reach from here, I'd be elbowing you in the ribs.

"-- So I'm not surprised you passed with flying colors!" she finished, trying to fix her faux pas. "Good job, Pulchrior!"

"Whatever planet gets you for an advisor is going to be very lucky indeed," contributed Charles Wallace. "There's just one thing I can't help wondering ..."

"Oh, they burned down Foxworth Hall," said Pulchrior. "That's the smoke you were smelling. Cathy torched it on the way out."

Charles Wallace blinked. "That ... oh, dear. I hope everyone got out safely. That wasn't what I was wondering, though. I was wondering what happens to Max in the end. She was such a marvelous soul."

Effervescent with success, Pulchrior declared magnanimously: "I suppose one more little peek can't hurt ..."


X. Happy Endings

 

They found themselves in their very own backyard, practically. Around the star-watching rock, a cheerful improvisation of chairs and awnings and a lovely portable trellis had been devised. People were dressed in their Sunday best, the men in suits, the women in fashions that weren't too outrageous (though they were certainly fashions Meg had never seen before, and she whispered as much to Charles Wallace. "You can talk out loud," replied Charles Wallace. "No one can hear us. We're not really here, you see").

"Why, it's a wedding!"

A tall and slender young woman, veiled, approached the star-watching rock, supported by the arm of her even taller father. His hair, his gait -- "Is that Calvin?" Meg marveled.

At the star-watching rock, a solemn man waited. He had no hair, not even eyebrows or eyelashes, but he did not seem at all frightening. A kindness seemed to emanate from him.

Beside the bald clergyman stood a patient young man Meg did not recognize at all, pleasant and unremarkable in appearance, his hair sandy brown, his eyes a color indistinct behind their thick glasses until he turned his head just so and Meg could catch a hint of ocean-grey. "Who's that?"

"She wasn't going to marry him, you know." Pulchrior was beaming. "Things were all botched up between them because of something Max did. They --" The harpsicorn strained for the right words. "They mated in a time unseasonable for mating because of Max, and after that the young man was too shy to woo the girl. But when Max was given the warning example of Cathy, that could never come to pass. It's a Might-Have-Been that no longer will be."

"I don't understand at all," said petulant Meg, but Charles Wallace was smiling too. "Where's Max then?" he asked.

"She does not live on your planet to see this day. I am sorry. That cannot be changed. But elsewhere, she is happy to know that Polly is happy."

"Polly? That's almost the name that we chose for --"

"You won't remember," said Charles Wallace gently. "It's all right."

They could not stay for the reception, or even through the entirety of the wedding. They did see some late arrivals before they left. A young man with dark hair and pale skin, whom Meg half-recognized from her nightmares -- the young man who had stood at the star-watching rock with the red-haired girl in her dream, the girl she now knew but would forget was Polly, Polyhymnia. And on his arm was a slim blonde woman, middle-aged but possessed of a perfect complexion, only a little strained at the corners of the eyelids and the mouth.

"Cathy!" Meg was appalled. "At my daughter's wedding?"

The young man was saying something in an undertone meant for his companion alone. Meg and Charles Wallace could all too easily overhear. "It's pathetic to bring your own stepmother as a date to your ex-girlfriend's wedding, I know that. I just couldn't abide to show up stag."

"There, there," whispered Cathy. "It wouldn't do for you to look unhappy. Smile, dearest Zach. Living well is the best revenge."

Charles Wallace looked anxiously to Pulchrior.

"Oh, my dears, my dears." Pulchrior sighed and reached to embrace the two Murry siblings, one inhumanly long arm around the shoulders of each. "Don't be anxious. We have done what we were assigned to do. Some Might-Have-Beens are more stubborn than others, that's all. Happily, this particular one is not our project."

"Incorrigible," murmured Meg, watching Cathy dab at her stepson's cheek; and this time, Charles Wallace did not contradict her.