Erik stood in front of the kosher deli on 78th Street, his hands jammed into the pockets of his coat. Ever since the phone call this afternoon, he’d questioned whether coming here was a good idea; the whole way uptown on the 1 train, he’d told himself he should get off at the next stop – the next – the one after that, head back downtown, take the train up to Westchester County and go home where he belonged.
Yet here he was, steps from the door and fifteen minutes early, pretending he wasn’t going to go inside.
You’re not doing anything wrong, he told himself, and it was true. Erik harbored not one doubt as to why he was here, what his motives were for coming. Ultimately Charles would understand not only what Erik had done but also why he hadn’t told him in advance. More than that: He would agree.
And yet it felt like a transgression. Perhaps it was intended to be one. After their abrupt, emotional parting –
He sighed and stepped inside. After ordering his chicken soup with rice, he made his way to the tables in back, preparing to wait … but she was already there.
Raven sat in a booth in the far corner. She’d always dressed at the height of fashion, and she did now, too – but no longer in designer clothes. Now her outfit proclaimed her a flower child, with woven poncho, bangle bracelets and earrings, and a paisley scarf tied around her forehead. Despite the vibrant shades of blue, red and gold, though, the first thing that struck Erik was her sadness. She’d gained weight and lost her color, and her expression was forlorn.
Then she saw him and tensed. He knew he was standing there staring, tray in his hands like an idiot, and realized he might try acting like an adult instead.
So Erik slid into the seat opposite her. “Raven. It’s good to see you.”
“Is it?” Then she faltered. “I’m sorry. I know you meant – what I wanted to say was, it’s good to see you too.”
“Okay.” Well over a year since she’d left the mansion, and in all that time they’d had only three postcards, none of which gave any more information than that she was alive and sent all her love to Jean – and yet Erik knew this wasn’t the time to press her. If he did that, Raven would only pull back again.
Her gaze flickered up to his, briefly. “You didn’t call Charles, right?”
“No, I did as you asked.” But he wanted to be clear. “I’ll tell him everything as soon as I get home.”
She wouldn’t meet his eyes any longer. “Is that necessary? Reporting me?”
Had she still hoped, on some level, that Erik would want to keep secrets from Charles, secrets about her? “I’m hardly reporting you. Charles and I are completely honest with one another. You know that.”
Not that Erik had any choice in the matter, these days…
“You didn’t tell him you were coming, though. Is that ‘completely honest’?”
“I can be honest with Charles and still respect your wishes. Why are you challenging me on this? That can’t be why you wanted us to meet. Just to pick a fight.”
Raven slumped in her booth. “Picking fights is easier, sometimes.”
“I know.” And he did. Erik had been often been guilty of the same tactic – going on the offensive rather than facing something difficult. Charles had been right when he’d said Erik and Raven were alike.
He was going to ask about her, then, and perhaps Raven saw it, because she hurriedly said, “How’s Jean?”
“So much taller you wouldn’t believe it.” Somewhere in the last year, the toddler he and Charles had taken in had transformed into a little girl who was very much her own person. “Smart as a whip. When she grows up, she says she wants to be either a doctor or Batgirl.” For a moment, Raven came close to smiling. Erik took it as a sign of progress. “Working hard with Charles.”
“What do you mean, working hard?”
“You left just before we realized,” Erik said, as though he’d had any part in the realization. “She shares Charles’ gift. The ability to see into the minds of others.”
Raven just stared at him; she’d never been wholly convinced about Charles’ abilities. No wonder, given how much she’d managed to hide from her brother. “Are you kidding me?”
“That’s just – play pretend. Come on.” She tossed her hair. “Jean loves her daddy. She wants to be like him. That’s all.”
“I don’t think so.”
If Raven paid that any heed, she gave no sign. “So they’re talking about Jesus all the time. You must love that.”
They were. He didn’t. But Erik knew better than to agree out loud. At the moment it felt as though it would be dangerous to say anything at all.
The disquiet that had been slowly building within Erik ever since the revelation about Jean was near to boiling now, very near the surface. He was close, so close, to breaking down – to speaking every wild thought that crackled inside his head: It’s not like before, when Charles just sensed things about you. He’s better at it now, and Jean too, because they get to practice. Now they respond to questions I haven’t asked out loud, and they wake up screaming from my nightmares even when I don’t, and as much as I love him I never prepared myself for this. How did you lock Charles out? How? Teach me!
Instead he started on his soup before it got cold.
For a few moments – minutes, really – they ate their dinners without speaking. All around them plates and glasses clinked, winter boots thudded on mustard-colored tile, and conversations in both English and Yiddish were shouted loud enough to be heard over it all. Erik only glanced up at Raven a couple of times, and thought she didn’t glance at him once.
Finally she said, “I guess Charles is all better by now.”
“No, he’s not.” That got her attention quickly enough, but Erik hadn’t said it to be shocking; it was no more than the truth. “His strength isn’t what it ought to be. His lungs aren’t what they ought to be, either. In winter he gets sick, and last year we thought his flu might turn into pneumonia. We kept him out of the hospital, at least.” Erik sighed heavily. “Also, his knee never improved very much. He needs help to walk for any real distance.”
Raven stared at him, her eyes uncomprehending. Perhaps it was too much to take in quickly; more than a year later, Erik still struggled to accept it himself. All she could say was, “He’s still recovering?”
“He’s recovered as much as he ever will, Raven. After sepsis, apparently the body is never the same. The nurse told me how rare it is for anyone as sick as Charles was to survive. Most of the ones who do are invalids, and often they suffer brain damage. At least Charles is himself.”
“Christ.” She covered her mouth with her hand for a moment, agitated and unsure. “How is he taking it?”
He was the one who nearly smiled now. “Like Charles. Thankful for what he has. So cheerful sometimes you want to shake him. He’s a harder man now in some ways, but hasn’t lost his – ” What could Erik call it? That quality had no name, only shone for Erik as brilliant and constant as the full moon in a night otherwise pitch black. “He hasn’t lost it. Still hopes for the best. Instead of a cane, he carries that blackthorn walking stick your grandfather brought back from Scotland. Says it looks dashing, and sometimes it actually does.”
“Which leaves you to be the angry one.”
Raven had seen through to the heart of it immediately. For a moment, he remembered their friendship as it had been – intimate, trusting, rich with such insights given and received – and Erik missed Raven more vividly then, with her only inches away, than he had in all their time apart.
“Yes.” The roughness in his voice startled him. “I’m angry enough for both of us.”
The way her eyes glittered when she was sad, as though she were holding back tears even when she wasn’t: How had he forgotten that? “Are you – all right?”
Erik shrugged. “Charles takes it bravely. That helps. Jean – I’m still not sure what this gift of the mind means, but it delights her.” Though he worried about Jean constantly, wondering what it meant for a small child to be exposed to the thoughts of adults around her – their anger, their cynicism, even their love. He no longer approached Charles in bed until he was absolutely positive she was asleep. “Immigrant Outreach is busier than ever, though we’ve had to adapt. Before we mostly dealt with Europeans, particularly from the Eastern Bloc. But now most people who come to us are natives of Asia or Latin America. Right now I’m trying to hire someone who speaks Vietnamese. Charles picked up a little while he was over there, but his health doesn’t allow him to put in longer hours than he already does.”
“And you have friends?”
“Father Jerome, of course. A war buddy of Charles’ – Armando Munoz, the one who sent us Charles’ things, do you remember? He lives in Brooklyn, drops by often.”
“I meant, friends for you. Not for – the family. For yourself.”
Not since you, Erik wanted to say. But he couldn’t. What if Raven misunderstood it, heard more than he meant by the words? And if he said that, he would say the rest. Did our friendship mean anything to you? Or was it just a way to get closer to me in case Charles died, a way to make sure you’d have me all to yourself?
That wasn’t true, and he knew it, but it felt true. Even the memory of the pleasant times he’d spent with Raven had been poisoned for him. As much as he loved Charles, they couldn’t be all things to each other all the time, but he hadn’t noticed the gaps so much until he had another friend to fill them. Erik had felt lonelier since Raven had left than he ever had before.
“They’re my friends too,” he said. “I go to temple more often. And I have Charles. He’s enough.”
She took it as a rebuke, which it was, though he hadn’t known that until he spoke. Her head drooped like a wilting sunflower. For another while, they said no more. He finished his soup; she prodded at the remains of her pastrami sandwich without actually consuming much of it.
Finally, Erik said, “You didn’t tell me how you are.”
“I’m in trouble.”
“With the law.”
“The FBI. To be specific.”
Erik was torn between two equally powerful urges: to strangle her and to laugh. “You only called because you’re on the run?”
“Spare me the self-righteousness,” she snapped. “I’ve had enough of that from Charles for a lifetime. It’s not like you don’t have a file in J. Edgar’s cabinet after all the protests we marched in.”
He wanted to defend himself, and Charles, but he refused to be distracted. “What did you do?”
“… I robbed a couple of banks.”
If only he could have believed she were joking. “Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but did you happen to recall you’re a millionaire?”
Her cheeks flushed, and her ever-changeable face looked as fierce as a tigress. “I didn’t do it for money, Erik. The robberies were revolutionary acts. Attacks on the system. The cash we stole – we can use that to undermine the cops, the Army, every stinking pig that gets in our way.”
“You really think knocking over banks is going to change the world?”
“I had to do something. I marched and I protested, and I hung out in San Francisco and turned on to – the whole vibe, but it’s not enough. And you know it, down deep. I know you do. I’ve seen it in you, Erik. You’d be so glad to tear down this whole monstrosity of a world.” Raven thumped the table hard enough that his tray rattled. “If you live happily within a brutal, repressive system, then you’re part of the brutality. You’re part of the repression. I was tired of being a part of an American system that’s turning into a police state.”
Though he agreed with some of this – much of it – Erik could not let one thing go without contradicting it: “You have no idea what a police state really is. I do.”
“You know, surviving the Holocaust didn’t actually give you a morality trump card to play whenever you’ve run out of arguments.”
He jerked back, stung, but not so much that he couldn’t reply, “Forgive me. I should have bowed to your moral authority as a bank robber.” Raven scowled, and he could tell any chance of real civility was lost. Erik got to the point: “What is it you think I should do for you?”
“I need to hide.”
“You have money of your own. Surely you can use it to lay low.”
“I swore off the money. Cut up my checks when I let that life go.”
“Instead you started robbing banks. Do you see how little sense that makes?”
“I couldn’t allow myself a way out!” Raven’s expression was almost wild, now. “There had to be no turning back.”
“But you’re here. You’re turning back.” He enjoyed rubbing it in – ugly, but true.
“No, I’m not. I just – I can’t go to prison, especially not now. Erik, I have to get out of the country. Just do that for me and I’ll take care of the rest. I don’t even care where I go. You have connections all over the world. You arrange – visas, documents, all that kind of stuff – you can do it. I know you can.”
Of course. Even if she still had her well-traveled passport, Raven couldn’t use it without being arrested.
Erik pushed aside his anger, both the justified and the petty, and tried to think. This decision had to be made for the right reasons.
One concern was greater than any other, and in the end, it had to outweigh all the rest.
“Raven, if I help you, there’s a very real chance the FBI will find out,” he said. To his surprise, he felt a lump in his throat. All he could remember now was riding a Ferris wheel with her and Jean, Raven’s head on his shoulder, Jean squealing with joy as the nightly fireworks began. “If that happens, Immigrant Outreach would be shut down. I would go to jail, probably, and certainly I’d be deported when my jail time was done. If the FBI investigated me thoroughly, and I’d assume they would, Charles might be reported to the police for sodomy. Then Jean would be taken away, and none of us would ever see her again. Even if that were a remote risk, it’s one I wouldn’t take. I don’t think it’s remote. I think it’s pretty damned likely. If you’d thought this through, you wouldn’t even have come here. I know you care about us enough for that.”
She didn’t cry. Didn’t even flinch. Her voice was so low he could scarcely hear it over the noise in the deli when she said, “I thought it through. But I had to come.”
He kept going, refusing to be swayed. “If you want money, I can get you cash. Not much tonight, but by tomorrow – it would be enough to, I don’t know, find a cabin in the Adirondacks or the Rockies. Lay low for a while. And you could always call, or write, if you needed more. We’d never abandon you.” Charles would be with him in this; Erik already knew that. “But we can’t take a risk like that with Jean.”
“I didn’t want to – it’s just – shit.” She blinked quickly, stared into a far corner of the deli, tossed her hair. “I wasn’t going to lay this on you, but … I have to make you understand.”
Raven leaned back in her booth and shrugged back her poncho. Only then could Erik see that she hadn’t merely gained weight; she was expecting a baby.
“Don’t you dare pity me,” she whispered.
Erik shook his head, though at the moment he was too completely flummoxed for any emotion as complex as pity. The first words that came out of his mouth were, “How did you rob banks like this?”
“Nobody suspects the pregnant lady.” The joke only made her smile for a moment. “I’m good at it, Erik. A regular master of disguises. Too bad the CIA is pure evil; I’d have made a great spy.”
He wanted to ask who the father was. He wanted to cry. He wanted to hug her and tell her she didn’t have to be afraid of anything ever again. He wanted to shake her shoulders and ask her if she was on a personal crusade to find out just how much trouble a single human being could cause.
Instead he said the only thing that mattered any longer: “Come on. We’re going home.”
Charles said only, “Oh, good heavens,” and immediately wrapped Raven in an embrace. Raven hugged him back, and Erik felt as if a tight band around his chest were loosening enough for him to breathe again. The whole time Raven poured out her troubles, Charles never flinched, never said one disapproving word, just held on to her. Why hadn’t Erik understood that was what she needed?
Of course, he couldn’t have given her that even if he had known.
“Where’s Jeanie?” Raven sniffled slightly as they walked past the stairs.
“In bed already. She went to dance class today and apparently they did tumbling. You’ll have to see her version of a cartwheel tomorrow. It was enough to make even her tired. But she’ll be so happy to find you here in the morning.” Charles clung to Raven’s arm tightly enough to both comfort her and steady himself. When his gaze darted toward Erik’s, all Erik saw there was gratitude. No … suspicion, no doubt.
Which was gratifying. And yet – did Charles’ trust come from their relationship or the fact that he’d already read Erik’s mind?
She stopped short just as Charles punched the button and the doors slid open. “You put in an elevator?”
“The stairs aren’t so easy for me any longer,” Charles explained. “And later in life I might need a wheelchair. Much later, I hope, but we might as well be prepared. And now it’s better for you too.”
Raven glanced toward Erik, her expression stricken at the mere mention of a wheelchair. He ought to have responded to that shared emotion, but he didn’t.
“Two months?” Charles said, glancing toward her abdomen. “Thereabouts?”
“Yeah, I think that’s how long I have to go.” Raven pressed her hand against her swollen belly – but only for a moment. She never glanced downward.
They came out on the third floor, where Raven’s room was. All that time Charles was in Vietnam, Erik had never gone inside once. He’d been conscious of not going inside. That was as close as he’d ever come to understanding the thin ice he walked on, and drew Raven out on behind him.
Charles said, “You haven’t seen a doctor yet.”
“I don’t need somebody to tell me a due date; the baby comes when it comes. Don’t nag me, okay? It’s not exactly easy to get an appointment when you’re on the run.”
“You’ll have to see a physician right away.” Erik would take over the nagging; he knew Raven wouldn’t push back as hard. “We should be able to find someone.” A handful of doctors had come through Immigrant Outreach over the years; he could find someone willing to do the favor, but would it be fair to ask any of them to take the risk?
“I can handle it, Erik, don’t worry,” Charles said, responding to the unspoken question. “And Raven – don’t you worry either. Erik and I aren’t – neither of us has even considered asking to take the baby from you. We’d never do that.”
“How did you – ” Raven’s voice trailed off. “You read my mind.”
“Yes.” And Charles just lit up, like it was the most wonderful, fascinating thing in the world. “Erik told you about Jean, I see, but for the two of us – having each other, being able to test each other – it’s brought me so much farther. And Jean’s not that far behind. Already, at age five! She was even ahead for a while, until I began realizing how much her instincts had to teach me … and now I’ve frightened you.”
Raven backed toward her door, shaking her head. “Oh, my God – what are you?”
“Don’t say that,” Erik snapped. “He’s not a circus freak. Don’t treat him like one.”
“You’re even more scared of him than I am, and I know it even if you don’t.” She retreated into her room, shouting, “Get out of my head!”
The door slammed shut so hard that each of them tensed and glanced downward, toward Jean’s room – a parent’s reflex when a child is sleeping. But Jean didn’t stir.
Then they simply stood in the doorway for a few moments, silent and stunned.
Erik murmured, “Will she stay until morning?”
They made their way to the study. By now Erik almost didn’t have to think about slowing his steps so he wouldn’t get ahead of Charles. Although this seemed like an ideal moment to have a drink, both of them sank onto the sofa together and could hardly move.
“She can’t remain here,” Erik said. “And yet she must.”
“It’s actually safer if she does stay, now. If we helped her to run, it would be obvious that we were aiding and abetting a criminal. But if Raven’s simply come home, we can easily deny knowing anything about the robberies. Besides, the FBI must never have determined her real identity; if they had, we’d have heard about this by now. So as long as she stays inside this house, we ought to be fine.”
Erik nodded, considering all of this. “You have an unexpected criminal streak, Charles.”
“Too bad I didn’t stay in the church, then. I’d have wound up a cardinal at least.” Charles leaned on his elbow, blue eyes amused but distant. “I wish I knew how she felt about the baby.”
Apparently Charles was too distracted to notice the tension in Erik’s voice. “For me to know, she’d have to know, and she doesn’t. Just in these past few minutes, she went from desperately wanting to raise the child from us to wishing – God forbid – wishing she’d had an abortion.”
“Are you still on about that?”
“Protecting life? Yes, Erik, I am still ‘on about that.’”
“You don’t agree with the church about contraception any longer. I thought you might finally have considered the matter for yourself.”
“I have done. I don’t disagree with the Catholic Church about everything, Erik. Not even most things. If I had, I’d hardly have become a priest. Yes, regarding contraception, I’ve come to realize that sex is meaningful, sometimes even holy, without the possibility of pregnancy. Though of course I’ve had a good teacher.” The joke gentled his words for only a moment. “But abortion is another matter altogether, as you well – oh, let’s not. We can have this argument again some other time. It’s not relevant now. Obviously Raven’s too far along.”
Acknowledging this, Erik let it go. They had enough immediate problems without arguing about theoretical ones.
“I wouldn’t call it ‘theoretical’ when – ”
“Stop that!” Erik said – no, shouted. He regretted it so immediately, so deeply, that he would have physically pulled the words, the breath, back into his chest had it been possible. Instead, he sat there feeling foolish and exposed.
But, of course, feeling exposed was the whole problem.
Even now, even this, he wouldn’t have a chance to explain – to articulate it for Charles so that he might comprehend it better himself. Already his innermost feelings were pouring into Charles’ mind.
Charles had gone very still. “Oh. I hadn’t – oh.”
“Never mind,” Erik said, uselessly.
“Raven said you were scared of me. I thought – I was so sure she was exaggerating.”
“I’m not scared of you.” He sighed. “Don’t you sense that?” But it came out bitter rather than comforting, and made the real problem all the more clear.
“My reading minds – reading your mind – you hate it.”
“Hate is far too strong a word.” Erik took Charles’ hand and squeezed it. “But – you read my thoughts all the time. Every single moment. I feel as if my mind doesn’t even belong to me anymore.”
He knew what it meant to have nothing – literally, nothing, save the clothes on his back, and those he had hated because they were symbols of his imprisonment. On the day Erik left Auschwitz, he had been without so much as a coin, a book or a toothbrush. No one who loved him had survived, no one in the whole world. And yet even then he’d been aware of owning himself, his own thoughts and memories and knowledge, and felt as if it was the one thing he’d stolen from the crushing gears of the Nazi machine.
Even after Magda and Anya had died – in those terrible days when grief had scoured him down to bare nerves and it felt as if no other loss could ever matter – he had hated the stupidity and numbness that was part of his mourning. He had wanted his family back, and wanted himself back, the self he had been with them.
So he was more aware than most of what it meant to need the space and sanctity of one’s own mind.
This was what he had lost.
“I never realized,” Charles said, hardly more than a whisper. He looked stricken. “You’ve tried to hide it from me, haven’t you? Folded it up in your worries about Jean.”
“My worries about Jean are very real.” A child, knowing adult thoughts – it couldn’t be healthy. “But yes. I suppose I’ve tried to keep it – separate.” He’d allowed himself to consider the matter mostly at work, on the days Charles didn’t come in.
“Why didn’t you talk to me about it?”
“I thought we were past the point of talking! You never wait for me to ask questions any longer – you leap ahead all the time, rely on what I haven’t said all the time –”
“How could I not have realized?” Was Charles regretting his insensitivity – or only questioning the limits of his power? When there was no reaction to this thought, though – not even a change in expression – Erik realized Charles was trying very hard to give him some mental privacy now. “I thought – I felt sure it was all right. We’ve always been so honest with one another.”
“That honesty meant more when it was something I gave to you. Not something you took from me.” It came out hard as stone, but it was the first part of the argument Erik was glad of, because it got to the heart of things.
Clearly, Charles meant it. But just as clearly, he also felt rejected. What Erik had seen as presumption and intrusion, Charles had seen as trust. Erik had wanted his own peace of mind; Charles felt that he’d just been thrown out.
As gently as possible, Erik said, “This is another issue we shouldn’t take up right now.”
“How can we not?”
“Raven – ”
“She isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
“I can’t. Not tonight.” Erik was out of steam. Merely gearing up for the meeting with Raven had been exhausting enough; the tumult that had followed left him feeling wrung-out and weary. “Let’s just go to bed. Let it go, only for now.”
Charles leaned on Erik’s arm as they walked to bed, in silence. Then he undressed Erik tenderly and tucked him in before discarding his own clothes and slipping beneath the blankets. He waited for Erik to hold out a hand, only then curling against his side. Erik rolled Charles onto his chest, caressed his shoulder and back, rested his head so that his lips brushed Charles’ brow. He held Charles for the long minutes it took for Charles’ breathing to become deep and even, and for sleep to begin to weigh down his own thoughts.
So much was unresolved – still raw – and the path ahead was rocky. But Erik never wanted to feel that he and Charles couldn’t seek shelter in each other’s arms.
The whole next day at work – when he had a few free moments away from the consciousness-raising sit-in about unsafe living conditions in Chinatown – Erik considered what to do next.
He and Charles had to work out the thorny issue of his mind-reading and how it would, or wouldn’t, be handled between them from now on. But the worst possible time to do that was when Raven had just returned to the house. Her problems dwarfed theirs, and while Charles had been gentleness itself last night, it was irrational to believe that the hurt feelings spurring her departure wouldn’t arise again. Even if Raven wasn’t still in love with Erik (and he profoundly hoped not), she would still resent his rejection; Erik knew this, because he knew he was capable of behaving the same way himself. Even if Charles felt totally assured of Erik’s love (and he did, surely, even when they were fighting), his jealousy would probably bubble up at some point – and only a few moments of resentment could threaten the delicate balance it was going to require for the three of them to live together for at least two months. Meanwhile, they had to keep hiding Raven from the FBI …
Reviewing this made him tired.
I need a vacation, he thought.
And then he thought about it some more.
By the time Erik got home that evening, he felt ready to take on whatever awaited him – but he hadn’t figured on what would actually await him. Or who.
The strange woman was walking downstairs, huge patchwork bag slung over one shoulder. She wore an enormous red felt floppy-brimmed hat, threadbare blue jeans, half a dozen wooden bangle bracelets on each arm, absolutely no makeup, a crocheted woolly cardigan that fell past her hips, and a hand-lettered T-shirt that read FUCK THE SYSTEM.
“You know,” she said by way of greeting, “it’s possible to look at a woman’s face instead of her tits.”
“I – your shirt – ” Who the hell was this? “Excuse me, but what are you doing here?”
“Erik!” Charles emerged from the living room, leaning slightly on his blackthorn stick; he must be having a rough day, to be relying on it even at home. “I see you’ve met Dr. Moira McTaggart of the Greenwich Village Womyn’s Health Collective. Moira, this is Erik.”
“Doctor?” Erik was caught up short.
Moira folded her arms. “Women can be doctors, too.”
“I just – your shirt – “ he said again, helplessly.
But she was smiling. “Charles told me about you guys, and I just want to say, Right on. You know, I respect the Redstockings, but I’m not one of them. You guys aren’t rejecting the feminine; you’re rejecting the cultural privilege of the masculine, your assigned place in the hierarchy, and personally, I think that takes guts. Really, what you guys are doing here? Coparenting, inhabiting both the male and female socio-sexual spheres? That is the biggest middle finger to the patriarchy I can imagine.”
“Yes, well, we thought so.” Erik tried to give Charles a sidelong look, equal parts who is this radical you’ve brought into our home? and Now you’re telling our secrets to people you’ve only known for a day? But Charles was neither reading his thoughts nor meeting his eyes; his admiring grin was focused on Moira. Apparently they’d hit it off.
Charles did at least explain, “Moira here is all in favor of keeping things from the FBI.”
“I was CIA for a while. Can you believe it? When I woke up to the shit that was really going on – well, I woke up. Walking a different road these days. And all your secrets are safe with me.” Moira sighed and readjusted her patchwork purse, which Erik realized was actually her doctor’s bag. “The good news is, Raven’s in great shape with her pregnancy. That baby has a good strong heartbeat and kicks like a pony. Big, too. She might deliver a little early, but of course you never know.”
“You said, the good news. What’s the bad news?” Charles asked.
“Mentally, Raven’s really unsure right now. Which, I mean, no shit, the FBI is after her, and how are you supposed to live as a fugitive even without a baby to take care of? But what’s getting to her the worst is that she doesn’t know what she wants to do with the kid.” Suddenly Moira sounded less slangy, and Erik finally believed she was a physician. “I have contacts with a couple of reputable adoption agencies, if she decides on that route. But what Raven really needs is some quiet time. Some space to consider what she’s going to do with her baby, away from any other pressures – at least, as much as possible. You two need to give her that.”
“We’ll try,” Erik promised. Moira smiled at him again, and he decided that counted as calling truce.
Charles saw her out then – which included chatting with her for ten minutes at the door – and by the time he made his way back into the living room, Erik was equal parts exasperated and amused. “Where on earth did you find her?”
“A girl from Thailand that I worked with in Immigrant Outreach – she needed a doctor and was scared to talk to her father about it. The mother was dead. So I looked up Moira’s group. They were a bit wary of a grown Western man bringing in an Asian teenager – as well they should be – but once Moira understood the situation, we got on well.” Charles was beaming, the way he did when he’d discovered a fact, or a view, or a person capable of enthralling him; had Erik not been entirely sure of Charles’ lack of attraction to women, he might have been jealous. “I always kept her in mind to call on again if someone had need, though I little guessed it would be Raven. And now we’ll have her out to the house regularly, so you can really get to know her.”
“Have you adopted her already?”
“Moira’s marvelous,” Charles said, using his stick for balance as he lowered himself onto the couch next to Erik. “You’ll see. The most brilliant mind, and far more generous than she lets on with that prickly temper of hers. Contrarian – but I’ve known some other wonderful contrarians in my day.”
Erik had a feeling this referred to him. He found it a bit more annoying than amusing – but the mere fact that Charles obviously didn’t know that, was making an effort to stay out of his head, outweighed anything else. So he smiled. “Listen, I’ve been thinking about the – current situation.”
“As have I. Maybe you’ve come up with some better solutions than I have.”
“Solutions? No. But I have an idea.” Erik took a deep breath. “I should leave for a while.”
“Leave?” Charles’ face went so pale, so quickly.
Erik’s hand wrapped around Charles’. “I misspoke. I only meant – I should take a trip. Take Jean somewhere, maybe. Just for a week.” As Charles relaxed, Erik continued, “You and Raven should have some time together, as brother and sister, without me in the way. I think if you had a chance to settle things more between you before I’m around much, it might go more smoothly.”
“You might be right.” But Charles’ blue eyes sought his, searching for the knowledge he was denying himself by refusing to read Erik’s mind. “And – you’d have some privacy.”
“I have privacy now. I can tell you’re giving me that.”
“I’m trying. It’s harder than I expected.”
Now Charles actually had to work to stay out of his head? Erik hardly knew what to make of that. “It gives you a chance to practice, then. And me a chance to think. Besides, I’ve been working such long days lately. I’ve hardly seen Jean for more than an hour at a time since the holidays. It would be good for us, too.”
Charles nodded, but he was not yet fully at ease. Obviously his mind had gone straight to the one great rift in their relationship, their disagreement about adopting Jean, when Erik had gone so far as to look at apartments for rent. Erik tended to think of that time as birthing pains of a sort – the turmoil that had brought him from his grief for Anya to the happiness of raising Jean. But the scars ran deeper for Charles, and until now, Erik had not suspected just how deep.
He lifted Charles’ hand to his mouth and kissed his knuckles. “I’m sorry I said it so badly. You know I’d never mean to – hurt you, scare you.”
“Of course. It’s just – “ Charles laughed softly, at himself. “Now that I’ve become so used to knowing your thoughts, when I don’t know them, it’s as if I don’t understand anything. Obviously I’m leaning on my abilities too much. Relying on them instead of what I know of you.” Their eyes met. “That’s always what I want to rely on first.”
Erik would have leaned in for a kiss, then, but Jean chose that moment to make her appearance. She had a naked Barbie doll clutched in each hand. “People are thinking about me going on a trip,” she announced.
The new privacy ideal was going to take some work with the younger mind-reader of the family. Erik said only, “How would you like to go to Disneyland?”
At first there were no words, only squealing so high-pitched that both Charles and Erik winced as they started to laugh. Then Jean took to jumping up and down, waggling the Barbies over her head like pompoms as she sang, “Yay yay yay yay yay yay yay!”
“This is bribery!” Charles said over the din.
“Guilty as charged!”
So, within the week, Erik found himself on a flight to Los Angeles. Either through the travel agent’s genius or sheer good luck, they were traveling in a first-class cabin in which they were the only two passengers. Erik had thought it would be a godsend when traveling with a no doubt tired and cranky child –
--instead, Jean remained wide awake, excited to the point of hyperactivity, and determined to charm every single crew member on board.
“Can I have a ginger ale?” she piped as she kicked her little legs off the edge of her seat.
“I’d be happy to get it,” the purser said, grinning down at her, but Erik shook his head.
“Aren’t we about to land?” About fifteen minutes, they’d said; his ears had already popped several times. “It can wait.”
“But I’m thirsty.” Jean stuck out her lower lip. The purser gave Erik a look that suggested he was clearly a child abuser.
Erik just cuddled her closer to him. “Wait and we’ll get you something nice at the hotel.”
It went against Erik’s grain to spoil the girl – he was the disciplinarian of the family – but this was a vacation, something special, and he decided he might as well go all out. “Strawberry for you. Chocolate for me.”
The purser, now smiling again, went on his way to the coach section of the plane, which was only about one-third full, but no doubt contained far more people in genuine need, as opposed to little girls determined to find out just how good they had it.
Jean chose this moment to ask, “How did Aunt Raven get a baby in her tummy?”
“Ah. Hmm.” He believed in being honest with children, but how was he supposed to put this? Charles would be so much better at handling that question. Of course Jean had become curious just when Charles was a continent’s length away. Just his luck.
Too late he realized he must have envisioned some of what he was trying not to say, because Jean’s eyes became huge. “Ohhhh.”
“Jean, why don’t we talk about this after – ”
Impact sent them both jerking forward so hard that Erik’s head whacked against the seat in front of him. Momentarily stunned, he thought air pocket –
--but then Jean screamed, and the plane began to rip apart.
Erik stared in horror as seawater rushed in around his feet. They’d gone down in the ocean, down without one moment’s warning. Screaming rose to a pitch all around him – Jean, other passengers, the tearing of metal –
Move! He slung off their seatbelts and snatched Jean into his arms. Already the stewardesses had begun shouting to evacuate, but even as Erik stood, the water deepened – ankles, calves, knees – and as the emergency lights blinked off and on, darkness to shadows, he saw the back part of the plane fall away, jagged steel pointing upward for one instant before it sank.
Jean’s shrieking rose to a pitch he’d never heard from her before; she knew they might die. The floor of the airplane had been ripped open too; water was gushing up, bubbling their battered luggage from the compartment below up with it. Within seconds the rest of the fuselage would sink, and there was no getting through the tides and debris to the exit by then, no chance.
Erik did not consciously choose to pray; he had not believed in God in many years. But it was a father’s instinct, the swift desperate distillation of everything he’d ever felt or been into the only thought that mattered: Please, please, let me save my child.
In his frenzy, he imagined reaching out, somehow holding the entire massive bulk of the plane, holding it aloft in the waters through sheer force of will –
--and then he did.
The plane’s fuselage rose in the water, only a few feet, but that was enough for the water to subside back to ankle-level. Once again Erik could walk, Jean in his arms, toward the exits, where the stewardesses were now again able to do their jobs. Through the crowd of panicking people – some of them battered and bleeding – he stumbled over twisted metal and sodden suitcases toward the frantic activity of the deploying rafts.
I can’t be doing this. I am. I’m doing this. Erik could feel the plane, every inch of its metal frame singing to him – singing, such an odd word, and yet it was the right one, and he felt as if he’d known the song his whole life without ever hearing it before. He could hold the airplane here on the surface of the waves as easily as he could hold Jean in his arms.
“Come on!” the steward shouted, half-shoving the passengers out into the rafts. When their turn came, Erik allowed them to be toppled into the wet yellow rubber, which bounced and bucked and splashed. Jean’s screaming never ceased.
“Shhh, sweetheart,” Erik said. “It’s all right. We’re safe.” Rain spattered down, plastering his hair to his forehead and scalp. Dully he saw a line of blood welling through the cuff of his pants; somewhere he’d cut his ankle. That hardly mattered, but he ran his hands over Jean to make sure she wasn’t injured too.
The flight crew piled into the raft after them, and then the last cabin attendants. “What happened?” one of the stewardesses asked, but the pilot looked too shell-shocked to answer.
Erik was in a state of wonder that didn’t allow for blame. Still he could feel the plane – or could he? Didn’t that have to be an illusion?
Everyone was now in one of the rafts, so Erik decided to try letting the plane go.
The song stopped. The fuselage sank quickly, silently, into the waves. They were alone on a dark, rainy ocean, the lights of Los Angeles on the distant horizon.
It was real. All of it was real.
Jean sobbed, “They’re all gone.”
“Shhhh. Everybody got off the plane, Jean. We’re okay.”
“Not in the back. In the back it was dark and then the water was all over them and they couldn’t breathe.” She gasped, her crying racking her so hard it must have hurt her. “They couldn’t, and they wanted out, Uncle Erik, they wanted out so bad and they couldn’t get out and it was scary, it was so scary, but now they’re gone – ”
The passengers in the back of the plane – Erik hadn’t even thought of that, so single-minded had his focus been. New horror swept over him as he realized that, because of her ability to sense the thoughts of others, Jean had experienced all those people’s deaths.
He pulled her even closer into his arms and made wordless shushing noises, stroking her hair and kissing her forehead, for the near-hour it took for rescue to arrive. But Jean remained hysterical until the Coast Guard physician gave her a small dose of a sedative; her eyes looked up into Erik’s hopelessly for the instant it took her to pass out.
Only then, as he balanced on a metal bench in the rescue boat, his ankle bandaged and Jean resting in his arms, did Erik have a moment to consider what had happened after the crash –
--no, not what had happened. What he had done.
He’d prayed to be able to save Jean, and he had, by doing something so completely beyond the bounds of scientific law that it had to be considered … miraculous.
Erik had prayed to God, and through him God had worked a miracle.
Which meant that God existed.
Out loud, Erik said, “Oh, shit.”