Chapter 27

Zacharia Renaude walked along Eller’s Corner Rd. He announced to the three boys who waited in front of the gym that his mother was picking him up. They pretended that they cared, one of them even said, ‘Don’t forget what happened to Patrice.’ Nevertheless they all climbed into Jimmy Sorenson’s mom’s Escalade’ leaving him in the school parking lot. Zach felt a twinge of guilt as he shouldered his backpack and started to walk towards home.

Just that morning, about to jump from the car in front of the school, Zach’s mother decided they needed to talk. His hand was actually on the door handle when he heard the clicks at each of the four doors. He pretended not to notice and pulled up his door’s lock release. He was not surprised when, as he pulled on the door handle, there was a muffled ‘kha-lunk’ sound. Zach smiled at the door. His mother pretended to be reading something on her phone. Normally they would play the ‘unlock-the-door’ game until one or both was giggling; however, on this occasion, the stream of kids walking past the car was beginning to dwindle. It was increasingly likely that some kid would take notice. Zacharia Renaude was not a fan of being the center of attention.

“Ma-ahm! Cut it out!” He knew enough not to look over at her. She was one of the few people he could tolerate direct eye contact with, and even then, only if it was a good reason, like asking why they were moving out of the city or if he had to be on the Little League team every year.

“I can keep this up all morning, kiddo.” Dru Renaude continued to stare at her phone, but a slight up-turning at one corner of her mouth provided all the information the boy in the passenger seat required.

Zach sat back in his seat and stared mostly out the windshield. He knew from a lifetime of experience that when his mother wanted to talk to him, like it or not, she would talk.

“Be sure you get a ride home with one of your little friends today. I’ll be on a conference call from 2:00 to god-knows-when. Promise?” She looked up from her phone. Zach looked directly into her eyes, a rarity in and of itself. “Aiight?”

Like a crystal growing in speeded-up-nature-film-time, one corner of Zach’s mouth twitched and then the motion spread across his face.  The smile broke free and he laughed, “Aiight!” His hand rose in an enthusiastic if not overly authentic gang sign, as out-of-place in the German luxury car as a bowling ball in a bassinet.

It was a two-mile walk home, but felt like less with the un-seasonably mild weather. Corn fields, farm stands and the occasional new house bracketed the single lane road.  The new houses were always set back, way off the road. The fields and farm stands weren’t.

“Hey Zach…”

Zacharia Renaude looked up from the road in front of his feet to the space slightly behind his left shoulder.

He was surprised by the voice, then by the car, and then not so surprised by either.  It was an Aston Martin DB11, whispering along 5 mph, like the low growl of a wolf finding a scent. It wasn’t like the boy was paying attention to the road behind him, or, for that matter, the road in front of him.

The car that lagged behind him as he walked, was black. Totally black. There was not a single piece of chrome anywhere on the car. It was to Zach Renuade, a black-on-black bad-assed automobile.

Despite being four years shy of a learners permit, and something of a shy and quiet eight grader, he nevertheless was growing up male in 21st Century America. That meant he knew that, given the opportunity, he could slip behind the wheel of the car and make the world take notice. Were someone to suggest that all he need do is give up his soul in exchange for the car keys, Zach, and too many other boys of that age, would have said, ‘Where do I sign?’

In a sense, that unspoken deal had already been struck, albeit in much less obvious terms than those portrayed in movies and fairy tales. One of the greatest advancements in sales and marketing, (or, for that matter, the eternal battle between God and Satan for the souls of Man), was the ‘opt out of a sale’ clause. The individual was required to cancel the deal, in order to not sell. In less enlightened times, a man, (women being curiously absent in tales of soul bartering), desperate enough was required to seek out the devil in order to make a deal.

The car came abreast of Zach, which brought a smile to his face. His very facile imagination threw up a scene of a ten cylinder engine red-lining, muffler screaming as the car fought  to catch up with the boy in the khaki pants and gum sole kung fu shoes as he walked down the road. The voice coming out of the passenger side window made him think of both Patrick Stewart and the guy who did the commercials for the sandwich meats. “Sorry, man. I work with ya mom. I shoulda said that first. Don’t want to, like scare you sounding like a … not that you looked scared, but you know.”

Zach worried his mother at times. He was quiet when most boys his age made the most noise, which is to say, whenever possible. He was calm when most of his friends were clearly excited or fearful, the distinction not always easily discerned.

He  recognized the man in the car as someone having something to do with his mother’s real estate business. He was almost her boss, but not really. He didn’t work in her office. But whenever he showed up, her mood always changed. Not in a good way.

“So, you need a ride home, or what?” There was something in the man’s voice that had Zach’s eyebrows mirror his smile. There was an extra something to his tone that seemed to make it harder to see the guy’s face behind the wheel. The boy decided that, while he was supposed to be respectful and polite to adults and the people his mother worked with, he was not going to get into the car.

In Zach’s head the voice that always wanted him to be like other kids and not be such a weirdo, piped up, ‘Stop being such a dweeb, the guy works with your mother. Like he’s really gonna kidnap you or something.’

He turned towards the car as the dark-tinted window sank into the door, ‘Tick Tock’ from Peter Pan came to mind. He didn’t even wonder why, accustomed to a capacity to make associations faster than he could follow. Zach was certain that if he took the time, he could discover the connections between a very cool car and a very old fairy tale character. Instead, he put his hand into the pocket and pressed a sequence that caused his phone to ring.

Zach pulled the phone out of his pocket and said, “Hello? Yeah nothin. Just outside.” He resumed walking, turning his head as often happens when speaking on the phone. “No. I won’t forget. Hold on….” He noticed that the car had not kept pace with him and was now about twenty feet back the way he came.

Zach looked at the windshield of the exotic car. The face of the driver came out of the darkness of the interior, as if the lights of the dashboard suddenly rose in illumination. There was a smile on the man’s face that made the darkness in his eyes look like desperate sadness. Zach immediately thought of a picture he saw of a starved wolf in a cage. In the photo was a woman feeding the wolf through the bars of the enclosure. The wolf looked towards the woman and the woman was watching the wolf’s face. Both seemed poised for something to happen.

Without warning, the car stopped slightly back down the road. The driver put it in reverse and backed into a turn. More frightening than anything Zach had witnessed since he became aware of the car, was how the driver chose to turn around. Being a single lane country road, the obvious approach would be to back up while turning as far as the pavement allowed and then forward with an opposite turn on the wheel. Given that the cornfields came right to the edge of Eller’s Corner road, it would probably take a couple of reverse-turn-forward-turns in order to get the car facing the opposite direction.

The driver turned the wheels slightly and drove into the cornfield, autumn-stumble of stalks still marking the rows. Clearly not concerned with getting back on the road as quickly as possible, the car accelerated in a shallow curve across the field, dust and dirt thrown up behind as the powerful engine began to roar. With an angry squeal, the tires found the macadam road and the black car disappeared down the road.

Zach watched, the hair on his neck rising like a group of boys at their first dance, slowly at first and then all at once.

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Chapter 26

“The bidding is over. Title is awarded to the plaintiff.”

The old two-story house to his back, Sheriff Daryl Finnegan’s voice was very much that of a bingo caller at the end of an exceptionally long night. He clicked the end of his ballpoint pen and made a check at the bottom of a paper on a really cheap clipboard. His pen had the words, ‘YOUR NEW HOME’ in shiny gold lettering right above the face of a smiling real estate agent. Sheriff Finnegan would not have recognized the irony, being in a profession in which irony, while abundant, was little appreciated. Those who dealt in ‘distressed properties’, (the kinder, gentler euphemism for foreclosed), tended to be naturally tone-deaf to the whimsical aspects of the world.

Of the three men in attendance at the auction of Item# 78726 (1851 Tulip St Philadelphia), the one wearing the expensive suit got into his double-parked car and drove away. The other man remained behind. Watching the Sheriff drive off, he reached in through the open passenger-side window of his car, took a single sheet of paper and a role of clear plastic tape and walked up the concrete stairs. Taking care to be certain that it was both level and centered on the glass of the storm door, he taped the Notice along all four sides.

On the single 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper, in 36pt., Times New Roman, the single word: ‘FORECLOSED’. In the center of the bottom half, in smaller, friendlier, 18pt Courier font: ‘In Case of Vandalism or Damage call 1-666-BER-NBAU’.

Stepping back down onto the sidewalk, he held his phone up and took a photo of the Notice, a ghastly parody of a priest’s final benediction. He then backed out to the middle of the street and took several photos of the front and sides. Returning to the curbside, leaning against his car, he swiped through the pictures. He stopped after the first. In each of the five subsequent photos, there was a woman, just barely visible in the front window. She must have been a step or two back from the window and blended in with what interior was visible through the slightly dirty glass. She was in all five photos, an unintended homage to Andy Warhol, the features of the old woman’s face came into focus courtesy of the repetition. Not enough detail to allow him to spot her in line at the Stop n Shop, but sufficient for him to feel the emotion was frozen in 12.5 million pixels. It was the expression of a person, fortunate enough to find a floating seat cushion in a storm-tossed sea, unfortunate enough to be watching their ship sink beneath the surface.

The woman’s face was a portrait of wonder and awe at how something so very familiar could be transformed into something so unfamiliar and hostile.

The man looked up from his phone and saw the woman standing on the small porch in front of the house. He nodded acknowledgement and, without waiting for a response, stepped around the front of his car, got in and drove away.

He resolved, (not for the first time), to find work that did not involve people who were watching their lives being torn apart silently and politely.

***

“Patrice why did you run away?”

“I can’t tell. The man said if I told my mother anything, something bad would happen.” The thirteen-year-old fidgeted less than girls of her age were inclined to when being somewhat interrogated by an adult. This was especially noteworthy given that the adult was her eighth grade teacher, Sister Catherine.

They sat in the living room of the Avila home. Patrice’s mother had driven into town to pick up some Chinese food. It was a celebration of sorts, the return of a missing and/or runaway child. The police detective who brought her back to Crisfield from Atlantic City seemed, surprisingly, not entirely convinced that Patrice was, in fact, a runaway. The social worker, more expert for spending her professional days amid the incomprehensible suffering of dysfunctional families was satisfied that she had simply acted on impulse. The sudden death of her father, like the currents beneath the surface of the sun, flared up and she ran. In part to find closure, but mostly to escape the incomprehensible change in her life.

When a person is unable to cope with extreme tragedy, physical action often holds a non-specific promise of relief. To a person not under duress the act may seem childishly pointless. It didn’t help that Patrice was still a child.

The police detective, Glen Trahmani, brought her home, asked a few perfunctory questions and left, promising to call if any leads appeared in the death of Roger Avila. It looked for all the world to be one more cold case that added numbers to the statistics of human suffering.

The Chinese food was a slightly misguided attempt to celebrate her daughters return. Sister Catherine was invited and now the teacher and the 8th grader sat in the living room.

“Well, I’m not your mother, so it would be alright to tell me, wouldn’t it?”

“But you’re just like her.” Patrice Avila looked startled, at the expression on her teacher’s face. Sister Catherine began to laugh and Patrice forgot for a second that she was an adult and a nun.

“I’m so not like her. Let me tell you about my mother and then, after you know something about Sister Catherine, I’ll ask you again. It might turn out that you can talk to me about the things that happened. It might even be something that could prevent another girl, somewhere, from being hurt. Deal?”

“Deal”

The middle-aged women in the ancient fashion of her order sat on the blue sofa and began to speak to the young girl. Her voice was more of a person who might start out saying, ‘Once upon a time…’ than an adult telling her students about the Magna Carta.

“It all started with the Beatles…”

***

For all of his grey hair and wrinkled face, Morris Richmond offered me his hand. That he demonstrated out-of-time manners was not surprising, one look at the pony-tail and the Fillmore East tee-shirt made it clear that he had not let go of a time past. It was how he went from sitting-in-the-sand to standing-up that made me catch my breath. None of the ‘roll from cross-legged to kneeling’ or ‘lean forward and try to get his feet under him, pushing up with both arms’. One minute he was sitting in the sand in a loose lotus-style posture,  the next he was casting a shadow and reaching down to help.  He simply stood up.

Other than my tai ch’i instructor in college or the occasional ballet dancer, I can’t recall ever seeing anyone move as effortlessly.

I reached up and allowed myself to be pulled into a standing position.

“Have you ever wondered if God is disappointed in you?” I spoke on impulse, the oxygen-deprivation had rendered my mind relaxed and somewhat un-focused.

“At some point in life, don’t we all?” Morris took the fishing pole that he’d stuck in the sand and held it, cradled in his left forearm. The line, still lost beneath the growing waves, pulled taut by the receding tide rather than a doomed fish.

“The feeling that I’m just not worthy of the way of life that I’m totally lucky to have found is so …bad.” I crouched in the sand next to the dog who lay just above the seaweed line. “Its like there’s a part of me that insists another part of me is the reason for everything going wrong, while at the same time insisting that I can never stop trying.”

“Sounds like a trap to me. Perhaps you’re asking the wrong question.”

I laughed at the memory-collage of discussions of free will and life marked nights of conversation during my three and a half years in college. My much more recent life in the Order made debate obsolete. I reminded myself that faith is more useful as a verb than a noun. I looked up and said with a smile, “Please, spare me the zen master’s ‘if you have to ask the question, you cannot understand the answer’. I am way, way too tired to contend with that.”

He laughed, “Damn! That was my big close. Totally out the window ’cause the grrl nun be reading her Castaneda!”

We both laughed. Ragnorak raised his head from his front paws and wagged his tail in agreement.

I borrowed a smile from the dog in the sand and speaking in a voice that wanted to be a whisper, “No, it’s worse than that.”

Morris did not turn, determined not to let the endlessly advancing waves out of his sight, “How so?”

“My best efforts to save my mother’s house from foreclosure? Failed. My brother is in a hospital, on the critical list, and though I don’t have a prayer of proving it,” I interrupted myself to laugh. It was such a sharp-edged laugh, I chose to ignore it. “I’m convinced his illness is connected to what I was trying to do to save our mother’s house.” Grey clouds, hunched low over the land to the west, seemed to sense an opportunity and began to grow tall and threatening. As if in sympathy, the breeze off the water began to increase. The small waves, emboldened by the clouds above, grew in height and broke with a noticeably louder splashing.  My sweat-soaked tee-shirt seemed to thicken and clump at my waist. “It’s not the failure that depresses me, it’s the fact that I can’t accept it.”

“I suspect that you don’t, at this moment want to hear me praise the value of perseverance. Conventional wisdom and common sense does possess a certain magic.” I looked at Morris, his back remained the only part of himself he made available. I  started to say something I suspected would be rude when he continued, “The magic is that, like poles of a magnetic field, the opposites that form the foundation of the reality most of us experience usually keep their distance. Nevertheless, nearly every adage, insight and ‘moral of the story’ has a matching and opposite half.  They are the binary code of the human condition. The ‘on’ to every ‘off’. If one person is saved by hearing that, ‘Haste makes waste’, there is one other person saved by the knowledge that ‘Easy does it.’

“So there’s no right way to do anything?” I rose and stepped to Morris’s left side. “The version of me inside, the Margaret who has no problem attacking the company that took my mother’s house from her, she is the real me?”

Morris began turning the handle of the fishing reel. The nylon line went taut, the water at the point where the line disappeared into the wave started sliding towards us. Reflective beads of sea water making a last effort to die in the most alien of worlds, dry land.

“‘Cause she could, or rather ‘I’ could totally bring bad events to the people who are hurting my family. She is so very good at that sort of thing. If it’s true the world is a binary place, where ‘no’ is equal to ‘yes’ and our lives are ruled by a coin in motion, I should follow the teachings of my new family and forgive and love my enemies? Tell me, Mister Scarecrow, which is the right road?”

Morris turned and took a couple of steps to a spot that made him one point of a triangle, me being one and the yellow lab sitting in the sand the third. Pointing at me, arm fully outstretched and looking at the dog, he said, shouting in a voice of alarm, “Ragnorak!! Protect me!  Attack!!”

The yellow lab lifted his head at the sound of his name. He looked up at the man, followed the pointing arm and looked at me. The dog looked back at Morris and wagged his tail, got up, came to my side and sat, looking back at the man.

I put my hand on Ragnorak’s head and he lifted his face, cold nose touched my inner forearm. I started running. As I passed Morris, which was pretty much immediately, I said, without looking at him, “Thanks.” And I ran.

Chapter 25

I walked across the cobblestone courtyard, trotted down the winding drive and once through the stone gates of St. Dominique’s, ran toward the ocean. My customary route was out to Jacksonville Rd, across the highway at North Somerset Ave past the high school and from there, straight down to the town beach. This morning, three days after seeing my brother tied to his hospital bed by life-giving tubes and sickness-detecting sensors, I felt like Christopher Reeves in that scene towards the end of the first Superman movie. Lois Lane is trapped in a car in a crevice caused by an earthquake and he, Superman, is too far away to help, so in desperation he flies around the Earth, faster and faster. For reasons not understood, perhaps because he flew in the direction opposite the globe’s rotation, time not only stopped, but reversed itself. As a result, Lois didn’t die. Some part of me this morning must have thought, ‘Well, it can’t hurt to try’. Kinda did, though.

The roads were small-town-weekday empty. Plus it was both September and no longer summer. I hadn’t run since, since I couldn’t remember, which pretty much qualifies as a long time ago. I had on my normal jogging outfit and felt the coolness of near Autumn. A Tee-shirt with ‘Chicago Police Department’ stenciled black-on-grey across the back, very large and extra pink satin boxing trunks, ‘Everlast’ across the waistband and a pair of very orange Newton Motions.

I ran too fast to start and sped up from there. The reasonable part of my mind was alarmed but unable to make my body to listen. For all of the low-50s temperature, by the time I passed the high school, my shirt was sweat-glued across my back. Without slowing, I grabbed a handful of the extra-large tee and tied it in a knot at my left side and continued on towards the water, damp-salt-air seasoning the morning haze.

I ran out of asphalt pavement and crossed the crushed  oyster-shell parking lot of the town beach. Cresting the low dune that hid the view of the bay, the entire length of the beach came into view.  It was deserted. Except for a man with grey hair and a Labrador with yellow fur. One of them was fishing, the other watched me approach.

“I can’t seem to stop.” I said in a conversational tone as I ran past Morris Richmond. He didn’t appear to notice, his fishing line connected him to the sea, like some infinite telegraph cable.

I kept running up the beach. I was beginning to worry what would happen when I ran out of either breath or sand. I heard a lightly musical metallic sound, like tiny alarm bells being rung. I looked back and saw the yellow lab gaining on me.  Drawing abreast, he kept pace for a second and then pulled ahead.

Despite his having an advantage, what with the extra pair of feet, I caught up with him. As soon as I did so, he managed a look that clearly was an acknowledgment of my effort and, with the natural ease with which dogs do most things, ran ahead. The first time was amusing, the rest of the times made me angry. I  ran faster, my eyes open yet seeing almost nothing.

Finally, without warning, the dog stopped running. He was far enough ahead to turn, sit on his haunches and watch as I caught up. He was barely panting, I was barely conscious.

I swerved to avoid him but the sand under my shoes refused to help. I left my feet slightly behind my center of gravity.

As I lay in the sand, staring up at an empty sky, my mind replayed the memory of my trip to the hospital to see my brother.

***

“There’s an experimental protocol I want to try. It’s radical but offers great promise. It involves removing all the patients blood, heating it, cooling it and returning it to the body.”

“It has .004 percent chance of curing patient.” He glanced towards the intern at his side. She, in turn, held a tablet; a 21st Century scribe. A slight elevation in his eyebrows elicited a nod from the young woman. He then looked up and, somewhat incongruously, smiled broadly.

“Isn’t that a little extreme? Those are pretty low odds.” I spoke to him but I looked at the intern. No one looked at my brother, unconscious in the hospital bed.

“Not zero odds, you see? Zero odds are those of your brother recovering if we do not do anything.” He looked at the intern, satisfied to see her typing notes.

“Yes, doctor, please proceed.”

With a nod that altered his posture in a way as to make it seem like he bowed, he walked out of the room and down the corridor.

“Miss… ah, Sister Ryan, Could you help with some information on the patient.” The young woman looked at me, her eyes hopeful.

“You mean, my brother Matthew?” It seemed like, somehow, everyone on the 12th floor of the hospital stopped at that precise moment. I felt like I did when, as a child the dentist would, in the middle of a long Novocaine augmented procedure, tell me to spit in the little paper cup. No matter what, there’d be a long string of saliva trailing off my numb lips as I leaned back in the chair. For some reason I felt anger grow and although I tried to pray it away, it only grew more intense.

I walked out of the sun-filled hospital room. It was too bright, too …too healthy looking with the light from the autumn-shaded sun hitting the perfectly smooth sheets on Matthew’s bed. The intern with the tablet followed me out into the corridor and walked at my side, as if we were college students together between classes. I felt like lashing out, but caught myself and stopped in the middle of the corridor.

“Yes, what can I do for you Miss…. or is it Doctor or …” I was beginning to feel aghast at my escalating meanness,  “Doctor-ette Elizor?”

“Jennie would be good. Sorry to be bothering you at a time like… when your brother is so ill. The information is not necessary for the treatment but the CDC requires we track all cases of rabies and establish their vector.” She held her tablet like a missionary might hold his bible when advising backwards, hapless natives on the path to redemption. “The emergency room report indicates he was bitten, by a bat?”

“Yeah, from what I gather the old lady who cleans and otherwise takes care of the church wanted him to do a catch and release and I guess it nipped his thumb.”

“Did they save the bat?”

I looked at her and started to say, ‘Do you mean did he capture it, nurse it back to health with the intent of raising it as a pet?’ and caught myself. “No, I don’t believe anyone knows what happened to the animal. I’m sorry, did you think he was the parish priest at St Francis of the Rabid or maybe you were thinking it was Saint Doolittle’s church.” I stared at the young woman. She looked back at me, nothing showing in her face other than patience. A small part of me cringed.

“Its just that the CDC requires a determination of the vector for the transmission of the virus.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember you need the animal to test for rabies to establish if it’s been vaccinated. Pretty sure it wasn’t vaccinated and from what your boss doctor was saying a short time ago, I guess that means that my brother does, in fact, have rabies.”

***

I rolled over and spit sand and seaweed out of my mouth. I looked to my side and the yellow lab was sitting in the sand next to me.

“Ragnarök! What have you done!”

Morris Richmond walked towards us. The yellow lab remained in place, laying on his stomach, forelegs parallel, the classic sphinx position. His tail alternated between packing the sand down and sweeping it from side-to-side. The man with the grey-ponytail reached us, let his legs fold at the ankles, knees and hips, like an old-fashioned wooden carpenter’s rule and sat in the sand. He oriented himself so he could look both at me and the ocean beyond.

“Forgive me for prying, but you seem to have fallen down in the sand.”

Satisfied that he managed to complete a satisfactory introduction, he leaned back and looked at the ocean, his thin arms angled-lean-to supports, fingers buried in the dry sand.

My breathing finally slowed, oxygen finding its way through my lungs and out through my blood to the starved muscles and organs. I felt oddly relaxed, which I suspected was  the hypoxia talking.

Staring out towards the horizon, the man began to speak, “There’ a Czech word, lítost, It’s one of those words that remind us that perspective is everything. It’s commonly translated,  ‘..a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.'”

He laughed briefly, very much to himself and continued,

“I am not presuming to suggest that you are not happy lying there in the sand, however, just an educated guess, you might not be totally pleased with your current situation. I believe I have been rude these past months, my name is Morris Richmond, our four-legged friend here is Ragnarök. May we join you?”