A NEW PAIR OF GENES
By Jan Weeks
Twisted strands undulated in the vial, giving up their secrets. The tech voiced the data into the computer. The file sped to the doctor’s inbox, ready for him to give the good news to the almost-expectant couple.
Dr. Haroosh scanned the results, then turned to Paul and Jennifer Sinclair. “The screening of your genes has determined that we can manipulate them so that your next child will be female, with blonde hair and lavender eyes.”
Jennifer held Paul’s hand tightly. Tears started in her eyes. “Oh, darling,” she breathed.
Paul chuckled. “Just what we ordered, eh, Jen?”
Dr. Haroosh’s thin mouth curved upward under his overgrown mustache and overhanging nose. He appeared to be sneering, but the Sinclairs were too wrapped up in each other to notice.
“So when can we start?” Jennifer asked.
“As soon as you can spare a morning,” the doctor answered.
Jennifer turned to her husband. “Do you have anything on the calendar for Wednesday?”
Paul pressed a button on his wrist planner. The tiny screen enlarged as a holograph of his planner expanded to four by four inches, an inch above his arm. “I can give you two hours and twelve minutes between seven fourteen and nine twenty-six.”
Jennifer turned to Dr. Haroosh. “Is that ample time?”
The physician frowned. “Three hours would be better.”
“Sorry. No can do.” Paul pushed another button and the holograph disappeared. “And I’m booked solid for the next three weeks.”
“Then two hours and twelve minutes will have to do, won’t it?” Dr. Haroosh turned back to the data screen. “Don’t be late. Not even five minutes, or I’ll have to cancel the procedure.”
“We won’t be late.” Jennifer gave Paul a look that would have cut glass. Paul nodded.
“I’ll see you Wednesday.” The doctor stood and walked to the privacy shield that shone translucent blue across the consulting room entrance. He snapped his fingers; the shield shimmered and disappeared. The Sinclairs walked through. As he snapped the shield back in place behind them, he spoke into his lapel appointment diary. “Sinclairs. Insemination. Seven-fourteen, Wednesday, the twelfth.”
Jennifer didn’t sleep Tuesday night. She lay awake planning the nursery and how she would introduce her son to his new sister. Evan was six and didn’t take well to change. In fact, he was a tad on the self-centered side. But she and Paul would talk to him, and by the time the baby came out of her womb, her big brother would be as eager as his parents to embrace the new member of their family. In spite of the technological advances of the last fifty years, human gestation was one thing that had remained constant. Nine months of careful psychology would allay any fears that Evan might have of being replaced in his parents’ affections.
She finally dozed, only to be awakened by the gentle voice of “Excursion,” her personal robo-alarm. Paul slept on, impervious to Excursion’s frequency.
Jennifer slid out of bed and went into the bathroom, where she stripped off her nightwear and dropped it into the laundry aperture. She stood in the middle of the floor and spread her arms and legs, mouth open wide. Cleansing vibrations engulfed her, stripping microscopic dirt, sweat, and plaque from her body and teeth. An antibacterial, antiviral beam surrounded her, killing any remnant of dragon breath or yesterday’s body odor. A hood of warm air dropped over her head, and she felt the oil and dirt being sucked out of her hair. In all, her morning ablutions took about twenty seconds, so much quicker than the showers and tooth brushing and shampooing that her grandmother had had to engage in to stay presentable.
She walked naked from the bathroom to the bedroom closet and whispered, “Green dress, easy off.” The rotating rack spun, then slowed, and a spring green caftan floated off its hanger. Jennifer ducked under the fabric and let it drop over her body. Then she turned to wake Paul.
* * * * *
Dr. Haroosh frowned at the Sinclairs as they hurried through the doorway. “You are two minutes late.”
“Sorry, doc. Evan didn’t want to be left with the electro-nanny. Took a couple of minutes to persuade him.” Paul reached out to shake Haroosh’s hand.
The doctor turned away. “Mrs. Sinclair, stand there, please.” He pointed to a pale circle on the carpet next to the examination table.
Jennifer stood in the center of the circle. A violet tube slid from the ceiling to cover her. A whisper of sound, and the tube rose. Jennifer wore a blue robe now.
“Up you go.” Haroosh gave Jennifer his hand as a stool slid out from under the table. She stepped up and sat on the table. “Lie down and make yourself comfortable.
“Mr. Sinclair, step this way, please.” Haroosh preceded Paul to a second doorway, snapped the privacy shield away, and said, “After you.” The two disappeared into the next room and the shield snapped back into place.
Jennifer lay back on the table, feeling the surface conform to her body’s pressure. She tried to relax; this was the same procedure they’d gone through to produce little Evan, their dark-haired boy with the sapphire eyes. Nothing to it, really. Dr. Haroosh would come back with her egg, which had been harvested two weeks ago. Paul’s sperm donation would be tweaked by the genetics tech and the egg would be fertilized in the lab.
She would slip into a hypnotic state, induced by the doctor, and would barely be aware of the discomfort of implantation, and more importantly, she would not feel the embarrassment that used to accompany pelvic exams back in her great-grandmother’s day.
She closed her eyes and let her arms go limp. Soft music trickled through the pillow, soothing her. By the time the doctor and Paul came back in, she was almost asleep.
Paul was silent as he waited for Haroosh to snap open the privacy panel so that he could go into the reception area. Jennifer vaguely wished he would come and give her some sign of affection: a kiss, a touch, a sweet word. But he left without looking at her.
Dr. Haroosh went to the foot of the table and, as his legs bent, a stool rose to meet his rear. “Mrs. Sinclair, listen to my voice. You are drifting into a deep sleep, a sleep without dreams, a sleep in which your body will respond to my words. As I count backward from ten, you will slip deeper and deeper into sleep. Ten…nine…eight….”
* * * * *
In bed that night, Jennifer snuggled close to Paul, thinking she could already feel the tiny being growing in her womb, even though she knew that was impossible. “Honey, what name do you want?”
“Mmm?” Paul laid aside his reader and flicked the switch. The glowing screen faded to black.
“The name? For the baby?”
He slipped an arm under her shoulders and pulled her to him, patting her stomach with his other hand. “How about Hadley?”
“Wasn’t that your great-grandmother’s name?” Jennifer asked.
Paul nodded. “I barely remember her. I was only two when she passed on, but I remember how she smelled, like lilacs and new hay. And her lavender eyes sparkled whenever she saw me. She’d read to me every time I went to see her—after she’d chased me around the house, pretending to be a dragon or a wild stallion or whatever else I chose.”
His lips curved with happiness. Jennifer savored the moment. It had been a long time since she’d seen him look so content.
“Then Hadley it is.” She ran her hand over his belly, still as flat and firm as when he’d been twenty and she’d fallen in love with him on the beach by the lake all those years ago. They’d waited to have Evan, wanting to build Paul’s career before bringing a child into their lives.
Jennifer thought of the poor people who still made babies the old-fashioned way, which had fallen out of favor decades before, when scientists had learned to influence genetic structure to eliminate unfortunate quirks in utero. Sex for her and Paul had always been about pleasure, never procreation. Still, some unenlightened souls, either through poverty or theosophy, created children with a randomness that frightened her. She preferred to choose, and so did Paul. Thank God they could afford to indulge their preferences. There would be no Uncle Ned in their family
* * * * *
Uncle Ned had surprised Grandma Hadley and Grandpa Hank. Paul’s mother was already married, with Paul on the way, when the fetus that would become Ned latched on to Grandma Hadley’s uterine wall and began to grow.
The baby squalled into life, eyes hooded by mongoloid folds, head swollen and misshapen, spine split. In spite of his deformities, Ned nuzzled for sustenance, and Hadley complied. For three months, the bond between mother and child strengthened; father and child remained strangers. When Ned’s doll-sized casket was lowered into the grave, Hank stood grim and dry-eyed as Hadley wept.
* * * * *
Jennifer rolled over and curled her back against Paul’s warmth. Her breathing softened into sleep; her lips curled in a dream smile. And the baby grew.
The pre-designed genetic strands wound, unwound, spun, met, laced in a slow dance, creating the girl child Hadley. Hadley the fair child, child of lilac eyes, strong bones, exceptional mind. Just as the Sinclairs had ordered.
As the hours passed, the embryo changed from eight cells to sixteen, to thirty-two, sixty-four, a thousand, a million, growing and strengthening. The spiral strands did their unconscious work, followed the destiny programmed by the doctor. Until one strand shifted, a move so tiny that only at the atomic level was it noticeable. Another strand followed suit. Hadley’s irises morphed from lavender to indigo, edging toward chocolate. Her hair, programmed for shimmering gold, reset its chromosomes, darkening to jet. Other changes slipped through the strands, changes no one would notice for long, long months.
* * * * *
“I’ll sue the bastard!” Paul paced to the window of Jennifer’s hospital room and spun around to charge back, a pattern he had repeated for the last half hour.
In the bed, Jennifer lay pale and listless, unable to speak or bring herself to look at the infant who lay in the air cradle beside her. Evan sat beside her, staring at his new little sister. His small hand felt hot in hers; her fingers closed tighter around his.
“Mom, how come she doesn’t look like you said she would?” the boy asked.
Jennifer barely turned her head. “Because,” she whispered, “something went terribly wrong.”
Paul stopped pacing and towered over his wife and son. “Because that incompetent doctor couldn’t create a baby if his life depended on it. Now look what we’re stuck with! And God knows what else is wrong with it.” He flapped a hand at the baby.
Jennifer raised weary eyes to her husband. “You won’t have to look at her much longer. The euthanasia nurse is on her way.”
“I’m not looking at that at all.” He turned on his heel. “I’m going to get a bottle of juice. Want anything?”
He stormed out of the room without waiting for an answer.
“Mama, why’s Daddy so mad at Hadley?” Evan slipped his hand out of hers and bent over the baby’s crib, examining the tiny girl.
“She’s not what we ordered.”
“Was I?” the boy asked.
Jennifer managed to smile into his worried face. “Of course you were, sweetie. We wouldn’t have kept you otherwise.”
“Where would I have to go if you didn’t want me when I was born?”
Jennifer hesitated. “You’d go where Hadley’s going, to a nice, quiet room where she’ll be taken care of.”
“Will she have another mommy and daddy?” he persisted.
Jennifer had a strong urge to lie to her son, but when she opened her mouth, the words wouldn’t come. “No, she’ll go to live with God.”
Evan stared thoughtfully at his sister. “You mean like Grandma did? Like that?”
“Sort of. The angels will come and get her and she’ll go to heaven.”
Evan was silent. He reached out and touched the baby’s cheek. She opened her dark eyes and stared into his blue ones. Her fingers closed around his, making a fist. The boy smiled. “Look, Mom. I think she likes me.”
“She’s not old enough to like or dislike anyone,” Jennifer said.
“So why does she have to go to God if she’s not old like Grandma?” Evan jiggled his hand and the baby smiled up at him, her fingers still clenched around his. “I thought only old people had to die.”
The door swung open. A sweet-faced woman dressed in pale green walked over to Jennifer’s bed. “I’m Nurse Salma, from Euthanasia. How’re you feeling, Mrs. Sinclair?”
“That’s understandable. But even the best-laid plans are subject to inexplicable mutations,” Nurse Salma said. “Are you ready to say your goodbyes?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary. After all, we haven’t exactly bonded,” Jennifer said, sighing.
Evan looked up at the nurse. “Are you going to take my sister to live with God?”
She looked into his innocent eyes. “Yes, indeed. That’s my job.”
“Are you an angel? Can I see your wings?” The boy looked intently at her shoulders, as if expecting feathers to sprout under his gaze.
The nurse laughed lightly. “I’m not exactly an angel, but I’m going to take your sister to meet them.”
“Can I come, too?” Evan asked. “I’ve never seen an angel.”
Jennifer struggled upright. “Hush, Evan! Don’t ever talk like that!”
Evan’s face crumpled and tears welled up in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mama. I just wanted to make sure Hadley’s okay when the angels come for her.”
The nurse leaned over the crib and lifted the dark child into her arms. “Oh, yes. You’re a sweetie,” she cooed. “Too bad your genes switched horses in the middle of the gestational stream. But that’s the breaks, kid.”
As the nurse picked up the baby, Jennifer’s eyes swept over her daughter. The child turned her head and gazed at her mother. She smiled. Somehow Jennifer knew it wasn’t a gas pain. And for the first time since she’d delivered, she really saw her daughter. Saw the soul staring out of the coffee-colored eyes. Saw a little heart that knew nothing of hurt and fear and disappointment. Saw innocence incarnate.
She turned away and sank back on the pillows. Euthanasia would be quick and painless, and would prevent future heartache. It was the right thing to do. She and Paul could always try again to get the child they’d ordered. The genes wouldn’t mutate next time. And they would have their perfect family.
The nurse turned away and walked toward the door. Just as she reached it, Paul barreled through. “You the killing nurse?” he asked.
Nurse Salma bristled. “I am the euthanasia nurse. Please step aside, Mr. Sinclair. I’m already late.”
His twisted mouth mocked her as he held the door open and bowed her through.
The baby howled.
“Mom!” Evan’s cry jolted her upright. “She’s hurting Hadley!” The boy scooted across the room and grabbed the nurse’s uniform skirt. “Stop hurting my sister!”
Paul grabbed his son’s arm. “She’s not hurting her! And it’s none of your business. Now get over there with Mama.” He pushed the boy toward the bed.
Evan stood in the middle of the room, eyes wide, mouth open, as the baby continued to shriek. He turned his wild eyes to Jennifer, his look begging her to do something, anything. To save his baby sister.
The door swung closed behind the nurse. The baby’s cries faded as Salma hurried down the hall.
Evan burst into tears and ran to Jennifer. He buried his head in her lap, sobbing as if his heart would break and fall from his small body.
Jennifer stared at Paul, who dropped his eyes. “Brown is a pretty color for eyes,” she managed to say. “And Evan has dark hair. Would it be so terrible to have a daughter who’s dark, too?”
“Now, Jen. You agreed to the ‘blueprint,’ just like I did.” He crossed the room and took one of her hands in his. “We decided a year ago what we wanted in a girl. We didn’t get it. If we’d bought a new car and it came in the wrong color, we’d take it back, wouldn’t we?”
“But she’s not a car! She’s a little girl.” Jennifer pushed Evan aside and swung her legs out of bed. “Get my robe.”
Paul put a hand on her shoulder. “You’re hysterical. In a few minutes it’ll all be academic. And we can try again.”
Jennifer slapped his hand away. “I want my baby!” She staggered toward the door, elbowing her husband, kicking him as he tried to restrain her. Evan screamed and clutched his father’s leg. Jennifer escaped into the hall. Calling on strength she didn’t know she had, she ran down the corridor toward the lavender door on the right, next to the end.
She flung open the door, barely aware of Paul’s voice shouting behind her. Jennifer saw Hadley lying in a tube that vanished into the wall. Nurse Salma was reaching for a purple button next to the tube.
“Stop!” Jennifer threw herself at the nurse. In slow motion she saw her daughter look at her as Salma’s finger connected with the button; a shield closed over the tube’s opening.
And then Jennifer was lying on the cold tile floor, sobbing.
A CHRISTMAS TALE
The blizzard raged out of Canada on a blue norther, defying the meteorologist’s prediction of a banana belt Christmas, not caring that I would be late for Christmas Eve, not caring that my children were expecting me, maybe. The Black Hills of South Dakota humped against the storm but the snow made its way through the thick stands of pines, howled down the channels carved by roads, filled every hollow and crevice with icy whiteness. Only thirty more miles, I prayed to whatever god might possibly be in charge today, let me make it just thirty more miles. However, that might require a miracle, and miracles don’t happen to people like me.
I eased my car through the December darkness, peering into the dervish of snow that swirled across the secondary road leading to Rapid City and twinkling Christmas lights and presents and what was left of a once-familiar home. A headache built behind my eyes in inverse proportion to my creeping speed as I struggled to keep the car between the ditches.
My head whacked against the steering wheel as the car bounced off the road. Splinters of light spun in front of my eyes. I fell across the seat, waiting for the whirling to stop. It took a couple of minutes to get my wits back. I scrabbled under the passenger’s seat for my cell phone and punched the “talk” button. “No service” flashed across the screen. I opened the driver’s door, pushing hard against tilted gravity, and got out.
Tentacles of hair whipped my face. My lungs burned from the frigid air. Snow filled my boot tops as I waded around the car, sending icy rivulets sneaking down my legs. By the time I’d plodded back to the driver’s side, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I got back into the car, resigned myself to a long, cold night, and settled in to wait for morning. I’m a realist, if nothing else. In spite of the chill, I nodded off, vaguely remembering warnings about going to sleep and never waking up.
I woke, however, stiff and frozen. Wind still buffeted the forest, and snow had drifted over the car. I turned the key and flicked the wiper lever, listening to the blades grinding as they struggled to clear the windshield. Rubbing at the frost that had formed on the inside of the glass, I peered into the gloom. I blinked. Was that a light? I squinted and rubbed again. Two glowing squares shimmered through the storm.
The accumulated snow made the car door almost impossible to open, but I lay across the seat and kicked it until it gapped enough so I could squeeze out. Gravity slammed it shut. I pulled my coat collar higher and plunged through the hip-deep snow toward the lights.
A small log cabin nestled in the pines, half-buried by drifts. I guessed at where the steps might be and staggered up them. My foot caught on the top step and I flopped onto the porch. Gasping from the exertion, I managed to get to my feet and collapsed against the door.
It swung open almost immediately, and a man stepped back to let me flounder inside. The room spun as the heat hit me. Strong arms caught me as I staggered and carried me to an oversized couch. My vision blurred, but I saw a woman as she leaned over me and unbuttoned my coat. “My dear, whatever are you doing out on a terrible night like this? How long have you been out in this storm?”
I tried to slap her hands away and sit up, but the effort was too much.
The man—her husband, I assumed—tugged gently at her arm. “Let the child catch her breath before you give her the third degree.”
“Put another log on the fire,” she said, “and heat some water for tea.” Then she bent over me again. “May I help you out of your coat and boots?”
I nodded and struggled to a semi-sitting position, shivering as she stripped my coat and boots off and rubbed my frozen feet between her warm, soft hands. Firelight struck sparks of silver in her hair as she helped me up from the couch and led me to a rocking chair in front of the fire. She wrapped a hand-knitted green and white afghan around me and propped my feet up on a stool.
“Now just relax.” She bustled away.
I could hear the two of them murmuring in the kitchen, but my ears were as tired as my mind, and I didn’t even try to decipher their words. Candles burned on the mantel, the windowsills, and the end tables, washing the log walls with a low, mellow sheen. It was a miracle that I’d been able to see the lighted windows through the storm. As warmth seeped into me, I began to drowse. Whatever tomorrow might bring, tonight I was safe and warm, and tea was on the way.
The rattle of china jolted me to full consciousness. The woman set a tray holding a teapot, cups, and a plate of cookies on a small table next to the rocker. She pulled the armchair closer and turned it to face me as her husband brought a wooden kitchen chair and settled down on the other side of me.
“Now, my dear, tell us your story,” she said.
The last thing I wanted to talk about, especially to these Samaritans, was my miserable history. I put down my cup. “Excuse me. Where’s the toilet?”
She pointed to the short hall that led to the bedroom. “On your left.”
In the privacy of the bathroom, I stared into the flame of a pillar candle that burned on the vanity. I had about half a minute to think up some story, some lie, to tell this nice old couple. But my mind refused to produce a credible fantasy background. I used the toilet, then washed and dried my hands on the red and white striped towel hanging next to the sink.
I shuffled back to my rocker on feet that stung as sensation returned, hoping they’d forgotten the question. Fat chance. As I sat down, the man looked at me intently. “Now. What brought you out in a blizzard?”
I glanced from him to her. Their faces told me that only the truth would do.
“I’m on my way to Rapid City to spend Christmas with my—family.” I took a sip of tea, a spicy, aromatic blend that was unfamiliar to me. “Unfortunately, God, or whoever’s in charge up there—” I pointed upward— “decided my kids didn’t really need good ol’ Mom on Christmas Eve and shoved me into a ditch. I must have really pissed Him off and not even noticed.” The man and woman frowned at my words, and I thought, Uh-oh! A couple of goody-goodies. I choked back an urge to let loose with a string of profanity, just to see how they’d react.
The man spoke, his voice rumbling from a cavern somewhere deep in his chest. “God didn’t shove your car into the ditch to punish you. That’s what free will is about. We make choices, we live with the consequences of those choices.”
Oh, yeah! Just what I needed. A preacher for a rescuer. I haven’t really believed in a higher power since I was in high school and found out that you can do pretty much whatever you want as long as you don’t get caught. And believe me, I’ve done it all. And spent a lot a time regretting and paying for the choices I’ve made. But I’d straightened my life out and things had been going pretty well, at least until tonight.
I thought of escaping to the car, away from these religious nuts. The wind howled around the eaves, snow scoured the window panes, and my toes and fingers tingled with warmth. I decided that listening to a sermon or two was a small price to pay for a night’s comfort. Tomorrow could take care of itself.
“How many children do you have?” the woman asked.
Happy to be on familiar ground, I replied, “Two. Rory’s five and Erica’s three.”
She lifted the pot and poured more tea into my cup. “I’m sure you’ll be back with them soon. In a few days, they won’t even remember that you were late getting home. Children are resilient, especially when they’re loved.” She gazed into the fire; a shadow darkened her eyes. But when she looked at me again, they twinkled.
I hoped she didn’t notice me flinch. My kids barely know who Mom is, and that’s probably a good thing. At least I spend a lot of time telling myself that.
“What about the rest of your family? Won’t they be worried?” the man said.
I shook my head. “Don’t really have a lot of family. Just my ex and the kids. And a couple of cousins I haven’t seen since I was six.”
The woman clucked her tongue. “That’s a shame. It’s so hard to be without loved ones, especially this holy time of year.”
Oh, boy. This night was going to be a barrel of fun if the two of them were going to spend the night converting me. The storm wasn’t looking so bad after all.
“Tell us about your little ones,” she continued.
I shrugged. “They’re little.”
They stared, waiting for more. I almost laughed at their earnestness. I decided to shock these two pious people who believed all the bull of love and God and holy little Jesus. “I hardly see them. I live in Worland. They live in Rapid. Their dad has full custody and that’s just peachy by me.” I glowered at the man, daring him to say something righteous, but he sat silent. “I’m the world’s lousiest mother, if you want to know the truth,” I continued. “I didn’t want kids in the first place, but when Jay and I got married, I was trying to live the American dream. Only, after a couple of years, I woke up. Dreams are for idiots.”
reached for a cookie, waiting for the old folks to jump down my throat like Jay, the cops, and the counselors had done for years. Hey, if the pros couldn’t break me, these two geezers didn’t have a chance. I could outlast anything they threw at me, and the worst that could happen was that they’d toss me back out into the storm. But somehow I didn’t think they would, no matter what they thought of me.
“We had a boy once,” the woman said. “The sweetest, most loving child you ever saw.” The dusting of sorrow in her voice pierced the place where my heart had once been, and I blinked away the firelight that shimmered on my lashes.
“What happened?” I asked.
The man cleared his throat. “Nowadays I suppose you’d call it a hate crime, but back then, we weren’t politically correct. He was different, and that made him a target. There was nothing we could do about it.” He stared at his clasped hands. “It took him a long time to die.”
Whoa! This was really more than I needed to know. I sneaked a look at the woman. Her face was serene in the firelight, her hands folded in her lap. I wondered how on earth she could hear him talk about her son being murdered and not want to rip her heart out. She smiled at her husband and he smiled back. Both of them looked so—so happy. It was unnatural. If anything happened to Rory or Erica, I’d probably kill myself. Even though I only saw them a few times a year, they were still my kids, and I loved them. I just knew that they were better off without me.
“They must be beautiful children,” the woman said, “judging by their mother.”
Oh, Jesus! Was I stranded with a couple of holy roller swingers? If either one of them made a move toward me, it’d be the last one they ever made. I stood up and set my cup on the tray. “Well, thanks for thawing me out.”
“You’re not thinking of leaving!” she said. “You wouldn’t get half a mile in this storm. It would be a miracle if you even got back to your car.”
“Yeah, and miracles are a little short in my life right now,” I snapped. “Look, do you have a phone I can use?” I glanced around the cabin and saw a phone on the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen. I moved toward it.
“Storm took the power out,” the man said. “Could be off for days.”
I picked it up anyway. No dial tone. I was starting to have flashbacks to all the horror flicks I’d ever seen. If there was a chainsaw hidden under the kitchen sink, they wouldn’t even have to fire it up. I’d die of a heart attack as soon as the old man hauled it out.
The woman came to stand by me. “You’re afraid, aren’t you?”
I could feel energy radiating from her.
“Wouldn’t you be, in my shoes?”
She smiled and shook her head. “Perfect love casts out fear. We only want to help you through this trying time.” She pointed to the couch. “Relax. Lie down. No one’s going to hurt you, at least not tonight.”
The candles burned steadily as the fire’s heat swelled into the room. I looked deeply into her lovely eyes, and I knew she spoke the truth. Here, I was safe, from the outer storm and the inner one. Somehow I knew I’d never find such a haven again.
The man leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other, ankle on knee. “God will never abandon you, though you seem to have given up on Him.”
“See, that’s the problem,” I said. “Some old guy in a white robe, sitting on his heavenly throne, zapping sinners with lightning bolts. I just can’t buy that horse hockey.”
He laughed, and it was as if all the cathedral bells on earth were ringing at once. “I think you’ve got God confused with Thor,” he finally managed to say, “but you’re wrong about Him.” He sobered, and his expression became thoughtful. “You see, God isn’t a guy. The scribes who wrote the Bible, and most of the other holy books, needed a way to describe Universal Wisdom, and since they lived in patriarchal societies, they naturally used the male pronoun. God is beyond sex. God is mother and father and all that is.”
The room was silent as I tried to internalize that new thought. Suddenly, I had a vision of an eternal Couple, mother and father, holding hands and reaching out to take me into their embrace.
“That’s right,” the man said with a grin.
I stared at him, running a hand through my hair in exasperation. “How do you do that?”
The woman chuckled. “Honey, he does it to me all the time.” She sat down in the rocker and put her feet up. I bypassed the couch and slouched in the armchair, my legs stretched out, elbows propped up on the arms, and my hands clasped on my chest. I hadn’t felt this relaxed in years. Maybe never.
“We don’t even know your name,” the woman said.
“Sioux, like the tribe. God only knows what my father and mother were thinking when they named me. I’ve always felt like I had to charge through life, being a warrior, in order to live up to it.” My voice sounded bitter even to me.
“If you don’t feel comfortable with it, why not change it? Names should reflect the inner person,” the man agreed. “Now our boy—”
Her warning look silenced him. “She’s not interested in ancient history.” She turned to me. “Tell us about your parents, Sioux.”
Somehow the words came easily, the words I’d kept inside for thirty years. I’d always said my life was nobody’s business, but I wanted to tell this gentle woman everything, maybe because I knew she wouldn’t judge me.
My voice felt like sandpaper in my throat. “They were a couple of drunks. And druggies. I left home when I was thirteen. Haven’t seen them since. Don’t want to.” I waited for her shock, but her calm face showed interest, not disgust.
The man, too, listened intently, as if he were hearing my soul instead of my words.
“I bummed around for a few years, in and out of juvie lockup and detox. Did manage to finish school, though. Then I met my husband. Jay had a Jesus complex, I guess. Wanted to save the sinner, even when his folks threatened to disown him. Only it didn’t work. Having two kids didn’t help. So, being the wise woman that I am, I gave them up to him.” I sighed. Now that I’d said them, the words seemed trite and empty, not tough and sensible. A tear escaped, hot on my cheek.
A log burned through and fell, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney. The wind wuthered around the cabin, moaning the storm’s name in a voice as deep as the old man’s.
“I’ve really screwed up my life,” I whispered.
The man stood and laid a hand on my shoulder. His eyes closed, and warmth flowed through me. My body softened, and I wanted to curl up in his arms and be safe and loved, without judgment or fear. His wife’s lips moved but her murmured words were lost in the sound of the storm.
“Rest now,” he said. I stumbled to the couch and was asleep almost as soon as she had spread the afghan over me.
The cold woke me. Dawn glimmered at the windows, clear light glinting on the mounds of snow that surrounded the cabin. I struggled out of the afghan and stood up. The stillness was absolute. I pulled on my boots and my coat. They held lingering warmth from the fire, now burned to embers. As the light grew brighter, I noticed that last night’s candles had been put away, along with the teapot and other dishes. I slipped down the hall to the bathroom and was in full spate before I noticed that the towels and washcloths had vanished, along with the toilet paper. I reached under the vanity and found a roll. When I flushed, nothing happened. I turned the faucet to wash my hands, but nothing came out.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I yelled. The silence was deeper than ever. I knocked on the bedroom door. It swung open. A bare mattress lay on the bed; the windows were shuttered. The stale smell of abandonment lay heavy. Where the hell were my happy hosts?
I rushed through the cabin again, looking for remnants of them, but it was as if last night had never happened. No water, no lights, no sign of the couple. My scalp prickled. People don’t just disappear. They must have sneaked out while I was sleeping. I threw open the cabin door. The cold Christmas air filled my lungs and puffed out in tiny crystals. Deep snow filled the morning, trackless and white.
A rising red sun peeked through the pines, splashing the snow with rainbow-hued diamonds, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I oriented myself toward where I thought the car was and waded through the drifts, leaving a trail of blue shadows in the furrow that followed me. I did a good job of reckoning. In a few minutes, I saw the car sitting on the road shoulder. The windows had been swept clear, but there were no tracks anywhere near it. Bewildered, I got in. The key was still in the ignition. I turned it and the engine whirred, then throbbed quietly.
I put the car in gear, and as I gave it just a little gas to keep from spinning out, I realized that the old couple had never told me their names. They knew all there was to know about me, but they were as mystifying to me as all the spiritual stuff they’d spouted last night.
As I rolled down the road, on my way to Christmas with my kids, I wondered about God and ghosts and holy phenomena. I thought of my saviors, who seemed to love me in spite of my being me, and a mystical night in the middle of nowhere. Maybe miracles do happen, and maybe, just maybe, I am going home.