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There was nothing unusual about it really; people were always leaving stuff on the embassy's steps in this hell hole. The Marine on duty that morning frequently discovered nasty signage, pieces of garbage and cigarette butts. One time he found a little bouquet of wilted flowers gagging in the heat left by some timid denizen of the place, with a small note attached cajoling the ambassador to do something or other. Occasionally he'd come across things he didn't want to see or know about, but here was something of another sort altogether.
The Marine cocked his head, took a tentative step forward and stopped. He readjusted his side arm, considering. He wiped the already vexing perspiration from under the brim of his cap, feeling for the little bump he discovered there that might be a mosquito bite or a tic, maybe.
He was stalling, not sure what his brain was registering. What was he seeing? Rags, a heap of cloth of some type ... the heap appeared to be moving a little bit.
The man inhaled with a ragged breath, looked around for any other people in the area and then approached what appeared to him to be an abandoned baby.
It wasn't dark skinned, as he would have expected, but rather light. Even to the young man, it was obvious this infant was very, very new, not big enough clearly to be left alone in the normal way of things.
There was a funny little birthmark or something on the baby's forehead. He wanted to take a better look, but was afraid of touching the tiny thing.
The Marine on duty had just had a baby of his own, born five days ago back at Lejeune.
Though it was still early, the morning was already hot. Squiggles of hazy vapor were beginning to emanate turgidly from the steps, but the Sergeant, although wearing dress blues, shivered as he reached down for the little heap of cloth, so light, so ethereal.
That baby in North Carolina, his little girl, had come so early and the actual birthing process had gone so quickly that he didn't make it home in time for the delivery.
That baby, who was supposed to be a healthy little thing, from what all the Navy docs on the base had to say, was given the name, "Mary." She had lived for just four days, until the 11th.
That was yesterday.
When he called his wife this morning (it was nighttime for her, and, God, what a night it had been) she had been inconsolable—devastated by her daughter's death. Ann Munroe, 19 years old, told him she wanted to die with her baby: she told him she was considering just how to go about it.
His wife's mother was supposed to have been there to help out when the baby was born, but Mary had come so early, just so early. Madeline was there now, but it was already too late.
He knew at the core of his being that he really didn't have a clue what to do. Hell, he'd only been married 11 months and he'd been gone six of them. His wife barely looked pregnant when he left, just a little "thick," kind of sexier really, not even chubby.
Sergeant John Munroe, considered by all his compatriots to be a "Stellar Marine," was not aware he was in deep shock, but he did know he was very, very worried.
Thanks to the efforts of a Staff Judge Advocate on the Ambassador's staff, Munroe was scheduled to fly home that afternoon via a Red Cross hospital plane on emergency leave to comfort his wife. The SJA and John knew one another from an earlier deployment and he was more than happy to help the sergeant get back stateside. The attorney was politically savvy and took care of his own when there was a problem at home.
John Munroe looked hard at the little bundle. He noticed that the baby was wrapped somewhat incongruously in what looked like a soft, expensive-looking pink blanket. Why, he wondered, would someone with the apparent means to dress up this little baby in such a fine outfit leave it like an unwanted rag doll on the steps of the American Embassy? It didn't make any sense. Why wouldn't they just have taken the baby out of here?
Shading the baby with his back, he carefully pushed the light coverlet back and discovered big golden brown eyes gazing serenely at him. Tears welled in his own lighter eyes.
Delicately, he exposed more of the little body swathed in its pink sleeper, tiny thumbs with paper-like fingernails curled over tiny paws. The heart-shaped mouth quivered. Sergeant Munroe held the baby girl to his chest and bent down to smell the bird-like baby essence of her curly reddish hair.
He looked around again, surreptitiously this time. His heart was breaking. The clock in the tower announced that the day was beginning. The Mullah was singing the morning prayers in the square.
It appeared to John that in an instant there were people everywhere and nowhere. Surely, there would be no one going where he was going at any rate. This side of the mundane world no longer existed for the young Marine. Without reflection, and without thought for the potential consequences of his actions, Sergeant Munroe tucked his little packet into the front of his dress blues and jogged down the embassy steps as quickly and casually as he could. Then he headed for the corner of the square and disappeared.
Stuck in the afternoon traffic, Ann Munroe was having a crazy day. You'd think she'd be used to it by now; John being deployed overseas. But now, with the new year begun, and remnants of Valentine's Day candy still in its satiny box on her kitchen counter, there was a war on. And although the government predicted a speedy resolution and the media had adopted the snazzy name "Desert Storm," people would still be killed in the confrontation.
Ann's thoughts turned to gathering up the kids and getting them home in time to have a farewell dinner with their dad.
Compulsively, she reached for her purse lying on the seat next to her and groped around inside it feeling for her pack of cigarettes. Then, realizing she'd quit last month, she chided herself. Shit. She could sure use one right now, she thought, with all that was going on. She shrugged her shoulders while rolling her head, trying to ease the ache she was feeling in her upper back.
It was nerves probably, good grief Charlie Brown, no wonder.
It had all happened so fast it seemed. Sergeant Major Munroe was scheduled to be on the plane with his troops at 0500 tomorrow and that was that. Her wonderful husband, the man she adored, the man who had accomplished the impossible for her and who had shared her bed, albeit somewhat inconsistently for 11 years, was currently at home packing his gear getting ready to leave her yet again.
Who was she kidding, she thought. She'd never get used to it.
Sporting last season's well worn little league jerseys, Ann spotted the twins, Max and Pat (numbers 14 and 16 respectively), waiting for her on the corner by the light.
Good boys, she thought, you're right where you're supposed to be.
She pulled over, taking advantage of a space left by an old green station wagon that pulled away from the curb with a speed that belied its age. Her move was apparently too quick to anticipate for the Jeep that was tailgating her, earning a prolonged blast of the horn from the annoyed driver. When she checked her rearview mirror she saw she was also the recipient of a little graphic sign language as well. Whatever, she thought. Knock yourself out idiot—that's fine with me!
The honk got Max and Pat's attention. They saw the family's navy Bronco and jogged over to it and wrestled their way into the back seat as only two eight-year-old boys can. Two down, one to go, she thought.
"Wow, Mom, how lame was that! That guy in the Jeep nearly creamed you," Pat pointed out unhelpfully.
"Never mind about that. I've got to find your sister like now. Dad's getting ready to leave for Desert Storm tomorrow, it now seems, and I want to have a good dinner for him before he goes."
"No big surprise there, I guess, huh, Mom? We all figured it was just going to be a matter of time before he went. Still, he seems like he's always ready to go. He loves his job and his guys. But don't worry, Mom, he'll be OK, you'll see," Max said, trying to comfort her.
Ann laughed a little, despite her present angst. It was always that way, her cute little guys, the bad cop/good cop, evil twin/angel twin, she thought ruefully.
Before Ann could comment on the boys' divergent assessments Leenie seemed to appear from out of nowhere.
Ann always thought her daughter looked like she had been painted by Raphael or some other old master-type. The girl's looks seemed somehow a little fantastic. Her curly mop of strawberry blond hair framed an oval face with a complexion that was pure peaches and cream. Thin and agile, she opened the door on the passenger side of the car and nimbly slid onto the vacant front seat.
"Hi everybody, she greeted. "Mom, since you've got the roast going already, I'll be happy to make a cherry pie. I think we've got all the stuff I need for it at home."
"That would be great sweetie. Dad will love it, and thanks for finding us," Ann replied.
"Is Dad going to sleep on base tonight? He's got a pretty early flight doesn't he?" Helene asked.
"Yes honey, zero-five-hundred, to be exact."
The Munroe's usually took Helene's abilities for granted, but sometimes, Ann thought, her intuition, or clairvoyance or whatever it was, was more than unnerving; it was just plain spooky. Sure the whole family had been on alert regarding the situation in Iraq, but Leenie was just too right on too often.
She tousled her daughter's luxuriant hair. As she did she exposed Helene's odd little birthmark, usually concealed by her fringe of bangs. Ann once again wondered, as she had when her daughter was a tiny baby, if there was something significant about it. Was it a key to Helene's roots or her abilities? Oh well, she thought, the girl herself was something of a mystery, wasn't she? How many times had she thought about it all and how many scenarios had she considered over the years? It could make you crazy.
Better not to worry about things you can't do anything about, Ann chided herself, trying to be practical.
She reached for her purse in search of another non-existent cigarette. Hell. Her mind was wandering, too much stress right now. That's all. Helene was her daughter and was a beautiful, wonderful, thoughtful girl. That was what she needed to stay focused on, just those simple facts, and on getting home and getting dinner on the table. Tomorrow would just have to take care of itself.
* * *
Ann pulled the Bronco into the driveway. As she pushed the button on the garage door opener, the boys tumbled out of the car like two freckled blond peas bursting from the same parent pod, good naturedly pummeling one another as they raced for the house. "OK, guys, it's sixteen hundred. I want you two to go shower up, before you start homework, OK?" Ann yelled after them. "I want you presentable tonight, smelling like sweet little roses."
"Oh Mom, that's so gay," Pat called in response.
Undeterred, she went on: "Bye the way, Dave will be joining us for dinner, so get a move on!"
"Cool!" the two yelled back in unison.
Before getting out of the car, Helene turned and looked quizzically, almost sadly, at her mother. To Ann she seemed very mature, very wise, a sage in fact, well beyond her 10 years. "You know, don't you Mom, Dad really is going to be just fine. And he's not even going to be gone very long. This thing is going to be pretty much over before he even gets there and then they'll just do mop up."
"I wish I were as sure as you are, sweet one. I just can't shake this creepy feeling I have."
"You're just tired, Mom. Honestly, he's going to be fine." Helene leaned over and massaged her mother's back briefly. "You'll see," she said and planted a quick motherly kiss on Ann's forehead. Then she carefully opened her door, got out of the car, and, as though not wanting to jar her mother's nerves any more, softly shut it before making her way through the garage and into the house.
Ann sat, stunned. Damn! That girl had rubbed her back precisely where it had been hurting. Honestly, sometimes the kid was just too much.
Goosebumps replaced the pain in her shoulder blades. A pang of fear, fear of the unknown, flashed briefly through Ann's consciousness. What was going to become of her? She wondered. The two boys would always have one another to lean on, to prop one another up, but though she tried her best to ignore the facts, she knew things were different with Leenie. She was different.
* * *
After unloading her school paraphernalia onto her desk, lost in thought, Helene closed her bedroom door and walked over to her bookshelf. A little hesitantly, she pulled Bullfinch's Mythology from its spot on the shelf and took it with her to her bed. She was crazy about all the stories of the Greek and Roman gods. She thought them fascinating, romantic, magical. She had in fact, quite a collection of books, a collection that seemed to be growing everyday.
One thing kind of led to another and her interests were becoming pretty varied. Stories of faraway places and history in general delighted her. She was taking French in school now (which she thought was ever so chic) and dreamed of visiting France one day.
Deciding to have a little rest before homework and dinner, she plumped up her pillows as she kicked off her shoes, then laid down on top of her comforter and opened the book. She hadn't slept well last night. It was that weird dream bugging her again, the one about the lady and the swan.
Of all the stories Helene read, all the stories about fauns and nymphs and winged horses, she was clueless as to why she should have this particular dream over and over. It was really a pretty gross story, she thought. I mean a woman having sex with a bird, even if it was Zeus disguised as a bird. She'd wanted to tell her mom about it and ask her opinion, but her mother would be freaked out about her having such a strangely obsessive and perverted dream.
No shit, Sherlock, she thought. It was weird!
Ever since she could remember, she'd been pretty good at figuring out things, good at understanding how people and things worked. Lots of time she just knew how things were going to go. It was all just sort of laid out there in her mind, the connections, a little like a dot to dot. It was kind of like how people patched together the constellations in the night sky. Possible outcomes and potentialities were all there to consider. No biggie! It seemed she'd always had an uncanny ability to size up a situation, quickly assimilate all the facts and associations, and the result was insights into the how's and why's of things. When she was little, her mom and dad used to ask her all sorts of questions about how she knew all this stuff, but then after a while, everybody just sort of got used to it. They eased off, or gave up, or whatever.
Her little brothers never even thought twice about it. She was just their big sister. And being little boys, they tended to be more concerned with strange little boy things, anyway. They were usually a little stinky and dirty, but they were also pretty in love with her, and she knew it, and they tried to act like big guys sometimes and help her with stuff, too.
The girl peered at herself in the mirror over her dresser and sighed. Sometimes she wondered if she had ever felt like a little kid. There was always something niggling at the back of her mind, always something it felt like she was supposed to find or remember.
This dream thing was another thing though; it was really bugging her. She just couldn't figure out why it seemed so significant and why at the same time its meaning was so elusive.
Because she hadn't slept well, she'd had a hard time waking up in the morning and was running late. Helene wanted to look up the story then, but didn't get the chance before school. She'd just lie down for a little while and see if she could find it again.
It was in this book, wasn't it?
* * *
She woke from the dream with a start, the same darned dream again, and heard her mother calling her. She must have just fallen asleep; she felt funny, her boobies felt kind of tingly. This was totally disgusting. What was she thinking? Her mother and father would both have cows if they knew she was so obsessed with this nasty story.
Feeling a little guilty, Helene bookmarked her place anyway. She hopped from the bed, replaced the anthology back on the shelf, and went to the bathroom to go pee and splash some water on her face. Then down the stairs she went to make what the family considered to be her famous cherry pie.
In the balmy Southern winter twilight, although the outside temperature was probably somewhere in the mid 60s, the Sergeant Major, looking relaxed and happy, Budweiser in hand, was in the process of lighting a fire in the fireplace. It would have been hard to guess from looking at him, that this man who was wearing an Aloha shirt, Bermudas and flip flops, was about to be flying, God only knew how many hours, on a transport plane to be part of the thunder and lightening in a storm that was bursting over an Iraqi desert.
Excerpted from An Angel in the Attic by Carol D. Jones. Copyright © 2013 Carol D. Jones, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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