Read an Excerpt
Melinda Soto, four years old, looks out her bedroom window and sees the full moon, orange and bulbous, rising over the Washoe Valley. Melinda has seen the moon before, has listened to her parents explaining why it waxes and wanes, but she has never noticed the pits and shadows on its surface. In her picture books, as in the pictures she draws herself—at school and at home, in bold marker or wavering pencil or the waxy smudge of crayon—the moon is always purely white, as spotless and serene as a newly peeled egg.
Now she rests her arms on the windowsill, breathing the wildness of sagebrush and frowning up at the orange circle marred with dark blotches. “Mama!” she calls, and a little while later her mother, smelling of soap and sweat from mopping the kitchen floor, comes up behind her with a hug. Melinda could have gone to find her mother, indeed half expects to be scolded for not doing so, for interrupting kitchen tasks, but she’s afraid to lose sight of the moon, as if only her gaze keeps it safe.
“What is it, baby?”
“The moon’s dirty. Look. There are spots on it.”
She can feel her mother’s smile, a warmth at her back. “That’s how it always looks. You just never noticed before.”
“Can you wash it?” Melinda wonders if Mama could mop the moon, the way she mops the floors.
“No.” Mama laughs. “I can’t wash it. No one can wash it. It’s too far away. And anyway, those aren’t stains. They’re holes. Craters where things crashed into the moon. Rocks. Big rocks that move through outer space.”
“People throw rocks at the moon?” Melinda is both astonished and indignant. Why would anyone want to hurt the moon, and how could anyone throw a rock that far?
“No. People don’t throw them. They’re rocks that fly through outer space. They’re called asteroids. A long time ago, some of them crashed into the moon, and now it has craters. Like when your ball bounces in the dirt, and it leaves a little scooped-out place.”
“But you can fill the dirt back in.”
“Here you can, yes. But not up there.”
“The moon doesn’t look right,” Melinda says, her words definite and her fingers clenched on the windowsill. “I want to fix it.”
“You can’t, honey. That’s the way it is. You can’t get there to fill the dirt back in. It’s too far away for mending.”
Melinda resists the urge to suck her thumb, a habit she has only recently broken. Sucking her thumb would mean she was a baby again, and surely only a big girl can mend the moon. She likes the word “mend”—her mother’s word, a grown-up word—likes how the m sounds in mend and moon and Mama blend into mmmmmmm, into the sound for happiness, or for someone thinking, or for cleaning. Mop. But the more she stares at the pockmarked moon, the more the shadows look like bruises, like the painful places on her knees and elbows when she falls. “I want to anyway. I’m going to. Will you help me?”
Mama kisses her head. “As soon as you tell me how, I’ll help you with all my heart. Let’s get into bed now, all right? Sleep tight, Melinda. Sweet dreams.”
Melinda never finds a way to mend the moon, but decades later, all her friends will know the story of how she promised herself that she would when she was a child. It is, she often says, her origin story.
* * *
Sixty years later, in a dormitory at the University of Nevada, Reno, Jeremy Soto wakes up on the floor of his room. He has a headache, and his face is glued to the latest issue of Comrade Cosmos by a trail of drool.
He groans, rolls over, and looks at the clock. He remembers groggily that he fell asleep after lunch, thanks to spending too long in the CC chat room last night. Now it’s five o’clock, and his English class starts in half an hour, and he hasn’t even finished reading the book, which has to be the most boring thing ever written. Cranford. A book about lonely old women: no wonder Very Bitchy assigned it.
He gets up and makes his way to his backpack, a journey of three feet that requires him to sidestep two piles of textbooks, three dirty socks, and an empty pizza box that’s several days old. He isn’t even sure which of the books and socks are his and which are his roommate’s. On the way, he glances at the mirror over his bureau. His hair looks like stuffing coming out of a torn couch, and the trail of drool shines faintly white against his dark skin.
Pathetic. “This round to the Emperor of Entropy,” he mutters.
He rummages in his backpack and finds his copy of Cranford. He’s been using a crumpled copy of the class syllabus as a bookmark, which at least makes it easy to figure out how much more reading he has to do.
He checks the syllabus, checks his place in the book—he’s forty pages behind last week’s assignment—and checks the clock. Twenty minutes to class. This is not going to work.
The logical approach would be to skip class, but VB has a strict attendance policy. He’s already used up his three allowed absences. Any more will hurt his grade, which isn’t exactly great to begin with. He could always hide in the back of the room and hope VB won’t call on him, but since she’s one of his mother’s best friends, that’s dicey, too.
He speed-flips through Cranford, wondering again why he signed up for this section. What was he thinking? That Very Bitchy would go easy on him because she’s known him since he was three? They’ve never liked each other. Mom still tells the story of how he bit VB the first time she babysat and tried to get him to eat spinach.
Cranford. Literary spinach, with a hefty dose of beets. His friends in other 101 sections are reading, like, two-page essays and newspaper columns. Very Bitchy has them reading fucking endless British novels about old ladies.
And Mom’s coming home from Mexico tomorrow. He’s already gotten her postcard; she sends one every trip. One to him, one to VB, one to Aunt Rosemary. Rosie’s not really his aunt, but she’s Mom’s other best friend, even if she and VB don’t get along much better than he and VB do.
Mom prides herself on finding the perfect postcard for each person. Jeremy’s shows sea turtles swimming past coral, probably because he had a series of pet turtles when he was a kid, although they kept dying. Lame, Mom.
Her neat, tiny script covers the other side.
Sitting at sunny poolside. Great food here: you’d love it. Just met guy your age, Percy, who likes CC too. He was impressed that I’d read some issues. His mom won’t go near it. I told him I couldn’t talk about the discussion boards; that’s your territory. Snorkeled with turtles like ones in pic. Miss you. Be good. Love, Mom
When she’s back home, she’ll call him to have lunch, and maybe he’ll be able to get out of it for a few days, but eventually, he’ll have to face her. She’ll ask him about English, and he’ll tell her it’s going fine, because he can’t tell her that one of her best friends is the worst professor on the planet. And she’ll ask him what he wants to major in and he’ll have to say that he doesn’t know yet, except that he knows he doesn’t want to major in English.
And she’ll ask him how Spanish is going—or worse, try to speak it with him—and he’ll have to tell her it’s going even worse than English. He didn’t have to take Spanish at all; he had four years in high school and managed to pass, barely. But when he was signing up for classes, Mom insisted that he take a Spanish conversation and culture class, so he wouldn’t lose his roots.
His roots are Guatemalan, not Spanish or Mexican. He told her that. He even tried telling her that if she wants him to study his roots, he should be learning K’iché, not Spanish. That promptly sent her to the Internet to find somebody at UNR who taught K’iché, which promptly sent him into a speech about how he doesn’t care about his roots; she’s the one who cares about his roots, and if she cares so much, why doesn’t she learn K’iché? Why can’t she let him be an American? Isn’t that why she brought him here?
And she said that it was important for him to learn about where he came from, and he said fine, and did just enough research to figure out that if your birth parents were Mayans who spoke K’iché and were probably slaughtered by Spanish-speaking troops funded by the CIA, English and Spanish are the last languages you’d want to study.
And she said, yes, she could see his point, but English was required in college, and Spanish was really useful.
How can she complain that they never talk?
And why’d he cave in to the pressure, anyway? He’s the one taking the classes, and he doesn’t need Spanish to graduate. Next semester he’ll only take things he either has to take or wants to take. It’s his life. He has to stop letting Mom control him.
He looks at the clock again. Fifteen minutes until class, and it takes ten to get there. Crap. Think, Jeremy. Panic is not your friend. Panic is the ally of entropy. That’s what Comrade Cosmos always says, and he’s right. There’s more than enough entropy in the room right now anyway, with the socks and pizza box. Jeremy really has to clean up. He’s good about picking up after himself at home, where he has Mom to nag him—although she’s a fine one to talk, with her rocks and books and lists scattered all over the house—but here, everything winds up in heaps on the floor. Entropy.
In his psych class, which is required but much more interesting than Spanish, the prof talks about internal and external loci of control, how people with external loci are less mature than the others. Mom, Jeremy’s pretty sure, would completely agree.
Maybe he should have lived at home this semester after all, like she wanted him to. But that would be caving again, and the dorm really is more fun, and if he didn’t live on campus, he’d have even more trouble getting to class on time.
Ten minutes to Cranford. Time to go. He hears Mom’s voice in his head: Get a move on, kiddo. Time’s a wasting.
He crams the novel back into his backpack, shoves on his shoes, and does a quick visual scan for his cell phone. He can’t find it. All right, never mind: VB takes a very dim view of phones in class anyway. But just as he’s shrugging into his jacket and getting ready to sprint across campus, he hears the theme music from the latest CC movie, the triumphant “March of Order Restored.”
That’s his phone.
The music’s coming from under one of the pizza boxes. Cursing, Jeremy shoves the box aside with his foot and scoops up the ringing phone. If it’s somebody important, he’ll answer it on his way to class.
Unknown Caller. Probably a telemarketer. Jeremy sighs as he turns off the light and leaves the room. He’ll have to remember to put the phone on silent before he walks into class.
“Hello? Yes, this is Jeremy. Who’s this?”
* * *
Five minutes to class. Earlier in her career, Veronique would have gotten there at 5:15, as soon as the previous class left. These days, she gives herself thirty seconds to walk down the hall to the classroom. The less time she has to spend teaching, the better. All she wants to do is retire.
She can’t retire. The house isn’t paid for, and she can’t pay the mortgage on her retirement income, and she can’t sell, not in this market. When she and Sarabeth bought the house, she was a newly tenured associate professor. She believed that one day she’d make full professor, a promotion that carried with it a ten percent raise and a corresponding bump in retirement income. She and Sarabeth had two salaries. They’d be able to retire, maybe even a little early, and enjoy some well-earned leisure.
But Sarabeth found another lover and walked out, and seven years into Veronique’s tenure, the chair of the department told her gently that she wasn’t promotable. Once, she would have been. Once, associate professors had been promoted to full simply for doing more of the things they’d done to get tenure. This was no longer true. Veronique, the chair said, choosing his words very carefully, was a valued member of the department, but didn’t have enough of a national profile to be promoted.
In short, she wasn’t famous enough.
To be fair, Veronique had expected something like this when she walked into his office, since even then she was bored with what she’d done to earn tenure. She’d written her doctoral dissertation on narratives of female flight in nineteenth-century protest literature, women running away from home to seek better lives. As an assistant professor, she’d published a string of scholarly articles on writers like Stowe, Gaskell, and Eliot. But around the time when Sarabeth ran away, literary criticism had started to seem like a useless exercise, intellectual masturbation. Veronique found herself much more interested in how people who didn’t have the luxury of running away created homes where they were. She didn’t think they used footnotes.
Even then, she knew her boredom with the profession was her problem, not the department’s. Her feeling trapped in a job she’d come to hate was her problem, not the department’s. The fact that she lacked the courage to run, or even walk, away from tenure was her problem, not the department’s.
The conversation stung anyway, and it hurts more now than it did then. These days, Veronique doubts that anyone considers her a valued member of the department. They’re waiting for her to retire. A young, hungry lecturer could teach her courses for a fraction of her salary, and would undoubtedly be more popular with students.
Four minutes to class: time to go. Her tote bag holds Cranford, the folder of graded reading responses she’ll hand back today, a bottle of water, her keys—there’ve been thefts on campus, so she keeps her office locked—and a list of discussion points, although she knows she’ll wind up doing most of the talking.
She reminds herself, as she always does before class, that there are good students in this section. Amy Castillon: smart young woman, hardworking and perceptive. And then there’s that boy, the shy one in the corner—Charles?—whose in-class writing exercises are more polished than most of the finished essays she gets from the others.
And then, God help her, there’s Jeremy, who seems unable to fasten the Velcro tabs on his sneakers without his mother’s help. Why did he sign up for her section? He’s not a good student. The only text he cares about is that blasted comic book, and he isn’t especially articulate even on that subject. Dealing with him tactfully is a nightmare; avoiding Melinda’s unspoken questions is even worse.
Three minutes to showtime. Veronique scans her office and sees nothing else she needs to bring. All right. She puts her tote bag over her arm, so she’ll have a hand free to open her office door, and grabs the cane she uses when her arthritis acts up. It’s been raining all day, last week’s glorious Indian-summer weather replaced by biting autumn gloom. Saturday’s Halloween. She hopes her students don’t expect candy, which some colleagues hand out this time of year. Her knee hurts.
Limping into class, only ten seconds late, she takes a quick survey of the seats. A scattering of students, huddled into jackets and sweaters, sit slumped in their usual places. One child wears flip-flops; her toes look faintly blue around their sparkly pink nail polish. A Vegas native, and not the sharpest mind in the room. By the time she figures out how to dress for the weather up here, she’ll be ready to graduate.
Only Amy’s sitting up straight, and even she seems more subdued than usual. “Hi, Professor Bellamy.”
Veronique nods a greeting, too oppressed by the apathy in the room to speak. Eleven out of twenty students, and no Jeremy. He’s always late, even without the excuse of bad weather. Veronique doesn’t understand why rain or snow slows kids down, even the ones who don’t have to drive to campus, but it’s a consistent pattern.
She looks unhappily at the clock. Time to start. More students will drag themselves in, probably, but it’s not fair to the ones who got here on time for her to stall. She clears her throat. “Please open your books to—”
She senses movement at the door and turns to see who it is. Jeremy, face haggard, phone clamped to his ear, rushes to her desk and thrusts the phone at her. He’s shaking. “This has to be a joke. This can’t—this can’t be happening. You talk to him.”
“What? Talk to whom? Jeremy, this is—”
“Please,” he says, and she realizes in horror that he’s crying. The other students, more awake now, stir and stare—this is the most interesting thing that’s happened all semester—as Jeremy presses the phone into her hand. “Please, talk to him.”
* * *
“You’re on until nine?” the charge nurse asks. “We just called the family. They’ll be here soon. I’ll let them know a chaplain’s here in case they want to talk to you.”
“Thank you,” says Rosemary Watkins. “I’ll go make sure the consult room’s unlocked.” The ER’s family consult room has comfortable furniture in soothing colors, but very strange lighting. There’s no wall switch, and to turn on the floor lamp, you have to step on a button that invariably gets shoved underneath a chair. On top of that, the bulb keeps burning out.
The room’s intended as a place where families can absorb bad news in privacy and something resembling comfort; making them sit in the dark is a little too grimly fitting. And it’s hard to keep the room stocked with tissues.
The consult room’s outside the ER proper, in an adjoining hallway. Ordinarily, Rosemary would grab a tissue box from an empty room on her way out of the ER, but there aren’t any empty rooms tonight. She can make out the voices of at least three howling children, two male drunks engaged in a shouting contest—a pair of security guards speeds past, power-walking toward that room—and a female patient yelling for someone to bring her pain meds now goddammit now I need a shot now where are you fuckers?
Her friends wonder why she volunteers in such a noisy, dirty, chaotic place. “I’m not saying you have OCD,” Melinda told her once, “but you do tend to have meltdowns if your outfits aren’t perfectly coordinated.”
And Veronique, acerbic as always, added, “You can’t walk into Melinda’s house without trying to dust all her books and geodes, and you can’t walk into mine without offering to sweep up stray bits of cat food in the kitchen, but you spend four hours a week in an ER?”
But that’s why she does it. If she can bring even a little bit of order to this place, offer even a temporary oasis, maybe one or two patients will feel better. And, anyway, the upheaval here comforts her; her own life seems serene by contrast. Most of the time, she feels competent at the hospital.
She’s not clergy, of course. The hospital trains laypeople to minister to patients, with the most difficult cases reserved for the staff chaplains. But she’s been doing this for seven years now, and at least some of the ER staff routinely ask her to visit patients, or to talk to distraught relatives, or to bless their own hands.
Heading for the hallway, Rosemary dodges left around a portable X-ray machine and right around a gangly teenaged boy on crutches hobbling toward the restroom. The crowd of medical staff around the code room, closest to the ER entrance, has dispersed; there’s nothing more to do there. Rosemary glances into the room, but sees only a drawn curtain. Beyond the curtain, she knows, is the body of a thirty-five-year-old woman, brain-dead from an aneurysm, being kept alive on a ventilator. When the family arrives, the doctor will ask what they want to do next and gently bring up the subject of organ donation. And then Rosemary will do whatever she can to help.
She skirts a family—mother and father, each carrying a screaming twin infant—being escorted into the ER by a registration clerk, and finally manages to escape into the hallway. Fifteen feet to her left, she sees the open door of the consult room, a dim glow spilling out into the corridor. She won’t have to call security to have the room opened, then. Good. She walks down the hallway and glances inside. Not one but two boxes of tissues, one on each table. Thank God for small favors.
Rosemary stands there, debating her next move. It’s seven o’clock. She’s been here for two hours, on her feet the entire time. Ordinarily she’d take a break now, but she knows that if she sits down, if she allows herself to be alone, she’ll think about her first visit of the evening. She spent forty minutes with an eighty-year-old woman with a broken hip, who clung to Rosemary’s arm and keened, “There’s no one here! I’ll die alone. No one cares about me! I used to have people. They’re all gone! No one’s here.”
“I’m here, Lisa. You’re not alone. My name’s Rosemary, and I’m here with you.” But Lisa kept howling. She howled while Rosemary sang a lullaby. She howled while Rosemary, in desperation, recited the Our Father. Chaplains aren’t supposed to pray with patients who haven’t requested it, but many elderly dementia patients respond to the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer.
Lisa didn’t. Rosemary couldn’t even sit down: Lisa had one hand clamped around Rosemary’s fingers and the other around her wrist, and between the bedrail and the angles of their respective arms, standing was the only option.
At last a surgical nurse in blue gown, cap, and booties came to take Lisa to surgery, and gently pried her fingers from Rosemary’s arm. “Okay, Lisa, time to let go now, all right? I’m going to take you upstairs. We’re going to fix your hip. You have to let go of this nice lady’s arm, sweetheart.”
The whole time, Lisa continued her keening. “There’s no one here! No one cares! No one loves me! Why won’t anyone come help me? Why isn’t anyone here?”
Rosemary should have taken a break after that visit, gotten a cup of coffee or escaped into the chapel for a while. Instead, she washed her hands at the sink in Lisa’s room, trying to scrub the feel of those frantic fingers from her skin, and moved on to the next patient, and then the next, and the next. Those were brief, pleasant visits: a few prayers for healing, a few casual conversations about pets and gardening. None were what she needed. She kept looking for someone who knew she was there. And then the charge nurse waved her over and told her about the aneurysm.
She needs to eat; she’s already slightly shaky, and dealing with the family will require energy and concentration. She has to be present to them. She can’t do this one on autopilot. During a quieter shift, she could ask the charge nurse to page her in the cafeteria when the family showed up, but right now, things are too hectic. It’s not a good time for a volunteer to try to ask anybody for anything.
Rosemary stands paralyzed in the corridor. She knows this is a ridiculous stalemate. She wouldn’t have any trouble deciding what to do if she weren’t so tired, and being so tired is a major red flag that she needs to take a break and refuel.
But if she takes a break, she’ll think about Lisa again. No: she has to keep busy. So she stops for a long slurp at a water fountain and goes back into the ER, bracing herself against the barrage of noise and activity. She hears the static of the department’s PA system clicking on, and then, improbably, her own name being announced from the nursing station.
“Rosemary, call on 57. Chaplain Rosemary, pick up line 57.”
She squints, thinking she’s misheard—who could be calling her here, and why?—and then feels a sudden surge of panic. Walter. Something’s happened to Walter.
This makes no sense, since no one at Walter’s nursing home would call the ER to find her. They’d call her cell, which she keeps on silent at the hospital and checks regularly. But she’s reaching for the nearest hall phone even as she works this out. “Hello, this is Rosemary. May I help you?”
* * *
Seven hundred and fifty miles away, Anna Clark settles down in front of the evening news with a glass of white wine and her knitting. It’s raining, typical Seattle weather, but she doesn’t mind. She likes being surrounded by water; it’s one reason she and William bought the house on Mercer Island. Living on the island makes her feel calm, self-contained, protected by moats.
She is, of necessity, a highly social person. She organizes openings at her husband’s art gallery: ordering food and flowers, schmoozing with artists and patrons. She’s on the board of the private school where their son attended K–12, and she’s in a knitting group run by one of the other Blake School board members. But she also finds too much social contact exhausting and treasures her time alone.
She’s knitting an ornate lace shawl with outrageously high-end yarn—a qiviut-cashmere blend she ordered from a musk-ox farm in Canada—and she has to concentrate on the minute stitches. The tray table on her lap holds Barbara Walker’s Treasury of Knitting Patterns, open to page 204, Frost Flowers, a twenty-four-row repeat in a multiple of thirty-four stitches plus two. Walker assures her readers that this is actually a simple lace, quickly learned after the knitter has gone once through the pattern, but Anna’s only on row fourteen. If she decides she likes the pattern, she’ll photocopy it and return the book to its shelf. If she doesn’t, she’ll rip what she’s done and start again with another pattern.
William isn’t home; he’s working late, getting ready for a show at the gallery. He took the dog with him into the city. Percy’s not home, either. He doesn’t like being surrounded by water unless it comes with a lot of sunshine, and hes fled to Mexico for two weeks to escape the onset of autumn. William’s parents had extra timeshare points. The resort’s American-owned: by a Seattle company, in fact, one that’s made a big deal about how good their security is, since so many Americans have been killed down there. Percy went down by himself, which seems a little odd for a kid his age, but Anna knows he’ll meet people. Most of his friends are working or in school, and can’t take the time. He decided to take a year off between college and starting his MBA, to give himself more time to study for the GMAT, so of course he wound up back home, in his old room with its garish comic posters and high school lacrosse trophies. Anna had hoped he’d redecorate—the colors in that room give her a headache—but he’s kept it the way it is. Well, of course. It’s only for a year.
She’ll be glad when he’s in school again. Miranda Tobin, another parent on the Blake School board, always asks about him. “And how’s dear Percy? Still back with you and Bill?” Miranda’s son Tobias—Toby Tobin, what a terrible name to give your child!—was one of Percy’s lacrosse teammates at Blake. Percy thought Toby was an ass; Anna thinks the same of Miranda. It must be a dominant gene. Toby’s in his first year at Harvard Medical School, a fact Miranda trots out at every opportunity. “He can’t decide between neurosurgery and urology,” she told everyone last week. “They both pay well, but the hours are better in urology.”
After interactions like that, an evening alone in the house is healing balm. The house feels very peaceful like this, the drone of the TV and the steady pattering of raindrops the only sounds. Anna focuses on her knitting pattern: yo, p2 tog, p2, yo, p2 tog, k2, p1, yo, p4, p2 tog, p4, p2 tog-b, p4, yo, p1, k2, p2, yo, p2 tog, p2, repeat. The length of the repeat is dizzying, and it’s easy to get lost. Lace knitting is a precision sport. She can’t fudge if she makes a mistake, and ripping the fine, fuzzy qiviut is a challenge in itself.
She works her way through the pattern, paying absent attention to the television—weather, sports, traffic, the usual state budget woes—and looks up only when she hears the front door open. William calls out a muffled “hello”; Anna hears Bartholomew’s toenails clicking across the floor before he nuzzles her arm in greeting and lies down next to her chair, 120 pounds of Irish Wolfhound hitting the carpet with a thump. He yawns, hugely, essence of dog breath and wet dog wafting over her. Her nose wrinkles.
“You’re home early.”
William comes into the living room, rubbing his hands together for warmth, and bends to kiss the top of her head. “The setup was easier than I thought. Three of Kip’s friends helped.”
“Do you think the show will go well?”
William shrugs. “We’ll see. The work’s not to my taste, but a lot of people like it. Have you eaten?”
“Soup and salad. I can heat up that leftover quiche if you’re hungry.”
“I’ll do it. Don’t get up.” He goes into the kitchen, Bart raising a head to sniff in his direction before flopping down again, and Anna hears the dull thud of the fridge door closing, the soft hum of the microwave.
“On second thought,” she calls, “I’ll have a piece too.”
She’s folded up her knitting and is about to turn off the TV when something catches her attention. “Mexico,” the announcer says, and Anna looks up to see a somber anchorwoman. “An American tourist has been found brutally murdered in the Castillo del Sol resort in Cabo San Lucas. The resort owners, Seattle hospitality magnates David and Delores Strucking, have issued a statement—”
Percy. Anna’s chest constricts, and for a moment the TV’s drowned out by the white noise in her head. She forces herself to focus, hears, “The woman’s body”—a woman, good, no, not good, of course not good, but at least it’s not Percy, and Anna breathes more easily again—“was discovered by housekeeping staff. Her name is being withheld pending notification of the family. We’ll be sure to keep you updated on this story as it develops.”
Panic pricks Anna’s throat. “Will? William! Come here! Something horrible has happened. We have to fly Percy home.”
Copyright © 2013 by Susan Palwick