Rachel was in the kitchen when Laura arrived home. “You’re later than I expected.”
Laura answered with a teenager’s shrug. “I was going to ride home with Heidi, but she had an orthodontist appointment. So I walked.”
“I could have picked you up.”
“That’s okay. Milada gave me a ride.”
“Milada? Milada gave you a ride?”
“Yeah. She was driving by—I mean, she has this chauffeur who drives for her. He has this cute little hat and everything.”
“A cute little hat—”
“Yeah. You know, Milada, she’s not quite human.”
Rachel froze. “What did you say?”
“I said she’s a nice woman.”
“Yes. Yes, she is.” Rachel shook her head, listening for the clunk and rattle of loose parts.
Laura said, “What are we having for dinner?”
“What? Oh, dinner. Spaghetti.”
“That’s okay, I guess.” Having signed off on the menu, Laura headed upstairs. “I’ve got homework to do,” she announced.
Her mother stood there, wondering why she had heard what she thought she had heard. She’s not quite human. She was sure that’s what her daughter had said.
The next morning, the phone rang. It was her brother Carl.
“Hello, Carl,” said Rachel. She checked the time and began making a series of mental calculations, scheduling the rest of the morning—what had to be done, what could be put off. Because once Carl got on the phone, it was hard getting him off, especially when he called during the day. That meant he was bored at work and had run out of more constructive ways to waste time.
Not that she minded talking to Carl. The world was chock full of people who could fill the spaces between any two points of time with words. Churn them out nonstop. LaDawn, for example. Every other church high councilman. She didn’t quite know how they did it. That’s why she didn’t carry a cell phone. Why invite the bother?
But Carl always had something to say that was worth listening to. Offensive, but interesting.
“What’s up, Rache?”
“Same old, same old, Carl.” She paused. Carl wasn’t in his office. Instead of a low electronic hum in the background, the telephone transmitted the echoing hustle and bustle of crowds moving through large, open spaces. “Where are you?”
“I’m at the Salt Palace.”
“You’re in Salt Lake? What are you doing in Salt Lake? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Hey, so I’m telling you. I flew in this morning.” Carl said it like it was something he’d done at the last minute and just for the heck of it, which he probably had. For Rachel, even flying to San Jose was a chore not to be undertaken without thorough planning and preparation.
Carl said, “How about lunch? I’ll buy. Mullboon’s on Sixth South, is it still there? How about twelve-thirty? Just a second.” He turned away from the phone. “Just start without me,” she heard him say. “Five minutes.” Then to her, “Gotta go.”
Rachel hung up the phone and smiled to herself. A one-and-a-half-minute phone call from Carl and the promise of compelling company for lunch. There were worse ways to begin the day.
She left early and checked in at the hospital. Her daughter was no better, no worse. The glass was half empty or half full. But leave a half-full glass sitting around in Utah and it would evaporate soon enough. The expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats stretching out beyond the lake proved that fact well enough.
Rachel didn’t intend to stay long, but she hated leaving so soon. So she rearranged the dragons. The nurses didn’t always put them back in the right places after rounds. The blue dragon guarded the heart monitor, the red dragon stood watch on the head rails of the bed, a pair of golden wyverns hung by their tails from the IV stand—things that went into her veins, Jennifer well knew, needed particular looking after.
On the wall opposite the bed—the first thing Jennifer would see when she woke up—was a full-color poster of the magical world of James Christensen’s Voyage of the Basset. A land of dragons and elves and mermaids and endless possibilities.
She touched Jennifer’s quiet, composed face, kissed her cheek, and prayed a silent prayer for her to wake up and be well.
At the restaurant, the maitre d’ escorted her to the table. Carl was tapping away at his laptop. He stood to greet her, grinning broadly as he always did. He was wearing a tweed blazer over a faded T-shirt with a metallic-blue Digital Moviola logo emblazoned across the chest. He’d been wearing that T-shirt for years, filling out more of it every time she saw him. A Popsicle stick all through high school, Carl was Laurel slowly turning into Hardy.
They hugged. Rachel said, “Nice jacket.”
“Mom gave it to me for Christmas. She still acts like I can’t afford clothes.”
“You dress like you can’t afford clothes.”
The maitre d’ seated her and handed her a menu. She scanned the lunch entrees. Salmon, she’d have the salmon. Spending Carl’s money bothered her not at all. “What brings you to Salt Lake, Carl?”
“ViFEE-West.” Carl closed the laptop cover. “Video and Film Editors Exposition. I was going to give it a pass. But the sales guys picked up some big new account, and Bruce wanted me to come out and brownnose the clients. Make them feel so good about not going with AVID or EDIUS.”
Rachel thumbed through her mental Rolodex: Bruce, the CEO of Carl’s company.
“And how is work these days?”
Carl shook his head. “I’m surrounded by idiots, Rache. You wouldn’t believe what a pain in the ass it is to hire competent coders these days. I’m telling you, we get this next rev out the door and I’m gone.”
Rachel smirked good-naturedly. Carl had been threatening to quit every time the subject came up over the past five years.
“So why don’t you, already?”
“Every time I try, Bruce has the board throw more options at me.” He made it sound like an injustice of World Court proportions. “And then it’s another eighteen months to get vested again.”
“Yes, wealth can be such a heavy burden.”
“It’s these damned Scottish Calvinist genes we’ve inherited. Can’t resist the urge to sock away more acorns for the long winter months to come. You remember how much Grandma had on her when she died—and she couldn’t bring herself to put in air conditioning. Air conditioning! In Saint George! Anyway, do you have any idea what a house and yard like yours would go for in San Jose? A million, easy.”
“So move here.”
“Hey, don’t think I haven’t thought about it.”
The waiter brought water and a bread basket and took their orders.
“The thing is,” Carl explained, though she had heard it all before, “I wrote the thing in the first place because none of the video-editing tools out there are worth shit, not because I had some burning desire to design software for a living. But here I am, designing software for a living. I gotta get back to what I was doing in the first place.”
“I thought you hated film editing. I thought that’s why you got into programming.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re right. I wanted to be an editor. Turned out I didn’t want to do editing for a living. Producing, then. I’ll be the one telling people what to do for a change.”
“You could go back to rattlesnake wrangling.”
“Now, there’s a thought.”
They both laughed, remembering the summer Carl had talked her and Phillip into helping him catch snakes for a study their Uncle Warren was doing at Utah State University. “What, you’d rather flip burgers at McDonalds?” Carl had argued.
“Burgers won’t kill you.”
“Give ’em fifty years and they will.”
But she had done it anyway, because Carl was right: she didn’t want to spend the summer flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Her brother’s driving need to avoid boredom at all costs had its side benefits.
She said, “I’m still amazed you didn’t get us killed.”
“Hey, we got lucky. Some other kids, it’d be sobbing parents on the six o’clock news wondering why God let it happen.” He tore off a piece of bread and chewed it contemplatively. “The thing is, Rache, one of these days I’m going to have to wake up and face the fact that in my entire life I had one good idea in me. That’s it.”
“One good idea is good enough for most people. Especially an idea like yours.”
“Yeah, good enough.” He sat back in his chair. “It’s like David O. Selznick. Produced Gone with the Wind and then spent the rest of his life trying to top himself. Never did.”
The waiter brought their salads, refilled their glasses.
“The real depressing part,” Carl continued, “is that I know I couldn’t do it again. The field is too crowded. Like I said, no one wants to write real software anymore. It’s all XML and Perl and ActiveX controls. What a joke! And then you have the dot-com punks eating up all the venture capital. That bubble is still burst, as far as I’m concerned. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. That’s what it comes down to. I got lucky. I rolled sevens.”
“Pretty depressing attitude when you put it that way, Carl. Success depends on a lot more than getting lucky.”
“What else do you call it? God’s will? God wanted Carl Cameron to be rich and bored? Okay, I’d like to believe that too. Though if God were so okay with the rich part, you’d think he could do something about the bored part. But I really don’t think nonlinear video editing is something God takes a profound interest in. For that matter, neither do I. That’s what Bruce is for.”
He shook his head. “You know what our problem is? We way exaggerate what we think God cares about. It’s like—like that time we went down to Saint George to see Grams and Kris had that stupid doll she was always dragging around whenever she went anywhere—”
“—and she left it behind.”
“Yeah, and she didn’t remember until Dad got to, like, Parowan—”
“—and Dad turned around and we went back and got it. I’m amazed you still remember that. That was twenty years ago.”
“Hey, I was pissed royal. We had a monster D&D session set up for that evening—Dan, Pete, the whole gang. I ended up missing half of it. But the thing of it is, there was nothing intrinsically valuable about that doll. It was only valuable because Kris valued it. And because she was pitching a fit. That’s what our lives are to God: kids pitching a fit. Maybe if we pitch a big-enough fit God gives in. But odds are, it’s just some piece-o’-junk doll. Do you think she even remembers that dumb doll anymore?”
“Not like you’d ever let her forget it.”
“Lucky you’re not God.”
“Nah, I’m an old-fashioned deist these days. Whatever happens happens. Man makes plans, God laughs. Getting born is ninety-nine percent of the game right there. The rest is frosting. Hey, and I don’t blame God one way or the other. You want a universe with free will and all that, this is the universe you’re gonna get. At any rate, if I ever run my car into a tree, it’s because I’m a bad driver, okay? Believe me, God’s not going to be calling me anywhere.”
“I don’t doubt that for a second,” Rachel said.
“Speaking of dolls—” Carl reached down and took a box from his carry-on bag. “Here. Something for Jennifer.”
Rachel opened the cover. Inside was a stuffed Dilbert doll astride a bright green dragon, like a wrangler riding a bucking bronco. She burst out laughing. “How clever! Was this your idea?”
“More of a family project. But that is what my job is like. Riding the dragon.”
“We’ll forgo the business metaphors. I’m sure she’ll love it.”
“So, how is Jennifer?”
Rachel started to say, Okay, she’s okay, but with Carl there wasn’t much of a point. She said lightly, wanting to get past the subject, “You and Liz thinking of having any more kids?”
Carl gave her a shocked look. “Hell, no. I’m getting a vasectomy. I thought I told you.”
“Told me?” Rachel echoed. She gaped at her brother. It’s a joke, she told herself, one of Carl’s gross jokes. “You’re what?”
“Yeah, as soon as I can take a couple days off without Bruce freaking on me.” He caught her expression and said, “We never planned on having five kids. Mom and Dad only had four. It was always going to be two. Okay, okay, by Utah standards we’re pikers in the procreation department. But in our neighborhood, with five kids we’re the population explosion on the corner. Besides, Liz is getting up there. Hell, we’re all getting up there. The odds for things going wrong in a major way are starting to get scary. The last thing I need in my life right now is a kid with a screwed-up chromosome or two.”
“I’m getting up there, Carl. I’m only two years older than you. I’m not over the hill. Yet.”
“I mean, come on. It’s not something you have to worry about, Rache.”
She leaned toward her brother and said in an insistent stage whisper, “There are other ways, less permanent ways.”
“How do you think we ended up with five kids? Our gametes laugh at latex. Anyway, I thought they figured out what was wrong with you, some autoimmune thing.”
“Alloimmune,” Rachel corrected him. Yet another medical subject she knew too much about.
“Whatever. Look at it this way—your body zaps the little bastards before they get planted. You’ve got yourself a built-in IUD. Think of what I’ve got to do to get myself similarly equipped.” He squirmed in his seat.
Rachel sighed. Carl’s way of looking on the bright side of things was not always the brightest way of looking at things. Her immune system was like a gang of sacking and pillaging Goths. Her husband’s sperm, her daughter’s marrow, it showed no mercy. Had they left things to God and nature, the family would have stopped with Laura. The prednisone worked—once. Jennifer was the result. An IUI was next on the list and then in vitro, but Rachel had her doubts. For all her faith in the miracles of modern medicine, she found herself unsettled when it came to messing with the powers of procreation. So she’d convinced herself that two children were enough. Two children were all she really wanted. Two was God’s will.
It was drawing too late in the day to take back that lie now. Easier to go on believing it.
Their entrees arrived. Rachel commenced eating with studious intent. They’d started out talking about software and ended up talking about their gonads. Par for the course when it came to Carl.
Rachel drove south on State. She’d invited Carl to dinner, but he had clients to schmooze and a nine o’clock flight to catch back to San Jose. David would be grateful—not grateful that she’d invited Carl, but grateful that Carl couldn’t make it. David didn’t get along with Carl. Most people outside their immediate family didn’t get along with Carl. Even Laura thought her Uncle Carl was an odd duck, but a child could hold worse prejudices.
And Carl getting a vasectomy—that was weird. Only in Carl’s que sera sera view of the world was the whole thing not a huge, cruel joke—Carl getting his plumbing cauterized to keep the little bastards from doing what God and nature intended them to do, while she was stuck with a womb armed like the Maginot Line.
The traffic light turned red. Rachel stepped on the brake and numbly watched the cars flashing by. Come to think about it, what was she doing driving a minivan anyway? What, with her one-point-five children? Talk about wishful thinking. Sure, she hauled girls to church camp once a summer, but that was all rationalization.
She hit the steering wheel, hard, with both hands. A shock of pain shot up her wrists. Buy it and they will be born, was that it? Was that what they were thinking? She hit the steering wheel again. Bam! And again. Bam! Bam! Bam! Until she had to stop, holding onto the wheel like she was going down with the Titanic and grasping at a life preserver. A car horn blared behind her. Her head jerked up. Through her blurred vision, the traffic light was a smear of green. She coasted through the intersection, turned into the Chevron station, and put the transmission into park.
She sat there with her head pressed back against the headrest, eyes squeezed closed. Inhale, exhale. That’s right. Inhale, exhale—
“Mom,” said a small voice.
She answered automatically. “Yes, Jenny.”
“Mom,” her daughter said again, looking at her with quizzical eyes. “What’s the matter?” She was sitting in the passenger’s seat, wearing her Oshkosh denim overalls and a Tigger T-shirt, the clothes she’d worn the day they had taken her to see the doctor, the last good day before everything went so terribly wrong. She hugged Carl’s Dilbert dragon to her chest.
“You have to remember, Mom.”
Rachel told herself to breathe. “Remember what, darling?”
Jennifer’s expression grew taut with concern. “About Milada. All you have to do is remember, and then you’ll know what to do.”
Somebody tapped on the driver’s side window. “Oh!” Rachel exclaimed. A kid was standing there, a Chevron cap pressed down over a mat of curly brown hair, the name Dale stitched across the pocket of his stained white overalls. She lowered the window. The kid said, “Can I, um, help you, Ma’am?”
She had pulled into the full-service lane, which she never did. But she didn’t want to think about it right now. “Sure,” she said, “fill it up, regular.” She reached down and pulled the gas cap cover release.
When she looked again, her daughter was gone. The box containing the Dilbert dragon sat alone on the seat.
This wasn’t dinner table conversation. Not that Mormons didn’t believe in miracles. But nobody spoke in tongues and cast out devils by smacking people on the forehead and hollering, “Be healed!” Carl was right. Too many pragmatic Scots in the family tree to tolerate that sort of nonsense. Nobody saw visions that didn’t go through the chain of command. There had to be a reason, and the Mormon God was big on “working it out in your own mind.”
“You have to remember, Mom,” wasn’t much of a reason. A ghost in the front seat wasn’t subtle at all.
Instead Rachel said, “I saw Carl today.”
Her husband stiffened noticeably, a purely Pavlovian response.
“Don’t worry, dear. He came for some expo at the Salt Palace. He’s flying back tonight.”
“I wasn’t worried.”
“You were worried.”
Laura said, “Uncle Carl is weird.”
“Laura,” said her mother.
“He is! He’s always swearing at stuff. Uncle Phillip doesn’t swear. Dad doesn’t swear.”
Her father beamed at her.
Rachel sighed. Her brother, the bad influence. Laura had spent two weeks over summer vacation in California with her cousins. She had since derived a certain syllogism to explain the experience: her uncle was rich, her uncle was weird, so rich people were weird.
The Dilbert dragon. That would rescue Carl’s reputation for the time being. She retrieved the box and handed it to Laura to open. “Something Carl and Liz and the kids made for Jennifer.”
Laura opened the box and lifted out the dragon. “It’s so cute!” she exclaimed, swooping it through the air like a kid playing with a model airplane.
Even her father was impressed. “So,” he said, still trying to prove that the mere mention of his brother-in-law’s name didn’t bother him, “Carl still threatening to quit Digital Moviola?”
“He never stops.”
“So why doesn’t he?”
“Because then he wouldn’t have anything to complain about.” Except the cost of living, the cost of raising five kids, the general state of the universe. For a silly, insane moment she considered alluding to Carl’s vasectomy. But that definitely wasn’t dinnertime conversation.
Not bedroom conversation either. Not a subject you casually brought up with the man you still dreamed might father another child someday. And lying on her side of the bed, she saw Jennifer clearly in her mind’s eye, sitting there in the car. She was so real, her voice exactly what Jennifer would sound like. But what did she mean about remembering? Why would she imagine Jenny saying something like that?
Her husband emerged from the bathroom, brushing his teeth. She said, “David, have I forgotten something?”
“Forget something?” he mumbled, trying not to drool toothpaste. He ducked back into the bathroom and rinsed. He called out, “You think you forgot something?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t have forgotten it.”
“Um, the dry cleaning?”
“I didn’t forget that. They had to do a special order on Milada’s outfit. I’ll pick it up next week.” She looked at him. “You can wear the navy blue on Sunday.”
Yes, he preferred his black pinstriped suit. Even though he was forty, the navy blue tended to give him something of that freshly scrubbed missionary look.
David crossed the room and turned off the light. He knelt down at the side of the bed. She joined him, clasping his left hand in her right. They prayed every night like this, side by side. And while David prayed aloud, Rachel silently asked God to help her remember what she could not remember forgetting.
For once, it felt good to ask for something other than her daughter’s life. Even if it was only for herself.