"I'm here," he said, and she fell back and looked up at him. He took Feliz's place beside her on the bed and stroked her hand. It was down to bone.
"It's all right. I'm here."
"Where were you? "
The room was dim. The two women moved like shadows behind him. He heard the door click shut.
"I was alone."
"I know. It's all right now."
Her fingers tightened on his.
He no longer knew how to be a son, but he still knew how to be a father. He held her hand in both of his. "Eveiything's fine, sweetheart. Everything's going to be fine. You're my own darling, my sweet pea, my good girl."
"Daddy," she whispered. "You're here."
Dr. Booth took several wrong turns during the drive upstate. It vexed him to get lost like this in front of his son, especially since the fault lay with the lousy map the Academy had sent him, but Owen was in one of his trances and didn't seem to notice. His eyes were fixed on the far distance and his lips formed whispeiy sounds in a cadence that suggested poetry or music. Dr. Booth knew better than to try and make sense of it, but he couldn't stop himself. He thought he recognized one word-nightingale-and that awoke a memory of three children, himself and his older sisters, sitting in a garden at dusk while somewhere above them a bird sang. It was, he knew, a trick memory, a mirage; there had been no such garden and no such evening. Still, the thought of his sisters, one drowned in a boating accident courtesy of her dimwit husband, the other far away and silent for years, made him even gloomier than he already was.
Owen did not want to go to the Academy. He'd made this plain when the idea first came up, but as Dr. Booth and his wife continued to discuss it, doubtfully to begin with, then slowly surrendering to its tidal pull, the boy had less and less to say. He receded farther into the very remoteness Dr. Booth had been trying to lure him out of, and now, having failed, proposed to damn well force him out of with the school's help.
Dr. Booth had never heard of Fort Steele Academy until the brochure arrived in his mailbox. The cover showed a pair of uniformed boys standing guard on either side of a gate. It was snowing, and they appeared to have been there for some time; a good two inches had gathered on their epaulets and caps. The last page of the brochure carried a statement by the commandant, Colonel Karl: "It is no kindness to the young to pretend that life is not a struggle. The world belongs to men of unbending will, and the sooner that lesson is learned, the better. We at Fort Steele are dedicated to teaching it by every means at our disposal."
Dr. Booth could well understand why Owen didn't want to go to the Academy. He was comfortable at home. He had his foolish dog, his lazy friends, the big house with all its sunny corners for reading, or for staring at nothing and making funny noises, or whatever he did all day. When Dr. Booth went into the kitchen, there was Owen. In the living room, Owen again. The front yard, Owen; the backyard, the basement, the hammock-Owen! As a boy. Dr. Booth had delivered a hundred and eighty newspapers before school and hustled subscriptions at night. He played football. He ran for president of his class. Those memories of his own youth had figured heavily in the decision to send Owen away, but now, reviewing the list yet again, he thought he must be leaving something out, something conclusive. There was more; surely there was more.
"It won't be so bad," he said.
Owen was silent.
"Give it a chance, son. You might even like it." When Owen still didn't answer, Dr. Booth said-almost cried out-"It's for your own good."
"I know," Owen said.
"How do you know?"
"Because it's what you want."
This was the very answer Dr. Booth would have hoped for, and he knew he should be satisfied with it, but he wasn't. It troubled him. Just then the road came to a fork not indicated on his map, so he had to do some guesswork. He decided to take the right branch, then at the last moment swerved onto the left, which led through a dense stand of maples that hung darkly overhead and opened up to reveal, across from a field golden with hay, the gates of Fort Steele Academy. Dr. Booth slowed down. He wasn't ready, he wanted a moment to probe the doubt he felt, but when his car came into view the two cadets at the gate snapped to attention and held their salutes until he'd driven between them onto the grounds of the school. Owen braced his hands against the dashboard, and Dr. Booth heard him say something under his breath. They bumped over the cobbled lane toward a courtyard bordered on three sides by gray stone buildings. Two flags hung from the pole in the yard: Old Glory on top, the school crest flapping below-twin sabers crossed above a castle. A line of cadets waited in the circular drive at the end of the lane, legs slightly apart, arms behind their backs. Like the guards at the gate, they wore black uniforms with white belts. Their eyes were shadowed by the gleaming bills of their caps.
"Son," Dr. Booth said, "what did you mean, it's what I want?"
Dr. Booth stopped the car. "Well? Owen? What do I want?"
"For me to grow up," Owen said, watching one of the cadets march toward them. He was tall and his chin was long and sharp and his belt buckle flashed like a beacon. Carrying a clipboard in a crisp, prescribed-looking way, he stopped in front of the car and waited as Dr. Booth and Owen got out.
The cadet ran a finger down the clipboard. "Booth, Owen G., blood type A."
"That's my boy." Dr. Booth smiled at Owen, who stared dead ahead. He'd attempted to square his thin shoulders and was holding his arms straight at his sides. He had never looked so young. Dr. Booth made up his mind to have a talk with Colonel Karl before he left. He wasn't goingto leave his son here without some definite assurances.
"Private Booth is late, sir. Roll call for new men was thirteen hundred hours."
"I'm aware of that. We had some trouble getting here. A lot of trouble, in fact. That map is practically worthless."
"I'm sure you have excellent reasons, sir. The fact remains, Private Booth is late. Private Booth will report immediately to the quartermaster. When Private Booth has drawn his gear, he will move smartly to D Barrack and await orders. Corporal Costello will escort him. You can leave his bags here." He snapped his fingers, and another cadet stepped forward from the line.
Owen turned quickly and held out his hand. Dr. Booth understood that he did this to prevent the embrace he'd known was coming, which his wounded father was tempted to impose on him anyway. But he took his son's hand in his own.
"Good-bye, sir," Owen said. Then he fell in behind Corporal Costello and followed him across the courtyard, trying to match the cadet's precise stride and rigid carriage. He didn't even come close, and Dr. Booth knew he never would. The distracted saunter he kept breaking into wasn't an accident of age, something to be outgrown or overcome; it was, in truth, nothing less than Owen himself.
"I need to speak with Colonel Karl," Dr. Booth said.
"Colonel Karl is busy, sir," the cadet said.
Dr. Booth insisted, and finally the cadet had another boy take him to a windowless lounge in the basement of the far building. He was alone there. An aerial photograph of the school took up most of one wall; otherwise the room was bare of ornament. Four overstuffed chairs faced a coffee table on which lay an Academy brochure identical to the one Dr. Booth had received. He picked it up and slowly turned the pages, then put it down and paced the room. A silent grandfather clock, hands frozen at 6:18, stood in one corner, an empty umbrella stand in another. Time passed. When Dr. Booth went upstairs to the door he'd entered though, the courtyard was empty. The flags drooped on their pole. He stepped outside and, seeing no one, followed a brick walkway around back in the direction Owen had gone. The path skirted a deserted football field with bleachers on one side, then led past a pond covered with lily pads. On the opposite bank, black against the hazy sky, rose the stone walls and battlemented tower of what Dr. Booth recognized from the brochure as Memorial Chapel. He stepped off the path and pushed through clumps of sumac and elder to the other side of the pond.
One half of the arched door was locked, the other slightly ajar. Dr. Booth listened, heard nothing, and entered the chapel. Weak light fell aslant through long, narrow windows that looked like gun slits. It seemed to dim rather than brighten the oak pews and stone floors. There was no organ. The altar was bare. On the platform in front of it, facing the pews, someone had placed a high-backed wooden chair. Dr. Booth could not make out its purpose. Anyone wishing to address the congregation would surely use the carved pulpit, with its superior elevation and authority. One would stand, not sit. He studied the chair from the rear of the chapel, then started down the aisle. In obedience to an impulse he was hardly aware of but could not resist, Dr. Booth held his upper body stiff and paused for a beat after each step, one foot trailing, heel raised. Though he'd never marched before, in this fashion he covered the length of the aisle and climbed to the altar, where he executed a perfect about-face and then, as if on command, lowered himself onto the chair, back straight, hands in his lap.
How quiet it was. Dr. Booth looked out at the somber pews where the cadets would file in and stand waiting before taking their seats in a single motion-one great creak, then silence. Whoever sat in this chair could see the face of every cadet. Dr. Booth could almost see the faces himself, row after row of them, faintly luminous in the shadows. He could feel them watching him behind their unblinking eyes, weighing him on the scales, and finally it came to him that this was the place of judgment. This was where you sat to have your faults revealed and to receive your sentence. Dr. Booth looked away, at the heavy beams overhead, the roof slanting up into darkness. He closed his eyes. Still he saw the faces of the cadets, taut and pale above their black uniforms. He strained to find among them some glint of fellow feeling, some intimation of mercy; he found none. Mercy there was none.
The door swung open at the rear of the chapel and a cadet stood silhouetted in the doorway. "Sir," he said.
Dr. Booth stood clumsily, knocking over the chair. He set it right and hurried up the aisle. "Coming," he called out.
The cadet held the door for him and followed him outside, where another cadet-the tall one who'd scolded him for being late-passed on Colonel Karl's deepest regrets that, due to prior obligations, he was unable to speak with him this afternoon. Dr. Booth could return the next morning, if he wished, or call for an appointment at some later date.
Dr. Booth supposed he could raise a fuss and make it impossible for Colonel Karl not to see him, but he was worried about the trouble this might cause Owen, and anyway he had to get back on the road if he was to reach home before dark. He was ready to leave Fort Steele Academy-ready, in fact, almost to the point of panic-so he accepted Colonel Karl's message without protest and allowed the two cadets to take him back to his car. They led him like a prisoner, the tall one in front, the other at his heels, but saluted sharply when he started the engine and drove back down the lane. The guards at the gate also saluted. In the field across the road a green tractor moved slowly along the fence, pulling a mower. The smell of fresh-cut hay filled the car and lingered until Dr. Booth was several miles away, and lost again.
He parked on the shoulder, engine ticking, and choked back his rage just enough to hold the goddamn-son-of-a-bitch map without tearing it to pieces. With a trembling finger he tried to retrace his route: he'd taken this road through the maple grove beyond the school, yes, then it must've been this one, here, that had carried him over an unmarked bridge and thence to a triple fork, also unmarked, where he'd been forced to make the first of a long series of choices without any guidance whatsoever, before finally coming to rest in this vast flatland whose veiy existence went completely unremarked on the map.
A water tower gleamed in the distance. The reek of manure lay heavy on the air. Three white-faced cows watched from the fence to his left as Dr. Booth continued to study the map, this time in reverse, tiyingto find the various roads he and Owen had followed from home to the Academy. Only the first couple of turns off the interstate were correctly indicated. It was a pure miracle he'd ever found the school, given that he had been forced to navigate by hunches. The map simply did not correspond to the land.
He crumpled it and threw it out the window. One of the cows took a step backward, then continued to ruminate and stare. Dr. Booth was thinking about the aerial photograph in the lounge. He remembered it in detail, and something about it had begun to bother him. There was no pond in the picture, and the chapel stood a good distance from its actual location, forming part of a quadrangle. That quadrangle did not exist. Like the map, the aerial photograph was a fiction.
Once Dr. Booth recognized this, he had to entertain a number of questions he'd been trying to ignore. During his time at the Academy, he had seen only a few cadets-the guards, and the ones who'd taken charge of Owen. Where were all the other boys in this school of five hundred? Why hadn't he run across any of them out marching around, or at least heard their voices? How had their parents found the school? Why wouldn't Colonel Karl see him, or have the grace to send a deputy?
Dr. Booth turned the car around and started back the way he'd come. He was determined not to leave Owen in that place. He saw a crossroad approaching and knew without doubt that he should turn right. This certainty felt surprising and tonic, like the first deep breath when he left the hospital at day's end. He finally knew where he was going.
How had this happened? The brochure had arrived-but why? And why had he considered it at all-surrendering his boy to unknown disciplines and judgments, to powers he knew nothing about except that they were without patience, humor, or mercy? Of all mysteries, this was the most perplexing.
His wife had resisted, but in spite of his own doubts he'd bullied her along until she, like Owen, saw the futility of argument. They had no choice in the matter; nor, it then seemed to him, did he. From the moment he saw the name of the school he had known, unhappily, in fact miserably, that Owen would go there. His attempts to talk himself out of it left him even more helplessly snarled in reasons for sending the boy away, reasons that now seemed trivial, unjust, puzzling.
He had compared Owen with himself-his boyhood of newspaper hustling, athletics, and school politics. But he'd never actually been elected to any office; offering himself up year after year, he received nothing for his pains but more humiliation. And his father had made him take on the paper route because they needed the money; he'd hated every minute of it, the waking in darkness, the cold and rain, how his customers cried poor and hid from him. He'd played varsity football, yes, but only in his senior year, when his little brother took over the route. Owen was younger, much younger, than he had been then. How had he forgotten?
And what about all the reasons he'd given himself? Time for the boy to wake up and get out of the house, show some pluck, some drive, some willpower-that was always the closing argument, the clincher. But why? Owen did well in school. He was quiet and liked to read and wasn't much of an athlete, but he wasn't lazy or lacking in courage; he and his friends routinely rode their bikes up and down hills that verged on the perpendicular. And those sounds Owen made-what was the harm there? Why shouldn't he dream up poems, or songs, or whatever they were? Why shouldn't he dream? He was a child.
Dr. Booth turned left at a fork and navigated a run of sharp turns as if he'd spent his life on this road. The haze was gone, the late-afternoon light almost painfully clear. Pumpkins gleamed in a passing field.
He had wanted Owen out of the house. That was the truth, and it made no sense to him now. The impatience he'd felt when coming upon his son reading or playing with his dog, doing nothing, or dreaming-why? What was the crime? As a boy, he himself had wanted nothing more than the chance to dream. It came seldom in that crowded, industrious house, and never lasted long. Why should he begrudge his son what he had most desired? Why begrudge him his veiy childhood?
Neat files of tall corn flicked past. Dr. Booth drove faster, as fast as he dared, through corkscrew turns, down straightaways, over gravel fire roads and glistening blacktop, past marsh and field, up hilltops awash in light and deep into valleys abysmal. As he drove he pondered his son's face as if it were a map, as if he were learning where to turn from the curve of Owen's neck, the slant of his eyebrow. And then it began to fade. At first he barely noticed. The long fine line of the nose blurred subtly. The cheeks paled, the smile grew faint, the light dulled and died from the eyes. He fiercely studied every feature even as it ebbed away, trying to hold the ghostly image, keep it in mind long enough to find his way back to the true face. Then it vanished, and he was lost again. He passed through a dark wood. The trees closed above him almost protectively, and when he left their embrace he slowed and pulled to the side of the road. The sun was going down over the field to his right, where a tractor moved slowly in the distance, cutting the last rows of hay.
Dr. Booth got out of the car. He crossed the road and gazed up the hill. Another field, also full of new-mown hay. The smell went to his head. He stood there a moment, then ducked through the fence and walked resolutely forward, staring up the hill as he climbed. When he reached the crest he stopped. All around him the fields rolled empty away. He felt a stone under his shoe, nudged it aside, then bent to pick it up. Not a stone, in fact. A button-a metal button caked with mud. He picked at it until the brass was revealed, then examined it in the last light of day. Under the verdigris he could make out a pair of crossed swords. A military button, then. An old one. Something must have happened here, long ago-surely that was why he'd been drawn to this place. Abattle had been fought, no quarter given; boys became men, and were lost. Wasn't that the way of it? He slipped the button in his pocket and started down the hill.
The Benefit of the Doubt
The number 64 bus stops at St. Peter's, so it's always crammed with pilgrims or suckers, depending on your point of view-a happy hunting ground for pickpockets. Mallon was not a pilgrim, or by his own reckoning a sucker. His estranged wife was Swiss-Italian; he spoke the language fluently and came often to Rome on agency business and was on the 64 that day, a thief's hand in his pocket, only because he had an appointment near the Vatican and got caught in a flash summer downpour with no cabs in sight.
The bus was packed with wet, steamy people. They swayed into one another at the stops and turns, and it was during one of these mash-ups that Mallon felt the hand casing his rear pockets, both empty: his billfold, passport tucked inside, was buttoned into the breast pocket of his suit jacket. The touch was heavy, crude. Before he could turn and give the thief a warning look, the hand slid into his right front pocket. The blatancy of the move was astonishing-executed with no more finesse than if Mallon himself had done it, diving for some change.
The hand went in, and damn if it didn't stay in. This pocket was empty too, but the hand seemed unwilling to accept the fact. Mallon became curious as to just how long this could go on. There was a lulling detachment in observing such ineptitude at work, a safe, dreamy amusement. The air was warm, swampy. The bus stopped to take on still more passengers, and the thief was pressed up against Mallon's back. His hand continued to burrow around like a mouse nosing for crumbs. Just then the bus lurched forward and the thief clawed at Mallon's leg as he stumbled back. This shocked Mallon out of his trance. He braced himself, gathered his strength, and drove his right elbow back into a surprising pillowy softness. A hot blast of breath sprayed his neck and the hand vanished. Mallon turned to gloat and saw a man bent double, arms across his belly. He was making little mewing noises. The passengers around him, mostly Filipinos by the look of them, watched him anxiously-a short round man all in black, black leather jacket creased across his back, baggy black pants, pointy black shoes as small as a child's. His scalp showed through his thin dark hair, long strands dangling toward the floor. Nobody looked at Mallon, and already the bus was slowing down for his stop. But the pickpocket still held himself and made these appalling sounds.
Mallon leaned down and took his arm. He tried to raise him up but the pickpocket wouldn't budge. "Let's go," Mallon said in Italian. "Let's go, you're all right. Come on." The pickpocket pulled away and kept fighting for breath in strangled gasps. Mallon rested a hand on his back as the door of the bus hissed shut-he'd missed his stop. "Okay," he said. "Let's go. Come. Come." He took the man's arm again and coaxed him toward the door, steadying him through the jerky weavings of the bus and then the abrupt shuddering stop. The door opened and he helped him down the steps, still bent and gasping, people making room as if for a leper.
The rain had stopped but the sky was dark and menacing. Mallon led the pickpocket under the awning of a shop and watched him retch dramatically, though without result. Mallon patted his shoulder. He could see the passersby keeping their eyes dead ahead, as he would have done, and saw how their faces stiffened with obscure shame. A poster of the Pieta loomed over Mallon in the shopwindow, above a display of pious plaster statuettes and gaudy rosaries.
You don't want to be seen looking at your watch at such a moment-a man apparently dying at your knees-but the big clock on the sidewalk was completely out of whack, like all the public clocks in Rome, so Mallon really had no choice. It was ten past four. He was ten minutes late and had at least a five-minute walk back to Dottore Silvestri's office. An important meeting. Yesterday's discussion had gone badly, with Mallon pouncing on several misrepresentations in II Dottore's proposal. The development agency Mallon worked for could make all the difference to Silvestri's program, which envisioned several water-purification projects in East Africa. The distortions in the grant application were only to be expected of such a document, and in fact the board of Mallon's agency had already decided to back the program. He was here to walk Dottore Silvestri through the terms of the award, not show off his talent for smelling horse shit. He'd given II Dottore a taste of the lash yesterday, and probably left him thinking that the whole thing was headed down the drain. Mallon needed to correct that impression before it got back to his superiors in Geneva.
He leaned down to the pickpocket. The heaving and gasping had stopped, but he was still making a show of breathlessness. "That's better," Mallon said. "Can you stand up? Try to stand up. Here," he said, and gripped the pickpocket's arm and forced him upright until he saw his face for the first time. It was a round dark face with a small round mouth, lips as full and tender-looking as a girl's. Despite the sheen of sweat on the puffy cheeks, the vanity of the pencil-line mustache, the sparse streaks of hair plastered across the damp forehead, Mallon had an impression of dignity, and of dignity offended. As the pickpocket labored for breath, he gazed up at Mallon with his dark eyes. How could you? they seemed to ask.