v-G MacArthur 04/02/10 8:08 AM 4 TWO Then everything changed. For three days the rain came. It was unrelenting, merciless. It assaulted the hull of my ship, pelting her steel skin in an endless barrage. Bradley paced incessantly during the gale, stalking the companionways and sniffling under the doors. At times she thrust her crumpled head into darkened compartments, whining forlornly as if she felt helpless to protect her master and her home. In the middle of the fourth night the storm died, and there fell upon the ship a silence so stunning that I was wrenched, breathless, from the depths of my sleep. ---o--- I spent the better part of the next day scrubbing and hosing down the rough and dented hull of my boat. While I worked, Bradley scampered about on Mrs. Bullock's front lawn like a pup with an imaginary friend. By two that afternoon I'd had my fill of duty. Bradley was fast asleep down in The Pit, her heavy snores drifting evenly out the large horn-shaped air vents of the bridge. In bare feet, I v-G MacArthur 04/02/10 8:08 AM 5 stretched for twenty minutes or so, then went through a series of calisthenics and old karate katas; I did this slowly, so as not to strain my weather-stressed frame. After I finished my workout I showered, then returned to the high-bridge to take my favorite position in the canvas recliner; to bake in the sun, to bask in the sunshine of my oblivion. It was a nice, tidy day. The rents from my apartments had been collected the previous week without a hitch. Thing, the ninety-foot tugboat atop which I was now lounging, and within which I'd been stubbornly deteriorating, had been washed clean of the city's soot. Fluted by the steel air vents, Bradley's rhythmic snores further cushioned my emotional amnesia. I lay there with my face upturned to the broad blue sky, emitting all the vibrancy of a pet rock. When the portable phone rang I picked it up slow, said hello, blinked drowsily into the sun. “Are you The Finding Man?” a child's voice said. Which evoked my first smile in maybe a week. "Well, I suppose I might be. And who might be asking?" "Could you help me find my Daddy?" My eyes went to the shadows in the cove. Halfway to the breakwater, a man was trying to pull-start the old Evinrude motor hanging off the back of his skiff. The tide was running out fast, and it was forcing the tiny boat straight toward the big rocks at the base of the jetty. I felt a clutch of apprehension at the nape of my neck. “I bet I can guess your name,” I said. “Now don’t tell me, okay?” “No, you can’t.” That voice; sweet as springtime. “Let’s see, is it... Judy?” “Nope. I told you you couldn’t guess.” And a little chuckle at the end. v-G MacArthur 04/02/10 8:08 AM 6 “Okay. How about... Priscilla?” “No. You can’t guess it. You can’t.” “Wait! Wait! I’ve got it! Yes, I’ve got it. It’s… Amber-Lee.” “Hey! How’d you do that?” I pushed myself out of the recliner and moved over to the railing, cradling the phone between shoulder and jaw. The skiff was nearly onto the rocks. The man yanked feverishly on the pull-rope of the motor, back bent in earnest. A puff of grey smoke belched from beneath the engine and floated off toward the bay with the wind. A split-second later I heard the chug of the backfire. "How did you get my number, Amber-Lee?" "Mommy wrote it on a paper 'cause she said that we could call you. But when she didn't call you, I took it." Here, the sweet voice became faint. "I think she was afraid 'cause he would get mad at her again." “Who would get mad at her?” So soft I could barely hear. “Daddy.” “Didn’t you say you wanted me to help you find him?” “Uh-uh. Not this Daddy. My real Daddy.” “Oh, I see. Where do you live?” I said. “I live right here in my house.” Spoken singsong, matter of fact. Stupid me. "Of course you do," I conceded. I looked over my shoulder at the spool-table near the smokestack. My journal was there, next to the cold cup of coffee. "Do you know your phone number, Amber-Lee?" "Of course I do. It's 8---6---2---5---4 … Her melody tapered to a whisper. "My Mommy's v-G MacArthur 04/02/10 8:08 AM 7 coming. I have to go now." A soft click in my ear. I turned the phone off, leaned my elbows on the rough iron railing. 862-54 -- something. A Barrington exchange; across the bay to the south. I squinted at the green shoreline down in that direction. Somewhere behind that green line, a very bright little girl had lost her Daddy and now some other guy was standing in for the part. For some reason, her mother seemed to be at odds with this, so she’d called me but then changed her mind. Then the girl had taken my number and called me herself. Very adult of the child; very childish of the adult. All the girl wanted was to find her Daddy. But along the way something had changed, because now Amber-Lee didn't want her mother to know that she was trying to do it on her own. I looked for the guy in the skiff again; found him about a foot from crashing onto the rocks. Head jerking toward the jetty, he gave one last, mighty pull then abandoned ship, by stepping off the bow to a nice flat rock where he tied off his bowline. Jumping from rock to rock like a little cricket, the guy climbed to the top of the jetty, stopped, looked back to where he'd dropped anchor. With a gesture of exasperation, he reached down, scooped up a stone, and threw it at his boat. Perspective is everything. Amber-Lee, Amber-Lee, came the whisperings down inside my head. "Not another girl," I said, to the sea and to the sky. I breathed deep, tried to let it go by watching the guy some more; who just shrugged and turned toward the sun, ambling stoop-shouldered into the wind. Good thing I hadn't called the Coast Guard. v-G MacArthur 04/02/10 8:08 AM 8 THREE For the next two days I focused on my number-two avocation, which is grinding and sanding and de-rusting Thing. From time to time I thought about Amber-Lee, her mother, and the phone number. 862- 54... I had five of the numbers. There were only a hundred possibilities for the last two. I could have taken the time, called them all. But I wouldn't have to. You see, some things I just know. v-G MacArthur 04/02/10 8:08 AM 9 FOUR Friday, 3:20 P.M. Same time; different weather. And again I was out on the high-deck when she called. "My Mommy's not home. Is your name really William Snow?" "Yes." "It makes me think of Christmas. Mommy told me I had a cat once and his name was Bill but I don't remember. Bill died when we was in Florida." "Do you come from Florida?" I said. "Ummm... I don't know." Her voice uncomprehending, chamois soft. "Did you live in Florida, Amber-Lee? With your cat named Bill?" "Ummm... Mommy said we lived in Florida once but I don't remember. Daddy lived in Florida." “Which Daddy? This one now, or your real Daddy?” “Umm... this one, I think. I’m not sure.” “And what is this one’s name?” She hesitated, then said, “Victor, but I'm not supposed to call him that.” I sensed the presence of a ghost; it seemed to pass astern of my boat, trailing behind a v-G MacArthur 04/02/10 8:08 AM 10 ribbon of black water. The chill wind found old breaks in my bones. "Is Victor your Daddy?" "NOOoooo." She wailed, her voice a toy siren winding down. "Will you help me find my Daddy? Pleeeze?" And like the ghost, an old thought swept behind my mind. Fear came cold and moist to my skin. Right here. Now. This is how it usually starts; the memories of terrible secrets kept, these things I've always known. "I don't understand. Won't your Mommy let you see your real Daddy?" "Nuh-uh. If I ask her to see him and I can't, then I would cry. Daddy doesn't like it when I cry. He gets mad and he..." "What is it Amber-Lee? Tell me what he does." This time, her voice was barely audible. "Guess what? I go to school now. I’m in the first grade.” I had to close my eyes. I tried to erase the disturbing images that were beginning to form in the swirling darkness of my mind, but they refused to leave. Taking in a lot of air through my nose, I focused on concrete and stone. It took a moment, but then a more solid vision blocked out the others; a stone fortress with walls thirty feet thick and half a mile high. Inside the fortress walls, an oasis where children played, their laughter tinkling like chimes in the wind. "What's your last name, Amber-Lee?" "My name is Amber-Lee Alvarado. I live at 1 - 4 - 5 Sea Drive. My phone number is 8 - 6 - 2 - 5 - 4 - 8 - 2." "That's good. You're a very smart girl." v-G MacArthur 04/02/10 8:08 AM 11 "No, I'm not. I'm not smart." Anger in her small voice now. "Daddy says I'm dumb." I heard my molars grind. "Victor’s wrong, that's all. Everybody makes mistakes. You're not dumb. You're smart." "But Daddy says I'm dumb 'cause you know why?" My fingers gripped the rough steel rail. "Why?" "Cause he says I don't know my own Daddy. But he’s not my Daddy. Why doesn't Mommy want to find my real Daddy anymore?" "Amber-Lee. I'd like to come see you. Maybe if I talk to your Mommy, she and I can work something out. Would you like that?" "I don't know. We never have any company. And if Daddy was home... Sometimes he does bad things when he gets mad. I think maybe he did something to Bill the cat. Oh-oh. Mommy's home. I have to go now... Bye.” Her parting word was soft as a teardrop. I gave my weight to the railing and my face to the cold wind. Centering. Resolving. I'd vowed I’d never put myself into a place where my mind could rip apart again. I wanted nothing to do with those frightening images. But I already knew if I was to be of any help this girl, someday I'd have to let them back inside my head. And the very instant I thought this I saw the coffin; saw myself leaning over it, inspecting the deep gouges in the wood, the shredded nails at the ends of the small, bloody fingers. The child lay there in her crude sarcophagus, dead, her little nightgown bunched and stained with blood. The look of terror carved into her face was so heart-rending I shall never forget it; not during any of my days upon this earth shall I ever forget that mask of horror and disbelief. The pain was unbearable. I feared that my teeth would crack and my bones would crumble. v-G MacArthur 04/02/10 8:08 AM 12 The images vanished, leaving nothing but stillness, and the slight shift of Thing’s mass as she moved beneath me, moving me; my steel monster breathing in her sleep. I pushed myself away from the railing, dizzy, gasping for air. I lurched downward, staggering through the dark corridors of my ship. Bradley was down in The Pit, curled in the corner amidst old, twisted cables and useless, disconnected wires. I gently lowered my body next to hers, folding onto her thick blanket, resting my head against her warm, muscled flank. She lifted her head, glanced back over her shoulder, giving me her soft, one-eyed gaze. She moaned once, then slipped quietly back into sleep. I drifted off with her, to a meadow by the shore of a misty lake. Two small girls stood facing each other, smiling and blowing dandelion spores across the water. I knew them both, but I could not remember their names. ---o--- I drifted further down beneath the misty lake, into a darkness known only at the core of solid rock. And there, in the company of stone under the weight of water, I fell to my knees and I prayed.