Gary Braunbeck is a much-anthologized writer who lives in Columbus, OH. Over 150 of his stories have appeared in magazines such as Cemetery Dance, After Hours, Eldritch Tales, and The Blood Review. His serial, "Mr. Hands", is appearing in Cemetery Dance. His critically-acclaimed short story collection Things Left Behind was published in 1997, and his novel Time Was (co-written with Steve Perry) came out in 1998. "The Child Screams And Looks Back At You" was first published in the 1997 TeknoBooks anthology The Fortune Teller.
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The Child Screams And Looks Back At You
by Gary A. Braunbeck
"When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers."
Fran McLachlan stood in the center of the midway holding her five-year-old son's hand and trying not to think about the way her life had gone wrong.
"Mommy," Eric said, "what's wrong?"
The massive bruises on his cheek and jaw looked far less discolored and painful today. If only she could say the same for her own abrasions--but, after all, wasn't that why God created makeup and Tylenol?
"Wha--? Oh, I'm sorry, hon. What did you say?"
"Did that lady say something bad to you?"
"No, hon, she didn't."
"Then how come you look so sad?" He clutched his balloon-doll as if his very life depended on it.
Oh, Christ! How could she answer that question honestly now, after what Madame Ariadne had shown her? How could she tell her son--the only good thing she had--that she was thinking about abandoning him on a fairgrounds nearly a hundred miles from home because of a palm-reading?
You didn't give her a definite answer, Fran thought. The group's not going to head back to the shelter for another hour, you can at least make this time count. You can make sure he has so much fun that nothing will ever taint the memory for him, ever.
God, Eric, do you know how much I love you?
"Hey, you," she said, tugging on his hand and smiling.
"Hey, you!" he replied, grinning.
"We'll have to, uh, to be leaving soon, so what say until then we do whatever you want?"
"Uh-huh. You pick."
"Then I wanna go on the merry-go-round."
This surprised her. "Again? We've been on it three times today."
"But you laughed when the tiger started bouncing and it wasn't a pretend-laugh like all the other ladies. I liked it."
Oh for the love of God, kiddo--why'd you have to go and say something like that?
Fran kissed her son's cheek and told herself she would not start crying.
"Okay," she whispered. "The merry-go-round--and then maybe we'll meet your new friend and get some hot dogs."
"Hot dogs!" shouted Eric, dragging her down the midway, his balloon-doll thrust in front of him as if it were flying.
For a moment there, Fran could've sworn that her son's face actually shone with happiness.
Untainted. As childhood happiness should be.
It began three hours before. Fran and Eric were having lunch at a long picnic table with several other women from the Cedar Hill Women's Shelter and their children, the kids occupying themselves by pointing out all the sights to one another while the mothers took the time to regroup and count the money they had (or, in most cases, didn't have) left.
"You look a lot better today, Fran," said one of the women. "So does Eric."
"We're both feeling better."
"Have you thought about, well, about Ted?"
Fran shook her head. "No--I mean, yes, I have, but Eric hasn't mentioned him and I'd appreciate it if none of you would bring up his father today, okay? I don't want anything to spoil the day for him."
Eric and most of the other children had wandered over to watch a group of balloon-toting clowns breeze by. One of the clowns stopped to make balloon-dolls for several of the children. Fran saw this and smiled. "Look at them will you? Everything's still new to them. Even with what's happened to them, they still laugh and giggle and, I don't know, hope, I guess. Remember when we were that young? How nothing bad ever followed us to the next morning? Maybe something bad happened before, but now's fun, you've got a ball to bounce or a model plane to fly or a doll to pretend with, and the day's full of mystery and wonder and things to look forward to and--"
You're babbling. Shut up.
They scattered shortly thereafter, instructed to meet back at the south entrance at six p.m.
Fran and Eric rode the merry-go-round for either the second or third time that day (Fran had lost count), but from the way Eric acted you'd have sworn this was the first time he'd ever been on the thing. Fran envied him his joy, but was at the same time aware of how precious it was, and knew by the wide smile on his face and the gleeful shimmer of his eyes that she'd made the right decision to leave Ted and take Eric to the shelter where he wouldn't have to worry about Daddy coming at him with the belt or his fists, or be forced to cower upstairs in his room while Daddy thrashed Mommy into a whimpering, broken, swollen zombie who shuffled around, whispering, never looking up, afraid of the violence the next five minutes might or might not bring.
Since they'd moved to the shelter two weeks ago, Eric--who before had been at least fifteen pounds underweight--had begun eating again and laughing again and was able to sleep soundly for the first time in his short life. God, how she cursed herself for having waited so long, for having kept Eric in such a brutal, hateful, terrifying environment!
At first it was just a couple of slaps every now and then, and Ted was always sorry afterward, so Fran allowed herself to believe that he really was going to get better about things, that he was going to get some counseling, but then he went on graveyard shift at the plant, sleeping during the day, refusing to see a counselor on the weekends, and as Eric grew older Ted's violent outbursts grew not only in number but in brutality--a couple of slaps turned into a bunch of slaps, a bunch of slaps turned into fists to the chest, stomach, and face, which evolved into slamming her against walls and choking her, sometimes knocking her down to the floor where, until the night she'd sneaked out of the house with Eric, he'd begun to give her a couple of kicks to the side...
Fran was, for a moment, so numb with the weight of her thoughts that she didn't even realize the merry-go-round had stopped until she noticed that Eric was standing outside the circular gate of the ride talking to a little girl who looked to be around seven or eight.
"Eric!" she called to him. "You stay right there."
Better watch it, you, she thought. That's how kids wind up with their pictures on the sides of milk cartons. "I only turned away for a minute," says the mother/father.
She quickly exited through the gate, sprinting to where Eric and the little girl were still standing.
"Hey, you," she said, taking Eric's hand in hers.
"Hey, you!" he replied, giggling.
The little girl seemed to hear someone calling her, said a quick good-bye to Eric, then turned and ran--but not before shoving a piece of paper into Eric's hand.
"Who's your friend?"
"I dunno," said Eric. "She was telling me 'bout her hand and her mommy." He offered the piece of paper to Fran.
It was some kind of special fair pass. On the front were the words: Good For Two Free Readings! The back read:
Each line, be it in a hand or face, masks another; lines hidden within lines, a secret Hand beneath the surface of the one with which you touch the world and those you love. It is only in the secret lines on the hidden hand that your true destiny can be mapped, and only one who possesses Certain Sight can make an accurate reading. If you're content with mere showmen, then please take your business to any of the fortune-teller tents--but if you want the truth, see Madame Ariadne.
Fran smiled at her next thought. "So, kiddo, wanna get your palm read?"
She turned over Eric's hand, sticking the tip of her finger into the middle of his palm. "A lady looks at your hand and tells you what's gonna happen to you."
"Aw," he said, grinning. "I saw that on a TV show. It was neat."
"Does that mean 'yes'?" She couldn't resist tickling his palm.
She tickled him a little more. "C'mon, answer me."
In a way, he did: He used his other hand to indulge one of his favorite past-times--tweak her nose. For a moment they froze that way, Mother clutching her son's hand, the son clutching his mother's nose.
"You let go," said Fran, her voice comically nasal.
"I'm the mother and I say you go first."
"You started it," said Eric, grinning from ear to ear.
"True enough." Fran let go of her son's hand.
"Ha! I won, I won!" squealed Eric, releasing her nose.
Fran rubbed her nose. Eric had quite a grip on him for his age. "Okay, Okay, you won. Now, you wanna go and get your palm read?"
"Sure. It'll be like on TV."
The interior of Madame Ariadne's tent was not what Fran expected-- no crystal ball or beaded curtains, no candles or spicy incense or stuffed ram's head or shelves overflowing with philters and potions; if anything, the interior more resembled the sterilized room where a veterinarian would examine a family pet: white rolled-tile floor, white partition walls, chairs, and a table upon which sat--most surprising of all--a computer. Next to the computer was something Fran assumed was a flatbed scanner.
"This is Weird City, kiddo."
"Like on 'X-Files'!"
"That doesn't make me feel any better."
Eric laughed, then a door opened in one of the back partitions and Madame Ariadne entered. If things didn't feel off-kilter enough, Madame Ariadne, instead of being a weathered, sinister Maria Ouspenskaya clone, looked to be no older than thirty-three, her cheeks flushed as if she'd just finished a good aerobic workout; judging from the light grey cotton warmup suit she wore, that was probably the case.
"Well, hi," she said, brushing a thick strand of strawberry-blonde hair from her eyes and kneeling down to face Eric. "My name's Ariadne. What's yours?"
"Ah, that's a good name."
She offered her hand. "Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Eric."
Eric looked at Fran, who gestured Go on.
He shook it. "Hi."
It happened so quickly that Fran almost missed it; as soon as Eric's hand was enfolded in her grip, Madame Ariadne visibly flinched--not in such a way as to cause Eric any alarm, but to the eyes of an adult it was clear that she'd felt something that startled--maybe even frightened--her.
Fran cautioned herself to be careful, that this could be part of an act--scare the parent with some crap about "bad vibrations," then con them into a more complicated and expensive reading.
"We have a pass for two free readings," Fran said.
"I know," replied Ariadne, smiling at Eric and releasing his hand. "This isn't a scam operation, Fran. The pass says free and free it shall be."
"How did you know--?"
"So, Eric," said the fortune-teller, "you wanna go first?"
She led him over to the table, then took her place behind the computer and entered a few commands, activating the scanner. "Eric, I want you to take your--are you left-handed?"
"I thought so. Take your left hand and press it down on the glass right there."
"On the box?"
"Mmm-hmm. Don't worry, it won't hurt. It's just going to take a picture of your hand."
Ariadne's smile was spring itself. "Promise."
Eric pressed his palm onto the scanner. Ariadne placed a plastic cover on top of Eric's hand, hiding it completely from sight.
"Arm's in a box," he said to Fran, grinning.
There was a slight hum, a slow roll of blue light from under the cover, and it was over.
By now Fran was standing behind Ariadne, staring at the computer screen as a holographic copy of Eric's hand--composed mostly of grid lines--appeared on the monitor.
Ariadne playfully poked Eric with her elbow. "Now watch this--it's just too cool!" She hit a key and a dark blue line rolled down from the top of the screen, passing over the grid-hand and changing it to a three-dimensional, flesh-colored hand that looked so real Fran almost expected it to reach out and tweak her nose (which she unconsciously rubbed once again, finding it still a tad sore).
Eric squealed with delight. "Izzat mine? Izzat my hand?"
"It sure is," said Ariadne. "And it's a good, strong hand, with strong lines. See that line right there? That means you're a good boy, and this line means you've got lots of imagination--I'll bet you like to make things, don't you? Like models, and draw, and build things with clay."
"I knew it! The lines never lie. This line right here--ah, this one's very special, because it means that you're going to grow up"--she gave Fran a quick, secretive look--"to be someone really special--even more special than you are right now. Oh, you've got a good life ahead of you, Eric. You should be so happy!"
This went on for a few more moments, until the little girl from the merry-go-round came out of the same door from which Ariadne had entered and said to Eric, "You want to come and watch a video with me? I got 'The Great Mouse Detective'."
"'Mouse Detective'!" shouted Eric. He turned to Fran. "Can I, Mommy? Can I go watch 'Mouse Detective'?"
"I don't know, hon--"
"That's Sarah," said Ariadne. "One of my daughters. I've got a little play room set up for her right back there. Toys, books, a TV/VCR unit, and--God!--tons of Disney videos--I swear she'll bankrupt me with those things. I'll have them leave the door open so you can keep an eye on them.
"He'll not be out of your sight for one second, Fran. I swear it."
Fran looked down at Eric. "You really want to watch the movie?"
"Okay, then. But be polite."
The only things faster than light is the speed at which some children rush to watch a Disney video--a principle that Eric and Sarah proved a second later: Whoosh-Bang! Disney rules!
Fran stood in silence for a moment, watching the two children through the door as they took their seats in front of the television.
"That's quite a collection of bruises on his face, Fran" said the fortune-teller. "Ted must've really clobbered him."
A breath in, a breath out; one, two, three; then Fran whirled toward Ariadne and said: "How the hell did you know my name?"
"The same way I know that you've been at the Cedar Hill Women's Shelter for the last fifteen days. The same way I know that both you and Eric were in Licking Memorial's ER sixteen days ago because the two of you 'fell while taking in the groceries.'
"The same way I know that Ted spotted you at the free clinic five days ago and followed you back to the shelter."
"You heard me. Don't get panicky, he didn't follow the group here today. He's on swing until the first of next week. But you have to believe me when I tell you that he is going to be waiting for you outside the shelter sometime in the next eight days, resplendent in his remorse."
"You can't possibly know that."
"Do you think I'm trying to scare you? You're damned right I am."
"How did you--?"
Ariadne hit a key, and Eric's hand disappeared, replaced by scrolling records: Fran's birth certificate; the date of her high school graduation; a copy of her marriage license; Eric's birth certificate (complete with foot- and hand-prints made at the hospital); her student loan application for college tuition (check returned, full amount, student withdrew from school before deadline, no monies owed); copies of police reports (three domestic calls, no charges filed); and several hospital records detailing treatments given to one Francine Alicia McLachlan and Eric Carl McLachlan, some together, most separate--including at least two doctors' handwritten notations, nearly indecipherable except for "abuse?" and "possible mistreatment."
"So?" Fran snapped, trying to keep the anxiety from her voice. "You or someone who works with you is a hacker, so what? Anyone with a computer could get this information these days."
"True enough. But would they also know that you once came very close to killing Ted while he was asleep?"
Fran blanched, shocked into silence.
"December 22, two years ago," Ariadne continued. "He'd been drinking and lost his temper and started pounding on you and Eric came running downstairs and put himself between you and Ted--something he does quite a bit, doesn't he?-- and Ted pushed him down. Eric fell against a coffee table and the corner missed his left eye by less than half-an-inch. Five stitches in the ER took care of the gash, and in the cab on the way home Eric said he wanted to go away because Daddy scared him. Ted was passed out when you got home, so you put Eric to bed and waited until he was asleep. Then you went to the downstairs hall closet and took out Ted's .357 Magnum, put in one bullet, then wrapped the muzzle in an old towel to muffle the sound of the shot."
"You never told anyone about that, did you, Fran?"
"No! I mean, I don't think I--"
"So I couldn't have hacked that information from any computer, could I?"
Ariadne placed a warm, tender hand against Fran's cheek. "Listen to me very carefully. I don't want to frighten you, but I have to. Eric's in danger."
Fran's legs suddenly felt like rubber, and she just barely made it into the chair facing the computer. "Someone," she whispered. "I must have told someone about wanting to kill Ted, and you--"
Ariadne placed a finger against Fran's lips, silencing her, and in a soft voice, the whisper of leaves caught in the wind brushing across an autumn sidewalk, spoke of other things that only Fran knew, intimate details of solitary experiences, hopes, desires, petty jealousies and silly girlhood fantasies extending back through nearly three decades, and when Ariadne finished by describing in detail Fran's first childhood memory of getting her arm caught in the toilet when she was ten months old because she wanted to see where the water went after you flushed, Fran--confused, frightened, and feeling so godawful helpless--was certain of one thing: Madame Ariadne had .powers of some kind, incomprehensible, unknowable, incredible powers.
"What are you?"
Ariadne leaned over Fran's shoulder and typed a command. "First you need to see something."
The screen blinked, display Eric's hand once again.
"Both you and Eric have Conic hands. See the shape of his fingers? Just like yours--they're very smooth and taper from the base, gradually lessening toward the rounded tip. The Conic Hand is the Hand of Imagination. Just from the shape of Eric's hand any fortune-teller would know that he's very sensitive, often highly emotional--but not emotionally unstable. He's like you in that way, isn't he?"
Fran nodded. "He's pretty anxious a lot of the time but he tries to hide it because he doesn't want to upset me."
"Not surprising." The image of Eric's hand turned slightly to the left, displaying the height of the mounts on the surface of the palm. "See this rise here at the base of the middle finger? This is called the 'Mount of Saturn'--also known as 'The Mount Which Brings Sadness.' If you've got a Conic hand with a pronounced Mount of Saturn, you constantly worry about the safety of the ones you love, even above your own well-being--which would explain why Eric always tries to get between you and Ted when--"
"--he wants to protect me," whispered Fran.
"Of course he does; he loves you very, very much."
Eric's hand turned toward them, palm facing outward.
"Why do you use a computer and scanner?" asked Fran. "I mean, most fortune-tellers--"
"--would whip out the candles and crystal balls and hold your hand in theirs as they made the reading, yeah, yeah, yeah--believe me, I know this is a bit weird. I use this because the naked eye--even mine--cannot clearly see the lines within the lines, the--"
"--hidden hand within the hand?"
"Yes. This equipment was designed specifically to reveal those hidden lines, the secret hand."
Fran looked at the image on the screen. "And?"
"Can you recognize any of the lines?"
Fran leaned in, squinting. "I can see that his life line is really long." Her mood brightened. "He'll have a long life."
Ariadne shook her head. "A long life line doesn't necessarily mean a person will live to be very old. Sure, in places where it weakens or breaks you can expect some health problems, but a lot of people have life lines that are incredibly short--some fade entirely--and they still live to piss on their enemies' graves. No, we're interested in one of the Fate Lines, Saturn--right here, staring at the base of the wrist and going straight up to intersect with its sister mount." She altered the image so that it now displayed only a flat red outline of Eric's hand, with the Fate Line of Saturn enhanced in bright blue and the Mount of Saturn in bright green; at the point where the two intersected was a cluster of small markings in jaundiced yellow.
"What are those?" asked Fran.
Ariadne magnified the cluster.
Fran puzzled at the sight. "They look almost like stars."
"They are. On the Mount of Jupiter or Apollo, they mean great success and wealth. On Mercury they mean a glorious, happy marriage."
Fran faced Ariadne. "Why do I get the feeling there's something you're not telling me?"
The fortune-teller looked back at the children happily watching their video and singing along with the voice of Vincent Price, then pulled in a deep breath and released it in a series of staggered bursts.
"Jesus," said Fran. "If you want my attention, you got it."
"Have you talked to your husband since moving to the shelter?"
"What's that got to do with--?"
"Once--okay, twice. The psychologist says it's good for us to call our husbands or boyfriends, let them know we're all right--if they care--and to get things off our chests. The shelter gets part of its funding from Catholic Services, so they're kind of big on aiming for reconciliation if it's possible."
"Do you think there's any chance you and Ted will get back together?"
Fran shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. If he gets his ass into counseling and does something about his temper and his drinking, if he admits that there're emotional problems he's been carrying around and stops treating me like--okay, okay, please don't look at me like that.
"Maybe. Maybe we'll get back together."
Ariadne took Fran's hand in hers, examining it. "You still love him?"
Fran shrugged. "I suppose."
"Sounds like you wish you didn't."
"Sometimes I do wish that, but--" She pulled her hand away. "Why do you need to know?"
Ariadne pointed at the screen. "When a Conic hand has a direct intersecting of the Line and Mount of Saturn, and when that intersection is marked by stars, it has only one meaning, and it's never, never wrong: death by violence."
Deep within Fran McLachlan, at the center of her interior world where all hopes, regrets, dreams, emotions, experiences, and sensations coalesced into something beyond articulation, a crack, ever so slightly, appeared, threatening to spread and bring everything crashing down.
Very quietly, words carefully measured, heart triphammering against her chest, Fran managed to get it out: "Say it."
"Ted's going to kill Eric. I knew it the moment I held his hand."
"No! No, no, he wouldn't...wouldn't do something like...like that--"
"On purpose, no, probably not. But you know what happens when he loses his temper--"
"He doesn't think, he just--"
"--he just lashes out at what- or whomever happens to be in his path, which is you and Eric--"
"--don't know how many times I've told him that he should just stay in his room when Daddy gets that way, but he won't, he doesn't like it when Ted hits me--"
Ariadne cupped Fran's face in her hands. "Fran? Look at me. Look at--there you go. Take a deep breath, hold it, hold it, now let it out. Good. Do you trust me?"
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do."
Fran looked into the face of the woman before her, and saw there nothing but concern, kindness, and deep, abiding compassion. "Yeah, I guess I do."
"Then you believe what I'm telling you?"
"Oh, God, I don't know!"
The fortune-teller looked over her shoulder and called, "Sarah? Honey, would you come here for a minute?"
"Aw, they're just getting to the part with the clock!"
"You've seen it before. Just come here for a second, okay?"
She appeared a few seconds later.
"Sarah, I'd like you to meet Eric's mother."
The little girl held out her hand. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
As Fran took Sarah's hand in her own, she noticed for the first time how badly burned were sections of the little girl's hand and forearm.
Then she noticed the patch of scar tissue on the left side of Sarah's neck.
Looking down, she saw small patches of scar tissue on both of the little girl's legs, and wondered how many more such scars existed underneath the dress she wore.
"Sarah," whispered Ariadne, "would you tell Eric's mom about what happened to you?"
Sarah's look was equal parts impatience, sadness, and fear. "Do I gotta?"
"If you want Eric to stay with us, you do."
Sarah's face brightened considerably at this, and when she spoke her words came out quickly, excitedly, like an adult who'd survived a horrible experience and could now recount it with humor.
"Mommy and Daddy, they got, they got killed in a car wreck when I was five, an' you know what? The judge said that I was gonna have to stay with my aunt and uncle. They were mean. They used to punish me for things I did wrong. I took a cookie one time, way before dinner an', an', an' you know what? My uncle, he put some water on the stove and he boiled it up and put my hand in there and held it in the water annit hurt real bad but he said, he said it was 'cause I was a bad girl and they didn't really want me, they only took me 'cause of the 'surance money an' when I did bad things I was gonna burn for it here so's I wouldn't burn in Hell later after I died. See my hand? That's the one he put in the water. An' my neck--you know what? My aunt did that to me 'cause--"
"That's enough, honey," said Ariadne, stroking Sarah's hair.
"You sure? I could tell her 'bout the time they made me take off my dress and bend--"
"--no, you won't have to tell her about that. Go on back and finish watching your movie."
"'Kay." Sarah patted Fran on the shoulder as if consoling her. "'S'okay now. I got a new Mommy an' she loves me." She smiled at Ariadne, then leaned in toward Fran and whispered, "She's gonna take me to Disney World in July but it's a secret, 'kay?"
"Okay," whispered Fran.
"Just a second," Ariadne said, pulling Sarah close to her. She put her hand against the scar tissue on Sarah's neck and said, "That's looking better."
"Be all gone soon?"
Ariadne smiled. "Soon enough. Sorry that I interrupted your movie. Just for that, I'm buying pizza for dinner tonight."
"Pizza! Oh, boy!" And Sarah surpassed the speed of light once again to bring this most marvelous news to Eric.
As she ran past, Fran noticed that the scar tissue on Sarah's neck covered considerably less area than before.
"You did that, didn't you?"
"Did what?" asked Ariadne.
"Healed part of that burn scar."
"Little by little, it's getting done. But there's a lot of it. Her aunt and uncle weren't the most, how shall I say?--restrained Fundamentalists ever to grace the planet's surface."
Fran continued staring after Sarah. "She sounds so much younger than she looks."
"Every so often they'd break up the routine by cracking her upside the head with a cast-iron skillet. She's got some minor brain damage. We're working on that, too." Ariadne released a short, nearly-bitter laugh. "You should've seen what she was like when I first found her."
Fran looked at the fortune-teller--having now decided that the woman couldn't possibly be human--and said: "What, exactly, are you?"
Ariadne released a long, nervous breath, rubbing her eyes. "I don't know that I can give you a satisfactory answer to that, Fran."
Ariadne bit her lower lip, sighed, then nodded her head. "Understand: Everything is bigger to a child; not only physically, but perceptually and emotionally, as well. A dollar found becomes a discovered treasure. A harsh word becomes a deafening declaration of war. A paper cut is a knife in the stomach. And a hug from a parent in times of fear becomes Perseus's shield, protecting them from Medusa's deadly power. Everything is amplified."
Fran spoke through clenched teeth. "That's got nothing to do with what I asked you."
Ariadne held up her index finger, anxiously wagging it back and forth in a silent command: Patience. "Have you ever seen the way a child cries when it gets hurt? There's an initial shock when it doesn't quite know what's happened, then it pulls in a deep, hard breath, sucking in air for all it's worth, its face almost imploding from the pain, turning red as the oxygen fills its lungs and the pressure builds. Do you know what I'm talking about?"
"Yes," replied Fran, softly.
"If you listen closely," Ariadne said, "you can hear a sound coming up from the back of the child's throat, a sound somewhere between and scratch and a squeak before it lets fly with an ear-splitting scream. You've seen it happen with Eric, of course. Every parent has experienced a moment like that--a badly scraped knee, a sprained arm, a deep cut, then the child realizes something bad has happened because there's an awful sensation clawing through their system, and when it finally releases that second, terrible scream because the pain is so big to them, it turns and looks back at you. That moment, when the child screams and looks back at you, is where I came from, it's what made me." Ariadne shrugged her shoulders as if in apology. "That's the only explanation I can give you, Fran, take it or leave it. But I assure you I am the only being who can read the warning signs. I will spend eternity trying to ease what sadness and pain I can.
"Maybe you won't ever reconcile with Ted, I can't say." Ariadne massaged the back of her neck, suddenly looking tired. "What I do know is that there are six stars on Eric's hand, one for each year that he will live, and the stars are in the Patriarchal Configuration--meaning the danger will come from Eric's father. I can't tell you for certain when, exactly, it will happen. Maybe he'll do it after you guys get back together, maybe he'll do it after your divorce when it's his turn to have Eric for the weekend--hell, who knows? He might come by Eric's school and take him, he might snatch him from your backyard when you get your own place--it's secondary to the fact that somehow he will kill Eric and you can't prevent it. But I can.
"Which is why you have to leave him with me. Take Eric with you, and he won't live to see his seventh birthday."
Fran rose from the chair, feeling light-headed as she fought back the panic. "You know, you really don't give a person a chance to catch her breath."
"There's not much time. What else can I do to convince you?"
Fran glared at her. "Jesus Christ! Do you know how much I don't want to be one of those neglectful, abusive mothers you read so much about these days, those ignorant, self-absorbed little bitches who hurt their kids, who beat them to death or torture them or drown them in cars or abandon them because they just don't want to bother with them anymore? I've seen too many women--women, hell!--girls who had children too soon and then realize they pissed away their youth so they take it out on the kids. I don't know how many stories I read in the paper or see on the news about mothers who dump their kids, or worse. I don't have a whole helluva lot going for me, but the one thing I do have, the one source of pride that no one can taint or take away from me, is that I am doing everything I can to be a good mother to my son! What kind of a person would I be to abandon him to a stranger? You ask me what can you do to convince me? I don't know, but it's going to take more than having poor Sarah tell me about how you got her away from her worthless aunt and uncle!"
Ariadne looked very sad. "Have it your way, then."
The fortune-teller closed her eyes and folded her hands on her lap. Almost at once a vein in her forehead began to throb and the cords in her neck began to strain.
Fran began to speak but then heard a sound, a very faint, very weak sound from behind her.
She turned around.
Eric was lying on the floor a few feet away from her, his body curled in the fetal position. He was wearing different clothes than those he had on today. He was covered in sweat. His face was redder than any human being's ever should be. He spasmed painfully.
Fran went to him, knelt down, and began to touch him.
"--ahmeee...I want my mahmeee...Mommy--"
Fran placed her hand on his forehead--
--and felt an iron hook sink into her stomach and rip its way down through her pelvis, and there was something leaking, leaking, fire leaking through her system, spreading everywhere, searing her internal organs, charring every section of tissue in its path, cramping her with pressure and agony, filling her head with smoke until it felt like her skull would explode and every move, every sigh, every breath, twitch, and swallow summoned forth new and more powerful bursts of anguish that consumed her, crippling her body and will beyond articulation, but the worst part wasn't the pain, oh, no, it was the loneliness, the helplessness and fear because no one would come when she tried to call out, when she tried to scream but managed only to whimper, when she kept crying for Mommy to come and get her take her home because Daddy was mean, Daddy was bad, Daddy had knocked her down and beat her face and then kicked her in the stomach over and over and over until she felt the leaking fire and then Daddy threw her in the corner and turned off the lights and shut the door and left her here in the darkness with only the hurt the hurt the hurt--
--Fran pulled her hand away and crumpled to the floor, only to feel Ariadne's hands pull her to her feet a few seconds later, guiding her, dazed, shaken, crying, and aching, to a chair.
"It's all right, Fran," whispered Ariadne, "there, there, shh, it's okay, take a deep breath, in, out, there you go, it's all over now, shh, there, there, I'm sorry I had to do that, I'm so sorry but you left me no other choice, there you go, deep breaths, good girl, now look over there, go on, take a look..."
Fran wiped her eyes and looked at the spot on the floor where her dying son had been lying only moments before.
She pushed herself out of the chair and staggered to the doorway of the play room, relief flooding her system when she saw Eric and Sarah sitting next to each other, laughing and pointing at the screen as some animated mice turned a balloon into a zeppelin.
Ariadne came up behind Fran and put an arm around her waist, guiding her back to the chair. "C'mon, you're in no shape to be standing up just yet."
Once in the chair, Fran was given a glass of water, which she gulped down. Slamming the empty glass on the edge of the desk, she looked at Ariadne and croaked, "Oh, goddammit! He was in so much pain. He was so scared!"
Ariadne knelt in front of Fran, held her hands, and looked directly into her eyes. Her face showed no expression nor her voice any emotion as she said, "It will happen like this: Ted will get drunk one night when Eric's with him, maybe because Eric will be bugging him about going home to you, and Ted will lose control and knock Eric to the floor and kick him repeatedly, eventually rupturing his pancreas. He'll lock Eric in a dark room and leave the house and not come back until the next afternoon. It will take Eric sixteen hours to die, and he will be in unspeakable agony even in the final moments of his life. His last conscious thought will be of you, wondering why you didn't come and make it all better."
Fran sucked in air, her lungs suddenly feeling on the verge of collapse. "And you, you can prevent this from--"
"Yes. It's why I'm here. I will save as many children as I can from having to die at abusive, neglectful, violent hands." She rose from her knees and entered a series of commands on the computer, and the flesh-colored, holographic copy of Eric's hand was restored to the screen. The image magnified to focus on the stars, then focused deeper, to a series of markings beneath the stars.
"Look closely, Fran. Do you see them?"
"They look like...like squares."
"They're called the 'Walls of Redress.' They're very faint on Eric's hand, but you can see that there are six of them, one for each of the stars, and that if they were more solid, each would hold a star inside of it. The Walls of Redress are the promise of protection. No matter what danger is marked on the hand, if there is a square near or around it, the person can escape the danger if the signs are read in time."
"Why are they so faint?"
"Because the part of the world in which they might or might not exist in still in flux; they can fully form or they can fade away. It depends on the decision you make."
Fran's eyes began to tear. "Ohgod...."
Ariadne grabbed Fran's shoulders. "It's all been arranged. When you leave here, take him around the fair once more, do whatever you want, but make certain that the last thing you do is ride the merry-go-round, and that you get off the ride before he does--who'll notice? A tired mother walking a few steps ahead of her kid when the ride's done?"
"Sarah will be there with some of her brothers or sisters and they'll bring him back to me."
"How can I--I mean, what am I going to tell him?"
"Nothing. If you try to explain it to him, you'll only frighten him more than is necessary. There are probably four thousand people here right now. Countless children disappear each year on fairgrounds, at carnivals or amusement parks. No one will suspect you of anything. To guarantee that, I'll make certain that Eric is seen by witnesses a few hours after you report him missing."
Fran gulped in more air, trying to staunch her sobs. "Can I come with you?"
Slowly, sadly, Ariadne shook her head.
Something inside Fran crumbled. "Why?"
"Because the place we're going is only for the children." A small, melancholy grin. "Think of it as the ultimate kids' clubhouse: No Grownups Allowed."
"Will I ever see him again? I don't know if I could live without--"
"Yes. It won't be soon, but you'll see him again. He'll--and I know this isn't much comfort--but he'll write to you. A letter a week, a phone call every two months, a videotaped message four times a year; that's my rule. Don't worry if you move because his letters will arrive wherever you are every Friday, even if it's a national holiday." A short, wind-chime laugh. "I sort of have my own private delivery service."
She touched Fran's cheek, lovingly. "I promise you, Fran, I swear he won't forget about you, he won't feel angry for your leaving him with me. He'll miss you because he loves you so very much, but it will get easier as time goes on. He'll never lose his love for you, and he'll grow up to be everything you hoped and more. You will have your son back, one day, and there will be no love lost.
"Shh, don't say anything right now. You've got a little while, so go on, take your son to the fair and make him laugh, make him smile, and be certain that you miss nothing--not a word, not a look, a touch, a whisper, nose-tweak, or kiss. The next few hours will have to last you for a good while. Waste no moment.
"Go on. I'll know your decision soon enough."
As they were leaving the tent, Eric turned back to Madame Ariadne and flashed his palm. "You put my arm in a box!"
The fortune-teller smiled. "You are a strange and goofy kid, Eric McLachlan."
"Yes, I am!"
They stopped to play a few games (Eric won a small toy fire truck at the ring-toss booth), watched some clowns parade around, shared a soft pretzel, and then Fran McLachlan stood in the center of the midway holding her five-year-old son's hand and trying not to think about the way her life had gone wrong.
"Mommy," said Eric, "what's wrong? Did that lady say something bad to you?"
She told him no, and asked him what he wanted to do, and he chose the merry-go-round.
This time both of them rode on the tiger, and Eric's laughter, in his mother's ears, during those final moments of the ride, was the voice of forgiveness itself.
"Can I go again?" he asked as Fran climbed down.
"Sure, honey. Of course you can." The attendant was walking by at that moment, so Fran gave him the last ticket.
"You have fun," she said to Eric.
A happy bounce. "'Kay. You stand out there and watch me, okay?"
"I'll wave at you when I go by."
"Have you had a good time today, honey?"
"Yeah! This was the best fun ever!"
Oh shit, don't let him see it.
"I'm glad." She leaned in and kissed his cheek. "I love you, Eric."
"Love you, too--better get off now, Mommy, so they can start the ride."
Not daring to look at her son's face, Fran McLachlan turned around and left, catching a peripheral glimpse of Sarah getting onto the ride with a two younger children whose hands she was holding: the protective big sister.
Fran looked down at her hand and wondered what secrets were hidden there in the lines within the lines, the hand beneath the hand.
Walking away from the merry-go-round, she was startled when a sudden, strong breeze whipped past, pulling the balloon-doll from her grip and sending it upward, soaring, free, rising on the wind toward a place where the children were safe and never wept or knew loneliness or fear.
Good-bye, she thought. Be happy.
She was surprised to feel a smile on her face.
And the touch of Eric's hidden hand deep within her soul.