I sank into the black leather sofa in my father's spacious office, leaning against a pillow that looked like a big, silky Chiclet. Tension rippled through the room. I glanced up at my dad, who was slumped forward in his chair, elbows on his leather-topped desk, forehead in one hand. His face was six inches from the speakerphone -- a boxy thing, separate from the telephone, that sounded even worse than they do today. Wedged between the fingers of his other hand was a number-two pencil that he nervously wiggled back and forth.
The voice coming out of the phone belonged to Ensign Hector Camacho, a representative from the Coast Guard. "I'm very sorry, sir," Camacho said with professional dispassion.
My dad winced as if he'd stepped on a thumbtack. "You're saying he could have gone down anywhere within a hundred-mile radius?"
"I'm saying that -- "
"Can't you find that plane? You cannot fathom the importance of this, the devastating consequences!" Sweat glistened on my father's upper lip.
"Try to calm down, Dr. Barnett," Camacho said. "I know how difficult this must be for you, losing, uh, Mr. Greer."
"Henry!" Dad shouted, and then, as if in an afterthought, he said, "Oh, God...Henry." I knew Henry Greer was the pilot and courier my father had sent to France to retrieve a page of Leonardo da Vinci's notes.
"Was he a relation?" Camacho asked.
My father ignored the question. "So there's no way at all to recover this airplane?"
"He went down in very deep waters, and probably at high speed, sir."
My father snapped the yellow pencil and threw the two halves on the floor. "Jesus!"
I squirmed in my seat and thought maybe I should take a walk. But I stayed.
"I know," Camacho said. "I'm very sorry."
My dad was silent for what seemed like a full minute before I realized that he was crying. That got me, and I felt tears welling up, too.
Out of the little box, Camacho's voice said, "Mister...um, Doctor?"
"You'll call me if anything turns up?" Dad said desperately. "Anything. A piece of paper. A scrap of paper."
"Of course, sir."
"A document of any kind. Anything with writing on it."
"We'll call you immediately if anything at all is recovered, sir."
My dad collected himself. "Thank you, Ensign," he said. "Goodbye."
"Goodbye, sir," Camacho said, and disconnected.
My father stared at the dead speakerphone. I got up and walked over behind him, my boot heels silent on the thick maroon carpet. When I placed a hand on his shoulder, I realized his shirt was damp from sweat.
"Dad?" I called softly.
He slowly raised his head and looked at me through watery eyes. "It's gone, son," he whispered. "It's gone."
On July nights the humidity in Georgetown was so thick it looked as if a plastic shower curtain had been hung in front of the moon. Sometimes, after my mom and dad had kissed me good night and closed my door, I'd get out of bed and kneel down in front of my second-story window, open it up, and poke my head out into the night. I'd squint up at the hazy yellow face of the moon and feel the air-conditioning going one way and the hot, sticky air going the other, until I'd start to sweat or a mosquito would nail me.
The night of the plane crash I lay on my back in bed, propped up on my elbows. My mother leaned over me, dressed in her light blue cotton robe, scrubbed clean, no makeup. I breathed in the scent of her favorite soap -- apricot from Caswell Massey -- hoping to ease some of my worry. I watched Mom's eyes as she fluffed my pillow. Her eyes are the color of acorns, I thought. The serenity they normally radiated was absent that night. And my sheets were tucked in too tightly. I pried them loose with my toes.
"You did the wash today, huh."
"Nothing like fresh sheets, is there?" Mom said, managing a smile. "Okay, there we go. You can cozy up now."
There was no chance of that happening. I laid my head back and my mother pulled the covers under my chin.
"Is Dad coming up to give me a kiss?"
She sighed. "I don't think so, sweetie. I don't know when he's coming up. He's...you know, he's pretty upset." She covered her mouth with her hand. If she cried I'd have a nightmare for sure.
"But it was an accident," I said. "It wasn't his fault."
"I know, but..." She sat down on the edge of the bed and placed her hand on my chest. I wanted to hold it, but my arms were stuck at my sides like a mummy's.
"Dad feels responsible," she said. "If he hadn't bought the notes for the museum, or if he'd gone to get them himself, instead of sending the courier...He's really...upset."
"Is he going to feel better tomorrow? What about the museum party? Are we still going to have the party? We're not, are we?"
Just the low hum of the air conditioner.
"Maybe now nobody'll ever find the Medici Dagger." I sighed. "What would Leonardo think of that?"
"It was a tragedy today. For a lot of people."
"I could have helped. I could have done something."
"Honey, you're eleven. There was nothing you could have done. Now go to sleep. Everything's going to be all right."
She kissed my cheek and gave my earlobe a little tug. "Have swell dreams and a peach," she whispered in my ear. "Swell dreams and a peach."
"Big peach," I said, taking a last whiff of her. "Oh, Mom..."
"I know. The night-light."
She stopped by the door, clicked on the little light, and turned off the overhead. "Happy dancing shadows..." she began.
"...in Reb's sleep-tight light," I murmured, finishing our little ritual. She padded down the hall, creaking the old floor in all the usual spots.
Everything's going to be all right. Everything's going to be all right. I wish I could have done something -- flown the plane maybe. Everything's going to be all right. Everything.
I was dreaming about twigs crackling in a campfire when my mother's scream woke me. I bolted up in bed and looked out the window, surprised by the brightness. The campfire? A second scream shook me out of my dream state. I smelled smoke and realized the light was from a real fire creeping up the outside of our wooden house.
"Mom! Dad!" I shouted as a window exploded somewhere downstairs. Smoke billowed up from under my door like a ghost coming to get me. I jumped out of bed; the rug felt oddly warm under my bare feet. Running to the window, I threw it open and punched the screen out. All around me flames licked the house. Looking up, I saw the shake-roof shingles burning, shooting cinders like a million fireflies into the night sky. The whine of fire engines pierced the roar of the blaze, and I heard my mother scream my name from somewhere deep in the house.
"Mom!" I yelled as I crawled backward, feet-first, out the window. I hung on to the sill with an iron grip, looking into my room, waiting for something -- I didn't know what. My hands began to tremble, but I held on tight.
Just as the first fire truck came racing down our narrow street, my bedroom door burst open and I saw Mom standing in the doorway, flames all around her. Our eyes met and she shrieked, "Reb! Jump!" Her nightgown was on fire. Men's voices shouted at me from down below -- echoes from a distant canyon. As my mother threw her arms out and took two steps toward me, the house shuddered and the roof collapsed, with a sound like a thousand bones breaking, crushing her into eternity.
I froze for a second, suspended in a place where the claws of horror couldn't touch me. Then, scrambling my feet up the clapboard siding, a dozen splinters piercing my soles, I pushed off the wall and turned in midair, arcing over the walkway, going into a dive, reaching for the ground. I heard yelling as I hit the small patch of grass by the big elm near the curb and rolled smack up against the tree.
And then the world went black.
I don't remember the name of the doctor who told me my parents had died in the fire. I know it was a man, though, because the voice was deep and had come from somewhere above little gold sea horses that floated in an ocean of royal blue tie.
"Can you look at me, son?" he asked.
I gazed at the strange, curly-tailed creatures, envying their silken inanimateness. "I am looking at you," I replied flatly.
He cupped my face in his cold hands, swallowed audibly, and said again, softly, almost crying, "Can you look at me, son?"
I realized that he was probably thinking of his own kids. I felt sorry for him, having to be the one to tell me. I couldn't look at him, though. I just let him deliver the news while I mingled with the sea horses. It wasn't really news.
I'm nobody's son, I thought.
Copyright © 2001 by Plural Productions, Inc.