A Lock of Ra
by Sandra McDonald
The supermarket shelves
had little on
them, and the produce bins held only moldy tomatoes and some shriveled
cucumbers. Ann bought all that she could, paying more than twice what she
would have just a month ago, and drove through the mostly empty streets of Cloquet, Minnesota to her mother's small house. The neighborhood was quiet
in the gloomy afternoon light, all the summer gardens withered from
"Sweetheart, why did you bother?" Mary asked
when she opened the door. "It's too much for just little me."
Ann carried a box of canned vegetables and
soups to the kitchen table. "I had to, Mom. I don't know when I'll be
The television on the counter displayed the
face of an anxious newscaster. Ann stared at him, wondering which crisis
had risen to the forefront. Mary used her remote to turn off the screen.
Mary said, "Never you mind about what's
going on out there. Lindsay's all you have to worry about."
"And you." Ann started putting the cans away
and nearly snagged her wedding ring on the side of the box. "I wish you'd
come to Rochester with me."
Mary shuffled to the kitchen sink and
reached for a bottle of yellow pills. "This is where I was born and this is
where I'm staying. John Fritz across the street promised to keep an eye
out. He's got two shotguns and a pistol. It's Daniel who should be with
the two of you, and not hiding behind his desk."
"He's not hiding," Ann said, hating the note
of defensiveness in her voice. Daniel had been called over to Duluth
by his employers. His job was their only source of income, and they
desperately needed the medical insurance.
"Men and illness," Mary said.
"Oil and water."
Ann put away the groceries, fixed a running
toilet, and lugged three bins of trash out to the curb. The sanitation
truck had not been by in awhile, but the stench in the garage was
overwhelming. Afterward she scrubbed her hands clean and let her
mother fix her a sandwich. Ann ate it along with warm soda and stale
potato chips. Outside the kitchen window, a skinny black dog without a
collar nosed at the trash.
"Before I forget, this is for
Lindsay." Mary handed over a small piece of jewelry. " Tell her
I'm sorry about not being able to visit."
Ann took the brooch. The rim
was a smooth oval of tarnished gold. At the center of it, under
old glass, someone had embroidered a castle and tree under a
small, watchful sun. "Where did you get it?"
"From Mae Woolcott, at the
church." Mary put their dishes in the sink and gazed out the
window. "She said they're going to try down south, maybe her
son can find work there. None of them have been the same since
her granddaughter passed."
Ann squeezed the bridge of her nose.
"No one should suffer like those
children do," Mary said. "You don't say it, but I see it in your
eyes. All the little lambs."
"Don't, Mom. Don't give up
hope. If you don't have it, I don't know how I will--"
Mary turned from the window and
touched Ann's cheek. "When you don't have hope, have faith."
But Ann had little faith that
medical science could save her daughter's life, and none at all
that a higher power might deign to stop the spread of cancerous
cells in Lindsay's brain. That afternoon she returned to
Rochester on a high-speed train with the brooch in her pocket.
Skycars danced among the clouds, sleek blue craft that could
almost be mistaken for distant sparrows.
* * *
A riot delayed her progress into
the city. "You know things are getting bad when even Minnesotans
revolt," her father had once joked, just weeks before emphysema
shut down his lungs for the last time. Ann turned from the
train window and closed her eyes, unwilling to face anyone's
problems but her own.
When she reached the pediatric
oncology unit, pink elephants were frolicking on the walls and
singing cheerful songs. Children's laughter bubbled up from
nearby, so sweet that Ann could almost imagine herself back at
Cloquet Elementary picking Lindsay up at the end of the day.
She poked her head into the rec room and saw several of the
children being entertained by a clown in a fluorescent green
wig. The clown deftly pulled a handkerchief from his right ear,
tucked it with great fanfare into his left ear, and then
withdrew it in a long stream from one of his nostrils.
"Ewww," went the children, and
the mothers and nurses standing in the back all smiled.
The clown draped the
handkerchief on the bald head of little Tommy Norwell, whose
seventh birthday had just passed a few days earlier. Tommy
tossed it to Jeannie Belson, age five, whose face drooped
terribly on the left side.
"Oops." The clown started to
pull another handkerchief from his nose. "I forgot one!"
Ann checked the kitchen, where
the Willis twins were eating ice cream with their mother Tina.
"Lindsay's in her room," Tina
said. "I saw Dr. Anderson down there."
"Thanks," Ann said past the
tightness in her throat. She'd learned early on that doctors
made rounds early in the morning or late at night, and visits at
any other time generally meant bad news.
"Ann, if you see Rita Helsson . . . ."
Rita was one of Ann's neighbors,
and had a one-year-old daughter with the sweetest dimples Ann
had ever seen. Ann asked, "Yes?"
Tina looked at the twins, who
were absorbed in their hot fudge sundaes, and shook her head.
Ann wanted to moan. Instead she
hurried down the hall toward Lindsay's room, her footsteps muted
against the self-cleaning floor. Lindsay was sitting up in bed
with a bright scarf tied over her head. A white holographic
kitten was curled up against her side, its tail twitching from
side to side. The room's flexible décor was dialed to Princess
Mode, which meant simulated pink curtains on the picture window
and a lacey canopy draped over the bed.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down
your hair, Ann
thought, but Lindsay's long curls had fallen out months ago, and
no brave knight would be riding to her rescue.
"Hi, Mom," Lindsay said.
Dr. Anderson, the chief
pediatric oncologist, turned from the foot of the bed. He had
Lindsay's electronic chart in one hand and his personal stylus
in the other. "Mrs. Rotsvold. I'm glad you're back. This is
Dr. Qaddoumi. She's become quite an expert on Ersson's."
He wouldn't have called it that
if the Ersson company lawyers had been around. They tolerated
Cloquet Syndrome but preferred non-specified glioma.
Ann and the other mothers had taken to calling it what it really
was: that bastard cancer that's stealing our children.
Calling it what it really was didn't offer much comfort.
"Dr. Qaddoumi." Ann acknowledged
the woman standing next to Dr. Anderson and then took Lindsay's hand. "Daddy couldn't come,
honey. He had to stay at work."
Lindsay scowled and pulled her
hand away. "But he said he would! He promised!"
Dr. Anderson caught Ann's gaze
and tilted his head toward the door. "We should talk outside."
Ann didn't think she wanted to
hear what he had to say. She ignored him, just for the moment,
and sat on the edge of Lindsay's bed. "Daddy wanted to come. He
just couldn't. But he sent you this--says you don't have this
Lindsay held out her hand for
the figurine of a Persian cat. No bigger than Ann's thumb, it
was made of pewter with gold plating and sported a collar of
fake diamonds. With barely a glance, Lindsay deposited it on
her side table, where a dozen other feline statues encircled the
schoolbooks she was supposed to be reading when her vision
wasn't blurry. She said, "It's not fair. He said he'd be
Ann patted her shoulder, unable
to explain more about fathers who had to work while their little
girls grew sicker and sicker. She pulled out the brooch. "Oh,
and Grandma says hi, too. She sent you a present. Look how pretty
Lindsay turned her head and
wiped her nose with her hand. "I don't care."
Dr. Qaddoumi, dark-haired and
plain behind a set of old-fashioned glasses, stepped forward and
said, "That's quite a lovely piece. Victorian, isn't it?"
"I suppose," Ann said.
Lindsay darted a glance their
way. "What's 'Victorian' mean?"
Dr. Qaddoumi said, "Victoria was
the queen of England a long time ago. It was very fashionable
during her reign for people to use hair as jewelry, so that they
could remember their friends and loved ones. Hair art, they
Ann asked, "Hair? What hair?"
Dr. Qaddoumi pointed her finger.
"See the sun? Someone's fine blond hair. The tree, too."
"She's right, Mom," Lindsay said
in delight. She snatched the brooch from Ann's hand. "Whose is
"I don't know." Ann pushed down
a flicker of revulsion--a stranger's hair in her
daughter's hands--and looked at Dr. Qaddoumi. "It's okay, isn't
Dr. Qaddoumi smiled. "It's a
treasure to value. Keep it safe, Lindsay."
Dr. Anderson cleared his throat.
"Mrs. Rotsvold," he said, and again nodded toward the door.
Lindsay leaned back in the bed,
the brooch clasped tightly. The dark circles under her eyes
looked so much like smudged paint that Ann almost reached over
to wipe them away. Ann followed the doctors to the parents'
lounge, which had been painted a soft and soothing yellow. She
asked, "It's the chemotherapy, isn't it? It's not working."
Dr. Anderson twisted his stylus
between his long, slender fingers. "We did an MRI this morning."
Ann looked up at the ceiling.
She'd read that the act of looking up kept one from crying,
though in her experience it didn't work very well. "She's had
surgery, four rounds of treatment--"
"Ann," Dr. Anderson said, and it
was always bad when he used her first name. "The tumor in her
frontal lobe is back."
She clasped her hands together
and counted to five. Somewhere down the hall a baby let out a
weak cry and then fell silent. "So what's next? Radiation?"
"It's an option," Dr. Anderson
said slowly. Again he twisted the stylus. "We've talked about
the possible side-effects. Frankly, it hasn't done much good in
the handful of cases more advanced than Lindsay's. Dr. Qaddoumi
here might have an alternative."
Dr. Qaddoumi scooted closer to
the edge of her seat. "Mrs. Rotsvold, my team and I have been
working on a new generation of hypertexaphyrins designed to go
after the so-called 'super gliomas,' such as Ersson's. We've
been approved for clinical trials, and we'd like for you to
consider enrolling Lindsay. We would cover the costs, of
"You want her to be in an
experiment?" Ann asked. "Like a rat?"
"We know Ersson's is a
particularly aggressive type of brain cancer, fast-growing and
resistant to conventional therapies," Dr. Anderson said. "We
could go back into Lindsay's skull, yes. We could bombard her
with radiation. But Dr. Qaddoumi's work--"
Ann held up a hand. "I need to
know all the drawbacks. The risks. What could go right, as
well as go wrong."
"I will forward all the
information you need." Dr. Qaddoumi's eyes were wide and
unblinking behind her glasses. Ann thought she was probably
quite lovely when she took them off and let loose her hair. "I
wouldn't suggest Lindsay's participation if I didn't think she
It was tempting to dive right
in, to say yes to any slim chance of hope, but Ann squared her
shoulders. "And I have to talk to my husband."
Dr. Anderson tucked the stylus
into his pocket and reached for the lounge door. "I would do
that as soon as possible, if I were you."
The tone of his voice left her
little doubt that Lindsay's life depended on it.
Dr. Qaddoumi touched Ann's arm
lightly. It was so rare for a doctor to touch her that Ann's
skin tingled. Dr. Qaddoumi said, "These hypertexaphyrins are a
good thing, Mrs. Rotsvold. I will ask you to put your faith in
me and in them."
The Ersson Corporation
disclaimer flashed onscreen. This communication might be
monitored for compliance, it read, the words small and clear
beneath a flying car logo. Daniel appeared on the screen,
framed by bookshelves.
"How is she?" he asked.
"Mad at you," Ann answered.
"I know. When I asked Peters
for more sick leave she just gave me that 'resources are
stretched too thin' look, as if--"
Ann cut him off. "Dr. Anderson
said the tumor's back."
Daniel rolled back from the
screen. Ann wished she had the luxury to physically recoil.
The oncology unit's comm closet, dim and soundproof, was too
small for her to go anywhere.
"Ann," he murmured, and covered
"They want to put her into a
clinical trial," she said, and forwarded a batch of e-text for
his review. "Hypertexaphyrins. I met with the doctor in
"Is anybody else doing it? Any
"What does it matter?"
Daniel lifted his chin. "Don't
be annoyed. I'm just saying we shouldn't be the first."
"I don't care if we're first or
last or anywhere in the middle, as long as it does what it's
supposed to." Ann dug her fingernails into her palm. "Open the
files I just sent you. They're fact sheets the doctor gave me
and some medical articles I found."
"You know I don't understand any
of that mumbo jumbo--"
She cut him off. "You're a
fucking engineer, Daniel. Read it."
He looked at something
off-screen--a person, perhaps, or a window back in Duluth, or
one of his damned tech specs, the Ersson flying car in all its
"I'll take it with me," he said.
"I have to go to Detroit to work out some relay kinks in the
skylines. Shouldn't be more than a few days, if we get a
"You're going away?" she asked,
and heard the brittleness in her own voice. "Our daughter is
dying and you're taking a business trip?"
"She's not dying!" Daniel
snapped. "How can you even think that?"
They stared at each other.
"You decide," he finally said.
"Lindsay and I trust you. I'll call from Detroit."
Daniel cut the connection,
and the screen went dark.
Ann would have swept the damn
thing to the floor, but it was securely bolted to the table.
Texaphyrins were synthetic
compounds that targeted areas of high molecular activity, such
as cancer cells. Hypertexaphyrins were their newest evolution,
and carried risks that didn't seem worse than what Lindsay was
already facing. As Ann combed through both the supplied data
and her own research she saw that their efficacy with children
was less than it was with adults. But Dr. Qaddoumi seemed so
confident . . . perhaps it was the wrong way to make such a
monumental decision, maybe she was being too emotional and
feminine, but she trusted Qaddoumi. With the news filled
with violence and her only child failing under an onslaught of
malignancy, Ann was ready to grasp any lifeline the doctors
"Let's go ahead," Ann said, and
signed all the required forms.
"Thank you," Dr. Qaddoumi said.
"We'll take good care of Lindsay, Mrs. Rotsvold."
Lindsay was listless the day
treatment started and began vomiting on the second, but by day
four some pink had come back into her cheeks. Though fatigued,
she started visiting the rec room again, and before Ann knew it,
she'd interested a half dozen other kids in the novelty of using
human hair in their artwork.
"It's a willow tree," Tommy
Norwell said, showing off snippets of his mother's gray hair
glued atop a drawing of a tree trunk.
"Mine's a kitty," one of the
Willis twins said, and Ann saw the whiskers and tail on the clay
sculpture were dark strands, thin and wavy.
One of the social workers
brought in a book about hair jewelry. "Look, Mom," Lindsay said,
flipping through the pages. "Bracelets and rings--and these
Ann studied the delicate work,
imagining how many hours had gone into twisting and braiding and
gluing. She had once saved a lock of Lindsay's baby hair, but
it had gotten lost when Daniel received his promotion and they
moved from the middle-class side of Cloquet to the upscale
neighborhood where other executives lived. "A casualty of
success," he'd joked, and she wondered if he regretted it in
retrospect now that the whole town was a casualty, its children
the most obvious victims. But Daniel was among those who
insisted that Cloquet's cancer cluster had nothing to do with
the Ersson Skycar factory or its byproducts, and that a dozen
other environmental suspects had to be investigated and discounted.
"Can I have some of your hair,
Mom?" Lindsay asked. "I'm going to make a bracelet."
Lindsay asked other mothers,
too, and then the nurses and doctors. Dr. Anderson patted his
bristle top with good humor and said he had none to spare. Dr.
Qaddoumi, doing her morning rounds, took the request more
"When you ask for someone's
hair, you ask them to surrender some of their strength," she
Ann rose from the courtesy bed
where she'd spent a sleepless night. She remembered her church
lessons. "Like Samson and Delilah?"
"I saw them on TV." Lindsay was
busy arranging her cat statues into a circle on her breakfast
tray. The brooch was at the center of the statues. "She cut off
his hair while he was sleeping. I wouldn't do that."
Dr. Qaddoumi touched Lindsay's
wrist with the tips of her fingers. "My grandmother used to tell
me the story of the goose and the sun. The sun had a full head
of hair then, glorious yellow hair, and even one tiny strand of
it could work great magic. The goose was a pleasant little
fellow who was attacked by a mean snake. The only one thing
that could save him was a lock of the sun's hair, but he was too
afraid to ask."
Lindsay asked, "Couldn't someone
ask for him? His Mom?"
"You're a very smart girl.
That's exactly what happened," Dr. Qaddoumi said. "His mother
asked. And the sun said yes. The goose made a full recovery."
"So Mother Goose saved the day,"
Ann joked, but Dr. Qaddoumi's face remained serious.
Lindsay gave Ann a beseeching
look. "You have to ask, Mom. Ask the sun to make me well."
Ann obliged. "Sun, please make
"And everyone else, too,"
Lindsay insisted, her voice high and anxious. She reached for
the brooch, accidentally knocking over some of the cats. "And
you have to say it with your hand on this, because it's like
Ann put her hand on the brooch.
"Sun, please make Lindsay and everyone else well."
Lindsay leaned back on her
pillows. Her frown lessened a little. "So can I have some of
your hair, Dr. Q?"
"I would be honored," Dr.
Later that day Ann looked up Dr.
Qaddoumi's story on the net and deduced that the goose was Geb,
the Egyptian god of the underworld and keeper of the dead. The
sun was the god Ra, all knowing, all mighty. She wondered what
gods Dr. Qaddoumi worshipped each night after walking among sick
and dying children. She wished prayers really did work, but
knew better. Ann settled for sitting in the rec room with the
other mothers, watching the children of Cloquet transform
ordinary human hair into pieces of art.
Nineteen-year-old Mallory Caine,
lithe and gorgeous, was Cloquet's best claim to fame aside from
deadly tumors. She swept onto the ward with a media crew in tow
and posed for footage with her arms around the children, who
adored her as the star of the Princess Rapunzel film series.
"If I have to watch The
Knight We Met one more time . . . ." Tina Willis murmured to
Ann, but she looked as starstruck as anyone else.
"Miss Caine," one of the
reporters said, "you lived in Cloquet until you were thirteen.
You went to the same schools these children did. Do you worry
about developing brain cancer yourself?"
Mallory tossed her shiny blonde
hair over her shoulder. "My doctors have told me I'm healthy,
and I feel blessed. But how can anyone rest easy until a cure
Lindsay certainly wasn't resting
easy. She'd woken feverish and disoriented around midnight,
crying, "Daddy, where's Daddy? I want Daddy." Ann tried not to
be hurt even though Daniel had been dispatched to St. Paul and
hadn't called in days. The phones weren't working well, someone
had said. Dr. Qaddoumi and Dr. Anderson arrived in the wee
hours in response to the nurse's page, and though they said
nothing Ann was certain the hypertexaphyrins were failing. At
least the fever medicine seemed to be working, enough so that
Lindsay broke into a broad smile when Mallory visited her room.
"You're my favorite princess
ever," Lindsay said, and blushed. "I mean actress.
Here. This is for you. I made it out of hair. Mine and my
mom's and my doctor's--"
Mallory held up the bracelet
with a perplexed expression. "Human hair? Real hair?"
"It's Victorian," Lindsay added
Ann stepped forward, sure that
Mallory would say something thoughtless or rude, but Mallory
surprised her by asking Lindsay how and why she had it made it.
The actress's eyes grew brighter as she learned about the
children's projects and within minutes she was asking for a pair
"If hair makes their days
happier," she said, dramatically sawing off a long lock in front
of the camera, "then it's the least I can do."
The next day hair started
arriving from all over the world--a few strands in one envelope,
six inches in another, hair that was curly and straight and
bright and dark, hair for the children of Cloquet. Cities were
burning in Europe, nuclear weapons were poised to fire at the
slightest provocation, but hair continued to come like peace
offerings, like tokens of surrender. Ann was touched by the
kindness, but then Dr. Anderson told her that some of the hair
was pubic hair, some had lice in it, and much of it was dirty
"It's best we throw it all
away," he said.
One of the Willis twins passed
away in her sleep. The nurses closed all the doors in the unit
so the other children wouldn't see the morgue attendant come to
claim her. Ann watched the gurney roll away and thought
another innocent victim, and tried to think of something
comforting she could offer to Tina Willis. Something that
wouldn't sound stupid when her turn came, when Lindsay was the
one rolled away . . . .
"I don't think anything's
helping," Ann said to her mother in the quiet confines of the comm closet. "I think . . . I don't know what to do. I even
tried praying. Me. How's that for a laugh?"
Mary said, "Call Daniel. Tell
him to come to you. Tell him to hurry while he still has
somewhere to hurry to, you understand?"
"What's wrong?" Ann leaned
closer to the screen. "Are you all right? Is Cloquet--"
"Things can't go on as they are
much longer. I don't want you watching the news, you hear me?
There are too many rumors, too much fear. But someone's going
to make a mistake that can't be taken back. I can feel it
coming, like static electricity in the air."
"You could take the train
here--or I could come home--"
Mary smiled grimly. "Don't worry
about me. I'm not afraid of any crazy Chinese in bunkers, or
presidents who think they can bluff them. You stay there, where
Someone knocked on the closet
door. Ann saw Dr. Qaddoumi standing outside, a worry line
between her eyes. They went to the parents' lounge, where Ann
paced and wished she could have a cigarette or drink or
sedative, anything at all to calm herself.
"It's not working," Ann said.
"She's getting weaker and sicker. Last night she couldn't even
keep her pudding down, and she loves pudding. If I thought it
was helping I'd tell you to keep going but the way she is now--"
Dr. Qaddoumi said, "Mrs.
Rotsvold, the hypertexaphyrins are doing exactly what they are
designed to do. Lindsay's primary tumor has shrunk fifty
percent since her last MRI. But now the cancer is springing up
in other parts of her body, as it has with other children. The
drugs can't keep up with them."
Ann stopped at the window, the
strength in her legs abruptly fading. A skycar drifted in from
the north, heading for the hospital's parking lot. Damn Ersson
anyway. Damn the men and women who'd made it possible to fly
toward the sun, which was perpetually hidden by smog. "She's not
going to . . . ." she started, but couldn't finish the
sentence. She cleared her throat. "You once told Lindsay a
story about Geb and Ra. Geb's mother made an appeal. Tell me
how. Tell me what to say."
"The story came from my
grandparents," Dr. Qaddoumi said. "I made up the part about the
The skycar landed, discharging a
stream of passengers. "Why?" Ann asked.
Dr. Qaddoumi smoothed the hem of
her skirt. "I had a son. He died in the San Francisco
explosions three years ago, along with his father."
"Oh." Ann tried to think of something more
sympathetic to say, but her mind went blank.
Dr. Qaddoumi stared down at her
knees. "I thought, afterward, that I should have been a more
devout woman, that I should have prayed to any and every god to
keep my family safe. You have to ask for the things you want in
this world, not expect them to drop in your lap. But I took
safety for granted, even in this age. I thought love was
Ann placed her palm flat against
the window. "My mother thinks the world is about to end."
"No more pain or misery." Dr.
Qaddoumi sounded almost wistful.
"That would be a good thing."
* * *
The hospital lost power just
before dinner. Ann and Lindsay were watching one of Mallory
Caine's movies when the screen dimmed and faded. The standby
generators didn't kick in and several alarms went off down the
"That's not good, is it?"
Lindsay asked, her voice slurred. "What if all the power's
"Equipment breaks down
sometimes," Ann said, just as the TV brightened. "See? All
A robot cart brought dinner, but
Lindsay swallowed only a few teaspoons of ice cream before
shaking her head.
"Please eat some more," Ann
said. "You'll feel better."
Lindsay turned her head. "No I
won't. Everyone says that, but it's not true."
"Then how about some of this
But Lindsay refused that too,
and the soup, and everything else Ann offered her, all in a tone
that was petulant and whiney. Ann wanted to shake and scold
her, but what right did she have to be angry at her daughter?
She didn't have the strength to be angry anymore. Not at
Ersson, not at Daniel, not even at the cancer cells themselves.
Anger required energy, and it was all Ann could do to keep from laying her
head on Lindsay's leg.
"It's all right, honey." Just to
keep her hands busy, Ann began tidying up the bedside table.
She tucked some get-well cards into the drawer, then frowned.
"Where are your cat statues?"
"They ran away," Lindsay said.
"Last night. I heard them meowing, and then they jumped to the
floor and hopped out the window."
She'd probably had a fever
dream. Or maybe the figurines had gotten caught up in the
laundry when the nurses changed Lindsay's sheets, or some other
child had come in and stolen them. That last thought made Ann's
"Turn off the light, Mom. It's
"Which light, sweetheart?" Ann
asked, but before she finished the sentence Lindsay was bucking
in the bed, her eyes rolled up and limbs flailing. Ann screamed
for help but the seizure was over almost as soon as it had
begun, and when the nurses arrived Lindsay was unconscious.
"Help her," Ann said, one hand
pressed over her heart. "Please help her."
Dr. Anderson came within the
hour. "We're not giving up," he said, but the look in his eyes
was bleak. Ann sat by the bed, flooded by grief and fear. She
clutched Lindsay's brooch and thought, save her, save her,
save her, but no god answered in the warm darkness.
The brooch tumbled from her numb fingers to the floor.
"Ann?" Daniel stood in the doorway, his face
haggard and pale.
"Are you real?" Ann whispered.
He squeezed her to his chest.
"It's all falling apart. Ersson's skylines. The security
satellites, telecommunications--I had to fight for the last seat
on a train out of Chicago, and a man was shot trying to squeeze
through the doors. God, they say that Washington's been--"
"Don't tell me." Ann soaked in
his scent and the strength of his arms. As much as she wanted
to stay furious at him, it was too much of a relief that he'd
finally come. "None of that is here and now."
He released her to stand over
Lindsay. The nurses had dressed her in her favorite nightgown
and a pink cap for her head. In the muted light they could see
a spiderweb of veins at Lindsay's temple, thin and fragile and
"Sweetpea," Daniel said, and
Lindsay's eyelids fluttered.
"I tried to pray," Ann murmured.
"I tried so hard."
Daniel tried again. "Sweetie,
wake up. Daddy's here."
But Lindsay did not wake. The clocks
ticked forward, the ward hushed but for occasional cries and padded
footsteps. At one point Ann saw fires burning a few blocks from the
hospital and heard the distant wail of sirens, but by dawn the flames were
gone and the smoke had dissipated. Behind her, Lindsay let out a long
breath and then went still.
"No," Ann said as monitors began
to blare and Daniel ran for help. "Lindsay, no!" she yelled, and
shook her roughly. Nurses poured into the room, their
conversation clipped and urgent, and pushed Ann aside. She
stood by the window and buried her head in Daniel's shoulder.
"She can't. Don't let her.
Daniel, don't let her--"
He pressed a kiss to her temple.
The room faced east across low buildings and
the flat prairie. For the first time in several months Ann felt a
warmth touch her face, and she lifted her eyes to see the sun peeking over
the horizon. The customary smog had cleared away, leaving the sky
clear and tinged with gold. The sight was so rare and unusual that she
stared until her eyes began to burn and water.
"Daniel, look," she said. As
she turned her foot brushed against the forgotten brooch on the
floor. Ann lifted it in her hand--how heavy it suddenly seemed,
and so very warm--and behind her, Lindsay coughed and cried out
as if she was a newborn all over again.
"Thank God," Daniel said.
"Too close," one of the nurses
said. "Call Dr. Anderson--"
The horizon exploded into
white-hot brilliance. For a split second Ann feared that
terrorists had somehow blown up the sun. The hospital began to
shake under a growing rumble of crumbing cement, twisting steel
and shattering glass. Just an earthquake, she
realized, not so bad, but then the building jerked and twisted like a rotten
tooth yanked out by an angry dentist, and this was something more
devastating than the shift of tectonic plates. Over the shriek of fire
alarms came the heartbreaking screams of children and adults.
Ann threw herself over Lindsay just as
another flash seared the sky. Split-seconds later the window shattered
and a concussive force rolled over them.
"Don't be scared!" Ann shouted,
though she herself was terrified. "It's okay--"
Another bomb fell, so close it might have
detonated in the parking lot. But that was ridiculous. A blast
so close would have vaporized them. More explosions rocked the earth
beneath them and sharp, burning shrapnel pelted down against Ann's skin.
In the dying hollows of her bones she could feel the concussion and doom of
a thousand A-bombs slamming into America, and in her ringing ears a thousand
thousand more shrieked across the sky toward the enemy.
She couldn't have said how long the
onslaught lasted, whether it took minutes or hours for the building to stop
swaying and for noise to fade from her bruised eardrums, but just as quiet
began to settle Lindsay murmured in awe against her chest.
"Wow," Lindsay said.
Half of the exterior wall was
gone, as was most of the ceiling. The nurses who had
resuscitated Lindsay were clustered in the far corner, weeping
and clinging tightly to one another. Somehow Daniel had managed
to entwine himself in their human knot. The pediatric ward
beyond the open door was thick with dust and rubble, and
survivors began to emerge in the aftermath. But it wasn't the
devastation that Lindsay was looking at. An ocean of warm
yellow light was washing down from the apex of the sky, so
bright and welcoming that an uncommon joy swept through Ann.
"It's Ra, Mom!" Lindsay wriggled
free. Her cheeks were plump and pink with unrestrained glee.
"He says he heard your prayers, and we should bring back his
A great rustling sound filled the air.
A million fibers of hair--beautiful hair, in every color and texture
imaginable, stronger than steel--sprouted from under Lindsay's bed.
They wove themselves into a staircase that extended past the window and into
the blue sky all the way to the sun itself. Winged cats with
purple lilies in their mouths fluttered around the steps.
"Ann?" Daniel asked. Behind
him, children and their parents and the hospital staff began to
cluster in the doorway. "What the hell is going on?"
"I don't know." Ann's joy
faded. Surely she had gone insane. Or maybe she was regaining
sanity after a prolonged sojourn in a world full of sickness and
death, and self-destruction unprecedented. At the very top of
the stairs she could see her parents standing in the sun's
light. The dead children of Cloquet flanked them, flowers
in their hair.
"Mom, come on!" Lindsay tried to
dash up the stairs, but Ann caught her. "Dad, tell her!"
Daniel covered his mouth and
shook his head.
Dr. Qaddoumi wormed her way
through the crowd and gazed upward, perhaps seeing her dead son
and husband at the summit, or a promise of them in the Sun God's
embrace. Then she gazed back at her patients as if duty
compelled her to stay. Ann took a closer look, unwilling to
believe her own senses, but she couldn't discern a single scrape
or bruise on anyone. Jeannie Belson was clutched in her
mother's arms, her pudgy hands reaching for the sun. Tina
Willis and her surviving daughter, though covered with dust,
were grinning from ear to ear.
"Doctor?" Ann asked.
Dr. Qaddoumi's face was full of wonder. "I
think this is an invitation that can not be declined."
But such an invitation was not,
perhaps, a good thing. Ann turned to the ruins of Rochester.
An eerie silence blanketed the land. She imagined burned
corpses and charred skeletons stretching from one coast to the
other. Victims trapped in rubble, waiting for help that would
never come. Survivors stumbling about in a daze, slowly dying
of radiation sickness or starvation or exposure. Yet at the
same time a part of her knew that no hearts pulsed outside the
walls of this last refuge. She suspected no human hearts beat
within it, either. Mankind had started the grisly job of
annihilation, but the gods above had finished it.
"Mom, come on!" Lindsay
Ann had put her faith in all the
expected places. Now she would put it elsewhere. She lifted
Lindsay into her arms, a feat she had not managed since her
daughter was much younger and smaller. She said, "Take my hand,
Daniel," and he did. With the brooch in her fist and her family
at her side she started stepping upward toward a beginning, or
an end, or someplace in between, some place in the sun.
About the Author:
Sandra McDonald is a former Navy
lieutenant and Hollywood wannabe. She has traipsed through the jungles of Guam,
braved the wilds of Newfoundland and conquered the Los Angeles freeways at rush
hour. Her work has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons,
Chiaroscuro, Rosebud, Lone Star Stories, Andromeda
Spaceways Inflight Magazine and more. Visit her at her
Story © 2005 Sandra McDonald.