Friday, October 30, 2009
He headed over to her and waited expectantly for her to acknowledge him, but she refused to look in his direction.
"Mind if I join you?" he asked.
Taking that as permission, he pulled out the wrought-iron chair and sat down. For several minutes they sat in silence, both watching the fountain. He stole glances at her, gradually realizing that she was wincing slightly every so often. He noted that her arm-- close to the fountain-- was flecked with black marks where occasional water droplets were landing. Yet she didn't move her arm away. Her eyes, fixed on the water, were full of longing.
He was alarmed.
Hoping to distract her, he fished around in his pocket. "Would you like to make a wish?" he ventured.
That made her look at him finally, and he extracted a dime and held it out to her.
"What would I wish for?" she asked glumly.
"A new family," he responded.
She smiled slightly, in spite of herself.
"Look," he continued, "I'm sorry, honey. What we did was wrong."
She looked surprised.
"We were wrong to compromise your care like that." He laid the dime down on the table. "Like I said, your mom has a lot of issues with her mom, and I think they clouded her better judgment-- hers and mine." He laid his finger on the dime and pushed it around in little absentminded circles. "She loves you, and I don't think it occurred to her that we were doing anything that could hurt you. She was trying to protect you from somebody she saw as a bad influence, and after we knew your grandfather had the mutation, we figured the mystery of the source was solved and there was no harm in leaving the rest of it alone."
Megan pursed her lips. "Yeah...maybe."
"I think the thing to do now is to go on home, and I'm going to talk to your mother and figure out what to do next. Obviously, we need to talk to Dr. Greene." Dr. Greene was Megan's geneticist. "But let me handle things with your mom, okay? This is a sensitive subject for her, and it's better that I work it out with her."
Megan nodded, but she didn't look pleased with the solution.
"Well?" he prompted her.
"Is that okay?"
"It's going to have to be, isn't it?" She held out her hand for the dime. "Can I have that?"
Michael picked up the coin and dropped in her hand. She thought for a moment, then pitched it into the fountain; it fell in lightly, barely registering a ripple.
Meanwhile, Helen sat at the kitchen table, her eyes locked on a thick envelope that she had found in her mailbox. The handwritten Tarpon Beach on the return address, in the elderly version of her mother's script, stared back at her.
She wrestled with what to do for many minutes, one moment wanting to tear into the envelope and pour over its contents, the next wanting to seize the envelope and throw it into the trash unopened. Finally, she made a decision.
I know what is wrong with your daughter, her mother had written earlier.
Helen had grown increasingly worried about her daughter's isolation, losing hope that the legion of doctors around the world would ever come up with a diagnosis, much less a cure, and daunted by the task of having to educate and care for a girl-- before long, a woman-- who could be killed by the thing that every other person depended on for life. She wasn't quite willing to start reading every quack letter she received, but perhaps--
She took a deep breath and carefully tore open the envelope. It took a few minutes to work up the courage to withdraw the letter, a few more to unfold it, and many more to begin to read.
She was stunned by her mother's account of meeting her father. Passed out on a beach? She rolled her eyes. That should have been your first clue that he was a loser, she thought.
Then she came to the passage where her mother described the night she threw her lover out for good.
You were nine, and by then you had the habit of locking yourself in the bathroom when he would stop by.
Helen remembered how she would fill the tub, climb in, and lie back until her ears were submerged. The warm water comforted her and muffled her parents' words. She would stay in long after her fingertips and toes had shriveled into raisins.
I accused him of using again, and he didn't deny it. I told him I couldn't go on like this any more, never knowing where he was or when he was coming back. He was very sorry, but when I told him he needed to get clean, he shocked me by refusing. I told him he would never see you again if he didn't stop, and that's when he told me that he needed the drugs to keep seeing us. It hurt too much if he didn't use them, he said. This made me so angry, and I told him that if it was so horrible and painful to be with us, then maybe he could do us all a favor and just stay away. He shook his head no, no, it wasn't like that, and I said, then what is it like?
When Helen read her father's explanation, she gasped, then re-read and re-read the passage to make sure she had understood it correctly, then went on to read the rest of her mother's letter, her heart sinking when she realized that her mother had not only believed his ridiculous story, but was now asking her to believe him too, and to base her care for Megan on it! Her confusion turned quickly to the familiar anger and betrayal.
After all this time, she's still making excuses for him!
She folded up the letter meticulously with trembling hands, then set it aside and sat there stewing in fury. She became so lost in her anger that she jumped when she heard Michael's key in the lock.
Michael and Megan came in.
"How was the museum?" Helen asked, failing miserably at masking her distress.
"Fine," said Michael uncertainly. He looked at Megan. "Give me a minute to talk to your mother, okay?"
Megan turned to obey, but then spotted the thick letter on the tabletop. Oh shit, of course it would show up today! "Is that from Maria?" she yelped, pointing at the papers.
Helen was taken aback. "Excuse me?"
"Go upstairs, Megan," urged her father, pushing her gently towards the staircase.
"Wait a minute, Michael," said Helen, rising. "Megan, what are you talking about?"
"Maria," said Megan. "Your mother." She could see that her mother had already opened the letter, so the jig was up anyway.
"Go upstairs," warned Michael. "Now."
"Did she tell you what was wrong with me?"
"Megan, how do you know--"
"What did she say?" begged Megan. "What is that?" She moved to grab at the letter, but Michael stood in the way, effectively blocking her on the staircase.
"This?" asked Helen, suddenly grabbing the letter and holding aloft, her voice dripping with disdain. "This, Megan, is a bunch of bullshit."
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Megan read the placard on the nearby wall.
Bust of Woman (Helen of Troy?)
Attributed to the Diomedes School
c. 3rd century BCE
Concerned about his daughter's increasing isolation, Michael had suggested this trip to see the Greek Treasures of the British Museum exhibit that would only be open for a couple more weeks. Megan, self-conscious about her appearance, had resisted until Michael arranged to take time off of work to go see the exhibit in the afternoon at mid-week, when the field trip groups and tourists would be relatively minimal.
Megan didn't really care about the Greeks, but she wanted to have a chance to speak to her father. In the days since she wrote Maria, Megan had been thinking about Maria's letter, about Maria herself, and about some of the ugly things that the situation implied. She didn't want to think that her parents could be that selfish, but it was hard to come to any other conclusions.
Michael wandered over and stood beside her, joining her in regarding the woman.
"Where are her eyes?" asked Megan.
"They were probably once painted on," explained Michael. "All of these statues were once really colorful. After a couple thousand years, the paint wears off." He pointed at the marble tiara the lady wore. "That might have been covered in gold leaf."
"Pretty," observed Megan.
"Well," her father smiled, "it is Helen of Troy."
"Another Helen," said Helen. "Like Mom." She tilted her head. "Kinda looks like Mom."
Michael squinted as if to see the resemblance better. "Darken the hair...brown eyes...yeah, kinda." He smiled again. "The face that sailed a thousand ships."
"So they could get away from her," muttered Megan.
"Hey, now. That's not a nice thing to say."
"Well, Mom hasn't been very nice lately."
"She's just worried. Same as usual."
Megan nodded. "Worried about her mom?"
Michael blanched. "Her mom?"
"Why would she be worried about that?"
"Her mom wrote her a letter," said Megan.
"Yeah," said Megan, and fixed her father with a frown.
Michael was silent for a moment. "Did she tell you that?"
"Then how do you know that?"
"I found the note in the trash," Megan admitted.
"I see. You shouldn't go rooting through the trash and reading things that don't belong to you."
"I was curious," retorted Megan. "I mean, how often do you get mail from beyond the grave?"
Michael closed his eyes and grimaced.
"I thought she was dead," continued Megan.
"Yes. I know."
"But she's not, is she?"
Michael hesitated, then shook his head. "No."
"How long have you known?" demanded Megan.
"A long time."
"Why did you say she was dead, then?"
"Because she was," explained Michael. "As far as your mother was concerned, she was."
"What does that mean?"
Michael sighed, unsure of how to explain it. "Your grandmother...made a lot of mistakes. She did things that really hurt your mother. It was your grandfather." He looked around the gallery to make sure they were alone, then lowered his voice. "He was a drug addict, and he abandoned your mother over and over again, and your grandmother kept taking him back."
"And Mom hates her for that?" Megan was incredulous.
"She wanted to get away from a bad situation, and once you were born, she thought it was best that you not be involved in that either. She thought her mom was weak and cared more about him than her daughter, and she couldn't forgive her for basically choosing that man to be her father."
"It is, maybe, but since I didn't grow up with a dad who checked out all the time, I can't understand how it feels. And I'm not going to tell her how to handle her relationship with her parents."
"How about him?" Megan asked bitterly.
"Who? Your grandfather?"
"Yeah. Is he secretly not dead too?"
"No, he is dead," said her father quietly.
"You sure?" challenged Megan.
"Yes." Michael frowned. "When we took you for the genetic tests and they hadn't seen your mutation before, they ran your code through the database to see if there were any matches. There was one."
"And he was dead?"
"Yeah. They had found him in a park years earlier and had taken a DNA sample before they cremated him in case they could ID him somewhere down the road."
Megan considered this for a moment, then asked, "How did he die?"
"They weren't sure," Michael admitted. "He was...well, he was a skeleton when they found him. He had been there a long, long time. There was a syringe nearby, so they think he overdosed. But there was no way to know for sure."
"It may have been somebody else's," Megan pointed out.
"True," agreed Michael. "But given his history, it was probably his. We don't know, but...yeah."
"And he had what I have," she said quietly.
Realizing what she was concluding, Michael hastened to reassure her. "He had the mutation, sweetheart. That's all we know."
Megan didn't answer.
"We don't know that he had what you have." He peered intently at her. "You're not going to end up like that, honey, if that's what you're worried about."
She looked back at him. "Did you tell the geneticists that my grandmother was dead?"
Taken aback at the question, Michael shook his head. "Megan, she isn't the source of the gene, it's your grandfather--"
"Did you tell them she was dead?" she growled.
Michael couldn't bring himself to answer her, and as her suspicions came true, her eyes grew wide with anger.
"Did it ever occur to you," she said hotly, "that maybe my grandmother has the same mutation, or that her genes combined with his somehow was the reason I have what I have?" Her face crumpled. "Mom is mad at her mother for putting up with her deadbeat dad, so you think it's okay to lie to my doctors? Maybe that's the key to what's wrong with me!"
"We can't be sure of that--"
"We won't be sure of that! You closed that door! Nobody knows anything, and they need all the information they can get, and you're hiding things from them? You didn't even stop to think about it! You and Mom were so concerned about her hurt feelings! Did you ever think about the fact that this is killing me?"
"Megan," Michael urged her, "calm down." He reached for her arm but she yanked it away.
"I'm inside all the time! I have no friends! I can't do anything! My life is ruined!" She turned and ran out of the gallery, crying, "How could you? How could you?"
Ashamed, Michael stood frozen, watching her disappear. He turned helplessly to look at Helen of Troy, as if she could offer any counsel, but her eyes only stared ahead, stony and blank.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
It took Maria days and days to finish her letter to Helen. She would rise in the morning, write a page, head off to work, think through what she had written, then come home, throw it out and start over. She thought she knew what to say, but the thoughts, when inscribed on the page, didn’t adequately express what she wanted to convey. Then she would sleep on it, regret her haste, and wake to re-write what she had edited out. After a few episodes of this, she disciplined herself to simply set the offending page aside, to be re-added later.
I do not know if you received my earlier letter; honestly, I did not expect a reply. I am writing to you again because I need to tell you what I know. Whether or not you do anything with it is up to you, but I owe you this information, and if it can help your child, I hope you can set your anger at me aside for a moment for her sake. In a way, this is as much your story as it is mine. Your father is the key to your daughter’s condition.
I have filed a report with the police here to find him. They don’t know if it’s possible after such a long time, and I know not to expect too much. If he is still alive, you may want to contact him and get him to meet with your child’s doctors. I am certain he suffered from the same problems she does.
Then again, I’m not sure that her doctors can really do anything for her. Your father’s condition was beyond the understanding of most people. I didn’t understand it myself until I saw the documentary.
Maria then wrote down what she thought Megan’s problem was. Looking at the words staring at her in the face, she realized that she sounded utterly insane. She went to cross them out, but saw that they would still be legible. She would have to re-write the page. Cursing, she crumpled the paper, tossed it aside, and re-did her introduction. There was a large blank space on the bottom of the paper, but she ignored it and grabbed a new sheet.
I think a little background would help you understand better.
She took a deep breath.
Did I ever tell you the story of how I met your father? Did you ever wonder how
somebody like him and somebody like me ever fell in love?
Even back then, I was working at the Sea Coast Villa as a cleaning lady. I had been there for almost ten years. I had left El Salvador to escape a bad marriage.
She had been an accountant in El Salvador with a college degree.
It was the summer when we had all of the hurricanes. We had been through three already when Lorenzo formed near the Bahamas. Luckily, Lorenzo missed us and never came ashore anywhere, but he still stirred up the sea. The beach outside the condo was pounded by huge waves. The surfers loved the hurricanes for this reason, although I always heard that you should stay away from the water when it’s rough like that, and I thought they were stupid, frankly. They were young, though, and that’s what young people do. I was nearly forty and no longer young, so I didn’t understand it.
One morning I arrived at work early and decided to go down to the beach for a few minutes to look at the surf. The tide had gone out and what was left of the beach was empty. (Like now, the people who live at Sea Coast Villas are all old and don’t really go near the water, so that wasn’t unusual.) What was unusual was the young man lying still on the sand. I hurried over to see if he was alright.
He was unconscious. The surf was still pretty strong, and I guessed from his young age and his condition that he had been one of the idiot surfers, and he had been knocked out by a wave. I don’t know how long he had been there. He had been there long enough to be completely dry. His surfboard was nowhere to be seen and had probably washed out to sea.
She decided to omit the detail about his clothes being washed away as well.
I managed to bring him around, and I tried to ask him what happened, but I quickly realized that he didn’t speak English. He looked Middle Eastern, so I figured that he was a foreign tourist. There weren’t many of those in Tarpon Beach. He didn’t really say anything, so I couldn’t tell what he spoke. I knew what it was like to be in a strange place and not able to talk to anybody, so I felt sorry for him.
He seemed to recover pretty quickly, although he was a bit dazed. I gave him some dry clothes from the condo laundry lost and found and bought him something to eat when my shift was over. I tried to figure out where he was staying or who his friends were, but again, he wasn’t really speaking. I gave him money for the bus and drew a map to the police station for him, hoping that maybe they could help. Then I went home.
A week went by, and then I saw him again on the sidewalk by the condo, still in the same clothes I had left him in. They were clean so I thought he had at least done some laundry. I tried to find out more about him, but he would only smile shyly and occasionally make a clicking noise with his tongue. I tried out some names on him that sounded Arabic (although I had no idea, really), and when I said ‘Ali,’ his face lit up. Eventually I figured out that his name was ‘Ali Hassan,’ but I still didn’t know anything else. I named every Middle Eastern country I could think of, but nothing seemed to register. I had no idea where he was living and neither did he.
I kept running into him like this, and although I thought it was weird, he seemed harmless and very sweet, and I pitied him a bit. I gave him more clothes. I bought him lunch. One day he surprised me with a large fresh fish from the seafood market, and although I had no idea how to prepare it or any place to put it in my little refrigerator, I was touched by the gesture. We would hang out together during my breaks and I would try to teach him Spanish or English. He struggled for a while, but eventually learned quite a bit of both.
I got him a job cleaning at the Sea Coast Villas. He had been there a while at that point, far too long for a tourist visa, and I gathered that he had come from a place he didn’t want to return to. He and I would scrub and vacuum and practice our languages, and as time went by I found myself thinking about him long after we had parted for the day.
He was very young. Not a boy, but much, much younger than me. I was older and plumper and starting to go gray, and I scowled at myself for having such feelings. But when I realized that he was sleeping every night on the beach by the sea wall, I foolishly invited him to stay at my apartment until he could save up enough money to rent his own.
As you are sitting there reading this, you can guess what happened.
We were very happy except for one problem: Ali started to disappear. For days on end he would vanish and not call or leave a note or anything. I covered for him at the condo, but I was annoyed that he would be so irresponsible and put me in such a bad position. He would return and not be able to quite explain what he had been doing or where he had been. He was always very remorseful, and foolishly I always forgave him. When I was shocked to learn I was pregnant, he was so delighted, but then left again, and again, and again. He wasn’t there when you were born, but returned soon after, again apologetic.
I tolerated this for so long because when he did stay around, he was the kindest, most attentive, most thoughtful man you could imagine. Quite the opposite of my husband. And he adored you. He would cradle you and smile at you as if you were made of starlight, and I would stare at him and forgive him for everything.
I don’t know if you remember the night I finally threw him out for good. You were nine, and by then you had the habit of locking yourself in the bathroom when he would stop by. He would ask to see you, and when you refused to even answer him, he was heartbroken. I was heartbroken too. By then, I knew something was very, very wrong. The condo had finally fired him for his ongoing absences, and nearly fired me for covering for him so much. His health was horrible too. His skin was so dry it was almost falling off, and he would tremble uncontrollably and sweat and wheeze. One time I noticed the track marks on his arms and asked him if he was using, and he denied it, but he was looking away when he did.
I had finally had enough, and I decided it was time to cut ties with him, for your sake and mine. We couldn’t go on living like that and I didn’t want a drug user and deadbeat in your life. I told him to leave and to never come back, and I think he could tell that I meant it, for he went into an absolute panic. That was when he finally told me what was wrong.
When Maria wrote out what Ali had told her, it no longer seemed so crazy. She hoped Helen would feel the same way.
She finished the letter with good wishes for Helen and Michael and especially little Megan, and prayers that her letter would help solve the mystery of the girl’s ailment. Then she collected the pages, read through them one last time, and with satisfaction she folded the pages and wriggled it into an envelope, pulling the flap as best she could over the straining letter.
In the morning, she took the early bus and stopped at the post office, not sure how much postage her letter needed. There was no line and she was on her way to the condo much sooner than she expected.
Writing the letter had been cathartic. She hadn’t felt this good in years. It was a relief to tell somebody else what she knew, and she wondered if her news would be the solution to the child’s illness, and that, perhaps, Helen would finally forgive her. Maybe they would come to visit her, or have her to their house. She wondered what their house was like, what Megan was like. She was almost giddy with the idea that she might have her family back.
She arrived at the condo, put her things in the break room, and decided to walk back to the beach. She had a few minutes before she had to get started on her round.
It had been a long time since Maria had spent more than a few minutes at the ocean’s edge. She smiled, slid her feet out of her sensible shoes and sweat socks, and wriggled her toes in the sand. It was still early, so the sand was still cool and somewhat damp from the long-receded high tide. She tiptoed into the shallows, the little waves rippling over her ankles, and looked over nearby to where the beach crested a bit. That was where she had first seen him.
I wasn’t a fool, she thought happily, wading in further. He loved me. He was trying everything he could to stay.
The waves washed over her knees, then her waist. My life hasn’t been a joke. I was loved.
Forgetting her shift, she ran and dove with glorious abandon into the next wave.
I was loved!
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Maria hunched over the toilet bowl, scouring furiously to make the old, stained porcelain look as good as it could. The Lysol fumes still made her eyes water, even after all these years, but they did the job and the owners would be able to tell that she had cleaned the bathroom. She finished up, flushed away the foam, and poured a tablespoon full of Lysol back into the bowl (an old housekeeping trick to ensure the 'clean' smell hung around). She struggled to her feet, her elderly knees popping as she did so, and stepped over to the shower.
As she bleached away the mildew, she pondered what she would do.
She had written the reply to Helen a hundred times in her head; she knew exactly what to say, and how to say it, and in what order so that her account made some kind of sense, particularly to a person like Helen, who no doubt would be a hostile reader.
But the letter, when it arrived, completely threw her for a loop. It had been from the girl herself.
My mother threw your note away
Maria's heart wavered when she read that. She hadn't spoken to Helen for years, and she knew that her daughter despised her, but it still stung to be reminded of it.
And what do you know?
That was the worst part; she knew what was wrong with Megan (or, at least, had a strong suspicion), but Helen's bitterness was so intense that she refused to hear it.
My mother threw your note away
How would she write her back? If Helen had thrown away the letter, surely she hadn't permitted Megan to have it, much less to respond to it. She wanted to help the child, but not at the risk of getting her into trouble. What about email? What was that called-- Facebook? She had heard of these things on TV, but had no idea how to use them. Perhaps the girl had email or Facebook; perhaps the young woman at the library would help her contact Megan?
There was something discomfiting about it, sneaking around to make contact with a child such that the child's parents wouldn't know.
She shook her head. Not my place.
She ran the shower and splashed the water over the mildew remover to rinse the tiles clean, then dropped her sponge into her supply bucket and dried her hands on her apron. Her hands felt rubbery from all the cleaners, and she was glad her shift was almost over. She wiped the mirror free of flecks of soap and toothpaste, refilled the toilet paper, and replaced the towels, then carried her bucket out of the last condominium unit for the day.
On her bus ride home she wrestled further with what she should do, resting her head against the smudged glass and watching the seafood restaurants and souvenir shops drift by.
And what do you know?
She realized that there was only one solution. It wasn't perfect, but the child was owed a reply, and Maria would provide it. It would be up to her parents to decide what to do with the information. Besides, she had written the letter in her head a hundred times, so putting it down on paper would be easy.
She pulled out several sheets of paper-- she hoped she would have enough-- and curled up on the sofa with a hardbacked book and Wheel of Fortune on in the background. She uncapped her pen and began to write:
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Despite the early hour-- the windows showed it was still pitch-black out-- she was wide awake, humming with nervous energy, the same feeling she had after she had discovered the thrill of dipping her fingers into the tap water. Urgently she stuffed her feet into her sneakers and grabbed her hooded sweatshirt; at this hour, she was unlikely to encounter anyone else, so she didn't bother with changing out of her pajama pants and t-shirt.
She slipped the letter to Maria into her sweatshirt pocket and padded quietly down the hall. She stopped for a moment at the secretary cabinet, where she rooted through old receipts and old bills until she found the little strip of postage stamps. She carefully peeled one loose and fixed it to the envelope, then made her way to the front door.
She stepped out onto the porch; it felt good to breathe in fresh air, and she wondered if she shouldn't start rising earlier. She walked down to the sidewalk; there was her mailbox, but she passed by it without stopping. It wouldn't do to mail it from her own house.
She turned left and began scouting her neighbor's mailboxes. The Tran box's flag was down. The McLaren box's flag was up, but there was a light on upstairs. The Willams box (did they still live here anymore?) was missing its flag and the door lay limply open. The Amiri box was intact, but old and metal and Megan feared its door would squeak. Finally, she spotted the new mailbox that the Parks had just installed: perfect. The flag was up and their house was dark. She darted to the curb, slipped her letter inside, and practically leaped back onto the sidewalk.
She was heading back home when she spotted a man standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the street, several houses away. What was he doing there? Then she noticed a bus stop sign above his head. Since when was there a bus stop there? And who's catching a bus at this hour, anyway?
She walked back up to her house and turned the doorknob, but it hit a catch almost immediately and didn't turn. Locked, thought Megan. Oh shit.
She jiggled the handle, even though she knew it was useless, and glanced back at the man at the bus stop. Did he see her?
She groaned quietly, worked up a quick story, and rang the doorbell.
It took several rings, but finally her bleary-eyed father opened the door. "Good Lord, Megan, what are you doing out there?"
"Thought I'd take a walk."
"This early?" He squinted at her clothes. "And in your pajamas?"
"Couldn't sleep." She squeezed past him into the house. "Felt good to get some air, actually."
"Well, next time, take a key."
I don't have one, she thought. "Sorry to wake you, Dad."
"Yeah, I'm sorry too." He glanced at the hall clock and sighed. "I have to be up soon anyway. No point in going back to bed." He headed for the kitchen and began pawing through the cabinets for the coffee.
Megan followed him and sat down at the table. "Can you believe that somebody's waiting for the bus right now?"
"I can," he answered. "A lot of the military guys have to be at the Pentagon first thing and it takes a while to get there from out here."
"I can't imagine having to do that."
"You might someday," he smiled, wondering if that was even possible for her.
Then Megan waited. She figured it would take her letter three or four days to reach Tarpon Beach, then another day or two for Maria to write a reply, and then three or four days to receive it, so it wouldn't be until next week at the earliest. In the meantime, she occupied her mind with her reading, her occasional school lessons from her mother (who, despite her best efforts to put on a content face, was clearly agitated about something) and her new secret hobby.
To be absolutely certain of privacy, she refrained until her mother slipped out to run an errand or until after both parents had gone to sleep. Then she would creep into the bathroom, lock the door, and run the tap.
She experimented. She dipped her toes into the shower and marveled at the black dots that splattered her calves wherever the water flecks had landed. She collected droplets on her fingertips and drew lines on her face, fighting to suppress guffaws at the silly masks she created. She rolled up her sleeves and leaned her arms under the water; she did the same with her legs. She was very careful not to do too much at once, but she found herself getting bolder and bolder as time went on.
After all, it didn't hurt. Well, it did at first-- that burning sensation that made her eyes well with a spurt of tears and made her bite her lip never seemed to get any easier. But once that initial shock subsided, it felt pretty good. It was soothing and refreshing and for the first time in her life, she felt clean.
But then one morning--her mother was out at the dentist-- she went a little too far. She was making handprints on her neck and upper chest, creating some kind of abstract pattern, when suddenly her breath caught. She inhaled deeply, but only a trickle of air came through. She tried again, but it was even less, and as she gasped and panted, flashes of light burst in her eyes. Her limbs started to tremble and she grabbed onto the counter to steady herself, slowly sinking to her knees. She felt nauseated and sensed that she was slipping out of consciousness. Her ears felt like they were plugged with cotton; her chest felt like it was sandbagged. Her failing eyes fell on a towel.
Dry off, she fought to command herself. Now.
She reached out her shaking hand for the towel, managed to fumble it off the hook, and weakly tried to blot at her neck. In the blur she saw her arms were almost completely greenish-black.
Her efforts weren't accurate, but as she wiped away the water, she began to recover and gradually regained control. Her breathing stabilized and she drew in greedy lungfuls of air. The spasms in her limbs relaxed, but she still trembled. For the first time in her life, she understood what her parents were afraid of, and it frightened her too.
Haunted, she stayed away from the tap after that, but only for a little while. As days and days passed with no reply from Maria, her anxiety gradually beckoned her to return, and she found herself awake at 2 am, dipping her fingers into the soothing water.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Megan wasn't the only one having trouble focusing on a book. As she thumbed through a used copy of an American history textbook, looking for the chapter on the post-Revolutionary War period, Helen's mind was far away from the Whiskey Rebellion and the Articles of Confederation.
How did she find me? And how did she know about Megan?
The documentary, and she cursed the day she and Michael consented to that show. For the meager fee they were paid, they ended up with random letters from kooks and long-lost parents. One and the same, she thought bitterly.
The idea of writing back kept flitting around her head, like an annoying housefly, but she swatted at it angrily. No. She had worked too hard to put as much distance between herself and her failed family, and she did not want Megan dragged into that. Megan had enough problems as it was. Helen recalled the sight of Megan's black, scaly arms, and shuddered.
"Here it is," said Megan, pushing the book towards her mother.
Helen sighed. "Honey, you know what? Let's skip the lessons today, okay?"
"You're still freaked out by this afternoon, aren't you?"
"A bit," Helen admitted.
"Mom, please," insisted Megan. "I'm fine. It was an accident. It won't happen again."
"Do you realize how lucky you were?"
"I know," Megan groaned, exasperated.
Helen slapped a hand on the book. "You weren't there," she lectured sternly.
"You didn't watch your baby struggle for air. You don't know how that feels. You don't know how close you came to doing that again."
"You'll have to forgive me if I'm a little upset about all of this."
"I was the baby," Megan muttered.
Megan fixed her eyes on her mother's defiantly. "I was the baby," she repeated. "I was there."
"You have no memory of it," snapped Helen. She stood up. "Like I said, let's do this later. I can't handle this right now." She left the kitchen quickly, pausing only to look back and offer a quieter, "I'm sorry."
Megan simmered, glaring at George Washington for a few moments. What the hell was her problem? The bathroom incident had clearly rattled her, but she seemed far too upset for that. If she had suffered an attack, then maybe, but she hadn't. She wasn't any worse for wear, so why was her mother so upset?
Then Megan glanced at the trash can.
She rose, walked over to it, and peered in. There, near the top, was the crumpled slip of paper her mother had been transfixed by earlier. She lifted it carefully, shaking off a few stray coffee grounds, and carried it back up the stairs to her room.
She shut the door behind her and sat down on the foot of her bed. She pulled the note open, extracted the envelope that had been wadded around it, and read the shaking handwriting.
I know what is wrong with your daughter-- she rolled her eyes. Another nut who saw the show. But then she saw the signature.
She had watched enough hours of Sesame Street to know a bit of basic Spanish.
Who was writing her mother and signing the note 'Mom'? And in Spanish to boot? Her mother-- Helen Hanson Ursis-- wasn't Latina. Was it some kind of old joke, old nickname? Her mother's mother was long dead. Was it a family friend?
Megan glanced at the envelope. Florida?
She went over to her desk and sat down, the wrinkled envelope in hand. Grabbing a sheet of notebook paper and a pen, she wrote:
My mother threw your note away, but I want to know who you are.
PS And what do you know?
She found a blank envelope, folded and inserted her reply in it, then copied the Florida address painstakingly onto it. She slipped the envelope into her desk drawer, plotting how and when she could mail it without her parents noticing.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
She hadn't bothered to turn the page in at least ten minutes; she was struggling with her concentration lately, and the stories that used to engross her for hours no longer held any sway. The words melted into an incomprehensible blur before her eyes as she lay on her bed.
It had been months since she had last set foot in a school. It had worked for a long time, but it wasn't possible now. Megan thought sadly about her elementary school, how all of the kids had been taught not to splash her with water-- "not even as a joke," the teacher had lectured them as they all nodded solemnly-- and how they all looked after her. They had the playground towel, which they used to dry off the slide and the swings after a rainy day so that Megan could use them safely, and the children would plead for a turn to be on 'towel duty.' Her classmates would fill her water cup for her at the drinking fountain so that she wouldn't risk getting damp; they would attach its lid securely and wipe off any stray droplets with their sleeves before giving it to her. They paid no mind when Megan steered clear of the sinks after using the bathroom, since they knew that she kept a giant dispenser of hand sanitizer in her desk and that she would use it faithfully. They didn't notice her stringy hair or dirty fingernails; they were kids, after all, and they were just as dirty as she was, and they were too busy with imaginary games and feats of strength anyway.
But then Megan had turned twelve, and she was too old for her school, and she was sent to a different intermediate school than most of her classmates because of where she lived-- they redrew the district lines-- and there nobody knew nor cared about her condition. Suddenly, on the cusp of adolescence, the appearance of her hair and skin was of utmost importance, and people whispered about the girl who didn't wash her hands and snickered about how she smelled, and the few kids who knew her from her old school were too insecure about their own precarious social positions to say anything in her defense. The school sent out a memo to inform parents and classmates about her condition, but that only made things worse; the kids who teased her had new material to work with, and her classmates' parents were afraid of inviting her to their homes for fear that she would be harmed (and they would be sued). Eventually Megan refused to attend, and her parents, sympathetic to her plight and unsure of any other solution, didn't make her. Helen became a reluctant homeschooler, and was daunted by how she would get Megan ready for college on her own; with the medical expenses, they didn't have any money for tutors.
Now Megan sat, ensconced in her room, staring blankly at a book with no memory of anything she had read in it. Carefully she inserted the straw of her water cup between her lips, as she had been trained since toddlerhood to do, and took a cautious sip.
She didn't have anything else to do.
She flipped the book over, still open to the page, and rose from her bed. She walked out of her room into the hallway, where she could see her mother from the landing staring at a piece of paper, not moving. Her mother heaved a sigh, crumpled up the paper, and tossed it into the garbage can.
Megan needed to use the bathroom, which was always fraught with peril, but she had been well-coached and she had never come to any harm; it had been years-- at least five?-- since her parents had decided she didn't need supervision and left her to her own devices.
She finished up and flushed, careful to stand away as she did so to avoid any possible splash, then reached for the hand sanitizer. As she rubbed the alcohol-scented goop over her hands, she looked at herself in the mirror, just long enough to see her dirty hair, her skin which managed to be both dry and oily at the same time, her chapped lips, the washed-out color of her face, and suddenly she was crying, and as the salty tears slipped down her cheeks, they left angry red traces that soon welled up in black and green.
The effect was so startling that she stopped crying and stared. She had never seen her rash in real life, only in lab photographs, and she was mesmerized. It didn't really hurt, and she breathed in consciously, trying to detect any struggle or catch in her chest, but there was nothing.
I thought this was supposed to kill me.
It was her own tears, she reasoned; she was certain she had cried before, and she had survived, so they must not be dangerous. But now, suddenly for the first time in her life, she wondered.
Her eyes drifted over to the faucet, which came into sharp focus, almost glowing in the bathroom light. She had always avoided it, as she was instructed to, and had never really looked at it before.
She stepped over to it, reached for the handle, and turned it on. The water flowed gently in a neat little column and disappeared through the drain that lay beneath it, utterly predictable in its course. The sound was both electrifying and soothing at the same time. She shut it off, then, with a thrill, turned it back on again. She glanced at the closed door; she didn't know if they could hear her. For several moments she turned the water on and off and on again, but nobody came running, and after a while, she let it run freely.
With trepidation she touched her fingertip to the cool stream, her arm jerking with surprise when she actually made contact, but she steeled herself, moving her whole hand beneath the flowing water. It burned at first, and the red welts rose up in their diamond pattern, but as the redness turned to black the pain subsided, and to Megan's surprise, she discovered that the feeling was delicious. She resisted the urge to stop up the drain, fill the basin, and submerge her whole head, but she spent several long minutes drawing the burning rash on her hands and forearms, withstanding the pain to see the black diamonds form. Her breathing remained normal and Megan felt giddy.
Calm down, she reminded herself. You don't know how far you can go.
"Megan?" called her mother, coming up the stairs. "Are you ready for our history session?"
"Oh," replied Megan, quickly shutting off the water and grabbing a towel. "Give me five minutes?" She wrapped the towel around her hands.
Her mother's footsteps approached the door; Helen knocked once, then opened the door. She saw the towel around Megan's hands and her face grew alarmed.
"Megan?" Helen gasped. "What are you doing?"
"It's nothing," Megan pleaded, but Helen snatched the towel away from Megan's hands and yelped.
"What happened?" Helen grabbed Megan's greenish-black hands and studied them frantically.
"I tripped," Megan fibbed.
"How did they get wet?"
"I fell into the toilet," Megan said, instantly regretting the words as she spoke them.
"Oh my God," said Helen. She grabbed another towel and began rubbing Megan's hands. "How do you feel?"
"How's your breathing?"
"Fine. Mom, please, you're rubbing the skin off."
Helen took a deep breath and stared accusingly at Megan's hands, as if they had betrayed her in some way. "Well," she said.
"I'm okay. Really. It was an accident."
Helen's gaze swept around the bathroom like a scanner. "What did you trip on?"
Megan searched around for something to scapegoat, but saw nothing obvious; her parents had removed all obstacles in the room years ago. "My own feet."
"Your own feet?"
"I had a klutz moment," explained Megan.
"God, Megan," sighed her mother. "Be careful."
"I know. I'm sorry. I'm okay...please stop worrying."
Helen rubbed her face exasperatedly with her hands. "Are you ready for history?" she said, her face still behind her hands, muffling her voice.
"Yeah. Look, Mom." Megan stuck out her hands, now back to bright red. "It's already clearing up."
"Make sure you put a ton of sanitizer on your hands and arms," instructed Helen, as she walked out of the bathroom. "Then meet me downstairs."
"I will," promised Megan. When her mother was out of sight, she gave her reflection a conspiratorial little smile, then left the room.
This was something she would have to try again, and soon.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The desk officer peered up from his form at Maria with incredulous eyes. "Excuse me?"
"Twenty-three years," Maria repeated. "I know, it's a long time."
"I'll say." He tapped his pen on the countertop. "What took you so long?"
"He's my ex-husband. I threw him out."
"But now you want to find him?"
Maria nodded. "Or at least find out what happened to him."
"Well, ma'am, I can take a report," said the officer wearily. "But honestly, after all this time, I doubt we'd be able to do anything. I'll fill out this form and put it in the system, but then that's probably it. This is probably more of a job for a private investigator."
"Honestly, I doubt he's still alive."
The officer gave the pen a final tap on the counter, spun it around in his hand and poised it at the next line on the form. "Well, it's worth a shot. How old is he now?"
Maria had to think for a moment. "I would say maybe...mid-fifties?"
"You don't know how old your husband is?"
"He didn't know how old he was," Maria said, then hastened to explain. "He wasn't born in this country."
"I see," said the officer, but she could tell from his expression that she was losing him. "I know, it makes no sense. It doesn't make sense to me either."
"Why would you think he wasn't still alive?"
"Because he was an addict. Drugs."
"What kind of drugs?"
"I'm not sure, he never used them around me. Heroin, I think. Track marks." She pointed at her arms.
"You may be right, then." The officer shook his head. "Can you describe him? What did he look like?"
Maria had stuffed the memory of his face into a closet in her mind years ago, but it took her only seconds for her to find it again. His pleading eyes, sunken with dark rings beneath them; his face with the dry patches of eczema that turned his caramel skin an angry red; his thick dark hair; his whole being untouched by age after nearly ten years only to be (probably) destroyed by drugs. She suppressed a shuddering sob and spoke.
"Dark hair-- brown eyes-- dark skin. Tan," she clarified. "He was Arab." Was he?
She pointed to a spot in the air about a foot and a half over her head.
Towards the end..."Thin." But not always.
The officer finished scrawling the name and set down the pen. "Last seen where?"
"Locally...good. That'll help." He picked up the form. "Like I said, I'll put this in and see what happens. But I wouldn't expect a lot from it."
Maria nodded curtly. "Thank you." Then she had an idea. "Wait...what about DNA?"
"What about it?"
"I see it on the TV. Some kind of...database?"
The officer laughed. "Well, yeah, we have DNA databases, but unless Mr. Hassan here had a criminal record and somebody took a sample, he wouldn't be in there." He frowned. "He might be if he's a John Doe, though."
"Unknown corpse," said the officer grimly.
"Would you have anything we could match him with? Old hairbrush, anything like that?"
Maria shook her head. "No...but I have some names of matches."
"Would they be in the system anywhere?"
"Not as criminals, no," replied Maria.
She remembered the geneticist on the TV documentary: "I've never seen anything like it."
Meanwhile, Maria's letter arrived on Monday afternoon. Helen rummaged through the mail, saw the shaky handwriting, and rolled her eyes; they occasionally got these kinds of letters from people who saw the documentary, offering up all kinds of crackpot theories and cures for Megan's condition, usually for a price. Helen had quit bothering opening them a long time ago and usually pitched them directly into the trash. This letter nearly met the same fate, but then Helen's eye caught the return address:
2558 Osceola Street #4
Tarpon Beach, Florida 32675
Helen's eyes flew wide and her heart froze for a moment. Slowly, as if the contents might bite her, she worked the seal loose on the envelope flap and extracted the letter. She looked at the little slip of notepaper for a long time before she finally unfolded it and read:
I know what is wrong with your daughter. If you would like my help, please write to me at the return address.
Friday, October 16, 2009
What had ultimately moved Maria to tears was a photograph, taken by a dermatologist several years ago, showing a close-up of Megan's bizarre rash: the diamond-shaped pattern that had manifested at her first bath. The skin had turned a mottled grayish-green color, marked with black spots. It closely resembled necrobiosis, save for the odd diamond pattern and for the fact that the flesh recovered completely when dry. Maria had never seen anything like it before, but seeing it now-- especially in connection with this little girl-- rattled every fiber of her being.
She remembered the story Ali had told her, the night she finally worked up the courage to dump him for good, after yet another one of his long, unexplained absences. For years afterward she had shaken with rage when she remembered what he had told her, at how offensive it was, especially when she knew precisely what he had actually been up to. As time had passed, her anger had subsided, replaced by pity and resignation; what did she expect, after all? He was an addict and had been for years, his arms marked by the telltale tracks that countless needles left behind. In fact, she wondered bitterly, if he himself had actually believed his own story. She couldn't really blame him for that, as it was a much better alternative to what he was actually struggling with. In fact, it showed just how hopeless and desperate he was that such a preposterous explanation was preferable to the pathetic truth.
But now, looking at this poor child's skin sample, she knew that his preposterous explanation had been the truth.
She lay awake all night, trying to figure out what to do next. After hours of alternating weeping and wondering, she managed to wring out a couple of hours of slumber. She was on duty at eight a.m. and off at four, so perhaps she could get over to the county office at the end of her shift in time.
In the morning a phone call revealed that her work day mirrored the county's hours of operation; she would have to wait until Monday, her day off. But she could make it over to the library this afternoon.
At four p.m. she cleaned her last bathroom, signed out and took the bus over to the little library. She approached the help desk, where a teenaged girl sat reading a book nonchalantly.
"Excuse me," she said. "Can you help me?"
The girl put down her book and looked at her inquiringly.
"I need to find an address," Maria ventured.
"Local?" asked the girl.
"No," said Maria. "In Virginia."
"You can find that on the Internet," the girl informed her, waving her hand towards a small cluster of PC's in the corner. "Password is 'turtle.'"
"I'm sorry," apologized Maria. "But I don't know how to use the Internet."
The girl's eyes widened. "Really?"
Maria smiled sheepishly and shook her head. "I haven't needed to until now."
"Have you ever used a computer before?"
Maria shook her head again.
The girl exhaled loudly. "Hmm. Okay, then." She stood up and walked out from behind the desk, gesturing at Maria to follow her. Maria did and the two sat down in front of one of the terminals in the corner. The girl punched T-U-R-T-L-E into the keypad, wiggled the mouse, and began clicking away. Maria tried to follow what she was doing, but it made no sense.
"We're closing in a bit, so we don't have a lot of time," the girl said as she clicked and typed and clicked. "Do you want me to show you how to do this, and then you'll have to come back another day and look up your info, or do you want me to just get it for you now?"
"Just get it now."
"No problem." A screen came up. "What's the name?"
"Ursis," replied Maria.
"U-R-S-I-S," said Maria. "I think."
"Well, it's not Smith or Jones or something like that, so that'll make it easier." The girl typed and clicked and another screen opened. "There's several of them. Do you have a first name?"
"Michael," said Maria. "Michael or Helen."
The girl typed some more and looked at the results. "There's five Michaels, no Helens. Do you know the city?"
Maria racked her brain; the show had said the town name, but now it escaped her. "Started with a R, I think."
"Two are in Roanoke." Was it Roanoke?
"That's not it." Maria shook her head.
"Let's try just M." The girl studied the list. "There's a few...here's one in Reston."
"That's it," said Maria suddenly.
The girl pointed at the listing and Maria copied it down slowly, her hand shaking. She folded the paper over and stood up. "Thank you," she said to the girl.
"No problem," said the girl. "You know, come back over when we have more time and I'd be happy to show you how to use the Internet. It's a great tool."
Not interested, Maria smiled politely. "Perhaps I will."
Maria returned back home, retrieved a piece of paper and a blank envelope, and sat down to write. She printed two lines:
I know what is wrong with your daughter. If you would like my help, please write to me at the return address.
She signed the note and packaged it in the envelope, then mailed it from the rental office at work the next day.
On Monday, she took the bus over to the county complex and walked into the public safety division.
"May I help you?" the officer asked.
"I need to report a missing person," replied Maria.
"Okay." The officer pulled out a form and a pen. "Adult or child?"
"Male or female?"
"How long since he was last seen?"
Maria swallowed hard. "Twenty-three years."
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The arrival of the EMTs heralded the beginning of Megan's long odyssey through an endless list of specialists-- dermatologists, allergists, ad nauseum-- with each one shaking his or her head, declaring they had never seen anything like it and writing down the name and contact information for another doctor to consult.
After several years, thousands of miles of travel, and hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of tests , the family had figured out the basic ground rules for Megan's condition:
1. Water could not touch Megan's skin. If it did, the rash developed. Too much direct exposure to water caused the anaphylatic shock that Megan displayed at her first bath, but superficial exposure-- a few drops, say-- did not.
2. Products with a small amount of water in them, such as lotions, did not cause a reaction.
3. Megan could drink water with no ill effects, but she had to use a straw or risk an outbreak around her mouth.
This meant that conventional showers and baths were out of the question. Megan's parents seized upon any alternative they could find, from using hand sanitizer (tended to be too drying) to just rubbing her with dry cloths to using 'dry bath' products developed for pets. Nothing was a perfect replacement, and Michael and Helen were forced to limit any activities that made Megan excessively dirty. Consequently, Megan never played in the dirt or a sandbox, was forbidden to use magic markers, and had to avoid exposure to communicable disease and sweating.
Megan also had to remain at home if the weather threatened even the slightest chance of rain. Family trips to the pool and the shore were out of the question.
Megan ended up reading a lot.
Her medical bills meant that there wasn't a lot of extra money for vacations anyway. The family received a lot of free treatments and testing by consenting to Megan's participation in case studies and trials-- one of the benefits of being a medical oddity-- and she was the subject of several research papers that garnered awards and promotions for their authors. At the end of it all, however, the family was left with little more than suggestions, kind smiles, and shrugs.
"Look at it this way," said one specialist. "At least she can drink the stuff. She'd be in real trouble if she couldn't."
One puzzling revelation was the composition of Megan's genetic code. It was fairly conventional, but huge pieces of it defied comprehension. Moreover, Helen's genes, surprisingly, had the same features.
"Do you have any reactions to water, Mrs. Ursis?" asked the geneticist. "Or anything else?"
Helen shook her head.
It was difficult to determine where the mutation came from. Helen was an only child, and when asked about any other blood relatives, she informed them that both of her parents were dead and that she had no other living family members. Michael had no mutations and neither did his parents or siblings, so the researchers tentatively pinned the condition on Helen's background, but without any of her relatives available for testing, they could not be certain.
And none of them could understand why Megan had these bizarre reactions while her mother remained unscathed.
When Megan was eight, a television production company caught wind of her plight and sought permission to film a documentary. It was an opportunity to pay off more medical expenses, so the Ursis family agreed. The resulting forty-minute special ended up airing from time to time on basic cable; occasionally Helen caught it at 2 a.m. when she couldn't sleep.
One time it was shown at 9 p.m. on a Friday night. That was when seventy-two-year-old Maria Beltran, home from a long day cleaning houses, happened upon it, and ended up transfixed.
By the time the credits rolled, she was sobbing. "Ali," she cried. "You were telling the truth. You were telling the truth."
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Moments earlier, Michael had been happily recording a milestone of his daughter's young life: her first bath. His wife had cradled the baby's pudgy little body close to her own, cooing happily, as she dangled a lazy finger into the carefully-measured-out inch of bathwater in the tub, checking its temperature for the twentieth time. She turned Megan's little face-- which wore the look of perpetual confusion typical of the newly-born-- to the camera and chirped her name, then knelt carefully beside the tub and laid the baby in the little cushioned seat that would support her. Still cooing, Helen dipped a tiny washcloth into the bathwater and began to delicately dab the baby with it.
Then all hell broke loose.
Helen dropped the washcloth and gasped. "Michael," she said uncertainly, "look."
"I'm getting it, Helen."
"No," Helen urged him. "Look at her face. Look at her legs."
Michael lowered the camera from the face and looked. There was an odd rash breaking out across the baby's body: red welts in a diamond-shaped pattern.
"What the--?" He peered closer.
"We rinsed out the tub, so there wouldn't be any residue on it," protested Helen, as if she was pleading a case. "We used the baby detergent on the washcloth, not the regular."
"You're not using any soap, are you?"
"Not yet," said Helen, looking bewildered at the bottle of baby wash that stood at the ready by her knee.
Suddenly, Megan lurched violently, splashing her mother with water. Her eyes bugged out, her mouth gaped, and she was thrashing and gasping for air.
"Oh shit!" cried Helen, instinctively grabbing the dripping-wet baby from the cushion and holding her fast to her chest, as if she could wrestle the seizure into submission, but Megan kept jerking and twitching. That was when Michael threw the camera away from him, inadvertently sending it flying into the toilet. He grabbed a towel and stuffed it around Megan's writhing body, as if drying her off would do any good.
"She can't breathe!" cried Helen. Megan was wheezing, trying to find air anywhere she could. "Call 911! Now!"
Michael ran out of the room for the telephone as Helen cradled her distressed infant fearfully, praying for the awful thrashing to stop and wrapping the towel tightly around her. Should she try CPR? Did she know how? Helen cursed her poor preparation and the demon that had possessed her poor, helpless infant, and pleaded for the ambulance to arrive. "Please...please...please...please..."
Slowly the lurching and gasping subsided, and Helen summoned the courage to look into Megan's face, fearing she had died. Instead, Megan looked alarmed, then burst into wailing tears.
"Oh, God," sobbed Helen, clutching her baby tightly.
Michael ran back in. "They're on their way," he gasped. "What's happening?"
"It's over," wept Helen. "She's okay." She drew Megan's face away from the hollow of her neck to show Michael; Michael heaved a huge sigh and sank to his knees. He put his arms around both of them and the small family rested together for a moment, none of them sure what had just happened.
"Are you okay, sweetheart?" Michael asked Megan gently, wiping the tears away from her tiny cheeks. "It's okay now, it's okay."
"What the hell was that?" Helen looked haunted.
"I don't know. Let's take a look at that rash."
He carefully pulled the towel away from Megan's little body; immediately, both parents gasped.