March 01, 2004



Chapter 22

Part III

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

More incidents followed the one with the pink cake.

First there was the matter of the home’s television, which had been broken for more than two years. The TV sat in a corner of the common room, unplugged, a bulky old black and white Quasar. It needed a new picture tube, so the notion of repairing it or buying a replacement was somewhere near the bottom of the home’s list of priorities. Celia didn’t think either would happen — her hope was that a “new” TV would find its way to the home as a donation, just as this one had several years earlier.

A few days after the birthday party, at breakfast, Grace announced that she intended to watch Sesame Street later that morning. That such a program even existed, she knew primarily from what she had heard from some of the older children, and from the fact that the set of wooden blocks she played with from time to time sported colorful pictures of Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, and Oscar the Grouch. It was unlikely that she could remember ever watching the actual show.

"I'm sorry, Sweetie," Celia explained, "the TV is still broken."

Grace shook her head.

"No," she said. "Not any more."

"That's right," said Raymond, with Alice and Judy quickly agreeing.

"What do you mean?" Celia asked. "Did gnomes come and fix it last night?"

"Not gnomes," said Judy. "It was — "

Judy caught herself just as Alice, along with Joey and Raymond, shushed her. Celia was amazed. Whatever their game was, this was the first time she could recall that the boys and girls were in on a secret together.

"You boys haven't been fiddling around with the TV, have you?"

Raymond's eyes grew wide and he shook his head.

"Not me," he said.

"Huh uh," Joey agreed.

"Boys?" she said sternly.

"No ma'am," they said together, correcting the informality of their previous replies.

She turned to the older girls.

"What about you two?"

Alice and Judy shook their heads.

"No ma'am," they both said.

"Nobody did a bad thing," said Grace. "Nobody did a thing they're not 'posed to."

She jumped out of her chair and ran to the common room.

"Grace," Celia called after her. "You haven't been excused."

"Come on!" Grace shouted from the other room. "We have to see if it'll work!"

The other children got out of their chairs and followed Grace into the common room.

"Wait a minute," Celia said, dumbfounded. The children filed out of the room. She had never before encountered this level of open rebellion, but she couldn’t help but be pleased by their enthusiasm. She followed them into the common room, where they were gathered around the old television.

Celia cleared her throat. They turned to face her.

"Excuse me, folks, but have we forgotten about a few things? Raymond, when do we get up from a meal?"

"When it's finished," he said, studying his shoes.

"That's right. And if we have to leave the table before a meal is finished, what do we say?" She looked from face to face. "Alice?"

"May I please be excused, please?"

That was one more please than Celia was looking for, but it appeared that she had regained control of the situation.

"That's correct. Now unless I'm mistaken, we have not yet finished breakfast and no one was excused from the table. So we're going to march right back in there and finish our breakfast. Let's go."

None of the children moved.

"Plug it in, Miss Crawford," said Grace. "It will work. Really."

Celia sighed and made her way over to the TV. Half out of a desire to get the day back on track, and half from a strange fluttering sensation she felt in her stomach — a sensation that she would have been uncomfortable admitting to — Celia decided to plug the TV in and prove that it was still broken. It would be an end to this particular lunacy.

With all eyes watching her, she inserted the plug into the wall socket. She then came around to the front of the TV and pulled out the On button (which also controlled volume). Pulling out the button produced the familiar electronic twang, which should not have occurred with a blown picture tube. But the sound was a small matter; there was something else undeniably wrong with the TV.

Or rather, undeniably right. Too right. The screen lit up immediately, rather than taking half a minute or so to warm up as it had always done in the past. And the picture, a weather map from one of the local stations, was as crisp and clear as could be asked for.

And it was in color.

Celia Gasped. The fluttery sensation in her stomach found its way to her knees, making her wobble for a moment. Somewhere, behind the roaring in her ears, she was aware of the children cheering.

There had to be an explanation. She looked at the screen, and then turned to look at the children, one after the other. Her eyes settled on Corey. He stood there staring off to one side, as oblivious as always.

No.

There had to be another explanation.

She quickly switched the TV off, to moans of disapproval. It was suddenly important, for reasons that Celia couldn’t quite grasp, that Caroline not see the TV working, at least not like this.

“Well, surprise,” she said. “The TV works after all. That happens sometimes with mechanical things. They break, and then if you leave them alone for a while, they start working again.”

Raymond looked at Alice, who quickly looked away, smiling. Judy giggled.

“My car,” Celia continued. “It happened with my car once. I think they call it vapor lock.”

Several of them nodded at this, but Celia knew she was babbling. A television had no moving parts, there was nothing there to freeze up. And besides, where a car might lock up and then start a while later, it wouldn’t transform from manual transmission to automatic overnight. That just didn’t happen.

“Now let’s finish our breakfast,” she continued, “and if we’re all good, we’ll see about watching Sesame Street this afternoon.”

After breakfast, Celia had the common room to herself while the children played in the back yard. She turned the TV back on. There was no question about it: it was a color picture, and much clearer than it had ever been before. She found the knobs in the back of the set and began fiddling with them. She could adjust the picture vertically or horizontally; she could wash it out to a bluish white blur, or turn it down to black, but she couldn’t change the color.

She wanted to hide the color, to turn it off. It took her a while to realize her mistake. Of course she couldn’t adjust the color; there were no controls for that.

It was a black and white TV.

She thought about unscrewing the back and yanking a few parts out. She could have the thing broken again in no time. But why would she do such a thing? It was broken, and now it worked. There was a practical side to this. Ruin a working television? And there was also the thought — lurking somewhere back there — that any damage she did to the TV would likely be undone.

Later that day, the children watched Sesame Street on the repaired TV.

Over the following weeks, Celia would allow the television to be on for up to two hours a day. She never offered any explanation for its repair. Neither Sheila nor any of the other volunteers at the home were likely to know that it was (originally) a black and white model. Caroline knew it, of course, and was often in the common room when it was on. But if she noticed the change — which she surely must have — she said nothing about it. And none of the children mentioned it, either. Aside from Judy’s near slip-up at breakfast that day and the knowing looks the older children had shared afterwards, it seemed that the cover-up was airtight.

A few days after the television had come magically back to life, Celia asked Grace how she had known that it was fixed.

“You know,” the child answered.

“I don’t know. Tell me.”

“Somebody made a wish.”

“Did you make the wish, Sweetie?”

Grace nodded.

“And Corey made it come true?”

She nodded again.

“And how did you know he did it?”

Grace giggled.

You know,” she said.

Celia didn’t know, but she didn’t pursue it. She didn’t want to hear that Corey had appeared in a dream to Grace and told her that he was going to fix the TV. She very much did not want to hear that.

The next incident occurred at night. It was 11:30, a full three hours past lights out, when there was a knock at Celia’s door. She was still awake, reading. Her room was one of three in the home’s attic, the other two being occupied by Caroline and Grace. When Grace was first moved from the girl’s dormitory to a room of her own a few months earlier, she would occasionally knock on Celia’s door late at night complaining of loneliness. But these episodes had stopped some time before. And the knock didn’t sound like Grace’s.

“Just a minute,” Celia said quietly and got out of bed. She slipped on her robe and opened the door. It was Caroline. Celia was not surprised to see her awake. She knew that Caroline had taken to spending a little time in the evenings watching late-night TV in the common room, now that it was an option. Time was, before the TV had broken, that the two of them would do this together. But a lot had changed since then. Watching TV after lights out was technically against the rules, even for staff, and Celia could no longer participate in minor acts of defiance against the home’s management. She was the management.

“You need to come downstairs,” Caroline whispered.

“What is it?” Both women kept their voices down. Waking even one of the children in the night could cause a chain reaction, from which it might take hours to recover.

“I was on my way up, and I decided to look in on the boys. It’s Todd.”

“What about Todd?” Celia tried to keep the panic out of her voice. She often found nights unsettling; her fears for the children would weigh on her, haunting her sleep. Sometimes even preventing it. She knew her night fears were irrational, a holdover from a childhood fear of the dark. It frustrated Celia that she should have to deal with such feelings. She would remind herself that she, more than anyone, must remain calm and in control. At all times.

Caroline shook her head.

“He’s okay. I just think you should come take a look.”

Celia followed Caroline down the stairs to the second floor. The boys’ and girls’ dormitories stood on opposite sides of the hall. The door to the boy’s room was slightly ajar. Caroline opened it a bit further and slipped through, followed by Celia. The room was dimly lit by a nightlight plugged into the electrical socket in the far wall. There was a row of five bunk beds, 10 beds in all, of which only six were occupied. Caroline and Celia approached Todd’s bed, which was a lower bunk with a vacant bunk above. He was lying on his back under the scratchy red Indian blanket that he always had with him when he slept. He was sound asleep. His truck was on the floor near the foot of the bed.

Celia watched him sleep for a moment, waiting to understand why she had been brought there. When after a minute or so nothing happened, she treated Caroline to a puzzled look.

“Wait,” Caroline whispered.

They waited for a few minutes longer. Todd and the other boys slept on peacefully. After a while, Caroline motioned for Celia to follow her out of the room. Celia quietly shut the door behind her. The two women made their way back upstairs.

“So what was that all about?” Celia asked, as soon as they were safely in the attic hallway.

“I really wanted you to hear it for yourself. Todd was talking in his sleep.”

What?

“I know,” said Caroline.

“But that’s impossible. He’s never said a word in his life. He’s deaf.

Caroline shrugged.

“I was on my way up, and I thought I’d give a listen at both doors. The girls were quiet, but I could hear somebody singing in the boys’ dorm. I went to have a look, and it was Todd.”

Singing?

“I know,” Caroline said again. “He was singing. Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

“In his sleep.”

Caroline nodded. Neither of them said anything for a moment.

“Jesus Christ,” Celia finally said.

“I know,” Caroline said for the third time. She let out a nervous little laugh. “What the hell is going on, here, Boss?”

Celia shook her head.

She lay in bed awake for most of the rest of the night, thinking about Todd. A boy of nine who could neither hear nor speak, he was nonetheless uniquely himself. He simply had fewer contexts than most children in which he could demonstrate that fact. Celia knew that he liked to eat oatmeal, and that he despised tuna sandwiches. That he had to have his Indian blanket with him when he slept. That he wanted his battered yellow Tonka dump truck, the one with no wheels, near him at all times.

Celia spoke to Todd every day, as did Caroline and sometimes (bless her heart) Kathy. Celia would patiently sign out “good morning,” to him and ask him how he was doing. She would let him know when it was time to play, and when it was time to eat. She would compliment him on his coloring. When he seemed nervous or frightened, she would tell him that everything was all right. There was no indication that Todd understood the signs, and of course he never signed back, but that didn’t discourage Celia. Besides — whether he could sign or not — she knew him, and she often knew what he was feeling.

She had known when his donated “new” shoes pinched his feet. She could feel his outrage and terror the day that Joey casually picked up his toy truck and walked away with it, and his relief and satisfaction when it was returned. She could feel his contentment when she hugged him, even if he had no way of expressing it — not hugging back, not even smiling.

This was the boy she knew.

The boy she had known for six years.

And she wondered, who would Todd be tomorrow? There was someone lying in his bed. Who was it? The same boy, only repaired like the TV? But the television hadn’t been simply fixed; it had been changed. Fundamentally changed.

Just before dawn, she drifted off to sleep. She dreamed that she was in the backyard on a perfect afternoon. The air was fresh and clean. All of the children were there, engaged in the serious work of play. Corey and Todd sat in the sandbox, talking. It was a serious and earnest discussion, the kind two boys might have on a summer afternoon. She couldn’t hear what they were saying.

“It’s okay. They’re smart.”

The voice was Grace’s. Celia looked down to see that she was holding the little girl’s hand. At the sound of her voice, the boys looked their way. Corey fixed his gaze directly on Celia.

“Todd had to be first,” Grace continued. “I wanted Lucy-Lu, but Corey said no.”

But why, Celia wondered.

“Not smart enough,” said Grace, answering the thought. “He needed smart helpers, like me and Todd. To start. But it’s okay. Pretty soon we’ll all be smart.”

The boys turned back to their discussion. As they talked, Corey scooped sand into the dump truck. Todd rolled it forward and back. He looked back up at Celia.

“Don’t you like it better with wheels?” he asked. “It’s still the same truck.”

Of course it is, thought Celia. Of course.

“Corey can’t fix everybody,” Grace said sadly. “He can’t fix Corey.”

The dream faded.

The next morning, Celia had no time to investigate what Caroline had witnessed — or at least thought she had witnessed; Celia didn’t want to get her hopes up that such a thing could really have happened — the previous night. She had to rush off to a school board meeting. The struggle Celia had observed since she first came to the home — Myra plodding on in her effort to secure more educational benefits for the home, with the Superintendent never budging — had become her fight some years before. The Superintendent had changed little with the passing time: he was a bit fatter in the face; his rim of hair had receded to two small tufts of gray fuzz. But he was otherwise the same, particularly with regard to his views on the old controversy. The meeting was a waste of time, as it always was. But Celia wasn’t about to give up.

It was mid-morning before she returned to the home. She went straight to the back yard, where the children were having their morning play time. She came upon a scene which, at first, could have been right out of her dream. Corey and Todd sat in the sandbox. Todd was scooping sand into the back of his truck, which was as hobbled as ever. But Corey was doing nothing. He sat perfectly still, staring off into the distance.

The two boys certainly weren’t talking.

“It all seems like a dream, now.”

Celia looked up. Caroline had joined her.

“A very weird dream, if you ask me,” said Celia. “So, we’ve had no new tunes from our late-night crooner?”

Caroline laughed.

“You must think I’m crazy.”

“No, I don’t. Not you, anyway.

Then she had an idea.

“Hey, Todd!” she shouted cheerfully, waving. “Look over here!”

The boy didn’t respond.

“No, that won’t work,” said Caroline. “How would he know his name is Todd?”

She put two fingers to her lips and blasted out a loud, shrill whistle. All of the children turned to look, Todd included. Todd first, in fact. He looked at Caroline, then turned his gaze to Celia and smiled.

“Holy shit,” said Caroline.

Language, Caroline,” Celia said absently. The admonishment was pure reflex. She put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder; she seemed to be losing her balance. There were other things that she needed to say, more important things. But she wasn‘t sure she could keep standing. She needed a moment to catch her breath, to think.

“It really did happen,” said Caroline.

Celia looked at her. Tears were streaming down Caroline’s face. Celia could feel her own tears welling up, and realized that she was laughing.

She didn’t need a moment. She didn’t need to think. She turned her gaze to Todd. He was now on his feet, still smiling, and walking towards her. Corey was, too. She realized that all the children were gathering around them.

There would be time later to think about what it all meant, time to think about getting Todd’s hearing checked and confirming what she already knew.

Todd stopped right in front of her. Celia fell to her knees and threw her arms around the boy. She no longer knew whether she was laughing or crying, and she didn’t care.

For the first time ever, Todd hugged back.

For a long while, no one said anything.

“Miss Gray, are we in trouble?” Judy finally asked.

Caroline wiped her eyes and turned to her.

“No. Of course not.”

“Well then why are you crying?” Grace asked in an accusatory tone. “And why was play time so short?”

Celia turned her head and looked up at Caroline, never loosening her hold on Todd.

“You whistled,” she explained, still laughing and crying. Still trying to catch her breath. Whistling was normally Caroline’s signal for the children to drop what they were doing and come here now.

“Oh,” said Caroline, experiencing a momentary loss of words. “Um…well…just testing. It was a drill. Good job, kids.”

The older children looked puzzled. There had never been a “drill” before.

“Is Todd okay?” Grace asked.

Caroline nodded. The tears were back.

“He’s fine,” she managed to say. She wiped her eyes again and caught her breath.

“He’s fine,” she repeated. “Now go…” she made a shooing motion with her hand, “…go play. The drill’s over.”

After lunch, Celia found Grace sitting with some of the younger girls at one of the tables in the common room, coloring. Grace’s picture showed two figures playing in the sandbox, with two others (an adult and a child) holding hands and looking on.

Grace looked up and smiled at Celia.

“See?” she said. “Just like yesterday.”

“I see,” said Celia. “It’s very pretty.”

“Were you there, Miss Crawford? Or was it just a dream?”

Celia considered this.

“I suppose I was there, Sweetie,” she said after a moment.

Grace picked up a green crayon and continued coloring the grass.

“What’s the difference, anyway?”

That was a question, Celia thought, that was supposed to have a very simple answer.

“Dreams are just in our minds. Just in our imagination.”

Grace stopped coloring and thought about this for a moment.

“Nuh-uh,” she said, shaking her head.

“Maybe not,” said Celia.

“In a dream, you can make a wish, and it will come true.”

“Well,” said Celia. “It might come true. But only in the dream.”

Grace laughed. She looked at Lucinda, sitting by her side and working very hard to color within the lines of a Flintstones coloring book.

“Is this a dream?” she asked.

“No, Sweetie. We’re awake.

Grace put her crayon down.

“What’s the difference?” she asked again.

Celia shrugged.

“Right now, I’m not completely sure. But let me ask you something, Sweetie. What did you mean when you told me that Todd was first?”

“You know already,” said Grace, deadpan, bored with the subject. She continued with her work. And then, without looking up, she added, “He can hear now, can’t he?”

“Yes. He can. How about this, then. Who did you tell me you wanted to be first?”

Grace looked up again.

“Miss Crawford, you know already,” she said impatiently, pointing her crayon at Lucinda.

Celia looked at Lucinda. Lucy-Lu, as Grace often called her. She had called her that last night in Celia’s dream, a dream that Grace apparently remembered as well as Celia did. She turned back to Grace.

“And do you think Corey can help the other children the way he helped Todd?”

“You already know that,” Grace answered in sing-song fashion, continuing to color.

Lucinda giggled.

“Already know-oh,” she said, imitating the sing-song cadence.

All three of them laughed.

“Grace, how can I help Corey?”

The little girl just shook her head. Her patience was exhausted. And she was right, thought Celia. She already knew what she needed to do.

Within a few days, Todd knew his name and responded when he heard it. Within a week, he was beginning to form a few words of his own. A week later, he was having halting conversations with some of the other children.

Meanwhile, Celia continued Corey’s music-listening sessions in the library. She found time for them two or three times a week. She watched for some change in the boy — any change — but none came. Each night, she went to bed hoping that there would be another dream, some additional clue as to what was happening and what it all meant. But there was none.

More than once, she wondered whether she might not be imagining it all. The cake would have been an easy enough trick for her mind to pull. And the television? Maybe it was a new set, the acquisition of which her disturbed mind had edited out. It wouldn’t be too hard to fill the gap in memory with a story about dreams and wishes and electronic resurrection. Or maybe the old one was still sitting there, unplugged, and she was imagining the children watching it every day. If she were ever to become delusional, that was exactly the kind of delusion she would expect — one in which the children were happy.

But she didn’t think she was going crazy, which, of course, (she reminded herself) they never do.

But she decided that if she was insane, it wasn’t her problem. It was for someone else to discover — Caroline, most likely — and address. So far Caroline had had little to say on the subject of the unusual developments in the home. And Celia wasn’t about to bring any of it up.

On the other hand, assuming that Celia was in her right mind, then she knew she needed to do what she could to care for and protect her children. Corey among them. Or perhaps, Corey most of all. She could see now that this boy could do more for the others than she and Caroline would ever be able to.

It started with Todd, soon followed by discernable changes in Alice, Judy, Joey, and Raymond. The older kids. And the others would follow.

Yet whatever it was that he was doing, it was not just to help the other children.

He needs smart helpers, Grace had said.

For what? Celia wondered. What was it that this quiet boy felt he needed to do?

Posted by Phil at March 1, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack
Comments

Minor typo: "but she that didn’t discourage Celia"
I think you meant "but that didn't discourage Celia" or possibly "but she didn't let that discourage her".

Nice work, by the way. I've never had all that much patience for serial stories (as they were being released, anyway). Babylon 5 was about the only one I could put up with. But I look forward to each new chapter of Stillness.

Posted by: andrew at January 15, 2004 10:15 AM
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