“Wait, I’m confused,” Margot interrupted.
She was seated cross-legged on the edge of the throw rug with Sebastion the cat curled up asleep in her lap. Mark, who was sitting across from her on the couch, had burst unheeded into the lengthy history of his time at Princeton and the events that occurred there after he and Margot had listened to the indignant message left on the answering machine by Eliot Swan. She had followed him in to the kitchen twice over the past hour while he talked so that he could fetch first a glass of water and then, just a moment before her interruption, a bottle of Ballantine’s and a tumbler. She purposely timed her interjection now for both clarification of the story and to possibly postpone his night’s drinking. The news that the doctor had given to Mark the previous day, that she had overheard him confess to Deputy Daley only last night, still rung loudly in her ears. And while she had no desire to bring her knowledge of the situation to light, thinking that it would do more harm to Mark’s disposition than good, the idea of watching him drink himself to sleep again disturbed her in the wake of what she knew.
Mark had been reaching out to take the bottle by the neck and pour his first drink, licking the insides of his teeth in anticipation, but had paused as Margot spoke.
“About what exactly?” he asked, realizing that the inconsistency of his accounts up to this point confused even him.
“You’re saying Swan is gay?” she asked with the same tone of disbelief that she might have applied had she been asking if the man was immortal. She was still only twelve years old, and having spent the entirety of those twelve years living in southern Texas, her knowledge of homosexuality was limited mostly to the slurs the boys in the class called one another and a certain degree of urban legendry — the singer of this band is gay, the star of that movie is a lesbian. She had not yet developed a sense of it as a real thing, a thing that many people lived with as a day-to-day part of their lives. It inhabited the same distant and foreign category for her as Eskimos, sea pirates, and royalty.
“That’s what I’m saying, yes. But don’t start acting all disgusted.”
“I’m not!” she objected, honestly innocent of the charge.
“Okay, good. Don’t. Eliot had his faults but judging a man based on something like that is, uh, unbecoming.” He reached into the depths of his mind to locate a word to better disparage the potential intolerance, one that would demonstrate to his niece exactly how base he considered that manner of judgment. He found the words that he thought would make the most sincere impression. “It’s irrational.”
Margot, who had not thought to judge the man based on his sexual preference in the first place, had moved past the subject of bigotry in her mind and was now linking together the information that she had been fed from Mark’s accounts given over the proceeding forty-eight hours. She suddenly thought of Swan’s autobiography and a particular line flashed in her mind. The line, the real meaning of which had escaped her through two readings, described young Swan’s feelings of rejection by his peers after leaving college. Remembering this and taking a clue it gave about the time frame in which the community at large became aware of Swan’s homosexuality, she drew a conclusion.
“No one at Princeton ever knew he was gay, did they?”
Mark, who had been fussing internally about the impropriety of homophobia, was taken slightly aback. Margot had preempted the end of his story before he could tell it. He smiled at her cunning.
“I was just about to get to that,” he grinned. “The day after the kiss, I saw Eliot walking across campus with a few of his friends from the Ivy Club. I tried to have a word with him, just to make sure that he was alright after all of his drinking, and he snubbed me.”
“What do you mean he snubbed you?”
“I mean, he acted like I was a fan asking for an autograph. Practically ignored me.”
“Why?” Margot exclaimed. The urgency of her reply startled Sebastion from his drowsy sleep and he slunk away annoyed. Margot was confused now. In Mark’s account, Swan had claimed to love him only the night before. Mark sighed before he answered her question, knowing that he had spent many nights pondering it himself.
“It’s complicated, kiddo.” He leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees as if he were going to engage the question with the full strength of his mind. “I think Eliot was confused. He had made a mistake about me and maybe he felt ashamed. Maybe he wanted to punish me for denying him.”
“Maybe he is an asshole,” Margot suggested, taking Mark completely by surprise and eliciting an arched eyebrow of disapproval, but no verbal chastisement. The eyebrow was enough, though, to make Margot back off from the force of her words.
“It took him an awful lot of vodka to do what he did,” Mark continued. “I think when he sobered up, he didn’t know if he had made the right decision – to reveal himself like that. I think he felt the need to distance himself from me, to protect himself.”
“But didn’t you work together?”
“Well, not for long. After Ryabchikov died, they promoted professor Kent to department head. He was a fine fellow, but I didn’t feel any strong desire to stick around as his assistant, so I spent a year in Europe researching observatories then moved back here and built this one.” He was gesturing to the room around them.
Margot was on a roll now of deduction. She put another piece of the story together in her mind.
“So, when you met Swan for lunch…” She stopped to let the lock tumblers in her mind connect. Mark leaned back onto the couch and crossed his arms, curious to see what conclusion she would come to and how accurate it would be. He noted that her Watson was beginning to outshine his Holmes. “He didn’t want to just hire you, did he?”
Mark sighed heavily and finally unscrewed the bottle on the table in front of him, eliciting a sulk from Margot. But for Mark, having this discussion with his young niece was going to require a drink. Or several. He poured a five count into his glass and faced the question.
“No, he wanted more,” he admitted, immediately replacing the words leaving his mouth with Scotch and swallowing it down. “By the time he came to Texas he was–” He wavered on how to properly phrase it, “Comfortable with himself.” He took another deep drink. “I guess he thought his confidence would convince me.”
“Convince you of what?” Margot asked, still struggling with the foreign language of implications surrounding homosexuality.
“That I was gay too, I guess.” Mark finished his drink.
Margot was finally beginning to see the entirety of her uncle’s dilemma. The man to whom Mark was now reaching out for help, the only man that could help, had been estranged in the most personal of ways possible. He had been a slighted suitor: a man in love, rejected. Even at twelve, Margot had already witnessed first hand the power given to the object of affection to devastate. Many boys had courted her, all of whom had been denied flat out. One boy, a wiry red-head named Alex, the first to present his feelings to her publicly, had been reduced to tears by Margot’s callous snub. She had felt terrible for making the boy cry and had resolved to find more careful ways to rebuff advances. Even after this, more than one had lost his temper at her answer and been transformed instantly into an enemy. And these boys, she knew full well, were not in love, were only infatuated with her. She knew this, not because she knew what romantic love was exactly, but because she knew enough to realize that a person would have to at least know a little bit about her before developing those types of attachments. Swan had known her uncle well. They had spent many nights side by side in pursuit of a mutual passion. Swan had respected her uncle for his intelligence and fierce, albeit unintentional, individuality. These were the building blocks upon which, as she had come to understand through the stories told in movies and literature, the foundation of romantic love was planted. She saw that if these boys who bared their hearts to her with no more than a crush hidden within were so deeply effected by rejection, then Swan’s reaction to a denial of deep and cultivated love might very well be enormous.
Mark didn’t seem to consider this possibility, seated on the couch across from her, beginning to showcase the glowing ruddiness
“You don’t think he’ll be –- I don’t know, angry?” Margot asked, careful not to allow to much of her personal doubt to show.
“I don’t think he would have called if that was the case.” Mark was pouring himself another drink — his third. “If he was interested in buying the damn thing he would have had a buyer get in touch with me.” He poured a quarter of the contents of the glass down his throat. “He knows why I put the ad in the Canadian magazines. He got the message. I want to talk to him. And he wants to talk to me too.”
This made sense to Margot. If Swan really was still upset about that three decades gone rejection, then his decision to contact Mark in person made little sense. In her comparison of Swan to one of her pubescent classmates, Margot had forgotten that Swan was a grown man with a well-mannered upbringing. The adolescent backlash she had experienced firsthand could not possibly represent the way an educated adult would act. She began to feel more comfortable with the idea that Swan might be an ally after all. Still, she thought, none of this means that Swan is still in possession of the replacement eye-piece in the first place. Had Mark not lost two himself? And who is to say that it was not long-since sold? Again, she took the thought to Mark.
“How do you know he still has it?” she challenged.
Mark stopped himself mid-sip, genuinely confused by the question. “Still has what?” he asked and finished his sip.
“The eye-piece!” Margot answered aggressively, annoyed that Mark’s drinking was already clouding his mind for the evening and remembering still the dangerous secret that she had learned eavesdropping and that he still believed to be keeping from her.
“Oohhhh!” Mark said, a dopey smile spreading across his chin. “Of course he still has it! I doubt he ever even used it. It’s probably still sitting in that damn, that damn — warehouse in New Jersey!”
“But how do you know?” Margot was now being antagonistic solely because she had become frustrated with her uncle’s oncoming inebriation. She felt the sudden urge to shake the man and yell at him, “Snap out of it! This is important!” but she knew how futile it would be.
Mark was either too far gone or too involved with his own though process or both to recognize Margot’s mounting frustration with him, because despite her newly adopted tone, he leaned forward again and began to pour himself a fourth drink.
“I just know what he said,” Mark assured her, screwing the bottle’s top back into place. He added, “Besides, I’ll call him in the morning, and we’ll know for sure, won’t we?”
Margot didn’t respond. She crossed her arms and glared at her uncle as he attacked his fourth glass of whiskey inside of forty-five minutes. After a moment, seeing that he had lost interest in the conversation and devoted himself to drinking the evening away, Margot rose and without a word walked into her room, snatching up Sebastion, who was watching them from a bookshelf perch, as she passed.
It took Mark seven drinks to find sleep that night. Margot did not remove his shoes or cover him with an afghan, nor would she ever again.
* * * *
For the second time in six weeks, Margot awoke to the sunlight and, after pulling herself out of bed, found herself entranced by her own reflection. Her physical appearance still struck her as foreign, alien. But she noticed something more now. Past her outward countenance, which seemed to Margot, lately, more that of a woman than a child, a thought that stirred a rich variety of emotion in her, Margot saw a new presence in her eyes.
When Margot first looked at her reflection after her parents’ deaths nearly two years previous, she had noticed a similar change. The person behind those eyes then had changed from the person who had been blithely enjoying a car ride a few days before. The eyes were older, yes, but there was more than that. The eyes, and the person hiding there behind them, had not only aged, but gained an element of bitterness, an understanding of pain. And now, waking this morning and standing disheveled before her dresser mirror, she saw that the understanding hidden in the green of her eyes had deepened. She had not yet had time to consider all that she had learned recently and this morning the thoughts pounced on her like a predator.
Mark’s tumor. Was it cancer? Would he die too? This thought was the first and most urgent of the barrage and thinking it struck her as the worst thing that she could imagine. But just when she had begun to wrestle down the notion, to take control of it, another thought made itself fully manifest. Her uncle, her only living relative that she was aware of, dying this way, within two years of her parents’ deaths, was a terrible thought, but the tragedy compounded when she realized that if this spot the doctor had discovered behind Mark’s nose really was a malignant and cancerous tumor, coming as a harbinger of the man’s death, it would almost certainly take him before his business with Swan was completed. He would die frustrated and having never achieved that one thing he had his whole life obsessed over. And what’s more, the man seemed to not accept this truth for himself. As far as she could read, outside of his conversation with Daley, Mark hadn’t reacted in any way to the news he had been handed by the doctor. He had simply continued to enact his plan to procure from his long-estranged friend the replacement eye-piece that he needed. What good the eye-piece would do to a man that was quite possibly dying, she could not figure. The night before, when they had returned home to find a message from Swan on the answering machine, she had been momentarily filled with elation, but as Mark unwound his complicated story of his history with the man, displaying his alcoholism, unaffected in the face of the possibly life-shattering news, as he told the tale, she felt the hope drain from her. She swallowed down the pain when she did, she saw her eyes darken and saw that person who hid behind them buckle a bit more against the sorrow.
Sebastion freed Margot from her trance by jumping up onto the dresser top between her and her reflection. He was purring loudly, expectant of his morning feeding. Margot shook her head and released a small, forced laugh. The cat circled the dresser top, flicking out his tail in a show of impatience.
“Hold your horses, Sebastion. I have to pee,” Margot said and headed towards the bathroom with the cat following her. As she closed the door to the bathroom behind her, she heard the phone in the living room ringing.
* * * *
When Margot entered the living room that morning, she found Mark, dressed as she expected, talking quietly on the telephone. When he noticed her enter, he not-so-nonchalantly cupped his hand over the receiver and turned his back slightly to her. Had Margot not been awake two night’s before to hear Mark confess the situation to Daley, this clumsy attempt for privacy would have immediately alerted her that something was seriously amiss. As things stood, though, she pretended not to notice the way Mark lowered his head behind his shoulders and quited his voice as she entered the room. She knew instantly that Mark was on the phone with the doctor in Houston, but thanks to his clandestine, but far too obvious behavior, she was unable to ascertain what manner of news Mark was currently receiving, if any. She passed through the room without a word, followed by the hungry cat, into the kitchen.
Returning to the living room a moment later, having lingered there for an extra moment until she heard the phone clicked back against its cradle, and carrying with her a bowl filled with oatmeal and bananas, Margot settled into her usual spot on the couch. Mark was standing by his stool, looking out the front window.
“Who was that?” said Margot, trying to be as casual as possible with the question.
“Huh?” said Mark. His obvious distraction would again have betrayed his attempted guile had Margot been unaware of a situation. It was difficult for her not to react to his body language.
On the phone she deadpanned.
“Oh,” said Mark, finally turning towards her, hands in his pockets. She saw when he turned that his face was more red than usual. She hoped desperately that this was not a sign of distress. “It was the hospital.” Mark finished, taking Margot by surprise. For a half second she thought that he was going to come out with it and reveal to her what she already knew, but instead he fell silent again. She had to look away from him before she spoke again to ensure that he would not read in her eyes what she knew.
“Is everything okay?” came her question, phrased as indifferently as she could manage. And again, Mark’s pause gave her reason to think that he would admit to her what he was hiding, but again he kept it to himself.
“Everything’s fine!” Mark said with a startling brightness. So confident were the words, that Margot found herself wanting to believe that it was true and that the doctor had called to say that the spot on the x-ray was only a false alarm, but Mark’s follow-up lie left her still suspicious of the truth. “They just wanted to follow up about my insurance.”
“I thought you didn’t have insurance?”
“I don’t,” he said flatly. “That was what they wanted to follow up about.”
“So they’re just going to send you a bill? How much did it cost?”
Mark shrugged. “I don’t know yet. I’ve got some money still, though,” he said, watching Sebastion saunter between them after having eaten his fill.
Margot nodded at Mark’s answer, spooning a heap of the lukewarm mush into her mouth, but secretly she wondered how true that was. If Mark did have money stored away, why had he not simply paid to have a replacement eye-piece made in the first place? Why wait this long without it and then jump through the hoops necessary to get in touch with a man who may or may not bear a serious grudge? The train of though brought her around to a change in topic. “Hey! Are you going to call Swan!?”
“I already did. About an hour ago.”
She paused with a spoon of oatmeal inches from her mouth and looked at him expectantly, hoping for some good news.
“He wasn’t up yet,” Mark said. Margot finished her bite.
“Di-you lea ‘a meh-age?” she asked with her mouth still full of food.
Mark cast a disapproving gaze in her.
“Of course I did,” he said after she had swallowed the bite. “I left it with his –- uh,” here he struggled for what he thought to be the proper word, but when he could not find one he settled lamely on “–man. I’m waiting for him to call me back.”
“Well, I’m sure he will. He sounded pretty serious la–“
As if cued, the phone on the end table next to Margot rang, startling her noticeably. She laughed at herself as she glanced across the room to Mark, who took in a released a deep preparatory breath and began to walk towards her. Margot inhaled deeply, bit her bottom lip and held the breath anxiously. When he reached the table to Margot’s left, Mark paused with his hand above the receiver and the two exchanged one more look before Mark answered.
“Hello?” Mark said tentatively into the mouthpiece. Margot looked up at her uncle with her breath still held.
“Oh. Hello, Trevor.”, said Mark, a touch of disappointment in his voice. Margot released her breath now and went back to eating her breakfast as she listened to one sporadic end of the telephone conversation.
“No, I was just expecting a call. No, it’s fine. Tomorrow? That shouldn’t be a problem. Alright. What time? Okay. I’ll be there. Right. See you tomorrow.” Mark hung up the phone.
Before Margot could even ask what the conversation had been about, Mark began to explain.
“That was Deputy Daley,” he said, crossing back to the window. “He needs me to head back to Houston tomorrow to meet with the insurance agent. The thinks they’ll just cut me a check right then.”
“That was easy,” said Margot.
“Wasn’t it, though?” Mark agreed with a smile. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a cop on your side.”
Margot was nodding as she scooped another spoon-load of the mush from the bowl. Mark watched her for a moment, considering whether of not to tell her about the conversation he had been having with the doctor when she had come into the living room a few moments before. On the one hand, he felt very strongly that the girl should be shielded from this type of talk, especially considering the tenuous nature of their future plans, which for Mark rested first on further visits to the doctor and then on an amiable understanding with Eliot Swan. On the other hand, though, the girl’s maturity and astuteness had not gone unnoticed by Mark and he knew that keeping things from her at this point was all but a losing battle. In the end, he decided to save that conversation for another time.
“I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee,” Mark said. “Do you need anything out of the kitchen?”
Margot seemed to consider the question carefully, as if Mark were traveling all the way into town and not just into the kitchen.
“Do we have any orange juice?” she asked after some thought.
“How about a glass of milk?” Mark responded, shaking his head.
Margot smacked her tongue against the roof of her mouth to illustrate how dry it was.
“Any port in a storm,” she said and beamed.
Mark looked at her and smiled, more impressed with the young woman by the minute.
“Ain’t that the truth,” he said, affecting a dullard’s drawl to compliment her wisdom, and walked into the kitchen.
In the kitchen, he set his kettle on the element to boil and was busy filling a glass with milk for Margot, when he heard the phone in the living room ring again. This time, he felt with an odd certainty that it was Swan on the line. Once again he prepped himself for the conversation that was about to take place and, with glass in hand, made his way to the phone.
* * * *
When Mark picked up the phone, he started to say, “Hello?” but stopped himself when he realized to whom he was likely about to be speaking.
“Not for much longer, I hear.”
Although his voice had aged considerably, even more than the twenty or so years that had passed since they had last spoken, Mark was still able to recognize his old associate immediately.
“Hello, Eliot. It’s good to hear from you.”
“So,” Swan began, bypassing the pleasantries. “Imagine my surprise when I receive a call from my editor-in-chief informing me that some loon in Texas of all places has placed an ad in my magazine attempting to sell his telescope for -– how much was it?”
“Fifteen million dollars,” Mark said patiently. “What do you mean your magazine?”
“My magazine. As in, I own it. As in, I am the owner.” There was a brief pause on the line. “Did you not know that already?”
“I didn’t. How would I?”
“You were trying to reach me, though, yes?”
“Well, yes, actually,” Mark said, a bit surprised by how easily Swan had seen through his ruse. “But I didn’t know you owned the magazine. I just assumed you would read it when it was printed.”
Swan sighed. His tone was becoming bothered, as if he had no desire for the banter, but only to move directly to the point in the most direct possible way. This tactic did not suit Mark particularly, so he pretended not to notice Swan’s exasperation.
“So you’re in media now?” Mark asked coyly.
“Hardly. Look here, Parrish–” When he called Mark by his surname, he knew then that anger still existed in Eliot and that this entire affair would have to be handled most delicately. “Have you lost your mind? Do you have any desire to explain what possessed you to use this, this subterfuge to get my attention?”
“If you were me, Eliot, how would you have done it?”
There was a long pause this time in which Swan seemed to consider Mark’s point. After a while, he groaned in recognition.
“Alright. That’s fair, I suppose. But what in God’s name is the matter? Are you dying, Parrish?”
The question, although meant as a taunt, hit uncomfortably close to home for Mark, causing him to stutter his reply.
“I, I, uh,”
“God, man. You’re not actually dying are you?” Swan broke in, his tone still maintaining the note of hostility. It were as if he were now freshly angry that Mark would have the audacity to contact him with this kind of terrible news. If he did feel pity or sadness at the concept of Mark’s death, he was keeping the reaction cloistered. Mark, who had still not even Margot about the doctor’s findings, gave Swan the same treatment.
“No, of course not! You’re so melodramatic, Eliot.”
“Melodramatic, am I? So what, did you just want me to call you so that you could insult me?”
It was Mark’s turn to sigh under the frustration of the conversation. However, he thought to pull the phone from his ear and press it into his chest, and in doing so, eliciting a curious glance from Margot who was still sitting on the couch watching him talk.
“No, Eliot. Not at all,” Mark said when he replaced the receiver to his ear. He swallowed, and softened his tone before he continued. “The truth is –- well, I need your help, Eliot.”
“Well, that’s not particularly specific, old fellow. What’s say we cut to the heart of it already?”
The embarrassment of what Mark would have to say was close to overwhelming, but he had been preparing himself for this moment since, seeing Margot’s intense interest in the science, he had made up his mind to pursue this last remaining avenue.
“Ryabchikov’s telescope –- it’s been, um, damaged.”
There was a small chuckle on the other end.
“So, it’s not for sale?” Swan was pouring on the sarcasm thickly.
“No it’s not.”
“Fifteen million did seem a touch high.”
“So it’s damaged? What does this have to do with me? I’m not a–” and to emphasize his point, Swan struggled to even label the figure he was picturing, “Repair… person.”
“Yes. I realize that, Eliot. But I was hoping you still had a replacement piece you might be willing to part with.”
“A replacement?” Swan seemed to think about his catalogue of possessions, a process Mark could only imagine would be quite difficult. “I might,” he finally concluded. “Which part?”
“An eyepiece,” said Mark quietly.
“You’ve broken your eyepiece?” Swan almost shouted. Mark had expected this reaction. Certain mechanical parts of a large telescope were expected to wear out over time. Gears involved in the process of changing the large masses direction would diminish. Even the focusing mechanism, which would subtly shift the position of the eyepiece would eventually wear out. But an eyepiece itself, having no mechanical parts, was expected to last the lifetime of a telescope. Given the proper care, of course.
“Well, what about the replacement?” Swan asked, his voice the very pitch of derisiveness. He was referring, of course, to the replacement part that they both knew full well Ryabchikov had included in his bequest. Mark had no answer for the accusatory question. “The replacement too?” Swan said, shocked.
“Look Eliot, I’ve been running a public observatory here,” Mark lied. Swan would not likely know that it had been twenty years since he had closed the facility to the public and the explanation seemed to placate him.
“This,” Swan said in chiding tone, “Is what you get for putting your valuables in the hands of amateurs.”
Mark had no choice but to agree. “I can see your point.”
There was once again a long pause as Swan thought the situation over. When he did speak again, he seemed to have found his sympathy.
“And I suppose there is no one around to craft a replacement, correct?”
“Even if I had the specifications, which I don’t, the trade has been dead for decades.”
Swan sighed again, this time acknowledging
“I have to have my man in New Jersey locate the part. I can’t promise I have it.”
Mark knew for a fact that Swan was absolutely certain that he still had the part. He was the kind of man who would never misplace a thing. Fastidious to the very last.
“I understand,” said Mark, helplessly.
“I will call you again in a few days, once I’ve got it in my hands.”
“Okay. It was good to ta–”
Swan hung up.
Mark slowly set the receiver on the hook and looked down at Margot. She was watching him carefully, having listened to his end of the conversation. When the corners of Mark’s mouth began to raise into a smile, the girl balled her hands into fists pumped her elbows back forcefully.
“Yes!” she shouted.
* * * *
The routine by which Margot and Mark tended to live their mornings was now entirely disrupted. The barrage of phone calls, more than Margot had come to expect inside of an entire week, that had kept Mark at attention sucked away the usual rhythm of the their exchanges. But even if the phone had not rung even once, the converging events of the near future, the big reveal of Mark’s condition after his subsequent visit to the neurologist and the long hoped-for return to function of the great glass eye looming over them in the next room that was promised when Swan had left his belligerently appalled message on their machine the night before, haunted their separate and collective thoughts in such a way as to make normal life impossible, no matter how badly Mark wanted to fake it.
And so, for the remainder of that morning and well into the afternoon, the two moved around one another in their speech in a manner of that almost resembled two people at odds. No direct questions were asked and no internal thoughts were revealed. There was a general and continuous economy of surface-level exchanges presented in a veneer of giddy relief. If Mark was supposed to be perfectly healthy, a presence of strength and stability in his niece’s world, then he would damn well make sure that it was the part he would play. He had no time to feel sorry for himself, least of all now, standing on the verge of restoring his laboratory to working order and providing Margot with the work space she needed to nourish her interest. And, of course, he had no more deep-seated desire than to get his own eye back to the glass. In the two years that he had spent discouraged, his desire to discover ruined by thirty years of futility and disaster, Margot’s burning interest had been enough to reignite his own passion and encourage him to once again bite on the nail. It now seemed that Swan, despite their long-standing differences, was willing to help Mark to this end. He felt as though he had no right to wallow in pity. But, if the neurologist did give him dire news after their visit tomorrow, the knowledge that he would have no choice but to explain the situation to his niece lingered in his mind at all times, paling the joy of his conversation with Swan that might have otherwise shown with brilliance.
At the same time, Margot was experiencing a very similar plight. She knew full well how much retrieving the eyepiece meant to her uncle and how intensely comforting of must have been to him to have received a positive reaction from his old companion. She also knew that the man would be torn now, between that comfort and the dread and panic that comes with a shocking diagnosis. In this situation, Margot felt it of the utmost importance not to tip the balance of emotion in favor of fear and dismay. Therefore, she did her best to hide from Mark the fact that she was aware of his predicament. This proved to be not so difficult. Mark’s own distractedness was painfully noticeable and it took little effort for Margot to hide her feelings. Even if she had outwardly emoted, she thought, Mark would be hard pressed to notice in his current state. And in this way, the two delicately side-stepping on another’s feelings, the day passed.
It was that evening, just as the large summer sun was beginning to deepen its hue upon its final descent, Mark, already cracking the ice from the tray into the plastic freezer bin and refilling it with water to ensure an ample supply for that night, remembered an offer he had made to Margot a few days before.
“I was just thinking, kiddo. I was going to give you a rundown of the observatory before…” He trailed off and slid the water-filled ice tray into the freezer, thoughts of what had happened to interrupt the plan to show his niece his workspace filling his mind. An image of the doughy doctor squinting at the bean-sized grayish shadow resting behind his nose flashing before him.
“Before we got into that wreck?” Margot finished the sentence for him, reprieving him of the responsibility of any more thoughts of the day before yesterday.
Mark shook the negativity out his mind, but it had already left a stain when called to the anterior of his thoughts. He sighed deeply, knowing that he would need a drink sooner rather than later. He looked down to Margot with an apologetic expression on his face.
“Yes, before the wreck,” He said, not yet moving to the cabinet for a tumbler. “Still interested?”
Margot smiled. “Of course! I’ve only asked you a million times!”
“Okay then. Let’s go ahead and that then,” said Mark.
When Margot turned to leave through the kitchen door, Mark held back momentarily to pour himself a drink. Margot stopped in the kitchen door way and watched Mark as he fished in the cupboard for a glass. She was silent, but Mark felt her eyes on him nevertheless. He tried his best to ignore it, though, and continued to fill his glass with ice and had unscrewed the top of a fresh bottle of Cutty Sark when his shoulders suddenly sagged and he looked back to his niece. She was watching him intently, a black expression on her face. Their eyes met for a moment while the bottle in Mark’s hand hovered above its target. Mark’s eyes were soft and his lips pouted slightly. He looked to be wordlessly asking for forgiveness and understanding. The look lasted only a moment until Sebastion, suddenly hungry for attention, jumped from the window sill where he had been perched, stepped to the empty space of linoleum between the them, and began to twist on his back and purr loudly. Margot’s eyes turn downward to the cat and Mark poured his drink.
* * * *
In the presence of the telescope, towering above him like the blinded Polyphemus, all thoughts of cancer vanished from Mark’s mind. The machine’s very existence soothed him and the knowledge that soon he would be able to once again spend his evenings here on the platform at the narrowed end with his eye locked on the infinite. The great hulking thing stood motionless, aimed at the same coordinates Mark had been viewing on that night nearly two years before when he had heard to news of his brother and niece and lost control of himself. He ran his hand slowly along the steel body of the device, his breath shallow as he did so as if it were some beast that might be awakened.
“We’ll need to clean and lubricate her,” Mark said quietly. Margot, who was still on the floor below the metal platform, standing in the same spot where the eyepiece had met its ruin, was craning her neck up to see if she could make out to what Mark might be referring. Unable to see, from her lowered vantage point, the specific parts her uncle might be indicating, Margot loped up the four steel stairs of the platform to join him.
“Clean and lubricate what?” she said, looking around Mark’s shoulder to get a look at what he was doing.
“The drive,” he said, throwing an arm to out to indicate the system of colossal cogs, pistons, and arms on which the hulking mass rested.
As he gestured towards the drive, he kept his eyes on the body of the scope itself directly in front of him, ashamed to look down. The drive’s parts had become caked with dust and Mark realized that this irresponsible lapse in care had taken place because of his own childish sense of defeat. He had, for thirty years, thought of the telescope not as a tool, but of an extension of his own self. A part of his own body. Or, perhaps he and the telescope were both equal parts of the same larger sensory entity. The telescope was the eye, the organ that collected the light and channeled it to him. And he was the mind — he collected those images broadcast to him by the eye and made sense of them, reacted to them. This, he thought, would make the eyepiece, which translated those collected lights into a language that the mind could make sense of, the optic nerve. Yes, the had severed his optic nerve, and therefore lost his sight, but did the eye not still require care? Does a blind man not wince when sand is thrown into his eye? The machine, useless or not, was still a part of him and he felt a powerful disgrace for having neglected it.
“Well, why don’t we get started?” Margot said with earnest. “What do we need?”
“I have everything we need. It’s in that locker over by the door.” Mark had turned away from the telescope now, encouraged by his niece’s industriousness, and was motioning with his chin to the locker. He looked down at the mechanics of the drive and sighed. “I guess we might as well get at it.”
“Will you show me how it works when we finish?”
Mark hadn’t actually considered this yet. If they actually did finish the cleaning and maintenance of the drive and get the system into operational order, then he would be left with no reason not to change the bearing of the great thing. However, the idea of changing the coordinates, of capturing the light from another random patch of the universe, without being able to actually see the images that were entering through the large lens on the heavy end of the telescope was maddening. In the past, the changing of the telescope’s direction was for Mark an event that never failed to raise in him a child’s sense of excitement and anticipation. The thought that when he put his eye to the piece after settling the lens on a fresh corner of space, something wholly new and unobserved might be waiting for him there had never faded for him. Even after the years of frustration had ground him down, that first moment on new coordinates had never lost its magic. The telescope had been designed and built before electric parts had come into fashion and the drive’s mechanism was still manually operated. When Mark would turn those two wheels that changed the direction on the X and Y axes respectively, the feeling of excitement would build in him.
Tonight, after they had finished their cleaning, and after all of the parts of the drive were properly lubricated and ready again to be used, and after he demonstrated to Margot how to turn the large metal guiding wheels, and after the new coordinates had been assumed and they telescope looked up into that new, mysterious corner of the universe, nothing would happen. There would be no climactic moment. The blind eye would be turned in its socket but the mind would remain unable to see.
The thought sickened him slightly but he took heart knowing that somewhere thousands of miles away, sitting nearly forgotten in a warehouse, the donor organ waited to be retrieved and then the operation could be performed that would restore sight. For two years he had tried everything in his power to keep the thought of once again living that perfect moment when he first looked into an unexplored region out of his mind. But the specter of Ryabchikov, visiting him in his dreams, had haunted him relentlessly, seemingly telling him that giving up on his quest for discovery was not an option –- that he would have to swallow his pride and his years of disappointment and do what had to be done to continue his quest. And now, having finally mustered the courage, with the help of his niece, to re-launch his campaign to paint his name in the stars.
“Of course I will, kiddo,” Mark said, placing on hand affectionately on Margot’s shoulder. “Let’s get to work.”
* * * *
There was a whirring of some strange engine followed by loud, dramatic banging noises as Mark rested on his back in the tube. These noises were only the more dramatic against a backdrop of a more constant high-frequency pitch. A band of light climbed slowly up and down Mark’s body, making him imagine for a moment that he was trapped inside of a Xerox machine. He laughed at the thought.
“You’ll need to lie still, Mr. Parrish,” said the voice on the loudspeaker. It was Dr. Carns, the practice’s junior neurologist.
In a small room adjacent to the larger one containing the MRI which surrounded Mark, the doctor was leaning over a technician whose name Mark had already forgotten and speaking into a stationary microphone as he carefully reviewed the images that were displayed on the monitor. “We’ll be finished in just a few seconds,” he said.
That morning Mark had awoken very early, sliced some fruit for Margot, written a note, and left for Houston before she had emerged from her room. He had suspected that she would sleep in, having stayed up much later than she was accustomed while working in the observatory, and he was happy to be able to leave without having to lie to her again about the exact nature of his trip. It was true, he would be meeting with an insurance agent that afternoon and probably be collecting a check for the value of his totaled truck, but he had failed to mention that he would also be visiting this clinic for blood work and a scan. He felt as though there was no reason to involve her at this stage of the diagnosis. Obviously he knew that he would have no option but to level with the girl were the results to come back positive in ten days’ time. But for the time being, he would try his best to keep her blissfully ignorant. Things outside of these test results were looking up, after all.
He tried to lay as still as he could, but his head was spinning. The disorienting nature of the machine was augmented by the wooziness that he felt after having had a liter of blood drawn not an hour before. Ten days, he thought. Ten more days of not knowing what to think. The idea sickened him. Why did it have to happen now? Now, when he was on the brink of returning to his life’s work, when a discovery stood so proximal, just outside of his reach. He felt the sudden urge to weep, but when the tears started to build in him, he felt the clunks and vibrations of the tube suddenly cease. The high-frequency pitch that had rung in his ear for the thirty minutes he had been lying in his back began to die away. With a jerk, the bed underneath him began to move slowly in the direction of his feet, carrying his supine body out of the machine coffin and back into the offices of the neurologist. He choked back his oncoming tears and prepared to sit up.
When the stretcher portion of the machine had extended fully from the mouth, and Mark’s head was clear, he began to posture up. A wave of unexpected and focused nausea set upon him then and the doctor and the technician, who were reentering the room, rushed to his bedside to steady him.
“Whoa. Take it slow, Mr. Parrish,” said the doctor. “The MRI can make you pretty dizzy. Just lay back for a second.”
Mark did as the doctor instructed, easing back first onto his elbows and then completely onto his back again. He breathed in long steady streams through his nose and after a moment, the nausea passed. He opened his eyes and saw that the technician was holding out a paper cup of water. Mark rose slowly to a sitting position, took the water, and drank it greedily. When he had drained the cup, he handed it back to the technician.
“Maybe we should get you something to eat,” suggested the technician, a young man with a hairline well beyond his years.
“No. No, I’m fine,” said Mark, throwing his legs over the edge of the raised platform. He placed his right hand on the back of his neck and began to twist his head slowly in various directions. “I just –- I just had a really unsettling thought. Is there a phone around here I could use?”
“Sure,” said the doctor, exchanging a sideways glance with the balding technician. “There’s one in my office. Is everything alright, Mr. Parrish?”
“Everything is fine. I just need to call my niece.”
* * * *
That morning, a little after eleven, Margot Parrish had awakened to find herself alone in the observatory home in Victoria. Alone, that is, except for the cat who had roused her by purring loudly and alternating pushing his claw-tipped paws gently into her stomach. He had missed his regular feeding time by more than two hours and he was not shy about letting Margot know this. When she finally made her way from bed, she had gone about her normal routine. She had first visited the restroom, then, still in her pajamas, she had walked down the hall, through the living room, and into the kitchen. On the counter, she had found a note from Mark:
I had to head to Houston today to deal with the truck. You were up late, so I didn’t want to wake you. There’s some fruit cut up in the fridge. I’ll be home around four or five.
She had read the note twice before the sense of outrage began to settle over her.
“He left without me!” Margot cried out loud. Sebastion, who was still waiting for her to open a can of food, tilted his head curiously.
In the nearly two years since Margot had come to live in Victoria with her uncle, this morning marked the only occasion that she could remember when he had left her alone without first consulting her about it. She had, in all previous instances, been invited to join Mark any time he left their home. She had only a few times opted to stay at home alone, and then only because of the novelty. Mark had, on those occasions, been outwardly concerned with leaving a girl Margot’s age alone by herself, saying that there was likely some law against it, but Margot had, as she always did, utilized her calm reason to convince Mark to leave without her. And on those occasions, three by Margot’s recollection, Mark had not only consulted her, but had only gone as far as Victoria, and had returned within the hour. Today, he had left her alone without even offering her a chance to come along and, on top of that, had left her alone pretty much all day. What’s more, Margot knew that Mark had left before she had awoken solely because he was afraid to face her –- afraid to share with her his fears and concerns. Although she could not say exactly why, she had found herself feeling deeply insulted after reading Mark’s note. She’d crumpled the lined yellow paper furiously and thrown it overhand pitch style towards the corner.
About an hour later, still wearing her pajamas, Margot sat on the center of the couch, here legs crossed around a newly opened bottle of Glen Livet. Behind her, on the back of the couch, Sebastion lay stretched out, his stomach full of cold cuts. Margot was sitting facing the television which she had turned on only a moment before sitting down. The program that had appeared slowly on the old screen as she took her seat and began to tear the foil around the cap of the bottle was a expose of the life of Diana the Princess of Wales. Margot paid the television no attention, as she prepared herself to act on her inexplicable impulse. Now, she took the bottle from between her legs, twisted the cap free, and slowly began to move the neck towards her mouth, her eyes clamped tightly shut.
The phone rang. Margot opened her eyes and saw that the bottle had almost reached her lips. Startled, she lowered the bottle slowly until it rested again between her crossed legs. She reached towards the phone with her left hand and answered just as the third ring began.
“Is everything okay?”
Margot’s brow furrowed with an immense irritation. Supposing everything wasn’t okay? Supposing something had gone terribly wrong? She found herself wishing then that she had allowed the phone to continue ringing, had allowed the call to go the machine and let Mark be left in helpless worry in Houston.
“Everything’s fine, Mark.” Margot replied, no small amount of cynicism in her voice, her eyes steadily on the bottle resting in her lap.
“You sure?” Mark said. His voice sounded faint and distracted, as if he were falling asleep.
“Yes I’m sure,” Margot said defiantly. “Mark, why did you–“
“Okay,” Mark interrupted, “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I’ll be home around five.”
Mark hung up. Margot stared blankly at the receiver in her hand for a few seconds until the dial tone struck up again. She slammed the receiver back down onto the cradle as hard as she could, causing Sebastion to leap distressed from his perch behind her and trot across the room where he watched her with a look of caution. Margot returned to her normal seated position, and after a moment, slammed her balled fists into the couch on either side of her.
Sebastion lowered his head into a crouch with his ears pulled flat against his head. He watched Margot the way a wild animal might watch a recently erupted geyser, alert and perplexed. He saw a flush of color come into Margot’s face and a brim of frustrated tears formed around her eyes. When the girl suddenly lifted the bottle to her mouth and swigged back a long drag and finished gasping and sputtering, he decided he had seen enough and edged around the room into the kitchen.
Margot couldn’t believe how foul the Scotch tasted as she drank it. The harsh smoky, medicinal stuff burned her throat and the back of her nose when she swallowed and more than once she found herself on the verge of vomiting. She cried as she drank, but after about ten minutes and four or five struggling gulps, she felt the tension lift away from her. She felt aloof, removed from herself. She saw as her hands moved but felt them to be detached, independent of her. The drinking came more easily now too. Instead of gulping the liquor, she sipped carefully from the bottle and exhaled through her nose as she swallowed. She looked down at the bottle in her grasp and judged hazily that she must have drunk around a cup of the amber colored liquid now. She settled into her seat and looked around the room, enjoying the distorted perception that the alcohol was giving her.
Before long, she found herself fixated on the television. Not the television, exactly, but the woman’s face that kept appearing there. Margot had heard of Princess Di before. Over the last year and a half, her engagement and subsequent marriage to Prince Charles had made enough news that even in their relatively isolated household, the story had appeared more than once. At the time, Margot had a generally dismissive view of the subject, mentioning it only in the context of a banal pop culture reference. But now, seeing the princess on television, something about her grace and beauty hypnotized the girl. She watched transfixed as the announcer, a man with a stylized British accent, described the wardrobe of the princess, accompanied by images of Di herself standing next to the prince or waving to a crowd from a balcony, always splendidly dressed. Margot didn’t know how long she sat staring, mesmerized by the program, but before she knew it, the credits began to roll and the image on the screen was reduced to one side and a local news anchorman appeared on the opposite side describing quickly the gist of the evening’s stories.
Margot rose from her seat, set the bottle carefully on the coffee table, stood and, feeling the sudden reel in her step and walked unsteadily around the table and turned the television off. She stood for a moment with one hand on the television top steadying herself and then with a deep breath made her way back to her seat. As she reached forward to reclaim the bottle, she saw her reflection in the black convex of the television screen. Her hair hung down past her shoulders, long and uncombed. She sneered at the image when she thought of the elegance and style of the Diana. She sat back, sighed, and pulled long, steady swig from the bottle before setting it back down on the table. She stood again, still unsteady, and walked into the bathroom to find a pair of scissors.
* * * *
At about six that afternoon, Mark pulled the rental car into the parking space behind the observatory and killed the engine. He was terribly happy to be back at home, but he lingered in the driver’s seat for a while, listening as the motor’s cooling fan wheezed and watching his hands gripping the steering wheel.
He had left Houston about two hours before, after having met with the auto insurance agent. The agent had seemed to Mark to be unduly curt and even suspicious. He saw pretty immediately that if Trevor Daley had not also been there to expedite the process, curtailing the agent’s suspicions and providing the necessary police input on the situation, that the agent would have undoubtedly prolonged the case as much as possible. Again, Mark had counted himself lucky to have had met and to have been befriended by a person like Daley. Every attempt the agent made that afternoon to find a reason not write Mark a check then and there, Daley had been able to counter to the point that, by end of the first hour, the agent was ready to issue the payment just to escape the situation.
With the check issued –- for the underwhelming sum of four hundred and forty-five dollars -– and still several hours left before he had told Margot to expect him, Mark invited Trevor to a late lunch. He had initially agreed, which pleased Mark very much, as he wanted badly to discuss his misgivings about his experience with the MRI and the blood test with someone, but a radio call he had received as the two caravanned to a nearby diner derailed their plans and Mark found himself eating lunch alone with his thoughts. There at the counter of the drug store and sandwich shop, Mark had sat for two hours thinking about the possible outcomes of the tests and their respective likelihoods. He also thought about the way to best inform Margot about the results in each situation. He knew that that the longer he kept the information from her, the more upset she would be. He also thought about how intuitive the girl had become in recent months and realized that in the next ten days he would have to struggle to keep her from realizing that something in his world was amiss. It was a great convenience that Swan had called and reacted in, what seemed to him, a positive way to his request. It was, if nothing else, a great screen with which to distract Margot’s interests during this time of uncertainty. And just like that, after having spent the afternoon sitting idly on a stool, finishing his roast beef sandwich and Coca-Cola, his thoughts turned to Margot and the strange and daunting feeling that had overcome him that day and caused him the urgent need to call home and check after her safety. Thinking about it again, he could still not place where the feeling had come from or why. The more the he thought about it, the more he felt the feeling begin to creep back into him, until he had called over the waitress behind the counter, paid his check and left.
Mark got out of the car and, out of habit, peered up into the sky to look for signs of the evening’s cloud coverage. The sky was clear and Mark felt a pain of sadness knowing that he would not be able to spend the night in his observatory. He sighed heavily and entered the house through the back door which led into the kitchen.
When he entered, he had an instant and overwhelming feeling that something was not right.
“Margot?” he called out. “Hey, I’m home kiddo!” He waited for a response, but none came. He inched further into the kitchen and closed the door behind him. He looked around and at first glance, everything seemed to be in order, but as he was about to exit into the living room Sebastion darted between his legs and leapt onto the kitchen counter. Mark spun to look at the cat and when he did, he noticed that the door to the cabinet above the oven was ajar. His blood froze.
“Margot!” he yelled and rushed into the living room.
There he found the living room in typical order, but sitting on the coffee table, as obvious as a bullet wound, sat the quarter empty bottle of Scotch. Mark felt the air escape his lungs as he raised his hand to his mouth. His mind jammed with thousands of simultaneous and conflicting alarms. At the same instant, amongst those alarms, he felt confused as to how the bottle had made its way out the cabinet; violently angry that his niece had violated their trust; immensely disappointed in himself for his irresponsibility and failure as a guardian; hyper-alerted to the possible presence of a home intruder and sickened by what that might mean; a faint sense of admiration that Margot had been able to drink so much; and finally, insane with desperate worry for Margot’s well-being.
As quickly as he could move, he dashed through the living room, craning his neck as he went to look behind the couch, down the hall towards Margot’s room. When he reached her door, he burst through it without a split-second of hesitation.
“MARGOT!” he cried, but the room was empty.
His eyes shot around the room frantically but there was nothing to see aside from an unmade bed. The sense of sick desperation was building in him as if his own life, and not the life of his niece, was in danger. He turned and left Margot’s door open and rushed into the observatory at the end of the hall. Barreling through the door, he found this area, too, unoccupied. Still he called out and walked quickly in a circle around the room’s gigantic centerpiece, looking into every possible corner that a girl might fit. When he had made his way around to the door again, he felt his breathing begin to labor. The thought suddenly occurred to him that he might not find her here at all -– that someone might have taken her. He tried to clear his head as he slammed open the door to his own bedroom and again found nothing. Tensing himself for the worst possible outcome, he came finally to the bathroom, which he had passed when he had run through the hall the first time, because the light was off and the door was slightly open. When he opened the door though, one deep dread was replaced instantly by another. There was Margot, still in the building. But the condition he found her in baffled him.
Margot was laying in the empty bathtub unconscious. She was wearing her pajamas. The shower curtain and rod had been pulled down and was hanging around her at a disastrous angle. In her right hand, still threaded around her thumb and fingers, was a pair of scissors. Everywhere in the small room was hair. The sink across from the tub was covered in hair. The floor was covered. All over Margot’s pajamas clinging clumps of her hair. The hair on her head, though, had been cropped inches from the scalp with almost no regard to precision. Upon taking in the scene, Mark froze. For a brief second, Mark could not understand what he was seeing and could not react. He stood in the doorway frozen, his mouth hanging open in utter shock, his heart hammering in his chest like depth charges. But when Margot smacked her lips together, ran her tongue around her chapped lips and twisted in the tub into a more comfortable position, Mark saw plainly that the girl was unharmed and knew what had happened.
He walked slowly into the bathroom and fell to his knees at the edge of the tub. With one hand, he carefully took the scissors from the girl’s hand so that she would not accidentally hurt herself, and with the other he pulled the translucent plastic shower curtain away from her so that he could lift her easily from where she lay sprawled. He tossed the scissors into the sink behind him, slid one elbow under the girl’s knees and the other behind her back. With a deep grunt, he lifted himself to one knee and then stood, cradling the limp girl in his arms. Sensing she was unsteady, the otherwise inert figure through her outside arm around Mark’s neck, pulled him close, and moaned senselessly.
“Shhh,” whispered Mark as used his toe to pull open the bathroom door. “I’m just taking you to bed.”
Mark crossed the hall and used his knee to open the door to Margot’s room. He lumbered across the room and finally lowered the girl gently on to her own, still unmade, bed. Margot curled immediately into the fetal position and pulled arm fulls of comforter into her face and chest. Mark stood over her for a moment, still trying to catch his breath from the scare. After a time, he started to walk out of the room, but turned before he reached the door, returned to the bed side, and began to roll the girl’s limp frame around on the bed, checking her for signs of cuts or broken bones. He grabbed her by the chin and with his other hand checked her scalp for cuts or abrasions. Margot, meanwhile, held her arms outright and whined, struggling against the confusing affront. After Mark had rearranged Margot’s position on the bed several times and had inspected every area that didn’t embarrass him to inspect, he finally found his heart rate begin to settle. He pulled the comforter free from the grasp of stringy girl with the chaotically hewn hair and, after finding the corners, flipped it outward and spread it over his niece. The moment the comforter settled against her, though, Margot again grasped it wildly and twisted it against her frame. Mark shook his head and, between the relief that Margot was uninjured, her amusing drunken convulsions against the bed clothes, and her ridiculous new hair cut, he couldn’t help but smile. Mark raised his palm to his mouth, kissed it and then lowered it slowly until it pressed against Margot’s forehead. He turned again to leave.
“Mark?” Margot said weakly. Mark turned to find the girl’s eyes opened slightly. He could not tell if she was still asleep or not, and so he didn’t answer. He simply crossed his arms at his chest and stood silently watching her.
“What did they say Mark?” Margot said after a few seconds, her voice fading very quickly back into sleep.
“What did who say?” Mark asked, crouching down to the bedside, genuinely confused by what the girl might mean. “Margot?”
Margot rolled onto her stomach as she spoke again and because of this her already faint noises were almost entirely obscured, but Mark felt nearly certain that Margot had replied to his question. Her answer, Mark was sure, had been, “The doctors.”
* * * *
That night, for the first time in her young life, it had been Margot who had dreamed of the cosmos. In her dream, she found herself sitting on the top of a high, grassy hill. The warm night breeze blew lightly around her. Her bare toes dug into the cool, wet grass. Above her, the expanse of the Milky Way filled the entirety of the sky in every direction. Visibility was perfect, completely unobscured by ambient light or cloud coverage. Next to her on the hill, Sebastion was seated, his eyes also on the dome of lights above. Margot laid back against the gentle slope of the hill and let the universe fill every corner of her vision. At first, the lights moved in the slow, crawling pace from one edge of the sky to the other, the way they always had and always would. But as she watched, the movement of the stars increased in speed, slowly at first, but eventually the galaxy around her moved so quickly that the lights smeared, leaving long trails in their paths. Somehow, though, Margot knew that the rotation of the Earth on its axis had not sped, but the universe itself had decided to speed through its eternal cycle. She knew also, that this was just for her. She watched in consummate awe as the lights of all of the points of the universe flashed before her, until, the crushing beauty bringing tears to her eyes, she could take no more and looked away.
She awoke with a gasp in her bed. Her eyes burned as if they were filled with some fine dust, and her head pulsed like a beating heart, pumping fresh waves of pain with each beat. It was daylight again, and she looked around her bed confused. She could not remember how she had gotten in her bed and, trying, could not remember much of the previous evening. An image of the whiskey bottle flashed in Margot’s mind and with it came a violent turn of her stomach. She had to struggle not to vomit, but afterwards, she felt a keen sickness waiting just behind each breath. She cupped her face in her palms, lamenting her decision to spite Mark by drinking the liquor. She had already deduced that Mark had come home and, finding her a drunken mess, seen her to sleep. Above the sickness and throbbing pain, Margot felt an overpowering sense of shame gathering over her like a storm cell.
Margot realized that she could hear Mark talking in the living room, and tried to quiet her thoughts to listen to him. He was talking louder than normal and there was a combative quality to his voice that alarmed her right away. Still, she could not make out clearly what he was saying. She wondered to herself who he might be talking to. Surely no one had actually come to their home. He would be on the phone. Her first thought was that he might be arguing with the auto insurance agency. She knew that he had left the morning before to see to, amongst other things, the insurance settlement on the truck. She could not remember speaking to him about this after he returned, and thinking now, she deemed it highly unlikely that their conversation, if indeed that had had one last night, would have regarded the progress of the insurance claim. So it seemed possible, likely even, that the matter had not been resolved and that Mark was currently at odds with a stubborn member of an insurance staff. This notion was dismissed when Mark spoke loudly enough for Margot to be able to make out what he was saying.
“I have a child here. I can’t just fly up there!” Mark was hissing at someone. At Swan.
The certainty struck her before she even began to calculate the possibilities. She heard in his voice that Mark was speaking to someone that he knew very well. The familiarity shone through, even against the showing of temper. Margot pulled herself from bed to join Mark in the living room, to offer her moral support to his argument, but when she did, she noticed that her pillows and comforter were covered in hundreds of tiny black spots. Confused, she leaned close to bed to examine the spots in the sunlight. She saw right away that the spots were tiny hair clippings and for a moment she was bewildered. Then a jumbled recollection of the previous night entered her mind. Margot stiffened in place and her hands moved slowly from the sheets of the bed to her scalp.
Although in many ways, Margot Parrish was atypical of a girl on the verge of turning thirteen, her reflex upon realizing what she had done to her hair the night before was perfectly typical. The scream she released was not dampened by her nausea. Neither was it deadened by the throbbing in her head or the weakness of her body. Margot screamed a scream of pure, uninhibited shock. She was still screaming when Mark slammed through her door, his face twisted with fear.
“What is it?” said Mark, crossing the room in bounds and taking her by the shoulders and spinning her to face him. “What’s wrong?”
Margot looked at her uncle, still stunned by what she had found. She was completely overwhelmed by everything. The pain, the nausea, the shock, left her monosyllabic.
“My –- my hair.” she sputtered.
Mark released his grip on the girl’s shoulders and took a step back. He was panting as he looked her up and down. Eventually, he rested his hands on his hips and his face relaxed from its panic and, for a brief moment, it looked like he would laugh.
“Serves you right,” he said smartly. He turned and began to walk out of the room. Margot stood with her hands still grasping her mangled coiffure, her chest expanding and contracting wildly.
“What!” she screamed, watching Mark’s back disappear around the corner. Mark stopped, peeked his head around the corner again, shrugged, and continued back into the living room. Margot stood, incredulous to the point rage, but with no target with which to direct it. She was realizing that she had, after all, done this to herself. She lowered her hands to her sides, closed her eyes and tried to steady her breathing. Somewhat more calm, she followed after Mark.
When she got into the living room, she found Mark exiting the kitchen holding a steaming cup of coffee. Margot stopped and tried to think of something to say, and to her surprise, Mark held the cup out to her. She looked at it, confused. He might as well have been handing her a chainsaw. She turned her confused gaze up to him for an explanation.
“You can’t have one without the other.” Mark said sternly and, seeing that girl still did not understand, added, “Trust me, it’ll help.”
Margot took the warm mug and looked into it dubiously. Wordlessly, she shuffled her way over to the couch and found a seat, taking extra care not to spill any of the puzzling black liquid tasked to her.
“We have to talk,” Mark announced.
This was no surprise to Margot. She recalled clearly now her decision to delve into Mark’s whiskey and remembered knowing, even then, that she would have to face a stern lecture as a result. She steeled herself now, the sense of anger and rebellion that had driven her forward the day before, having abandoned her now. She would be mindful not to trust that feeling too freely in the future –- she was not keen on being talked into a crime and then being left in the lurch when the punishments were being dispensed.
“We’ve got to fly to Canada tomorrow,” said Mark.
Staring up from her seat, both hands wrapped around her mug, Margot did not at first process her uncle’s bizarre statement. She had expected him to say something about his feelings of disappointment, so this sentence regarding international travel did not immediately register. When it did, she could only think of one thing to say.
“Eliot wants to see me before he hands over the eyepiece. He’s making arrangements for us to leave tomorrow to visit him in the Northern Territories.”
Mark had explained the situation as clearly as he could, but when he saw that Margot, who was sitting on the couch with her mouth hanging open, could not grasp exactly why this was a necessity, something that she had said a few days before came into his mind.
“Any port in a storm, kiddo.”
* * * *