My God, Christmas carols.
How was I to know what it meant to her? Or if it meant a thing to her, before that time?
Was I supposed to know a thing about them? Sure, I had a rabbi once who got highly upset if you even mentioned the name of Jesus. But living in America, even in New York City, how could you fail to pick up something from the dominant culture?
Apparently I failed to pick something up. Perhaps there were a lot of things lying around that I took no notice of, but, God help me, there is only so much a man can notice. Especially if he's trying to keep a roof over his head, bread on the table for himself and four others, and a secret that was getting more and more difficult to keep.
No, Christmas carols was only a symptom. I do believe this. The reality was that Maggie, who had no friends for years before she met us, was already lonely for other people. True, she loved us. This was obvious, and we loved her back. But you get tired of the same four faces, even if there's all the love in the world behind them.
Did I mention that I was a fan of pulp magazines, back in the 30's? I was. So was just about every red-blooded young man in P.S. 74, except for some of those sissies who read F. Scott Fitzgerald years before they were supposed to. I loved Doc Savage and the Whisperer and the Avenger and the Shadow. Especially the Shadow. I never missed a one of his shows on the radio if I could help it. 98 percent of the time, I could help it.
But I grew up and
out of it, and gave a lot of my pulps to the paper drives to beat
Hitler. Some of them were easier to sacrifice than others.
I knew I was never going to look like Doc Savage, even with a Charles
Atlas Dynamic Tension course. But the Shadow...I couldn't
give him up all the way. So, although I yielded up my pulpwood
library to make wrappers for artillery shells and such, I kept five
issues of The Shadow Magazine. I still have 'em today.
When I open them up, which is not often because they're as crumbly
as the Dead Sea Scrolls, I am struck by two things: how lousy
the prose is, and how much I still love Mr. Big Nose with the floppy
hat and twin .45's.
And I still have a small batch of the old radio shows on tape. I have subjected my daughters to them at times and have been warned that such may be prohibited by the Geneva Convention.
I will not subject you to more of this nostalgia. It's only taking me away from what I have to write.
About a week or so before Christmas, Maggie saw me in my easy chair with a copy of The Shadow from 1935 in my hands. "What's that about?" she asked.
"Come up here and I'll tell you," I responded. So my lovely little gargoyle-girl crawled into my lap and I told her.
"This is about the Shadow, a guy with the power to cloud men's minds and root out the weed of crime that bears bitter fruit," I said.
She peered at the cover with those huge globular eyes. "He's a gardener?"
I cracked up. "No, no, he's a hero. A super-hero."
"Oh," said Maggie, and pondered it. "Where's his costume?"
"This is his costume," I said, pointing at the cover. "Right here."
"I don't see any costume." Maggie had been educated in the reality of New York super-heroes by Beth, Jenny, and myself, and had seen photos of everybody from the first Human Torch to Goliath. She knew what a super-hero costume looked like: skin-tight with a bunch of gaudy colors.
"Well, this is what the well-dressed hero wore before there were costumes," I said. "This big floppy slouch hat, the muffler pulled up over his mouth, the black suit, and the gloves."
"I thought super-heroes didn't carry guns, Uncle Phil."
"Well, the Shadow was just in the books and on the air. He was a made-up character, Maggie."
"Did he have a secret identity?"
"Yup. Lamont Cranston. Secret to everybody who didn't read the books or listen to the radio."
"And people didn't know who he was when he dressed up like this?"
"Didn't seem to, Maggie."
"Oh." She thought again. "That must have been a good thing."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because he could go out among people and he didn't have to worry about them knowing who he was."
"That's why he did it," I said.
"Will I ever get to go out with other people?"
I sighed. "I don't know, Maggie. I really don't know."
"Do you think they'd hurt me if I went to church, Uncle Phil?"
"Nobody's supposed to hurt anybody in a church. Jesus wouldn't like it."
"I wouldn't like it either. But set one foot outside that church, and see what they'll do to you. Or anybody with you."
"Couldn't we try and get away real fast? Before they could get to us?"
"No, Maggie." I straightened up. "You can watch the services on TV on Sunday morning. Just make sure you don't have it on too loud."
She stood up and looked about as pensive as she could. "Wouldn't God protect me?"
I looked at her. Should I have asked her if He protected the six million? This would be a hard image to reconcile with bringing somebody back from the dead just because Jesus liked him.
"It's not for me to say, Maggie. Just...be satisfied with what you've got. Okay? Because that's all we can give you, right now."
"Okay," she said.
"Want me to read some Shadow to you? It's great stuff."
"No, that's okay," she said. "Aunt Doris wants me to study my math, anyways." Maggie used our kids' textbooks in what amounted to her education, with Doris and I (mostly Doris) helping out.
"All right. Have a nice math," I said, and Maggie scampered off to her basement room.
I returned to the Shadow but somehow couldn't get interested in him again and eventually went to bed.
After things happen, you always want to go back and see the signs. But the signs are usually too small to set off warning bells. Otherwise, why would suicides and murders and things like that happen? They shouldn't. But they do.
You should have seen this. Well, what if I couldn't see it? What if the sign was too small, even in her mind, let alone my own? I was not the only one who missed things. So did Doris, Beth, and Jenny, although their suspicions may have been greater than my own. Women notice things that men don't. Maybe we notice things that they don't. Damned if I know.
Damned, I hope not. Unless you can be for ignorance.
We couldn't notice everything. I had to take pictures for Jameson and Bushkin. Dorrie had to keep the house running. Beth and Jenny had to go to school. Through all that, we had to make space for Maggie, and don't think we didn't feel the burden at times.
We did what we could.
Could we have done more, seen more? I'd like to say I doubt it.
I just know we didn't.
At the dinner table a night or two later, Maggie asked, "Uncle Phil, will I ever be able to meet anybody else?"
"Oh, God," said Jenny, putting a napkin between her face and the tomato soup.
"Jenny, don't say that, it's disrespectful," said Mom. "Maggie, we've been over this before."
I sighed and sat down my fork. "Maggie. If Mr. Xavier manages to get a school together, and if it turns out that you are suited for such a school, then yes. It is possible that you will be able to meet some people from outside."
"Could you take me to your church?"
"Maggie, it's not a church," Beth said. "It's called a synagogue. We've told you that."
"Well, could you take me to your synagogue, then? I'm lonesome."
"Oh? You're lonesome?" Doris looked at her evenly. "How much less lonesome were you before we took you in, young lady? Would you like to tell me?"
Maggie hesitated. "Well, I...a lot more, I suppose, Aunt Doris, but--"
"Yes, a lot more, and you had to hide from everyone you saw, right? And grab your meals from fruit stands or trash cans or the back rooms of grocery stores when you could do it, isn't that right?"
Maggie looked at her lap. "Yes," she said.
"Then it would seem to me that you should show a little more gratitude than you have. Isn't that right, young lady?"
"I'm sorry, Aunt Doris," she said.
"Maggie, look at me," I said. She did. I continued, "It may not seem like we're doing this for the best reasons, but we are. Back under Hitler, like I said, there were people that had to hide Jews in their homes and not let anybody know about it. With mutants, God help me...it's almost the same thing."
"Do they have places where they kill muties?" she asked.
"I don't think so," I said. "But we don't even want to see you get hurt. So for now...we've got to hide you as if you were a Jew."
"As far as I'm concerned, she is," said Jenny, and drank her milk.
"But maybe I could get dressed up with something over my face," said Maggie. "Just like the Shadow, maybe."
"Maggie, no," I said, firmly.
"The Shadow?" Doris looked at me. "Where'd she get that from?"
"It doesn't matter," I said. "Maggie, you are not the Shadow and we are not going to let you get killed. The subject is closed, over, finished. Now eat."
"But, Uncle Phil--"
I stood up. "Maggie. Take your food and go to your room. If you say one more word, you're getting a busting. Go."
She went. I felt like a storm trooper, but I'd had to feel that way before.
After she left, three pairs of eyes were on me. I turned to Jenny. "So. Tell me about school today."
She did. We got through the meal somehow. Later, after a decent interval had passed, I went down to see Maggie. I don't remember exactly what I said to her or what she said to me, but we got through that somehow, too. We separated and both turned in for the night.
It was three days before Christmas.
We should have seen the signs.
Christmas Eve it was, and it was during dinner we heard the doorbell rang. As usual during such things, I had Maggie go to her room with her plate, which she'd put on a TV tray there and close the basement door.
I opened the door when it was safe. I expected it was Bronowski from a couple doors down wanting to borrow something and take half an hour of my time talking. Instead, I found seven people clustered about my doorstep, a woman in headcap, coat, and muff, a couple of guys in coats, hats and gloves, and four kids of varying sizes, all wrapped up tight against the weather, which was somewhere around 40 degrees with a brisk wind.
There they were, all chapped lips and red noses of 'em, and before I could say anything they broke into a rendition of "Away In a Manger."
I sighed. At this time of night I would have welcomed a traveling salesman more than a Christian barbershop septet. But I am polite with strangers, though not as much as, say, Abraham, and I doubt I had any angels on my doorstep, anyway. So I let 'em get to the end of the song and said, "That's very nice, thank you. Do I make a donation?"
"No, sir!" said one of the men. "Just wanted to wish you a merry Christmas. Can we do one more for you?"
Beth and Jenny had materialized at my sides. They looked at me questioningly. What the hell was I supposed to do, let 'em start singing, "I had a little dreidel, I made it out of clay"?
So I shrugged. "Make it a short one," I said.
The seven of my doorstep acapella choir ran through a version of "Silent Night". I'm Jewish, but that one doesn't set my teeth on edge. After some things I saw in the War at wintertime, soldiers warming their hands by the flames of burning debris and such, I could empathize with a poor couple on the road who had just found a place out of the cold to have a baby. And hey, they were Jewish, too.
Actually, they sang quite nicely. Even Doris came from her dishwater to hear the rest of it. One of the kids, a young boy, said, "Merry Christmas!" like a time-lost Tiny Tim. I told him, "Same to you. Have a good night, folks, and goodbye."
They said their goodbyes, and my kids wished them happy holidays, not merry Christmas. I don't think anyone really cared. Christmas in New York is awfully nice sometimes, whether you're a Christian or not.
The seven of them went their way and I closed the door. "Well, I guess that does our contribution to this year's holiday spirit," I said. "If the two of you are finished, go help your Mom with the dishes."
"Okay, Dad," said Beth.
"Affirmative, Daddy,"said Jenny, who had watched more Lost In Space than was good for her. They both scampered to the kitchen. I went to check on Maggie.
Before I could open the door, I heard her voice. It was a nice voice, for a child. She was singing.
"Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright..."
I stood there and listened until she got to the end of it. Maggie could sing. I was surprised, sometimes, at how well she sang. Her natural voice could be, as I've said, a little whiny. But when she sang, she had a nice kid's tenor. After the last "Sleep in heavenly peace," I opened the door.
"Very good, Maggie," I said. "You finished with dinner?"
She was sitting there on the edge of her bed, with the TV tray pulled up over her knees. "I think so, Uncle Phil. Do you think I sing all right?"
"You sing fine, my dear. Any better and you could audition for the King Family, if they took people who weren't named King." I leaned against the doorway, scratching my back with the edge of it to get in between the shoulder blades.
She looked wistful. "Wish other people could hear me sing. If they could hear me, and not see me, you think I'd be all right, Uncle Phil?"
"Oh, I suppose," I said, vaguely. "You can sing to us all you want, Maggie. But right now, Uncle Phil has to go upstairs and get a couple of last pictures developed for Jameson. Go take the plate up to Dorrie and be good."
"I will," she said. "Uncle Phil? Merry Christmas."
I considered it for a second, and then said, "Thanks, Maggie. Merry Christmas to you, too."
She smiled. But it was still a wistful smile.
I turned and went. She clambered up the steps behind me, plate in hand. Christmas Eve or not, the Daily Bugle would have an edition out every morning, and I had some stuff Jameson wanted for the 26th. So I hit the darkroom.
It couldn't have been as much as an hour later that I heard Doris banging on my door. "Phil! Maggie's gone. She's gone!"
"What?" Ears relaying stuff to my brain. It got hung up in transit, stopped by disbelief. "What?"
"Maggie is gone, Phil! We have to find her!"
"She is not here, Phil! She's gone! We've got to look for her!"
"Oh, crap." That was all I could manage. I made sure the shots were drying on the line, got to the door, turned out the red light, and went out quickly. Dorrie was still in her apron and looking like she did the night Jenny got the Jart in her hand.
And where were Beth and Jenny right now? Down on the first floor in their nighties and bare feet, catching the conversation and knowing what was going on because Doris had looked in their room first.
"Daddy, we're--", Beth started.
"You are NOT!" I replied, stabbing a finger out at them. "You are going back to your room right now and you will not come out till I tell you to. Go!"
"She's our sister, too, Daddy, she's our sister, too!" wailed Jenny.
"That is precisely why I want you here," I said, already at the bottom of the stairs. "So that she will have a pair of sisters around when I get back with her. Go to your room, and that is an absolute order!"
I didn't have to spank them too often, but they knew when it was coming if they didn't obey orders. Despite that, they might have defied me to go find their almost-sister. I could see that in their eyes.
They must have seen something else in mine, because they turned and went back to their room. Neither one of them looked at me.
I grabbed my coat and hat from the rack near the front door. Dorrie, bless her, already had two of the big metal flashlights we've had ever since the damned 1965 blackout. She handed me one. She was already in her overcoat.
I'd almost made it to the door when I thought of something and started to lurch for it. Doris got me by the arm. "Phil. She's out there!"
"Yeah," I heard myself saying. "I need to get my Leica."She looked at me and her expression looked like I felt after I said it. I covered her mouth. "Don't say it. Let's go. Forget the Leica."
I was halfway to the car when she threw me the keys to it. She had almost joined me when I said, "Dorrie. Call Xavier."
"Call Xavier. Just do it, will you?"
"What should I tell him?"
"I need to tell you?"
Dorrie rushed back in the house. I started the engine running. Within a minute or two, she was back. She got in the car.
"You get him?", I asked.
She looked at me. "Somebody else answered the phone. I told him. He said he'd be over as soon as possible."
I sighed. Having her make the call was not part of a rational decision-making process. It may have been the most rational decision I've ever made.
"Let's go," I said.
"Shouldn't we head next door first?"
"We will. I want to find out where that bunch of singsongers went."
Nothing left to say. I didn't go too far for the first stop, just stopped next door and asked Lindstrom if he'd seen the Christian chorale and which way they'd gone. He said yeah, and pointed up the block. They weren't there, of course. It had been awhile. What kind of people can get out in 40 degree weather with a wind and walk around for a couple of hours singing Christmas carols for a couple of hours?
I had a feeling I knew one who could. A very, very sick feeling.
We went to the next block and Doris went in this time, asking if they'd seen Christmas carolers. Yes, the couple inside said. Why? She cooked up some story about one of them leaving his wallet behind when they were at our house. I don't know if they bought it, but at that point, neither of us were that concerned at being convincing.
"My God, we're going about this all wrong," I said, once she was back in the car. "Maybe we should be out on the sidewalk, calling her name."
"Oh, great," she fumed. "And who will you tell them Maggie is? Our dog?"
"Great idea!" I parked the car. "Let's do that."
"Not yet, you idiot. It's been almost an hour. How could she be with them, even if she could find them?"
I said, slowly, "Doris. You have a floppy hat. Do you remember seeing that floppy hat before you came out?"
Her eyes got almost as big as Maggie's. "Phil? What are you talking about?"
I got the car in gear again. "Dorrie. I wish I'd never told her about the Shadow."
A couple of blocks down we lost the trail forward. The folks in the next block hadn't been visited by our strolling players. Doris and I split up, one taking the blocks to the north, the other to the south. Doris got the car, by my insistence. I went on foot, flashlight in hand. Whether she was using the dog story or the wallet story, I don't know. I stuck to the dog. The folks I visited thought I was one damn dedicated pet owner.
At least it gave me an excuse to call out, "Maggie! Maggie!" while on the sidewalk.
Apparently nobody else within earshot was named Maggie, or wanted to see a guy fool enough to be out in the cold without even a Hannukah carol to sing. But some folks had seen the carolers. I followed their lead, which took me closer to the highway that ran as close as such things did to our subdivision.
A cop car crossed the street ahead, blinkers on. A chill went through me worse than the one that was creeping down my coat collar. Before I knew it, I was sprinting after it. Dorrie could have done better with the car, but not by much.
There was a house up ahead with one squad car already parked in front of it. Two cops were grilling some people in the yard. Most of them seemed to be the carolers. But there was one semi-hysterical woman there, who seemed to be repeating one word over and over again: "Monster! MONSTER!"
I covered the blocks between as closely as I could. One of the cops asked me what I was doing there. "My dog got loose," I said.
"You'd better get inside, mister," said the cop. "We've got a search in progress."
"I might be able to help," I said, fumbling.
"We ain't lookin' for no dog!" The cop's face was full of anticivilian contempt. I was taken aback. But damned if I was going to let even him stop me, at that point. I shoved past him and grabbed one of the male carolers by the coat sleeve. "What happened here?" I asked.
The guy looked at me as if I was Rasputin. But he told me anyway. "We--somebody wanted to sing with us. We thought she was a little girl. We thought--"
"Which way did she go?"
"That way," he pointed. "At least I think she did. But don't go that way, mister."
"'Cause this woman's husband went that way, too. And he's got a shotgun."
I took the name of the Christian Savior in vain and prayed God to lend swiftness to my feet, slowness and a slack trigger finger to the other guy, and a more-than-generous stash of stealthiness to Maggie. They said I took off like I was running for my life.
If that was all I was running for, I might have been slower.
But the guy with the gun had a lead on me. It was about six blocks down when I saw him. I was too late to have even heard the shotgun blast.
He was lying there, in pain, but not bleeding. People had already gathered round him from nearby houses. The gun was on the ground beside him, within reach, but he wasn't touching it. He had a hand clamped to his side.
"She spit on me," he was saying. "I tripped. The damn gun--oh, God, this hurts! She spit on me, and it stopped bleeding!"
"Ambulance is comin', Jack," said somebody else. "I called 'em. You sit tight."
I grabbed him by the shoulder so roughly he yelped in pain. "Where did she go? Which way?"
"Who in hell are you?"
"Which way, dammit?"
Apparently I had given him a look Joe Friday would have envied. He pointed towards the highway. I started that way.
"She was tired," he said. "She was real tired after she spit on me. She used a lotta spit."
I ran. I was yelling "MAGGIE!" at the top of my lungs. The flashlight was out and in force.
I was over a hundred yards from the highway when I saw two things. The first was a highballing semi which was hauling steel from someplace upstate to someplace downstate. It announced its 70-mile-an-hour passage with a trainlike blast of its horn. The second was a small patch of blackness seem to break away from the surroundings and run towards the road itself. Not a great idea, as the semi was bearing down, but she could probably have made it across if she tried.
If she tried. And if she wasn't so tired, from using her liquid-bandage power to save the life of a man who had been coming after her with a shotgun.
And maybe, just maybe, if she hadn't heard me scream "MAGGIE!" one more time.
She turned her head. As God is my witness, she turned her head.
Stealthiness had worked against her, for perhaps the first time in her life, as the trucker was unable to see her until she hesitated, until she did that, and she...
A frame of memory still lingers, flash-framed like the last picture they say can be found on a dead man's eyes. The truck intersecting Maggie's path, trying to turn away, but at such an angle that it caught her a glancing blow, no more than that, and knocked her spinning down the short incline, into a ditch.
She didn't scream, and I didn't hear the sound of the contact.
It caught her on the side and smashed ribs and sent the pieces into places they were designed to protect.
I was in the ditch with her no more, I think, than three seconds after it happened. She wasn't wearing the floppy hat of Doris's anymore, but she still had the muffler on, though it was dangling about her neck, not up around her face where she'd had it to shield her features before.
Like the Shadow.
I believe I was calling her name. Over and over again, I was calling her name. I was on my hands and knees, and I was touching her, and...
Her eyes, almost shut, opened a bit.
"Mr. Sheldon," she said, and it took her an effort.
"Maggie," I said. After another second, I said, "Maggie, don't talk. Don't make the effort. We're going to get you to a hospital. There'll be an ambulance, Maggie, and I'll see you're in it, and we'll get you to the hospital, and--"
"Mr. Sheldon," she repeated. "I...disobeyed. I'm sorry."
By this time I know I was crying. "Oh, Christ, Maggie, why? Why?"
"I wanted to..." She coughed. A bad cough. She couldn't get out what she wanted to tell me. But I could imagine the gist of it.
She wanted to see if she could be with other people, and be accepted, even in disguise. She wanted to use the gift she had that didn't point her out as a mutant. She wanted to sing, on the day before her people celebrated Jesus's birthday. She wanted to sing Christmas carols.
On a night like tonight, it might be possible for folks to accept a little girl with a muffler around her face, and not ask why.
It would have been worth a spanking, to her.
I didn't know what to say. You don't ever know what to say. But I was listening, and I heard a song.
"Silent night, holy night..."
She was singing.
"All is calm, all is bright..."
About the time she got to the bit about round yon virgin, I was holding her to my chest and singing with her. I didn't even know that I knew all the words, until then. But I do know that when I got to the part in which you sing, "Sleep in Heavenly peace" twice...
...I was singing alone.
There were a few others around by that time. Some of them, the carolers. A couple were cops. I don't know who the rest were, and I didn't care. Somebody said, "Did this--belong to you, mister?"
I didn't even see them when I said, "She was a little girl. Her name was Maggie."
To this day, to this very day, I do not know exactly why Maggie insisted on trying to run across that highway. Escape? Certainly, but there were other ways she could have run. Our suburb was hardly an armed camp. She probably just thought she could make it across before the truck did, and anybody following after would have to hesitate till it got past. That would give her at least a one-hop lead on her pursuers. She'd been doing that stuff for years.
But there was the fatigue factor. To seal the wounds of the guy who had shot himself with his own shotgun, she'd had to use a lot of her sac fluid. It took an effort for her to use her power, tired her out quite a lot with that amount of expenditure. Perhaps she was so tired, her reflexes were just a tad off. Or her judgment.
Then, too, hearing me call her name caused her involuntarily (I hope) to turn at just the wrong time. So I, too, have my guilt in this matter. I did not mean it to happen, but it did. This stone I will carry for the rest of my life. I've just gotten used to the weight of it.
Most of the time.
But one last possibility remains. Was Maggie finally just tired of the stone she had to bear? After her almost fitting in with a group of humans from outside my family, and then having her muffler pulled down a bit by a playful and curious five-year-old at the house they visited last, and being chased by an idiot with a gun, and knowing that the scenario would be replayed from her earlier years, even if she escaped...the hunt, the running, the avoiding, the scrounging for food and shelter beneath the eyes of the Outer World that seemed to peer more deeply into her shadows every year...and, finally, having to leave me and my family behind if she did go on the run again...
...it may be that she knew full well what she was daring when she ran onto the highway, and welcomed it.
I hope not. But I cannot know.
I cannot know.
What happened afterward I have to reconstruct from the memory of Doris and what shards I remember. The police took me to the station house as the ambulance came for Maggie's body. I wanted to go with her but they wouldn't let me. Doris arrived at the police station as I was making my statement. I told them the truth, plain and simple. Part of me knew that, tomorrow, Maggie and I would probably be in the headlines. SECRET MUTIE FAMILY LIVING IN N.Y. SUBURBS.
The privacy of my family, the right to our own lives, and especially Beth's and Jenny's rights to theirs, would be immolated like a bit of paper in the media flame. Among them would be two newspapers I had worked for.
Maggie would become a symbol, wouldn't she? Either of the Monsters In Our Neighborhoods or of the Little Girl Mutant Martyr. Nobody would miss the implications of the time of the death, either. We would lead the news on Walter Cronkite's broadcast. Probably Chet's and David's, too.
I didn't want it. God help me, I did not want that. But more than that, more than anything, I wanted Maggie back alive.
After the statement was made, the cop in charge said, "You can go now, sir." Just like that. "You can go now." I couldn't have made it, I don't think, if Doris hadn't been there to help me out to the police car. A cop drove us both back and another one drove our car back. Jenny and Beth both knew something was wrong when, standing on our lawn, they saw both cars pulling up to our drive. But there was another car already in the drive, by then.
"Will you be all right, sir?" asked the cop, as he helped me out.
"What the hell do you think?" I shot back, and let Doris take my arm.
The two girls were chorusing in soft Daddy-Moms as they walked us into the house. I got through the doorway and saw two men in our living room. Both of them looked grim. One of them I had met before.
"Mister Sheldon," said Professor Xavier. "I was too late. I am sorry."
All four of us broke down in tears, then, and Xavier and his aide left the room.
So why didn't you read about the Mutant Martyr of the Sheldon Family, or see it on TV news, or in a movie of the week some years later?
Because Professor Xavier came prepared.
He did not reveal to me exactly what he did, but he was able, in some way, to confound the minds of those who participated in the deadly drama of that night. Some of them forgot exactly what happened. Others were prevented from revealing it. The guy with the shotgun, Jack Giles, reportedly just thought he saw something spooky outside, tripped, and discharged the gun into his side. There was no semi-transparent bandage on him by the time Xavier's treatment was done, and he didn't remember it. Neither did the paramedics who cut it off him and replaced it with normal dressings.
The trucker knew he'd hit a girl. That was all he knew. He was released from a wrongful death thing. I didn't see any point in punishing him. If he was going through a fraction of what I was, that was enough.
The carolers knew they'd seen something, but weren't quite sure what it was. Maybe it was the little girl who'd joined them. The little girl who'd run in front of the truck. They didn't remember what she looked like. But somebody had scared her, and she ran off, and boom. Terrible thing, terrible, terrible thing to happen on a Christmas Eve night. But maybe Jesus had a new angel now.
At least, that's what they said.
All of this happened as a result of the conversation I had with Xavier that night, hours later, after I left the kids with Doris in their bedroom. We told them what had happened, and they knew mortality head-on for the first time in their brief lives. If anything, they cried harder than we did.
Xavier sat in his wheelchair at our kitchen table. The young man with him, whom he called Robert Drake, sat beside him in a normal chair, and was terribly quiet and terribly pained, from the looks of him.
"Now you know what we face, every day, when someone pulls our mask away, Mr. Sheldon," said Xavier, quietly.
"You sonofa..." I couldn't even finish the curse.
He said, "I agree. If I had taken her in, she would not have died today. But she might have been in greater danger, Mr. Sheldon. Nonetheless, I accept my part in the blame of Maggie's death. I--" He bent his head lower, looking at his lap. "There are some--I cannot save," he finished.
"Can you save any of them, dammit?" I was halfway out of my chair. "Can you?"
Drake looked at me, and there was fire in his eyes. "He saved me, Mr. Sheldon. He saved me."
I looked at the youth, and there was something familiar about him. But nothing I could get a handle on.
"Mr. Sheldon," said Xavier, "I shall do--am, in fact, doing--something similar in your case to what I did when I first met young Mr. Drake here, years ago. The persons involved will forget, or be given altered memories. They will not remember the events which took place tonight. They will remember something like them. But they will not remember you, or your wife. Or Maggie."
"Altered memories?" I wasn't up on psychic mumbo-jumbo, or pod people, or anything of that nature.
Drake spoke up again. "The Professor has a way of making people not remember what he doesn't want them to remember. Call it mass hypnosis. It works, Mr. Sheldon. I've seen it work."
Eerie. But the next thing I said was, "Don't alter my memories. Not even of tonight."
I faced the window. "I want them to know," I said. "I want them to know about Maggie."
"I know you do, Mr. Sheldon," said Professor Xavier. "So do I. Emotionally. But are you willing to become what you would have to become, once you told her story?"
I was about to break down again. "Beth," I said. "Jenny. They'd--" Drake was coming towards me, to try and help, but I waved him back. "Not--not right now. Not while they're--with us. If they could..."
"If they could grow up first, Mr. Sheldon?"
I turned, looked at him, and breathed outward, hard. "Maybe. Maybe long after that. A long time after that."
"In the book which you are planning to complete?"
He meant Marvels, the photo-book. "No. That's, that's...too soon."
"Mr. Sheldon," said Xavier, "my security must not be compromised. I could compel you to do this, but I would prefer--"
"You'd prefer I do it voluntarily," I said, and damned myself for speaking so rationally when I wanted to crawl up in a ball and hide under the bed and cry. "Okay. I'll leave you out, when I write about her. When I write about her the first time..."
I had to spit it out, so after a long pause, I did.
"...I'll only tell what happened, up to when she left us the first time. That's tragic enough. Is that all right by you?"
Xavier nodded. "And after the first time, Mr. Sheldon?"
I was sitting down by this time. "How long should I wait?"
"Perhaps till after I am gone, Mr. Sheldon," he said. "Perhaps till after I am dead."
"What if I die first?"
"Write your story, Mr. Sheldon. Leave a copy with your family, and a copy with me. We shall agree not to publish it until after my death, and only with the permission of those of my students whom you name in it, if you name any of them."
I shook my head. "Tragedy. The world should learn from it. The world has got to learn from it."
Xavier said, quietly, "The world learns from tragedy, Mr. Sheldon. Your people know that. But do you wish them to learn of all this tragedy, all at once?"
I had to say it. "No," I said.
"The FBI can deal with the police reports," said Xavier. "I have dealings of my own with them. May I make another suggestion?"
"Have her buried on the grounds of my mansion," he said. "To prevent the curiosity of others, to ensure that her memory remains as a reminder to my students, and...as a reminder to myself. Will you allow us to do that, Mr. Sheldon?"
"You can have her buried there? And still keep her secret?"
He didn't say anything, but I could feel the yes-message in my mind.
"All right, then," I said. "But my family and I must be in attendance."
"I would insist on it."
"Mr. Xavier, I..."
"I understand, Mr. Sheldon. I understand that you and your family need to be alone at this time. Drake and I will go. I shall remain in town for a day or so longer, until matters are attended to."
Drake was almost at the back of Xavier's wheelchair when I said, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute, Xavier. You say you've deal with the FBI, and with mutants?"
The kid looked suspicious, but Xavier just said, "Yes, Mr. Sheldon, to both questions."
"Then I have to ask you...do you know the X-Men?"
"I have, at times, as I might put it, had dealings with them. This is a secret of no small import, Mr. Sheldon. To reveal it might cost either of us our lives."
I was leaning hard on the table. "I need you to take a message from me. To the X-Men."
"Tell them about Maggie. Tell them about what happened, and why it happened. Tell them all."
Xavier nodded again. "You may rely upon it, Mr. Sheldon. You may rely upon it."
"There's more," I said.
I forced it out. "Sometime back, when you were on TV, the night of the Mutie Riots. I was with a group of people. We saw the X-Men. I..."
Drake was looking at me quizzically. I went ahead.
"...I picked up a brick and hit one of them in the forehead. The one covered with ice. I hit him. I guess I didn't know what I was doing. But I did it."
"And I'm sorry. I'm as sorry about that as I've been for anything in my life. Can you tell the X-Men that? That I was wrong? And that I hope the ice guy can manage to forgive me?"
It wasn't Xavier who answered me.
Drake said, "I'll convey the message to the ice guy personally, Mr. Sheldon. And I can tell you right now...he'll forgive you. I know him well enough to say that."
After a pause, Xavier said, "Mr. Sheldon, I've seen to it that your family is sleeping, now, hopefully in some degree of peace. Would you like the same treatment?"
I looked at him, and wondered if I should be horrified. "Don't walk around in my head," I said.
He looked a bit pained. "Very well, Mr. Sheldon. I'll be in touch tomorrow."
I got to bed. Doris was already asleep, as were Beth and Jenny, who had made a pallet on the floor and were sleeping in our room that night and for a few to come. I could see the marks of tears on Dorrie's makeup, but she seemed to be as peaceful as Xavier had assured me she would be.
Some people have all the luck.
Don't ask me how Xavier got the coroners and the funeral home establishment to forget that they were working on a mutant girl. If their memories can be altered, then they were. I just never heard about it from them or anybody else. I don't like to think about it.
I do know that Maggie's funeral, as it was, was held on the grounds of the Xavier School three days afterward. I took Doris, Beth, and Jenny to the mansion for the first time. Despite their grief, they were impressed by the place and by the security measures we had to pass through. The only others in attendance by the closed coffin were Xavier, Drake, the big-handed McCoy, the one called Scott Summers, and a healthy-looking blonde guy and a pretty redheaded girl, both of whom I hadn't met before. They tried to make us at home, as much as they could, but our attention was focused on the small coffin, and the one who lay in it.
In a way, the closed coffin was cruel. The girls wanted to see her. I suppose Dorrie and I did as well. But Maggie had her privacy now, and it would not be violated. The only and final privacy we can ever claim.
Xavier performed the funeral ceremonies himself. "At last, Maggie has found peace," he said. It should have sounded inadequate, but somehow it didn't. Looking at the ones with him, I had a feeling they would have given a lot for some peace themselves, as long as it was above the ground.
He spoke of her hard life, her innocence, her kind deeds, and the kindnesses our family had shown her. I can't recall it all, since I was about as teared-up as the girls were, at the time. But I do recall something he said during the service:
"The survivors of a loved one often feel the emotion of guilt. Especially at the passing of a child. The questions come: Why did we not do this? Why did we not do that? The recriminations: If we had done this, or we had done that, this child, Maggie, would be alive today. But none of us...none of us...are prophets. None of us are given the vision of God. The only faculty we seem to possess in that respect is hindsight. Perhaps even that is not perfectly accurate.
"But it is perfectly accurate to state this: that Maggie's life on this earth, as terrible as it was, was enlightened by the kindness and common humanity of a single family, the Sheldons. They took her in, despite her appearance, despite her being branded mutant--or 'mutie', if you will--and showed her the love and warmth of a family, perhaps in a manner her birth family would have been hard-put to equal. They looked beyond the mask, the face that Maggie wore, and saw the human being, the precious child within. They made her last days what her entire life should have been: worth living.
"This is not a small thing, for either her, them, or us. How few people shielded the Sheldon's own kind from the Holocaust? How many people took the path of Corrie Ten Boom, or Oskar Shindler, or those who concealed Anne Frank's family, as opposed to those who did not? Alas, very few, and hardly enough. And yet, of those who did, we are told that they are known by a special name among the Jews who survived that terrible fate. They are the Righteous Gentiles. The Righteous Gentiles.
"When Phil Sheldon and his family were asked to do such a thing, for a new race of persecuted people, they looked beyond the banners of 'human' or 'mutant', saw them for the falsities they are, and shielded one small girl from the terrors of a hostile world. The persecution of mutants is hardly on the level of the persecution of Jews in times past, but it exists. This grave before us stands testimony to that.
"But the one in that coffin before us stands testimony to kindness, and love, and bravery, and to the perception of a common humanity among homo sapientes and homo superior. When Phil Sheldon was asked what to do with Maggie, the first time he saw her, I am told he said, 'She's just a little girl.' Yes. Just a little girl. As his daughters already knew, and as his wife came to know. For all her appearance, for all her genetic differences, Maggie was nothing more, nothing less, than just a little girl.
"A little girl whose last months of life should give us faith in hope and understanding between our peoples. A little girl whose hell was made more of a heaven by their kindness. And a little girl whose ultimate fate--marked by an act of her own kindness, to a man who threatened her--was marked, finally, by a kindness of her own.
"If there was a label to be coined for the Sheldon
family, it might be the Righteous Humans.
But such would not be adequate, either for them, or for Maggie. All that needs be said is that, for as long as she lived with them, Maggie and the Sheldons were one family. And that, if we remember it is possible for humans and mutants to live together, and to love together, the death of Maggie need not be in vain.
"Thus, we commit Maggie's body to the Earth, and her soul to Peace."
I was trying to comfort Dorrie, who was trying to comfort Beth and Jenny. Five of the students were at the six straps used to lower the coffin into the grave. They were waiting. I finally figured out who they were waiting for.
I got up, took my place at the sixth strap, and slowly said my final goodbye to Maggie.
Except I guess I never really have.
We told our associates that there had been a death of a family friend without getting too specific. Anything more, we stonewalled. I don't think anybody put it together with the reported death of a girl on the highway on Christmas Eve. If they did, I don't know about it.
What did we do afterward?
We did what we had to. We lived with ourselves, and with our lives. Beth and Jenny grew up a lot that year. Yes, I did eventually see them smile again, and laugh again. But they knew a hell of a lot more about life as a result of that four-month crash course we'd experienced.
It was very hard on Doris, as can be expected. Losing an adopted daughter, which she had in a de facto way, can be almost as hard as losing one's own flesh and blood. Especially if the child was as good a one as Maggie.
For myself, I functioned, and I finished the MARVELS book, and I took pictures and sold them to Jameson and Bushkin. I eventually climbed out of the hole, a step at a time. Or an f-stop at a time. The superheroes posed for me, or I caught them in action. Pop, another shot for the files. Another piece of super-powered history. You know it all stopped in 1972, and I don't have to tell you here; if you want to know, read my other book.
Beth and Jenny grew up, made lives for themselves, married, graduated college, not all in that order. Both have become activists of sorts, especially in FriendsWatch, the group that tries to keep tabs on Friends of Humanity. One does not, believe me, use the word 'mutie' in a conversation around them.
Doris has continued being my rock and harbor, and I hope I have performed some similar duties for her. I kept taking pictures and getting a paycheck. I wrote two books, one of which was mainly photos and captions.
This, if and when it is ever published, will be the third.
My contact with Xavier lessened over the years. Sometimes he was not available at all. I suppose there are things which are best not speculated on, even in the pages of this book. Perhaps they will not be revealed even by the time it sees print.
But I do know that I feel a great relief at the making of this final revelation. I feel confident that, someday, someone else will know the entire story. Or at least all of it that I could write. Perhaps someday Beth and Jenny will write their own books about it. Or perhaps they already have.
Did we learn her last name? Of course we did. But it is of no use to reveal it here, as it was of no use to reveal it back then. Her parents were long gone from her life years before we met her. They know who they are, and, if they read this, they will know who she was. I have no idea if they are alive at all. I hate to say it, but it doesn't matter to me.
What does matter to me is that, in one part of my life, I was given a second chance. Perhaps I blew it at the end, but I didn't try to. In as much as I could, I tried to give Maggie the home that she needed, that she deserved. How we would have coped with the facts of her becoming an adult, I cannot say. But we would have tried, as hard as we coped with the facts of her childhood.
And those facts remain very dear to me, and to Dorrie, Beth, and Jenny as well.
So now you know the whole story, or as much of it as I can tell.
Perhaps Xavier is dead by the time you read these words. Perhaps I am, also. I am not so concerned with either of us being remembered, though that would be nice.
There is only one person whom I hope the world never forgets in this story, as I never have, and never will.
I'm glad so many of you have written and indicated you liked this story. I enjoyed writing it, hated to finish it, perhaps hated the finisher I had to give it but knew was coming from the beginning. Somebody said all stories end in death, if you keep them going long enough, and I guess this one went at least that long.
The inspiration for this one came from rereading MARVELS #3, naturally, and, after taking in the segment in which Phil Sheldon and his family meet Maggie and lose her, doing a mental "What-If?". But the real impetus was from the source upon which Alex Ross based Maggie's visual appearance. It was from a story called "The Loathsome" in EC's WEIRD FANTASY #20 (July-August 1953), a Wally Wood-drawn tale of another lonely little mutant-girl, and one which will tear your heart out if you read it. If you haven't, by all means, hunt up a reprint and do so.
I don't know there's anything else to add here. Hopefully, all that's to be said is in the story. Except to say, Thank you for reading, thank you for telling me you liked it, and for all the Maggies in the world, let us hope there are Phil Sheldons, as well.
3 / 26 / 2001