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Step on a Crack
By James Patterson, Michael Ledwidge
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2013 James Patterson Michael Ledwidge
All rights reserved.
I'LL TELL YOU THIS—even on the so-called mean streets of New York, where the only thing harder to get than a taxi in the rain is attention, we were managing to turn heads that grim, gray December afternoon.
If anything could tug at the coiled-steel heartstrings of the Big Apple's residents, I guess the sight of my mobilized Bennett clan—Chrissy, three; Shawna, four; Trent, five; twins Fiona and Bridget, seven; Eddie, eight; Ricky, nine; Jane, ten; Brian, eleven; and Juliana, twelve—all dressed in their Sunday best and walking in size order behind me, could do the trick.
I suppose I should have felt some privilege in being granted the knowledge that the milk of human kindness hasn't completely dried up in our jaded metropolis.
But at the time, the gentle nods and warm smiles we received from every McClaren stroller–pushing Yummie, construction worker, and hot dog vendor from the subway exit next to Bloomingdale's all the way to First Avenue were completely lost on me.
I had a lot on my mind.
The only New Yorker who didn't seem like he wanted to go on a cheek-pinching bender was the old man in the hospital gown who cupped his cigarette and wheeled his IV cart out of the way to let us into our destination—the main entrance of the terminal wing of the New York Hospital Cancer Center.
I guess he had a lot on his mind, too.
I don't know where New York Hospital recruits its staff for the terminal cancer wing, but my guess is somebody in Human Resources hacks into St. Peter's mainframe and swipes the saint list. The constancy of their compassion and the absolute decency with which they treated me and my family were truly awe-inspiring.
But as I passed forever-smiling Kevin at reception and angelic Sally Hitchens, the head of the Nursing Department, it took everything I had to raise my head and manage a weak nod back at them.
To say I wasn't feeling very social would have been putting it mildly.
"Oh, look, Tom," a middle-aged woman, clearly a visitor, said to her husband at the elevator. "A teacher brought some students in to sing Christmas carols. Isn't that so nice? Merry Christmas, children!"
We get that a lot. I'm of Irish American extraction, but my kids—all adopted—run the gamut. Trent and Shawna are African American; Ricky and Julia, Hispanic; and Jane is Korean. My youngest's favorite show is The Magic School Bus. When we brought home the DVD, she exclaimed, "Daddy, it's a show about our family!"
Give me a fuzzy red wig and I'm a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound Ms. Frizzle. I certainly don't look like what I am—a senior detective with the NYPD Homicide Division, a troubleshooter, negotiator, whatever's needed by whoever needs it.
"Do you boys and girls know 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear'?" the woman who had latched on to us persisted. I was just about to sharply point out her ignorance when Brian, my oldest son, glanced at the smoke coming out of my ears and piped up.
"Oh, no, ma'am. I'm sorry. We don't. But we know 'Jingle Bells.'"
All the way up to dreaded Five, my ten kids sang "Jingle Bells" with gusto, and as we piled out of the elevator, I could see a happy tear in the woman's eye. She wasn't here on vacation either, I realized, and my son had salvaged the situation better than a United Nations diplomat, certainly better than I ever could have.
I wanted to kiss his forehead, but eleven-year-old boys have killed over less, so I just gave him a manly pat on the back as we turned down a silent, white corridor.
Chrissy, with her arm around Shawna, her "best little pal" as she calls her, was into the second verse of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as we passed the nurses' station. The little ones could have been life-size Precious Moments figurines in their dresses and pigtailed hair, thanks to the extreme makeover work of their older sisters, Juliana and Jane.
My kids are great. Amazing, really. Like everyone else lately, they had gone so far above and beyond that it was hard to believe sometimes.
I guess it just pissed me off that they had to.
At the end of the second hallway we turned, a woman, wearing a flowered dress over her ninety-pound frame and a Yankees cap over her hairless head, was sitting in a wheelchair at the open door of 513.
"MOM!" the kids yelled, and the thunder of twenty feet suddenly shattered the relative silence of the hospital hall.
THERE WAS HARDLY enough of my wife left to get twenty arms around, but the kids managed it somehow. There were twenty-two arms when I got there. My wife was on morphine, codeine, and Percocet, but the only time I saw her completely pain-free was that first moment when we arrived, when she had all her ducklings pressed around her.
"Michael," Maeve whispered to me. "Thank you. Thank you. They look so wonderful."
"So do you," I whispered back. "You didn't get out of that bed by yourself again, did you?"
Every day when we came to see her, she was dressed for company, her intravenous pain pack hidden away, a smile on her face.
"If you didn't want glamour, Mr. Bennett," my wife said, fighting the weariness in her glazed eyes, "I guess you should have married someone else."
It was the morning of the previous New Year's Day when Maeve had complained about some stomach pain. We'd thought it was just some holiday indigestion, but when it hadn't gone away in two weeks, her doctor wanted to do a laparoscopy just to be on the safe side. They found growths on both ovaries, and the biopsy came back with the worst news of all. Malignant. A week later, a second biopsy of the lymph nodes they took out with her uterus reported even worse news. The cancer had spread, and it wasn't going to stop.
"Let me help you up this time, Maeve," I whispered as she started to push herself up out of the chair.
"You want to get seriously hurt?" she said, glaring at me. "Mr. Tough Guy Detective!"
Maeve fought for her life and dignity like a banshee. She took on cancer the way the outclassed Jake LaMotta took on Sugar Ray Robinson in the fifties, with an epic ferocity not to be believed.
She was a nurse herself and used every contact and every ounce of wisdom and experience she'd gained. She underwent so many chemo and radiation treatments, it put a life-threatening strain on her heart. But even after the radical attempts, after everything there was to be done had been done, the CAT scan revealed growing tumors in both lungs, her liver, and her pancreas.
A quote from LaMotta rang in my ears as I watched Maeve stand on her wobbling toothpick legs to prop herself up behind her wheelchair. "You never knocked me down, Ray," he supposedly said after Robinson TKO'd him. "You never knocked me down."
MAEVE SAT DOWN on the bed and lifted a white chart from beside her.
"I got something for you, guys," she said softly. "Since it looks like I'm going to be stuck here in this ridiculous place for a while longer, I decided I needed to come up with a list of chores for you."
Some of the older kids groaned. "Mom!"
"I know, I know. Chores. Who needs them?" Maeve said. "But here's my thinking. If you all work together, you can keep the apartment running for me until I get back. Okay, team? Then here we go. Julia, you're on lifeguard duty for baths for the youngin's, and you're also responsible for getting them dressed in the morning.
"Brian, you're my cruise director, okay? Board games, video games, Duck, Duck, Goose. Anything you can think of that's not the TV. I need you to keep all the young men as occupied as possible.
"Jane, you're on homework patrol. Get the house genius, Eddie, to help you. Ricky, I hereby dub you the Bennett house personal lunch chef. Remember, peanut butter and jelly for everyone except Eddie and Shawna—they get baloney.
"Let's see. Fiona and Bridget. Table setting and clearing. You could alternate, figure it out...."
"What about me?" Trent squeaked. "What's my job? I don't have a job yet."
"You're on shoe patrol, Trent Bennett," Maeve said. "All I ever hear from these complainers is 'Where's my shoes? Where's my shoes?' Your job is to gather up all ten pairs and get them next to everybody's bed. Don't forget your own."
"I won't," Trent said, nodding with five-year-old intensity.
"Shawna and Chrissy, I have a job for you girls, too."
"Yay," Chrissy said, and did a little ballerina twirl. She'd gotten the Barbie of Swan Lake DVD for her birthday a month before, and every emotion now came with an impromptu interpretive dance.
"You know Socky's dish in the kitchen?" Maeve said.
Socky was a fickle white-and-gray cat that Maeve had pulled out of the garbage alongside our West End Avenue apartment house. My wife obviously has a thing for the misfortunate and strays. The fact that she married me proved that a long time ago.
Shawna nodded solemnly. At four, she was the quietest and most obedient and easygoing of all my kids. Maeve and I used to laugh at the nature-versus-nurture debate. All ten of our kids came from the womb prepackaged with his or her own personality. A parent could enhance and certainly damage, but change? Make a quiet kid gabby or a social butterfly more cerebral? Uh-uh. Not gonna happen.
"Well, it's your job to make sure Socky always has water to drink in her dish. Oh, and listen up, gang," Maeve said, sliding down a little on the bed. At that point, just sitting too long in one spot hurt her.
"I want to go over a couple of other things before I forget. In this family, we always celebrate each other's birthdays. I don't care if you're four or fourteen, or forty and scattered around the world. We gotta stick by each other, okay? And meals—as long as you live under the same roof, you have at least one meal a day together. I don't care if it's a dreaded hot dog in front of the dastardly TV as long as you're all there. I'm always there for you, right? Well, you have to be like me even if I'm not there. You got me? Trent, are you listening?"
"Hot dogs in front of the TV," Trent said, grinning. "I love hot dogs and TV."
We all laughed.
"And I love you," Maeve said. I could see her eyelids beginning to droop. "You've made me so proud. You too, Michael, my brave detective."
Maeve was facing the grave with a dignity I was unaware human beings were capable of, and she was proud of us? Of me? What felt like an entire main of frigid water suddenly burst down the length of my spine. I wanted to start wailing, to put my fist through something—the window, the TV, the dirty lead skylight out in the lounge. Instead, I stepped forward through the crowd of my children, took off my wife's cap, and kissed her gently on the forehead.
"Okay, guys. Mom needs her rest," I said, fiercely struggling to keep the crack that was in my heart out of my voice. "Time to go. Let's move it, troop."
IT WAS THREE FORTY-FIVE when the Neat Man stepped off Fifth Avenue, climbed stone stairs, and walked into St. Patrick's Cathedral.
He snorted at the good folk kneeling in heavy silence and prayer. Sure, he thought, the Big Guy upstairs had to be real impressed with all this piety coming from the nerve center of the modern world's Gomorrah.
A prim, dough-faced old gal had beaten him to the first seat in the pew beside the nearest confessional along the cathedral's south wall. What the hell kind of sins did she have to admit? he wondered, sitting down beside her. Forgive me, Father, I bought the cheap chocolate chips for the grandkids' cookies.
A fortyish priest with salon-trimmed hair showed up a minute later. Father Patrick Mackey did a poor job of hiding his double take when he spotted the Neat Man's icy smile.
It took a little longer for the baggy-necked old lady to get out of the pew than to make her confession. Then the Neat Man almost knocked her down as he slid in after her through the confessional door.
"Yes, my son," said the priest behind the screen.
"Northeast corner of Fifty-first and Madison," the Neat Man said. "Twenty minutes, Fodder. Be there, or else there will be consequences."
It was more like thirty minutes later when Father Mackey opened the passenger door of the Neat Man's idling van. He had exchanged his priest duds for a bright blue ski jacket and jeans. He pulled a cardboard tube from beneath the jacket's puffy folds.
"You got it!" the Neat Man said. "Well done, Fodder. You're a good assistant."
The priest nodded as he craned his neck back toward the church. "We should drive," he said.
Ten minutes later, they parked in an empty lot beside an abandoned heliport. Out through the windshield, the East River looked like a field of trampled mud stretching before them. The Neat Man stifled a joke as he popped the lid off the cylinder the priest had brought. You could practically taste the PCBs in the air, he thought.
The prints inside were old and cracked, yellowed at the edges like parchment. The Neat Man stopped his tracing finger at the center of the second print.
There it was! It wasn't just a rumor. It was real.
And he had it.
The final detail for his masterpiece.
"And no one knows you have these?" the Neat Man said.
"No one," the priest said, and chuckled. "Doesn't the paranoia of the Church boggle the mind? The institution I work for is a puzzle palace."
The Neat Man clucked his tongue, unable to take his eyes off the architectural drawing. But finally, he lifted a silenced Colt Woodsman out from underneath the seat of the van. The double tap of the .22 was subtle to the ear, but it was as if a grenade had gone off inside Father Mackey's head. "Go straight to hell," the Neat Man said.
Then he did a frantic scan of his face in the rearview and threw his head back in horror. Specks of blood freckled his forehead above his right eye. It was only after he'd scoured the hateful spots with Wet-Naps and upended a bottle of rubbing alcohol onto his face that his breathing returned to normal.
Then the Neat Man whistled tunelessly as he rolled up the prints and put them back into their cylinder.
A masterpiece, he thought once again, in the making.
THE KIDS WERE a blur of activity once we got back home that evening. From every room of our apartment, instead of television and electronic gunfire, came the satisfying sound of busy Bennetts.
Water splashed as Julia prepped Shawna and Chrissy's bath. Brian sat at the dining room table with a deck of cards, patiently teaching Trent and Eddie how to play twenty-one.
"Bam," I could hear Ricky, like an Emeril Mini-Me, say from the kitchen as he squeezed jelly onto each slice of Wonder bread. "Bam ... bam."
Jane had the flash cards out on the floor of her room and was preparing Fiona and Bridget for the 2014 SAT.
I didn't hear a complaint, a whine, or even a silly question out of anyone.
Add brilliant to the list of my wife's attributes. She must have known how much the kids were hurting, how disoriented and useless they felt, so she had given them something to do to fill that void, to feel useful.
I only wished I could come up with something to make myself feel the same way.
As most parents will tell you, bedtime is the roughest time of day. Everyone, not excluding parents, is tired and cranky, and restlessness can degrade quickly to frustration, yelling, threats, and punishments. I didn't know how Maeve did it every night—some magical, innate sense of measure and calm, I had assumed. It was one of the things that I was most worried about having to take on.
But by eight o'clock that night, from the sound coming out of the apartment, you would have thought we had all left on a Christmas vacation.
I almost expected to see the window open and bedsheets tied together when I went into the little girls' room—but all I saw were Chrissy, Shawna, Fiona, and Bridget with their sheets tucked to their chins, and Julia closing an Olivia book.
"Good night, Chrissy," I said, kissing her on her forehead. "Much love from your dad."
I was heartened by my clutch Dad performance as I went on my rounds.
Excerpted from Step on a Crack by James Patterson, Michael Ledwidge. Copyright © 2013 James Patterson Michael Ledwidge. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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