They had stopped at the main gate and been checked by the security guard, and waved on, when Sherrill signaled the driver to pull over. It was only a few houses farther, but he needed a moment to think things through. The cab glided to the curb and came to a stop. It was an electric car. All the cars were electric these days, and a good thing, too – they were a vast improvement over the old gas guzzlers of the previous era.
Everything had happened so quickly. That morning, after Robert had called, Sherrill told his secretary to cancel his appointments and book the next available flight to the city where Robert lived. Many years ago he had attended law school with Robert’s father. The two of them, just starting out, had worked together for the same firm. His friend had died in an automobile accident, and Sherrill had become the infant Robert’s surrogate father.
When Robert’s mother remarried, a few years later, he remained on close terms with the family. He had watched Robert grow up, and was pleased that the young man had inherited many of his father’s most appealing qualities. Robert’s stepfather had died, unexpectedly, of a heart condition, leaving Sherrill once more in the position of mentor and family friend. Upon completion of his studies, Robert had married and accepted a position in marketing in a distant city. Now that Robert had a career and a family to raise, Sherrill heard much less of him, but they had stayed in touch over the years.
Then early this morning Robert had called. Could Sherrill possibly come by that evening for a few hours? He could stay in their new guest room. The fact that he was five hundred miles away was not mentioned. Evidently it was something that could not be discussed over the phone.
Sherrill guessed at the problem, and realized that he was the right person to call. When this matter had first come up, Robert may not have remembered, but surely, as things deteriorated, it must have occurred to him that, many years ago, Sherrill had been among those in the forefront of the crusade to establish the clinics and keep them operating.
“I was still a young man,” he thought, “full of high ideals. Aggressive and uncompromising in my convictions. And much younger than Robert is now.” He closed his eyes. The taxi’s imitation leather cushions were remarkably soft and comfortable. He drifted back to those days. He and his wife, Anne, in company with a number of friends, including Robert’s father, had joined the crusade to defend the right of everyone to obtain the procedure on demand.
It was the most exciting time of their lives. The struggle to establish the clinics and make them accessible in all parts of the country, without interference from local government or from the opposition, had occupied them for many years. And certainly, at least for a considerable time, it seemed they had won. But it didn’t turn out that way.
He sighed at the thought of what had happened. It was almost too painful to contemplate. They had worked to make the procedure legal and available to all. An entire generation had benefited from what they had accomplished. But in the end their cause was defeated by changes they could not have foreseen.
First came the war, then the recession, then the bitter and violent national election. After that, the terrible shock of the two assassinations. Finally, the unexpected appointments, and the overturning of the court’s original decision.
Within a couple of years all of their work had been destroyed. The clinics were boarded up, the last few practitioners sent packing. Some went into hiding, others to prison. To those who had been involved in the struggle, the entire country seemed plunged into darkness and savagery.
But there were those who had not given up. The work continued, albeit in secret now. There was an underground. The Moniz Connection, it was called, although it had no official existence. It was said to be extensive. Sherrill, who had always advocated non-violence, and who believed in working within the system, had never been a part of it. But he knew it was out there.
Perhaps because Robert had been so guarded over the phone, Sherrill sensed that he was already in touch with the right people. He had insisted that Sherrill take a cab from the airport rather than rent a car. He and Nance would be waiting at the house. Events must be moving swiftly, Sherrill thought.
He tapped on the glass and motioned for the driver to continue. This was his first visit to their new home. The house came into view. Its circular drive was lined with clumps of azalea and rhododendron. The overall style was Cape Cod – shingled outer walls, somber and gray, a row of dormer windows with blue gingham-patterned curtains, the planes of the roof finished with cedar shakes.
The house stood near the shore of what must have formerly been a reservoir or a large gravel pit. On the water’s surface, visible through a scrim of young maples and white birches, an occasional wave turned white in the late afternoon breeze. It was a splendid autumn day, Sherrill thought, brisk and clear. An occasional leaf dropped down. A soft blue dusk was approaching.
As the car pulled up, Robert came down the front walk. He paid for the cab, embraced Sherrill and shook his hand, took his leather overnight bag, and led him up the steps and into the front hall. They went on up to the guest bedroom. “I’ll wait for you in the conservatory,” Robert said. He grinned. “That’s what we call it. The side porch, with all the plants.”
The guest bathroom was state-of-the art: floor-to-ceiling tile in muted grays and blues, delicately sculpted fixtures, and stacks of towels. The bedroom windows offered a fine view of the wooded palisades on the far side of the lake. The neighboring houses were barely visible.
When Sherrill came downstairs, Robert handed him a tumbler of malt liquor and guided him out into a large alcove off the main living room – a porch with tropical plants and furniture made of bamboo, with shiny red cushions. Just inside the French doors someone had set down a long-handled basket of gardening tools, still caked with dirt, and a galvanized watering can.
In a cage in the far corner, half hidden among the leaves of an enormous fig tree, a cockatoo sat huddled on its perch, muttering to itself and occasionally shaking the haystack-yellow plumes of its fabulous head.
Through the tall windows they had a splendid view of the lawn and a row of dwarf fruit trees and the smooth slope down to the water’s edge. A small wooden dock had already been pulled out for the season and disassembled, its parts stacked neatly on the shore, waiting to be hauled away.
Nance’s garden was thronged with purple asters, late marigolds, and clumps of yellow mums the color of jack-o-lanterns. One double door stood open, and the air that came in brought a trace of dampness and far-off leaf fires. The atmosphere, shot through with the rays of the setting sun, took on a bronzed hue.
Sherrill’s left hand rested comfortably on the cushion of the couch. He felt the fabric. From across the room, it had looked synthetic – nylon, perhaps. He realized instead that it was a kind of worsted, like the fabric of the pillows. But the myriad tufts of the cushion next to where he sat had been shorn – picked at, patiently and obsessively – until the material was almost worn away.
Finally, Robert spoke. “It’s Mary,” he said softly. Sherrill nodded. He had known it all along. “You realize that she’s never really been well. I mean, she’s always been unruly. Difficult. Hard to handle. In the last few years, with boys entering the picture, things have gotten worse. Much worse. They’re a wild bunch these days. They all have cars, and too much spending money. Nobody can control them.
“We’ve tried everything. Talked to the school authorities. Gone to conferences. Met with the other parents. Nothing made any difference. We had to take Mary in hand. We were desperate. We tried every available counselor, every kind of therapist, every type of weekend retreat or temporary hospitalization. No electroshock, of course.” He shook his head. “That’s something I couldn’t allow. It’s too primitive.”
Sherrill nodded and took another sip of his drink.
“Nothing worked. She got wilder with each passing day. We knew where it was heading and what would happen if we didn’t intervene. She began staying out late, defying us. Then there were the nights she didn’t come home at all. Nance was frantic. We never called the police, but we probably should have. There were some terrible fights.
“She was getting morning-after pills from somewhere – I don’t know where. Those kids have access to all kinds of drugs. But it didn’t matter – we were worried sick. Everything was a big mess. And now – well, now we feel there’s really no other choice.” He sighed and rubbed his forehead. For a moment he did not speak.
“The worse things got, the more I began to understand,” he said. He put down his glass and looked at the older man. “I mean, about what happened back then. What you and my father and some of the others were trying to do.”
“It was a long time ago,” Sherrill said. “When we started out, the penalties were severe. They’re even more severe now, by the way.”
Robert was silent for a moment. “Nance and I have thought about that. We’ve talked about the ethics of involving you – of putting you at risk. Maybe it’s wrong of us. But now that we’ve come this far, I’m afraid she can’t go on. She’s been devastated by everything that’s happened during the past few months.”
“I’m sorry,” Sherrill said. “Really, I am. I hope I’ll be able to see her and talk with her during my visit.”
“Nance had wanted to be here when you arrived,” Robert said, “but a couple of hours ago she was on the verge of collapsing, and I insisted she take her medication. She’s upstairs now, lying down. She needs the rest. I don’t want to wake her. During these last few days, I’ve not been sure I could get through it alone. I mean, without any help at all. That’s why I called you. As a precaution. It’s such a big step.”
“It is. It’s an awfully big step. But Robert, what you’re proposing to do is not wrong."
“Oh, I know that. To tell the truth, what scares me most is not that I might get caught, but that something might go wrong. I believe in the procedure, I know what it will do – what it accomplished back then, for all those needy people. But it was legal then, and the practitioners knew what they were doing. And thanks to people like you, they had the necessary equipment. But everything’s changed now. I have this fear that something might go wrong. I don’t want her to be harmed. I just want her to come through it all right. I want her to have a chance for some kind of stable life.”
“There was always risk involved,” Sherrill said. “It may be even greater now. I’m not really sure. I’ve been out of touch with . . . the movement.”
“I know that. And I’m sorry to have involved you in this way, and at the last minute. But there was no one else I could turn to. I will say this – it’s a damn shame we have to sneak around to some back-alley place, some kitchen-table operation, and take a chance on someone we’ve never met and know nothing about. I mean, how good is he? How many times has he done this sort of thing before? I’m sorry, but it’s gotten me terribly rattled.”
“It’s always a delicate procedure. But there have to be a few left who know what they’re doing.”
“I’ve done the best I could. Put out feelers. Made a lot of inquiries. All very hush-hush, of course. And I’ve got the money. In cash.”
“And Mary? How old is she now? The last time I saw her she was just a little girl. That must have been eight or nine years ago. It was that Christmas I spent with all of you in the other house – the time we got snowed in, and had such a good time, decorating the tree and putting up the children’s stockings. She was such a lovely child. She must be quite a young lady by now.”
Robert finished his drink and set the glass on the rattan coffee table. “She’s sixteen, Sherrill. And she’s been through a lot.” He sighed. “And so have we. She’s put us through hell.” He stood up and went over to the windows. A small boat with a yellow plastic sail moved briskly across the lake.
“It would be too easy to say that most of what she’s suffered has been self-inflicted,” he said. “But it hasn’t all been in vain – the drugs have worked to some extent. Right now, she’s calmer than she’s been in weeks. It’s taken a toll on the rest of us, to get her to this point. But I do believe she understands. And she is willing. We’ve talked it over. We’re not forcing her.”
He came back and sat down beside Sherrill on the couch. “I’ve been in contact with the underground for some time. It’s a long process. They’re professional, I’ll say that for them. They insist on counseling, and not a simple briefing, either. First they spoke with me, then with Nance, then with the two of us together. Each time, they arranged to meet us at a different fast-food place, in a different mall. It was like being caught up in some spy thriller. We had to take steps to make sure we had not been followed, and there was a certain ritual enabling us to recognize each other in the crowd.
“Finally, a woman came here and took Mary with her for a few hours. Evidently they went to a safe place and spent the evening talking it over. There were tests, too, that had to be conducted. They were managed by confederates in the regular medical establishment – blood work, different scans, an MRI, that sort of thing. It took a long time to get everything lined up. And now, tonight’s the night. And I guess maybe I’m getting cold feet. To tell the truth, Sherrill, I’m scared.”
The older man leaned over and put a hand on one of Robert’s shoulders. They stayed that way for a moment. Above, in the metal cage, the white bird hopped to a swinging perch and began to preen its long tail feathers. It paused now and then to gaze about and utter a stream of soft, unintelligible, but almost human syllables.
“Nance understands,” Robert whispered. “She’s willing. She believes that it’s in Mary’s best interests. That it’s right thing to do.”
They drew apart. Sherrill tossed down the last of his drink. “How soon?”
“Everything’s ready now. Mary’s in the study with Daniel. They’re playing electronic Boggle. Don’t say anything to him. He has no idea what’s going on. But we’re all set to go. There’s a maid, Jacqueline. She’ll give Daniel his supper, and in another hour or so, Nance will wake up, and come down and make sure he does his homework. The appointment’s at seven-thirty. It’s about twenty minutes from here, in another part of the city. A disreputable part, as you might expect.”
He went over to the study door and knocked. Mary came out. She wore a green shirtwaist of watered silk, a simple necklace made of links of silver chain, and a pair of matching bracelets. Her long brown hair was parted in the middle and fell straight behind.
Sherrill remembered how dark and mysterious she had seemed as a child, with her flecked hazel eyes and her quiet ways. Part of it was that beautiful heart-shaped face, those perfectly composed lips – a gift from her grandmother’s people, who were of Huguenot descent. It was an ethereal, almost witchy look, and it was gone now. There was no light in the eyes. Something had fled. She shook hands with Sherrill and turned to introduce Daniel, who was hanging back. He didn’t remember this visitor.
Sherrill took his hand warmly, and elicited the fact that Daniel was on the sixth-grade soccer team. He wanted to be a striker, but most of the time he played defense. Out in the driveway, their father had backed the car out of the garage. Daniel scampered on into the kitchen, calling for the maid.
Sherrill took Mary’s hand. “I don’t want you to be afraid,” he said. “We’re going to be with you every minute.”
“Oh, Uncle Sherrill, I don’t think I could ever be afraid, now that you’re here,” she said. She tilted her heart-shaped face up toward his and looked into his eyes. For a moment, the look was there, and it was powerful. Heart-breaker, he thought, wondering what it would be like to be seventeen again, and immediately dismissing the thought. He took her arm in his and together they went through the front door and down the broad steps.
Robert followed a circuitous route downtown, getting on the freeway and then off again, threading his way through several streams of traffic. He encouraged Mary to point out some of the landmarks visible from the main artery into town. There had been many changes since Sherrill had last visited the city – a new sports pavilion, a cultural center, a monument to the veterans of the most recent overseas peacekeeping operation.
They entered a district of decayed Victorian houses and down-at-heel apartment buildings. Broken chairs and raddled couches had been set out along the curbs. From cardboard boxes, ruined by rain, trash spilled across the sidewalks. The alley Robert turned into was paved with brick and grown up with weeds along the edges. He stopped behind a rusted dumpster and switched off the headlights.
In a window on the second floor, a point of light blinked three times. They got out and walked to a metal door immediately below the window. It was not locked. Inside, they felt their way up the dark stairway. At the top a door opened and a man’s voice called down to them to mind the last step – the linoleum had come loose.
They entered what appeared to be the waiting room of a wholesale veterinarian supply house. The chairs were molded plastic, the coffee table covered with tattered sports magazines. There were posters of dogs and cats and pharmaceutical products on the walls, and a glassed-in office where a sales rep, during regular hours, took the orders. Now the lights were turned down.
The practitioner looked to be about seventy years old. He had a merry face, bushy white eyebrows, and a crew-cut, and was dressed in hospital blues and cloth slippers. He did not give his name nor ask theirs, but seemed pleased that they had come. He had a cheerful way of speaking, and just a trace of a Southern accent. Courtly, Sherrill thought. Good bedside manner. That will help her to relax.
“My assistant is in the next room,” the man explained, “getting everything ready.” He turned to Mary. “She will be preparing you, my dear,” he said. “I think you’ll find she’s very capable. And now the two of you ought to be getting acquainted. If you would be so kind as to follow me, then in a few minutes we’ll be under way.” He guided her gently through the door and into the adjoining room.
He was gone for no more than a minute. When he returned, he pointed toward a plastic accordion-style partition on the opposite side of the waiting room. “Would you like to see?” he asked. He drew back both halves to reveal what must have been, during normal operating hours, a small lab or product testing area. Now it had been converted into a temporary surgery.
There was a sturdy stainless-steel table and a stack of small pillows, cartons of gauze and tape, and, on the narrow counter, an opened case of surgical tools. A sterilizer gave off wisps of steam. Overhead, a strong light on a flexible metal extension could be adjusted and brought down low. Beyond was a stainless-steel double sink. Next to the table stood an electronic console, elaborately laced with wires and showing several lighted screens, on which no lines or numbers were yet appearing.
Robert took a step back. “No, thanks, I don’t think we really need to look at anything,” he said. “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine. We’ll be quite content to wait out here.”
The practitioner nodded and began to draw on a pair of long, elbow-length latex gloves. Sherrill realized that he was about the same age as this man. He wondered if, in the distant past, they had ever met? Or attended the same rally together? Those events had happened so very long ago.
Robert was sitting in one of the plastic chairs, counting out the money in twenty-dollar bills. From the inner room came the murmurous sounds of the older woman speaking, and the younger one replying, but Sherrill could not make out the words. It all seemed so friendly and civilized, as though they had stopped by for a visit. Yet if they were found out they could go to prison. And for a number of years.
And Mary? Without the procedure, in the kind of savage, heartless world that had sprung up all around them during the past ten or fifteen years, what were her chances for happiness, or for a peaceful life?
“Everyone’s of the same mind about this?” the practitioner asked, smoothing a wrinkle on one of the gloves. “No last-minute doubts or misgivings?” Robert shook his head, but he seemed to be having trouble getting his breath. Sherrill put a hand on his shoulder. “The young lady has no objections?” the practitioner continued. “Yes, well, that’s good. It’s the only way. Gentlemen, I must ask you to wait here. We shall not be long.”
He moved toward the opening into the room with the steel table and the overhead light. Aware of Robert’s increasing distress, he turned back for a moment. “She has already been given a mild sedative,” he explained.
“The procedure itself will take only a minute or two. Within half an hour, you will be able to walk her down the stairs, and out to the car. There will be no complications, I assure you. Nor will she have any memory of having been here. It will be as if none of this had ever happened, and we had never met.”
He gazed down at Robert and spoke with great sincerity. “I know you’re worried. That’s understandable. But the procedure has been significantly refined, over the years, by my colleagues in the underground. The transorbital instrument itself is laser-tipped – "
“I remember when it was first introduced," Sherrill blurted out, not knowing why he had interrupted the other man. To get things moving again, perhaps. Or to establish some sort of authority here, before Robert lost his nerve – some connection with a dead father, or with events of long ago, when all of these matters had seemed so much clearer, and easier to grasp. “Back when I was – involved – in the movement,” he added.
The room seemed to grow still. A slight tremor appeared in the practitioner’s left temple, throbbed, then disappeared. He peered about and examined Sherrill, as though trying to recall something about him.
“You were most fortunate,” he said finally. “In those days it was difficult to obtain proper equipment.” He smiled at Robert. “But now, of course, we have access to the latest medical technology.”
He stepped back. His voice was more official and distant now, as though he were reading from a prepared speech. “We’ll be working to sever a small number of fibers in the ventromedial portion of the prefrontal region. The incisions required are one-thousandth the width of a human hair, so slight as to be almost unnoticeable, and virtually undetectable in the future, once they have healed. The laser seals as it severs, precluding bleeding."
“Our equipment is taxonomic and guided by the most up-to-date digital software. The dimensions of the interior of your daughter’s cranium, right down to the last micro-millimeter, along with the requisite imaging data, have all been fed into this program. Nothing can possibly go wrong. I’ll be watching on the main screen. You have nothing to worry about. She will feel nothing. There will be no pain. It’s a simple operation, and we’ve refined it over the years.” He glanced at Sherrill.
In through the corner of the eye, Sherrill remembered. That was the way some of the old-timers described it. He had heard that sort of thing on the picket lines, and in the all-night diners, after the rallies. And from a few practitioners themselves, outside in the parking-lots, when their hands were still shaking, and some of them needed a drink. Sever the connection, and you’re out in a minute or less, if everything goes right. Easier than tying your shoestrings. No scars, either. The patient has nothing worse than a black eye for a day or two.
“You’re right,” Robert was saying. He seemed better now. “That’s what I’ve always heard.”
“It makes you wonder what the fuss was all about,” Sherrill offered. “And it’s guaranteed,” the man said. “Believe me, it works.”
A bell rang somewhere in the inner room – a clear, tiny bell, like one that might have been made of silver, and hung on a Christmas tree.
“Ah, here they are now,” the practitioner announced. “Good evening, my dears, we’re so happy to see you. If you’ll come this way, we’re about to begin.”
Mary’s long dark hair had been gathered and pinned up and covered with a plain cloth cap. She wore an oversized white hospital gown and disposable slippers, and looked positively medieval, like a figure out of a Flemish painting.
The assistant, a pleasant-looking older woman, dressed in blues, stood behind her for a moment, like a lady-in-waiting. Or a nun, Sherrill thought, breathless with adoration, preparing this beautiful child for first communion. Savagely, he drove the thought from his mind.
“Good luck, sweetheart,” Robert was saying. He clasped her hands and gazed into her eyes. “I love you.” He hugged her and kissed her on both cheeks. It seemed as though she wanted to say something, but the right words would not come. Had she spoken, the syllables would have been unconnected.
She glanced at Sherrill, who managed a smile. Awkwardly, he kissed the top of her head, in the middle of the part. She took a few steps, then turned to look back at them. Her eyes were wide and dark. He remembered standing at a window, earlier that afternoon, and looking out across a gleaming lake where the wind had begun to die down.
They went on into the surgery. The assistant closed the halves of the plastic partition behind them. The two men were left alone in the waiting room. There was the sound of electronic equipment revving up, of soft buzzers and intermittent beepers, of feedback, and an occasional metallic clicking. They could no longer hear the practitioner speaking to his assistant. Sherrill looked down at the scuffed brown squares of the tile floor.
Robert sat down in one of the chairs. He seemed drained. “She’ll be all right, don’t you think?” he managed to say.
“Everything will be just fine,” Sherrill said. He reached out and squeezed his friend’s arm, and touched his shoulder. “You can count on it.”