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A Miracle of Degree
part 10
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * * * * * * * * * *
Home Stretch
* * * * * * * * * * *

And it was evening and it was morning. Another day. The rains have not ceased, and indeed, the thunder from without earlier this morning served Eppie and I better than any wake-up-call would have. Eppie refused to use the bathroom until the storm had passed ("You wanna fry yourself showering in an electrical storm, you go right ahead...") but at last, as the rumbling receded off into the distance, Eppie finally got moving (although still taking an inordinate amount of time, I might add. Teenage Girls: A Species Apart.) Once ready, we decided to make it an early start despite the light drizzle. We're on the brink here, and both of us are anxious to get the waiting over with, whatever the day may bring.

And so, we find ourselves on the last leg of the journey. The rain has revitalized the heat-scorched grass along the roadsides, and all is green as far as the eye can see, which in Kansas is pretty fricking far. The clouds have shifted from darkish grey to lightish grey, and the drizzle is almost imperceptible now. We've been silent all morning. Earlier, I flipped on the radio and hunted for a signal, anything to fill up the silence, but we're out in No Man's Land here, and there are no stations in range. It's hissing out soft static now, scanning vacantly through the channels on automatic and coming up with nothing. I don't feel like turning it off.

Mile after mile of flat green everythingness as far as the eye can see. Kansas.

Mile after mile after mile...

And then, suddenly, a noise jolts me from my road- hypnosis. A sound. Music.

The radio. We've found a signal. It's a quiet station, very soft and majestic. Probably something by Copland. Whatever it is, it means that civilization is close.

"Eppie--" I say, but I do not finish that thought, for ahead, the flatness is broken by a great, bowl-shaped valley into which the road descends. And deep within the valley, just barely visible at this distance through the haze, is the majestic bell-tower of Saint Ignacius University. Ithaca.

I slow the cycle to a stop. It's a country road. Nobody coming as far as the eye can see. This one singular moment that we are now experiencing is probably the most compelling reason I had for avoiding the Interstate Highway System. I want to take just a few moments to breathe the air and milk the instant for all it's worth.

And so we look down at the city, two pilgrims gazing upon the promised land. Shafts of light break through the thinning clouds above us, and the day's first glimpses of infinite blue become visible. Copland is exulting softly in the background. A poet's dream.

"Eppie." I say. "We're home."

"That's it?!?." She says through her grin, quite deliberately breaking the mood I was trying to create. "I was hoping for something a little bigger, after all this way."

All I can do is laugh, and I do so until my eyes water.

And then, with a wild whoop, I touch the gas and give the engine everything I can.

* * * * * * * * * * *
The One Missing Piece
* * * * * * * * * * *

I think I'd like to skip the next part.

I'll leave it to your imagination.

Go on. You can picture it. Picture Eppie and I, making our way with high hopes into the city of her birth, hearts singing with excitement and nerves jangling with unease. Picture our coming to Murphy's apartment and finding it quite vacant. Picture our rapidly growing anxiety as we search through phone directories for any mention of the man. Picture us visiting an antiseptic old nursing home on the outskirts of town. Picture us asking as to the whereabouts of one Murphy Donham, bookseller, now retired. Picture our faces when the otherwise-perky young attendant on duty at the desk assumes a mien of considerable sympathy as she tells us what exactly happened to Murphy Donham only a few spare weeks earlier. Picture Eppie, especially. Note the look of shock and disbelief. Picture us sitting there staring at the attendant for an endless minute and then wordlessly walking away back out to the parking lot, getting back on the motorcycle and driving away.

I knew you could do it.

How about this. Picture Eppie and I spending the remainder of the afternoon in a sort of lackluster daze as I show her around the city where I spent six long years of college, in a vain attempt to make the trip have been useful for some reason. Picture us visiting the public library and looking for individual volumes of Murphy's considerable collection, donated there when Murphy finally closed up shop some years back. Picture us looking on as a contracted worker installs a small brass plaque identifying one of the lounges as the "Murphy Donham Memorial Reading Room." Picture us rather quickly leaving that place, checking into a hotel and staying up until the nether hours of the morning staring vapidly at increasingly bizzare vid-feed programming. Picture us eventually lapsing into sleep where we sit, washed in the bluish light of the picture tube.

I'll let you envision that for yourself.

Me, I never want to think about it again.

* * *

And so I'm standing on the stage of the Helsing theatre, here at St.I-U. Except for it's not, really. I mean, it looks kind of like it, but something's a little bit different about it. Anyway, it's completely cleaned out, like a show has just been struck. It's my favorite way for theatres to be -- completely bare. As with all empty spaces, the sense of potential is almost frightening. There's no telling what'll fill it next. The stage lights are on full blast, but the house is utterly dark. I look around. Rather quickly, I recall that the last thing I remember is going to sleep in the hotel with Eppie. So now I'm on stage. Therefore, I quickly surmise that I must be dreaming this. Usually, when I come to this realization in my dreams, I wake up soon afterwards. Tonight, it's not happening. So I wait. And then...

"Hullo, lad." A voice from the darkness before me. The sound of footsteps, and then Murphy climbs up into the light. There is something unearthly about him, even though nothing is overtly striking about his appearance itself. It's more in the carriage, the angle of the jaw. He's dressed exactly as I remember him on the last day that I saw him, when I left Ithaca for New York City, several long years ago.

"Murphy Donham, I presume." I say, mildly. "Why am I not surprised?"

"I'm a little put out. I thought ye'd be just a _bit_ shocked."

"Nothing shocks me anymore." I say, quietly.

We pass a time under the hot lamps. Waiting.

"So what." I say at last.

"What?" He replies.

"What am I trying to tell myself, here? Dreaming this, I mean?"

"D'you have any unsettled issues in your mind at the moment, lad? Maybe that's what's doing it."

"Well, _obviously_ I've got some unsettled issues." I say, shaking slightly, the faint red prickle building on the back of my neck again. Damn it. I... wanted my reunion with Murph, dream or no dream, to be _right_... at least pleasant... despite everything...

"Murphy Donham." I say, my voice practically seizing in my throat from its repression. "_Why_."

Murphy looks hurt. But... in a way... I have to do this.

"I've been defending you to her this whole trip, Murphy." I say. "Telling her how much you loved her. How you were just a guy making some bad choices in a situation beyond his control. But I have to know, Murph. How..." I gather my wits. "How... could you have?"

"You're talking about Eppie."

"I'm... talking about both of them. Murph... I don't know. In about fifteen different ways I wish I had never come across that damn thing. I've wished so..." I clench my teeth together. "I've wished so _fucking_ hard at times that I never had to learn what I learned about you. I _looked up to you_, Murph. I needed you. You _were_ my father. In so many ways. Dad was never _anything_ for me, Murph. Not even when he was alive. He was weak, and simpering, and couldn't even hold his own against Mom half the time. _You_ were the father I wanted. Strong. Calm. Unyielding. I thought I knew what kind of person I had in you. Beyond a shadow of a doubt."

I pause for breath, then continue. "Damn these dreams, Murph. Damn them all to hell. I don't want to be feeling this. I've been making excuses for you this whole time, Murph, because I _wanted_ you to be right. I wanted you to be blameless. Because we're two of a kind, Murph. You and me both. And because if _you_ were blameless for this whole..." I stagger, verbally. "This whole SHIT-FACED affair, then maybe, just maybe, _I_ could be blameless too. For..." My voice creaks again. "...for what... happened to Jenny..."

With my eyes closed, I sweep the shattered fragments of myself together for one more breath.

"'Circumstances Beyond Our Control', right, Murph. _They_ were the ones making the choices all along. _Nothing_ we possibly could have done to see what was coming... and to... stop it... before it...

"...killed them..."

And then I break down, right there, on stage. As though I were made of no greater substance than dust and cobweb.

"Michael..." Says Murph moving towards me as if to comfort me.

"DON'T TOUCH ME!" I hack out, through my sobs. "Don't you EVEN touch me, Murph."

Murphy backs away.

"You selfish bastard." I say, gulping air inbetween my sobs. "You _never_ cared for anyone but yourself. Ever. Not even now. Not even with your own fucking daughter. I mean, here I go abusing both Eppie and the kindness of the Friedmanns by practically kidnapping the kid and dragging her along on my smarmy little pilgrimage to the Heartland, all so that she could finally meet her real father, and you, you ungrateful shit, you have to go and _die_ before I get a chance to do anything!"

"Sorry, lad. A massive coronary isn't something you can really control."

"It... just goes to show, though." I say, uncertainly, trying to come to a point. "Look, Murph, I can be guilty of the same thing, but at _least_ I'm trying to recognize that!"

Murphy's face looks grey. "I cared for her. I cared for the both of them."

"Those..." I swallow. "Those were _not_ the actions of a caring man, Murphy."

"I suppose _you_ think I should have let Albright do his thing on her."

"Murphy..." I say. "I don't think it should _ever_ have come to that point in the first place. You keep talking about how everything was fucking 'consentual' and how she was an 'adult' and could make her 'own choices.' Bullshit. You used her, Murph. You fucking used her. Her life was _over_ the moment you..." I swallow my bile again. "The moment you took her to bed. It wouldn't have had to have been, Murphy. It was _your_ fear and _your_ shame that killed her. One fucking phone call to her parents would have done it. But you couldn't handle it. Couldja."

"All the choices were hers, Michael..." says Murphy, the anger growing in his voice as well.

"DAMN IT! I told you to SHUT UP about that! You hold her 'freedom of choice' up like a goddamn torch, as if perfect individual freedom is the fucking gold standard of true love. It _isn't_, Murph. What it _is_ is a fucking cop-out, made up to look good. You had a responsibility to Irina. She was lost and scared and confused, Murph, and if you had been there to help her to be honest and admit to everyone what the two of you had done, she would have had the strength to. You could have gotten help. You wouldn't have had to go it alone. A decent hospital could've saved both of them, Murph."

Carefully, I pound my words into arrow-points.

"And Eppie's mother would still be alive right now."

Murphy flinches again.

"Why are you hanging around here?" I say. "Huh?"

Murphy does not respond.

"Did you _ever_ ask _ANYONE_ for forgiveness for this?" I say, trembling.

Murphy still does not respond.

"Did you even admit to yourself that you had even done a single thing _wrong_? By my count, you bastard, you ruined fully five lives that day, not including my ow-"

"You SHUT your BE-DAMNED mouth, _sonny-boy_. I only did what I thought in good conscience to be right."

"And that makes it okay, does it? Just because you were acting in 'good faith' at the time? Just because you believed you were in the right? That makes it all better, huh?"

"I would have liked to see you handling the same situation." Says Murph, bitterly.

There is a pause where we meet each other's gazes.

Then, I shake my head quietly and sigh, my wrath suddenly spent. "That's just it, Murph. I... probably would have done the same thing. The exact same fucking thing. We come from a long, long tradition of misogyny, Murph. You and me both. That doesn't make it any more right."

Murphy, again, does not respond, this time because there's probably little more that can be said. In the silence that follows, I continue.

"You never answered me, Murph. Why are you hanging around here?"

No response.

"You can't go. Can you. Because out there..." I gesture out to the abyssal darkness of the House. "Because out there you'd have to face all the pain that you've caused. And you _can't do it._"

Murphy clenches his jaw and turns away.


"You can still ask for forgiveness, Murph." I say, quietly.

"Do you?" He says, his voice thick.

"I'm not the one you have to ask." I say.

"Ye just said that I had 'ruined your life', sonny-boy. I hardly believe you sayin' that you're not begrudging me forgiveness after a statement like that."

I nod.

"Yes." I say. "I do."

Murphy turns back around, and I see, for the first time, the sight of my boss, my patron, my mentor, my teacher... with tears in his eyes.

"I suppose..." He says, with shaking voice, "The next step is to do the same thing... out there." He raises one hand in an overly-casual gesture towards the darkness.

"I don't claim to understand this, Murph. You should know better than me."

He nods. "I think... then... that's the next step."

Murphy gathers himself, straightens his cardigan and bravely raises his chin, looking out into the dark.


"I'm... sorry for... making you come all that way."

"It wouldn't be the first time something in my life h's been for naught, Murph."

"I don't think you get it, Michael." He says. "It... it wasn't for naught. What about Eppie? What about you _and_ Eppie? All the time you two spent togther... coming to know each other... you, you gloomy lummox, finally opening your heart up to someone..."

"Like it's really going to matter in the long run, Murph. It kind of never was a question that she would go live with you again, and me, I'm still an erratically-employed single male, no matter how much money I pretend that I can throw around. And that makes me a pretty piss-poor choice for adoptive parenthood. So Eppie's not gonna find her guiding star with either of us. She'll get snatched up, soon. I just get this horrible feeling. And then they'll cart her off to some far corner of the country, and then... I'll never..."

I trail off, unwilling to give voice to my thoughts. As if not saying it will make it not happen.

"Well, lad," says Murph, "Y'never know." And once more, there is nothing more to say. Murphy wavers on the edge of the darkness, still gathering his courage

"Murph?" I finally say.


"The agency wouldn't let me adopt her. I'm sure of it."

"I know."

"I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure she's okay, wherever she's going."

"I know, lad."

"I promise."

He smiles weakly, and nods. "I know you will."

With one deep, final breath, Murphy crests the threshold of the darkness.

At the last, I suddenly cry out.


He turns around.

"This is it, isn't it. Goodbye, I mean."

He nods. "For now."

I nod. Yet another brief moment of silence. Shakily, I raise my hand in a half-wave. He returns the gesture.

Murphy Donham walks into the shadows and is gone.

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