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A Miracle of Degree
part 11
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * * * * * * * * * *
Full Circle (II)
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And then, it's yet another day. The rain has finally passed, and in its wake has come much cooler weather. Eppie and I finally have a use for our jackets. The sky is cloudless, and a pleasant breeze blows out of the west. Good weather for riding. If this keeps up, the trip back will be a cinch. But for the moment, we're still in Ithaca. Oakfield Cemetery, to be precise.

It's a peaceful place which seems much farther away from the city than it actually is. Very green, with tall shady trees. Murphy was never much one for the great outdoors, but I think he'd appreciate the spot. We amble quietly through the green-dappled shadows, Eppie and I, my coat slung over one arm and my other arm around her shoulders. She's been awfully quiet. I don't blame her.

It takes us a long time to find the proper spot, but frankly, it doesn't much matter. The weather is lovely, and we're not on a schedule. We get lost and turned around no fewer than four times, and Eppie says that pretty soon we're going to have to ask for directions. She illustrates this by knocking on one of the larger tombstones and calling out, "Hello? Anybody home?" Okay. So it's not all that funny. Today, it doesn't matter. The laugh does both of us good.

Eventually, we find the spot. A tiny little plot near the west end of the grounds. "Sheesh," she says. "It's a miracle we even got to Kansas at all, the way you navigate."

"Just don't go eating the flowers," I counter. "I'm sure the groundskeepers don't need any help."

We stand there for some time, regarding the stone. It's simple. I'm sure he couldn't afford much. Not much more than a little marble plaque set into the ground. It's all the same in the end, though, I guess.

Eppie kneels in the well-mown grass and traces the inscription with one thick-nailed finger. The wind is whipping her ears about in a devastatingly cute fashion. I stand, watching her.

"You know," I say, after a time, "it's funny."

"What is?" Eppie looks up at me.

"This is where it all began. Kansas. The Heartland." I gesture grandly towards the horizon. "We're finally back."

She nods, but she's not quite understanding what I'm trying to say. Maybe it's me. I try again.

"Don't you think that, you know, it's kind of weird that we're here? I mean..." This isn't coming out right. "You know. All the times something could have gone wrong. You might not have signed on with the show in the first place. I might not have let you come home with me that night. You might never have found Murph's papers. I might not have done anything about them. You might have been gone by the time I tried." This just isn't working...

Eppie still looks at me.

"I mean, it was a hell of a set of coincidences, right?"

She blinks at me. "What's the matter?"

I make an agitated noise in the back of my throat. "I'm trying to find the right word, here."

"Instead of coincidence?"


She bites her lip, thinking. "Miracle?" She says, at last.

I snap my fingers and point at her. "Yes. Exactly. That's the word I needed." Something's fluttering at the edge of memory, but I can't place it. "A miracle, right. Except it wasn't really. A _miracle_ would have been if we'd been in time to meet your dad before he passed away..."

She shakes her head, thoughtfully. "No... it was still a miracle." She seems to arrive at a conclusion. "It was just a little bit smaller than it could have been."

Bing. The memory is finally there.

"You know, Eppie," I say, slowly, "you sound a lot like your dad right now."

She stands, brushing the grass clippings from her jeans. "Huh?"

"It's something he said to me once. He was quoting some author or something. It went like this: If I were to reach up into the sky right now and touch the sun, that'd be a miracle, right?"

She nods, gamely.

"So if I reach out and do this..." I touch Eppie lightly on the shoulder. "If I touch _you,_ then that's still a miracle. It's all a question of degree."

My hand does not leave her shoulder. We hold this position for some time.

And then, she smiles. "That's really kind of dumb, when you think about it."

I nod innocently, my muscles working overtime at not expressing any of the raw paternal emotion flooding through my brain. My heart is full, and for the moment, I am able to forget the worms that have lived therein. "I thought so too," I say. "But the sentiment is right."

She nods again.

And then, very simply, she moves under my arm and hugs me, resting her head lightly against my chest. "Eppie..." I breathe, but then I can say no more.

Once again, she has left me completely speechless.

* * * * * * * * * * *
Cliches and Aphorisms
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I bring the BMW to a halt just outside the Friedmanns' house. The emotional trauma has finally passed, and, at least for the moment, I am quietly composed. I can't predict what I'm going to be like a few hours from now, but for the moment, I'm calm. I remove my helmet. God bless her, but the kid finally found one that fits me in one of the supply shops on the way home. I'm going to have to get a custom job made up for myself eventually, as this one is far from perfect in many different ways, but at least it fits me. It looks pretty silly, but hey, head protection is important.

"Well." She says. "Thanks for the ride."

"No problem." I say. I wouldn't have missed this moment for the world, but I don't tell her that.

"Thanks for lunch, too." Fast-food Chinese. Eppie ordered something with bamboo in it. And water chestnuts. Yes, I'm obsessing over trivialities today, but when it feels for all the world like it very well might be the last time you ever see someone like Eppie, you want to remember it. The Friedmanns made me jokingly promise that if I took her out to lunch today I wouldn't just run off with her or something, and I don't think they realized exactly how close to the mark they were hitting when they said that.

"Mm hm." I say.

There is a world of things to say at the moment, and I can't bring myself to utter a single one. Each and every one of twelve hundred variations on the theme of "Don't Go." But I'm being a grown-up here, finally, at last.

Eppie swings her leg over and dismounts from the motorcycle, interrupting my train of thought. I almost ask her what she's doing, until I remember that her leaving is the reason that we're here.

"You _do_ realize that if the Friedmanns and the Agency folks find somebody for me I'll ask them if you can come see me sometimes." Says Eppie, pulling her bag out of the right-side carrier.

"Mm hm." I say.

"Would _you_ want to meet _them_?" Eppie asks, sensing the distress that I'm trying so hard to hide.

"I think that it might do more harm than good." I say. "I'll write, though."

"Yeah." Says Eppie. "We kinda know your track record on that sort of thing, though."

There is a deep, quiet hurt, somewhere in the area of my chest. "Please." I say, almost at-whisper.

"I'm sorry." Says Eppie, contritely. She's wearing her favorite shirt, the one with the little patchwork heart on it. I stare, memorizing every detail of her face, the carriage of her ears, the bristle of her mane, the way the reddish-brown hair makes a tight little swirl at her forehead. I want to get everything perfect. I wish I owned a camera. Funny the things you don't realize you'll need until it's too late.

My composure is slipping. Best not to let her see. C'mon, Bix, let's wrap this up, here...

I wave once, jauntily. "Bye."

She returns the wave. "Bye." She says. "Thanks for everything."

And she turns to go.

I rev the engine and pull away from the curb just in time. That's good, at least.

Eppie won't have to remember the look on my face.

* * * * * * * * * * *
The End of an Era
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The Blind Pig Gin Mill. Only scance minutes later.

The last of the late-lunch regulars are there. Nobody greets me. I've got that look on my face again that suggests that greeting me might be a dangerous action. They'd be wrong, this time. I'm not in the mood for a fight. Struggling with my composure, I walk back to the pay-phones, plunk some coins into the slot and dial.

Ring. The tears well up in my eyes again.

C'mon, Dreah. I need you, this time... Damn it, be there...


I don't know what I'm going to say to her. But I just know that I can't be alone today.


I start making silly promises to local divinities. I'm at the point of desperation, here.


Wait a second. That was ring number four.


Five! Her machine didn't pick up! Which means...


Six!! Which means she must have shut it off, which means...


Which means she must have been home to change the settings on the machine! Trembling with anticipation, I wait... it doesn't matter now, even if she's not in, she will be again, soon. It's only a matter of waiting, now for the right time to re-establish contact.

Finally, _something_ is working out ri-


"We're Sorry. The Number you have Dialed has been Disconnected. Please Try Again, or..."

Almost unconsciously, I slowly set the phone back down on its cradle, cutting off the annoyingly perky phone machine voice.

Then, I lean against the nearest wall. It's not a choice. My body refuses to be upright. Slowly, I sink my way down to the floor.

Andrea gave me that number. And now it doesn't work.

And Dreah doesn't have a "listed" number. She never has. That's why she had to give it to me in the first place.

So she's gone, too. Everyone is. Jenny's dead. Mom and Dad, too. So is Murph. Andrea has just dropped off the face of the Earth. And Eppie...

Eppie's gone.

I lay for a moment where I have fallen, a thin, crumpled, canine shape near the back hallway of a nondescript bar in a nameless city in a country as large as the sky.

* * *

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