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A Miracle of Degree
part 7
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * *

The road goes ever on, and the heat continues unabated. It's already feeling like we've been on the road for weeks, although I know that this is not the case. I'm panting almost constantly. Yes, my tongue is hanging out a little bit. When the only sweat glands you have are at the pads of your hands and feet, you take whatever cooling you can get. Occasionally, I'm forced to splash myself with water from one of the bottles. Eppie doesn't have this problem; she's sweating, excuse me, like a horse. Equines have this thing about sweat. Sure it's making her uncomfortable, but at least it's keeping her relatively cool.

And the heat isn't my only problem, either...

* * *

The first flutters occur at about 9:45 A.M., and for a while I do not even realize what is happening. When I finally do, the realization hits me hard.

"Eppie," I say, my mouth dry, "I have to stop." I have little doubt that, underneath the fur, my face looks rather ashen. Perhaps she won't notice. Maybe I can cover for it.

"Whatever." She says, distractedly gnawing on a piece of gum she got from a machine in a gas station back in Waverly. Good. She doesn't realize anything's amiss. I just hope I can find a suitable spot before everything starts going to hell. Every time this happens, I have to seriously consider whether or not this might be _it._ The big one. The one that the doctors assure me won't happen but the one about which I still worry. It's not a pleasant thought. But so far, this time's no worse than any of the previous transient murmurs. I need to lay down, maybe get a drink... get out of the sun and the heat...

The highway streches on. I could pull over to the shoulder and just lay on the bank, but I'm loath to do so. It wouldn't be very safe, for one thing. Of course, driving a motorcycle at in-country speeds while in the midst of one of my happy-times isn't real high on the old personal safety list either, I might add.

The faint sick-feeling comes again, and the tingling. My heart flutters irregularly like a caged canary. Pretty soon, I'm just going to have to use the shoulder, but... Ah. A spot. I pull the BMW into a parking lot near a cluster of open shelters placed out here in the middle of nowhere as a sort of "rest stop." Quickly, I kick the stand down and begin half-walking, half-stumbling towards what looks like an antique manual well-pump standing under one of the structures. Eppie follows me. She's looking increasingly concerned. Something's noticeably wrong. She attempts to help me, but I wave her off.

After what feels like a walk of several hundred yards, we finally get to the pump. I collapse against the drinking spigot. "Eppie," I sputter, weakly, "pull the handle." She leaps up and grabs the end of the pump handle, bringing it down in a broad arc, and soon, after pumping it a few times, she has a trickle of water coming from the spigot. I lap at it. For a moment, I think I taste blood, and I am horrified that this might mean that I'm not going to make it through this one, but I soon realize that I'm just sensing the high iron content of the water, and I am vastly relieved. The insatiable worrier's greatest nightmare; a vague, currently non-life threatening condition with overly-dramatic symptoms associated with it...

After drinking as much as I feel capable of at the moment, Eppie helps me over to one of the nearby benches, and I lay there, panting quietly. Eppie looks _very_ concerned.

"What's wrong?" She says, sounding worried.

"It's nothing." I say. "A bit of heat exhaustion. You know, no sweat glands. It'll pass soon enough. Then we can get back on the road."

She still looks unsatisfied. "You're hiding something."

"It's nothing, like I said." I begin rummaging through my jacket pockets for no better reason than to not have to look at her.

"Tell me." She demands.

"You'll laugh." I say, indistinctly.

She just stares at me. "No, I won't..."

"Okay." A quick swallow. "You remember back when we were playing in Newark and I had to drop out of the show for a couple weeks and catch up with y'all later?"

"Mm hm." Says Eppie, abstractly. "I remember the publicity people hyping up the fact that you weren't gonna be playing in order to sell more tickets. Lots of nice full houses." She grins, weakly, but her heart isn't in this one.

"Smart-ass." I say.

"Hey." She says, shrugging and gesturing broadly at her own almost affrontingly cute form. "What can I say?"

Then, "You're ducking the question."

"So I am." I say.

"What was it?" She asks.

"Heartworm." I say.

"What?" She says.

"Heartworm. Parasitical Cardiac-Muscle-Dwelling Organisms. Don't worry," I say, noting the look on her face, "they're all gone now. But my mom's family has always had this history of dicky heart, and I'm afraid it didn't do the old ticker much good to have little wormy-guys living in it for a while there."

"But..." she stammers, "people don't get that! It's a disease... for... erm..."

I smile.

"Dogs." I say. My heartbeat is returning to its regular thud, my system already moving back to its normal patterns.

"Erm. Yeah." She says. She scratches in the dust with one foot.

"SCABS." I say. "Gotta love it."

"Don't they have medicine for that, though?"

"They have a preventative. There's a difference. They've got drugs to stop them from developing, but if you've already got them, it's a hell of a lot trickier. 'Course, I hadn't been taking my preventatives. Just one of those things that doesn't cross your mind 'til it's too late."

"You gonna be okay?" asks Eppie in a small voice.

"Oh, sure." I say, nonchalantly, with a confidence I do not feel. Naturally, I neglect to mention at this time that during the actual _treatment_ for my little condition I was in very real danger of having all my niggling theological questions answered for me absolutely, once and for all. "It's just sometimes I get this way where I have to take a break. Lie down for a while. I get plenty of warning, and I never actually pass out or lose facility with my vehicle or anything, so most state DMV's don't have a problem with it. I'm gonna be just fine, Ep. Don't you go worrying now."

Eppie doesn't look convinced.

"Look. You're getting your underwear in a knot over me hypothetically just up and dying on you, now?"

"Isn't that a risk?"

"Eppie." I say, looking at her deeply from my supine position. "That's _always_ a risk. You have to live your life accordingly. That's half the reason I'm here right now."

"What's the other half?" Asks Eppie.

"I'm trying to save a soul." I say, in as plain a fashion as I possibly can in order to ward off the demons of Melodrama. "Of a guy who deserved better."

Eppie nods, quietly, seemingly in understanding, but suddenly I am besieged by doubt.

Who exactly were you talking about, Michael?


I thought I knew who I was talking about when I first said that. I was _sure_ I knew...

An inward sigh, and a mental shake. Must not let one's thoughts stray there. Must not.

I rise to one elbow on the bench, feeling much more like myself. "As long as we're stopped, I'll tell you more about your dad, if you like."

Eppie nods again, mind seemingly elsewhere. But even if she's not paying attention, there are other people who need to have this story told. Namely me.

I assess once more that she is indeed listening. And then...

"Okay." I say. And begin on the next chapter.

* * * * * * * * * * *
Irina and Murphy, II
* * * * * * * * * * *

Every small, overly-conservative college town has one, I imagine. A doctor who deals... under the tables. I do not mean this to say that our young Doctor Albright, straight out of medical school, was a bad man. He was very principled, in his own mind. And he had one of the most altruistic of agendas, I suppose, at its core.

Every small, overly-conservative town has a doctor whose... social policies do not agree with the norm of the community. Someone to perform those neccessities that crop up when human nature gets the better of good sense. After all, it _always_ happens. The only thing that differs from community to community is how public it is. In the communities without people like Doctor Albright, for example, the same sort of thing takes place, just as it does in the most open and tolerant of communities. In the latter case, it occurs in clean, well-lit hospitals. In ours, it takes place in hidden rooms with Doctor Albright. And where there is no Doctor Albright, it still takes place. In those cases, it involves coat-hanger wire. And lots and lots of blood.

I do not approve of Doctor Albright. But I suppose I understand his reasonings. And whatever I feel about the man, there are certain times that some of us have need of people like him. This was one of those times. Irina _needed_ it to be a secret. She needed things paid in cash. Her parents still held her insurance policy, you understand...

I didn't want to call him. But I knew that I had to. To at least _look_ at her.

Doctor Albright broke the news to me, second.

"Yep." Said Doctor Albright, attempting to keep his casual style in as sympathetic a voice as possible, all the while busy with adjusting his steel spectacles on his thin nose.

"Yep...?" I said, carefully, the dagger of that one syllable worming its way into my vitals.

He looked at me. "You brought me here to confirm or deny, yes?"

"But... I..." I trailed off, again. He looked squarely at me.


"Doctor," I said, somewhat abashedly, "what are... our options from this point on?"

"Well." Said the doctor, thankfully refraining from noting that the options from this point on were a pretty damn obvious set of choices. "The girl's legally an adult, and she's gotta make that choice for herself. But for your benefit, sir.." He paused and adjusted his spectacles again, seemingly out of nervous habit. "First off, I'm going to assume that, based on what I've been told by you and the girl about the specific situation, that there's no chance that the girl is going to _keep_ the child, that is to say, all the way through to its raising."

"No." I said, quietly.

"Well..." Said Doctor Albright, "The way I see it, we've got one of two ways we can go. I have... contacts... who will be able to handle the child if she carries it to term. As long as no-one else ever gets access to her future gynaecological examinations, which is eminently possible, considering she's well on her way to living her own life now, no-one will ever have to know about it."

Doctor Albright practices his own brand of ethics. And he practices them with a _very_ firm conviction.

I swallowed. "And, the other...?"

"Well, Mister Donham," said Albright, "the other option is to never allow the girl to reach term. The same stipulations as the first about gynaecological examinations, but we can probably do it with a lot less trouble and physical strai--"

"No." I said, reflexively.

Albright blinked mildly at me. "That is, of course, the girl's choice, Mister Donham."

"I won't let her." I said, my jaw quivering.

A small sigh escaped Albright's lips. "Mister Donham, my means _are_ limited. If you want my professional opinion on these matters, I'd say that in the long run it would be--"

"Damn it," I said with deadly calm, "I've gotten your professional opinion already. I don't need you to tell it to me over and over and over again."

Albright nodded, then. "The girl wanted a few days to think it over. Let me urge you, sir..." He looked intently at me, then. "Let me urge you to _think_ about this, and... really... keep the field as open for the girl's _own_ decision as humanly possible. She looks up to you a lot, sir."

I nodded.

"I've instructed her to give me a call when she's made up her mind. In the meantime, I have given her, and I'll give you, the numbers of some professional counsellors in the ar--"

"I don't need them." I said, quietly.

"Perhaps you can just use the young woman's co--"

"I _SAID_, I DUN'NA NEED THEM!" I bellowed.

Albright nodded, then. "I'll be expecting your call."

And he left. After taking a moment to collect myself, I walked quietly back to the bedroom in the little flat above the bookshop. Long before I found her, I could hear the sound of her sobs.

When I finally arrived there, I found Irina kneeling by the edge of the bed, her face buried in one of the old eiderdown pillows. The thick feathers did nothing to muffle the ratcheting coughs that had come in the midst of her tears.

She raised her head. Her eyes were red and swollen from the tears, and shining vertical lines still streaked the contours of her high, aristocratic cheekbones.

"Murphy..." She said, through her tears. "What... should we _do_...?"

I first felt the world slipping away from me at that very moment. I felt myself grasping for psychological straws, looking for any means by which Irina... and I... could divine the truth. I thought of the words of Doctor Albright. And I thought of the words of my very own mother and father, dead and dust themselves for many decades now.

Silently, I knelt on the side of the bed opposite to Irina. I looked deeply at her. "Irina," I said, "I do not know."

Sobbing still, she nodded.

"What should _I_ do?" She asked, then.

And the echoes of my mother and my father reverbrated up through my consciousness, sending me, in their own little way, their own messages from beyond the wall of the grave.

I reached out and touched Irina's hand. It was cold. But she did not pull it away.

"Pray." I said.

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