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A Miracle of Degree
part 8
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * * * * * * * * * *
Still Life, with Blackbird
* * * * * * * * * * *

The sun rises over the broad Midwestern landscape, looking for all the world like a disc of molten copper, heating the thin ribbon of asphalt until the air above it shimmers. The daylight has not yet seen motorists on this particular stretch of highway, and the heat of the day makes the place seem all the more lonely.

At the very edge of the road lies a raccoon, quite dead, the last traces of evening dew still clinging to the rapidly tattering greyish coat. Save the insects and the occasional red-winged blackbird, it is the sole inhabitant of this area of highway. All through the night it has kept sightless watch over this stretch of landscape, all through to the coming of morning.

It is not a good place for a raccoon to be. Obviously, it wasn't the best choice of spot when the creature was alive, either, many hours ago. The impact has left the corpse relatively intact; the neck sits at an appalling angle, and one side of the face is severely abraded, but overall, it is still very much a recognizable shape, albeit sitting as it is in a stiff cartoon-like rigorous posture of death. It was probably a rather small car. Not that it makes any difference at this point. The still is unearthly and the heat is all about.

And then, from far off, a faint sussurrant noise that rapidly grows in volume. The heat-distorted image of a motorcycle appears, as a gradually-approaching speck in the distance...

"Raccoon." She says to me. Eppie's been entertaining herself by identifying the roadkill as we pass it. It's kind of a morbid game, but hey. The kid's bored. Let her have her fun. The whipping wind is already starting to give me a headache, and I'm hoping there's a place that serves breakfast in the next town so that I can get some food in me and maybe start fighting back.

"Oppossum." She says. I say, "Mm hm."

"Deer." She says. I say, "Mm hm."

"Family of cats." She says. I look. After a while, I say, "Mm hm."


"Wha-?" I look in the direction she's pointing.

She giggles. "Madeyalook."

"Funny, Eppie. Real cute."

She just snickers. I return my attention to the endless road ahead. After a time...

"Raccoon." I look. "Mm-"

The sun glints off a bit of metal nearby the small corpse. My eyes narrow. "Eppie, did you see something by-"

"Yeah!" She says. She's angling her head, trying to get a better view. It's harder for her without as much binocular vision, but she's doing okay. I slow the BMW to a stop about a hundred yards past it and circle back along the shoulder for a closer look.

The corpse sits there, one eye heavenward, the other more-or-less watching the road. It's wearing a chain around its neck. I crouch close, waving away flies. Eppie stays with the bike. The chain is an ordinary scuffed silver, the cheap variety. Dangling limply from it is a metal tag with a red emblem. A medical alert charm, the kind worn by people with epilepsy or dicky hearts, for example. I should probably get one, come think of it. Biting my lip, I gingerly inspect the inscription.

It bears the single word, "SCABS." There used to be more at one time, but it's been dragged across the asphalt and everything else but that has been effaced. Suddenly the little cadaver seems unspeakably horrible.

"Eppie, don't look." It's not as though the actual object has changed any, but a perception shift will do wonders. She senses something in my voice and complies. Carefully, I study the tag, looking for a name, a phone number to call, anything. No luck.

"We should bury him." Says Eppie, from the bike. She's caught on already. Sharp kid. I shake my head.

"What, here? We can't, Ep. Somebody's going to be missing him pretty soon, if they aren't already." I trail off, staring at the body. Suddenly, the act of talking itself seems pretty useless. Eppie comes to my rescue.

"Maybe we should call the police, or something?"

I nod but make no move. We stand there for some time staring at each other, a dog, a mule, a motorcycle and a dead raccoon, all sillouhetted against the brazen Midwestern sky.

* * *

"So you want us to come and investigate some animal that got killed along County V?" The cop on the other end of the line is getting impatient.

"No." I explain for the umpteenth time. "It's not just some animal. It's a person. A SCAB. He must have been in full 'morphic and got nailed by a car while crossing the road. Look, haven't you gotten any calls or anything? Somebody missing?"

"Can't say we have, mister. There's a lot of dead raccoons this time of year, by the way."

"This one was wearing a medical alert tag."

"That's the most identification you can give us?"

"Look," I exclaim, losing my patience again and drawing a few stares from the regular Denny's breakfast crowd, "We didn't take photographs, all right? There's a dead person out there on the road, just east of..." I pause and try to remember what town this is again. "Just east of Kilbourne. Okay?"

"Right, sir. Thanks for calling us. We'll get somebody on it." The laconic tone of voice hardly inspires confidence, but I don't push the issue.

"Thanks," I say, not meaning it. He hangs up.

Just another bit of roadkill... no different from the hundreds of others along that road...

I shake my head and return to my table. In the time it took me to deal with the police, Eppie's already ordered pancakes for herself and is now well on her way to finishing them. She also ordered juice. "Thanks for waiting for me," I say, sardonically. She ignores me. She's too hungry. The waitress comes around again, and I am halfway to ordering coffee before I remember the doctor's stipulations about caffeine. I settle for juice as well -- I need _something_ to wash the damned preventative down, as, yes, it's that time of month again -- and almost as an afterthought I order a bagel. For some reason, my appetite is just not with me anymore. Eppie doesn't have that problem. She eats like a horse. Excuse the pun, please. Seriously, she's a growing kid, and she needs all the calories she can get. I try to keep my mind off what's waiting for the both of us at the end of this little expedition. I guess giving Eppie back to Murph is kind of out of the question. So she goes back to the Friedmann's. Where, eventually, some kind-hearted soul adopts her, some broad-minded person who can look past the painfully obvious burn-brand of Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome to see the wonderful person she is, way deep down... someone with a wonderful little house and a wife somewhere far, far away...

All of a sudden, I don't want to lose her.

I wait in silence, afraid to say anything. Eppie tirelessly continues to eat.

"Wha'd they say?"

"They said they're sending somebody to check on it."

She nods, apparently satisfied. I could have told her that it's not likely that anything will actually come of it, but why bother. The kid's got a rose-colored world view yet. I'm not going to be the one to shatter it.

"Bix?" She says, after a time.

"Mm hm?"

"You did promise you'd tell me more about Dad."

And she's right. I did. "Not here, Ep."

She just looks at me petulantly. Her lower lip creeps forward...

"Oh, for god's sake, Eppie."

She immediately brightens.

And, gathering myself, my voice coming to me again and blending seamlessly into the pleasant morning-sounds of coffee and breakfast around me, I begin Act Three...

* * * * * * * * * * *
Irina and Murphy, III
* * * * * * * * * * *

It was many months later when we next called Doctor Albright, that is to say, after Irina and I phoned him to let him know that we would be keeping the child. He was disheartened, I could tell, but both Irina and I had prayed and studied and thought and meditated and we felt sure that we knew the way that things should go. All this time, I had been trying as best I could to keep expenses down by not calling Doctor Albright in when, unfortunately, he probably should have been called. But Irina joked at me, saying that women had been having children for ages and ages before there were Doctors to tell them how to do it, and _they_ didn't even have handy guide-books with titles like "A Handbook for Home Natural Child Birth." Therefore, it was _okay_ that I didn't have the money to pay Doctor Albright. It was also _okay_ that she was no longer "attending" school, as such. Through a series of lies and half-truths I had convinced the Registrar's Office at Saint Ignacius U. that Irina had become home-ridden due to a non-threatening condition, and that she could still maintain her registration at school if I, her "uncle," would collect all her homework assignments and prepare and gather tapes from all her lectures. It cut into the time I could keep the shop open, but Irina _needed_ to maintain her registration, or there would be _evidence_ that something was wrong. The occasional voice-only phone call to her parents completed the charade, and I could see her brave struggle to keep her voice normal and sane over the course of each and every call. She cried to me afterwards, after every one. A lot. But we managed to keep the charade going for four whole months.

Until that day that we called Doctor Albright in.

We had to.

Doctor Albright met me in the back room of the shop. His normally unshakeable countenance was visibly, well, _shaken,_ and he wasted no time in letting me know exactly why.

"Mister Donham." He said, the words coming quick and fast and sometimes crashing into one another. "I'm... er... I'm _really_ getting to an area that's quite a bit out of my league here. Well. Let me be frank. This is an area that is _so completely_ out of my league that I... ah... I really don't feel comfortable even making a statement about it."

"What's wrong?" I said, with a nasty tinge to my voice that had been placed there over months and months of far-too-much stress. The old ulcer had been acting up again, to boot, and, wouldn'tcha know it, I hadn't been seeing a doctor about _that_ either. All of our money was going into keeping us... and the new child...


And now, this... gods, why did it _have_ to happen, then...

"What's _wrong_, Mister Donham? What's _*wrong*_?" Albright was actually beginning to sputter a bit.

"Tha's what I asked you. You've got our promise of legal indemnity."

"Not holding me responsible for any damages that may incur for my professional advice is one thing, Mister Donham. But this... I mean... I can't even reliably _guess_ as to what to do in this situation if you intend to keep in your current vein of thinking about this issue."

"GodDAMNIT, man, give us _something_, here!" My hands were shaking slightly, as I recall.

Albright swallowed once and wiped some perspiration from his brow with a pocket handkerchief. "Have you tried... a... ah... ahm..."

"Spit it out, man."

"A... veterinarian?"

I turned away from him, disgustedly.

"_Possibly_ one who specializes in Avian medicine?" Continued Albright, heedlessly.

"Look." I said, rounding on him. "That's a _human being_ in there. An' we're not talking just in the philosophical domain, an' we're not talking just about Irina, are we. You said yourself that gross physical inspection of the fetus revealed that it was still progressing along normal lines of development. The child is normal. _Healthy_? Yes? That's what you said, was it?"

"Currently, yes!" Said Albright, his hands shaking a bit as well. "I mean, there's virtually no chance that the child will be affected _directly_ by the M.F.V. while in the womb. The problem comes in that... well... the young woman's urogenital structure is _changing_ by the moment. And right now, from what I know about SCABS, there's no way to predict even how much that it's going to change. Odds are the fetus will spontaneously abort _well_ before full term anyway, Mister Donham. A _single_ placentally incompatable change right now _will_ kill the fetus, sir."

"Doctor Albright." I said, in a quiet growl, "we are going to bring this baby to term. If the child dies as a result of this Hell-spawn disease, then that is a regrettable occurrence. But we will _not_ be a party to the murder of an innocent."

"Let me give you this to consider, then, sir." Said Albright. "The longer that this waits, the more danger that _Irina_ will be in from the possible complications. Her _life_ may be at risk here, sir. I shan't mince words with you anymore."

"And what about the baby's life? Tha'll be in pretty damn distinct danger if we carry through with what you're suggesting."

"Mister Donham." Says Albright, with a note of finality. "It is my personal, professional opinion that your choice of action in these matters is both irresponsible and _extremely_ problematic to me. Irina's life is at stake here, sir. And I will make no bones about this fact: I will operate now, or as soon as humanly possible, or else I _cannot_ be responsible for this case, and I want no further contact with it. My risks here have just gone through the roof, and it's only a matter of kindness that I offer you this right now. Otherwise, I cannot be party to this."

"But." I said.

(But you're the only doctor we can see.)

(But we _need_ your advice.)

(But we can't do this by ourselves.)

Albright raised one eyebrow at me, his entire body trembling from the stress. "I need to know, Mister Donham."

I swallowed hard. And then, with the slowness of the winter, I said,

"Thank you, doctor. We will have no further need of you."

Doctor Albright looked as though he had just been slapped. He fumbled around, then, in his pocket, for one of his damned cards. "Here's the emergency line for the Ob/Gyn ward at the hospital. It will _not_ be confidential, you understand, unless you have some other way of paying for it than the young woman's medical insurance."

"Then..." I said... "we will have no need of it."

"Murphy." Said Albright, using my given name for the first time. "I _sympathize_. I really, really do. You're attempting to keep things heading towards the best-case scenario here, and you think that, somehow, through sheer effort of will, you can make it so. But... and I tell you this as a _person_ and not as a professional, sir... you _may_ have to accept a one of your less-than-desireable outcomes in order to keep... something awful from happening. Which I assure you, you will regret _far_ more than you would any of the others."

"Thank you, Doctor Albright. I recall saying at some time not too long ago that we'll have no further need of you."

Albright swallowed, with one final effort of will. "I _should_ report this to someone in a position of authority."

"If you do," I said calmly, "you implicate yourself as well."

For a brief moment there was nothing but silence.

And then, without a word, Doctor Albright left again. For the last time.

I followed him a short distance out into the main shop, pausing a moment to soak up the potent atmosphere of _knowledge_ that I had collected there over my forty-odd years of owning this store. _Information_. Information would be my weapons, now. My shield and my armour. For both of us. All three of us. Irina, myself, and the Baby.

Once finished with my meditations, I followed the trails I had come to know so well over the course of the past several months, all throughout my "Health" section, collecting every book that might possibly be of use. Home remedies for varied ailments. Gynaecology texts, sold to me some time ago by cash-ailing Health students. Any and every bit of information to serve as bricks and mortar for our fortress from the outside world.

And then, with a sick feeling, I went as well to the Zoology section. And collected books of a... similar nature.

Except for one. _The Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds_.

Carefully, I paged through the glossy, full-color plates until I found the one I was looking for. The Herring Gull.

I studied the picture for a long moment, then closed my eyes with a quiet, slow exhalation of breath.

And then, wearily, I trudged up to the

* * *

"I'm sorry, Eppie." I say, trembling slightly. We have not yet attracted the uneasy glances of our fellow breakfast patrons; all about our little bubble of darkness is trivial, happy conversation, much as one might expect from any normal group of people chatting at Denny's. "I... can't go on with this any more. Not right here."

Eppie looks at me, her eyes wide. The last remnants of her pancakes remain untouched on their plate, cementing away in their pools of rapidly-congealing syrup.

I reach for my waterglass, to steady my nerves, but I fumble mid-reach and it spills.

We both just sit there staring at the water as it creeps its way slowly across the crimson laminate surface of the table.

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