Chapter Two - Zachary
Marie-Laure Carmichael was buried on a cold and foggy morning, in the space between Zachary's grave and the empty plot reserved for my father. The funeral was well-attended, not just by the Carmichael clan but by neighbors, former students, and women from her various committees and clubs that had been trying to save the world since the Great War.
Rather than a priest, which my mother would never have tolerated, my uncle David gave the graveside service. He spoke about how she had left her familiar world behind to marry this American doughboy; how they had dedicated their lives to teaching children often forgotten by the mainstream school system, children of immigrants, children who didn't speak English beyond a few words, children who had to rise at dawn just to walk to the nearest school where they usually weren't welcome anyway. He spoke about her devotion to her children, how each of us had gone to college because there was never any doubt we would; how when war was declared she told her sons to follow our conscience and do what we thought was right.
I had joined the army with stars and stripes in my eyes, determined to defend the free world from the Nazi threat. Zachary had joined as a conscientious objector; the military made him a medic, and he spent the war with a Red Cross insignia on his arm.
I expected to give my life. That's what soldiers do. Zachary, though -- Zachary, with his new wife and little daughter, was supposed to live.
The four off us -- Dad, Duncan, Mary Kate, and me -- sat in the front row of mourners. My father barely moved, only smiled sometimes when David spoke of a particularly good memory, and as I looked at him I wished I could say something to make this better. But how can you help someone to stop missing the love of their life?
Between us sat Mary Kate, and we held each other's hands until Rosemary's chant of, "Ma, ma, ma," grew more insistent and Mary Kate rose to take the baby from George.
I moved into the empty seat beside my father and patted his back. He glanced at me, and then put his hand on top of mine, which was enough to make my eyes well and my throat close.
The cemetery was more peaceful than I expected it to be. A few decades before, many of the cemeteries within the San Francisco city limits were moved to nearby Colma, where the land was plentiful and the people few; in the manner of many such undertakings, less care was taken with the remains than should have been. On the drive from the city, I had worried that I would see the dead everywhere I looked, but today, whatever restless spirits might be attached to this place kept to themselves.
After the funeral, we had a wake at my aunt Rhoda and uncle David's house, which was just down the hill from Mom and Dad's. On such occasions before the war I wandered through the guests and never stayed in any one place for long, but my leg prevented that now. I parked myself near my father and accepted all the sympathy my mother's friends and neighbors felt the need to express as graciously as I could.
One advantage of this spot was that I could see the way the stream of guests ebbed and flowed. George and Mary Kate escaped to Dad's house as soon as they could, which was no surprise given the baby. The women from Mom's committees stuck together, ignoring the curious looks from more traditional ladies, and they, I was glad to say, knew better than to say anything about God needing Marie-Laure and calling her home. When he did receive those platitudes, Dad only cut a glance at me to express his exasperation.
I lost track of Duncan early on and figured he must have gone back to the house with Mary Kate, but toward the end of the evening I saw him going into the kitchen, a girl his age leading him by the hand. I had seen her among the many relatives and visitors over the last few days, and figured she must be a cousin or neighbor's child who had grown up so much I didn't recognize her. I didn't ask, having other things on my mind, but now I leaned close to Dad and said, "Who's that girl with Duncan?"
"That's Phoebe," he said, and looked surprised when I didn't react. "Hasn't he told you about her? Phoebe Hillman. They're sweethearts. I expect he'll propose as soon as he's graduated."
"No, he didn't tell me about her," I said and wondered why. Granted, with nine years between us Duncan and I had never been close, but even so I would have thought he would tell me he was thinking of getting married. Zachary had -- but of course, Zachary and I had been nearly inseparable for most of our lives. My childhood was almost over by the time Duncan could do more than toddle.
I had no one, I realized, to whom I was the first person to tell secrets. Mary Kate and George would comfort each other tonight, and it was likely that Duncan and his Phoebe would be closer than ever after today; even my father had his brothers and sisters around him to share stories and help him deal with his grief; but I had no one. My friends were dead or had left the city; I wasn't particularly close to any of my cousins; and my lover, of course, was at home with his wife in Louisville.
I passed my hand over my face, told my father, "I need some air," and went onto the back porch. The sun was setting, orange and pink light peeping beneath the layer of clouds. As always, the air smelled of the sea, and I could hear the sounds of a springtime Saturday night all around the neighborhood, kids being called into supper and radios playing as men worked on their cars.
It was beautiful, my city, and full of ghosts.
"Mal?" Duncan said as he came onto the porch too. "Dad wanted me to see if you need a drive home."
"I can walk."
"Okay." He lingered. "Dad is walking too. I think I might take a detour."
"You can say you're going to spoon with your sweetheart," I said.
"I don't know if you'd call it that," he said.
"You know what I mean. And why didn't you tell me about this girl, anyway?"
"You didn't ask," Duncan replied with a shrug. "You've never been too interested in what's going on in my life, even less so since the war."
"I'm interested now," I said, and he laughed shortly.
"Maybe later. I want to take her home. Are you sure you want to walk?"
"It's not far." I looked at him -- he was tall and blond and freckled like Zachary and me, and had grown up so much while I was trying to keep myself together in Kentucky. I had to adjust my mental picture of my little brother, I realized -- he wasn't a gangly boy anymore, but this handsome young man, ready to make his own way in the world.
I patted his shoulder. "Go on. Spend time with your girl."
"Good night, Mal," he said and went back into the house.
After a few more deep breaths, I went inside too. The crowd was thinning now, our acquaintances having gone home, leaving just family and close friends behind. I hadn't seen Matilda, Zachary's widow, anywhere -- but as I came back to the sitting room I saw her in the wing chair beside my father.
She rose when she saw me. "Malcolm," she said warmly and kissed my cheek. "I'm so sorry."
"Do you want your chair back?"
I waved her to it. "Go on, I can use an ottoman." I pulled one over and lowered myself onto it carefully, my bad leg jutting out. "Where's Zoe?"
"With my mother. I decided not to bring her."
"Oh," I said and hoped I didn't sound to disappointed.
"Tell Malcolm your news, Mattie," Dad said, and Matilda blushed.
She said to me, "I'm getting married."
There was a stuttering in my chest -- an instinctive, No, you're my brother's wife, you're not meant to be anyone else's. I managed to find a smile and give my not-entirely convincing congratulations. "Oh! Oh -- oh, that's -- great. Best wishes."
"Thank you." She was still blushing, and she looked at my father before she said, "His name is Gene Rowland. He was stationed in the Presidio during the war and used to come to the diner nearly every day." Matilda's parents owned a diner on 24th Street, where Matilda had worked since she was big enough to take customer orders. We had wiled away many hours there as boys, making our nickels stretch as far as they could.
"And he came back to the city for you?" I said, because that's how these stories usually went.
Matilda nodded and smiled to herself. "He waited for me to be ready."
A man like that, I thought, might be a decent replacement for my brother. I took her hand. "I'm happy for you, honey."
She leaned over and kissed my cheek again, and patted the other with her vanilla-scented hand. "Thank you, Malcolm. Should I send you an invitation to the wedding?"
"An announcement, at least," I said.
She squeezed my hand. "I will." She paused. "I sometimes think, if things were different, he and Zachary might have been friends."
I looked away, my throat closing for umpteenth time that day. I can't pretend that the love between husband and wife and the love between brothers is anything alike, but I often felt Matilda was one of the few people who understood how much I missed him. I said, when I felt I could speak, "If Zachary would have liked him, he must be a decent fellow."
Dad glanced between us, and said, "I think it's time to head home. I'm planning to walk, but I can get someone to drive us if you need it, Malcolm."
"I can manage the walk." I kissed Matilda one more time, and received several hugs and kisses from the rest of the relatives, but eventually we left Aunt Rhoda's for the walk home.
Dad said, "They mean well."
"I know." We walked in silence for a while. "So many changes going on -- Duncan's getting married, Matilda's getting re-married, Mary Kate's a mother now..."
"You're making your way in the world," Dad said in a tone similar to mine. "You've found a good position at a good school. Your mother was so proud of you."
I nodded, and wondered when mentions of my mother would stop making me want to weep. "Why didn't anyone tell me how bad Mom was?"
"She didn't want to worry you," Dad replied. "Or Mary Kate. If Duncan didn't live with us, she would have kept it from him, too." He inhaled slowly. "I think she would have preferred to have kept it even from me."
"She would have hidden lung cancer."
"You know your mother. She didn't like being the center of attention, even when she needed it."
"We could have come out before the end," I said. "We could have said goodbye."
"That last visit with your sister wore her out," Dad said. "As much as she loved meeting her granddaughter, it was more than she could handle. She came home and basically slept for the next week."
I sighed and scrubbed my hand through my hair. Rehashing my mother's choices was pointless now, I realized, and only hurt my father more. I said, "The school superintendent gave me leave to take as much time as I need, so I can stay as long as you need me to."
"Thank you, Malcolm."
After a moment or two more, I voiced the thought I'd been toying with since I left Kentucky. "I don't think I'm going to stay at Goodwin after the end of this term. I need a change of scenery."
"I see." We walked along, Dad's hands in his pockets, my hand in the crook of his elbow. "Do you think you'll come back to the city?"
"I don't know," I said.
The ocean is never far away in San Francisco, and the strong scent of salt catapulted me back to my childhood -- our little gang running through the streets, playing Kick the Can and Tag, saving our nickels to buy ice cream or go to the pictures, wading in the ocean with our trousers rolled up to our knees. A good half of the boys I had grown up with were gone now, killed in Europe or the Pacific, or they had just never come home.
We were nearing the house -- slowly, thanks to the cane -- and I supposed it would be much quieter now that all the relatives were at their own homes or at Aunt Rhoda's, and Duncan was out for a few more hours.
Dad made as if to speak a few times before he said, "Malcolm, I hate the thought of you leaving a job you love just because of a failed romance."
I looked at him, surprised. When Daniel died and my grief made me confess everything to my parents, my mother had taken my face in her hands and kissed me, and told me I should love as freely and fully as my brothers and sister, but Dad had said nothing and left the room. It was months before he was natural with me again.
"What makes you think I want to leave because of a failed romance?"
He said slowly, "You came here alone. If you had a sweetheart, he would have come with you."
I frowned at the sidewalk. He was right. He usually was.
Dad said, "I suppose it's to do with that man you mention in your letters. Mr. Davenport."
"He didn't lead me astray, if that's what you're thinking. That happened a long time ago."
"Yes, I remember," he said quietly, and we both looked in the directions of the Hoffmans' house.
I said, quiet too, "Daniel didn't lead me astray, either. I just am what I am."
"I understand that, Malcolm. I do. I just want to see you happy, the same as any parent does for their child. I only fear you won't find happiness with another woman's husband."
"I know I won't," I murmured. I had to stop walking and cover my face with my hand. Dad made a distressed sound and patted my back, and I managed to choke out, "I asked him to come with me. I told him I needed him and couldn't get through this without him. He didn't come. I don't know what to do, Daddy."
He continued patting my back. "I think you do, Malcolm. In your heart, you do." He nodded to the house, just a little further up the hill. "Come on. I think we both could use some warm milk."
I laughed despite myself, and when I had control again I held his arm as we finished the walk home. If there was one thing my family could be counted on, it was warm milk in times of trouble.
Still, as I lay in my bed that night, sleep was elusive. It hadn't been easy since the war but some nights were even worse, and this appeared to be one of them.
I sighed and turned from my side to my back. I had only closed the curtain part-way, and in the moonlight, I could see that the other twin bed was empty -- Duncan wasn't home yet. The house was silent, and I supposed even Rosemary was sound asleep tonight.
I started to reach for my sketchbook -- insomnia made me creative -- when I noticed there were goosebumps on my arms. I exhaled, and my breath froze in a plume of vapor. My arm paused, and I inhaled and exhaled again, hoping it was just chilly San Francisco weather causing this reaction rather than --
My bedsprings rattled as Zachary shook my mattress the way he had when we were boys and he'd decided I'd slept too long. "Get up, Mal! Fire!"
I swallowed with a dry throat and croaked out, "You're not real. You're not real!"
"Get up! Fire! He needs you!"
I shoved myself upright, shaking, covered in goosebumps and cold sweat. He knelt over me, wearing the uniform he had died in, his face grey, dark shadows under his eyes. From the front I couldn't see the bullet holes.
"You're not real," I repeated, though with less conviction than the first time. Even though I could see the other twin bed through his body, he still looked real enough that if I reached out and touched him, I might feel fabric and skin. "Please don't haunt me, Zack," I said instead. "Please."
"You're not done yet," was Zachary's response -- and then he was gone. Only the green, heavy scent of a tropical jungle remained, and in a moment that, too, faded away.
I inhaled and exhaled carefully, and then I grabbed my cane and pulled on a dressing gown. I went through the house from the first floor to the attic -- no basements in these post-Great Quake houses -- sniffing for smoke.
The stove was gas so there was no fire to put out there, and there was no bitter scent in the air of the kitchen. The fireplace in the sitting room hadn't been lit for days, the ashes in the hearth cold. No other room had an unusual scent, a whiff of tobacco smoke, or even the flicker of a candle.
My investigation through, I sat heavily in one of the chairs at the kitchen table. My body ached with its usual pain and now fatigue as well. I scrubbed my hands through my hair and thought wildly that maybe I was going mad, other G.I.s did even if they got home safely --
The kitchen light flicked on, and Mary Kate stood in the doorway, Rosemary on her hip. "Why are you doing up, Mal?"
I didn't want to worry her, so I said, "I'm always awake this early."
"Sure you are." She went to the refrigerator. Rosemary hung onto Mary Kate's flannel bathrobe and goggled at me as Mary Kate got out a bottle of milk. "Want some warm milk?"
"You can't sleep either, huh?" I said.
"There's too much on my mind." She hunted in the cupboard for a pan, one-handed. "And of course, this little bean doesn't like to sleep in strange places, either."
"I'll take her, if she'll let me," I said, holding out my arms, so Mary Kate handed Rosemary to me. Rosemary regarded me suspiciously, so I turned her so she could see Mary Kate. "There's Mama. Nothing to worry about."
That seemed to be enough to satisfy her, and Rosemary relaxed against my chest.
I watched Mary Kate start heating the milk, and said, "Do you ever dream about Zachary?"
"Yes," Mary Kate said simply. "A couple days ago, in fact, I dreamed that I wanted to show him something and couldn't find it no matter where I looked, and he kept telling me it was okay, not to worry about it, but I was still searching for it when the dream ended."
"What did you want to show him?" I put my fingers in Rosemary's hands for her to gnaw on.
"I don't know. You know how it is in dreams -- you just know something even though you don't really know it." She paused, slowly stirring the milk in the pan. "It was probably Rosemary."
"You're probably right," I murmured and rested my lips against her dark hair.
"We were thinking, if she'd been a boy, we'd name her Zachary."
"I bet he would have liked that. Why didn't you name her something like Zelda?"
"Poetry," Mary Kate said. "Rosemary for remembrance."
"I like it," I said, and Rosemary twisted back her head to look up at me. I kissed her forehead, hot and smooth in the manner of babies. "But in your dreams, does Zachary ever ... warn you about things?"
"Warn me?" Mary Kate said. "No, I can't say that he does. Why?"
"He does me," I said quietly.
Mary Kate furrowed her brow.
In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. "I'm... not always sure they're dreams. That's what got me up tonight, in fact. He told me there was a fire and 'he' needed me, but I looked through almost every room and there's no smoke or flame."
"Zachary didn't die in a fire," Mary Kate said, still frowning.
"I know. I don't think Zachary was the 'he.' I don't know who he could have meant."
Mary Kate frowned at me a moment more, then turned back to the pan and took it off the flame. She poured the milk into two mugs and brought one to me, and sat, cross-legged, in the chair beside me. In her pajamas with her hair pulled back, she looked like a young girl again, not a war widow and young mother. She tickled Rosemary's cheek and the baby squirmed, giggling.
Mary Kate said, "You're seeing Zachary's ghost, is what you're saying."
"I suppose I am." I wrapped an arm around Rosemary to keep her upright as I picked up my mug.
"The two of you always were close." She held the mug between her hands. "If he were to haunt anyone, it would be you."
"I don't find that especially comforting."
"When you woke up in the V. A. hospital you asked for him. Do you remember?"
"No," I said. "My earliest memory of the V.A. hospital is Mom reading to me."
"That was a day or so later." She sipped her milk. Rosemary sucked her fingers and kicked her feet, and Mary Kate smiled at her, then looked up at me, her expression serious. "They told us not to expect much from you at first. Apparently it takes coma patients a long time to fully come out of it."
I nodded. I knew this story -- and it was a story to me, because all that I remembered were flashes of being operated on, probably while I was still in Germany, and then waking up in an army hospital in Virginia, to my mother's voice as she read to me in French. The journey from Europe was a complete blank. I had been told I was taken first to a hospital in England, and then sent home on the first troop ship they could put me on to get me back to the States. The Army thought they were sending me home to die, and my family thought they might have enough time to say goodbye.
Instead, I woke up from the coma, and within a week was asking for drawing paper and a pencil. Those first drawings were crude and messy, like a child's, but I kept at it whenever my eyes stayed open long enough. By the time I moved to a hospital in California I was able to give my nurses and doctors caricatures of themselves as thank-you gifts.
It took months to learn to walk again, and I would drift between English and French when I was speaking without realizing it for at least a year more, but I often thought if I hadn't been able to draw I never have gotten back to my current level of normality.
"Carmichael stubbornness," I said to Mary Kate. "We're hard to kill."
"And it may be that same stubbornness that makes you think you're seeing Zachary," she said gently. "You're having a hard time letting him go."
I sipped my milk and patted Rosemary's round little belly. I could have accepted that rationale if it had only been seeing Zachary, and if it were only Zachary that I saw. But he spoke to me, touched me -- and there were other ghosts, other ashen faces that I saw peering out of windows or even passing in the street. The dead were everywhere and they seemed to seek me out like I was a beacon in the dark.
Mary Kate was watching me closely, so I smiled at her and said, "You must be right."
"It'll get easier with time," she said. "I still call George 'Owen' sometimes, and we didn't even live together very long."
I pressed my nose to Rosemary's hair. She smelled of baby powder and milk and clean cotton, a scent I had never found particularly comforting until my nieces came into my life. I said, "Do you miss him? Owen?"
"Of course I do," Mary Kate said, "but I sometimes I wonder if we'd still be together if he'd survived. So many of my girlfriends married their soldier boys and then the marriages ended during the war or soon after. I might have ended up with George anyway. After all, we met because of you."
"True," I said. During the war I had drawn some cartoons for the Stars and Stripes; George had been my editor, and when we were home George contacted me to ask if he could visit, as he'd never seen the Pacific Ocean. He stayed with us for a week; by the second night, he and Mary Kate were spending so much time together that Mom invited him to stay another week. He couldn't, but for the next six month he and Mary Kate wrote each other almost daily, and after a year they were engaged.
"And without George, I wouldn't have Rosie, and what would my life be without her? Hm?" Mary Kate bent close to Rosemary and laughed as Rosemary grasped her face. "Hello, my baby," she said tenderly and kissed Rosemary until the baby chortled.
I said, "So you think love is fated," and she glanced up at me again.
"Not at all. I think love happens because your heart is open to it." She tipped her head. "What's wrong?"
I rested my lips on Rosemary's head again as I debated how to answer. As accepting as I knew she was, I hadn't told Mary Kate about Oliver.
"I think I've fallen out of love with someone," I said. "He's only ever going to disappoint me. I think it's time I accept that. I think I'm going to end it when I get back to Louisville."
"Oh, Mal. I'm sorry."
I only nodded. Dad was right about one thing, anyway -- in my heart, I knew what to do. It felt like a relief to say it out loud.
I said, "I'll take care of the washing-up if you need to get Rosie to bed."
"Thank you." She stood, holding the baby in her arms, and then paused. "I know it seems hard now, but you're a good man, Mal. You do the right thing more often than you don't."
"Thank you," I said. "Good night." She stooped so I could kiss them both, and left the kitchen. After a moment or two of running my hand through my hair I picked up the mugs and took them to the sink, and washed them and the pan.
The sun would be up in just an hour or so. I decided to stay awake to watch it rise.
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