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An Alphabet for Joanna

Many months before Joanna’s short escape, I stayed at a friend’s empty house in Buffalo, and visited my mother at the nursing home every day for a week. Each day I dropped down deeper inside her world. On my second visit, we retreated to her shared room. Her roommate wasn’t there. Beside Joanna’s single bed stood the last surviving piece of the bedroom set she’d inherited from her mother, an antique dresser topped with a bevelled-edged mirror in a curving walnut frame. I’d arranged for this to be used instead of the bland dresser issued with the room. There was a brass keyhole in the top drawer, but if there had ever been a corresponding key, it had been lost years ago.
Joanna sat on her bed and examined a wall-mounted fluorescent light fixture, running her fingertips over the bubbled texture of its yellowed plastic shade. She gestured toward it, invited me to appreciate its enigmatic power. “I like this,” she said.
I faced her in a chair I’d dragged in from the TV area across from the elevators. I’d positioned a meal tray so that it was between us, an improvised work space. I’d covered its surface with an array of coloured markers and two pages torn from a sketchbook.
When I’d visited the day before, there hadn’t been any photos on her side of the room, but now I noticed she had found and propped up three pictures on her dresser. There was a framed photo of my son, Levi, that I’d given her for Christmas four years earlier, when he was a newborn, and there were two loose snapshots. One was of the base of the Eiffel Tower, which Joanna had taken during our weekend trip to Paris together in 1994. The other photo was of me.
I picked up this last picture and studied it. I’m sitting by myself on the blue-and-green floral couch in our living room in suburban Detroit. I’m probably fifteen years old. I’m wearing a baggy acrylic sweater and my hair is pulled back against my head on the sides, a big puff of curled bangs clawing at my eyebrows. Everything in this photo now looked ugly to me: my clothes, the pink walls behind me, the purple calico print tablecloth on the side table, that awful couch, the ruffled muslin curtains my grandmother had made for us, just like the ones in her own house.
Joanna leaned forward, her soft, plump arm touching mine, and she too looked at the photo in my hands.
“You’re my beautiful baby,” she said. I kissed her cheek.
The room was dark. I crossed to the window over her roommate’s bed and pulled the fraying cord to raise the blinds. I sat down on the edge of the mattress and looked out through a tangle of bare tree branches to the street below.
Joanna had followed me over, and she stood behind me as we looked out the window silently for a moment. Then she pointed across the street and said, “You see that thing there . . . ”
“I’m not sure what you’re pointing at, the houses or the cars parked on the street?”
Her dark brows drew together. “I don’t know,” she said, and turned away from the window.
We settled back on her side of the room, sitting again with the meal tray I’d set up between us. I used the little speaker on my phone to stream the Beatles record she owned when I was little, back when we lived with my grandparents. It was the only record she had salvaged from the two years she lived in California before I was born.
“What colour marker do you want to use first?” I asked her. She hesitated and then pointed to purple, looking back up at me for reassurance. “Oh, that’s a great choice,” I said.
My mother held the marker awkwardly, looking down at it uncertainly.
“Here, I’m going to draw a circle on the page like this, and you can colour it in,” I said as I drew a wobbly round blob. “Oh, you’re doing such a good job,” she said.
After some hesitation, she slowly started to make short purple strokes along the inside of the circle. I continued to praise her as I drew a cluster of triangles and dots on my own page. After a while, she stopped moving her hand to watch mine.
“Yours is so beautiful,” she said.
“So is yours,” I told her, but I couldn’t redirect her attention back to her own page. “Here, we’ll draw this together,” I told her, putting my own drawing away in my bag.
My phone played one of the Beatles’ many hits from the year she went to see the band play Olympia Stadium in Detroit with her girlfriends. That was the year she turned fifteen. She’d told me about that show, how she couldn’t hear a single note they sang, the music drowned out by the sounds of the girls screaming around her. We sang along—“She loves you and you know that can’t be bad”—as our heads bent toward each other over the purple ring Joanna had made in the centre of the page. I added a black dot in the middle of the ring, then drew round petals around the perimeter, making a psychedelic flower with a cartoonish eye at its centre.
“Oh, that’s nice,” she said.
I continued to draw on her page, asking her to choose colours for me. “We’ll do this together,” I said again. “We’re collaborating.”
I adjusted my sense of time as we sang and I drew, listening to the whole double album with the door shut. We dropped out of time and space. We were the only two people in the world. We were alone at the bottom of an ocean.
Someone knocked and the door opened. It was John, a man I’d met the day before in front of the nurses’ station, beside the TV. He had told me he loved me as he shook my hand. He had the red face, bright-blue eyes and silver brush cut I associate with Midwestern football coaches. Like Joanna, he was wearing loose-fitting elastic-waist pants and fuzzy socks with no-slip strips. No shoes.
“Oh, hi!” he said, lighting up as he saw me. “What are you girls doing?”
“Oh, we’re just spending time together,” I said lightly, and looked back down at the drawing.
“I told you yesterday that I loved you,” he said.
This guy, I thought, and kept drawing.
“This is my baby,” my mother said, her hand on my arm. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Yes, I told you that yesterday,” John said. He turned his square body to me again. His eyes glinted in the flat fluorescent light. “Can I kiss you?” He was blocking the door.
“Nope,” I said with a big smile.
He smiled too. “Okay, I won’t do anything you don’t want. But I love to see you. Why don’t you visit more?”
I winced. “I live in Canada,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said, satisfied. “When are you coming back?”
“Soon,” I said. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Okay, you come see me. I love your mother, but I really love seeing you.” He winked. “I’ll leave you girls alone now.”
Joanna and I returned to our own zone again, but the spell was soon broken by screams on the other side of the door. My mother was not disturbed; she seemed to not hear the noise at all. I pretended I needed to go to the bathroom as an excuse to open the door and look out . . .
“You can just go to this one in here,” Joanna said, pointing to the bathroom between her room and the one next door.
“Um, okay, I just want to—” I poked my head out. I could hear a fight, but I couldn’t see a thing. “It’s okay, I’m fine,” I said, pulling my head in and shutting the door again.
When I opened the door an hour later to walk to the elevator with my mother, a woman of indeterminate age sat on the floor in front of me. This is a horror movie, I thought; this is the nineteenth century. The previous year, when Joanna had first moved from a nice assisted-living facility into this rundown nursing home, the only thing she’d said to me was, “There are a lot of people suffering here.” She had always been sensitive to the pain of those around her. Not long after this, she lost the ability to speak in complete, coherent sentences.
Her current home was the only place that would take her when the assisted-living facility pushed her out of their system—a system I’d chosen for their well-maintained buildings, for their reputation for keeping residents in their care after savings ran out and they transitioned to Medicaid. But my mother’s diagnosis of frontal-lobe dementia had made her an unattractive resident. Inappropriate was the word they used when they first approached me about finding her a new place to live. “She’s an inappropriate resident.”
I opened the door from our pocket of calm and saw a woman whose hands were wrapped around the doorknob of the room across the hall from us. The woman was hunched down on the floor with her knees pressed to her chest, the weight of her small, wiry body hanging from her grip on the doorknob. Our eyes locked and she began to sob. As my mother and I passed her, she stood up and followed us, asking for help, trying to get my attention. Joanna muttered, “Just ignore her,” as we inched sideways, gripping each other’s forearms, toward the elevator.

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In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, a European woman asks a pro­fessor from Bogotá what it means to be Colombian. The man hesi­tates before replying, “I don’t know. It is an act of faith.” Colombia is like that. Nothing is as expected. Magical realism, celebrated as Colombia’s gift to Latin American literature, is within the country simply journalism. Gabriel García Márquez wrote of what he saw. He was an observer, a practicing journalist for most of his life, who just happened to live in a land where heaven and earth converge on a regular basis to reveal glimpses of the divine.
Only in Colombia can a traveler wash ashore in a coastal desert, follow waterways through wetlands as wide as the sky, ascend narrow tracks through dense tropical forests, and reach in a week Andean valleys as gently verdant as the softest temperate landscapes of the Old World. No place in Colombia is more than a day removed from every natural habitat to be found on earth. Cities as cultured as any in the Americas were for most of their history linked one to another by trails traveled only by mules. Over time, the wild and impos­sible geography found its perfect coefficient in the topography of the Colombian spirit: restive, potent, at times placid and calm, in moments tortured and twisted, like a mountain that shakes, crum­bles, and slips to the sea. Magic becomes the antidote to fear and uncertainty. Reality comes into focus through the reassuring lens of the phantasmagoric. A god that has given so much to a nation, as Colombians never fail to acknowledge, always gets his piece on the back end.
Certainly there was some kind of magic at work in the genesis of this new book, which celebrates the Río Magdalena, Colombia’s river of life. In 2014, I was invited to Bogotá by Héctor Rincón and Ana Cano, both acclaimed journalists from Medellín, to help pro-mote the Amazon volume of their series Savia Botánica. With the backing of Grupo Argos, one of Colombia’s most prominent corporate citizens, they had assembled teams of botanists, photographers, and journalists to survey the five major regions of Colombia with the goal of producing an elegant illustrated book on each—the Llanos, Amazonas, Chocó, the Caribbean coast, and the Andean Cordilleras. These Savia Botánica volumes were not to be sold, but gifted as complete sets to every library in the country, all with the goal of sending a message to a new generation of young Colombians that theirs was not a land of violence and drugs, but rather a place of unparalleled natural wealth and beauty, home to, among many wonders, more species of birds than any other country in the world.
One day, as we wrapped up a discussion of the latest Savia Botánica volume, I casually mentioned that, having focused on the Colombian landscape, perhaps it was time to pay attention to the rivers. I proposed, half in jest, that we do a book on the Río Magdalena, the Mississippi of Colombia, the vital artery of commerce and culture that runs a thousand miles south to north, traversing the entire length of the nation. To my surprise and delight, my new friends embraced the idea without hesitation, as indeed did Grupo Argos, which immediately offered its unconditional support for the project. That whimsical remark turned out to be a defining moment, for the research and writing of this book would in the end consume nearly five years.
Colombians think of the Magdalena as having three sections—Alto, Medio, and Bajo—divisions with overlapping and even shifting boundaries that nevertheless reflect geographical, historical, and cultural distinctions far more profound than the simple terms high, middle, and low would imply. Thanks to the generosity of Grupo Argos, I was able to explore the Magdalena in all its dimensions, from source to mouth, in all months of the year, with every shift of the seasons, from the uplands of the Macizo Colombiano to the sand and stones of the Caribbean shore. Altogether, I made five extended forays to the river: two with the Savia team, led by Héctor Rincón and Ana Cano, surveys that covered the entire drainage, and two subsequent explorations that concentrated on the Medio Magda­lena and the musical traditions of the lower river and the Caribbean coastal plain. The fifth brought me back to the Arhuaco mamos, old friends from my time in the Sierra Nevada, as we returned to Bocas de Ceniza to make ritual payments at the mouth of the river, even as the streets of Barranquilla erupted all around us with the magic and joy of Carnaval.
The Río Magdalena is not just the country’s main artery; it’s the reason Colombia exists as a nation. It is the lifeline that allowed Colombians to settle a mountainous land that geographically may well be the most challenging place on the planet. Within the Mag­dalena drainage live four of every five Colombians. It is the source of 80 percent of the nation’s economic wealth, the engine that drives the economy, the river that powers the lights of the great cities. Like the Mississippi, its shadow to the north, the Magdalena is both a corridor of commerce and a fountain of culture, the wellspring of Colombian music, literature, poetry, and prayer. In dark times, it has served as the graveyard of the nation, a slurry of the shapeless dead. And yet always, it returns as a river of life. Through all the years of the worst of the violence, the Magdalena never abandoned the people. It always flowed. Perhaps, as this book suggests, it may finally be time to give back to the river, allowing the Magdalena to be cleansed of all that has soiled its waters. Colombia as a nation is the gift of the river. The Magdalena is the story of Colombia.

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On Fire

On Fire

The Burning Case for a Green New Deal
also available: Hardcover
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Commanding Hope

Commanding Hope

The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril
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Maybe you feel it too: a creeping sense that the world is going haywire. A darkness spreading across the horizon of our aspirations for our families, our communities, our world. An emerging dismay that possibilities for a good future, for ourselves and our kids, are ebbing away.
If so, your feelings are not without base; they do reflect a real shift in the state of our world. Accumulating scientific evidence and data show that key trendlines gauging humanity’s well-being—economic, social, political, and environmental—have indeed turned sharply downwards.
Just twenty years ago a feeling of exuberance still animated many societies. After the Soviet Union collapsed and before the war on terror, political, business, and intellectual leaders in the West declared that a fusion of capitalism, liberal democracy, and modern science would create a future of near-boundless possibility for all humanity. Now, humanity is at a perilous juncture. Problems like climate change, economic and social inequality, and the risk of nuclear war have become critical. In 2020, COVID-19 stopped the world at large in its tracks. International scientific agencies are issuing report after report declaring that a global environmental catastrophe is imminent, now probably far earlier than 2045, and maybe even as soon as a decade from now. Meanwhile, reason and scientific fact often seem impotent before entrenched vested interests, worsening social polarization, and rising political authoritarianism.
As our prospects seem to diminish by the day, some of us retreat inwards to focus on things close to us in time and space, such as our friends and family, in person and on social media. Others try denial, maybe by claiming that the evidence for problems such as climate change and even pandemics is invented by people who benefit from scaring us. Or, we become fatalistic, declaring we can’t do anything about the problems because we’ve gotten used to a way of living or because the problems are the fault of the rich, or the poor, or immigrants, minorities, or “them over there”—anybody but us. Some of us rally to authoritarian leaders who tell a simple story about what’s wrong and declare they can make things better with bold, harsh action.
Anxiety about the future, detachment, self-deception, and feelings of resentment and helplessness—this is a perilous psychological state—the starting line of a fast track to the end of hope. It also makes the future we fear far more likely to happen, because the best way to ensure we’ll fail to solve our problems is to believe we can’t.
We all know—whether explicitly or unconsciously—that to escape this trap we need to come up with promising ideas to address the critical problems humanity faces. But to do so, we need to understand what’s causing the problems in the first place. As any medical doctor would say, good prescription depends on good diagnosis. To that end, over the last forty years I’ve studied humankind’s global challenges closely, particularly worsening economic insecurity, climate change, pandemics, scarcities of critical resources like fresh water and clean energy, weak and incompetent governance, and the factors that keep our societies from innovating effectively to address such problems. I’ve also studied how these challenges can combine to multiply their total impact, with cascading consequences that sometimes lead to mass violence, including terrorism, genocide, and war.
As a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s, I helped found a research group of young natural scientists, lawyers, and social scientists at MIT, Harvard, and other nearby universities interested in the implications of Earth’s environmental crisis. Our work together was exhilarating—we were all hopeful that science, international goodwill, and basic common sense would prevent humanity from tumbling into an environmental disaster. Today, we’re dispersed all over the world; and with a planetary environmental disaster now unfolding in real time, we remain connected with each other to share information, ideas, and research findings.
Alas, the underlying causes of humanity’s problems aren’t easy to diagnose, and some of the world’s best minds have struggled for decades to figure out what’s going on. Ever since those university years, I’ve followed their research and expert debates with fascination, and my books The Ingenuity Gap (2000) and The Upside of Down (2006) drew on that work to provide a framework for my own research and diagnoses.2 I didn’t pull any punches in my assessment of the dangers, so I was often labeled a “doom-meister.” But as the years have passed, my analysis in those books has (unfortunately) turned out to be close to the mark, and the profound gravity of humanity’s predicament is now hard to miss and broadly acknowledged.
I’ve always intended this third book to move beyond diagnosis to explore what we can do to get through the gloom and reach a new light. I start from the assumption that this is a time for honesty about the challenges we face and about our need for immediate, courageous responses. It’s now vividly apparent to me and my scientific colleagues, to many members of the world’s Indigenous cultures, to socially progressive groups everywhere, to the clear-eyed youth who in 2019 protested for climate action in the streets of more than a hundred countries, and to the countless families and communities worldwide devastated by the psychological and economic trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic the following year, that humanity is marching down a path towards calamity. To find a route to a far better outcome, we must marshal our amazing ability to overcome new challenges—an ability we’ve honed since the first hominid climbed down from the trees and set out across the savannah.
In the following chapters, I draw on insights from history, psychology, physics, philosophy, economics, politics, and art to identify such an alternative route that’s informed by honest realism—one that leads us towards a future of broadly shared opportunity, security, justice, and identity. I also provide some practical scientific tools that we can use to take our first steps together along this radically new path.
I argue that at this crucial moment in humanity’s history, three changes are essential to keep us from descending into intractable, savage violence.
First, we need individually to better understand how and why we see the world the way we do and what makes other people’s views sometimes so different from ours. Second, instead of passively accepting a dystopian image of what will come tomorrow, we need to actively create together from our diverse perspectives a shared story of a positive future—including a shared identity as “we”—that will help us address our common problems and thrive. And, finally, we need to fully mobilize our extraordinary human agency to produce that future.
Each of these changes requires that we have hope. To believe in the possible and to make the possible real, we must recognize that the right kind of hope can be a tool of change, and we must give our hope the muscle it requires in our present crisis.
Unfortunately, though, hope has seen better days. Barely more than a decade ago, Barack Obama could speak unabashedly of the “audacity of hope” in his presidential campaign, and his idea was a powerfully motivating psychological and social force in the world. And over the last fifteen years, eminent thinkers and social scientists have called for “radical hope,” “active hope,” and “intrinsic hope.” But despite these vital efforts to rejuvenate the idea, many of us have come to regard hope with disdain—as a state of mind that’s naïve and irresolute at best, delusional at worst.
Yet if we’re to survive, let alone see our children prosper in this century and beyond, we need a potently motivating principle that’s honest about the gravity of the dangers we face and about the personal responsibility each and every one of us has to face those dangers; that’s astute about the strategies we can use to overcome those dangers, given the viewpoints, values, and goals of people around us; and that’s powerful because it galvanizes our agency, our capacity to discern our most promising paths forward and choose among them. We need, in other words, the kind of hope that has motivated millions of young climate activists to sit outside parliament houses and block business-as-usual traffic in capital cities worldwide and that has galvanized communities and nations around Earth to slow the coronavirus pandemic.
In Dante’s fourteenth-century epic poem The Divine Comedy, the entrance to Hell famously carries the inscription: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” The phrase has become watered down over time, almost trite. But facing a future that promises to be hell for countless people, our task in the twenty-first century is to rediscover the power of the uniquely human ability to hope—an ability to envision and strive towards a positive future that’s an alternative to whatever challenging or even unbearable present we’re living in.
I propose in the pages that follow a way of mobilizing hope’s immense psychological power, as people have done in times of great stress before and can do again. What I call commanding hope is grounded in historical and scientific knowledge of how hope works at every level—in our lives as individual human beings and in our societies too. Today, confronting challenges so large that all too often we feel unable to move, we need it more than ever.
There are no guarantees of success. The perils are real, and the chances we’ll prevail may be small. But we face a choice between denying reality, running from the crisis, or facing that crisis head on to fight for a far better future. I’ve written this book for all of us—community activists, parents and grandparents, students and teachers, business and religious leaders, farmers and builders, scientists and engineers, nurses and doctors, restaurant and shop owners and artists, politicians and voters—all of us who choose to fight.
And it’s dedicated to my children, Ben and Kate, and through them to all the children who remind us every day how to use our imaginations to tell our own story, and to see and seek the world we want.

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Stars. Fractured star-sprays and burning constellations . . . galaxies radiating like spokes on a wheel, their epicentres—the suns—dancing pinpricks of kaleidoscopic brightness.

Then: Black.
The steady trickle of salt water dripping in a sea-cave. Lurking behind it: the hiss of a serpent sidewinding over wet rocks.
“Uh . . . hwwwuuugnnh . . .”
. . . you were born into dread, my son . . .
A fairytale giant has collected my blood in a glass globe he wears strung round his neck. The giant laughs, his paving-stone teeth flashing, as I beg for my blood back . . .
A sudden, buzzing pinworm of pain corkscrews through me. The wire cools. It is someone else’s pain now. I’m only holding onto it. Far off, the giant is still laughing.
Snap to with a snort.
I’m suspended upside down, belted into the passenger seat of our car. A Volvo: boxy, brooding, Swedish. Snow is piled against the windshield; cold granules of sunlight petal through the shattered glass. Gravity pulls my knee-caps down; my feet are wedged beneath the glovebox and my wrists bent back against the roof upholstery.
“Dan . . .”
The airframe sparkles with powder from the deployed airbags. The Volvo has an embarrassment of them—a  number that struck me as farcical in the austere showroom. Now the interior is draped with deflated alien spore-bags, satiny-white, and my lips are caked with xenomorph eggs. There’s an acid burn in my sinuses—did I throw up? No: that’s antifreeze. I’ve been at enough accident scenes to recognize the smell. It must be trickling through the vents with its greasy, burnt-animal stink.
I try turning my head—a wire buzzes with such intensity that it shocks a strangled scream out of me. In the rearview I catch sight of something inverted in the backseat like a little hangman. A pocket-sized executioner with a white hood over his face. A cold lunar silence weeps from the driver’s side. I can think of no good reason to look directly at that ghastly quiet next to me—Why, when it would be so easy? a sharp-toothed voice urges. Just turn your head a smidge and . . .
When I move my left arm, the pain is mammoth. I reach cross-body with my right hand to unlock the seatbelt. My fingers are senseless pegs riveted to my palm. I thumb the button but nothing happens. The lock’s jammed.
The hangman in the backseat emits a consumptive snuffling like a Pekinese with a sinus problem. He broods back there—in every un-noosed neck he sees an opportunity lost.
The belt is cinched tight across my shoulder. My entire body feels like it’s resting on one fragile joint. There’s a Leatherman in the glovebox. I try to heel off my boot before realizing it’s already gone: both boots must’ve been flung off in the . . . my knee brushes the stereo knob and the cab fills with the insane screech of the Doodlebops, their helium voices turning cat-yowly before cutting out.
With one big toe, I pop the latch. The glovebox jars open, spilling oil-change receipts and the Leatherman, which strikes my incisors and floods my mouth with the taste of rolled nickels. I retrieve it from the roof and fumble the blade open. Blood pools in my skull; the pressure must be turning my face as red as skinned meat.
It’s taxing work cutting through the belt. The wire buzzes hotly until the severed strap hisses through the belt’s eyelet. I complete a graceless backwards somersault and in that frictionless second, my head swivels to force a confrontation with the scene I’ve been avoiding.
Ahhhh, breathes the sharp-toothed one. Isn’t that a treat.
A tree limb is spiked through the Volvo’s windshield; the safety glass is crumbled around the hole it made entering our world. The branch pierced the driver’s-side airbag—shreds of white ballistic nylon still cling to its bark—before carrying on into Dan’s . . .
Oh, I remember this tree. I’d seen it lurking within a copse of its brethren just off the unplowed corduroy road. A tree waiting on this very chance with one of its branches projecting at a perfect ninety-degree angle: a straight jab of oak encased in transparent ice, its end whittled by sun and wind until only the hardest stuff remained. The heart-wood, it’s called.
That branch is now married to Dan’s face. His head is tilted back, his throat shorn by the wood running on its unbending plane: his neck and the branch form an inverted capital “T.”
Later, maybe I’ll have an opportunity to lie about how coldly I accept my husband’s death. At the funeral home with Dan’s pale-eyed father, both of us standing over his son’s coffin. I doubt I’ll ever come to grips with it, you know? But before the back of my skull even hits the dome-light I am reconciled to the fact, and moving past it.
I land on the stem of my neck, and my left side explodes in white-hot fireworks. I plant my feet on the windshield and push, snapping off the rearview mirror as I worm between the front seats to the little hangman suspended upside-down in his car seat.
“It’s okay, baby. Mommy’s here.”
Charlie is fastened by a meshwork of straps with his head socked between two fabric bananas. When we drove home from the hospital with him two months ago, Charlie’s head hung at a terrifying cockeyed angle on his neck. Yikes, that looks painful, Dan said. That afternoon he fixed the bananas in place.
My son’s bib has flipped down over his face but when I lift it, his face is unbloodied and his eyes bright. He sits jack-knifed at the hips—he has the shocking elasticity exclusive to babies and Balkan contortionists—his bootied feet folding down to touch his forehead. He’s so quiet it’s easy to believe he’s dead, but infants make you believe they’re either dead or just about to die several times a day. The moment I reach for him blood begins to foam out of his nose, as if my fingertips released it. It bubbles up from the cups of his nostrils and falls the wrong way down his face to collect in his eyes. But my son doesn’t make a sound.
Bracing one hand on his seat’s carry-bar, I stretch my foot up to pop the release catch. The seat falls painfully onto my chest. Wheezing, I thumb one of Charlie’s eyelids open: pupil dilated, the whites wormed with broken corpuscles. I probe his fingers through his tiny mittens, then move up each of his arms. Toes, feet, legs. Okay, okay, okay . . . I loosen the straps so he can breathe freely.
As a paramedic with the Niagara General Hospital, I’ve attended accidents like this. The first thing you learn is that you can’t save everyone. You must cradle a brutal stone of expediency in your heart.
I rest with Charlie on my chest. Now that his nose has stopped bleeding, he roots at my breast through my jacket. Snow is piled at the Volvo’s windows. Above the snow lies a slit of paling winter sky. The dashboard is lit, which means the battery’s not dead. Okay. I thumb the window button; the glass rises into its rubber flap with Swedish precision. I inhale pulverizing, cold air. It’s early December and the world is locked in an arctic freeze.
Digging with my elbows, I shove myself though the window. The snow is the dry powdery kind that falls during a cold snap. Unzipping my jacket, I slip a hand under my shirt. The wing-shaped bone running from my neck to outer shoulder is broken. The break-ends shift against one another to create a nausea-inducing buzz.

It’s bearable. Now get moving.
This voice belongs to an ancient village hag who sleeps on the bones of her enemies.
I can chart the Volvo’s path across the snow in the ashy late-afternoon sunlight: where we’d hit a patch of black ice and began to skip across the snow merrily as a stone over a frozen lake. Dan’s face comes back to me as it had been the instant before impact: mashing the brake pedal, darting a queasy glance at me as if to say, Sorry, babe, have this sorted in a flash. The Volvo must have flipped onto its roof before we slammed into the tree, its hood accordioning—  “Volvos are designed to crumple in zones of lesser consequence,” the dealer told us.
I stand in the two-hundred-foot wake of the crash. Tufts of brown grass poke through the snow crust. Around us, the landscape unfolds in shades of igneous metal: pewter sky, sun lowering behind banks of steel-edged clouds like a Mylar balloon losing air. We’re thirty miles outside Cataract City, my birthplace.

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The Difference


The ship became the world. They had a house to live in, the long skylighted saloon and their cabins, Aft; and the deck for their out­door walking path, as long as they kept out of the way of the work. Another flight of stairs down from the Aft saloon, they were allowed to visit the trim galley, fitted out like a carpenter’s bench with every needful tool on its hook, all polished copper and wood and steel-lined bins. The crew lived farther down, where Kay was not to go. Deepest below in the hold it was all case oil and coal, but Kay loved the orderly smell of the upper cargo deck: tea and mahogany, the familiar church-reek of tallow candles and sweeter beeswax, pine and cedar and other woody smells, spices she did not know. It was dark, but once one’s eyes grew accustomed, the rows of pillars between boxes were like the great roof posts in the stable at Aunt Lydia’s; and that was the other smell, the bleached stable smell of chickens and three well-kept young pigs, waiting to be roast pork. Sunlight slanting down through bulkheads lit upon nothing grimy or rank. “A tidy ship, no slatternliness about her,” Francis said—not bragging, but assuring Thea that she would be comfortable and safe.
Still, it was a little lonely, to walk through this world a few steps behind two people who were mostly focused on each other. And not what Kay was used to, having had all Thea’s attention until now.
Over the long ocean day, broken into portions by meals and the brass bell that rang to indicate changes of the watch, Kay wandered this new world, alone among the crowd of crew, shy to speak to the men but not wanting to be in Thea’s pocket all day. She found a hiding place or two; in that way she was like old Seaton the ship’s carpenter, dreaming in his lifeboat. In the afternoon, when the wind rose and they put on sail and the ship began to slant into true motion, Francis asked Mr. Best (that was the name of the lump-nosed second mate from the beautiful night) to show her the wooden seat tucked in at the starboard side of the fo’c’sle, where she might be safe out of the hubbub but still look out and perhaps spot land as they came closer.
Kay felt a softening toward Francis, almost tender; prickling back to caution whenever he shouted orders or was brisk with Mr. Wright or made one of the other seamen grovel or snap-to and say, Aye aye, Sir! He was easy in command. When he came down to supper, he began training Kay in the way of the sea, but he was never Father’s sort of schoolmaster, and she understood his instruc­tion was directed more to Thea than to herself.
“A barque can outperform a barquentine at any run, far better at sailing to windward than a full-rigged ship might be, at rising to the wind—well! Easier to handle in all seas. Perhaps the Morning Light is not the best runner, but we make compromise our servant and take the best elements of the fore-and-aft rig and the full, to be the most efficient rig at sea—and with a much-reduced crew—” In his enthusiasm, Francis had moved to boastfulness, which came oddly from his mouth; he was usually inclined to understatement. “Twenty-two this trip, well in hand, allowing for mishap or illness. Let’s see the Flying Dutchman race round the Horn with less than seventy!”
Thea smiled for his keenness, and Kay saw that she held her tongue from saying fewer to correct him.

Kay did not care for this new entity, Francis-and-Thea. She worried over what it might mean, how her own life would be changed, or Thea’s. All this time out at sea, yet her sister had not recovered her usual quiet vitality, but still sat sopping and droop­ing over the teapot at breakfast, and more often than not went back to lie down white-faced in their cabin, eyes shaded with one hand and her mouth in a wavering line.

Their bed was over-large for a ship; Francis had had it made especially. Carved edge boards kept the featherbed from shifting, but made it uncomfortable to sit on the side to comb Thea’s hair or pat her hands with rosewater or any other thing that might be nice for her. If only Thea would get up and come out on deck into the delicious wind, she would feel better.

Nausea did not stop her from nagging Kay about lessons and her sampler and the various ways she ought to be spending her days, and demanding to be shown a page of conjugations. “Amo, amas, amat . . .” Thea said, not in a loving voice, and, “Amamus, amatis, amant,” Kay mouthed back, clacking like a ventriloquist’s dummy, but she sighed and fetched her books. She was of course eons past the baby verb to love ; she wondered if that was the only Latin verb Thea recalled.


Another long day slid like water through water, but the next morn­ing was different. Kay dreamed in the early dawn, a quiet dream of a sick woman in a metal bed: white-faced, blue shadows under her eyes, a bald head. The walls were green behind her and the sheets yellow; the colours of the dream were strangely clear. Was it her mother, in heaven? She had a sweet face, not like Kay’s. Perhaps if Kay were kinder. Thea said one’s face only became beautiful through good deeds and loving thoughts.
The dream did not frighten Kay, but it made her worry about her sister dying, as both their mothers had died, so instead of dress­ing and running up the ladder to the deck, she went into the saloon.
Thea was in the saloon already, drinking tea, looking very ordi­nary. Kay must have slept late. The strangeness of the morning puzzled her still, until she realized—it was the stillness that puzzled her. The ship rested at anchor, tossing only lightly in the harbour’s swell and seep. They had come to Boston in the night.

After she had eaten and drunk her tea and redone her copy­book from yesterday to Thea’s cross-grained satisfaction, Kay waited at the rail by the ladder to the boat for Francis and Thea to be finished their farewell. Thea was to have come to the shops to fit Kay out with the necessary clothing but Francis said she should lie down this morning. They were debating it still, Kay could hear through the open skylight—what Francis was to buy, and whether he should bring Thea a poultice or a tisane or something from the pharmacist.

Perhaps Thea would feel better on dry land again? Kay did not care, she only wanted to get on with it or begin to shriek like the gulls that wheeled about the ships. Her head hurt, and her throat hurt too. Nobody bothered about her, only about Thea. They had only come to Boston harbour because they were forced to keep her with them, only because of her unwelcome presence. If only Thea had not had her half-sister coming along so inconvenient, they would be on the rolling main with the wind set fair for Africa.

Kay’s spirit reared a little within her chest, because she was a person, and if they did not see and understand her, she might jump off this ship into the dinghy and row to the wharf and walk the tilt­ing wooden walkways into Boston, looming behind the dark ware­houses, and disappear in its alleys never to be seen again by those who did not understand her anyway.

But Francis came up behind her, saying, as if she had not been waiting and waiting, “Now, young Kay, off we go, and smartly— Mr. Best must make the chandler’s office before noon.”

The dinghy went over the waves in quite a different movement from the ship, plunging and backing as the oars ploughed on, Mr. Best (he gave her a wink with one kind piggy eye) and Jacky Judge at the oars. The back of Jacky’s neck and his arms had a matte smoothness Kay did not mind looking at, but not when he could see her. She dipped a hand into the harbour water and let it run along, cupping the moving wave. Behind them the Morning Light, all her sails stowed, receded into a low shape in the water, a collection of black sticks against the foggy sky.

The usual commotion of ropes and mooring held them up at the little wharf, and then Francis went striding down the shaking boards so that Kay had to run to keep up. Her legs were used to tilting now. They walked (too quickly, Francis never slacking his pace) up to the tramline. The tramcar came and plunged them down and then up into the great walls and crackling, energetic depth of the city.
Francis was not one for talking as they went, and neither was Kay, so that suited them both. But she was still caught between fright and fury at being sent off alone with him—whom she hardly knew and was half-scared of, although she would not say so to Thea. He was older than Thea, who was nearly thirty now, quite an old spinster to be new-married, Cousin Olive said, and how sad that she wasted her youth raising Kay.

As the tramcar turned onto Summer Street, Francis pointed to Filene’s, the big store Thea had said they must visit. He ordered Kay to look sharp and hopped off as the tram lurched to a stop, turning back to give a hand to Kay.

She scorned to take it—oof, the pavement was farther than her legs had thought. They hustled to the curb through the welter of traffic and looked up at the brown bulk of the building, great glass doors glowing with brass and interior golden light. Beautiful doors, sectioned like an orange in a skin of brass hoops, went round in a glass drum. It was like skipping rope, to find the right moment to enter the carousel, and then take tiny, rapid steps inside the moving wedge of floor, all your feet were allotted. Inside, the light was startling, rays and beams sparking off myriad edges of glass and brass. The brilliance sent Kay back a step upon the threshold, almost back into the revolving swirl.

Francis barked, “Ladies’ haberdashery?” at a nearby girl in a dark skirt and a trim blue shirtwaist with a pretty collar that Kay wished she might have. The girl (whose hair was perfectly swept into a Gibson, whose teeth were jagged, whose little boot toes peeped beneath her skirt) pointed to the moving stairs.

Kay held tight to the handrail, one step up from Francis. He had ushered her on in front, as if he was perhaps afraid of the motion himself. Or to catch her, if she panicked at the step-off and fell. But she had been on moving stairs before, in Montreal, on their way from Blade Lake; she knew to lift her foot and hop as the treadle-step approached the end. It was Francis who stumbled a little.

A fearsome woman, shaped like a prow and jacketed up to the throat, took Francis’s order from his hand. “Serge skirts, two; white waists, two; middy blouses, four—yes, yes . . .” She ran her eye down the list Thea had written and turned to inspect Kay’s legs. “Stockings.”

“Very well,” Francis said, like he said at dinner to excuse Mr. Wright from table. “All that you think fit. We had time for nothing but her boots before we sailed.”

Kay stood it. In the close dressing room, people put blouses over her head and measured her waist and her bust, which she did not like. She told them she had no need of camiknickers, but the prow-fronted woman paid no mind and set aside six plain, ugly ones and a number of vests. The middy blouses were fetched and stacked. One of the serge skirts fit; an underling took a seam-ripper to another to let the waistband out, squatting on a stool in the corner. Then she hemmed both skirts quickly, with long, slanting stitches Thea would not have let Kay set.

The last item on the list was white muslin dresses, two. The under­ling rolled in a rack of mixed whites, embroidered or plain, sleeves small and large. The manageress picked out one that had nothing nice about it at all, and one Kay liked, which almost felt comfort­able. She did not see why she could not have two just the same, and said so, and the manageress nodded. The dresses went over her head and back again too, and then two plain shifts that needed tucks taken, until she thought she might screech. But she did not let herself, because she had won over the dresses.

At last it was done. While the packages were wrapped in blue paper, Francis stood by the counter, legs wide-braced, jingling coins in his pocket. He reached over to tweak Kay’s cheek and said, “Luncheon? Cake? Come, sprogget, we might as well amuse ourselves.”

Because Thea was not there, he meant. His humour and his kindness were both too heavy for Kay to help him with.

Down the moving staircase, taking the view of the marble hall below; then they burst out into the street, afternoon sun now light­ing the other side of the cobbles. Francis hailed a horse cab and stowed the package behind. He told the man they were starved, and the horse gee’d up. The cab jiggled over the stones, in a quiet way, to the Westminster Hotel, where the rooftop restaurant had gay striped awnings attached to a set of Grecian ladies holding up their spears. First of all, per Francis’s orders, petits fours; then a dainty plate of cut sandwiches. Francis had a bowl of chowder—to test the Boston version, he said. He was pleasant company. Kay wished she did not feel a sense of caution. But she remembered how careful they had always to be with Father, who as principal of the Blade Lake School also held a position of authority. And she did not know Francis as Thea did.

“If only your sister was not having so hard a—” He stopped.

Kay took another sandwich: chicken with a spiced yellow dress­ing, and raisins. Francis did not start again.

“Hard a what?” Kay asked, at the end of her sandwich, which was delicious.

His face had gone stiff. Was he angry with her? “Well, perhaps she will tell you herself, when she thinks it time,” he said.

He seemed to think she was seven years old instead of going on thirteen.

There was one last yellow sandwich, and a pity to waste it, so Kay took it. Before she bit, she said, “I have not had a moment’s queasiness. I have my mother’s strong stomach.”

“Thea’s mother was more delicately reared.”

Thea’s mother Maria was, had been, Maria Wetmore. She was Francis’s second cousin—all those Yarmouth people were related— so he would not hear a word against her. Kay’s own mother, Eliza Warner, was just a country girl from the land north of Battleford. But she died too, when she was about to have another baby. Kay thought about that other little babe sometimes, the dead brother or sister. And of her young mother, whom she could not remember at all. Perhaps it was her sweet face that Kay had dreamed of that morning.

When they had finished, they took the brass elevator back down to the street and the uniformed man gave them the package with Kay’s clothes and whistled for another cab. They were bowling along the street when Francis leaned forward and tapped the man.

“Stop a moment,” he told him, and the cab pulled up, the horse blowing wetly through his mouth as if disgusted.

They went into a little shop with gold lettering on dark-glassed windows. Francis walked up and down the glass-topped counter, peering into the black velvet depths. At last he pointed, and the clerk took out a pearl pin shaped like a new moon. Plain, but pretty. Kay approved.

“Do not tell Thea,” Francis said when they were back in the buggy. “We’ll keep it a secret until later.” He looked confused and mysterious.

In a cascading shuffle of thinking and discarding—Thea’s birth­day long past, and Christmas too long ahead, until later when?—Kay saw that of course Thea must be going to have a baby, as people almost always did, once they were married. Once vague things had been done to them that did not bear thinking of. While Francis was paying the driver and hailing Mr. Best, Kay turned her head to the salt-smelling sea and blew through her mouth like a horse.

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The Certainties

Yesterday when the three of us presented ourselves at the station, we did as Suzanne’s contact had instructed—waiting inside the tunnel until the train from Perpignan arrived and then slipping into the station with the passengers who were disembarking. We acted as if we’d come in with everyone else: three more ragged travellers among a collective of “fty or sixty, lugging the last vestiges of our old lives in beat-up cases across the platform. 

As we moved forward, four Spanish police officers appeared, checking papers and ushering passengers in one of two directions: Spaniards with identity cards were allowed to exit, while the rest of us were steered toward a large set of double doors that had been wedged open and led to a room that appeared to have once been a central waiting room or a customs hall. It had high ceilings, slow-spinning fans, and beige walls strutted with concrete pillars capped with Corinthian designs. There was a row of seats near the door to the platform, but most of the room was empty, save for the long tables where the guards were inspecting suitcases and the counter to their left where a clerk was stationed. Behind her, there was another room, or something approximating a room—an area partitioned by a low wall—in which a half-dozen men sat at desks behind lamps and typewriters and telephones.

Suzanne waited in line with the other passengers to see the clerk, while Bernard and I stood near the door to the platform. The clerk was a local woman in the drab clothes of a civil servant, her expression stern, her dark hair wound into a tight coil at the nape of her neck. I wanted to sit on one of the wooden chairs lined up by the wall because my legs were still weak from the climb across the col, but the situation seemed to call for standing, so I remained beside Bernard with a French newspaper tucked purposefully under my arm and my battered black briefcase wedged between my feet. The air in the room, just off the platform, was stale with cigarette smoke and the grease of the locomotives. I had to “ght to keep from coughing. There were dozens of people in the queue before and behind Suzanne, mostly French it seemed, many likely trying to get to America on their papers, and a few German-looking like me. All of us were adults—as if everyone had sent their children to remote locations for safety months ago, as Suzanne had. 

How many people like me, I wondered—stateless, stripped of their citizenship—had come through here” How many thousands or tens of thousands had stood in this room” I had, in my briefcase, identi—cation papers, the appropriate visas, and six petitions for my care from French citizens of import. I had examples of my academic work and a letter of promise from an American publisher for my new essays on the Metamorphoses. Few others would have so much support. There had been a demand for my extradition in Paris, and the Gestapo had con'scated my apartment and what books and papers I’d left there, but I knew in my blood that the bureaucracy of the war was too great, and my signi—cance too negligible, for any record of these transgressions to appear in an office such as this. Nonetheless, in the reality of the moment—the grey despondency of the people trudging forward, the clerk’s unsympathetic expression as she questioned a woman wearing too light a dress for the changing season—I felt frightened. And standing there, my feet throbbing in my shoes, a procession of human bewilderment shuffling along in front of me, I tried to locate what I was seeing, what vision of the future haunted me. I looked to the woman nearest me—in her “oral print dress and cloche hat and smart gloves—and her eyes were full of fear. The man in line behind her—his beard suffering from the lack of a barber—his eyes were also full of fear. I found myself asking of each—what have you done, what might they hold against you” I thought then of that line in Ovid’s poem when Narcissus is at the pool studying his own re—ection: ‘He fell in love with an insubstantial hope.’ What was our hope” That the disarray of the war neuter our interrogators” That we had now become as insigni—cant as we have been made to feel, so that we might slip through the cracks in our nothingness” Standing there in the shared misery of other travellers struggling forward with their papers clenched in their hands, I looked for myself . . . for some version of me . . . or for someone’s eyes to meet mine with a look that said we would be all right. I realized what I was doing with a shock: at that moment, even after being on this earth for “ve decades, to still feel empathy most easily in those cases that re—ect my own” This was a failing. Perhaps the greatest failing of all.

When Suzanne reached the front of the line, Bernard and I joined her. She smiled at the woman on the opposite side of the desk. ‘Buenas tardes,’ Suzanne said and then she gave the name of the capitán we’d been supplied with—Marco. The clerk raised her eyebrows at his name, swivelled on her stool and called out something I couldn’t quite parse to the men stationed at their desks behind her. A few looks were exchanged between the officers—not of the sort that would occur when one is trying to locate a person, but expressions that asked, Who will deal with this” After a minute, a man in a pinstriped suit with a fresh haircut stood up, buttoning his jacket and stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray on another man’s desk as he came toward us. He was dark-haired and dark-skinned, as if he’d grown up on the coast. I immediately wished he was in a recognizable uniform.

‘¿Esteu buscant en Marco?’ he asked. He smoothed his moustache with his thumb and fore—nger and looked Suzanne over coldly—her bright lipstick and smart brown dress indicative of Paris, as was her fair hair, her accent, her bearing. He glanced over at Bernard and me, who stood behind her, ragged as refugees, though we’d wiped our shoes, and scrubbed and dried our pant legs at the hotel so our means of entry would appear normal. ‘Français” Allemand?’ he continued.

Suzanne clicked open her purse and presented her papers, and Bernard and I handed ours forward as well. Then Suzanne began as rehearsed—professional, almost impatient. She introduced herself and said, ‘Je parle au nom des ces personnes  .  .  . I am speaking for these individuals . . . We three have transit visas for Spain and papers for America.’ The officer inspected our documents and signalled that we should move aside with him, farther down the counter. When it seemed he was taking too long with our documents, Suzanne put on an air of irritation and asked for his name. He gave it—‘Señor Porras’—without so much as lifting his eyes from our papers. Then he asked Bernard and me to step forward.

Bernard put both hands onto the lip of the counter to steady himself. He’d been ill since Marseilles and was weak from the climb over the mountain. From how he wavered beside me in his loose suit and cap, I suspected that he was running a fever again; his thinness, his gaunt face made him appear like some sort of mirage, not wholly present in the room. Señor Porras regarded Bernard for a minute and then turned to my papers and me. We had hoped to seem innocuous: people whose in—uence was limited to small academic or artistic circles, people whose work dealt more with esoteric ideas and less with political ideologies. This was, in truth, the case for Bernard: as a painter he’s less of a revolutionary than most, though both he and Suzanne—whose husband is Bernard’s agent—were part of an anti-fascist circle in Paris, and Bernard was one of six or seven artists I knew whose work the Gestapo had deemed degenerate. 

What did I think of then, when Señor Porras was regarding me” Taking stock of my clothes, my face, and my expression” I thought of the briefcase between my feet. Of the manuscript on the Metamorphoses inside it and the notes from my last revision of the Narcissus essay—pages of new ideas dashed off in the Bibliothèque Nationale in the week before I left Paris—shoved into an envelope. I thought of my desire to have this manuscript arrive in safe hands and of the possibility that some German intelligence agent could “nd incriminating ideas in the work, ideas that weren’t there—born solely from his own small-mindedness and his desire to see them.

We had hoped that our transit visas for Spain would be stamped without hesitation, that, at worst, the authorities would run our names against whatever new extradition list they had at the station and, not “nding them, send us on our way. But more and more people were being pulled out of the line; more of the men from the back room were coming out to “ip through visas and residency cards and passports. The counter to my right had become crowded, the man closest to me—twenty-something, German-looking, possibly Jewish—had a sheen of sweat on his face, and I wondered if I had the same. 

‘Monsieur?’ Suzanne eventually asked.

Porras smiled and held up three of the papers we’d given him. ‘I’m sorry, it’s these transit visas. There’s an issue with them now. All visas issued in Marseilles have been cancelled.’

‘Depuis quand?’ Suzanne asked. She looked toward the men who were still seated at their desks behind the partition as if she hoped that Marco, the man we’d asked for, might somehow be among them. ‘We were told—’

‘Yes, of course,’ Señor Porras shrugged, ‘if you’d arrived last week, two days ago . . .’ He raised his open palms toward his shoulders. ‘But there are new regulations effective yesterday.’ He smiled again so that we could see the spades of his teeth. ‘I’m afraid it’s not for Spain to decide.’ 

‘Might I speak with you in private?’ Suzanne asked. He laughed, aware that she planned to try to bribe him. There was money stitched into the lining of her dress for this very reason.

‘You can speak freely in front of my fellow citizens,’ he said, waving toward the clerk and the officer beside him and the men in the back, clearly enjoying this show of integrity.

‘May I see the man in charge of the station, then?’ Again Suzanne assumed the impatience of a person with rights.

‘He is not here today, either. Like Marco. I’m afraid I’m in charge at the moment.’

‘When will he be in?’

‘Tomorrow.’ Porras lifted a silver case from his jacket pocket and tipped a cigarette out of it. ‘Do you want to make an appointment with him?’ 

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Of course. I just need to know where you’ll be staying. In the meantime, I will keep these.’ Porras gathered our papers together and raised his eyebrows. Then he turned to the clerk behind him. He spoke to her quickly in Spanish and she turned and relayed his message to the men behind her, and one of the men in suits called out ‘Alejandro!’ 

The German-looking man beside me was still standing at the counter in his nice waterproof coat. The officer he’d been dealing with was consulting now with another officer in the back room. I had to resist the urge to tell him to make excuses: he forgot his bag on the train, his wife was unwell, he must have dropped a paper . . . he was young and strong-looking and I thought he could move quickly, could get way in the confusion. But he knew, and I knew, that such subterfuge was likely to cause more difficulty than adhering to whatever new rules the Vichy government had put in place. Even for people like us.

Suzanne turned to me and Bernard and smiled reassuringly. Bernard, his head low like a dying animal’s, scanned the room for the chair he needed. A minute later a young man in the grey-green uniform of the local cabos walked toward us.

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Precious Cargo

Precious Cargo

My Year of Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077
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