The January that William fell down—1968—his father had plugged Christmas lights one strand into the next and laid them circular-wise around the banks of the skating pond immediately behind their house. The bulbed string haloed William as he lay on the ice with dilated pupils. The blanched sky, three figures on his vision’s fringe, the bright cold clouds contorting above. He felt nausea’s waving pulse.
Carrie, his little sister, bit off her mitten and pressed three fingers to his forehead as she knelt quietly on the ice. With the brevity of a nurse she declared her brother feverless. “Stony,” she added. She pushed herself to her feet, slipping twice before grappling up the nearest child’s arm. Even in his disorientation William knew his sister was wrong to speak of fevers and health—that was not the family’s way. But she was younger than him, so he forgave her error. The group of children looked down upon him, the fallen, and he watched them from below as their lips moved sometimes all at once.
Dawn Ellis skated circles near the pond’s edge. It was she who had taken the bill of her hockey stick to the back of William’s skates. Now she cut a figure eight in the ice and her momentum’s breeze ruffled her red hair that was otherwise still stiff with her mother’s aerosol spray. She clenched her bare hands and hockey-stopped, the top layer of ice scuffing to her own nervous satisfaction. “Come on, he’s fine,” she called.
The Christmas lights twinkled on the banks. William could almost hear their ethereal electricity. Similarly, the model train set skirted the Christmas tree in the living room, an incandescent glow just visible through the small windows of the caboose. He heard the rail’s metallic click-clack from the hallway bathroom as he opened the mirrored cabinet. Starry scattershot frenzied behind his eyes. He took a bottle of Bayer out of a Q-tips box, where he had hidden it. The glass went hot in his palm. He struggled with the fibrous pull of the bottleneck’s stuffed cotton.
Dawn sat on the banks of the pond to unlace her skates. A Christmas light popped beneath her and the long succession of bulbs went dark. Carrie said she’d tell her mother, Mrs. Ambrose, but whether about William or the broken lights Dawn wasn’t sure. The rest of the neighborhood children went on with their hockey.
The sea-foam green porcelain sink, when he looked down, was far, far away, but when he reached to touch its rim, there it was, close as his eyelashes, which emitted a furry glow around his lids’ slanted apertures. Strange. Very strange. Then he was kneeling on the yellow shag bath mat, the still water of the toilet before him.
He had once witnessed his mother accept a cup of coffee in his piano teacher’s front parlor. “Well, okay,” she’d said, smoothing her skirt over crossed legs. “Light and sweet, please.” Then, in the car on the ride home, she’d told William she didn’t like the way it made her feel. “Nervous,” she said. That a substance in this world could act upon the body, that his mother could go suddenly fearful without reason—he hadn’t ever considered such ideas. “Just feel a little sick,” she muttered, hands strictly clutched at ten and two. He didn’t understand; he’d watched her sitting in silent prayer that very morning.
Dawn let the back door’s glass flatten her forehead as she looked into the dark living room. The train rounded the lit tree. She pushed down the door handle, but not all the way. Behind her on the ice in the backyard, someone cried out in victory. A wind chime shook out a scale. A cold car motor chugged in a driveway. She looked back and saw her hockey stick abandoned on the bank. She began to hate the fact that she’d used it to bring pain to William. But she really hadn’t meant any harm, and she doubted it was very serious, though his eyes had looked substanceless when he shuffled off the ice and into the house, covertly slipping through the back door as if not wanting to make a sound.
The Bayer bottle was left over from Uncle Sean’s visit three weeks before. The family could hardly lodge the man—he’d said “damn” under his breath on Christmas Eve, smoked a cigar on the holy morning, drunk a beer with dinner when they’d taken him out for seafood. William had watched him during that meal and, to his own horror, imagined himself sipping from the amber bottle. What was it like, this drink that smelled bitterly floral, that put both parents so on guard? When Uncle Sean had finally left on New Year’s Day, William found the forgotten aspirin on the guest-room nightstand. The white discs inside the bottle were supposed to do something to the body. They claimed to reduce pain. The fact was, Uncle Sean was not a Christian Scientist and hadn’t been for quite some time. William had shaken the Bayer and the pills skittered dully against the glass. He secreted the bottle away, slipping it into the box of Q-tips behind the bathroom mirror.
She would go inside. She had to. Her mother had not once but twice that day said, “We all belong to the choices we make” while looking periodically at her own reflection in the rearview and speaking without listening, nervous about her meeting with the attorney that day to finalize the divorce. Dawn hadn’t interrupted, knowing her mother sometimes got distracted and overwhelmed and, as a result, often forgot to return to the Ambrose household until after sundown, arriving as Mrs. Ambrose set an extra space at the table.
With her head against the door, Dawn saw the faint outline of Mr. Ambrose sitting in the living room. She finished depressing the handle and felt the latch release.
Now the toilet bowl rimmed his head. With his parents down the hall in the living room, he attempted a quiet convulsion—coughed, tightened, tried to stave off the retching. Then, with words going for comfort he sought to overcome mental error: There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all . . . matter is mortal error . . . matter is the unreal and temporal . . . man is not material, he is spiritual . . . Kneeling on the floor, head in the toilet, he clutched the Bayer bottle he had brought out of its disguising box. Frayed cotton stuck out of its narrow mouth. He hadn’t succumbed—the pills remained at the bottom of the glass. Still, there was only a cotton ball between him and the heretical remedy, which might as well have been magic. He kept quiet, woozy and toe-curled on the bath mat.
Still in her coat, Dawn advanced into the living room. Mr. Ambrose looked up from reading the user’s manual for an eggbeater he’d given his wife for Christmas and said, “Hello, Dawn.” He glanced across the room at Mrs. Ambrose, who was marking Scripture for the following week’s Sunday service with a small piece of blue chalk because—using a felt cloth—she could easily erase its scribbles from the thin paper. She set the chalk down and closed the Bible, placing a tab between the pages to keep her place. She tipped forward in her chair.
“Something the matter, dear?” she asked Dawn. The train set jittered around a curve and past a hut from which sprung a small mechanical man in a painted blue suit and officer’s cap, arm extended in permanent salutation.
“I just needed the bathroom, thank you.” The happy officer hinged back into his hut.
“I think Will’s in there right now,” Mr. Ambrose said.
“Please,” his wife said to Dawn, “sit down. How are you, dear? How’s your mother?”
As Dawn lowered herself into the closest chair, she thought she saw Mr. Ambrose cast a stern, worried look across the room.
Dawn envisioned her mother at that moment pulling up to the divorce attorney’s office, engaging the parking brake, and lighting a cigarette in the car’s cabin. Dawn had watched her mother angrily mime these exact motions the month before, when the Ambroses had been attending a weekly Wednesday night Testimony Service at the Christian Science Reading Room and so could not watch her for the evening. And because her mother felt “ill at ease” about leaving Dawn home alone—though she was twelve and could easily make herself pancakes for dinner—she had forced her daughter to accompany her to the attorney’s. During the outing, Dawn was treated without enthusiasm to a container of Golden French Fries and a Full-Flavor Orange Drink from the McDonald’s three blocks from their cul-de-sac, but still, she felt—as her mother would have said, had she been in her position—like hell. Then, in the parking lot Dawn watched her mother snuff out a cigarette, light a new one, snuff it out after three puffs, sigh, and say, “This shouldn’t take long.” At that moment her father had pulled up in his new Volvo 164 and walked directly into the building without looking at his daughter as she sat sucking pop through the straw, the Orange Drink tasteless in her mouth because of the cabin’s swirling smoke and because of the anxiety that flooded her stomach as her mother said “Prick” and slammed the driver’s door to follow her soon-to-be ex-husband into the squat brick building.
Mrs. Ambrose was studying Dawn with the over-attentiveness of a friend’s mother. She nodded slowly and unceasingly, as if trying to fill the silence with her embodied affirmation, and Dawn intuited in that moment that the Ambroses were aware of her parents’ impending divorce, so she said, “Yes, my mother is doing wonderfully. In fact, she just accepted a secretary position in the city.”
Mr. Ambrose dog-eared a page of the instruction manual and lifted his face, which was pushed into a small frown. She shouldn’t have told them this detail—it was embarrassing that her mother had to work, especially when her father was off living permanently in the city with a brand-new car that looked almost like a Mercedes-Benz. Dawn touched her hair as a distraction and found that several strands had fallen loose from the spray’s brittle form.
“It’s only temporary,” she amended.
Mr. Ambrose’s face didn’t relax. He put his ear to the air and asked, “What’s that sound?”
The bathroom light shone down like an invasion William couldn’t escape. His head heavy and his body slow, he spat into the toilet, then coughed. When he spat again, the saliva was thick, streaking gelatinous down the bowl. He was mistaken, he knew he was. It wasn’t that there was something wrong with his body, it was that there was something amiss in his mind. It was pure error to indulge physical fabrications like pain, like sickness. The body wasn’t real. He knew it wasn’t. It was an illusion. Still, his insides wanted to go somewhere. And yet there were no insides, that was the point. Or there were, in some sense, but not really. He wasn’t sure. The Bayer bottle lay sideways on the floor. What could it do for him? Nothing. But maybe. What if it did do something, like fix his mental error? And why was it error? If all things God created were good, then didn’t that mean having a body was good too and, in a way, real because of its goodness? Nausea struck him full on now. He draped his arms over the sides of the toilet and heaved into the bowl, the vomit falling uncontrolled. In the throes he couldn’t tell whether he pushed or if it all happened of its own accord, his stomach tensing and releasing in an impulsive way that didn’t seem to be his and yet also seemed not entirely not his. Hard-to-trace thoughts like this exacerbated the sick in his stomach, his mind feeding the body’s revolt. No more. He would have to stop. Right now. Now. There. He came to, so to speak, clutching either side of the toilet’s rim. He squeezed the porcelain hard until his fingers ached. The blood behind his face pushed against the skin’s underside. The bathroom went hot. His arms shook with the effort, keeping down the bile as his brain ached until finally he couldn’t hold it any longer and, thrusting his head forward, he yelled with the discharge.
Mr. Ambrose stood. “Did you hear that?” he asked. He went into the hallway. “It’s William,” he said, angling his ear toward the end of the hall.
Dawn watched the train set, waiting for the blue officer to pop out and, she hoped, obscure William’s moan with the snap and creak of its mechanics. She needed to tell the Ambroses what she’d done, and she needed to do it now. But intelligently, too. Tactfully. Because her mother would not arrive for a long time yet to pick her up, and Dawn could just hear the scolding she’d receive in the car should the Ambroses declare her no longer welcome in their home. She was afraid they’d think her violent and impulsive.
“Mr. Ambrose,” she began. “Mrs. Ambrose.” There was a thud from the bathroom. William’s father went quickly to the end of the hall. Dawn looked at Mrs. Ambrose, who had gotten to her feet and gone to the mouth of the hallway, peering after her husband. He was at the door, tapping quietly and asking his son if everything was alright. No response. Mr. Ambrose used his knuckle to rap a little harder, a little louder.
The light in the ceiling fan smudged from yellow to amber, amber to brown…purple…green. William felt the floor, hard under his back. The first time he’d hit his head hadn’t felt like this. Nothing had ever felt like this. Well, it wasn’t about feeling anyway . . . no, that was mental error.
When he was sick the year before, his parents had called it his Big Pre-Adolescent Metaphysical Crisis because he’d thrown up four out of seven days and couldn’t leave bed. The Practitioner had come and William told him that everything felt slipped away or like it was slipping away or perhaps like it had slipped through him. He was weak. The man wore a neat suit pierced on the lapel by a Standard Oil pin, and the pages of his Science & Health were blue with chalk. “Adhesion, cohesion, and attraction are properties of Mind,” he’d told William. Then he recited the 91st Psalm followed by the 23rd.
Now, the bathroom light did nothing other than slide through the color spectrum. Adhesion a property of Mind. William heard a voice beyond the cusp of something and he couldn’t place it. Cohesion a property of Mind. Soon he recognized his father’s baritone and his mother’s alto and, finally, a pure soprano, sweet and foreign to his ear. Attraction a property of Mind. Dawn Ellis. She’d stick-slapped his skates. That was okay. He himself had stick-slapped Carrie that very morning. Anyway, he liked Dawn, though he was afraid of her because she represented something rougher than was acceptable. She’d said “hell” once while they waited for the school bus—it had been William’s birthday—and he still remembered the cold suburban morning at the end of their cul-de-sac, how the bus had been late and Dawn had asked him if he’d ever kissed a girl, and when he didn’t answer she spat into a dirty snow bank and uttered the cuss. Which birthday was that? Thirteenth? But he was twelve. So then it was his eleventh. That didn’t seem right. Was he really twelve? Was his father angry? Was he in trouble? What was it he had done? He would demand a fair trial. Due process. Innocent until proven in-innocent, or un-innocent, or—well, he couldn’t think of it now. The point was, he felt guilty. Ah. Guilty. He rolled over and his head lolled, three times its normal size.
Dawn touched Mrs. Ambrose’s elbow and said her name, but the kind woman wasn’t paying attention. Normally William’s mother was approachable, an unforced smile always on her face, but now she seemed cold and distant and worried, her hand placed on the corner of the wall, her head poking into the hallway from the living room. By the stillness of Mrs. Ambrose’s elbow, it was obvious she was holding her breath.
Mr. Ambrose jiggled the knob. “William, are you alright?” he called.
Dawn said Mrs. Ambrose’s name louder, giving her elbow a light squeeze.
The Christmas tree shed a strand of silvery tinsel that twirled acrobatically in descent. Nobody watched. It settled lightly across the miniature rails.
“I’m getting my tools,” declared Mr. Ambrose after a final and futile manipulation of the bathroom’s knob. He walked past his wife, who remained next to Dawn in the mouth of the hallway. They both peered at the shut door.
“Mrs. Ambrose,” Dawn said. “William fell.”
The ice-like lametta made contact with the electrified third rail. He was on the floor in the bathroom, but perhaps still felt the spark—a sweet numb-tongued kiss and subsequent short circuit. Something like God’s cool breath. The flowing current felt holy and scientific, and then the caboose’s inner light turned off and the train went motionless on the tracks.
Carrie had watched it happen. Dawn brought the stick through the air and for a moment—one thrilling, terrible moment—she held it parallel to the ice and glided toward the unsuspecting boy. A child’s shriek sounded into the dry fluff of the pond’s encircling snow bank, which Carrie and William had shoveled after the last storm; they’d slipped and sometimes hit their faces against the shovel handle, all their labor for a day like this, crisp January with panting breath in the air, eight ill-fitted hockey sticks careening to and fro across the lumpy ice. From her position between two abandoned hats—goalposts—she watched the older girl drive toward her brother, ready to dole the slap shot. The truth was that Carrie had no soft spot for Dawn Ellis, who’d told her once in the back of the bus about how she’d soon need her mother to buy tampons from the pharmacy.
“We don’t use the pharmacy,” Carrie had said.
“You will,” Dawn replied lackadaisically, casting her gaze out the window. “When it comes.”
Dawn was cruel like that. And a boldfaced liar. But Carrie couldn’t fact-check this otherworldly girl who wore product in her hair and a rose-pink wool peacoat spritzed by floral perfume. Argument was impossible.
Carrie was exempt from health class, forbidden from taking biology. What went on in there? She was ten. When was it coming? She didn’t know and so decided after that conversation to set herself diligently to the practice of metaphysical work. Lessons, psalms, the Lord’s prayer. Trouble was, she was the family’s naughty one, the one who couldn’t sit still during silent prayer, who couldn’t force herself to do her daily readings because her father invariably seemed to demand obedience to the Lord right as The Jetsons hit the first commercial break—she’d be stomach-down on the carpet in the den and suddenly the tv would go silent. She’d raise her eyes and her father would be there with his hand on the volume knob, eyebrows arched as he looked down at her. Had she done her readings? Never. But now she’d resolved to turn over a new leaf. She would do her lessons unprompted. And in this way she would achieve spiritual balance. As for the dreadful moment of which Dawn spoke, well, Carrie had decided once and for all that it would not happen to her. She’d fight it off with sheer willpower and devotion to the practice.
And it was this conviction she remembered as she watched Dawn’s unconscionable backswing, the stick cocked six inches too far. She closed her eyes.
Daniel Ambrose stepped over the motor oil stain—bane of his existence—and crouched beneath the lip of his workbench. He saw the soldering kit, the vice clamps, the stack of National Geographics in the back. He looked for the red handle of his toolbox and, without warning, his mind delivered him the vivid image of his boy prostrate on the floor. He wouldn’t think that way. He couldn’t think that way. Yes, that way lay madness and irrationality. Claire would be a mess. She’d want an ambulance. Out of the question, of course—it was unnecessary and unhelpful; superfluous. That was a good way of putting it. Superfluous. But Claire liked extra measures, was weak when it came to the children. During William’s Metaphysical Crisis she’d twice suggested they call a doctor, just to see.
“See what?” Daniel had asked. But in truth he’d understood, or at least could follow the scared logic of her parental impulse.
Now he found the red handle. As he brought it out, the box opened and spilled its contents over the concrete floor, nuts and bolts and screws and grommets and washers and seals and a machine file and his father’s dog tags from the Great War and his handle-worn hammer, which bluntly crushed his toe on its way to the ground.
“Christ—” he yelled, “—mastime is a happy time!” Well. He couldn’t lose hold, not right now, when Claire was surely inside gripping her own hands and worrying over their only son. Not when William was unresponsive in the bathroom. Reified faith, that’s what the moment called for. And so as he stooped to his knee to retrieve the hammer and the file, he went through the words in his head, pausing with his fingers wrapped around the red handle, the motor oil stain beneath his kneecap seeping through the fabric of his pants: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . . He stood with the two tools and left the rest scattered about the floor.
It was too quiet. Where had the train noise gone? Dawn turned from Mrs. Ambrose and saw the stationary caboose, the newly unlit tree, and, beyond it all, a worried Mr. Ambrose stalking through the kitchen and dining room, tools held in one hand, a dark spot on the kneecap of his pleats.
Mrs. Ambrose jumped at the wood-snap sound. Again her husband slammed the file, now wedged between the knob and door.
“Honey?” Mrs. Ambrose called to William, putting her head near the knob as if the newly opened millimeter of space would amplify her voice, would wake her child.
“Claire,” Mr. Ambrose muttered. “Watch out.”
He struck the file.
Dawn wanted to cry. She was still wearing her peacoat. Her hands seemed to buzz with the physical memory of the stick-slap.
“I’m sorry,” she said, standing just behind William’s parents, who said nothing. “I’m sorry,” she said with a little more force.
Mr. Ambrose went on hammering. Mrs. Ambrose pressed both hands flat against the door and jumped involuntarily with the vibrations of each hit.
“I’m really sorry.”
Carrie appeared in the open back door, her voice coming down the hall: “It was her—she did it,” Carrie said, pointing at Dawn.
Doorknob on the floor, there William lay in the circle. Daniel looked through the hole and saw his son splayed on the bath mat, illumined by the oily light of the bathroom fan.
She was calling an ambulance, Mrs. Ambrose declared. At first Daniel said nothing. He shouldered the door hard. It didn’t give. Synchronized, the two parents called out their son’s name. Claire put her mouth to the doorknob hole.
“William,” she shrieked.
“We’ll pray,” Daniel said.
“William,” Claire yelled again.
It was not that she didn’t believe. It was not. She believed. She did. But sometimes she couldn’t see (she’d converted for Daniel) why they wouldn’t ensure their faith, take it one extra measure—not that they had to believe in medicine, but couldn’t they pray just as well at the side of a hospital bed? She ran to the kitchen phone. She heard Daniel’s prayer coming down the hall—he said it aloud while working the file into the recess of the bolt latch to jimmy it open. Would it be unwise to call an ambulance? Dangerous, even, like a spiritual counterweight? She didn’t know. Phone in hand, dial tone humming in her ear, she stared at her little girl who still stood in the doorway with puffy cheeks flushed by cold and bright glazed eyes, with two blond braids—which Claire had constructed that morning—falling out of order. “Carrie,” she said. She held the phone out to her daughter. Then she was leaning against the wall, face pressed to the paper, eyes closed; To mortal sense Science seems at first obscure, abstract, and dark; but a bright promise crowns its brow, but a bright promise crowns its brow, but a bright promise crowns its brow . . .
Carrie called the Practitioner.
All eyes closed except his own, William surveyed the scene from a remove: the speckled light of the living room, his parents’ furrowed brows, their lips silent but fretful with small movements, Dawn Ellis leaking tears into her mother’s chest, Ms. Ellis herself pressing her lips and nose to her daughter’s head and whispering consolations, the Standard Oil Practitioner reading out the words, Carrie in the background on her knees by the train set, the lametta strand pinched between two fingers, the train winding slowly to motion.
William tried to lift his arm. He winced, his elbow purple and blue with a bruise. He let it rest on the bed. His favorite feature of the train set—the officer—popped out of his hut. He saw the salute, the tiny Bakelite figure formed forever in a single celebratory stance. The Practitioner went on with the words, voice accompanied by the train’s flinty sound. William’s mother twisted her hands tight, tighter, her fingers going colorless. William watched her fumble like this as she tried to keep pace with the Practitioner’s words until finally, with great rapidity, she lifted her head, opened her eyes, and looked down at him: son and mother, mother and son, gazed confusedly at one another. Then, a sudden all-consuming agony swelled in his arm, in his neck, behind his forehead. And he knew, knew with his whole spirit and soul, he’d awoken with a body.