Chapter 32


"We believed," Kathleen said. "In miracles."

"But it was a lie. It was always a lie."

"No." Kathleen shook her white-crowned head. "It was an illusion, and there's a difference. What the Bright Girl could do-what she was-became what people wanted to believe. If there is no hope, what reason is there to live? A world without miracles ... well, that would be a world I wouldn't care to live in."

"What miracles?" Arden asked, a little anger creeping in.

"I don't see any miracles around here!"

Kathleen leaned forward, wincing with the effort. Her cheeks and forehead had become blushed with anger, too; she was a scrapper. She said three short, clipped words: "Open. Your. Eyes."

Arden blinked, surprised by the strength in the old woman's voice.

"No, you can't get your birthmark healed here! Just like I couldn't get my arthritis healed, or Juliet Garrick couldn't get her short leg lengthened! that's junk! But what's not junk"-a breath, a breath, a breath-"not junk is the fact that I can walk through those wards. Through those wards, hobbling on my walker. I can walk through them and people who are dying sit up they sit up in their beds and they smile to see me and for"-a gasp-"for a few minutes they have an escape.

They smile and laugh as if they've touched the sun. For a few precious, precious minutes. And children with cancer, and tuberculosis, and AIDS, they come out of their darkness to reach for my hand, and they hold on to me.

On to me like I am somebody, and they don't mind my ugly fingers.

They don't see that Kathleen McKay of Evansville, Indiana, is old and crippled!" Her eyes were fierce behind the glasses. "No, they hold on to the Bright Girl."

She paused, getting her breath again. "I don't lie to them," she said after a moment or two. "I don't tell them they can beat their sicknesses, if Dr. Felicien or Dr. Walcott don't say so first. But I have tried-I have tried-to make them understand the miracle the way I and Sister Caroline see it. That flesh is going to die, yes. It's going to leave this world, and that's the way life is. But I believe in the miracle that though flesh dies, the spirit does not. It goes on, just like the Bright Girl goes on. Though the women who wear that title wither and pass away, the Bright Girl does not. She lives on and on, tending to her patients and her hospital. Walking the wards.

Holding the hands. She lives on. So don't you dare sit there with your eyes closed and not look at what God is offering to you!"

Arden's mouth slowly opened. "To . . . me?"

"Yes, you! The hospital would survive without a Bright Girl-I guess it would, I don't know-but it would be. Be terribly changed.

All the Bright Girls over the many years have held this place together.

And it's not been easy, I'll tell you! Storms have torn the hospital half to pieces, there've been money problems, equipment problems, troubles keeping the. The old buildings from falling apart. It's far from perfect. If there wasn't a Bright Girl to solicit contributions, or fight the oil companies who want to start drilling. Drilling right offshore here and ruin our island. Keep our patients awake all night long, where would we be?"

She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the pillow.

"I don't know. I do know ... I don't want to be the last one. No. I won't be the one who breaks the chain." She sighed, and was silent with her thoughts. When she spoke again, her voice was low and quiet.

"The Bright Girl can't be any damn pushover. She's got to be a fighter, and she's got to do the hard work as best she can. Most of all"-Kathleen's eyes opened-"she can't be afraid to take responsibility."

Arden sat very still, her hands gripping the drawstring bag.

"Maybe you're not the one. I don't know. Damn, I'm tired. Those sisters over there, praying and praying at the chapel. I told them. I said if she's coming, she'll be here. But maybe you're not the one."

Arden didn't know what to say. She stood up from her chair, but she didn't know where to go, either.

"If you stayed," Kathleen said, "if you did what had to be done.

. . I could promise you no one here would even see that birthmark. It would be gone. They'd see only the face behind it."

Arden stood in a spill of light, caught between what was and what could be.

"Go on, then." Kathleen's voice was weary. "There's a radio at the hospital. The ferry can get here from Grand Isle in half an hour.

I know the man who owns the marina. He can find a ride out for you, take you up Highway One to Golden Meadow. Catch the bus from there.

Do you have money?"

"No."

"Pearly!" Kathleen called. "Pearly!" There was no response.

"If he's not outside, he's probably walked along the path to the barn.

Go over there and tell him I said to give you fifty dollars and call the marina for you."

"The barn?" Arden's heart was pounding again. "What's ' 'in the barn?"

"Horses, of course! Those things have always scared the skin off me, but Pearly loves them. I told him, when one of them kicks him in the head one day, he won't spend so much time over there."

"Horses," Arden whispered, and at last she smiled.

"Yes, horses. Avrietta Colbert's husband was a rancher.

They were bringing horses back from South America on their ship.

Some of the horses swam here, those started the herd. We raise and sell them, to make money for the hospital." Kathleen frovmed. "What's wrong?"

Arden's eyes had filled with tears. She couldn't speak, her throat had clutched up. Then she got it out: "Nothing's wrong. I think ... I think everything's right."

She was crying now, and she was half blind. But she realized at that moment that never before had she seen so much, or so clearly.

He was sitting in a chair on the upper porch, the blue shadows of twilight gathering on the emerald lawn. A crutch leaned against the railing beside him. He was watching the sun slide toward the Gulf, and he was thinking about what had happened an hour ago.

The ferryboat had come from Grand Isle. He'd been sitting right there, watching. Two men and Sister Caroline had left the hospital, walking down the path to the pier. One of the men was bald and fat, but he walked with his shoulders back as if he'd found something to be proud of about himself The other man, tall and slim and wearing a dark suit and a new pair of black wingtips someone on the staff had brought him yesterday from the mainland, had stopped short of getting aboard the ferry and had looked back.

Dan had stared at Flint Murtaugh, across the distance.

Nothing had remained to be said. They'd still been cautious around each other during the last three days, both of them knowing how much he was worth as a wanted fugitive. Dan figured the idea of all that money still chewed at Murtaugh, but the fact that Dan had gone after them when he could have cut and run was worth much, much more.

Then Murtaugh had turned away and stepped onto the ferryboat.

Sister Caroline had waved to them as the boat's lines were cast off.

Dan had watched the boat get smaller and smaller as it carried Eisley and Murtaugh onward to the rest of their lives. He wished them well.

"Hey, al'dinosaur, you. Mind if I plop?"

"Go ahead."

Train had walked out onto the porch. He drew a wicker chair up beside Dan and eased himself into it. He was still wearing a green hospital gown, much to his displeasure. His bullet wound-a grazed gash and a broken rib-was healing, but Dr. Walcott had insisted he stay for a while. It had been two days since Dan had seen Arden, whom he'd caught a glimpse of from the window beside his bed, walking around the grounds with Sister Caroline. Arden hadn't been at lunch in the hospital's small cafeteria, either. So something was definitely going on, and he didn't know if she'd found her Bright Girl or not. One thing was for sure: she still wore her birthmark.

"How the leg feel?"

"It's getting' along. Dr. Felicien says I almost snapped my ankle."

"Hell, you coulda done worse, ay?"

"That's right." Dan had to laugh, though he would see Gault's mottled face in his nightmares for a long time to come.

"Yeah. You done good, leatherneck. I won't never say no more bad tings 'bout marines."

"I didn't know you ever said anything bad about marines."

"Well," Train said, "I was getting' to it."

Dan folded his hands across his chest and watched the waves rolling in and out. When the breeze blew past, he saw some paint flake off the sun-warped railing. This was a peaceful place, and its quiet soothed his soul. There were no televisions, but there was a small library down on the first floor. He felt rested and renewed, though he couldn't help but notice there was a lot of carpentry work needed on the aging structure. "How loug have you known about this place?"

"Years and years. I bring 'em cat and turtle. Who you tink carted the goats here from Goat Island?"

"Did you tell 'em about me?" he had to ask.

"Sure I did!" Train said. "I told 'em you was a fine al' fella."

Dan turned his head and looked into Train's face.

"Ain't it true?" Train asked.

"I'm still a wanted killer. They're still lookin' for me."

"I know two men who ain't. They just got on the boat and gone."

Dan leaned forward and rested his chin on his hands. "I don't know what to do, Train. I don't know where to go."

"I could put you up for a while."

"In that houseboat? You need space just like I do. That wouldn't work."

"Maybe no." Both of them watched a freighter in the shimmering distance. It was heading south. Train said, "The steamers and workboats, they come in, unload, and load again at Port Sulphur. Ain't too very far ways from here. Some of them boats lookin' for crew. You up to workin'?"

"I think I could handle some jobs, if they weren't too tough."

"I tink you could, too. Maybe you take some time, decide for y'self Couple a' day, I'm goin' back home. Maybe you stick 'round here week, two week, we gonna go do us some fishin', little dinosaur-talkin', ay?"

"Yeah," Dan said, and he smiled again. "That'd be great."

"I take you to a lake, fulla cat-huuuuwheeee!-big like you never did saw!"

.'Dan?"

They looked to their left, toward the voice. Arden had come out on the porch. Her wavy blond hair shone in the late sunlight, and she was wearing a clean pair of khakis and a green-striped blouse. "Can I talk to you for a few minutes?

Alone?"

"Oh, well, I gotta shake a tail feather anyhow." Train stood up.

"I'll talk at you later, bon ami. " "See you, Train," Dan said, and the Cajun walked back through a slatted door into the hospital. Arden took his chair. "What've you been up to?" Dan asked her. He saw she no longer carried her pink drawstring bag. "I haven't seen you for a while."

"I've been busy," she said. "Are you okay?"

"I believe I am."

She nodded. "ll's a beautiful place, don't you think? A beautiful island. Of course ... that's not sayin' it doesn't need work." She reached out to the railing and picked off some of the cracking paint. "Look there. The wood underneath that doesn't look too good either, does it?"

"No. That whole railin' oughta be replaced. I don't know who's in chargd of the maintenance around here, but they're slippin'.

Well"-he shrugged-"they're all old buildin's, I guess they're doin' the best they can."

"They could do better," Arden said, looking into his eyes.

He had to bring this up. Maybe he'd regret it, but he had to.

"Tell me," he said, "did you ever find out who the Bright Girl is?"

"Yes," she answered, "I sure did."

Arden began to tell him the whole story. Dan listened, and as he listened he could not help but think back to his meeting with the Reverend Gwinn, and the man giving him the gift of time and saying God can take a man along many roads and through many mansions. It's not where you are that's important, it's where you're goin' that counts.

Hear what I'm sayin?

Dan thought he did. At lut, he thought he did.

It occurred to him, as Arden told him her intention to stay on the island, that Jupiter had been right. He had a lot to think about in the time ahead, but it seemed that he had indeed been the man God had sent to take Arden to the Bright Girl. Maybe this whole thing had been about her and this hospital from the beginning, and he and Blanchard, Eisley and Murtaugh, Train and the drug runners, and all the rest of it had been cogs in a machine designed to draw Arden to this island for the work that had to be done.

Maybe. He could never know for sure. But she had found her Bright Girl and her purpose, and it seemed also that he had found his own refuge if he wanted it.

He could never go back. He didn't want to. There was nothing behind him now. There was only tomorrow and the day after that, and he would deal with them when they came.

Dan reached out and took Arden's hand.

Out in the distance, on the shining blue Gulf, there was a sailboat moving toward the [email protected] horizon. Its white sails filled with the winds of freedom, and it ventured off for a port unknown.

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