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He repeated what he had told us almost a decade ago: "Might as well die if I can't fly."

"The crazy story he told you about the night of your birth, the assassin nurse and the doctor bribed by Virgilio to kill your mother-that was all a grotesque lie," I told him.

Punchinello smiled through his tears and shook his head. "I sorta suspected it might be."

This admission chilled me. "You sorta suspected it might be? But you still came back to Snow Village to kill a bunch of people and blow things up?"

He shrugged. "It was something to do. The hatred was something to hold on to. I didn't have anything else."

Something to do. It's a slow Friday night, so let's blow up a town.

Instead of giving voice to that thought, I said, "You seem to have a facility for foreign languages. You could've become a teacher, a translator."

"All my life, I'd never been able to please the great Beezo. And there was no one else who wanted me to please them. Being a teacher wouldn't have impressed him. But taking extreme vengeance for my mother's death-I know that made him proud of me." An almost beatific smile overcame him. "I know my father loved me for that."

"Really?" I asked with scorn I could not entirely conceal. "You know he did? He never even sent you a Christmas card."

A little knife of sadness whittled at his smile. "I'll grant you he was never a good father. But I know he loved me for what I did."

Lorrie said, "I'm sure he did, Punch. I think you did what you had to do." With those words, she reminded me that we had come here to win him over, not to alienate him.

Her approval, insincere to my ear but genuine to his, restored Punchinello's faltering smile. "If things hadn't gone all wrong that night in Snow Village, you and I might have had a future together, instead of you and him."

"Boy, that's something to think about, isn't it?" she replied, and matched his smile.

"Syndactyly," I said again.

He blinked, and his witless smile morphed into puzzlement. "You never said how you knew about that."

"I wasn't born with hand problems, but I had three fused toes on my right foot, two on my left."

More appalled than astonished, he said, "What in God's name kind of rotten hospital was that?"

I marveled that he could seem sometimes so sane and sometimes so flat-out crazy, that he could be smart enough to earn a law degree and learn German but could say something as stupid as what he'd just said. "It had nothing to do with the hospital."

"I should have blown it up, too."

With a glance, I consulted Lorrie.

She took a deep breath and nodded.

To Punchinello, I said, "We both had fused digits because we're brothers. We're twins."

He favored me with a look of amazement, then gave some of it to Lorrie. Next came a slow crooked grin, a squint of amused suspicion. "Try that one with some dope who's never seen himself in a mirror."

"We don't look alike," I said, "because we're fraternal twins, not identical twins."

I didn't want to be his fraternal twin, not only because that made me the brother to a homicidal maniac, but also because I didn't want to put Konrad Beezo's picture in the family album and label it father. Natalie Vivacemente Beezo might have been beautiful beyond imagining, perfection of the flesh, but even she was not welcome in my family tree.

I have one father and one mother, Rudy and Maddy Tock. They-and only they-raised me to be the person I am, gave me the chance to become who I was meant to be. I was destined for baking, not for the big top. If their blood does not run in my veins, their enduring love does, for they have all my life given me transfusions of it.

Other possibilities-that Natalie might have lived, that even if she had died, I might have been raised by Konrad-did not bear contemplation.

Besides, those other possible lives all fall in the category of never-could-have-been. Think about it. Grandpa Josef-not my true grandfather-made predictions not about his real grandson, who was stillborn

that night, but about me, the infant that Rudy and Maddy would incorrectly believe was their own. Why would he have psychic visions of events in the life of a "grandson" to whom he wasn't in fact related?

I can only believe that some higher power, aware of the quirk of fate that was about to occur, used my grandfather not solely or perhaps not even primarily to warn me of five terrible days in my life, but also, and more important, to ensure that Rudy would believe with all of his heart that this infant with fused toes, who would grow up to have no resemblance to his parents, was the child that Maddy had carried for nine months. Grandpa Josef told Rudy that I would be born at 10:46 p.m." measure twenty inches in length, weigh eight pounds ten ounces, and have fused digits. By the time I was handed to him, wrapped in a delivery-room blanket, Dad already knew me and accepted me as the son that fulfilled his father's deathbed predictions.

Some guardian angel didn't want me to wind up in an orphanage or to be adopted into another family. He wanted me to take the place of Jimmy Tock, who had died on the way into the world.


Maybe God thought the world was short one good pastry chef.

Maybe He thought Rudy and Maddy deserved a child to raise with the love, the sweetness, and the selflessness that they lavished upon me.

The only full and true answer lies in mysteries so deep that I will never plumb them-unless they're revealed to me after my own death.

One thing I said is wrong. Jimmy Tock did not die on his way into the world: a nameless infant perished. I am the only Jimmy Tock, the only one who was meant to be, son of Rudy and Maddy regardless of the loins I sprang from. I was destined for pastries and for Lorrie Lynn Hicks and for Annie-Lucy-Andy, destined for more that I do not yet know, and every day of my life I fulfill the plan even if I cannot comprehend it.

I am profoundly grateful. And humble. And sometimes afraid.

In 1779, a poet named William Cowper wrote: God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.

Way to go, Bill.

From behind his slow crooked grin and his squint of amused suspicion, Punchinello said, "Tell me about it."

"We've brought along someone who might be more convincing," Lorrie said.

I went to the door, opened it, leaned into the corridor, and asked Charlene Coleman, the earthly instrument of my guardian angel, to join us at the table.

Sharl ene Coleman, maternity ward nurse on the knight that I was born and still on the job at fifty-nine, has not entirely lost her Mississippi accent after all these years in Colorado. She's as sweet-faced now as she was then, and certainly as black.

She has gained some weight, which she attributes to years of free pastries from my father. But as she says, if you want to get to Heaven, you've first got to get through life, and you need some padding for all the hard knocks along the way.

Few women have more presence than Charlene. She is awesomely competent without being smug. She is determined without being bossy, morally certain without being judgmental. She likes herself but is not full of herself.

At the table, Charlene sat between me and Lorrie, directly across from Punchinello.

She said to him, "You were a red-faced, pinch-faced, fussy little bun

die, but you turned out the kind of handsome that breaks hearts without trying."

To my surprise, a blush brought color to his prison pallor.

Punchinello seemed pleased by the compliment, but he said, "Not that it's done me any good."

"Little lamb, never question the gifts God gave you. If we don't make anything of our gifts, that's our fault, not His." She studied him a moment. "What I think is you never really knew you were a good-looking boy. You don't quite believe it even now."

He stared at the hand that had once been cursed with syndactyly. He spread the fingers, worked them independently of one another, as though they had been separated only yesterday, as though he were still learning how to use them.

"Your mama was beautiful, too," said Charlene, "and as sweet as a child, but fragile."

Looking up from his hand, he returned by long habit to the mad fantasy that his father had concocted: "She was murdered by the doctor because-"

"None of that," Charlene interrupted. "You know crazy when you hear it, as sure as I do. When you pretend to believe things that aren't true, just because it's easier than dealing with the facts, you turn your whole life into a lie. And where's that get you?"

"Here," he acknowledged.

"When I say your mama was fragile, I don't mean just because she died giving birth, which she did, though the good doctor tried everything to save her. Her spirit was fragile, too. Someone seemed to have broken it. She was a frightened little thing, afraid of more than just childbirth. She grabbed my hand and didn't want to let go, wanted to tell me things, I think, but was scared to hear herself say the words."

I sensed that if Punchinello had not been chained to the table and that if the posted rules of conduct had permitted it, he would have

reached out to Charlene, as his mother had done. He stared at her, transfixed. His countenance was a pool of sorrow, with drowned hopes in his eyes, and on the surface floated a childlike longing.

"Though your mama died," Charlene continued, "she gave birth to healthy twins. You were the smaller. Jimmy was the bigger."

I studied him as he gazed at Charlene, and thought how different my life would have been if she had scooped him up to save him instead of scooping me.

The possibility of our lives exchanged, his for mine, should have made it easier for me to see him as my brother, but I could not get my heart around him. He remained a stranger to me.

"Maddy Tock," Charlene told Punchinello, "had difficult labor, too, but it turned out opposite from what happened to your mother. Maddy lived, and her baby died. Her final contraction was so painful she passed out-and never knew her child was stillborn. I took the precious little bundle and put him in a bassinet in the creche, so she wouldn't see his tiny body when she woke ... and wouldn't have to see him at all if she decided not to."

Curiously, when I thought of that stillborn infant, I mourned him as a lost brother, as I could never mourn Punchinello.

Lorrie said, "Then Dr. MacDonald went to the expectant-father's lounge to console Konrad Beezo for the loss of his wife, Rudy Tock for the loss of his child."

"We were shorthanded that night," Charlene recalled. "A mean virus had been making the rounds, people were out sick. Lois Hanson was the only delivery nurse available besides me. When we heard Konrad Beezo shouting at the doctor, so bitter, accusing, and such shameful profanity, we both thought of the twins, but for different reasons. Lois, she figured the sight of his babies would calm Konrad, but I'd come off a marriage to a cruel man, and I knew I heard the same violence in this one, rage that can't be put out by kindness, that could only burn itself

out in fury. My only thought was to get the babies safe. Lois took you down the hall toward the lounge and got herself shot to death, but I went the other way with Jimmy here, and hid out."

I had worried that in spite of the revelation that we had both been born with syndactyly, Punchinello would receive Charlene's story with skepticism if he didn't reject it outright. Instead, he appeared not merely to believe it but to be enraptured by her account.

Perhaps he warmed to the romantic notion that he had much in common with the betrayed title character in Alexandre Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask, that he was the equivalent of a heroic peasant while I, his twin, had ascended to the throne of France.

"When I discovered that sweet man, our lovely Dr. MacDonald, had been murdered, and Lois Hanson, too," Charlene continued, "I realized I was the only living soul who knew Maddy's baby was born dead and Natalie Beezo had given birth to twin boys. If I did nothing, Maddy and Rudy would have a tragedy at the center of their lives, an awful thing to get around. And the baby I saved would be put at the mercy of the state, sent to an orphanage or foster homes ... or maybe claimed by relatives of Konrad Beezo every bit as crazy as he was. And all his life people would point and say, That's the son of the murderer. I knew what good honest people Rudy and Maddy were, and I knew the love they would shower on their boy, so I did what I did, and Lord Jesus forgive me if He thinks I played God."

After closing his eyes and absorbing the nurse's tale in silence for a half minute or so, Punchinello turned his attention to me. "So what happened to the real you?"

I didn't at once understand what he meant. Then I realized that "the real you" was Mom and Dad's lost infant.

"Charlene had a huge straw purse," I said. "She wrapped the dead baby in a soft white cloth that night, put him in the straw bag, and took him from the hospital to her minister."

"I'm Baptist born and raised," Charlene told Punchinello, "one of

the joyful denominations. I'm a Sunday-go-to-meetin' girl dresses better for church than for Saturday night, from a family likes to praise the Lord in gospel songs. If my preacher had told me I'd done a wrongful thing, I would have undone it, I suppose. But if he had his doubts, compassion swamped his judgment. Our church has its own graveyard, so my preacher and me, we found a pretty corner there for Maddy's baby. Buried him with prayer, just the two of us, and about a year later, I bought a little headstone. When the spirit moves me, I go there with flowers, tell him what an admirable life Jimmy here is living in his place, how proud he'd be of the fine brother Jimmy has become to him."

I had been to the cemetery with my mom and dad, and had seen the headstone, a simple two-inch-thick rectangle of granite. Carved in it are these words: here lies baby t. god loved him so much he called him


Maybe it's our free will misdirected or just a shameful pride, but we live our lives with the conviction that we stand at the center of the drama. Moments rarely come that put us outside ourselves, that divorce us from our egos and force us to see the larger picture, to recognize that the drama is in fact a tapestry and that each of us is but a thread in the vivid weave, yet each thread essential to the integrity of the cloth.

When I stood before that headstone, such a moment took me like a swelling tide, lifted me, turned me, and brought me back to shore with greater respect for the un mappable intricacy of life, with more humility in the face of mysteries unresolvable.

Bitter cold compressed the snow from flakes to 'granules that clicked against the prison windows as if the ghosts of the inmates' victims haunted the day and tapped for their attention.