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All Together Now

Through the screen door Casey saw them like shadows that moved tentatively, mysteriously, catching light on her grandmother's porch. Their voices came to her in whispers as she leaned against the jamb, her head bent to the screen as if she believed she must hear a secret word of invitation if she were to open the door and disrupt their contemplations, cause shifting bodies and cleared throats to greet her. She didn't see a place for herself out there.

An aching kind of loneliness enveloped her. She looked up, wanting to recognize these shadowy forms that she knew held such a tenacious grip on her twelfth summer. Taylor and his girl friend on the swing, cuddling in the dark with their heads together and Taylor's finger tracing a soft line on Gwen's shivering arm. Pansy, sitting still and prim in her rocker, reasoning with herself that tonight when Hazard walked her home, everything would be different. Hazard slouching, his legs extended so that his feet rested on the porch rail, clicking his fingers on the arm rests, hoping someone would break the silence and fill the night with idle conversation to relieve him of that burden. And her grandfather, drowsy with a full stomach and his pipe, half listening for sounds from the kitchen, always wanting to know that Jane was about and taking care of things.

Casey ran her hand down the door frame until she reached the cool metal latch and pushed gently against it.

"That you, Jane?" Ben asked in the darkness.

"It's me, Grandpa."


She heard him sighing and knew the sigh was not one of disappointment but of contentment.

"We're glad you're here, Casey," her grandfather said.

And Casey gave the screen one determined shove and went out.

The days seemed endless, but for Jane Flanagan it was the nights, the sheer hot panic that came when no one was awake but her, which brought the most relentless terror. She would sit there beside the bed, listening to the breathing, hearing it closer than her own, and would think through the crucial days of her life, reacquainting herself with old griefs, remembering survivals and losses.

Illnesses spread themselves before her like languishing demons. Deaths draped their heavy shrouds around the dark room. Sometimes she cried. Just sitting there, her hand resting close to her grandchild's limp fingers -- just in case -- she would let the tears held back all that day come, spilling down her cold, determined cheeks. Nothing had prpared her for this. . .

For two days and nights she'd waited, doubting the possibility of a break in the fever, although Dr. Kemble came confidently morning and evening, telling her how the limbs were no worse, how the effectiveness of the alcohol rubs against the fever was a good sign, how Casey would not die. Jane didn't believe him. As much as she wanted Casey to live, as surely as she knew she would change places if she could, she felt somehow resigned.

It was as if knowing she herself could not make Casey live meant the child was doomed. Everything had rested in her hands for so long. Every comfort, every need of her family had been hers to offer, her sustaining gift to those she loved, until she couldn't believe they could succeed outside her will, outside her determined pursuit of their happiness.

Now everything was out of control. All those little things, like the small domestic taskes she'd always relished, had gone haywire; bigger things had, too, like Dwayne Pickens knowing Casey was a girl. She hadn't expected that to happen, not this late in the summer when Casey had put such effort into keeping her secret. Jane had even helped her by going to Dora Pickens that first day and explaining the circumstances of her granddaughter's lie, justifying a deed she had never expected to find justifiable.

But now he knew because he had been sitting on the front porch that first evening, waiting with the rest of them to hear how Casey was. He had been on the stoop, his back to them, when the doctor came out and stood in the patch of hall light on the porch like he intended to give a recitation.

"She's just the same," was all he'd said. "She's a sick little girl, but I think we have good reason to believe she'll pull through."

So Dwayne heard, and because the doctor's news was no news at all, Jane had looked at Dwayne instead, had seen him rise off the stoop like some threatened, angered monster, seen him flailing the air in the darkening front yard, his head back like a dog ready to howl at the moon, but silent, mute while his mind circled the truth. Casey was a girl. He loved a girl!