Matt and Irene’s daughter Lizzie was away at a slumber party – an Astronomers’ Party, she and her friends called it; they were going to stay up late and record in their Star Books all the planets and constellations they could identify, and any flying saucers that happened to be in the neighborhood. As far as Matt and Irene could tell, the sixth grade, under the eccentric guidance of their teacher Mrs. Kemnitzer, was spending one hundred percent of its time discussing the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the fact – so Mrs. Kemnitzer claimed – that President Eisenhower himself was a believer in life on other planets, though he wouldn’t come right out and admit it.
Or maybe it only seemed that way. Lizzie tended to be obsessive in her interests, and Mrs. Kemnitzer’s Star Book assignment had caught her attention in a way Matt and Irene hadn’t seen since she’d thrown herself body and soul into the study of ballet. It was possible that Mrs. Kemnitzer tossed a bit of social studies and math into the curriculum now and then, but if she did, there was no evidence of it.
The thought of Lizzie out doing something creative and adventurous made Matt feel restless. He was envious of his own daughter – when he was a child, the world’s imagination had not yet been captured by the notion of UFOs and life on other planets. He could only imagine the collective fear and excitement Lizzie and her friends were experiencing tonight, peering up at the night sky that teemed with so much life and possibility.
With Lizzie gone, the house was unnaturally quiet. Sitting across from Irene at dinner, Matt felt strangely off-kilter, and he suspected Irene did too, both of them searching for topics of conversation the way they’d done when they were first dating and still shy with each other. After dinner he tried to settle in with the evening paper, still feeling edgy, and saw in the movie listings that The Magnificent Seven had just opened at the Esquire Theatre. “That’s a movie I’d like to see sometime,” he’d said. Irene, after a pause, said, “Well, it doesn’t start for half an hour. We can make it if we go right now. We can leave the dishes till later.” He looked up from the paper, surprised. Irene was a planner; she never suggested doing things spontaneously. He couldn’t remember a single time in their entire marriage that she’d let the dishes go unwashed after dinner.
Irene didn’t especially like westerns, and he assumed she’d suggested the movie just to be nice, because she knew it was something he wanted to do. But during the movie, Matt cast sidelong glances at her, and each time she was watching with rapt attention, her eyes never leaving the screen. He didn’t catch her yawning, or looking at her watch, even once.
Afterwards, Irene took his hand as they walked out of the theater, and that was unusual too. She’d always been uncomfortable showing affection in public, even when they were first dating. “You know what would be fun?” she said. “To go to Wong’s. We didn’t have much for dinner. Fried rice sounds good, don’t you think? That barbecued pork with the hot mustard. Egg foo yung. I could eat an order of chop suey all by myself. Are you hungry?”
Irene had less interest in food than anyone Matt knew. Sometimes he thought that if she didn’t have him and Lizzie to cook for, she would forget to eat half the time.
The prospect of a late dinner out sounded fun, adventurous, something they never did. “Starved,” he said.
There was a big crowd, by their town’s standards, spilling out of the theatre. The movie really had been exciting, and, as everyone walked out together, the air sparkled with energy, a rare occurrence in McClary, where the liveliest thing that usually happened on a Friday night was bored teenagers dragging Main, blaring Elvis out of their car radios and making nuisances of themselves. But tonight it felt to Matt like he and Irene were on vacation in a big city, part of an after-Broadway-play throng.
The other movie-goers seemed to have the same idea as Irene – a late dinner, a drink at the Tam O’Shanter, an ice cream soda at the Corner Drug Store if it was still open. When Matt and Irene walked down Sixth Street toward Main, most of the crowd drifted along with them. Matt was relieved that there was no one in the crowd he and Irene knew, no pressure to stop and make conversation. It heightened the feeling of being in the midst of an after-theatre city crowd – bustling, comforting anonymity.
The night was surprisingly warm for late September, and Irene wore a soft white sweater with pearl buttons – no coat, as though she’d known it would be a warm night. Helping her on with it after the movie, Matt had been surprised by how soft the sweater was, like cashmere. Irene didn’t bother much about clothes, and he hadn’t known she owned such an elegant sweater. He couldn’t remember ever seeing it before.
The warmth of the night was a gift. “It feels like being on vacation, doesn’t it?” said Irene, echoing his thoughts as she often did. She squeezed his hand. “You know how when you’re on vacation, and you only have a few days, the weather is so important? Every day counts double because there are so few of them. And when you have a warm day, or a warm night like tonight, you feel lucky. Extra lucky.”
It was as if those words – extra lucky – triggered something in Irene. (But this he realized only later, thinking back after it was all over.) She wrenched her hand free from Matt’s and darted ahead through the crowd, dropping her handbag. That was how he knew something was truly wrong – Irene never let go of her handbag. He’d teased her about it, the way she always clutched it to her as though afraid of being robbed. She jostled people as she ran. “Hey,” someone said, sounding angry. And someone else said, “Watch where you’re going, lady!”
In an instant the mood in the air changed from celebratory to annoyed, and then to something else. Irene’s urgency spread through the crowd like smoke. Matt’s eyes were on the man who’d said, “Watch where you’re going, lady,” and when the man looked up, Matt looked up too. Just in time to see something fall from the sky.
* * *
The next day, Saturday, around five, Matt and Irene’s uphill neighbors Paul and Helen Brashler called within minutes of the evening paper’s arrival, as Matt could have predicted they would. “I can’t believe this!” Helen said. “You have to come up for drinks right this minute and tell us all about it.” Matt knew, from the familiar flirtatious-but-determined tone in Helen’s voice, that there was no point in resisting. Anyway, even if Helen hadn’t insisted, he would have said yes; Irene hadn’t wanted to talk about last night, but Matt thought it would be good for her to be forced to put her feelings into words.
Usually it was Paul’s picture in the McClary News Herald, or Helen’s. Paul was president of the Downtown Merchants’ Association, the Elks Club and a couple of lesser clubs, and he was a member of the City Council. He was also a pal of Chuck Teeters, the News Herald’s editor, and Chuck often called Paul when he needed a quote. Helen’s pretty face regularly graced what passed for the News Herald’s society page. Everyone said Helen looked just like Natalie Wood. Matt and Irene’s pictures had never appeared in the paper – Chuck Teeters was not interested in the doings or the opinions of a couple of underpaid social workers.
The newspaper was spread out on the Brashlers’ wet bar when Matt and Irene arrived. Irene’s picture was on the front page – though, with her face turned away from the camera, you wouldn’t know it was her without the caption. Matt was in the picture too, in the background, looking a little foolish holding Irene’s handbag; somehow amidst the chaos, he’d had the presence of mind to pick it up from the sidewalk.
Paul was already pouring their scotch and sodas. “Why so camera shy, Irene?” he asked as he set her drink before her with a bartender’s flourish. Paul liked making drinks for people; he often joked that if Brashler Furniture ever went bankrupt, he would apply for a job mixing drinks at the Tam O’Shanter. He could joke about such things; Brashler Furniture was so successful that Paul could, and did, buy a new car every year. He bought expensive presents for Helen, like diamond earrings and mink stoles.
“I didn’t want my picture taken,” said Irene, and touched her fingers to her forehead. “I told that reporter, but he did it anyway. Are they allowed to do that? To take your picture if you don’t want them to?”
Irene had spent the day in the garage, refinishing a table she’d bought for two dollars at a flea market. Matt had observed over the years that the furniture-refinishing was not so much a hobby for Irene as a retreat – she occasionally needed those hours of solitude in the garage, and tended to go there when she was upset or needed to think something through. Sitting next to her now at the Brashlers’ bar, Matt smelled an odd, rather tantalizing, combination of paint thinner and Ivory soap. She had a smudge of sky-blue paint on her cheek.
“‘Accidental Heroine,’” said Helen. “What a headline. It just makes me furious. It’s so like Chuck Teeters to be grudging. Why can’t he give credit where credit is due?”
“It was accidental,” said Irene, sounding irritated. “There was nothing heroic about it. It just happened. Anyone would have done the same thing.”
“No, they wouldn’t,” said Helen. Her voice was louder and more impassioned than usual; Matt wondered if she was on her second scotch. “I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read the article, and I think it’s a matter of who you are. At times like that, it’s a matter of who you are. Don’t you think so, Paul? Most people would react by flinching and ducking and trying to get out of the way. My first reaction would be that something was about to come crashing down on my head – a brick or a pane of glass. Self-preservation. That would be almost anyone’s first instinct.”
“Helen’s right,” said Paul. “I couldn’t have reacted the way you did, Irene. Incredible reflexes. Quick thinking. Not to mention the bravery.”
“Oh, I hate this, I hate it,” said Irene. “Can we please talk about something else?”
“And anyway,” Matt said, “it wasn’t like that.”
Everyone turned to him, curious, even Irene.
He felt slow-witted, only now putting everything together. How easy it was for things to get distorted, for stories to change and shift. Matt himself had been an eyewitness, and yet when Irene had said to the police officer who arrived so quickly on the scene, “It was just luck. I was in the right place at the right time,” Matt and everyone believed her. It had all happened so fast – time a jumble instead of a clear straight line – that Matt hadn’t trusted his own senses. And when Irene’s statement to the police was quoted in the newspaper, set in print, that was that.
“What I mean is,” Matt said slowly, “you are brave. I didn’t mean you weren’t. But it wasn’t a reaction. You didn’t react. You acted. You ran toward that building, Irene. Before the child ever fell. As if you knew what was going to happen.”
* * *
In her white sweater, alone, running ahead of the crowd, reaching up and out, Irene had looked like a ghost in the dark. There were gasps from the crowd, and shouting, though no one yet realized exactly what was happening.
Matt ran to her. He jostled people as she had jostled them, but now everyone drew aside to let him pass, as though he were someone official and important. He arrived in time to steady her. She leaned against Matt, regained her balance, stood straight, cradling the baby who’d just fallen from the sky.
Not quite a baby. A toddler, heavy in her arms, a little boy with black hair, staring up at her, stunned, and then, miraculously, laughing. Infectious, gleeful laughter, as though this were some wonderful game. Matt glanced up again and saw something in a second story window. A face, maybe, or maybe just the flutter of a curtain.
* * *
After Matt’s words, nobody said anything. Even Paul, never at a loss for something to say, was silent. Finally Helen, her eyes wide, said, “Maternal instinct. That’s what it had to be. I’m not a mother, so I can only imagine, but I’ll bet that’s what it was. You’re a mother, and you had some sort of heightened sensitivity. You felt something was going to happen to a child. A kind of ESP that only a mother would have.”
“I don’t believe in ESP,” Irene said, sounding annoyed. She put a hand to her cheek, then rubbed it. “Oh, lord,” she said, “do I still have paint on my face? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“We thought it was cute,” said Paul.
“It is cute,” said Helen.
Matt agreed. He had never quite gotten used to the fact that Irene spent so little time on her looks. She was a pretty woman, but Matt himself sometimes forgot that. It was possible that if Irene spent as much time on clothes and make-up as Helen did, and if she stood straight and proud instead of slouching, she would get noticed the way Helen did. Helen probably couldn’t imagine what it would be like to spend so little time looking in a mirror that you didn’t know you had paint on your face.
Irene glared at all three of them. “Honestly. I’m going to the bathroom to wash it off.”
“She is a heroine,” Helen said softly when Irene had stalked off. “She’s just being modest. I can tell she doesn’t want to talk about it, but that child would have died if she hadn’t been there. She did sense what was going to happen. I have always known there was something extraordinary about Irene. Right from the very beginning. Haven’t I always said that, Paul?”
Paul nodded, and Matt looked at them both in surprise. It had never occurred to him that the Brashlers spent any time talking about them. When he went out on their front porch with Lizzie after dinner to help her search for planets and UFOs to record in her Star Book, they sometimes looked up at the lights in the Brashlers’ showplace house above them, and listened to the splashing fountain in the Brashler’s reflection pool. It had never occurred to him that the Brashlers would have any interest in looking down on their bungalow, their sagging front porch, or that the Brashlers thought about them at all except as the downhill neighbors who could be counted on to feed the cat when they were away, or to come up when they were in the mood for an impromptu drinks-before-dinner party.
He wondered how the subject of Irene’s extraordinariness had come up.
* * *
What happened after Irene caught the child in her arms was a blur. Matt must have made his own statement to the police, though he couldn’t remember for the life of him what he’d said. The reporter had arrived on the scene, breathless, badgering everyone with questions. The frantic parents had shown up (Mr. and Mrs. Scott Chilcote, the paper said – a name that sounded vaguely familiar, but maybe not – McClary was such a small town that most names were vaguely familiar), and the child, Ryan, suddenly turned shy and scared, and buried his face in Irene’s neck, so that his own mother had to pry him away.
“A fifteen-year-old babysitter, the paper says,” said Paul. “They don’t give her name. Says she had no idea the window was open. Says she just looked away for a minute.”
“A minute’s all it takes,” said Helen. She clicked her little gold lighter and gazed into its flame for a moment before she lit her cigarette.
When Irene returned, her cheeks were scrubbed pink, but there was still the faint shadow of the blue paint smudge – she hadn’t been able to get it all off.
“All I know is,” said Paul, “I wouldn’t leave a child of mine with a fifteen-year-old.”
“Oh, Paul. That’s easy for you to say,” said Helen. “It’s easy to pass judgment when you don’t have any children. When I used to babysit, I’d sneak boyfriends over, play music, dance. I was so irresponsible. It’s frightening to think about it now. I’m lucky nothing like this ever happened to me. Purely lucky.”
“It’s true. Parents always take risks when they hire a babysitter,” said Irene. “Remember that grandmotherly woman we hired once when Lizzie was little, Matt? We thought she’d be so reliable, and then she fell asleep on the sofa with a lighted cigarette and almost burned the house down.” Irene stopped short, pursed her lips. “Oh, please,” she said, “let’s do talk about something else.”
“Look,” said Helen, pointing. “The weather’s changing.” She gave a little shiver, and her gold bracelets chimed. They all turned away from their drinks to look out the sliding glass doors at the gathering darkness. Matt caught a glimpse of Bunny, the Brashlers’ fat tabby cat, stalking something in the grass, looking wild.
“Threatening,” said Paul. He turned back to his drink, lit a cigarette. The first drops fell against the glass.
What if last night had been like tonight? Matt thought. There wouldn’t have been that restless, Indian-summer feeling in the air. They’d have stayed home and watched “77 Sunset Strip” as they usually did. There would have been no one to catch a child falling from a window.
On the other hand, if last night had been like tonight, maybe no one would have opened that window in the Chilcotes’ apartment in the first place. It would have been too cold and wet.
Matt and Irene’s home, so much smaller and more modest than the Brashlers’, was cozier than the Brashlers’ on a rainy night. Matt glanced at Helen, who was often alone in the evenings while Paul went to his City Council meetings and his Elks meetings. A five-thousand-square-foot house was too large for one person, especially on a rainy night. But Paul didn’t seem to going anywhere tonight, and that was good. Helen wouldn’t be alone.
“We should go, Matt,” said Irene. “It’s going to start pouring any minute, and we didn’t bring umbrellas.”
“Have one for the road,” Paul urged, as he always did. “It’s a short walk home, and we can loan you umbrellas.”
Paul always hated to see his guests leave. It was why he was such a popular host, the life of every party. Even when it was just the four of them getting together for impromptu drinks before dinner, he made it seem like a party, and he never wanted it to end. Matt and Irene had learned the hard way that they had to be firm with Paul. Early in their friendship there’d been too many hangovers the next morning after that one for the road, and then another one for the road, just because they hadn’t wanted to be rude.
“No,” said Irene. “We really do have to go. Lizzie’s home, and I don’t want her to be alone.”
“Of course you don’t,” said Helen. “I’ll bet you don’t want to let her out of your sight after what happened last night. We understand.” Paul helped Irene on with her coat. A raincoat, Matt noticed, as though she had known the weather would turn.
* * *
Later that night in bed – the rain had subsided to a light pattering against the window that would normally have lulled Matt right to sleep – he said to Irene, who was working, or pretending to work, a crossword puzzle, “I’d forgotten about Mrs. Nash – that was her name, wasn’t it? That grandmotherly babysitter when Lizzie was little. She would have burned the house down, if you hadn’t had a feeling something was wrong and insisted that we cut our evening short and go home. I remember that I was annoyed. I thought you were being overprotective. And then when it turned out you were right – well, I thought, what a lucky coincidence.”
Irene yawned and put aside the crossword puzzle. “Yes. I remember that. The rain sounds soothing against the window, doesn’t it? Good sleeping weather.” She turned out her light.
“But it wasn’t a coincidence, was it?” he said after a minute, in the dark.
He heard her sigh. “You’re not really going to pursue this, are you, Matt?”
“Maybe Helen’s right. Maternal instinct, a kind of ESP only mothers have. Except there’ve been other times. That time we were going to drive to the coast for the weekend, before Lizzie was even born, and at the last minute you said you had a headache and we stayed home. And the very next day the axle broke on the car on the way to the grocery store, and the mechanic said if we’d been driving any faster, both the back wheels would probably have spun off. We said, how lucky we hadn’t been at the coast, on one of those winding roads high above the ocean. You didn’t have a headache at all, did you? You never have headaches.”
“Oh, Matt.” She sounded exasperated.
“And what about the time Paul was telling us about the new salesman he was about to hire, and you suddenly warned him he should have the man’s references checked more thoroughly, and sure enough it turned out the guy had a criminal record. I thought it was strange at the time – so unlike you to give Paul unsolicited advice about his business – but I thought, well, that’s just Irene being cautious and practical.”
“If I’m so prescient, why do I bother to work crossword puzzles? If I have ESP, I should know the answers already. Why didn’t I know I had paint on my face tonight? I’m tired, Matt. Please let’s go to sleep.” She turned over, her back to him, the way she did when she was angry.
A year or so ago, Lizzie had gone through a period where she found it necessary to recount movie plots to Matt and Irene. She would come home from the Esquire Theatre, breathless with excitement, and treat them to excruciating blow-by-blow accounts. It seemed to be a universal phase children went through, and Matt and Irene indulged Lizzie as graciously as they could manage. One of the movies, Matt recalled, featured a man who marries a beautiful young woman. When the newlyweds give their first dinner party, and while everyone is enjoying cocktails in the living room, the beautiful young wife excuses herself to go and check on dinner. After a few minutes, one of the guests discovers that the ice in his drink has melted and wanders into the kitchen to replenish it, where he witnesses the wife, who has not heard him come in, take the roast in its pan out of a hot oven with her bare hands. She is a Martian! Matt wished he’d paid more attention to Lizzie’s account of the plot at the time; he couldn’t remember now whether the guest had confronted the wife and been turned into a Martian himself, or whether he’d backed out of the kitchen and spent the rest of the movie wrestling with his conscience – should he tell the poor husband the truth and ruin his happiness, or should he keep his knowledge secret?
More likely the movie had ended with Martians invading Earth, and people running up and down the streets of their towns screaming. Which was a shame, because the whole point of the movie, Matt realized now though he had not watched it, was that you didn’t know the person you were married to. You didn’t begin to know the person you thought you knew.
In the darkness, the minutes went by, and he waited. Irene would either talk to him or she wouldn’t. If she didn’t, they would both pretend to sleep, and maybe, eventually, they really would sleep.
At last she rolled over onto her back – not towards him, but halfway, at least. She sighed and said, so softly he had to strain to hear the words, “I don’t know if you can understand this, Matt, but the only thing I’ve ever wanted was to be ordinary. To live a normal, average life. And that’s what I have – a normal life. And now I really am going to go to sleep. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”
It was the last time she was ever going to talk about it, he could see that. “All right,” he said. “I won’t. But–”
She sighed. “Matt.”
“I was just wondering about that little boy. Ryan. Do you think he’ll remember any of what happened?”
“No,” said Irene. “He’s so little. Two, maybe. They say you don’t remember anything before the age of four or so.”
“How does anyone know that for sure?” Matt wondered. “And who are ‘they,’ anyway?”
“I don’t know. But that’s what they say, so it must be true.” He could hear the smile in her voice. Then she yawned, and a few minutes later her breathing was so soft and regular he knew she was truly asleep and not faking it.
* * *
There was no denying it; there had always been a rift between them, and as he lay there in the dark Matt marveled at how thoroughly and completely he had misunderstood the nature of that rift.
Of the two of them, Matt had always thought of himself as the one with the complicated inner life. He was the daydreamer, the one who could lose himself for hours in books and fantasies, the one who went outside on the porch with Lizzie to gaze at the night sky and imagine other worlds, the one who often felt nameless longings he couldn’t begin to talk to Irene about. Lizzie, he’d always thought, was more like him than like Irene. It was always he and Lizzie stargazing, he and Lizzie listening to the plaintive, minor-key folk music they both loved, he and Lizzie collecting UFO stories to tell each other. Always at such times it seemed that Irene sat apart, sewing a ballet costume for Lizzie or balancing their monthly budget, a faint frown of disapproval on her face, and he had felt angry at her willingness to settle for a world so small and ordinary.
When instead it turned out that she saw things he and Lizzie could not begin to understand. She saw, and didn’t want to see, whereas he wanted to see, and couldn’t.
They would sleep through the night to the soothing sound of rain pattering against the window. Tomorrow the McClary News Herald would have a new front-page story – nothing so dramatic as Irene’s accidental or not-so-accidental heroism, but something. There was always a new story. Tomorrow the world would be ordinary again, just the way Irene wanted it. In the children’s stories Lizzie had always loved the most, a child went on a midnight ride, on a magic carpet or clinging to the wings of a fairy, and returned just as dawn was breaking, to an adult world still asleep and oblivious. It was as though nothing had ever happened at all, except for a tiny bit of evidence – the corner of a silver star that the child finds in his pocket, or a small piece of moonbeam still glowing faintly. Proof, if you wanted to believe.
What would happen to the little boy Ryan? Irene was probably right that his conscious mind would not remember. His guilt-ridden parents wouldn’t bring it up – it was not the kind of family story anyone would be anxious to tell. But Matt couldn’t believe that an experience like that could be erased so completely. Maybe throughout his whole life, or maybe not for another ten or twenty years, Ryan would have flying dreams and never know why. In the dreams, he was an adventurer, jumping from an open window, flying through the air, feeling nothing but exhilaration, landing at the end of his flight in the soft feather bed of a woman’s capable arms, never knowing there’d been any danger at all.
And what about the babysitter, who would grow up with only a shadow of guilt instead of a huge weight that would haunt her for the rest of her life? Wouldn’t she feel a chill now and then, especially on Indian summer nights, and think, What if? What if? Irene had saved her life too.
Matt’s extraordinary wife, the accidental heroine, had a gift she didn’t want. She knew that when you looked into the future, you saw death and disaster. Who would have ever guessed that the present moment was so precious? For now, Irene would think as she fell asleep at night, as she brushed her teeth, as she made dinner, as she watched Lizzie do her homework at the dining room table, everything is all right. No one is falling asleep with a lighted cigarette in her hand; a car is not about to crash; a child is not climbing onto a second-story window sill. Our bills are paid; our life is on solid ground. We are safe, for now.