A theory of relativity, p.1
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       A Theory of Relativity, p.1

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 
A Theory of Relativity


  ALSO BY JACQUELYN MITCHARD

  The Deep End of the Ocean

  The Rest of Us

  The Most Wanted

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.

  A THEORY OF RELATIVITY. Copyright © 2001 Jacquelyn Mitchard. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable license to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of PerfectBound™.

  PerfectBound™ and the PerfectBound™ logo are trademarks of HarperCollins Publishers

  MS Reader edition v 1. May 2001 ISBN 0-06-001067-3

  Print edition first published in 2001 HarperCollins Publishers

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  For Christopher and for Maria Christopher

  And for Moochie

  CONTENTS

  EPIGRAPH

  CHAPTER one They died instantly.

  CHAPTER two Another half hour, and Nora Nordstrom would have been gone. . .

  CHAPTER three It was a produce counter. . .

  CHAPTER four He felt like a thief. . .

  CHAPTER five Dale Larsen leaned against the back wall. . .

  CHAPTER six “Did you notice Carl Jurgen didn't have a suitcase. . .”

  CHAPTER seven On the day that would have been Georgia and Ray’s second wedding anniversary. . .

  CHAPTER eight The spot at Spirit Lake was their own. . .

  CHAPTER nine He had forgotten.

  CHAPTER ten At least the other shoe had dropped. . . .

  CHAPTER eleven Go to sleep, Gordon urged her.

  CHAPTER twelve The emotional hurdle for any judge. . .

  CHAPTER thirteen Nora truly believed sometimes. . .

  CHAPTER fourteen The last time Gordon had walked through the state capitol. . .

  CHAPTER fifteen “Today, we mate,” said Gordon.

  CHAPTER sixteen The governor was a small, powerfully built man. . .

  CHAPTER seventeen They waited. . .

  CHAPTER eighteen Nothing would ever make them forget. . .

  CHAPTER nineteen “I am dismayed,” Judge Aaron Kid said. . .

  CHAPTER twenty When small things went wrong. . .

  CHAPTER twenty-one Tim called it the Hotel California. . .

  CHAPTER twenty-two My name is Keefer Kathryn Nye. . .

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  CREDITS

  PERFECTBOUND E-BOOKS

  Mere gratitude is all I have to give to those whose knowledge and generosity made possible the telling of this story.

  For sharing his understanding of science and students, I thank Greg Boyer. For their understanding of legal and psychological issues of child custody, I am grateful to Marlene Porter, Richard Auerbach, Greg Lyons, Elizabeth VanderWerf, and Cindy Jensen. Brenda O’Donnell and Adrian Lund of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety offered facts, as did Greg Siborski, Marilyn Chohaney, M.D., and Michael Brownstein of the National Institutes of Health. Artists Lora Donahue and Annette Turow lent expertise on their medium and its teaching. For painstaking legal research, I thank Clarice Dewey. For her research assistance, editing advice, and enduring friendship, I owe a great debt to Patricia Kelly.

  Daniel Moeser is a wise and devoted judge and a kind friend. Franny Van Nevel, to whom I tell each story I write, gave me more of the bones of this tale than she will ever realize. My beloved brother, Bobby, his pal John, and my longtime friend, fellow writer Brian Hewitt, taught me golf enough for a gimme. For insights into the natural world of central Wisconsin, I thank Andy Johnston and my son Robert Allegretti.

  My friends Anne D. LeClaire and Barbara Grossman were readers of exemplary wisdom. During a harrowing passage, my agent of eighteen years and friend forever, Jane Gelfman, was my confidante and compass. Jennifer Hershey edited this book with light and firm hands; Cathy Hemming published it with verve and idealism. The cover designer, Roberto De Vicq De Cumptich, gave this story its magnificent face.

  To my daily friends and family, especially my endlessly resourceful assistant, Pamela English, my right hand, Jill DeYoung, and the Nora of my life, Karen Smith, my constant love and loyalty. To my daughters, Maria, Francie, and Jocelyn, and my sons, Rob, Daniel, and Martin—thanks for sparing and forgiving me. To Joyce M. and Joyce S., Laurie, Karen T., Sam, Peg, Emily, Hillary, Sandy Mitchard, Stacey, Jane H., Patty, Artie, Larry, Pam, Mikey, Anna, Alyssa, Bryan, and the rest of my posse, three cheers and a hug. Special thanks to my godson and the namesake of Gordon McKenna.

  And for special grace, I thank Rosie, Bob, and Scott.

  How swiftly the strained honey

  of afternoon light

  flows into darkness

  and the closed bud shrugs off

  its special mystery

  in order to break into blossom

  as if what exists, exists

  so that it can be lost

  and become precious.

  —LISEL MUELLER,“In Passing”

  The chief merit of the name “relativity” is in reminding us that a scientist is unavoidably a participant in the system he is studying. . . . In short, would the laws of nature be the same for everyone, regardless of his place and motion?

  —NIGEL CALDER, Einstein’s Universe

  “My goodness. My gracious!” they shouted. “MY WORD!”

  It’s something brand new!

  IT’S AN ELEPHANT-BIRD!!

  —DR. SEUSS, Horton Hatches the Egg

  CHAPTER one

  They died instantly.

  Or close enough.

  Gordon, of course, knew that “instantly,” in this context, didn’t mean what it seemed to suggest: Several minutes would have passed inside the car after the impact, while the final tick and swoosh of Ray’s and Georgia’s heart-sent blood swept a pointless circuit, while muscles contracted loyally at the behest of a last volley of neurological commands. But there would have been no awareness, or only a few twilight seconds—and no memory.

  Most of the others in Tall Trees, the McKenna family and their friends, didn’t know as much about the biology involved or care to. Small town people, they were accustomed to having something to be grateful for, even death no more physically complex than a power failure. It seemed to many a source of comfort. And as the months unfurled, comfort of any sort was in short supply.

  Even Gordon had to admit he was relieved. Couldn’t it have been worse, much, much worse?

  It could have been. This, Gordon decided, in those few breathless, shocky moments as he prepared to leave his school classroom and drive to the scene of the accident at Lost Tribe Creek, would be his mantra. He would not yowl and quake at this abrupt conclusion to the year of living catastrophically. He would not let himself come unglued. Dread tapped at his gut, like an unwelcome salesman tapping insistently at the window—Your sister is dead; your sister really is dead! But Gordon breathed in and out, spoke to himself of focus.

  He would be the one who remained analytical. Looking at the facts straight on was both his nature and his calling. He could do that best of anyone in his family. It would be the way he would protect himself and his parents.

  He was, of course, frightened. All the signs. The tre
mbling legs. The fluttering pulse. It had begun the moment he heard Sheriff Larsen’s voice.

  “Gordon,” said the sheriff, “what are you doing, son?”

  What was he doing?

  An old friend of his father’s calling him in the middle of a weekday, at school, though by rights he should not even have been there, the term having ended for summer break two weeks earlier, asking him what he was doing? Something was up, something bad; he could not imagine what; everything bad had already happened.

  Gordon felt a burning the size of a pinprick deep in his abdomen.

  “I’m cleaning, um, my classroom,” he’d answered finally, uneasily. “Throwing out the moldy agar dishes. Reading all the love letters the kids left in the lab trays. Science teacher fun.”

  “Good,” Sheriff Larsen said. “Good.” His voice had always reminded Gordon of Ronald Reagan’s. “So . . . so, you alone there?”

  Gordon had been alone and relishing the solitude. The days when Georgia went to the University of Minnesota for her chemotherapy were the only times the McKennas felt they had permission to do ordinary tasks—get haircuts, return library books—things that felt shameful and selfish when Georgia was home and miserable. He had almost not answered the phone. For it would surely have been his mother with another bulletin about the afternoon’s accomplishments of his year-old niece, Keefer:—She’d held her own spoon! She’d said “Moo!” Gordon loved Keefer and thought her exceedingly bright, but this was becoming like CNN Headline News.

  “What’s up?” he’d asked Dale Larsen.

  And as the older man spoke—an accident, a very bad accident, no survivors, should he cruise by there and pick Gordon up—the level of shock built until Gordon’s chest seemed to have room to contain his heart or his lungs, but not both. This was normal, was probably a kind of hypotensive shock. Fear, he reminded himself, was, like anything else, only a thought. Hadn’t he mastered that a year ago, when they’d learned that Georgia, Gordon’s only sister, just twenty-six years old, a triumphant wife and exultant new mother, had cancer, stage four, Do-Not-Pass-Go cancer? Hadn’t he watched her suffer an endless year of days, mourned and mopped and propped and wished for her release and flogged himself for the wishing?

  It was over. She had been released.

  And Ray, Georgia’s husband, Gordon’s longtime friend, his sweet-souled frat buddy from Jupiter, Florida, a lumbering athlete with a physicist’s brain and the heart of a child. . . . Ray was dead, too. Gordon had to recalibrate. Ray had told Gordon more than once during the illness, Bo, I can’t live without her. Gordon had sensed it had been more than just a manner of speaking. So perhaps Ray had felt gratitude, too, in the last conscious instant of his life. The mind was capable of firing off dozens of impressions in fractions of seconds.

  And so it had proved with his own mind. Gordon decided he would not call his mother. He would give her these few last moments of innocent play with Keefer. Nor would he call his Aunt Nora. She was as brave as a bear, but for all her homespun daffiness Gordon could never quite believe that the same twentieth century that had produced his own parents had also produced Aunt Nora. Nora had told Gordon not long ago she didn’t need to know all the whys and wherefores, that she would ask Georgia about it someday, in heaven.

  But heaven, Gordon thought, as he carefully parked his car a prudent distance up on the dry shoulder of the road, had been only a concept when Nora made that statement. Now, that kingdom had come. Nora would be shattered.

  It would be he, he realized, at twenty-four the youngest but one of his cousins, who would have to provide the strong shoulder, the steadying hand.

  But everything he saw looked odd, looked unsettling.

  For everything looked like any other day. Gordon first thought that he had come to the wrong place. Or that this had all been a mistake. A prank. Where was Dale Larsen, after all? There was no sign of the familiar police cruiser. Merry, frank summer afternoon sunlight glistened on the river birches. And there was the insistent, melodramatic call of a grosbeak—a call Gordon could never listen to, not even at this moment, without thinking of his mother saying it sounded just like a robin who’d taken acting lessons. Cars bristling with bikes and camping gear boomed past. Gordon felt himself to be the only thing in the landscape at all out of the ordinary.

  Even the rupture in the aluminum railing, a swinging wing, looked innocuous, fender-bender quality. He looked to the bank beyond. A half-dozen members of the Trempeauleau County Fire Department stood gazing into the shallow stream, doing, apparently, nothing. The car must have flown . . . the wreck must be over there. A county ambulance parked a few yards up the bank was not running, though the doors yawned wide.

  He leaned over, and looked down and across the stream.

  He could see it then.

  The metallic stack of angles that was all that was left of his father’s beloved vintage car nuzzled shyly nose down in its nest of sand, river boulders, and concrete, encircled by a rainbow fan of slick oil and blood, with glass everywhere, more glass than it seemed a car could have contained, on the banks, among the water-sudsed boulders, in the trees. And more, webs and strands of red and beige, in the water, in the willow branches. Gordon could never recall the next moments except as fractured vignettes, sequenced with periods of blindness, like slides shown in a darkened room. Vaulting the rail, he’d slip-walked down the hot grassy slope, past the policemen, an eerie dream-walk that felt in every exterior sense so normal that it could have been any sunny summer day of his childhood, a day he’d wakened feeling lucky that he lived on the verge of the big woods, where other kids only got to go for vacations. Sliding, nearly falling, recovering his footing, finally he was abreast of the car.

  In the creek was a concrete abutment, a kind of dam meant to keep spring floodwaters off the road. The car had apparently smacked into the leftmost edge of it. The hood was bent back against what had been the front seat the way a child bends bread for a jelly sandwich. Nothing could have been extracted living.

  The windows had popped outward and what Gordon could see through the collapsed driver’s side opening looked at first something like the sea wasps he saw when he dived deep, delicate parachute-like membranes veined with maroon and blue and golden threads. . . . Ray . . . oh Ray, and what the side pillar of the windshield had done. Ray. He could not focus on what bobbed on the shallow stream at the corner of his field of vision, the long strip of purple fabric embroidered with gold stars, his sister’s shirt.

  Gordon began to cry.

  Two of the officers ambled over, reached out, and in the stiff-limbed fashion of men of his father’s generation, patted his back, and Gordon fought down the strong desire to hide his face against their barrel chests and sob. Stay here, they said, an octave of basso voices, no one voice seeming to issue from any one man, no, son, don’t go any closer, nothing you can do for them now. Then Dale Larsen came mincing down the hill in the delicate, balletic way of some big older men, and his presence—representative of the safe, decent, obscenely unchanged atmosphere—triggered a collapse. Sheriff Larsen was part of the stable world. Gordon had once leched for Larsen’s daughter, the hot, wild girl who looked like Joan Jett, who’d been Homecoming Queen in Georgia’s year. Stephanie. How could he have forgotten her name even for a moment? Stephanie. Gordon grabbed two fistfuls of the sheriff’s starched blue shirt and clung. And in a gesture Gordon would always think of as encompassing both a terrible intimacy and a terrible restraint, Dale Larsen reached up and lightly covered Gordon’s hands with his own huge, dry paws.

  “What we’ve got to do now is even harder, son,” he’d said. “We’ve got to go see your folks.”

  Larsen led him back up the bank, and the perceptions that came to Gordon were again those of a child. Gordon was glad that Dad would never see the ruin of his cherished 1957 Bel-Air convertible, a big-bodied cream-colored dream with bright red seats, the honeymoon car, chosen in part, Mark McKenna once told his son—in a rare moment of blazing candor—for that b
ig cushy backseat. Purchased from its only other owner, a university professor who was leaving the country, it had been kept like a trophy, yearly bathed in oils and glazes, swaddled during the winter in its own blanket, taken out occasionally for a spin, as Georgia and Ray had taken it today. It was, for Dad, a chariot of youth that trailed back to the time a tall, quiet guy had found himself courting an exotic dark-haired art major who grew up in an apartment on Chicago’s Gold Coast. Shown old pictures of his parents during those early days, Gordon thought they looked like movie stars, impossibly young and startlingly handsome, flirting with the camera.

  Oh, Mom, Gordon thought. Oh Mom, oh Mom.

  Sheriff Larsen was talking, murmuring, about a cell-phone Samaritan who’d happened along, headed up from Janesville to Burnt Church Lake for a fishing weekend with his two little boys. The man had wheeled onto the shoulder of the road only to roust the children, who’d slipped out of their seat belts and were beating on each other with life preservers.

  “Poor guy,” Dale Larsen said. “It was his little kid, couldn’t have been more than six, he saw the car, and he said, ‘Daddy, there’s . . .’ ”

  “What?” Gordon asked. Suddenly, he sat down hard on the roadside. He’d had to.

  “Nothing,” Dale said. “It was just that the foliage was all piled around the vehicle . . . it was hard to see. The daddy thought at first it was one of those derelicts people shove off the road, on account of the car being so old and all. The guy was crying when we got here. He was holding both his boys in one arm so they couldn’t look down, crying on the phone to his ex-wife, he said. Shook up.”

  “He saw the bodies . . . the kid did.”

  “No, Gordon. Just the . . .”

  “The blood . . .”

 
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