Children with guns.
Barrels tilted downward, the weight of the steel forcing their knotty knees into mocking bows. Faces like plague masks, their leering grins hiding their indifference to the odors of rotting flesh and raw sewage in the equatorial sun. They speak quickly, and in a brief movement the cameras reveal their cavernous chests, hidden beneath uniforms with sleeves ripped off to accommodate the scarecrow arms. Their small feet vanish into laceless boots, the leather tongues torn sideways like the mutilated faces of the murdered. An elderly woman in rags flinches when one child raises his hand, and she slides off into the shadows, stooped in terror. The children laugh. One proudly hoists his rifle into the air and fires it.
It was late; long after midnight on a Tuesday. Although it could have been a Wednesday or a Thursday--nights without sleep all end up feeling the same to me.
I was sick of the television, even though I couldn't seem to turn it off. God knows I had more important things to think about: my big presentation for Senator Jacobs. The down payment on our next vacation. Even Marisa's orthodontist bills. I crossed the kitchen and took out the vanilla ice cream while the journalist droned on about the escalation of the civil war and new evidence proving that the Liberian military was recruiting orphans as young as nine years old as soldiers. Of course--I thought as I fished for a spoon in a rattling drawer and pried open the tight lid--they know that children raised in death hate any evidence of life.
Something bitter rose up in my throat, barely soothed by the melting sweetness of the ice cream. I pressed my hips against the counter, the spoon making a smooth orbit between the carton and my lips. I wouldn't think about those children. I couldn't think about them. It was pointless to think about them, because there was still so much to do right here, with my own life, and with the lives of my husband and daughter and the people I was trying to save here, in the comparative safety of America.
Comparative, I thought as the icy tip of the spoon again met my tongue. Rachid and his wife, Fatima, and their five children fled Afghanistan only to end up living in a two-room apartment in a neighborhood where I wouldn't let my dog run free for fear that someone would use it for target practice.
And what about the Ortiz family from Guatemala? The one our government wanted to put in a "safe, healthy" place? They ended up in a town in northern Michigan where the white supremacists take their shotguns to church.
The news broadcast moved on. My thoughts moved on. A rise in the price of gasoline, a heat wave in Texas. A fourteen-year-old caught in a hotel with a fifty-year-old man she'd met on the Internet--a man who intended to marry her the very next day. Right.
There I stood in my spotless porcelain kitchen, the sound turned down low so I wouldn't disturb Marisa or Carl, my eyes red from yet another night without sleep, my body hungry not for food but rather for something intangibly near and indescribably far away. I knew coffee would put an edge on my thoughts and drive that deep sense of the insatiable out into the night, but caffeine was not an option: I needed to get some sleep before that presentation on the resettlement of the Rwandan group. Senator Aaron Jacobs was coming down from the Hill to look at our operation, and I needed to at least appear to have everything under control.
I didn't get more than two hours of sleep that Tuesday night--but I finally turned off the TV and wrestled that news report into the darkest corner of my cave. On Wednesday morning I painted my face and put on a power suit and drove to my job as a specialist in the Office for the Placement of Permanent Refugees, on L'Enfant Plaza in downtown D.C. Welcoming Senator Jacobs with my trademark confidence and grace, I then laid out the facts with drop-jaw precision. The senator invited me to lunch, promising us more money from the Refugee Resettlement committee. I even got a compliment from my boss, who thought compliments were a foreign language.
And let's face it: I had good reason to be proud--our office had managed to find placements for over two thousand political asylum seekers in the past year. The upshot was that I had single-handedly convinced a bleached-white suburb to accept those forty Rwandans into its subsidized family housing: new homes for the Blacks, and much-needed color for the rest. I was helping America live up to its melting pot claims.
I made it through that entire week without making the mistake of letting the entrance to my cave slide open. Then came Saturday. I found myself standing in the living room, looking out at the early spring morning when that news report about those child soldiers in Liberia hit me again, like an anvil falling off a cliff in the cartoon of my life. I couldn't protect myself. Couldn't stop it from happening. Just like that stupid, pitiful coyote, I raised my eyes just in time to see it coming. Yet even then, it came in the most unexpected way.
It was the petals. Millions of them, littering the heady emerald grass like a widow's tears. Pure white--the color of mourning in many parts of the world. A blanket of them, like gossamer snow, settling around the roots of the blossoming crabapple trees.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a silver and scarlet training suit as Marisa flounced down the stairs, exhaling demonstratively.
"Mom--I really don't feel like going to my lesson today."
I turned to look at her. "It's too late to cancel, honey."
"Don't you think I'm old enough to decide if I want to study piano?"
"No, Marisa, I don't."
"But Kelsey's not taking lessons anymore!"
"Kelsey's not the soloist with the District of Columbia's Youth Symphony."
"But I don't care if I'm their soloist!"
"That's right," I snapped, weary of this argument but secretly relieved that she had yanked me away from those petals. "You don't care if you have a gift. You don't care if that gift could get you into one of the best music schools in the world. You don't care if you could have a life surrounded by the beauty of music. No--you just want to spend your time shaking your rear and chasing boys, like everybody else."
"'Oh Mom' nothing. Hurry up and get your shoes. You know I have a lot to do before the party tonight."
Ignoring the look of vengeance in her gray eyes, I kept my back to the window, focusing my thoughts on exactly what the morning would look like.
First I'd drive Marisa to the Conservatory, leaving her with her piano teacher, a papyrus-thin Austrian who was probably already performing back in the era of Kaiser Wilhelm.
Then I'd rush to the Gourmet Foods Market, gritting my teeth against the mind-numbing process of deciding which of two hundred green peppers would look most enticing when quartered and skewered for Carl's famous barbequed brochettes. During that hour I'd also buy the other items on the evening's menu: five bottles of Bordeaux, aged French camembert, imported gorgonzola and brie, sour cream, strawberries, water crackers and cappuccino ice cream.
Then I'd jet back to the Conservatory, where I'd hope like hell that Marisa's lesson would be finished so that cappuccino ice cream wouldn't melt all over the leather upholstery of my new car.
When I got back to the house it would be my job to put together the perfect grill party for our closest friends, knowing all the while that Samantha would refuse everything but wine and salad ("Reba, I've got to get into a swimsuit on our cruise in three weeks!"). Desiree would find something wrong with the cheese ("Reba, you really should shop at that little French grocery up near Chevy Chase!"). And all of our husbands would be on a strict beer and bourbon diet.
"Mom?" Marisa's voice came from the kitchen. "I can't find my shoes!"
"In the garage, where you left them caked with mud last night."
"I didn't even want to go on that stupid hike!"
"It was good for you. And good for those little kids, too."
"I'm too old to do that campfire thing!"
"You wouldn't complain if you'd been making s'mores with some guys."
"You wouldn't let me go into the woods with any guys."
"You're still a little young to be starting fires with--"
"That's not fair, Mom! You were dating when you were sixteen."
"Eighteen," I laughed. "And you're only fifteen. Don't put any more years on me, okay?"
"Why is it that the only thing women ever worry about is getting older?"
"I worry about a whole lot more than that, baby."
"Sure," she said, coming to the kitchen door. "Like which outfit to wear to your terribly important meetings and which new car to buy and--"
"--how to finish the report that I have to present to the Resettlement Committee and which suburb would be least resistant to receiving one more family of non-English-speaking refugees from another genocide in central Europe--"
"But boring pays for your basketball shoes, your braces, your trips to the Caribbean and, last but not least, that other car I'm planning to buy so that you won't wreck my car as soon as you get your driver's license!"
"Why do you always have to talk about money!"
"I talk about money because I spend my life helping people who don't have any."
"But that's not our fault."
"Maybe not," I said, picking up my keys and wallet. "But that doesn't mean we should take anything for granted."
There was a terse pause as Marisa calculated whether to push her grouchy mother into a real argument. I moved toward the door, ready to leave, but somehow my gaze was drawn once more to the window, where those tender white petals were still stirring in the breeze. As I watched, those white petals melted into children with guns. I heard the swishing of nylon as she came up behind me.
"Mom?" she whispered, her voice amazingly childlike.
"Yes?" I glanced at her and was surprised to look into the eyes of a young woman who shared my height. She had Carl's beauty--his cinnamon skin, gathering of freckles, and smoky gray eyes--but her mind was like mine.
"One day," she said innocently, her wide eyes steadily meeting mine, "I'm going to send you on a vacation to Maui."
"What?" Surprise lightened my voice.
"You've been everywhere else. And I don't know how else to pay you back for the day I'm going to wreck your beloved Volvo," she concluded, giving me the smile that had brought me to her father twenty years before.
"Pay me back by not complaining all the way to your lesson, okay?"
She rolled her eyes as if that were an ungodly thing to consider. But she didn't argue, so I decided to press my luck.
"And after we get home, you can pay me back by helping me get ready for the party."
"Are you feeling okay?" she joked, pressing her palm against my forehead as if checking my temperature.
"And one other thing," I added. "During the party, you can pay me back by not flirting too hard with Jimmy, no matter how fine he is!"
"Oh, no--that's asking too much!"
"Look: Your Auntie Desiree's my friend, but I don't want her for an in-law."
I was surprised when she hugged me, but when she pulled back I noticed that her gaze had fallen on the white petals, too. We stood side by side behind the picture window, a mother and daughter watching the death of beauty as it brought about the chance for new life.
He's gone, girl."
"He'll be back. That little bitch won't want him after he gets through paying Tamika a housing allowance and child support."
"She doesn't care as long as she can attach that M.D. to her name."
"Won't do her any good if she's stuck with a Hyundai and a Kmart closet."
"Honey, you don't know how long she's been working on him. Listen: Those types of bitches don't give a damn as long as they can wreck somebody's home--"
The voices of my two closest friends became the treble key against Grover Washington's "Mister Magic" and the laughter of our tanked-up husbands bursting from Carl's study. Marisa had vanished down the stairs to the family room with Jimmy as soon as she'd filled her plate with the food she liked, holding the thin wooden sticks of her father's barbecued shish kebab with her fine pianist's fingers. Now the adults had splintered off according to gender, the women settling into a good gossip on my slate-stoned patio and the men working on their third or fourth beers and becoming increasingly lewd, judging by the broken-glass tone of their laughter.
I glanced across the garden table through the tendrils of smoke winding up from Samantha's cigarette and noted that she'd put some highlights in her long brown hair.
"Did Keisha do your hair?"
"You like it?"
"Takes ten years off."
"I wish it would take ten pounds off!"
"Lord, Samantha!" Desiree laughed, her southern accent drawing out her syllables like taffy. "You need to start coming to the club with me!"
"I don't have time to be sweating on those machines! I sweat enough just taking care of the house!"
"Look: If you want to keep Reggie's eyes where they belong, you got to give him something worth looking at--"
"Reggie better not even think about looking someplace else!"
"Come on, girl. They're always looking!"
"You can speak for Marlon," Samantha said with a bray of laughter. "I'm not tolerating any of that nonsense from my husband."
They both shot sly glances in my direction, but I let their voices fade into the soft clinking of their wineglasses. Traces of B.B. King now pounded up from the study like a sulking heartbeat, and then I heard Carl's laughter leap out in response to a murmured joke.
"That's right, girl," Samantha went on. "If Reggie starts that shit, he'll be sleeping in the street. I'm taking everything--the cars, the house, the bank accounts and his NBA ring, too!"
My thoughts wandered to the wall of windows in the living room of our custom-built home. Carl had chosen the site--nearly an entire acre on a heavily wooded cul-de-sac with the improbable name of Lavender Lane. We'd actually hired a professional decorator to create this showcase. Carl insisted that we'd often be entertaining his clients, and we needed a house that looked like success--tasteful, elegant, low-key.
What I ended up with was a living room full of shell carpets, ivory sofas and taupe walls, with large abstract paintings of wheat-toned swirls. There were glass tables and glass shelves and a wide marble mantel over a looming sandstone fireplace.
Excerpted from Accident of Birth by Heather Neff. Copyright © 2004 by Heather Neff. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.