The Passage Page 10

"What is it?" Doyle said quietly. "What's wrong?"

Wolgast shook his head. He passed the fax to Doyle.

"Sweet Jesus, Phil. It's a civilian."

Chapter FOUR

Sister Lacey Antoinette Kudoto didn't know what God wanted. But she knew He wanted something.

As long as she could remember, the world had spoken to her like this, in whispers and murmurs: in the rustling of the palm fronds moving in the ocean wind above the village where she was raised; in the sound of cool water running over rocks in the stream behind her house; even in the busy sounds men made, in the engines and machines and voices of the human world. She was just a little girl, not more than six or seven, when she'd asked Sister Margaret, who ran the convent school in Port Loko, what she was hearing, and Sister laughed. Lacey Antoinette, she said. How you surprise me. Don't you know? She lowered her voice, putting her face close to Lacey's. That's nothing less than the voice of God.

But she did know; she understood, as soon as Sister said it, that she'd always known. She never told anyone else about the voice, the way Sister had spoken to her, as if it was something only the two of them knew, told her that what she heard in the wind and leaves, in the very thread of existence itself, was a private thing between them. There were times, sometimes for weeks or even a month, when the feeling receded and the world became an ordinary place again, made of ordinary things. She believed that this was how the world felt to most people, even those closest to her, her parents and sisters and friends at school; they lived their whole lives in a prison of drab silence, a world without a voice. Knowing this made her so sad that sometimes she couldn't stop crying for days at a time, and her parents would take her to the doctor, a Frenchman with long sideburns who sucked on candies that smelled like camphor, who poked and peeked and touched her up and down with the ice-cold disk of his stethoscope but never found anything wrong. How terrible, she thought, how terrible to live like this, all alone forever. But then one day she'd be walking to school through the cocoa fields, or eating dinner with her sisters, or doing nothing at all, just looking at a stone on the ground or lying awake in bed, and she'd hear it again: the voice that wasn't a voice exactly, that came from inside her and also from everywhere around, a hushed whisper that seemed not made of sound but light itself, that moved through as gently as a breeze on water. By the time she was eighteen and entered the Sisters, she knew what it was, that it was calling her name.

Lacey, the world said to her. Lacey. Listen.

She heard it now, all these years later and an ocean away, sitting in the kitchen of the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Memphis, Tennessee.

She'd found the note in the girl's backpack not long after her mother had left. Something about the circumstances had made Lacey uneasy, and looking at the girl, she realized what it was: the woman had never told her the girl's name. The girl was obviously her daughter-the same dark hair, the same pale skin and long lashes that curled upward at the ends, as if lifted by a tiny breeze. She was pretty, but her hair needed combing-there were mats in it thick as a dog's-and she had kept her jacket on the table, as if she were used to leaving places in a hurry. She seemed healthy, if a little thin. Her pants were too short and stiff with dirt. When the little girl had finished her snack, every bite, Lacey took the chair beside her. She asked her if she had anything in the bag she wanted to play with, or a book they could read together, but the little girl, who hadn't spoken a word, just nodded and passed it from her lap. Lacey examined the bag, pink with some kind of cartoon characters glued on-their huge black eyes reminded her of the girl's-and remembered what the woman had told her, that she was taking her daughter to school.

She unzipped the bag and inside found the stuffed rabbit, and the pairs of rolled-up underpants and socks and a toothbrush in a case, and a box of strawberry cereal bars, half empty. There was nothing else in the bag, but then she noticed the little zippered pouch on the outside. It was too late for school, Lacey realized; the girl had no lunch, no books. She held her breath and unzipped the pouch. There she found the piece of notebook paper, folded up.

I'm sorry. Her name is Amy. She's six years old.

Lacey looked at it for a long time. Not the words themselves, which were plain enough in their meaning. What she looked at was the space around the words, a whole page of nothing at all. Three tiny sentences were all this girl had in the world to explain who she was, just three sentences and the few little things in the bag. It was nearly the saddest thing Lacey Antoinette Kudoto had ever seen in her life, so sad she couldn't even cry.

There was no point in going after the woman. She'd be long gone by now. And what would Lacey do if she found her? What could she say? I think you forgot something. I think you've made some mistake. But there was no mistake. The woman, Lacey understood, had done exactly what she'd set out to do.

She folded the note and put it in the deep pocket of her skirt. "Amy," she said, and as Sister Margaret had done all those years ago in the yard at the school in Port Loko, she positioned her face close to the girl's. She smiled. "Is that your name, Amy? That's a beautiful name."

The girl looked around the room, quickly, almost furtively. "Can I have Peter?"

Lacey thought a moment. A brother? The little girl's father? "Of course," she said. "Who is Peter, Amy?"

"He's in the bag," the girl stated.

Lacey was relieved-the girl's first request of her was something simple that she could easily provide. She removed the rabbit from the bag. It was velveteen plush, worn smooth in shiny patches, a little boy rabbit with beady black eyes and ears stiffened by wire. Lacey passed it to Amy, who placed it roughly on her lap.

"Amy," she began again, "where did your mother go?"

"I don't know," she said.

"How about Peter?" Lacey asked. "Does Peter know? Could Peter tell me?"

"He doesn't know anything," Amy said. "He's stuffed." The little girl frowned sharply. "I want to go back to the motel."

"Tell me," Lacey said. "Where is the motel, Amy?"

"I'm not supposed to say."

"Is it a secret?"

The girl nodded, her eyes fixed on the surface of the table. A secret so deep she couldn't even say it was a secret, Lacey thought.

"I can't take you there if I don't know where it is, Amy. Is that what you want? To go to the motel?"

"It's on the busy road," the girl explained, tugging at her sleeve.

"You live there with your mother?"

Amy said nothing. She had a way of neither looking nor speaking, of being alone with herself even in the presence of another person, that Lacey had never encountered. There was something even a little frightening about it. When the girl did this, it was as if she, Lacey, were the one who had vanished.

"I have an idea," Lacey declared. "Would you like to play a game, Amy?"

The girl eyed her skeptically. "What kind?"

"I call it secrets. It's easy to play. I tell you a secret, and then you tell me one. Do you see? A trade, my secret for your secret. How does that sound?"

The girl shrugged. "Okay."

"All right then. I'll start. Here is my secret. One time, when I was very young, like you, I ran away from home. This was in Sierra Leone, where I come from. I was very cross at my mother, because she wouldn't let me go to see a carnival without doing my lessons first. I was very excited about this carnival, because I had heard they did tricks with horses, and I was crazy about horses. I bet you like horses too, don't you, Amy?"

The girl nodded. "I guess."

"Every girl like horses. But me-I was in love with them! To show her how mad I was, I refused to do my lessons, and she sent me to my room for the night. Oh, I was so angry! I stamped around the room like a crazy person. Then I thought, If I run away, she'll be sorry she has treated me this way. She'll let me do what I like from now on. I was very foolish, but that is what I believed. So that night, after my parents and my sisters were asleep, I left the house. I didn't know where to go, so I hid in the fields behind our yard. It was cold and very dark. I wanted to stay there all night, and then in the morning I would be able to hear my mother crying my name when she woke up and found I wasn't there. But I couldn't do this. I stayed in the field a little while, but eventually I was too cold and frightened. I went back home and got into bed, and nobody ever knew I was gone." She looked at the girl, who was watching her closely, and did her best to smile. "There-I've never told anyone that story, not until now. You are the first person I've told in my life. What do you think of that?"

The girl was watching Lacey attentively now. "You just ... went home?"

Lacey nodded. "You see, I wasn't so angry anymore. And in the morning, it all seemed like a dream I'd had. I wasn't even sure it had actually happened, though now, many years later, I know that it did." She patted Amy's hand encouragingly. "Now it is your turn. Do you have a secret to tell me, Amy?"

The girl lowered her face and said nothing.

"Even a little one?"

"I don't think she's coming back," said Amy.

The police officers who took the call, a man and a woman, got nowhere either. The female officer, a heavyset white woman with a cropped haircut like a man's, spoke to the girl in the kitchen, while the other officer, a handsome black man with a smooth, narrow face, took a description of the mother from Lacey. Did she seem nervous? he asked her. Was she drunk, on drugs? What was she wearing? Did Lacey see the car? On and on he went, but Lacey could tell he was asking only because he had to; he didn't think the girl's mother would turn up, either. He recorded her answers with a tiny pencil on a pad of paper that, as soon as she'd finished, he returned to the breast pocket of his uniform. In the kitchen, a flash of light: the woman officer had taken Amy's picture.

"Do you want to call Child Protection, or should we do it?" the policeman asked Lacey. "Because, seeing as how you are who you are, it might make sense if we waited. No use putting her into the system right away, especially over the weekend, if you don't mind keeping her here. We can put out a description of the woman and see if we get anywhere. We'll also put the girl in the missing child database. The mother might come back, too, though if she does, you should keep the girl here and call us."

It was a little past noon; the other sisters were all due back at one o'clock from the Community Pantry, where they'd passed the morning stocking shelves and dispensing boxes of canned goods and cereal, spaghetti sauce, and diapers. They did this every Tuesday and Friday. But Lacey had been nursing a head cold all week-even after three years in Memphis, she still hadn't adapted to the damp winters-and Sister Arnette had told Lacey to stay home, no use making herself sicker. It was like Sister Arnette to make a decision like this, even though Lacey had woken up feeling perfectly well.

Looking at the officer, she made a quick decision. "I will do it," she said.

Which was how, when the sisters returned, it happened that Lacey failed to tell them the truth about the girl. This is Amy, she told them, as they were taking off their coats and scarves in the hall. Her mother is a friend, and she was called away to visit a sick relative, and Amy will be spending the weekend with us. It surprised her, how easily the lie came; she had no practice with deceit, and yet the words had assembled themselves quickly in her mind and found their way to her lips without effort. As she spoke she glanced at Amy, wondering if she would expose her, and she saw a flicker of agreement in the girl's eyes. She was, Lacey understood then, a girl used to keeping secrets.

"Sister," said Sister Arnette, speaking with her old woman's air of perpetual disapproval, "I'm glad to see that you are offering our help to this girl and her mother. But it is also true that this is something you should have asked me about."

"I'm very sorry," Lacey said. "It was an emergency. It will only be until Monday."

Sister Arnette looked appraisingly at Lacey, then down at Amy, who was standing with her back pressed to the pleats of Lacey's skirt. While she did this, Sister Arnette removed her gloves, one finger at a time. Cold air from outside still swirled in the close space of the hallway.

"This is a convent, not an orphanage. This isn't a place for children."

"I understand, Sister. And I am very sorry. It simply couldn't be helped."

Another moment passed. Dear Lord, Lacey thought, help me to like this person more than I do, Sister Arnette, who is imperious and thinks much of herself, but is Your servant, as I am.

"All right," Sister Arnette said at last, and sighed irritably. "Until Monday. She can use the spare room."

It was then that Sister Lacey wondered why: why she had lied, and why the lie had come so easily, as if it weren't a lie in the larger sense of things-true and things-untrue. Her story was also full of holes. What would happen if the police returned, or telephoned, and Sister Arnette discovered what she'd done? What would happen Monday, when she had to call the county? And yet she felt no fear about these matters. The girl was a mystery, sent to them by God-and not even to them, but to her. To Lacey. It was her job to figure out what the answer to this mystery was, and by lying to Sister Arnette-not necessarily a lie, she told herself; who was to say the mother hadn't gone to visit a sick relative after all?-she had given herself the time required to unravel it. So perhaps that was why the lie had come so easily; the Holy Spirit had spoken through her, inspired her with the flame of a different, deeper sort of truth, and what it had said was that the girl was in trouble and needed Lacey to help her.

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