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The Indelible Kind

by Zenna Henderson

As so many readers have done before us, we start with Zenna Henderson. Zenna Henderson opened a door to the science fiction field for many sf writers. I first learned of her from award-winning fantasy and science fiction author Nina Kiriki Hoffman, who listed Henderson as a major influence. Hoffman isn’t the only person to be influenced by Henderson. When I mentioned that I was putting this anthology together, writer after writer who got started in the 1980s recalled reading Henderson as a child.

So did a lot of science fiction fans. Priscilla Olson, a major sf fan who has run Worldcons, started APAs (small journals of fan writing), and helped NESFA Press bring neglected sf authors back into print, co-edited Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson with her husband Mark Olson. In her introduction to that invaluable collection, Priscilla Olson writes about how essential Zenna Henderson was to young readers:

Like so many others, I started reading science fiction as an adolescent, and discovered Zenna Henderson then. Adolescence isn’t easy, but the People helped some of us make it through. . . . [Ingathering, page ix]

The People stories fall into a traditional science fiction subgenre, the alien among us. They also examine the fate of the Other in modern society—whatever the other might be.

Zenna Chlarson Henderson was an expert at being an outsider herself. Born in Tucson, Arizona, in 1917 to a family of Mormon pioneers, Henderson experienced the tightness of a Mormon community only to lose touch with that community when she divorced her husband in 1944. By that time, she had her teaching certificate, along with a B.A. in literature and languages from Arizona State University, back when its name was Arizona Teacher’s College.

She spent the World War II years teaching children in Sacaton, one of the Japanese internment camps in Arizona. There, Henderson saw discrimination firsthand. She saw it later in her career as well, when she taught Mexican-American students in the Tucson school district.

Unsurprisingly, racism, hatred, and discrimination factor into most of her stories in one way or another. She views the outsider with great compassion and understanding, and her work does what the best science fiction does: it presents a modern problem in an imaginary context, so that readers will live the story along with the protagonist.

Henderson often writes about teachers and students who don’t fit, which is probably why young science fiction readers of all genders and races identified with her stories.

Henderson was best known for her short fiction. She published four books during her lifetime. (She died in 1983.) By the mid-1990s when Ingathering appeared, her works were all out of print. The short stories she was known for, including the Hugo-nominated novelette, “Captivity,” were equally hard to find. The NESFA Press collection, which is still available, has reprinted Henderson’s The People stories, but many of her other works are no longer in print.

The story that follows, “The Indelible Kind,” is particular favorite of mine. Compassionate and compelling, “The Indelible Kind” is impossible to put down. It also provides an excellent introduction to the People.

* * *

I’ve always been a down-to-earth sort of person. On re-reading that sentence, my mouth corners lift. It reads differently now. Anyway, matter-of-fact and just a trifle sceptical—that’s a further description of me. I’ve enjoyed—perhaps a little wistfully—other people’s ghosts, and breath-taking coincidences, and flying saucer sightings, and table tiltings and prophetic dreams, but I’ve never had any of my own. I suppose it takes a very determined, or very childlike—not childish—person to keep illusion and wonder alive in a lifetime of teaching. “Lifetime” sounds awfully elderly making, doesn’t it? But more and more I feel that I fit the role of observer more than that of participant. Perhaps that explains a little of my unexcitement when I did participate. It was mostly in the role of spectator. But what a participation! What a spectacular!

But, back to the schoolroom. Faces and names have a habit of repeating and repeating in your classes over the years. Once in a while, though, along comes one of the indelible kind—and they mark you, happily or unhappily beyond erasing. But, true to my nature, I didn’t even have a twinge or premonition.

The new boy came alone. He was small, slight, and had a smooth cap of dark hair. He had the assurance of a child who had registered many times by himself, not particularly comfortable or uncomfortable at being in a new school. He had brought a say-nothing report card, which, I noted in passing, gave him a low grade in Group Activity Participation and a high one in Adjustment to Redirective Counseling—by which I gathered that he was a loner but minded when spoken to, which didn’t help much in placing him academically.

“What book were you reading?” I asked, fishing on the shelf behind me for various readers in case he didn’t know a specific name. Sometimes we get those whose faces overspread with astonishment and they say, “Reading?”

“In which of those series?” he asked. “Look-and-say, ITA, or phonics?” He frowned a little. “We’ve moved so much and it seems as though every place we go is different. It does confuse me sometimes.” He caught my surprised eye and flushed. “I’m really not very good by any method, even if I do know their names,” he admitted. “I’m functioning only on about a second-grade level.”

“Your vocabulary certainly isn’t second grade,” I said, pausing over the enrollment form.

“No, but my reading is,” he admitted. “I’m afraid—”

“According to your age, you should be third grade.” I traced over his birthdate. This carbon wasn’t the best in the world.

“Yes, and I suppose that counting everything, I’d average out about third grade, but my reading is poor.”

“Why?” Maybe knowing as much as he did about his academic standing, he’d know the answer to this question.

“I have a block,” he said, “I’m afraid—”

“Do you know what your block is?” I pursued, automatically probing for the point where communication would end.

“I—” his eyes dropped. “I’m not very good in reading,” he said. I felt him folding himself away from me. End of communication.

“Well, here at Rinconcillo, you’ll be on a number of levels. We have only one room and fifteen students, so we all begin our subjects at the level where we function best—” I looked at him sharply. “And work like mad!”

“Yes, ma’am.” We exchanged one understanding glance; then his eyes became eight-year-old eyes and mine, I knew, teacher eyes. I dismissed him to the playground and turned to the paper work.

Kroginold, Vincent Lorma, I penciled into my notebook. A lumpy sort of name, I thought, to match a lumpy sort of student—scholastically speaking.

Let me explain Rinconcillo. Here in the mountainous West, small towns, exploding into large cities, gulp down all sorts of odd terrain in expanding their city limits. Here at Winter Wells, city growth has followed the three intersecting highways for miles out, forming a spidery, six-legged sort of city. The city limits have followed the growth in swatches about four blocks wide, which leaves long ridges, and truly ridges—mountainous ones—of non-city projecting into the city. Consequently, here is Rinconcillo, a one-roomed school with only 15 students, and only about half a mile from a school system with eight schools and 4800 students. The only reason this school exists is the cluster of family units around the MEL (Mathematics Experimental Laboratory) facilities, and a half-dozen fiercely independent ranchers who stubbornly refuse to be urbanized and cut up into real estate developments or be city-limited and absorbed into the Winter Wells school system.

As for me—this was my fourth year at Rinconcillo, and I don’t know whether it’s being fiercely independent or just stubborn, but I come back each year to my “little inside corner” tucked quite literally under the curve of a towering sandstone cliff at the end of a box canyon. The violently pursuing and pursued traffic, on the two highways sandwiching us, never even suspects we exist. When I look out into the silence of an early school morning, I still can’t believe that civilization could be anywhere within a hundred miles. Long shadows under the twisted, ragged oak trees mark the orangy gold of the sand in the wash that flows—dryly mostly, wetly tumultuous seldomly—down the middle of our canyon. Manzanitas tangle the hillside until the walls become too steep and sterile to support them. And yet, a twenty-minute drive—ten minutes out of here and ten minutes into there—parks you right in front of the MONSTER MERCANTILE, EVERYTHING CHEAPER. I seldom drive that way.

Back to Kroginold, Vincent Lorma—I was used to unusual children at my school. The lab attracted brilliant and erratic personnel. The majority of the men there were good, solid citizens and no more eccentric than a like number of any professionals, but we do get our share of kooks, and their sometimes twisted children. Besides the size and situation being an ideal set-up for ungraded teaching, the uneven development for some of the children made it almost mandatory. As, for instance, Vincent, almost nine, reading, so he said, on second-grade level, averaging out to third grade, which implied above-age excellence in something. Where to put him? Why, second grade (or maybe first) and fourth (or maybe fifth) and third—of course! Perhaps a conference with his mother would throw some light on his “block.” Well, difficult. According to the enrollment blank, both parents worked at MEL.

By any method we tried, Vincent was second grade—or less—in reading.

“I’m sorry.” He stacked his hands on the middle page of Through Happy Hours, through which he had stumbled most woefully. “And reading is so basic, isn’t it?”

“It is,” I said, fingering his math paper—above age-level. And the vocabulary check test—“If it’s just words, I’ll define them,” he had said. And he had. Third year of high school worth. “I suppose your math ability comes from your parents,” I suggested.

“Oh, no!” he said, “I have nothing like their gift for math. It’s—it’s—I like it. You can always get out. You’re never caught—”

“Caught?” I frowned.

“Yes—look!” Eagerly he seized a pencil. “See! One plus one equals two. Of course it does, but it doesn’t stop there. If you want to, you can back right out. Two equals one plus one. And there you are—out! The doors swing both ways!”

“Well, yes,” I said, teased by an almost grasping of what he meant. “But math traps me. One plus one equals two whether I want it to or not. Sometimes I want it to be one and a half or two and three-fourths and it won’t—ever!”

“No, it won’t.” His face was troubled. “Does it bother you all the time?”

“Heavens, no, child!” I laughed. “It hasn’t warped my life!”

“No,” he said, his eyes widely on mine. “But that’s why—” His voice died as he looked longingly out the window at the recess-roaring playground, and I released him to go stand against the wall of the school, wistfully watching our eight other boys manage to be sixteen or even twenty-four in their wild gyrations.

So that’s why? I doodled absently on the workbook cover. I didn’t like a big school system because its one-plus-one was my one and one-half—or two and three-fourths? Could be—could be. Honestly! What kids don’t come up with! I turned to the work sheet I was preparing for consonant blends for my this-year’s beginners—all both of them—and one for Vincent.

My records on Vincent over the next month or so were an odd patchwork. I found that he could read some of the articles in the encyclopedia, but couldn’t read Billy Goats Gruff. That he could read What Is So Rare as a Day in June, but couldn’t read Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater. It was beginning to look as though he could read what he wanted to and that was all. I don’t mean a capricious wanting-to, but that he shied away from certain readings and actually couldn’t read them. As yet I could find no pattern to his un-readings; so I let him choose the things he wanted and he read—oh, how he read! He gulped down the material so avidly that it worried me. But he did his gulping silently. Orally, he wore us both out with his stumbling struggles.

He seemed to like school, but seldom mingled. He was shyly pleasant when the other children invited him to join them, and played quite competently—which isn’t the kind of play you expect from an eight-year-old.

And there matters stood until the day that Kipper—our eighth grade—dragged Vincent in, bloody and battered.

“This guy’s nearly killed Gene,” Kipper said. “Ruth’s out there trying to bring him to. First aid says don’t move him until we know.”

“Wait here,” I snapped at Vincent as I headed for the door. “Get tissues for your face!” And I rushed out after Kipper.

We found Gene crumpled in the middle of a horrified group gathered at the base of the canyon wall. Ruth was crying as she mopped his muddy forehead with a soggy tissue. I checked him over quickly. No obvious bleeding. I breathed a little easier as he moaned, moved, and opened his eyes. He struggled to a sitting position and tenderly explored the side of his head.

“Ow! That dang rock!” He blinked tears as I parted his hair to see if he had any damage besides the egg-sized lump. He hadn’t. “He hit me with that big rock!”

“My!” I giggled, foolish with relief. “He must have addled your brains at the same time. Look at the size of that rock!” The group separated to let Gene look, and Pete scrambled down from where he had perched on the rock for a better look at the excitement.

“Well.” Gene rubbed his head tenderly. “Anyway, he did!”

“Come on inside,” I said, helping him up. “Do you want Kipper to carry you?”

“Heck no!” Gene pulled away from my hands. “I ain’t hurt. G’wan—noseys!” He turned his back on the staring children.

“You children stay out here.” I herded Gene ahead of me. “We have things to settle inside.”

Vincent was waiting quietly in his seat. He had mopped himself fairly clean, though he still dabbled with a tissue at a cut over his left eye. Two long scratches oozed redly down his cheek. I spent the next few minutes rendering first aid. Vincent was certainly the more damaged of the two, and I could feel the drumming leap of his still-racing heart against me as I turned his docile body around, tucking in his shirt during the final tidying up.

“Now.” I sat, sternly teacher, at my desk and surveyed the two before me. “Gene, you first.”

“Well.” he ruffed his hair up and paused to finger, half proudly, the knot under his hair. “He said let my ground squirrel go and I said no. What the heck! It was mine. And he said let it go and I said no and he took the cage and busted it and—” Indignation in his eyes faded into defensiveness. “—and I busted him one and—and— Well, then he hit me with that rock! Gosh! I was knocked out, wasn’t I?”

“You were,” I said, grimly. “Vincent?”

“He’s right.” His voice was husky, his eyes on the tape on the back of one hand. Then he looked up with a tentative lift of his mouth corners. “Except that I hit the rock with him.”

“Hit the rock with him?” I asked. “You mean like judo or something? You pushed him against the rock hard enough to knock him out?”

“If you like,” he shrugged.

“It’s not what I like,” I said. “It’s—what happened?”

“I hit the rock with him,” Vincent repeated.

“And why?” I asked, ignoring his foolish insistence.

“We were having a fight. He told you.”

“You busted my cage!” Gene flushed indignantly.

“Gene,” I reminded. “You had your turn. Vincent?”

“I had to let it go,” he said, his eyes hopefully on mine. “He wouldn’t, and it—it wanted to get out—the ground squirrel.” His eyes lost their hopefulness before mine.

“It wasn’t yours,” I reminded.

“It wasn’t his either!” His eyes blazed. “It belonged to itself! He had no right—!”

“I caught it!” Gene blazed back

“Gene! Be still or I’ll send you outside!”

Gene subsided, muttering.

“You didn’t object to Ruth’s hamster being in a cage.” “Cage” and “math” seemed trying to equate in my mind.

“That’s because it was a cage beast!” he said, fingering the taped hand again. “It didn’t know any better. It didn’t care.” His voice tightened. “The ground squirrel did. It would have killed itself to get out. I—I just had to—”

To my astonishment, I saw tears slide down his cheek as he turned his face away from me. Wordlessly I handed him a tissue from the box on my desk. He wiped his face, his fingers trembling.

“Gene?” I turned to him. “Anything more?”

“Well, gollee! It was mine! And I liked it! It—it was mine!

“I’ll trade you,” said Vincent. “I’ll trade you a white rat in a real neat aluminum cage. A pregnant one, if you like. It’ll have four or five babies in about a week.”

“Gollee! Honest?” Gene’s eyes were shining.

“Vincent?” I questioned him.

“We have some at home,” he said. “Mr. Wellerk at MEL gave me some when we came. They were surplus. Mother says I may trade if his mother says okay.”

“She won’t care!” cried Gene. “Us kids have part of the barn for our pets, and if we take care of them, she doesn’t care what we have. She don’t even ever come out there! Dad checks once in a while to be sure we’re doing a decent job. They won’t care.”

“Well, you have your mother write a note saying you may have the rat, and Vincent, if you’re sure you want to trade, bring the rat tomorrow and we’ll consider the affair ended.” I reached for my hand bell. “Well, scoot, you two. Drinks and rest room, if necessary. It’s past bell time now.”

Gene scooted and I could hear him yelling, “Hey! I getta white rat—”

Vincent was at the door when I stopped him with a question. “Vincent, did your mother know before you came to school that you were going to let the ground squirrel go?”

“No, ma’am. I didn’t even know Gene had it.”

“Then she didn’t suggest you trade with Gene.”

“Yes, ma’am, she did,” he said reluctantly.

“When?” I asked, wondering if he was going to turn out to be a twisted child after all.

“When you were out getting Gene. I called her and told her.” He smiled his tentative lip-smile. “She gave me fits for fighting and suggested Gene might like the rat. I like it, too, but I have to make up for the ground squirrel.” He hesitated. I said nothing. He left.

“Well!” I exploded my held breath out. “Ananias K. Munchausen! Called his mother, did he? And no phone closer than MONSTER MERCANTILE! But still—” I was puzzled. “It didn’t feel like a lie!”

Next afternoon after dismissal time I sighed silently. I was staring moodily out the window where the lonely creaking of one swing signified that Vincent, as well as I, was waiting for his mother to appear. Well, inevitable, I guess. Send a taped-up child home, you’re almost sure to get an irate parent back. And Vincent had been taped up! Still was, for that matter.

I hadn’t heard the car. The creaking of the swing stopped abruptly, and I heard Vincent’s happy calling voice. I watched the two of them come up onto the porch, Vincent happily clinging.

“My mother, Teacher,” he said, “Mrs. Kroginold.”

“Good afternoon, Miss Murcer.” Mrs. Kroginold was small, dark haired and bright eyed. “You wait outside, erring man-child!” She dismissed him with a spat on his bottom. “This is adult talk.” He left, his small smile slanting back over his shoulder a little anxiously.

Mrs. Kroginold settled comfortably in the visitor’s chair I had already pulled up beside my desk.

“Prepared, I see,” she sighed. “I suppose I should have come sooner and explained Vincent.”

“He is a little unusual,” I offered cautiously. “But he didn’t impress me as the fighting kind.”

“He isn’t,” said Mrs. Kroginold. “No, he’s—um—unusual in plenty of other ways, but he comes by it naturally. It runs in the family. We’ve moved around so much since Vincent’s been in school that this is the first time I’ve really felt I should explain him. Of course, this is also the first time he ever knocked anyone out. His father could hardly believe him. Well, anyway, he’s so happy here and making such progress in school that I don’t want anything to tarnish it for him, so—” she sighed and smiled. “He says you asked him about his trading the rat—”

“The pregnant rat,” I nodded.

“He did ask me,” she said. “Our family uses a sort of telepathy in emergencies.”

“A sort of telepathy—!” My jaw sagged, then tightened. Well, I could play the game, too. “How interesting!”

Her eyes gleamed. “Interesting aberration, isn’t it?” I flushed and she added hastily, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—to put interpretations into your mouth. But Vincent did hear—well, maybe ‘feel’ is a better word—the ground squirrel crying out against being caged. It caught him right where he lives. I think the block he has in reading is against anything that implies unwilling compulsion—you know, being held against your will—or prevented—”

Put her in a pumpkin shell, my memory chanted. The three Billy Goats Gruff were afraid to cross the bridge because—

“The other schools,” she went on, “have restricted him to the reading materials provided for his grade level, and you’d be surprised how many of the stories—

“And he did hit the rock with Gene.” She smiled ruefully. “Lifted him bodily and threw him. A rather liberal interpretation of our family rules. He’s been forbidden to lift any large objects in anger. He considered Gene the lesser of the two objects.

“You see, Miss Murcer, we do have family characteristics that aren’t exactly—mmm—usual, but Vincent is still just a school child, and we’re just parents, and he likes you much and we do, too. Accept us?”

“I—” I said, trying to blink away my confusion “I—I—”

“Ay! Ay!” Mrs. Kroginold sighed and, smiling, stood up. “Thank you for not being loudly insulted by what I’ve told you. Once a neighbor of ours that I talked a little too freely to, threatened to sue—so I appreciate. You are so good for Vincent. Thanks.”

She was gone before I could get my wits collected. It had been a little like being caught in a dustless dust-devil. I hadn’t heard the car leave, but when I looked out, there was one swing still stirring lazily between the motionless ones, and no one at all in sight on the school grounds.

I closed up the schoolroom and went into the tiny two-roomed teacherage extension on the back of the school to get my coat and purse. I had lived in those two tiny rooms for the first two years of my stay at Rinconcillo before I began to feel the need of more space and more freedom from school. Occasionally, even now, when I felt too tired to plunge out into the roar of Winter Wells, I would spend a night on my old narrow bed in the quiet of the canyon.

I wondered again about not hearing the car when I dipped down into the last sand wash before the highway. I steered carefully back across the packed narrowness of my morning tracks. Mine were the only ones, coming or going. I laid the odd discovery aside because I was immediately gulped up by the highway traffic. After I had been honked at and muttered at by two Coast drivers and had muttered at (I don’t like to honk) and swerved around two Midwest tourist types roaring along at twenty-five miles an hour in the center lane admiring the scenery, I suddenly laughed. After all, there was nothing mysterious about my lonely tire tracks. I was just slightly disoriented. MEL was less than a mile away from the school, up over the ridge, though it was a good half hour by road. Mrs. Kroginold had hiked over for the conference and the two of them had hiked back together. My imagination boggled a little at the memory of Mrs. Kroginold’s strap’n’heel sandals and the hillsides, but then, not everyone insists on flats to walk in.

Well, the white rat achieved six offspring, which cemented the friendship between Gene and Vincent forever, and school rocked along more or less serenely.

Then suddenly, as though at a signal, the pace of space exploration was stepped up in every country that had ever tried launching anything; so the school started a space unit. We went through our regular systematic lessons at a dizzying pace, and each child, after he had finished his assignment, plunged into his own chosen activity—all unrealizing of the fact that he was immediately putting into practice what he had been studying so reluctantly.

My primary group was busy working out a moonscape in the sand table. It was to be complete with clay moon-people—“They don’t have to have any noses!” That was Ginny, tender to critical comment. “They’re different! They don’t breathe. No air!” And moon-dogs and cats and cars and flowers; and even a moon-bird. “It can’t fly in the sky ’cause there ain’t—isn’t any air so it flies in the dirt!” That was Justin. “It likes bottoms of craters ’cause there’s more dirt there!”

I caught Vincent’s amused eyes as he listened to the small ones. “Little kids are funny!” he murmured. “Animals on the moon! My dad, when he was there, all he saw—” His eyes widened and he became very busy choosing the right-sized nails from the rusty coffee can.

“Middle-sized kids are funny, too,” I said. “Moon, indeed! There aren’t any dads on the moon, either!”

“I guess not.” He picked up the hammer and, as he moved away, I heard him whisper, “Not now!”

My intermediates were in the midst of a huge argument. I umpired for a while. If you use a BB shot to represent the Earth, would there be room in the schoolroom to make a scale mobile of the planetary system? I extinguished some of the fire bred of ignorance, by suggesting an encyclopedia and some math, and moved on through the room.

Gene and Vincent, not caring for such intellectual pursuits, were working on our model space capsule, which was patterned after the very latest in U.S. spacecraft, modified to include different aspects of the latest in flying saucers. I was watching Vincent leaning through a window, fitting a tin can altitude gauge—or some such—into the control panel. Gene was painting purple a row of cans around the middle of the craft. Purple was currently popular for flying saucer lights.

“I wonder if astronauts ever develop claustrophobia?” I said idly. “I get a twinge sometimes in elevators or mines.”

“I suppose susceptible ones would be eliminated long before they ever got to be astronauts,” grunted Vincent as he pushed on the tin can. “They go through all sorts of tests.”

“I know,” I said. “But people change. Just supposing—”

“Gollee!” said Gene, his poised paint brush dribbling purple down his arm and off his elbow. “Imagine! Way up there! No way out! Can’t get down! And claustrophobia!” He brought out the five syllables proudly. The school had defined and discussed the word when we first started the unit.

The tin can slipped and Vincent staggered sideways, falling against me.

“Oh!” said Vincent, his shaking hands lifting, his right arm curling up over his head. “I—”

I took one look at his twisted face, the cold sweat beading his hairline, and, circling his shoulders, steered him over to the reading bench near my desk. “Sit,” I said.

“Whatsa matter with him?” Now the paint was dripping on one leg of Gene’s Levi’s.

“Just slightly wampsy,” I said. “Watch that paint. You’re making a mess of your clothes.”

“Gollee!” He smeared his hand down his pants from hip to knee. “Mom’ll kill me!”

I lifted my voice. “It’s put-away time. Kipper, will you monitor today?”

The children were swept into organized confusion. I turned back to Vincent. “Better?”

“I’m sorry.” Color hadn’t come back to his face yet, but it was plumping up from its stricken drawnness. “Sometimes it gets through too sharply—”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, pushing his front hair up out of his eyes. “You could drive yourself crazy—”

“Mom says my imagination is a little too vivid—” His mouth corners lifted.

“So ’tis,” I smiled at him, “if it must seize upon my imaginary astronaut. There’s no point to your harrowing up your soul with what might happen. Problems we have always with us. No need to borrow any.”

“I’m not exactly borrowing,” he whispered, his shoulder hunching up towards his wincing head. “He never did want to, anyway, and now that they’re orbiting, he’s still scared. What if—” He straightened resolutely. “I’ll help Gene.” He slid away before I could stop him.

“Vincent,” I called. “Who’s orbiting—” And just then Justin dumped over the whole stack of jigsaw puzzles, upside down. That ended any further questions I might have had.

That evening I pushed the newspaper aside and thoughtfully lifted my coffee cup. I stared past its rim and out into the gathering darkness. This was the local newspaper, which was still struggling to become a big metropolitan daily after half a century of being a four-page county weekly. Sometimes its reach exceeded its grasp, and it had to bolster short columns with little folksy-type squibs. I re-read the one that had caught my eye. Morris was usually good for an item or two. I watched for them since he had had a conversation with a friend of mine I’d lost track of.

Local ham operator, Morris Staviski, says the Russians have a new manned sputnik in orbit. He says he has monitored radio signals from the capsule. He can’t tell what they’re saying, but he says they’re talking Russian. He knows what Russian sounds like because his grandmother was Russian.

“Hmm,” I thought. “I wonder. Maybe Vincent knows Morris. Maybe that’s where he got this orbiting bit.”

So the next day I asked him.

“Staviski?” He frowned a little. “No, ma’am, I don’t know anyone named Staviski. At least I don’t remember the name. Should I?”

“Not necessarily,” I said. “I just wondered. He’s a ham radio operator—”

“Oh!” His face flushed happily. “I’m working on the code now so I can take the test next time it’s given in Winter Wells! Maybe I’ll get to talk to him sometimes!”

“Me, too!” said Gene. “I’m learning the code, too!”

“He’s a little handicapped, though,” Vincent smiled. “He can’t tell a dit from a dah yet!”

The next morning Vincent crept into school with all the sun gone out. He moved like someone in a dream and got farther and farther away. Before morning recess came, I took his temperature. It was normal. But he certainly wasn’t. At recess the rapid outflow of children left him stranded in his seat, his pinched face turned to the window, his unfinished work in front of him, his idle pencil in the hand that curved up over the side of his head.

“Vincent!” I called, but there was no sign he even heard me. “Vincent!”

He drew a sobbing breath and focused his eyes on me slowly. “Yes, ma’am?” He wet his dry lips.

“What is the matter?” I asked. “Where do you feel bad?”

“Bad?” His eyes unfocused again and his face slowly distorted into a crying mask. With an effort he smoothed it out again. “I’m not the one. It’s—it’s—” He leaned his shaking chin in the palm of his hand and steadied his elbow on the top of his desk. His knuckles whitened as he clenched his fingers against his mouth.

“Vincent!” I went to him and touched his head lightly. With a little shudder and a sob, he turned and buried his face against me.

“Oh, Teacher! Teacher!”

A quick look out the window showed me that all the students were down in the creek bed building sand forts. Eight-year-old pride is easily bruised. I led Vincent up to my desk and took him onto my lap. For a while we sat there, my cheek pressed to his head as I rocked silently. His hair was spiky against my face and smelled a little like a baby chick’s feathers.

“He’s afraid! He’s afraid!” he finally whispered, his eyes tight shut. “The other one is dead. It’s broken so it can’t come back. He’s afraid! And the dead one keeps looking at him with blood on his mouth! And he can’t come down! His hands are bleeding! He hit the walls wanting to get out. But there’s no air outside!”

“Vincent,” I went on rocking, “have you been telling yourself stories until you believe them?”

“No!” He buried his face against my shoulder, his body tense. “I know! I know! I can hear him! He screamed at first, but now he’s too scared. Now he—” Vincent stilled on my lap. He lifted his face—listening. The anguish slowly smoothed away. “It’s gone again! He must go to sleep. Or unconscious. I don’t hear him all the time.”

“What was he saying?” I asked, caught up in his—well, whatever it was.

“I don’t know.” Vincent slid from my lap, his face still wary. “I don’t know his language.”

“But you said—” I protested. “How do you know what he’s feeling if you don’t even know—”

He smiled his little lip-lift. “When you look at one of us kids without a word and your left eyebrow goes up—what do you mean?”

“Well, that depends on what who’s doing,” I flushed.

“If it’s for me, I know what you mean. And I stop it. So do the other kids about themselves. That’s the way I know this.” He started back to his desk. “I’d better get my spelling done.”

“Is that the one that’s orbiting?” I asked hopefully, wanting to tie something to something.

“Orbiting?” Vincent was busily writing. “That’s the sixth word. I’m only on the fourth.”

That afternoon I finally put aside the unit tests I’d been checking and looked at the clock. Five o’clock. And at my hands. Filthy. And assessed the ache across my shoulders, the hollow in my stomach, and decided to spend the night right where I was. I didn’t even straighten my desk, but turned my weary back on it and unlocked the door to the teacherage.

I kicked off my shoes, flipped on the floor lamp, and turned up the thermostat to take the dank chill out of the small apartment. The cupboards yielded enough supplies to make an entirely satisfying meal. Afterwards, I turned the lights low and sat curled up at one end of the couch listening to one of my Acker Bilke records while I drank my coffee. I flexed my toes in blissful comfort as I let the clear, concise, tidy notes of the clarinet clear away my cobwebs of fatigue. Instead of purring, I composed another strophe to my Praise Song:

Praise God for Fedness—and Warmness—and Shelteredness—and Darkness—and Lightness—and Cleanness—and Quietness—and Unharriedness—

* * *

I dozed then for a while and woke to stillness. The stereo had turned itself off, and it was so still I could hear the wind in the oak trees and the far, unmusical blat of a diesel train. And I also could hear a repetition of the sound that had wakened me.

Someone was in the schoolroom.

I felt a throb of fright and wondered if I had locked the teacherage door. But I knew I had locked the school door just after four o’clock. Of course, a bent bobby pin and your tongue in the correct corner of your mouth and you could open the old lock. But what—who would want to? What was in there? The stealthy noises went on. I heard the creak of the loose board in the back of the room. I heard the yaaaawn of the double front door hinges and a thud and clatter on the front porch.

Half paralyzed with fright, I crept to the little window that looked out onto the porch. Cautiously I separated two of the slats of the blind and peered out into the thin slice of moonlight. I gasped and let the slats fall.

A flying saucer! With purple lights! On the porch!

Then I gave a half grunt of laughter. Flying saucers, indeed! There was something familiar about that row of purple lights—unglowing—around its middle. I knew they were purple—even by the dim light—because that was our space capsule! Who was trying to steal our cardboard-tincan-poster-painted capsule?

Then I hastily shoved the blind aside and pressed my nose to the dusty screen. The blind retaliated by swinging back and whacking me heavily on the ear, but that wasn’t what was dizzying me.

Our capsule was taking off!

“It can’t!” I gasped as it slid up past the edge of the porch roof. “Not that storage barrel and all those tin cans! It can’t!” And, sure enough, it couldn’t. It crash-landed just beyond the flagpole. But it staggered up again, spilling several cans noisily, and skimmed over the swings, only to smash against the boulder at the base of the wall.

I was out of the teacherage, through the dark schoolroom, and down the porch steps before the echo of the smash stopped bouncing from surface to surface around the canyon. I was halfway to the capsule before my toes curled and made me conscious of the fact that I was barefooted. Rather delicately I walked the rest of the way to the crumpled wreckage. What on earth had possessed it—?

In the shadows I found what had possessed it. It was Vincent, his arms wrapped tightly over his ears and across his head. He was writhing silently, his face distorted and gasping.

“Good Lord!” I gasped and fell to my knees beside him. “Vincent! What on earth!” I gathered him up as best I could with his body twisting and his legs flailing, and moved him out into the moonlight.

“I have to! I have to! I have to!” he moaned, struggling away from me. “I hear him! I hear him!”

“Hear whom?” I asked. “Vincent!” I shook him. “Make sense! What are you doing here?”

Vincent stilled in my arms for a frozen second. Then his eyes opened and he blinked in astonishment. “Teacher! What are you doing here?”

“I asked first,” I said. “What are you doing here, and what is this capsule bit?”

“The capsule?” He peered at the pile of wreckage and tears flooded down his cheeks. “Now I can’t go and I have to! I have to!”

“Come on inside,” I said. “Let’s get this thing straightened out once and for all.” He dragged behind me, his feet scuffling, his sobs and sniffles jerking to the jolting movement of his steps. But he dug in at the porch and pulled me to a halt.

“Not inside!” he said. “Oh, not inside!”

“Well, okay,” I said. “We’ll sit here for now.”

He sat on the step below me and looked up, his face wet and shining in the moonlight. I fished in the pocket of my robe for a tissue and swabbed his eyes. Then I gave him another. “Blow,” I said. He did. “Now, from the beginning.”

“I—” He had recourse to the tissue again. “I came to get the capsule. It was the only way I could think of to get the man.”

Silence crept around his flat statement until I said, “That’s the beginning?”

Tears started again. I handed him another tissue. “Now look, Vincent, something’s been bothering you for several days. Have you talked it over with your parents?”

“No,” he hiccoughed. “I’m not supp-upposed to listen in on people. It isn’t fair. But I didn’t really. He came in first and I can’t shut him out now because I know he’s in trouble, and you can’t not help if you know about someone’s need—”

Maybe, I thought hopefully, maybe this is still my nap that I’ll soon wake from—but I sighed. “Who is this man? The one that’s orbiting?”

“Yes,” he said, and cut the last hope for good solid sense from under my feet. “He’s up in a capsule and its retro-rockets won’t fire. Even if he could live until the orbital decay dropped him back into the atmosphere, the re-entry would burn him up. And he’s so afraid! He’s trapped! He can’t get out!”

I took hold of both of his shaking shoulders. “Calm down,” I said. “You can’t help him like this.” He buried his face against the skirt of my robe. I slid one of my hands over to his neck and patted him for a moment.

“How did you make the capsule move?” I asked. “It did move, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said. “I lifted it. We can, you know—lift things. My People can. But I’m not big enough. I’m not supposed to anyway, and I can’t sustain the lift. And if I can’t even get it out of this canyon, how can I lift clear out of the atmosphere? And he’ll die—scared!”

“You can make things fly?” I asked.

“Yes, all of us can. And ourselves, too. See?”

And there he was, floating! His knees level with my head! His shoe laces drooped forlornly down, and one used tissue tumbled to the steps below him.

“Come down,” I said, swallowing a vast lump of some kind. He did. “But you know there’s no air in space, and our capsule—Good Lord! Our capsule? In space?—wasn’t airtight. How did you expect to breathe?”

“We have a shield,” he said. “See?” And there he sat, a glint of something about him. I reached out a hand and drew back my stubbed fingers. The glint was gone. “It keeps out the cold and keeps in the air,” he said.

“Let’s—let’s analyze this a little,” I suggested weakly, nursing my fingers unnecessarily. “You say there’s a man orbiting in a disabled capsule, and you planned to go up in our capsule with only the air you could take with you and rescue him?” He nodded wordlessly. “Oh, child! Child!” I cried. “You couldn’t possibly!”

“Then he’ll die.” Desolation flattened his voice and he sagged forlornly.

Well, what comfort could I offer him? I sagged, too. Lucky, I thought then, that it’s moonlight tonight. People traditionally believe all kinds of arrant nonsense by moonlight. So. I straightened. Let’s believe a little—or at least act as if.


“Yes, ma am.” His face was shadowed by his hunched shoulders.

“If you can lift our capsule this far, how far could your daddy lift it?”

“Oh, lots farther!” he cried. “My daddy was studying to be a regular Motiver when he went to the New Home, but he stopped when he came back across space to Earth again because Outsiders don’t accept—oh!” His eyes rounded and he pressed his hands to his mouth. “Oh, I forgot!” His voice came muffled. “I forgot! You’re an Outsider! We’re forbidden to tell—to show—Outsiders don’t—”

“Nonsense,” I said. “I’m not an Outsider. I’m a teacher. Can you call your mother tonight the way you did the day you and Gene had that fight?”

“A fight? Me and Gene?” The fight was obviously an event of the neolithic period for Vincent. “Oh, yes, I remember. Yes, I guess I could, but she’ll be mad because I left—and I told—and—and—” Weeping was close again.

“You’ll have to choose,” I pointed out, glad to the bones that it wasn’t my choice to make, “between letting the man die or having her mad at you. You should have told them when you first knew about him.”

“I didn’t want to tell that I’d listened to the man—”

“Is he Russian?” I asked, just for curiosity’s sake.

“I don’t know,” he said. “His words are strange. Now he keeps saying something like Hospodi pomelui. I think he’s talking to God.”

“Call your mother,” I said, no linguist I. “She’s probably worried to death by now.”

Obediently, he closed his eyes and sat silent for a while on the step below me. Then he opened his eyes. “She’d just found out I wasn’t in bed,” he said. “They’re coming.” He shivered a little. “Daddy gets so mad sometimes. He hasn’t the most equitable of temperaments?”

“Oh, Vincent!” I laughed. “What an odd mixture you are!”

“No, I’m not,” he said. “Both my mother and daddy are of the People. Remy is a mixture ’cause his grampa was of the Earth, but mine came from the Home. You know—when it was destroyed. I wish I could have seen the ship our People came to Earth in. Daddy says when he was little, they used to dig up pieces of it from the walls and floors of the canyon where it crashed. But they still had a life ship in a shed behind their house and they’d play they were escaping again from the big ship.” Vincent shivered. “But some didn’t escape. Some died in the sky and some died because Earth people were scared of them.”

I shivered too and rubbed my cold ankles with both hands. I wondered wistfully if this wasn’t asking just a trifle too much of my ability to believe, even in the name of moonlight.

Vincent brought me back abruptly to my particular Earth. “Look! Here they are already! Gollee! That was fast. They sure must be mad!” And he trailed out onto the playground.

I looked expectantly toward the road and only whirled the other way when I heard the thud of feet. And there they stood, both Mr. and Mrs. Kroginold. And he did look mad! His—well—rough-hewn is about the kindest description—face frowning in the moonlight. Mrs. Kroginold surged toward Vincent and Mr. Kroginold swelled preliminary to a vocal blast—or so I feared—so I stepped quickly into the silence.

“There’s our school capsule,” I said, motioning towards the crushed clutter at the base of the boulder. “That’s what he was planning to go up in to rescue a man in a disabled sputnik. He thought the air inside that shiny whatever he put around himself would suffice for the trip. He says a man is dying up there, and he’s been carrying that agony around with him, all alone, because he was afraid to tell you.”

I stopped for a breath and Mr. Kroginold deflated and—amazingly—grinned a wide, attractive grin, half silver, half shadow.

“Why the gutsy little devil!” he said admiringly. “And I’ve been fearing the stock was running out! When I was a boy in the canyon—” But he sobered suddenly and turned to Vincent. “Vince! If there’s need, let’s get with it. What’s the deal?” He gathered Vincent into the curve of his arm, and we all went back to the porch. “Now. Details.” We all sat.

Vincent, his eyes intent on his father’s face and his hand firmly holding his mother’s, detailed.

“There are two men orbiting up there. The capsule won’t function properly. One man is dead. I never did hear him. The other one is crying for help.” Vincent’s face tightened anxiously. “He—he feels so bad that it nearly kills me. Only sometimes I guess he passes out because the feeling goes away—like now. Then it comes back worse—”

“He’s orbiting,” said Mr. Kroginold, his eyes intent on Vincent’s face.

“Oh,” said Vincent weakly, “of course! I didn’t think of that! Oh, Dad! I’m so stupid!” And he flung himself on Mr. Kroginold.

“No,” said Mr. Kroginold, wrapping him around with the dark strength of his arms. “Just young. You’ll learn. But first learn to bring your problems to your mother and me. That’s what we’re for!”

“But,” said Vincent, “I’m not supposed to listen in—”

“Did you seek him out?” asked Mr. Kroginold. “Did you know about the capsule?”

“No,” said Vincent. “He just came in to me—”

“See?” Mr. Kroginold set Vincent back on the step. “You weren’t listening in. You were invaded. You just happened to be the right receptivity. Now, what were your plans?”

“They were probably stupid, too,” admitted Vincent. “But I was going to lift our capsule—I had to have something to put him in—and try to intercept the orbit of the other one. Then I was going to get the man out—I don’t know how—and bring him back to Earth and put him down at the FBI building in Washington. They’d know how to get him home again.”

“Well.” Mr. Kroginold smiled faintly. “Your plan has the virtue of simplicity, anyway. Just nit-picking, though, I can see one slight problem. How would the FBI ever convince the authorities in his country that we hadn’t impounded the capsule for our own nefarious purposes?” Then he became very business-like.

“Lizbeth, will you get in touch with Ron? I think he’s in Kerry tonight. Lucky our best Motiver is This End right now. I’ll see if Jemmy is up-canyon. We’ll get his okay on Remy’s craft at the Selkirk. If this has been going on for very long, time is what we’ve got little of.”

It was rather anti-climactic after all those efficient rattlings-out of directions to see the three of them just sit quietly there on the step, hands clasped, their faces lifted a little in the moonlight, their eyes closed. My left foot was beginning to go to sleep when Vincent’s chin finally dropped, and he pulled one hand free from his mother’s grasp to curl his arm up over his head. Mrs. Kroginold’s eyes flipped open. “Vincent?” Her voice was anxious.

“It’s coming again,” I said. “That distress—whatever it is.”

“Ron’s heading for the Selkirk now,” she said, gathering Vincent to her. “Jake, Vincent’s receiving again.”

Mr. Kroginold said hastily to the eaves of the porch, “—as soon as possible. Hang on. Vincent’s got him again. Wait, I’ll relay. Vince, where can I reach him? Show me.”

And damned if they didn’t all sit there again—with Vincent’s face shining with sweat and his mother trying to cradle his twisting body. Then Mr. Kroginold gave a grunt, and Vincent relaxed with a sob. His father took him from his mother.

“Already?” I asked. “That was a short one.”

Mrs. Kroginold fished for a tissue in her pocket and wiped Vincent’s face. “It isn’t over yet,” she said. “It won’t be until the capsule swings behind the Earth again, but he’s channeling the distress to his father, and he’s relaying it to Jemmy up-canyon. Jemmy is our Old One. He’ll help us handle it from here on out. But Vincent will have to be our receptor—”

“ ‘A sort of telepathy,’ ” I quoted, dizzy with trying to follow a road I couldn’t even imagine.

“A sort of telepathy.” Mrs. Kroginold laughed and sighed, her finger tracing Vincent’s cheek lovingly. “You’ve had quite a mish-mash dumped in your lap, haven’t you? And no time for us to be subtle.”

“It is bewildering,” I said. “I’ve been adding two and two and getting the oddest fours!”

“Like?” she asked.

“Like maybe Vincent’s forefathers didn’t come over in the Mayflower, but maybe a spaceship?”

“But not quite Mayflower years ago,” she smiled. “And?”

“And maybe Vincent’s dad has seen no life on the moon?”

“Not so very long ago,” she said. “And?”

“And maybe there is a man in distress up there and you are going to try to rescue him?”

“Well,” said Mrs. Kroginold. “Those fours look all right to me.”

“They do?” I goggled. Then I sighed, “Ah well, this modern math! I knew it would be the end of me!”

Mr. Kroginold brought his eyes back to us. “Well, it’s all set in motion. Ron’s gone for the craft. He’ll be here to pick us up as soon as he can make it. Jemmy’s taking readings on the capsule so we’ll be able to attempt rendezvous. Then, the Power being willing, we’ll be able to bring the fellow back.”

“I—I—” I stood up. This was suddenly too much. “I think maybe I’d better go back in the house.” I brushed the sand off the back of my robe. “One thing bothers me still, though.”

“Yes?” Mrs. Kroginold smiled.

“How is the FBI going to convince the authorities of the other country?”

“Ay!” she said, sobering. “Jake—”

And I gathered my skirts up and left the family there on the school porch. As I closed the teacherage door behind me, I leaned against it. It was so dark—in here. And there was such light out there! Why, they had jumped into helping without asking one single question! Then I wondered what questions I had expected—Was the man a nice man? Was he worth saving? Was he an important personage? What kind of reward? Is there a need? That’s all they needed to know!

I looked at the sleepcoat I hadn’t worn yet, but I felt too morning to undress and go to bed properly, so I slid out of my robe and put my dress back on. And my shoes. And a sweater. And stood irresolutely in the middle of the floor. After all! What is the etiquette for when your guests are about to go into orbit from your front porch?

Then there was a thud at the door and the knob rattled. I heard Mrs. Kroginold call softly, “But Vincent! An Outsider?”

“But she isn’t!” said Vincent, fumbling again at the door. “She said she isn’t—she’s a teacher. And I know she’d like—” The door swung open suddenly and tumbled Vincent to the schoolroom floor. Mrs. Kroginold was just outside the outer door on the porch.

“Sorry,” she said. “Vincent thinks maybe you’d like to see the craft arrive—but—”

“You’re afraid I might tell,” I said for her. “And it should be kept in the family. I’ve been repository for odd family stories before. Well, maybe not quite—”

Vincent scrambled for the porch. “Here it comes!” he cried.

I was beside Mrs. Kroginold in a split second and, grasping hands, we raced after Vincent. Mr. Kroginold had been standing in the middle of the playground, but he drifted back to us as a huge—well, a huge nothing came down through the moonlight.

“It—where is it?” I wondered if some dimension I didn’t know was involved.

“Oh,” said Mrs. Kroginold. “It has the unlight over it. Jake! Ask Ron—”

Mr. Kroginold turned his face to the huge nothing. And there it was! A slender silver something, its nose arcing down from a rocket position to rest on the tawny sands of the playground.

“The unlight’s so no one will see us,” said Mrs. Kroginold, “and we flow it so it won’t bother radar and things like that.” She laughed. “We’re not the right shape for this year’s flying saucers, anyway. I’m glad we’re not. Who wants to look like a frosted cupcake on a purple lighted plate? That’s what’s so In now.”

“Is it really a spaceship?” I asked, struck by how clean the lovely gleaming craft was that had come so silently to dent our playground.

“Sure it is!” cried Vincent. “The Old Man had it and they took him to the moon in it to bury him and Bethie too and Remy went with their dad and mom and—”

“A little reticence, Son,” said Mr. Kroginold, catching Vincent’s hand. “It isn’t necessary to go into all that history.”

“She—she realizes,” said Mrs. Kroginold. “It’s not as if she were a stranger.”

“We shouldn’t be gone too long,” said Mr. Kroginold. “I’ll pick you up here as soon—”

“Pick us up! I’m going with you!” cried Mrs. Kroginold. “Jake Kroginold! If you think you’re going to do me out of a thing as wild and wonderful as this—”

“Let her go with us, Dad,” begged Vincent.

“With us?” Mr. Kroginold raked his fingers back through his hair. “You, too?”

“Of course!” Vincent’s eyes were wide with astonishment. “It’s my man!”

“Well, adonday veeah in cards and spades!” said Mr. Kroginold. He grinned over at me. “Family!” he said.

I studiously didn’t meet his eyes. I felt a deep wave of color move up my face as I kept my mouth clamped shut. I wouldn’t say anything! I couldn’t ask! I had no right to expect—

“And Teacher, too!” cried Vincent. “Teacher, too!”

Mr. Kroginold considered me for a long moment. My wanting must have been a flaring thing because he finally shrugged an eyebrow and echoed, “And Teacher, too.”

Then I nearly died! It was so wild and wonderful and impossible and I’m scared to death of heights! We scurried about getting me a jacket. Getting Kipper’s forgotten jacket out of the cloak room for Vincent, who had come off without his. Taking one of my blankets, just in case. I paused a moment in the mad scramble, hand poised over my Russian-English, English-Russian pocket dictionary. Then left it. The man might not be Russian at all. And even if he was, people like Vincent’s seemed to have little need for such aids to communication.

A door opened in the craft. I looked at it, thinking blankly, Ohmy! Ohmy! We had started across the yard toward the craft when I gasped, “The—the door! I have to lock the door!”

I dashed back to the schoolhouse and into the darkness of the teacherage. And foolishly, childishly, there in the dark, I got awfully hungry! I yanked a cupboard door open and scrabbled briefly. Peanut butter—slippery, glassy cylinder—crackers—square-cornered, waxy carton. I slammed the cupboard shut, snatched up my purse as though I were on the way to the MONSTER MERCANTILE, staggered out of the door, and juggled my burdens until I could manipulate the key. Then I hesitated on the porch, one foot lifting, all ready to go to the craft, and silently gasped my travel prayer. “Dear God, go with me to my destination. Don’t let me imperil anyone or be imperiled by anyone. Amen.” I started down the steps, paused, and cried softly, “To my destination and back! Oh, please! And back!”

Have you, oh, have you ever watched space reach down to surround you as your hands would reach down to surround a minnow? Have you ever seen Earth, a separate thing, apart from you, and see-almost-all-able? Have you ever watched color deepen and run until it blared into blaze and blackness? Have you ever stepped out of the context in which your identity is established and floated un-anyone beyond the steady pulse of night and day and accustomed being? Have you ever, for even a fleeting second, shared God’s eyes? I have! I have!

And Mrs. Kroginold and Vincent were with me in all the awesome wonder of our going. You couldn’t have seen us go even if you had known where to look. We were wrapped in unlight again, and the craft was flowed again to make it a nothing to any detection device.

“I wish I could space walk!” said Vincent, finally, turning his shoulders but not his eyes away from the window. “Daddy—”

“No.” Mr. Kroginold’s tone left no loophole for further argument.

“Well, it would be fun,” Vincent sighed. Then he said in a very small voice, “Mother, I’m hungry.”

“So sorry!” Mrs. Kroginold hugged him to her briefly. “Nearest hamburger joint’s a far piece down the road!”

“Here—” I found, after two abortive attempts, that I still had a voice. I slithered cautiously to my knees on the bare floor—no luxury liner, this—and sat back. “Peanut butter.” The jar clicked down. “And crackers.” The carton thumped—and my elbow creaked almost audibly as I straightened it out from its spasmed clutch.

“Gollee! Real deal!” Vincent plumped down beside me and began working on the lid of the jar. “What’ll we spread it with?”

“Oh!” I blankly considered the problem. “Oh, I have a nail file here in my purse.” I was fishing for it amid the usual clutter when I caught Mrs. Kroginold’s surprised look. I grinned sheepishly. “I thought I was hungry. But I guess that wasn’t what was wrong with my stomach!”

Shortly after the jar was opened and the roasty smell of peanuts spread, Mr. Kroginold and another fellow drifted casually over to us. I preferred to ignore the fact that they actually drifted—no steps on the floor. The other fellow was introduced as Jemmy. The Old One? Not so old, it seemed to me. But then “old” might mean “wise” to these people. And on that score he could qualify. He had none of the loose ends that I can often sense in people. He was—whole.

“Ron is lifting,” said Mr. Kroginold through a mouthful of peanut butter and crackers. He nodded at the center of the room, where another fellow sat looking intently at a square, boxy-looking thing.

“That’s the amplifier,” Jemmy said, as though that explained anything. “It makes it possible for one man to manage the craft.”

Something buzzed on a panel across the room. “There!” Mr. Kroginold was at the window, staring intently. “There it is! Good work, Ron!”

At that moment Vincent cried out, his arms going up in their protesting posture. Mrs. Kroginold pushed him over to his father, who drew him in the curve of his shoulder to the window, coaxing down the tense arms.

“See? There’s the craft! It looks odd. Something’s not right about it.”

“Can—can we take off the unlight now?” asked Vincent, jerkily. “So he can see us? Then maybe he won’t feel so bad—”

“Jemmy?” Mr. Kroginold called across the craft. “What do you think? Would the shock of our appearance be too much?”

“It could hardly be worse than the hell he’s in now,” said Jemmy. “So—”

“Oh!” cried Vincent. “He thinks he just now died. He thinks we’re the Golden Gates!”

“Rather a loose translation.” Jemmy flung a smiling glance at us. “But he is wondering if we are the entrance to the afterworld. Ron, can we dock?”

Moments later, there was a faint metallic click and a slight vibration through our craft. Then we three extras stood pressed to the window and watched Mr. Kroginold and Jemmy leave our craft. They were surrounded, it’s true, by their shields that caught light and slid it rapidly around, but they did look so unguarded—no, they didn’t! They looked right at home and intent on their rescue mission. They disappeared from the sight of our windows. We waited and waited, not saying anything—not aloud, anyway. I could feel a clanking through the floor under me. And a scraping. Then a long nothing again.

Finally they came back in sight, the light from our window glinting across a mutuaI protective bubble that enclosed the two of them and a third inert figure between them.

“He still thinks he’s dead,” said Vincent soberly. “He’s wondering if he ought to try to pray. He wasn’t expecting people after he died. But mostly he’s trying not to think.”

They brought him in and laid him on the floor. They eased him out of his suit and wrapped him in my blanket. We three gathered around him looking at his quiet, tight face. So young! I thought. So young! Unexpectedly his eyes opened, and he took us in, one by one. At the sight of Vincent, his mouth dropped open and his eyes fled shut again.

“What’d he do that for?” asked Vincent, a trifle hurt.

“Angels,” said his mother firmly, “are not supposed to have peanut butter around the mouth!”

The three men consulted briefly. Then Mr. Kroginold prepared to leave our craft again. This time he took a blanket from the Rescue Pack they had brought in the craft.

“He can manage the body alone,” said Jemmy, being our intercom. A little later— “He has the body out, but he’s gone back—” His forehead creased, then cleared. “Oh, the tapes and instrument packets,” he explained to our questioning glances. “He thinks maybe they can study them and prevent this happening again.”

He turned to Mrs. Kroginold. “Well, Lizbeth, back when all of you were in school together in the canyon, I wouldn’t have given a sandwiched quarter for the chances of any Kroginold ever turning out well. I sprinkle repentant ashes on my bowed head. Some good can come from Kroginolds!”

And Vincent screamed!

Before we could look his way, there was a blinding flash that exploded through every window as though we had suddenly been stabbed through and through. Then we were all tumbled in blinded confusion from one wall of our craft to another until, almost as suddenly, we floated in a soundless blackness. “Jake! Oh, Jake!” I heard Mrs. Kroginold’s whispering gasp. Then she cried out, “Jemmy! Jemmy! What happened? Where’s Jake?”

Light came back. From where, I never did know. I hadn’t known its source even before.

“The retro-rockets—” I felt more of his answer than I heard. “Maybe they finally fired. Or maybe the whole capsule just blew up. Ron?”

“Might have holed us.” A voice I hadn’t heard before answered. “Didn’t. Capsule’s gone.”

“But—but—” The enormity of what had happened slowed our thoughts. “Jake!” Mrs. Kroginold screamed. “Jemmy! Ron! Jake’s out there!”

And, as suddenly as the outcry came, it was cut off. In terror I crouched on the floor, my arms up defensively, not to my ears as Vincent’s had gone—there was nothing to hear—but against the soundless, aimless tumbling of bodies above me. Jemmy and Vincent and Mrs. Kroginold were like corpses afloat in some invisible sea. And Vincent, burrowed into a corner, was a small, silent, humped-up bundle.

I think I would have gone mad in the incomprehensible silence if a hand hadn’t clutched mine. Startled, I snatched my hand away, but gave it back, with a sob, to our shipwrecked stranger. He accepted it with both of his. We huddled together, taking comfort in having someone to cling to.

Then I shook with hysterical laughter as I suddenly realized. “ ‘A sort of telepathy’!” I giggled. “They are not dead, but speak. Words are slow, you know.” I caught the young man’s puzzled eyes. “And of very little use in a situation like this.”

I called to Ron where he crouched near the amplifier box, “They are all right, aren’t they?”

“They?” His head jerked upward. “Of course. Communicating.”

“Where’s Mr. Kroginold?” I asked. “How can we ever hope to find him out there?”

“Trying to reach him,” said Ron, his chin flipping upward again. “Don’t feel him dead. Probably knocked out. Can’t find him unconscious.”

“Oh.” The stranger’s fingers tightened on mine. I looked at him. He was struggling to get up. I let go of him and shakily, on hands and knees, we crawled to the window, his knees catching on the blanket. For a long moment, the two of us stared out into the darkness. I watched the lights wheel slowly past until I reoriented, and we were the ones wheeling. But as soon as I relaxed, again it was the lights wheeling slowly past. I didn’t know what we were looking for. I couldn’t get any kind of perspective on anything outside our craft. Any given point of light could have been a dozen light-years away—or could have been a glint inside the glass—or was it glass?—against which I had my nose pressed.

But the stranger seemed to know what he was looking for. Suddenly I cried out and twisted my crushed fingers to free them. He let go and gestured toward the darkness, saying something tentative and hopeful.

“Ron!” I called, trying to see what the man was seeing. “Maybe—maybe he sees something.” There was a stir above me and Jemmy slid down to the floor beside me.

“A visual sighting?” he whispered tensely.

“I don’t know,” I whispered back. “Maybe he—”

Jemmy laid his hand on the man’s wrist, and then concentrated on whatever it was out in the void that had caught the stranger’s attention.

“Ron—” Jemmy gestured out the window and—well, I guess Ron gestured with our craft—because things outside swam a different way until I caught a flick or a gleam or a movement.

“There, there, there,” crooned Jemmy, almost as though soothing an anxious child. “There, there, there. Lizbeth!”

And all of us except Ron were crowded against the window, watching a bundle of some sort tumbling toward us. “Shield intact,” whispered Jenny. “Praise the Power!”

“Oh, Daddy, Daddy!” choked Vincent against his whitened knuckles. Mrs. Kroginold clung to him wordlessly.

Then Jemmy was gone, streaking through our craft, away outside from us. I saw the glint of his shield as he rounded our craft. I saw him gather the tumbling bundle up and disappear with it. Then he was back in the craft again, kneeling—unglinted—beside Mr. Kroginold as he lay on the floor. Mrs. Kroginold and Vincent launched themselves toward them.

Our stranger tugged at his half-shed blanket. I shuffled my knees off it and he shivered himself back into it.

They had to peel Mr. Kroginold’s arms from around the instrument packet before they could work on him—in their odd, undoing way of working. And the stranger and I exchanged wavery smiles of congratulations when Mr. Kroginold finally opened his eyes.

So that was it. After it was all over, I got the deep, breath-drawing feeling I get when I have finished a most engrossing book, and a sort of last-page-flipping—feeling, wistfully wishing there were more—just a little more!

Oh, the loose ends? I guess there were a few. They tied themselves quite casually and briskly in the next few days.

It was only a matter of moments after Mr. Kroginold had sat up and smiled a craggy smile of satisfaction at the packet he had brought back with him that Ron said, “Convenient.” And we spiraled down—or so it felt to me—to the Earth beneath while Jemmy, fingers to our stranger’s wrist, communicated to him in such a way that the stranger’s eyes got very large and astonished and he looked at me—at me!—questioningly. I nodded. Well, what else could I do? He was asking something, and, so far, every question around these People seemed to have a positive answer!

So it was that we delivered him, not to the FBI in Washington, but to his own doorstep at a launching base somewhere deep in his own country. We waited, hovering under our unlight and well flowed, until the door swung open and gulped him in, instrument packet, my blanket, and all.

Imagination boggles at the reception there must have been for him! They surely knew the capsule had been destroyed in orbit. And to have him walk in—!

And Mr. Kroginold struggled for a couple of days with “Virus X” without benefit of the company doctor, then went back to work.

A couple of weeks later they moved away to another lab, half across the country, where Mr. Kroginold could go on pursuing whatever it is he is pursuing.

And a couple of days before they left, I quite unexpectedly gave Vincent a going-away gift.

That morning Vincent firmed his lips, his cheeks coloring, and shook his head. “I can’t read it,” he said, and began to close the book.

That I don’t believe,” I said firmly, my flare of exasperation igniting into sudden inspiration. Vincent looked at me, startled. He was so used to my acceptance of his reading block that he was shaken a bit.

“But I can’t, he said patiently.

“Why not?” I asked bluntly.

“I have a block,” he said as flatly.

“What triggers it?” I probed.

“Why—why, Mother says anything that suggests unhappy compulsion—”

“How do you know this story has any such thing in it?” I asked. “All it says in the title is a name—Stickeen.

“But I know,” he said miserably, his head bent as he flicked the pages of the story with his thumb.

“I’ll tell you how you know,” I said. “You know because you’ve read the story already.”

“But I haven’t!” Vincent’s face puckered. “You only brought this book today!”

“That’s true,” I said. “And you turned the pages to see how long the story was. Only then did you decide you wouldn’t read it—again!”

“I don’t understand—” Wonder was stirring in his eyes.

“Vincent,” I said, “you read this whole story in the time it took you to turn the pages. You gulped it page by page and that’s how you know there’s unhappy compulsion in it. So, you refuse to read it—again.”

“Do—do you really think so?” asked Vincent in a hopeful half whisper. “Oh, Teacher, can I really read after all? I’ve been so ashamed! One of the People, and not able to read!”

“Let’s check,” I said, excited, too. “Give me the book. I’ll ask you questions—” And I did. And he answered every single one of them!

“I can read!” He snatched the book from me and hugged it to him with both arms. “Hey! Gene! I can read!”

“Big deal!” said Gene, glancing up from his labor on the butcher paper spread on the floor. He was executing a fanciful rendition, in tempera, of the Indians greeting Columbus in a chartreuse, magenta, and shriek-pink jungle. “I learned to read in the first grade. Which way do a crocodile’s knees bend?”

“All you have to remember,” I said to a slightly dashed Vincent, “is to slow down a bit and be a little less empathetic.” I was as pleased as he was. “And to think of the time I wasted for both of us, making you sound out your words—”

“But I need it,” he said. “I still can’t spell for sour apples!”

Vincent gave me a going-away present the Friday night that the Kroginolds came to say goodby. We were sitting in the twilight on the school porch. Vincent, shaken by having to leave Rinconcillo and Gene, and still thrilling to knowing he could read, gave me one of his treasures. It was a small rock, an odd crystalline formation that contrived at the same time to be betryoidal. In the curve of my palm it even had a strange feeling of resilience, though there was no yielding in it when I pressed my thumb to it.

“Daddy brought it to me from the moon,” he told me, and deftly fielded it as my astonishment let it fall. “I’ll probably get another one, someday,” he said as he gave it back to me. “But even if I don’t, I want you to have it.”

Mr. and Mrs. Kroginold and I talked quietly for a while with no reference to parting. I shook them a little with, “Why do you suppose that stranger could send his thoughts to Vincent? I mean, he doesn’t pick up distress from everyone, very apparently. Do you suppose that man might be from People like you? Are there People like you in that part of the world?”

They looked at each other, startled. “We really don’t know!” said Mr. Kroginold. “Many of our People were unaccounted for when we arrived on Earth, but we just assumed that all of them were dead except for the groups around here—”

“I wonder if it ever occurred to Jemmy,” said Mrs. Kroginold thoughtfully.

After they left, disappearing into the shadows of the hillside toward MEL, I sat for a while longer, turning the moon-pebble in my hands. What an odd episode! In a month or so it would probably seem like a distant dream, melting into my teaching years along with all the other things past. But it still didn’t seem quite finished to me. Meeting people like the Kroginolds and the others, makes an indelible impression on a person. Look what it did for that stranger—

What about that stranger? How was he explaining? Were they giving him a hard time? Then I gulped. I had just remembered. My name and address were on a tape on the corner of that blanket of mine he had been wrapped in. If he had discovered it—! And if things got too thick for him—

Oh, gollee! What if some day there comes a knock on my door and there—!

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