When I laid eyes on the boy, I wondered if I could ever love him. I wanted to love him; after all, he was my husband’s son. But he wasn’t mine.
He stood between two of the nuns, all big brown eyes sandwiched by starched white habits. Nut-brown face, black wavy hair, stick-thin arms and bony, bruised legs.
Two days ago I’d gotten a call from Sister Angelica (Actually, the call was for my husband, but Sam Murphy was no longer of this earth; he and our son, Jake, had been killed in an auto accident three months previously.) informing me of the boy’s existence. And in almost the same breath, she’d asked if I could take the boy. “His mother passed away six months ago. There’s no one else.”
After I’d gotten over the shock of finding out that Sam had a son I’d known nothing about, I reluctantly agreed to do my Christian duty by the boy.
The older of the two nuns stepped forward and held out her hand. “I’m Sister Angelica. We spoke on the phone.” I shook her work-roughened hand. “And this is Manuel.” Sister Angelica nudged the boy out from behind her skirt. “This is the nice lady I told you about. You’re going to go live with her and she’ll be your new mother.”
Manuel glanced at me, then quickly away. He scrunched up against Sister Angelica.
In the brief instant our eyes had met, I’d seen what? Resentment? Aimed at me? Probably so. He no more wanted a new mother than I wanted a new son.
But I did feel sorry for the boy. From what the sister had told me, I gathered that Manuel’s life had been a hard one. “As she had in the past, his mother left him with us when she went into the hospital for electroshock treatments,” the sister had said on the phone. “But this time, she didn’t come back–she died.”
And only ten years old.
I wondered what Jake would have been like at ten.
I plastered an uncomfortable smile on my face, held out my hand. “My name is Agnes Murphy, Manuel. I’m happy to meet you.”
Sister Angelica propelled Manuel forward. The boy took my hand. “I–I’m happy to m–meet you too, Mrs. Murphy.”
Papers were signed, and by early afternoon, Manuel and I were on our way back to Octavia, back to the empty house I’d locked up that morning before making the short trip south to El Paso. Along the way, the boy and I hardly spoke. I didn’t know what to say, and I suppose he didn’t either.
Then all too quickly we were there, and I knew what lay just ahead of the road sign announcing that one was now entering Octavia, population 739 souls. My heart felt cold, heavy, like a thing on the edge of death. For a moment, I considered turning onto a side street to avoid what awaited me around the curve–then it was too late and the white slabs came into view, lined up across the brown grass in neat rows of sorrow. And as I had almost every day since Sam and Jake had been taken from me, I turned off onto the driveway and rolled to a stop in front of the open gate. Manuel peered through the windshield.
“Why’re we stopping here? Ain’t this where they put dead people?”
My hands clenched the steering wheel. “Yes, this is where they put dead people.” And the teacher in me added. “Isn’t, not ain’t, young man.”
I looked over at the boy. His eyes were downcast, shoulders hunched over. “I’m sorry, Manuel…I…well…”
My gaze returned to the windshield. “I stopped here because this is where your father is buried. I thought you might want to…uh…see him–no, the place. See the place.”
“If you want…”
If I want? If I want? What I wanted was for Jake and Sam to be alive. What I wanted was to have never known of Manuel’s existence.
But one doesn’t always get what one wants. God sees to that.
I swallowed my anger; it went down like a rusty blade. “Yes, it’s what I want.”
I pushed open the car door, stepped out into the afternoon heat. My head swam. I closed my eyes and leaned against the dusty Oldsmobile.
“You all right?”
I opened my eyes, looked down into Manuel’s face. Twin furrows slashed the smooth skin between his worried eyes. Lord, he looked like Sam.
I grasped the boy’s hand, muttered an “I’m fine,” and set out across the crispy, sun-baked grass. I stopped beneath the shade of an oak. Here, the earth still bore the scars of its recent disturbance. I motioned to one of the two brand-spanking-new headstones. “Your father.”
Manuel approached the block of granite bearing Sam’s name. He looked at the headstone for a moment, then reached out and laid his hand upon it, caressed it as I had done many times. Then his attention turned to its neighbor. “Jacob Samuel Murphy.” His eyes turned to me. “Who’s he?”
I spoke around the lump that had formed in my throat. “My son.”
“Oh…” Manuel stepped closer to Jake’s headstone. “They both died on the same day.”
“Yes.” Then I told him how.
“Why do people have to die, Mrs. Murphy?”
Tears clogged my throat. “I don’t know.”
“Sister Angelica said that God has a reason for everything.” Manuel looked up at me. “What was His reason for letting my mama die?”
The pain in the boy’s eyes called out to the anguished, angry beast that lived and breathed in my heart. I dropped on my knees, wrapped my arms around his skinny body. “I don’t know. I…I…” Sobs wracked my body.
Manuel hesitantly encircled me with his arms, patted my back. His warmth felt so good, comforting.
After a time I stood up, brushed the tears off my face and the dirt off my knees. I took Manuel’s hand in mine. “Let’s go.”
Together, we stepped out from the shade into the brilliant sunshine.
Manuel said, “Is Jacob my brother?”
“I always wanted a brother.”
“I’ll tell you all about him when we get home.”