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Authors: Neil Connelly

The Miracle Stealer

BOOK: The Miracle Stealer
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THE MIRACLE STEALER
NEIL CONNELLY

ARTHUR A. LEVINE BOOKS
An Imprint of Scholastic Inc
.

For Owen and James,
the only proof I'll ever need

I
needed to save Daniel. That's why I made the choices I did. I didn't need for my dad to come home, and I didn't need for my mother and me to have some grand reconciliation. I didn't need the track scholarships I'd turned down or the futures they promised. I didn't even need Jeff Cedars to fall in love with me a second time. All I needed was for my kid brother to have a normal life, and I believed with all my heart that I knew the way to give it to him. The only problem, as I came to find out, was that just believing something doesn't make it true.

Take for example what some believe about the morning that ragged rescue crew pulled baby Daniel from the earth after three days buried alive. I suppose that like most of the planet you watched on TV, saw his body strapped to that board, his cheeks bloodied and his eyes blinking in the day's first light. You heard the word whispered reverently by every wide-eyed reporter:
miracle.
Afterward, some people couldn't get enough of that crazy story. They took it as gospel truth that Daniel died in that hole and came back to life as something more, something better. In no time the tabloids and nutjob websites filled with wild rumors about my brother, about the fire that didn't burn him and the cripples he cured and the blind whose eyes he opened. But the thing about stories like Daniel's is that they take on a life of their
own. Nobody really knows what happened for sure except the ones who saw it all firsthand, like I did.

In the hospital, right at the end of the life I used to lead, Leo told me that seeing something happen only makes you an observer. To qualify as a witness, he explained, you have to offer testimony, share your own truth with others. So I'll tell you all I saw and did, plain as I can, and you'll decide for yourself just what to believe about the Miracle Boy of Paradise, Pennsylvania. I'll start with the Saturday night about a year back, a midsummer evening when, if you trust the rumors, my brother Daniel walked across the waters of Paradise Lake to bring a baby girl back from the dead.

After midnight I was in my bed down in Cabin Two, but I was wide awake, alert, and waiting. I knew from Gayle that Mrs. Abernathy was close. When the screen door of the main house creaked open and snapped shut, I rolled from my bed, knelt by my window, and brushed back the worn curtain. Up the hill and beyond the dark columns of trees, I could see my mother crossing through the yellow porch light and down the stone steps. She led Daniel by the wrist. With his free hand he was rubbing at his eyes.

Already dressed, I jammed on my sneakers and took off through my living room, out onto my porch, and then up the steep trail, ducking beneath hairy hemlock arms and scraping against the rough bark of pines. By the time I got to the truck, my mother had tossed Daniel into his booster and strapped the seat belt across his chest. I reached for the passenger door handle, but she fisted down the lock. Our eyes met through the window. Daniel, wide-eyed and startled, was wearing the Batman pajamas
I'd just bought him for his sixth birthday. He looked tired and confused. My mother straightened and turned the key, causing the engine to sputter to life and the tailpipe to cough smoke. But before she could pull away, I charged right into the headlights and slammed both hands on the hood. We stared at each other through the dirty windshield until her face soured and she cranked down her window. “They called,” she said.

I looked at Daniel. “Little Man, open that door and hop on out.”

He glanced toward my mother but otherwise stayed frozen.

My hands shivered from the engine's hum. My mother gripped the steering wheel. “The Abernathys are good people,” she said, “and they need our help. Can't you try to have a little faith?”

“I got all the faith I need. Faith in Bert and Dr. Ghadari. Mr. Abernathy needs to call the hospital.”

“You know how they feel after what happened last time. That's not our decision.”

“It's not our decision to keep Daniel safe? Look at your son, Ma.”

Tears were slipping down his freckled cheeks now, and he was running a hand through his short blond crew cut.

My mother shook her head. “He's crying because you upset him. He was fine before you came and got him all riled up. He wants to go and help. It's a sin not to use the gifts God gives you.”

I looked at my brother and remembered his fevered face the night Mrs. Bundower died. And when the elders of our church—a pack of four-star loonies—accused him of not praying hard
enough after the fish kill that same summer, I was the one who found him alone in his bed, sweaty and trembling as he tried to do the impossible. I leaned my chest down into the grille and locked my knees out behind me, as if I could halt the truck like one of the superheroes in the comic books Daniel loved. “Daniel's not praying for anybody tonight,” I told my mother.

Daniel sniffled and wiped tears from his face. “Everybody's yelling. I was dreaming 'bout a red balloon.”

“There's no time for this,” my mother shouted. She shifted into gear and locked eyes with me again. It seemed entirely likely that she might run me down, but I didn't budge. “Fine,” she finally said, “come with us if you must.”

I stepped out of the headlights' shine. Just as I rounded the bumper, the truck surged forward, spitting up rocks and dust. I smacked the rear quarter panel and saw Daniel spin around in the seat, tugging against the restraint. He watched me through the rear window. His freckled cheeks and wet, brown eyes grew smaller and smaller as the truck curved down our driveway. The brakes, long past their prime, whined in protest, and then the headlights swung right onto Roosevelt Road.

I kicked at the gravel and cursed, then glanced at the crescent moon. It was a fingernail in the cloudless sky, not casting enough light to run by. But I bent quick and tied the laces of my sneakers, pictured the blisters I'd get from jogging without socks, then took off down the trail. Because of the Black Hole, I knew my mother would need to drive south and swing below the dam before heading north again on the far side of the lake. If I made good time running straight north and had a little luck, I might beat her to the Abernathys'.

And so I ran, down past my log cabin and Cabins Three and Four, then past the brick chimney rising from the charred square of earth where Cabin Five used to be, back before my dad left Paradise behind. I'd jogged the path along the shoreline a thousand times, and my feet were quick to find the safe pace I could travel in the half-light. I focused on planting my feet cleanly on the roots and rocks and pine needles, pumping my arms, breathing easy. In darkness, I passed through the compounds that once belonged to the Marshalls and the Zanines and the MacKenns, all of them gone, and the guest cabins they once rented out now falling apart—shattered windows and cobwebbed porches.

Back when I was a kid, the lake was crowded with people all summer long. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, every Friday found Roosevelt Road hosting a parade of fathers delivering their families to Paradise in gleaming station wagons. I used to love meeting the guests, making quick friends, showing them around the compound that Dad and I tended as a team. When I was ten, we raked leaves into piles and burned them together, repainted the interiors of the cabins side by side. At twelve, I helped him mow and he taught me the proper use of every tool in his toolbox, one by one. Sure, people called me a tomboy, but that was nothing new for a short-haired girl with a man's name. By thirteen, I was next to Dad, dipping my chain saw into the trees that dropped in the winter storms. On the night I'm telling you about now, I was nineteen, and by that point, I was taking care of things around the compound pretty much on my own.

I broke from the forest into the open field of Roosevelt Park, and the stars spread over the whole dome of the sky, beautiful and bright. With that bit of extra light and a path free of roots and
rocks, I sped up to my normal pace and then beyond. As I crossed the grass, I felt that weird tug from the forest above the picnic pavilions. Up that slope are the shale walls stacked by settlers two centuries ago, and the wild apple orchard where Jeff Cedars and I used to take long walks and spend time alone. Beyond that is the fairy fort.

Midway across the open field I passed the bronze statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who came up with the great idea of building a dam at the southern end of Paradise Valley to create a man-made lake and generate electricity. That was 1932, so most of the people who lived in the low country were happy to take the buyout money, but one family refused. Irene McGinley and her two sons had come from Ireland on a steamer late in the nineteenth century, and to show the good Lord their appreciation for safe passage to the New World, they built a fine church with a steeple next to their home along the banks of the Lackawaxen River. The day the Civilian Conservation Corps finally blocked the flow of the river, Mrs. McGinley lashed herself and her boys to the bell tower of the church and cursed the town as the waters rose and drowned them. So the story goes.

Decades later, some folks started hearing the church bell late at night, tolling out from under the lake. They claimed it was an omen, that if you heard it, then trouble was coming your way. The mothers of Paradise began warning their children, “Be home by dark, or Mrs. McGinley might call you to her church at the bottom of the lake.” When little Gabriella Abernathy fell through the ice, and just a year later, when Mrs. Abernathy miscarried at the hospital, the curse was clearly at work. Mrs. McGinley was judged responsible for the great ice storm that
trashed the whole town and the fire that torched Cabin Five (though there's at least one thing she can't take credit for). And later when all the fish died overnight, nearly all the crazies agreed it was due to the old woman's wrath.

For the longest time, back when I was a child, I believed. In Mrs. McGinley and the Easter Bunny and saying your prayers at night to Jesus and all the things your parents tell you. I was one of those oddball kids who actually liked going to church.

I left the park, passing beneath the tattered banner strung across the main entrance—
CELEBRATE PARADISE DAYS
!—and followed Roosevelt Road into town. I avoided the fractured sidewalks and jogged down the middle of the street, past the courthouse and Jorvik's Sporting Man's Store with the plywood nailed over the windows and Killarney's Antiques and Used Books with its stacks of dusty paperbacks. I passed the cramped offices of the
Five Mountains Gazetteer
, the local weekly paper where I worked part-time, mostly writing obituaries and pretending I was getting valuable experience for my career as a journalist.

The road dipped as I neared the bridge, and without breaking stride, I hurdled the guardrail they'd planted across the entrance and passed the signs warning
DANGER
!
NO PEDESTRIAN CROSSING
. I shifted to the right and slowed. In the weak moonlight, I couldn't really see the road beneath my feet. It was like I was running across the open air.

When I reached the Black Hole, dead center in the middle of the bridge, I slowed even more, enough to peek through to the gurgling rapids below. Fifty feet below me, the river fed into the lake. A chunk of asphalt about the size of a man had fallen away during the great ice storm three years before, and the state
engineers had declared that the bridge would have to be torn down and rebuilt. But with the fish gone and Paradise on the decline, funds were tight, so they hung up those warning signs and put the project on perpetual hold. Meanwhile, that hole got bigger and bigger, and by now a car could easily have tumbled through. The safe passage was only a few feet on either side, and I picked my way carefully along the railing.

Roosevelt Road rises sharply on the west side of the bridge, and I had to lean forward into the incline. Though I was breathing hard, as the ground leveled out I tapped into what Coach Halloran always called my sixth gear, an extra reserve of sweet energy I saved for the end of a race. All through my high school track meets, I was usually in second place coming into the final stretch, but more often than not, my chest was the one snapping the ribbon. The recruiter from Lock Haven University, the same guy I spoke to about deferring my scholarship, told me that was the difference between a good runner and a great one, that ability to finish strong.

So when I again entered the forest and the road veered south, I was virtually in an all-out sprint, barreling down a long canopy made by the pines. I kept expecting to see the headlights of my mother's truck appear in the darkness, but they never did. When I finally reached the Abernathys' property, I didn't see our truck in the long driveway, and I felt a rush of victory.

I charged through their side yard, dominated by the towering Grandfather Elm, supposedly huge even before they built this Victorian mansion. But when I rounded that ancient tree, I saw my mother's pickup, parked crooked halfway into a flower bed, headlights shining, engine running, like she'd crashed into the
garden. The truck was empty. I took the porch steps two at a time, shouldered through the double doors, and found myself suddenly inside the darkened house, facing a long wooden staircase. At the top, a dim light glowed. I sprinted up the stairs and then down a hallway toward an open door and the lighted room at the end, and I was going full tilt when I reached the threshold, but what I saw nailed my feet to the floor.

Directly ahead of me, propped up on her canopy bed, Mrs. Abernathy sat naked from the chest down. The skin of her pregnant belly stretched tight. Blood stained the sheets between her open legs, and even now I don't think there's any right way to label what I saw there, but at the time the word that came to me was
wound
. By nineteen I knew plenty about the pain and bloody burden of being a woman, but in that crazy frozen moment, what I saw seemed foreign and impossible, unnatural.

I heard my name and turned to my mother, kneeling alongside the bed with Daniel. “Anderson,” my mother repeated. She stared at the hardwood next to her. “Now you see for yourself. Come pray with us.”

BOOK: The Miracle Stealer
6.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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