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Authors: Neil Connelly

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BOOK: The Miracle Stealer
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The next week, over my dad's protests, my mother encouraged Daniel to at least fold his hands and look prayerful while his name was being mentioned. He'd twist his fat fingers together and bend his head, but at three, it was just a game to him. He had no idea he was being asked to intercede with God.

Over the course of a month or so, with so many petition-wishes, word came that some were indeed granted. The praises began to fill up with reports of miraculous success. Cody Solomon called home asking for money. The Bradfords finally had their application for adoption approved. Charlotte Dean's bursitis cleared up. Mr. Hogan's bad ear, which everybody in town knew about, was suddenly just fine. Eamon Littleton got that new job in Binghamton. Elizabeth Manfred threw away her epilepsy pills and the seizures did not return. And one Sunday, Miriam Sinclair walked all the way to the lectern to announce that her cousin's latest CAT scan showed no signs of a tumor. The doctors had never seen anything like it.

When Miriam announced that, the congregation broke into glorious applause. Beaming and smiling, praising God with shouts
of joy, everyone turned to Daniel, now held tight in my mother's arms. My dad gave me a look of something like disgust, and I felt something I'd never felt before in church: fear. Week by week through that summer, thanks to nothing but a bunch of coincidences, the citizens of Paradise decided that my brother was more than just lucky. They came to believe he was blessed, miraculous.

That summer, Action Water Thrill Ride City was in its second year, and buses came up from Philly and down from New York. Because of the national publicity of Daniel's rescue, people knew about our town, and quite a few drove all this way in part to get a glimpse of the Miracle Boy. Of course, they'd spend the day and enjoy a couple meals, browse through the antique shops and pick up a few souvenirs—bumper stickers, a T-shirt, a magnet for the fridge. That year's Paradise Days was the biggest on record. It was easy to believe Mayor Wheeler's slogan: Paradise is on the rise.

But then late one August afternoon, not long after Jeff had taken off for Penn State, Volpe came by the house on that silly red scooter. She brought news that Mrs. Bundower had taken a turn for the worse. You already know what happened that night, how they expected Daniel to keep that dying woman alive, how he ended up trembling in the closet. The night Mrs. Bundower died, something inside me started to shift.

A couple of weeks later, an angler renting Cabin Three came banging on the door of the main house. Dad was making me scrambled eggs and we answered the door together. We followed him through the pines and hemlocks, and halfway down the trail we hit the smell, like tuna left out too long. By the time we got to the lake, the stench was so strong that I was gagging and my
stomach muscles were clenching up. The bloated corpses of maybe a hundred fish—rock bass, trout, sunnies—were all floating on the surface of the water. They were openmouthed and wide-eyed, as if they were staring at whoever killed them. Along the rocky shoreline, dozens more rotted on their sides like tiny beached whales. Some of the fish were still sucking at air or twitching their shiny tails. My dad took off his baseball cap and scratched the back of his head. The fisherman renting the cabin asked about a refund.

It wasn't just by our dock—all over the lake, the fish were dead or dying. As the morning came on and the sun went to work on those bodies, the odor drove vacationing families from their rented cabins, sent hunters upstream and over the ridge. We closed our windows against the stench. People threw away the fish they'd caught and frozen to eat in the winter. In a day or two, even the hardiest sportsmen had moved north, upriver past the bridge to where the fish still thrived. The tourists, with all their money, pretty much disappeared. And the specialists descended. There were scientists from Fish and Wildlife, a team of graduate researchers from Hershey, and an environmental group from Vermont. Articles in the
Five Mountains Gazetteer
explained the scientists' findings, always using phrases like “optimum water quality,” “conflicting data,” and “anomalous readings.” We were assured that nothing in the water could harm humans, but no one wanted to risk it. Something just seemed wrong with dipping your body in water where nothing lived. It was so strange in the late summer, on beautiful sunny days, to see no boats on the lake. By the end of August, the older folks in town began to cross themselves and say, “Rest in peace, Irene McGinley. Leave us be.”

Up at the UCP, the out-of-town visitors thinned out and services grew somber. No one was praising much, and the petitions were mostly all variations of the same theme—
bring back the fish
. One week Mr. Abernathy read from the Bible about there being a time for every purpose under God's heaven, but we all wondered what purpose God had in killing our town. All the while, people stared harder and harder at Daniel, like somehow he had something to do with it. It had been just four months since he was rescued from the ancient well, and a month or so since Mrs. Bundower died.

Everything came to a head one Sunday morning in September, at the beginning of my junior year. My family was a little late, and all four of us hustled across the grass parking lot and mounted the front steps. I opened the doors to a strange sight. A bunch of parishioners were standing in the vestibule: the Wheelers, the Abernathys, Mrs. Braithwaite, the Cullen sisters, maybe a dozen others, the ones who believed most in the curse of Irene McGinley and the miraculous powers of my brother. Behind them, through the second set of doors, I could hear singing and Mrs. Krupchak's piano. As my family moved inside, they turned toward us with cold, hard eyes. Mrs. Wheeler stepped forward, and my dad bent over and picked up Daniel.

He asked, “Everything all right here, Judy?”

“We've talked about this,” she answered. “And we're all agreed.”

“About what?”

She lifted her chin at Daniel. “He needs to ask God to bring back the fish.”

My mother stepped in between Dad and the group, rubbing
her hands and forcing a smile. “Daniel prays the same as you. He prays for the same thing we've all been praying for.”

Mrs. Wheeler shook her head. “But nothing's happening. Without the fish, there'll be no Paradise. Don't you see? The boy has to pray harder.”

Daniel buried his face in my dad's shoulder.

“Pray harder?” my dad echoed. “He's three years old.” His arms tightened around Daniel. “You people—” he said. “You should have your damn heads examined.” Then he turned and kicked open the outside door. As my dad stepped back into the sunlight, I followed, but we both hesitated when we realized my mother wasn't with us. Dad said, “Nancy.”

My mother stood in the space between us and the true believers. Behind the second set of doors, the singing stopped. She folded her hands in front of her and looked down at them for a second, and when she looked up again she said, “I'll talk with them, Charles. We shouldn't just leave. Whether you like it or not, we're part of this church, and this church is part of us.”

Holding Daniel in his arms, my dad stared at my mother, shook his head, and turned away. The door closed behind him and I was left in that room with all of them silent and waiting. I didn't know what I should do, but I didn't like the way they were looking at me, so I went after my dad, just barely catching him before he tore out of the parking lot in his Jeep.

That night was the first time I heard my parents really fighting. Not just disagreeing, but fighting. They yelled at each other in the kitchen, catching themselves when their voices rose too high. Even when I crept out to the head of the stairs, I couldn't
make out the words, but I didn't really need to. The sharp tones, the long silences, they said it all.

On the way back to my room, I worried that maybe they'd woken Daniel like they'd woken me. I stepped into his pitch-black room and heard this crazy rambling, a rush of words that didn't make sense: “merciful God please plentiful gratitude holy forgive redeemer the fish forgive us our weakness please please oh please.” I snapped on the light but that didn't stop his ranting. His eyeballs rolled beneath his lids, like they do when you're dreaming but faster. And the sweat beaded up on his forehead and his hands were clenched together so tight in prayer his fingernails had nearly drawn blood. “Daniel!” I shouted, and I shook him by the shoulders till he came to. He opened his eyes and saw me and started to cry. I crawled in next to him and held him in my arms. “Listen to me,” I said. “None of this is your fault.”

He wiped his nose on my shirt. “I ask God for the fish to come back, Andi, I do. How come they won't?”

I took his small face between my hands—his cheeks were hot to the touch—and I aimed his eyes into mine. “Daniel, you ain't special. Everybody's been praying for the fish. Do you understand me? Your prayers don't mean more than anybody else's. No matter what people tell you.”

“They think I'm like Superman.”

“That's right,” I said. “But you're not.
You ain't special
. What happened to Mrs. Bundower—you couldn't stop that. And you can't bring the fish back. Nobody can. Nothing is your fault. Okay? Tell me you understand.”

Daniel nodded his head. “Yeah. I understand. It ain't my fault.”

“That's right. You're just like everybody else. Say it.”

“I'm just like everybody else. I'm not special.”

Daniel curled in to me, his back to my chest. I reached over and clicked off his night-light. I stared out the window and watched the moon cross behind the pines and listened to my parents' voices rise and crack. By the time they stopped, the moon had slid from my view. Downstairs, the front door creaked open and snapped shut, and Dad stirred the first few leaves of fall as he left the house, heading for Cabin Five to sleep alone. My mother's footsteps came slowly up the stairs. Across the hall, she opened my door to check on me. A moment later she opened Daniel's door, and her silhouette filled the frame. Even though I looked right at her, the darkness hid my face. But I couldn't read her expression either, so I'm not sure if she knew I was awake. I guess she just wanted to be sure Daniel was with me, because without saying a word she eased the door shut and left us alone.

My dad wouldn't go back to the UCP and he was dead set against Daniel going. Every Sunday meant a battle between my parents, occasionally one with shouts and accusations, but more often the silent warfare of eye rolls, shrugs, and deep sighs. Those days that my mother won, I'd go along to watch over Daniel.

Slowly, my faith began to sour. Especially once the fish died, I came to see the praises for what they really were—a gigantic ass-kissing session. The congregation was just trying to get on God's good side for the petitions. Begging for the fish to come back was one thing, but there were others that suddenly sounded ridiculous, things like
Give comfort to the recently unemployed
Help the victims of the hurricane in Florida
. These were the petitions that got under my skin, and even to this day I can't quite wrap my brain around them. Did God, all-powerful, all-mighty, have to be reminded to help people who'd had their houses smashed to pieces by a natural disaster? Did we really think that He'd hear our petition and suddenly say, “Whoa, all those people don't have food. Maybe I should help?” What sort of divine being needed to be coerced into kindness and mercy?

In the wake of my dad's big scene at the UCP, no one mentioned Daniel by name. But I caught knowing glances, and I swore that Mr. Hogan deliberately walked along beside us when we left, just so he could brush his fingers across Daniel's hair. After services those Sundays, I'd take Daniel for long hikes in the woods, or we'd ride in the open kayak down to the dam, where we'd go exploring along the rocks.

When we got back, my mother's eyes were always red, and my dad was always down in his cabin watching football. Daniel asked me why Dad wasn't sleeping in his own bed, and I made up a lie about the mattress down in the cabin being better for Dad's bad back. Before the leaves finished falling, Dad was staying down there every night. That October, with the cold coming on, the two of us stacked split logs for the main cabin and his, and as I'd go to bed I'd look out and see the smoke billowing from Cabin Five's chimney. He even stopped eating dinner with the family.

But every morning, I'd come downstairs ready for my run and find him in the kitchen, making strong coffee and flipping through the
. I knew he was looking for work in the slim classifieds. My mother had inherited the compound outright from her parents along with a little bit of money, so even though
our cabins weren't renting, nobody was starving. But when I'd go with Dad around town on odd jobs—replacing Dr. Candeza's water heater, closing down the Hertzogs' swimming pool—I could tell that without steady work, he was going stir-crazy in Paradise. It was there in the far-off look in his eyes when he was driving, the way he'd curse when a rusted nut would snap. My dad and I never discussed any of these weighty matters. Instead, on those quiet winter mornings, we'd talk about track or school or a used snowmobile that somebody was selling cheap in the classifieds. Even after the trouble got worse, we never really talked about the fish, never about Daniel, and never ever about my mother.

Then came the day of the great ice storm. It hadn't snowed at all yet that year, and there was nothing in the forecast. I came downstairs that morning ready to talk with Dad and then go for my jog, but I found the kitchen dark and empty. The tiniest snowflakes floated past the glass doors that led to the porch, dusting the wood white. At a side window, I saw a light on down in Dad's cabin. I slipped on the heavy sweatshirt and wool cap I wore to run, then shuffled through the fresh powder coating the trail. My breath made clouds in the air. I had no gloves, and my fingers went stiff quick. I never knocked on his door, and so I walked uninvited through the cabin to the rear room where he slept. He had his back to me, and two suitcases were open on the bed. I remember a moment when I thought this meant he was coming home. But then he turned to me and I saw his face, unshaven. His eyes were red from lack of sleep.

BOOK: The Miracle Stealer
3.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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