Fran and Eric were having lunch at a long picnic table with several other women from the Cedar Hill Women's Shelter and their children, the kids occupying themselves by pointing out all the sights to one another while the mothers took the time to regroup and count the money they had (or, in most cases, didn't have) left.
"You look a lot better today, Fran," said one of the women. "So does Eric."
"We're both feeling better."
"Have you thought about, well, about Ted?"
Fran shook her head. "No--I mean, yes, I have, but Eric hasn't mentioned him and I'd appreciate it if none of you would bring up his father today, okay? I don't want anything to spoil the day for him."
Eric and most of the other children had wandered over to watch a group of balloon-toting clowns breeze by. One of the clowns stopped to make balloon-dolls for several of the children. Fran saw this and smiled. "Look at them will you? Everything's still new to them. Even with what's happened to them, they still laugh and giggle and, I don't know, hope, I guess. Remember when we were that young? How nothing bad ever followed us to the next morning? Maybe something bad happened before, but now's fun, you've got a ball to bounce or a model plane to fly or a doll to pretend with, and the day's full of mystery and wonder and things to look forward to and--"
You're babbling. Shut up.
They scattered shortly thereafter, instructed to meet back at the south entrance at six p.m.
Fran and Eric rode the merry-go-round for either the second or third time that day (Fran had lost count), but from the way Eric acted you'd have sworn this was the first time he'd ever been on the thing. Fran envied him his joy, but was at the same time aware of how precious it was, and knew by the wide smile on his face and the gleeful shimmer of his eyes that she'd made the right decision to leave Ted and take Eric to the shelter where he wouldn't have to worry about Daddy coming at him with the belt or his fists, or be forced to cower upstairs in his room while Daddy thrashed Mommy into a whimpering, broken, swollen zombie who shuffled around, whispering, never looking up, afraid of the violence the next five minutes might or might not bring.
Since they'd moved to the shelter two weeks ago, Eric--who before had been at least fifteen pounds underweight--had begun eating again and laughing again and was able to sleep soundly for the first time in his short life. God, how she cursed herself for having waited so long, for having kept Eric in such a brutal, terrifying environment!
At first it was just a couple of slaps every now and then, and Ted was always sorry afterward, so Fran allowed herself to believe that he really was going to get better about things, that he was going to get some counseling, but then he went on graveyard shift at the plant, sleeping during the day, refusing to see a counselor on the weekends, and as Eric grew older Ted's violent outbursts grew not only in number but in brutality--a couple of slaps turned into a bunch of slaps, a bunch of slaps turned into fists to the chest, stomach, and face, which evolved into slamming her against walls and choking her, sometimes knocking her down to the floor where, until the night she'd sneaked out of the house with Eric, he'd begun to give her a couple of kicks to the side...
Fran was, for a moment, so numb with the weight of her thoughts that she didn't even realize the merry-go-round had stopped until she noticed that Eric was standing outside the circular gate of the ride talking to a little girl who looked to be around seven or eight.
"Eric!" she called to him. "You stay right there."
Better watch it, you, she thought. That's how kids wind up with their pictures on the sides of milk cartons. "I only turned away for a minute," says the mother/father.
She quickly exited through the gate, sprinting to where Eric and the little girl were still standing.
"Hey, you," she said, taking Eric's hand in hers.
"Hey, you!" he replied, giggling.
The little girl seemed to hear someone calling her, said a quick good-bye to Eric, then turned and ran--but not before shoving a piece of paper into Eric's hand.
"Who's your friend?"
"I dunno," said Eric. "She was telling me 'bout her hand and her mommy." He offered the piece of paper to Fran.
It was some kind of special fair pass. On the front were the words: Good For Two Free Readings! The back read:
Each line, be it in a hand or face, masks another; lines hidden within lines, a secret Hand beneath the surface of the one with which you touch the world and those you love. It is only in the secret lines on the hidden hand that your true destiny can be mapped, and only one who possesses Certain Sight can make an accurate reading. If you're content with mere showmen, then please take your business to any of the fortune-teller tents--but if you want the truth, see Madame Ariadne.
Fran smiled at her next thought. "So, kiddo, wanna get your palm read?"
She turned over Eric's hand, sticking the tip of her finger into the middle of his palm. "A lady looks at your hand and tells you what's gonna happen to you."
"Aw," he said, grinning. "I saw that on a TV show. It was neat."
"Does that mean 'yes'?" She couldn't resist tickling his palm.
She tickled him a little more. "C'mon, answer me."
In a way, he did: He used his other hand to indulge one of his favorite past-times--tweak her nose. For a moment they froze that way, Mother clutching her son's hand, the son clutching his mother's nose.
"You let go," said Fran, her voice comically nasal.
"I'm the mother and I say you go first."
"You started it," said Eric, grinning from ear to ear.
"True enough." Fran let go of her son's hand.
"Ha! I won, I won!" squealed Eric, releasing her nose.
Fran rubbed her nose. Eric had quite a grip on him for his age. "Okay, Okay, you won. Now, you wanna go and get your palm read?"
"Sure. It'll be like on TV."