Fran pushed herself out of the chair and staggered to the doorway of the play room, relief flooding her system when she saw Eric and Sarah sitting next to each other, laughing and pointing at the screen as some animated mice turned a balloon into a zeppelin.
Ariadne came up behind Fran and put an arm around her waist, guiding her back to the chair. "C'mon, you're in no shape to be standing up just yet."
Once in the chair, Fran was given a glass of water, which she gulped down. Slamming the empty glass on the edge of the desk, she looked at Ariadne and croaked, "Oh, goddammit! He was in so much pain. He was so scared!"
Ariadne knelt in front of Fran, held her hands, and looked directly into her eyes. Her face showed no expression nor her voice any emotion as she said, "It will happen like this: Ted will get drunk one night when Eric's with him, maybe because Eric will be bugging him about going home to you, and Ted will lose control and knock Eric to the floor and kick him repeatedly, eventually rupturing his pancreas. He'll lock Eric in a dark room and leave the house and not come back until the next afternoon. It will take Eric sixteen hours to die, and he will be in unspeakable agony even in the final moments of his life. His last conscious thought will be of you, wondering why you didn't come and make it all better."
Fran sucked in air, her lungs suddenly feeling on the verge of collapse. "And you, you can prevent this from--"
"Yes. It's why I'm here. I will save as many children as I can from having to die at abusive, neglectful, violent hands." She rose from her knees and entered a series of commands on the computer, and the flesh-colored, three-dimensional copy of Eric's hand was restored to the screen. The image magnified to focus on the stars, then focused deeper, to a series of markings beneath the stars.
"Look closely, Fran. Do you see them?"
"They look like...like squares."
"They're called the 'Walls of Redress.' They're very faint on Eric's hand, but you can see that there are six of them, one for each of the stars, and that if they were more solid, each would hold a star inside of it. The Walls of Redress are the promise of protection. No matter what danger is marked on the hand, if there is a square near or around it, the person can escape the danger if the signs are read in time."
"Why are they so faint?"
"Because the part of the world in which they might or might not exist in still in flux; they can fully form or they can fade away. It depends on the decision you make."
Fran's eyes began to tear. "Ohgod...."
Ariadne grabbed Fran's shoulders. "It's all been arranged. When you leave here, take him around the fair once more, do whatever you want, but make certain that the last thing you do is ride the merry-go-round, and that you get off the ride before he does--who'll notice? A tired mother walking a few steps ahead of her kid when the ride's done?"
"Sarah will be there with some of her brothers or sisters and they'll bring him back to me."
"How can I--I mean, what am I going to tell him?"
"Nothing. If you try to explain it to him, you'll only frighten him more than is necessary. There are probably four thousand people here right now. Countless children disappear each year on fairgrounds, at carnivals or amusement parks. No one will suspect you of anything. To guarantee that, I'll make certain that Eric is seen by witnesses a few hours after you report him missing."
Fran gulped in more air, trying to staunch her sobs. "Can I come with you?"
Slowly, sadly, Ariadne shook her head.
Something inside Fran crumbled. "Why?"
"Because the place we're going is only for the children." A small, melancholy grin. "Think of it as the ultimate kids' clubhouse: No Grownups Allowed."
"Will I ever see him again? I don't know if I could live without--"
"Yes. It won't be soon, but you'll see him again. He'll--and I know this isn't much comfort--but he'll write to you. A letter a week, a phone call every two months, a videotaped message four times a year; that's my rule. Don't worry if you move because his letters will arrive wherever you are every Friday, even if it's a national holiday." A short, wind-chime laugh. "I sort of have my own private delivery service."
She touched Fran's cheek, lovingly. "I promise you, Fran, I swear he won't forget about you, he won't feel angry for your leaving him with me. He'll miss you because he loves you so very much, but it will get easier as time goes on. He'll never lose his love for you, and he'll grow up to be everything you hoped and more. You will have your son back, one day, and there will be no love lost.
"Shh, don't say anything right now. You've got a little while, so go on, take your son to the fair and make him laugh, make him smile, and be certain that you miss nothing--not a word, not a look, a touch, a whisper, nose-tweak, or kiss. The next few hours will have to last you for a good while. Waste no moment.
"Go on. I'll know your decision soon enough."
As they were leaving the tent, Eric turned back to Madame Ariadne and flashed his palm. "You put my arm in a box!"
The fortune-teller smiled. "You are a strange and goofy kid, Eric McLachlan."
"Yes, I am!"
They stopped to play a few games (Eric won a small toy fire truck at the ring-toss booth), watched some clowns parade around, shared a soft pretzel, and then Fran McLachlan stood in the center of the midway holding her five-year-old son's hand and trying not to think about the way her life had gone wrong.
"Mommy," said Eric, "what's wrong? Did that lady say something bad to you?"
She told him no, and asked him what he wanted to do, and he chose the merry-go-round.
This time both of them rode on the tiger, and Eric's laughter, in his mother's ears, during those final moments of the ride, was the voice of forgiveness itself.
"Can I go again?" he asked as Fran climbed down.
"Sure, honey. Of course you can." The attendant was walking by at that moment, so Fran gave him the last ticket.
"You have fun," she said to Eric.
A happy bounce. "'Kay. You stand out there and watch me, okay?"
"I'll wave at you when I go by."
"Have you had a good time today, honey?"
"Yeah! This was the best fun ever!"
Oh shit, don't let him see it.
"I'm glad." She leaned in and kissed his cheek. "I love you, Eric."
"Love you, too--better get off now, Mommy, so they can start the ride."
Not daring to look at her son's face, Fran McLachlan turned around and left, catching a peripheral glimpse of Sarah getting onto the ride with a two younger children whose hands she was holding: the protective big sister.
Fran looked down at her hand and wondered what secrets were hidden there in the lines within the lines, the hand beneath the hand.
Walking away from the merry-go-round, she was startled when a sudden, strong breeze whipped past, pulling the balloon-doll from her grip and sending it upward, soaring, free, rising on the wind toward a place where the children were safe and never wept or knew loneliness or fear.
Good-bye, she thought. Be happy.
She was surprised to feel a smile on her face.
And the touch of Eric's hidden hand deep within her soul.