Surgeons could mend his battered face, but it took a girl with an understanding heart to heal his spirit. A $500 Maclean’s prize story
THE STREETCAR whined into a curve, as if dreading the long, bleak stretches between the lighted intersections; bumping over switches, making its passengers nod and bounce in unison.
Beside the window, chin in hand, Bruce MacKenzie seemed to be staring out moodily into the rain-shiny street; but in the dark looking glass of the windowpane he was watching, gloating when he caught their eyes.
They were looking, always looking. Everywhere he went they watched him; with gliding eyes that slipped off when he looked back.
They watched the scar which clutched his face like a brutal fist.
He was repulsive; at best to be pitied. Elaine had pitied him.
Hours ago, that was. He had come straight from the hospital and barged into the middle of her party. The diamond on her hand had gleamed at him; and the shape of a little lamp shedding a rosy glow was etched into his mind by the shock of the moment when he suddenly understood the look in her eyes.
Pity, thinly disguised. Disgust. Loathing.
Just inside the door one of his crutches had clattered down as he hurried away. He only wanted to get out—never to meet that look again. But he had taken it away with him; and even if he hadn’t there were
plenty more like it. In his window mirror he saw the little boy come up the aisle again. This time, he told himself, he wouldn’t pay attention.
“Bobby!” A sharp voice called from the front. “Come here!”
The four-year-old ignored her. Eyes intent he came slowly nearer to lean into the parallel seat across the aisle, to stare bigeyed at the crutches, the pant leg neatly folded back, then at his face. In a moment now the kid would come over and climb up beside him—and, like before, start asking questions.
“Bobby! Remember what mother said?” The voice was louder.
Movement behind him where he had seen a girl sitting.
“Hello! Maybe you’d like some candy . . .?” The voice was soft with a smile in it. The child nodded. A slim hand reached out and drew Bobby into the background. Paper wrappers rustled, then sounds of subdued munching and smacking and of a purse being snapped shut.
He leaned back and relaxed.
“Bobby. Come to mother!”
“. . . you’d better go now, h’um?” the friendly voice behind him coaxed.
Slowly the boy passed him, turned to look just once more. Instinctively he glanced up and saw their furtive eyes.
How he hated them. Stupidly alike, complete, inconspicuous! Fed, warm, and indifferent. Unrefined by terrornothing had moved them. The ugly, selfish faces. Greedy, they looked! And he wanted, thank God, nothing from them.
Not even the rest of an education. Imagine squeezing in with the smart guys ... if he weren’t so tall . . .
everything showed more on a big fellow. Millions of stairs to the lecture rooms . . . I'll help you, Mae . . . You were lucky, Mac . . . l/>ok at. . .
The motorman was motioning at them with weary impatience. “All right, folks, come on, ’nother car right behind . . . Get your transfers; hurry up, please!”
Sweating down the steep stops, visions of himself sprawled, ridiculously; seeing their pinched-in lips and the semicircle they always provided for his performances, just in case. But he fooled them this time. Puddles still gleamed here and there, but the rain had stopped and the street was no longer slippery. That was something.
He was glad now that he hadn’t returned straight from the party to the hospital after all, but had caught a streetcar going the other way, hoping to get rid of that expression still fresh on his face for the fellows to read. They’d always kidded him about Elaine, his gorgeous pin-up girl.
He spidered over to the curb and leaned against a post.
He had changed, yes; but this had not. The crossing; like thousands exactly the same. The stone of roadways and buildings; the lights flickering and steady, laughter, color, rhythm.
It was the order of it that caught at him. All this had lasted here uninterrupted the whole time he had been away. As if it had known all the time. And it was here for him now, to slip back into ... if a man had faith. If a man had a reason, a dream.
All that belonged together and had been finished together, ages ago.
The streetcar. It had come. Look at them crowding. He waited. Time, that’s what he had plenty of. Years of it, like shabby wooden beads stretching endlessly. There seemed to be plenty of room left inside the car. Might as well take it.
Even some of the double
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seats were empty. There was that little boy and his mother; they’d transferred too. Funny, that same girl would be sitting in back of him again. He looked quickly; beautiful, wasn’t she? Dark hair, sleek. Big grey eyes looked back into his for a little moment. Not at the scar at all, but right into his eyes.
“. . . You got a med’l too? My daddy’s got one—that big.”
The kid didn’t mean any harm. But they would look. If he could lean over, sort of friendly, and say, “Look, sonny, I’m busy now.” No. Nids are too smart. Or he could say, nicely . . .
The grubby little hands still indicated a size, wanting him to look.
; “Bobby! You come here this instant!” The boy shrugged and shook his head, putting a tentative hand against the seat, beside the crutches.
“Didn’t mother just tell you . . .? Bobby!”
The boy’s face puckered with annoyance. People sighed impatiently.
A HAND gently held the hoy back, another hand came down on the crutches to keep them from falling, and with the businesslike smoothness of one completely unconcerned the girl with the big grey eyes sat down beside him. An edge of a smile for him, for the passengers to read; as if really they knew each other well, but were pretending for the fun of it; then she patted her purse into her lap, folded her hands lightly above and sat back with an expression that seemed to say to the four-year-old: “Now try it on me.”
“I’ll teach you to mind me!” The boy’s mother dragged him back by the arm. The child screamed, then shrieked with rage.
“I’ll teach you to disgrace me,” the mother snarled under her breath, and shook him. “Stop it, will you? Will you stop it at once?”
The boy only screamed louder.
He couldn’t bear it another minute. He reached up and rang the buzzer, the car slowed obediently, stopped. Laboriously he got off, hearing the woman still hissing, “Shut up, do you hear?” Then the doors slid together and the car
moved off. He sighed; it had been hot in the car.
Light steps on the asphalt made him turn. The girl had got off' too. Maybe this was her stop. But after reaching t he curb she turned and waited for him.
“That brat,” he murmured to himself.
“That woman!” she exclaimed, and the roll of dark, shining hair on her shoulders moved as she shook her head. He almost answered with the quick angry words that wanted to burst from him; he hadn’t talked for so long, but she hadn’t meant anything; people didn’t care, didn’t understand. And tonight his thoughts were strange and dark he had to be careful.
He fumbled for a cigarette. In a moment she would walk away, or why had she got off here? Not to keep him company. She wasn’t that kind anyway . . . but then you never could tell. He suddenly recalled some of the movies they had been shown overseas and here at the hospital too—educational. Silly of him to remember that now—everything was caging him in tonight, even his own thoughts. This girl didn’t look that kind at all.
She was still standing there, perfectly at ease. He looked at her sideways. A blouse of lacy white stuff showed at her neck; it made ber look sort of clean and undisturbed. She was a nice girl who had just been polite to him. In a moment she would go.
A big car on the road suddenly braked, skidded to a stop and backed up to them. A man looked at them and rolled down the window, leaned out:
“Want a lift, flier?” A woman peered past the driver.
He straightened in his crutches, took a drag at his cigarette.
“No thanks . . he said and shook his head. The man stared.
“We’ll take you any place you want to go, your lady friend too. No trouble at all . .
“No!” he said harshly, averting bis face.
The woman beside the driver stared straight ahead of her. The man’s voice was husky now, almost harsh. “Sorry, son. I didn’t mean ...”
The car moved off.
The girl was looking at him reproachfully. He shrugged.
“They thought you were my girl
friend.” He tried to make it sound like a poor joke.
“1 know.” She brushed it off. “But why didn’t you let them take you? They wanted to so much.” Her eyes looked honestly at him, puzzled now. He stared at the pavement.
“Aw! Talk! Ask questions. Want ! to know all about it ... I know.”
“No,” she looked at him steadily ' and gently shook her head at him, just I a little as if she were scolding him.
! “No, that’s not it at all. That’s not how people are. You’re wrong, j absolutely wrong.”
“Yeah? What do you know about it, huh?”
That too she brushed away.
“Maybe you reminded them . . . that does happen. Maybe they had a boy too and only wanted to do for you what they’ll never be able to do for their own. j Just because . . .” she looked at him squarely and turned away, “that j doesn’t give you the right. ..”
“Well, maybe. But it gets me down.” Suddenly he was afraid that she I would walk away and leave him stand! ing there.
“But it shouldn’t,” she said, and looked at him again.
“You wouldn’t understand unless you’d been in the same fix.”
He heard her sigh impatiently. She could talk, sure. All there, complete, just like all the others. Soft warm voice and sure of everything; sheltered. Her parents would have three fits if they knew what she was doing right now. Loitering with a cripple she didn’t even know. That was the kind of girl she was. Knew it all. Cute and clean.
A streetcar was coming up in the distance; he could hear it way off, but he didn’t turn his head.
“You’re not from Toronto,” she said, and smiled at him. “I can tell by your accent.”
“No, from the West.”
“1 know, my mother is too.” The streetcar had stopped at Bloor. In a J moment it would come sweeping down j wide, deserted Bay and stop for them.
“I want to ask you a favor,” she said ! rather breathlessly. “But you mustn’t I laugh at me and please do believe me.
“I want you to come home with me now and meet my parents, will you? You see, you look a lot like Mark, my brother Mark, who was in the Air Force. A flier too. Pilot officer. Will you? Would you mind?” She looked at him anxiously.
“Well . . . wouldn’t it be an imposition? It must be after nine now . . .” He wasn’t at all sure. But there was I something up. Maybe . . . no, she j didn’t look it. But something. And in I the car she had interfered too. With the candy. Sitting down beside him.
I Funny, this. He looked at her. Her I eyes questioned him, and her head was saying yes, up and down, slowdy.
“What can I lose?” he murmured, j The streetcar thundered past, singing i on the downgrade rails.
“You’ll love mum,” she said, and began to walk with small, sauntering steps; turning back to where he still stood, not yet quite sure hè did want to go with her, “And you’ll adore dad!” “Oh?”
He began walking. This was screwy. What did she want with him, for heaven’s sake? And she was glad. Excited and glad. He could tell. She laughed.
“Unless you’re different from everybody, you will!”
“The way you say it, they must be pret ty special . . .”
“Oh, yes!” she exclaimed. “Mum’ll spoil you, just because you’re one of the ! boys. I've got four brothers, you know. Only girl.” She sighed in mock despair.
“Of course you wouldn’t be spoiled at all, would you?” He had been right. Well, they would have a fit.
“This way, it isn’t far. We’ll cut across the park. Oh, well, maybe dad, sometimes . . . you know, he understands. 1 mean, if I’d have little troubles as a child. Dad could tell by just looking at me.”
“You’re not much more than that now . . .” he teased.
“Turned 18! Going to start working for a living in another two years.” She grinned at him.
“Schoolteacher, I bet!”
“Oh!” she wailed. “Does it show already?”
“Unmistakably,” he grinned at her too.
“Well, I can’t help it. I’m crazy about it too. Child study. Psychology and all that.”
He nodded. She was okay; sure, sure. But why, why him?
“And I’ll bet you’ll be good at it.” “Oh, I’ve got to be. Either that or you’re not there at all. At St. Georges,
“I’ve heard about them. It sounds interesting.”
“Why don’t you come and see how we do things?” she laughed easily. “It gives one ideas. You could sit behind a screen and watch. It would be quite all right, and I’ll be glad to arrange it. I’m only a student, you know.”
“Well, maybe, some day.” After I’ve got my leg, he thought. Maybe.
“Yes,” She didn’t press him. “And while you’re here, you’d get a kick out of the exhibit Anthony’s arranging. He’s an airplane designer.”
He looked blank.
“Oh, excuse me!” she laughed. “He’s part of the family. There’s dad and mum, of course. Dad’s tall and—and handsome. Iron-grey hair. Mum’s fair and tiny and young, you know?” She laughed fondly. “Mum’s innocent and foxy, both. Wait till you meet them.” She smiled to herself. “Then Anthony’s the eldest, slow, mediumsized and funny. When he gets mad he takes it out in doing cartoons of whatever annoyed him. Then comes Trill, he was christened Ian, but he’s been music-mad since birth, mum claims. Musician. Composes when we don’t make too much noise. Otherwise pianist at CSRB. Then Doug, he’s just out of the Navy, or almost; madly in love and is getting married soon. The smell in the house is from his lab in the cellar. Years ago he nearly blew us all up, experimenting. And me.”
“But you said you had four brothers.” “Oh, Mark. He was killed overseas. Over Hamburg.”
I’M SORRY.” How trivial it sounded! “Honest, I’m sorry.” “Yes, I know.” She nodded and they walked in silence.
“Mark was like dad. Only fair. I guess a genius, maybe. Had his Ph.D. at 24. He got married on his last leave, and they had a little girl; she’s three now. Felice is her name.”
“Isn’t that an odd name? Felice?” “After me; except they call me Felix . ..”
“Felix?” he asked, and smiled. “Yes,” she said, “and I don’t like it. But that doesn’t stop them. And Dad started it . . . seems he had a kitten once by that name and I’m just like it: independent. Probably was a tom, anyway.”
“This is the place mum is always going to sue the city for.” She didn’t nudge him. “There’s a break in the pavement. Mum always claims she’s going to break her neck here sometime.”
He looked carefully. The lamps shed
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Yes, he saw it now. He might have
caught a crutch and fallen.
“Your mother’s got sense . . .
“There’s so much to be done, now that it’s all over,” she sighed. “Not just old pavements hut a whole new world. Exciting, isn’t it?”
He mumbled. For her, yes.
They crossed the street.
“We’re almost there now,” she remarked. He scanned the houses ahead of them. Surely not that big one with all of the downstairs lit up.
She was waiting for him to say something. He hoped not that big one, or a lot of people . . .
“That’s okay, I’m not tired,” he said. So she was nice; so all right. But why him? Sorry for him—of course. She hadn’t shown it. No. But why else?
“Edmonton. Does it happen to be Edmonton you’re from?”
“Yes,” he said, suddenly weary, disappointed. “Yes.”
“Dad was offered . . .” he wasn’t listening, “years ago, but mum didn’t want him to go . . .” Something about dad, dad . . . always dad. Other people had fathers too, even if they weren’t alive.
The big house. She stopped. Opened the wrought-iron gate, pushed it wide.
“The Bruckner home welcomes you!” She stood back and smiled. A window in what must be the living room was open, the drapes wide. Voices, laughing, talking, dozens of people having a good time.
A party. Oh, sure. Look at what I picked up. Show him around. Nice patriotic girl. Questions. “Where'dyou get yours, Mac . .
“No!” He stopped just beyond the gate, faced her.
“Oh, come on!” she waved it off, grinned. Big joke. Don’t spoil it now. Oh, but he would, he would.
“No. I, I can’t . . .” She had a way of looking at him. But she couldn’t read his thoughts.
“Please . . .”
He shook his head.
“Why?” she asked.
“Aw!” Like a growl it rose out of him. “Look at me!”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” she said lightly I and put her hand on his arm.
“Silly?” He wheeled, his eyes suddenly blazing. “Silly, did you say? Listen . . .”
She made a gesture, tugging his arm.
! But, of course, it was useless, he could save his breath. He meant to turn and leave here there. His crutch caught on the gate. He clutched wildly for support, saw her try to hold him. That was worse. They fell together.
“Oh.” She looked at him with a little sob. “No, I’m all right.” She jumped to her feet. “Did you hurt yourself?”
“Now are you satisfied? Are you?” he mouthed, finding a crutch and bracing it. “Can I crawl off now? Is that what you wanted?”
“Oh, please,” she begged. “Please; if it was my fault I’m terribly sorry.” There was a sound by the door, but he was getting himself up somehow; and anyway he didn’t care.
“No, it couldn’t be your fault; oh, i not at all . . .”
A door behind him opened. The voices inside the house flowed on, they were laughing in there. They were having a good time. He was slapping at himself, damp dirt. She had picked up his cap.
, “No, of course not,” he said bitterly. “I always go around the streets at night, doing cartwheels, or didn’t you know that, Miss Smarty . . .?”
Í “Felix? We were wondering . . .Oh,
hello there . . .” An easy voice; a man’s. Didn’t come racing down to start brushing him off, at least. The girl was getting his other crutch.
“Oh, dad!” She turned and looked up, a little breathlessly. Dad; the know-it-all.
“I don’t know your name,” she said. “Mac; just Mac . . . don’t bother. I’m going anyway.” He saw the legs of the man who had come down a few steps. Let him stare his fill. So what.
“If I may have my cap,” he said awkwardly.
“This is Mac, dad; my father, Dr. Bruckner.” She didn’t hold out his hat to him. There was a Dr. Bruckner had lectured on something, physics; no . . . familiar name . . . lectured on something . . .
The feet came down another step. “Man, what a .beautiful job!” the man exclaimed in wonder. “That’s Esserman’s work, I’ll bet! Lord, what a beauty! Not finished?”
AWE, ALMOST. Like the experts . who had looked at him in the hospital. He looked up and stared. The man before him was looking at him with grey, sober eyes, admiringly. At the scar. And the man’s lower jaw was missing on one side; his face was pulled over into a huge, constant leer. But it was the eyes told him; deep, kind eyes — like hers, Felice’s.
He nodded belatedly, dumbly.
“Yes—I’ve got two more coming up. All this tissue ...” He touched his cheek and Dr. Bruckner nodded.
“If they had known how to do that in my time . . .” He shrugged and smiled, as if really it didn’t matter after all. “I’m glad to know you, Mac,” “Bruce MacKenzie, sir,” he said shamefaced.
“Mac is better. The house is ringing with nicknames anyway. Well, come in. This is great, my boy. Good of you to come. Oh, Isabelle!” he called, leaning back against the railing by his hand.
“Just wait till she sets eyes on you, Mac. Oh, mum!” He smiled at Bruce. “You resemble my son Mark.”
“That’s why I asked him, dad.” Felice said softly.
Her father looked at her and suddenly laughed.
“Well, this is good! Well, this really ... I thought you didn’t care for boys, Felix. Poor Mac, your goose is cooked!”
“Stop, dad! Don’t pay attention to him, please, Mac . . .”
Bruce began to grin, watching the doctor.
“Why?” he asked. “What’s the matter? What’s so funny?”
“Let me warn you, Mac. Felix is like her mother an awful lot! I didn’t even have a chance to feel sorry for myself after the last war. She had me before I knew what hit me. You watch your step, my boy. They are completely without pity. If they think you’re the one, God help you . . .”
“Daddy!” Felix exclaimed.
Mac looked at her.
It couldn’t be . . . but she was smiling at him, with just a trace of smugness on her face.
Her father looked at them both and grinned, shaking his head.
“This is one for the book, this is,” he said, and didn’t seem to care if he embarrassed either of them. Only, somehow, it wasn’t embarrassing at all.
“In you go and meet the gang. I like to take my time on these fake pins ...” He winked at Mac broadly. “They’re not all they’re cracked up to be.” His hand tightened on the rail.
“Trying to get our sympathy,” Felix said, but smiled at Bruce.
Her eyes were bright. And, Lord, wasn’t she beautiful!