Jordan Sofer’s sixteen-year-old daughter appeared in his office crying one rainy Tuesday in March, sparking a chain of events that sent his life’s trajectory hurtling down a long, serpentine fuse toward a powder keg.
Jordan, Helion Engineering’s Director of Cartographic Solutions, sat at his workstation in a San Francisco office tower, correcting a topographic map of Costa Rica’s Arenal volcano. An intern had used 2005 elevation data, which didn’t account for the height added in 2010 when molten rock last spewed from Arenal. “You need a little boost,” Jordan said aloud to the volcano rendered on his display.
As he redrew contour lines, Jordan became aware of muffled sobs behind him. Millie huddled on the floor in the corner, her knees, naked under her short denim skirt, drawn to her chest.
She hadn’t used the door. Whatever made Millie cry had also filled her with the familiar, overpowering urge to draw.
“What happened?” Jordan glanced out the vertical glass panel beside his office door to the hallway, empty except for framed antique maps on the walls. No one had seen Millie materialize. He knelt beside Millie and kissed the top of her black-haired head, pushing the soft curls she inherited through Carole’s Haitian ancestry from her light-skinned forehead, the genetic contribution of Jordan’s Eastern European Jewish heritage. Millie smelled fresh, like honeydew. Her tears dampened Jordan’s blue Oxford shirt, leaving translucent streaks in the cotton.
“Tyler,” she said. “After school, he said if he couldn’t have me, no one could. Ben caught up to us and Tyler started shouting. I ran to tell Mr. Kramer. Then into an empty classroom.” Jordan felt for her index finger, still tacky with blood.
Millie didn’t have to tell Jordan what happened in that empty classroom; he’d have done the same if he feared for his physical safety. He pictured Millie searching for notebook paper, or perhaps cardboard, an index card, a discarded paper bag, anything on which to draw. Then rummaging for a pen, or a pencil, chalk, crayon, anything to mark that surface.
In Millie’s highly agitated state, details poured from her memory with photographic accuracy. She drew, as she could only when desperate–without training, without straight edges, protractors, compasses, CAD programs or reference materials, without erasures or strike-throughs–a professional-quality floor plan of her father’s office. A place she’d been before and felt safe. She’d pricked her skin, closed her eyes, and laid her bloody finger on the map.
Jordan tapped his iPhone. His son, Ben, Millie’s twin, answered on the second ring. “Where are you?” Jordan asked.
“Home,” Ben said, his mouth full.
He’d be in the kitchen of their San Carlos house, on a quiet hillside twenty-five minutes from downtown San Francisco, in front of the open side-by-side refrigerator. Pouring cornflakes into his mouth straight from the box. Washing them down with milk straight from the plastic gallon jug.
Carole would have made Ben get a bowl. After Carole succumbed to breast cancer four years ago, Jordan became lax about minor rules infractions. A single parent had to pick his battles. With Ben, Jordan dumped all his discipline points into one bucket: listening. The kid’s ears, like broken antennae, seemed unable to tune to the frequency of Jordan’s voice.
“Millie’s here,” Jordan said. “You okay?”
“Kramer came out before Tyler could slug me. He’s suspended for three days. It sucks having to stand up to bullies instead of just teleporting the hell out of there, like some people I know.”
Always with the barbs, that kid. The who-cares attitude worn like a flak jacket, envy smoldering underneath. Why did it always have to be fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, one with the ability, one without? Ben was so much like Jordan’s twin sister, Sarah. They both lacked what the family called the “Cartographer Gene” though its origins, whether in biology or something more arcane, were obscure. And they both resented their siblings and parents’ power. Jordan wondered whether all “Cartographer” families–the population’s tiny fraction across all races and ethnicities believed to have this trait —- experienced the same fractured dynamic.
He deflected Ben’s remark, finding it much easier to keep Ben at arm’s length than to engage.
“We’ll be there soon,” Jordan said.
Jordan didn’t press Millie on the drive home. She stopped crying, but sat silently in the passenger seat. Her honeydew scent mingled with a hint of Freon from the aging Land Rover’s air conditioner and wet asphalt from the rain-slicked freeway. He knew he should talk to her more, try harder to reach her. He stole glimpses of Millie while she gazed out the window at the rolling green hills now grey under the overcast sky.
It had not escaped Jordan’s notice that even after puberty, Millie wasn’t interested in boys. With each passing year, more girls phoned Ben. Millie never mentioned anyone special. Jordan knew Millie was gay, but she never broached the subject, and he never asked. He hoped she understood he loved her; that he’d find offensive the suggestion her sexual orientation would make him feel otherwise. Though he did worry that Millie’s gayness might further complicate the Tyler situation.
When they entered the family room, they found Ben hunched over an X-Box controller playing a first person shooter. Fake machine gun fire and grenade explosions thundered in surround sound, rattling the sliding glass door to the redwood deck. “Turn that off,” Jordan said. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Millie sat on the black leather sofa, hands cupped in her lap. Ben locked and loaded his virtual bolt-action rifle and aimed at a pixelated terrorist. Unable to find the remote, Jordan strode to the television and touched the power switch.
“I know none of us are any good at this,” Jordan said. “But we have to talk.”
Ben tossed the game controller to the sofa’s far end. He crossed his arms over his orange T-shirt so only the words “Radio” and “tour” showed. Was that a skull tattooed on his wrist, or merely a mishap with a felt tip pen? His black-heeled boot clanked against the glass coffee table, and he crossed his legs at the ankle. Jordan stared at the boots until Ben smirked and eased them from the table to the maple hardwood.
“I thought this thing with Tyler was over, Millie,” Jordan said. “That after that incident in the library, you’d stopped being his orientation buddy and Mr. Kramer told him to stay away from you.”
“You didn’t tell him?” Ben asked Millie.
She shrugged, fingering a blue thread bracelet around her thin wrist. A gift from her friend, Hannah? “I thought I could handle it.”
“Handle what?” A small knot of dread formed in Jordan’s midsection and pulsed, dully.
Millie twisted the bracelet until it snapped apart. “Tyler’s still mad about the dance.”
“That was before the library,” Jordan said. “When he was told to leave you alone. Have I got the chronology wrong?”
Jordan recounted the history. Tyler started at San Carlos High six months ago when his family moved to the neighborhood from Nashville, Tennessee. The change proved something of a culture shock to Tyler. He showed up for his first day at San Carlos high wearing a Confederate Flag T-shirt, which made him the subject of whispering and avoidance, including from Ben. Millie took it upon herself to do the opposite, to try to help Tyler acclimate. He mistook her kindness for a different signal and asked her to the Halloween dance.
Millie tried to explain her refusal wasn’t personal. Jordan suspected, though he didn’t say so, that Millie told Tyler what she wouldn’t tell her own father. The next day, in the library, Millie was telling Tyler she’d be participating in the Anti-Defamation League’s “Becoming an Ally” workshop at the school next week. He grabbed her wrists, squeezing until her skin blanched. “He argued with himself,” she’d said. “Then he kissed me. I tried to get away, but he pushed me onto the carpet. Just then, some kids came in. He let me go. I ran to the girls’ bathroom to draw a map.”
There followed conferences with Mr. Kramer and Tyler’s parents. Jordan came away from those with the understanding Tyler was to have nothing more to do with Millie.
“Yeah,” Millie said. “All that’s right, except Tyler didn’t leave me alone. He’s been shoving notes through the vents in my locker. Love letters, weird ones, about me, him and some voice in his head, Denton. Disgusting comics of us naked, scrawled with ‘How do you know if you haven’t tried?’ He’s been sending emails–pictures he’s taken of me without me even knowing. Creepy messages, like ‘You and your brother brought this on everyone.'”
Jordan turned to Ben. “You knew about this?”
“Since last week,” he said. “Only because I overheard her telling Hannah.”
The kernel of dread snowballed in Jordan’s gut, gathering a layer of sadness here, anger there, until a cold boulder pressed against his chest’s walls, trying to burst him apart. How did he not know?
Because he didn’t want to know. He’d have to get close to them to know.
“I’m calling Mr. Kramer,” Jordan said. “Then Tyler’s parents, again. And the police. This has to stop.”
Neither of the twins replied. Millie texted. Ben dug the remote from between the sofa cushions and restarted his game. Jordan took his iPhone onto the deck and slid the glass door shut behind him, lowering the decibel level of Ben’s virtual combat zone to a pale echo.
As Mr. Kramer’s voice mail greeting droned in Jordan’s ear, Sarah phoned from her bio-engineering lab in Boston. Jordan switched to Sarah’s call, intending to try Mr. Kramer again after he’d spoken to his sister.
But the fuse, lit with Millie’s news, snaked around another s-curve, the fire creeping steadily toward an explosive end.
Jordan’s mother had died.
“I’m on my way to Houston to make arrangements,” Sarah said. “You’ll come?”
Sarah sounded faint and distracted, liked she’d taken Valium with Merlot. Or perhaps it was exhaustion from the chemo. No sarcastic jabs, no “map on over to Houston, brother, or for that matter, Paris or the moon.” He longed for normalcy, for words thrust like foils in a fencing match. As though his mother would still be alive if only Sarah made him remind her for the thousandth time that those with the Cartographer trait could only teleport places they’d already been, and then only while fearing for their safety. As though his mother wouldn’t have died if only he could jab Sarah back for owning her own company, pulling down seven figures, and being able to afford jetting anywhere she wanted.
But Sarah just thanked Jordan like he’d offered to pick up her dry cleaning, not like he shared her shock and grief at having their mother stripped from their lives. The hub whose love reached out like spokes to all of them —- Jordan, Sarah, Millie, Ben, Jordan’s father–even as the connections between those on the wheel’s periphery became dry and brittle.
In the flurry of phone calls to arrange flights, inform bosses and teachers, cancel appointments; in the commotion of three hastily packed suitcases and a hurried drive to SFO; in the surreal consciousness that the loving presence who’d laughed with him on the phone just two days ago no longer resided in this world; in the exquisite pain of losing forever the one person whose love he’d never questioned and never had to earn; in the wake of it all, certain plans were, to be generous, tabled. In a less charitable view, they were forgotten.
Either way, despite his good intentions, Jordan did not phone Mr. Kramer, Tyler’s parents, or the police.
By the time Jordan and his kids arrived at the ranch-style house in southwest Houston where he and Sarah had grown up, most of the neighbors and friends bearing fruit plates and roast chickens had gone. Sarah let Millie take over answering the door; Ben went to nap in Jordan’s old room. Jordan pushed back in an olive green ’60s-era Naugahyde recliner, the one his father had always used.
“Isn’t it strange how life can just stop, with food in the refrigerator and letters to be mailed?” Sarah said.
Jordan hadn’t seen Sarah in the flesh in three years, long before her breast cancer diagnosis. The chemo had taken her dark, expressive eyebrows, leaving her face bland and unfinished. Tiny lines furrowed the space between where her eyebrows had been.
These lines hadn’t shown on Skype, not that Sarah and Jordan conferenced much, and neither had Sarah’s gauntness. Her engagement ring’s diamond, always perky atop her ring finger before, now drooped toward her palm. Sarah kept pushing the diamond upright with her thumb–Carole’s gesture, after the cancer spread to her spine. The sad irony that a variant of Carole’s disease now threatened Sarah made it impossible for Jordan to watch Sarah fiddling with the ring. To be reminded how Carole kept nothing down during chemo, how her cheeks, arms, and hips sharpened from healthy curves to angular points.
Jordan parked his gaze on a burn hole in the Naugahyde. He scraped its charred edges with his fingernail. “Where’s Steve?”
“He stayed in Boston with the girls,” Sarah said. “Things aren’t going so well with us.”
Jordan knew Sarah and her husband had been having trouble only because his mother had mentioned it. “I’m sorry.”
“I get it,” she said. “He’s scared. I’m scared, too. I just wish we could be scared together. It’s easier for him to handle if he distances himself.”
Jordan didn’t blame Steve; he wanted nothing more than to leave the room, as if more physical space would shield him against losing Sarah.
He stuck his fingertip through the burn hole, recalling the honeyed, nutty aroma of his father’s cigars. So many nights his father had sat in this chair, watching Upstairs, Downstairs on PBS and smoking, after spending the day in his beloved research lab, lecturing at the medical school, or writing a scientific paper. His father’s life had been his work.
And his mother’s life had been his father.
His parents talked in this room, after his mother put him and Sarah to bed. He didn’t hear the words, just the buzz of conversation and occasional laughter. He had wanted to speak to his father like that, to hear him laugh. To see him at Little League games and piano recitals like the other dads. But all his father’s meager affections went to Jordan’s mother.
When his father died, Jordan was still mourning Carole, still tangled in that loss. Regret sat heavy in his stomach, like a smooth, oval stone.
“I wish I’d been more ‘there’ for Mom,” Sarah said, voicing Jordan’s thoughts. “Too wrapped up in my own misery, I guess. She was never the same after Dad died. When I got here, I found full ash trays near her computer. Full fat cheddar in the refrigerator. Cobwebs and dust on the treadmill. All the things the doctors said to do to avoid another heart attack, she stopped doing. I found this, too.”
Sarah handed Jordan a careful, pencil-drawn plan of Beth Yeshurun cemetery, where tomorrow they would attend their mother’s funeral. The single roadway looping the neat plots. The white stone visitors’ benches. The majestic oak tree, under which his father’s headstone lay. The grassy nakedness of the adjacent plot, where his mother’s casket would be interred.
And a reddish-brown fingerprint, the whorls distinct as contour lines on a topographic map, over that empty plot.
“A caretaker found her when they opened yesterday,” Sarah said. “In that yellow knit suit with navy piping she loved so much. She must have sensed another attack, got scared and mapped to where she felt safest, next to Dad. Funny. No one seemed worried how she got there once the coroner ruled out foul play.”
How unfair that Sarah and Ben had to worry about protecting the family’s secret; a secret they could never use themselves. Feelings warred within Jordan. He wanted to thank Sarah for shouldering that burden. To tell her he was sorry they hadn’t been closer. He wanted to ask her about her prognosis, let her know he was pulling for her.
He wanted to walk out the door and keep walking until his Nikes wore through to his bare feet, somewhere near the Texas-Louisiana border. He pulled his finger from the burn hole, dislodging a vinyl fragment. He rolled the fragment between his thumb and fingers.
“I found this in a stack she’d planned to mail.” Sarah handed Jordan an envelope and excused herself to phone the funeral home.
The sealed envelope, addressed to Jordan in his mother’s neat architectural hand, writing common to all Cartographers–all capital letters at a slight angle, giving the illusion of motion–bore a Forever stamp.
Inside, he’d find a magazine or newspaper article with his mother’s editorial comments on a yellow Post-It. She’d have signed the note “Momcat,” a goofy nickname she adopted from a B. Kliban cartoon book. She started sending these when Jordan went to Stanford and never stopped after he graduated. At twenty-something, Jordan found these notes embarrassing; later he found them eccentrically cute. Now he’d never receive another. He wiped his eye with the back of his hand and ran his thumb under the flap.
You know how Daddy wouldn’t talk about the War? All he told me was the name of his town – Olomouc–in what’s now the Czech Republic. And that the Nazis rounded up his family during the War but he “made it out” of Theresienstadt. The rest of his family, including his twin sister, your Aunt Rebecca, died in Birkenau. Keep that in mind as you read this. Let me know what you think.
I love you better than stars or water,
Underneath the Post-It, on filmy paper cut from The New Republic, was a review of a children’s book about Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist who taught secret drawing classes to the children of Theresienstadt as therapy.
According to the article, Dicker-Brandeis saved thousands of those drawings in two suitcases, hidden before they sent her to Birkenau. A decade after the war ended, the suitcases turned up; the art was displayed in the Jewish Museum in Prague and in Yad Vashem. Several sketches and paintings had been reproduced within the article: strange, haunting, beautiful depictions of people with bundles boarding trains, of humanoid fairies, of keyholes opening from a frightening, grey world of watchtowers, starvation and typhus onto a colorful paradise of fantastic creatures and children running free.
In the margin next to one drawing, Jordan’s mother had placed arrows and exclamation marks.
A professional-looking street map of Olomouc.
Jordan had never been to Olomouc, and he couldn’t read Czech. But he could make enough sense of the cognates to pick out a university, Wenceslas cathedral, the Olomouc Orthodox church. A ruined synagogue, notated with slanted, all capital printing –- Jordan understood only the word, “Kristallnacht.” He pulled up a Helion Engineering street map of Olomouc on his iPhone and laid it next to the picture. He found the medieval fortress walls around the city, the former site of an intricate astrological clock, the streets, unchanged since the 1940s.
An inset detailed the town center, including a winding street labeled Trida Svobody, itself the subject of another inset: a stately, white stone apartment building. The floor plan for a suite of rooms on the fourth floor, one labeled “Rivkah,” another marked “Shmuel.” A bed against the wall, a desk, an armoire.
Over the armoire, a single brick-colored smudge.
His father would have been only seven in 1942, but even an adult couldn’t have accomplished such cartographic sophistication without tools, unless the one drawing had the Cartographer Gene.
Jordan had no doubt. Samuel Sofer “made it out of Theresienstadt” through a map. Little Sam went home, and his map found its way into an art teacher’s suitcase.
What happened next? How long had he hidden in that armoire, in the vacant, high-ceilinged apartment the Nazis hadn’t yet commandeered? Did a brave neighbor hide him for the war’s duration? Did he seek help at the cathedral?
Seven-year-old Sam saved himself but not his twin, his family, or the other captive, doomed children. Jordan shuddered.
Something inside him split open, releasing a painful wave of understanding that pushed against years of anger and hurt.
His father had not been indifferent.
He had been afraid.
After the funeral, with Millie asleep in Sarah’s old room and Ben asleep in Jordan’s, Jordan and Sarah nibbled rugelach and sipped Australian Kosher wine, gifts from shiva callers, in their childhood living room. After the second glass of wine, Sarah’s old, acerbic self peeped through her veil of grief.
“I’ve always wondered why you became a professional cartographer,” she said. “Isn’t your day job being the same as your superpower too close for comfort?”
Jordan smiled, grateful for the familiar sarcasm. “What can I say? I love maps,” he said. “I’m lucky to make a living doing something I enjoy. Not as tony as your living, of course.”
Though she’d started the banter, Sarah cut him off.
“We’re orphans now,” she said.
Jordan thought she would cry, but she just leaned her head against his shoulder. His muscles tensed at her touch, but if she noticed, she didn’t show it. To distract himself, he took in the room. The Baldwin upright where they’d both practiced scales and arpeggios, Sarah more than Jordan. The now-antique RCA stereo in a cherry wood cabinet, speakers blown from the summer they discovered Led Zeppelin. The wine’s plush tannins dried his mouth; the alcohol warmed his chest. An aroma of warm brisket lingered in the house. He reached in his pocket for the article on Dicker-Brandeis and handed it to Sarah.
“Imagine saving only yourself,” Jordan said. “The guilt he must have felt. No wonder he wouldn’t let himself get close to us. Just Mom. She had that uncanny ability to break down any barriers any of us put up.”
Sarah finished reading and folded the paper. “I didn’t say anything because I’m not done. But before I got sick, my skunk works research project took an interesting turn. I didn’t isolate the elusive ‘Gene,’ but I found a similarity in the blood samples I took from Mom, you and Millie.
“You’re all AB negative, the rarest blood type —- have you read the crap on the internet? That it comes from aliens. From reptiles. That people who have it have ESP. Ridiculous, but what I found isn’t. You all lack a clotting factor. You should be hemophiliac, but you’re not. You all have abnormal protein levels, but you don’t have myeloma. Your blood is special, Jordan.”
Now it made sense–why his mother always took him to Cartographer doctors as a child. She made him promise to do the same as an adult, so his blood’s abnormalities would remain secret. “Is this a side effect, like our writing escaping the page?” Jordan asked.
He remembered the day, in happier times, when Carole sat the twin toddlers at the kitchen table and gave them each a sheet of manila art paper. Ben wielded a midnight blue Crayola, Millie a sea green one.
Carole lifted Ben’s scribbled-on paper and tilted it. The crayon marks stayed put. When she tilted Millie’s, the marks fell from the page, forming a scraggly, sea green bird’s nest on Millie’s Elmo place mat. That’s when they knew Millie had the Gene. Cartographers’ writing and drawing required several minutes to set. Carole, so proud, had said, “It’s Millie!” and held Jordan close. A memory so vivid, he could almost feel Carole’s warmth against him.
“I think it’s the opposite,” Sarah said. “The drawing compulsion, the prodigious mapmaking talent–those are side effects. The power’s in the blood. It would explain the rumored hidden ability to transport others. What if Cartographers’ blood could be used to transport non-Cartographers?“
Sarah’s words punctured Jordan’s memory, leaving a raw hole of guilt. She’d spent precious hours of her life chasing an explanation for the power he possessed yet she could never wield. And even a way to expand it. “No one’s ever done that.”
“But it’s part of the lore. All legends have a grain of truth. What if there’s always been a way, but it got lost. Like how to pronounce YHWH?”
Exhaustion knocked Jordan back. He was too drained to think how different things might have been if Sam had been able to rescue others as well as himself.
Sarah hugged him goodnight. She felt small against him, not much bigger than Millie.
Lying on the guest room’s ancient fold-out couch, Jordan made a promise to himself. The familial cycle of emotional distance would stop with him. He would open his heart to those he loved, no matter how much it hurt.
He closed his eyes. Carole slept with him on this thin, striped mattress years ago. He could detect nothing of the clean, lemon and lily fragrance she always wore in the aged kapok’s mustiness. The mattress’s buttons, hard against his back, dug into his skin. He wept, without sound, until he fell asleep.
The day after the Sofers returned from Houston, on a sunny, clear-skied afternoon, Jordan left work early to help Millie and Ben with an extra credit project. He’d agreed to coach their moot court teams for an upcoming competition. They met in the school auditorium to practice: Millie and her moot court partner, Hannah, and Ben and his partner, Enrique. Their case, based on New Jersey v. T.L.O, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, concerned the constitutionality of searching public school students.
Millie took the podium, flustered. Jordan had walked in to find her holding hands with Hannah. Millie snatched her hand away, a punch to Jordan’s gut. He hadn’t expected years of emotional distance to disappear overnight, but he had hoped for at least a modicum of progress.
At that moment, the circuitous fuse bent around one last curve, the fire hissing down the home stretch, picking up speed: Mr. Kramer’s voice came over the PA system.
“We are in lockdown. This is not a drill.”
In the background, someone screamed, “Tyler, please, no! Oh God!” Four sharp, rhythmic blasts followed. The PA microphone whined with feedback. Tyler spoke.
“You heard the man. This is not a drill, Millicent and Benjamin Sofer. I’m coming for you.”
But the drills had taught them well. Each of the four kids ran to one of the auditorium doors and shut it. Enrique doused the lights. “Do these lock?” he whispered, pointing to the steel door he’d shut. The other three fumbled with locked padlocks dangling from chains wrapped around the steel push bars. Ben said, “Not without keys.”
“Is there a door we can lock?” Jordan asked.
“I did a play with the drama group,” Hannah said. “The dressing room doors lock. They’re backstage.”
“Bring your stuff,” Jordan said. “It can’t look like we were here.”
They ran up the stage’s wooden stairs and behind the red velvet curtains. Right before the backstage exit, Hannah pushed open a grey steel door and flicked a light switch.
The long, narrow room was painted an institutional sherbet green. Globe lights surrounded several large wall mirrors that hung over an off-white Formica countertop. Three vanity chairs were pushed under the counter, each with gilt-painted wooden arm rests and greasepaint-stained, dark pink velvet seat cushions.
Costumes hung from a metal clothing rack in the room’s back. A red and white dotted Swiss hoop skirt with matching parasol. Two black and white gowns from My Fair Lady’s Ascot race scene. Several long, black coats and black hats with plastic wine bottles Velcroed to their crowns from last year’s Fiddler on the Roof production. Assorted tights, vests and pantaloons. A small shelf held dried sponges stained with pancake makeup in various skin tones. Crumbling cakes of eye shadow in blues, browns and pinks. Dried bottles of spirit gum. Some discarded safety pins.
Jordan pocketed one of the pins and gave another to Millie.
An ancient Clairol makeup mirror on the counter caught Jordan’s eye. He pressed the power button. The lights alongside the mirror flickered on, emitting a warm, amber glow. Enough to see by once their eyes adjusted, but too faint to show under the door. Jordan signaled, and Millie turned off the globe lights.
“Anyone have cell reception?” Jordan asked, thinking it unlikely given the windowless, concrete walls. They all shook their heads.
Jordan said, “Millie, you know what to do.”
“Not without you.” Her lower lip trembled.
“Open your pack.”
Millie took out her English notebook, ripped out a page, and unsheathed a black felt tip. “Dad, don’t make me leave by myself.” Even as she spoke, her fingers twitched. Jordan knew they wanted, more than anything, to draw.
“We’ll be right behind you. Aunt Sarah figured out how to transport non-Cartographers.” Jordan hoped he sounded convincing.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Enrique said.
“Millie, show them,” Jordan said. “It’s easier than explaining.”
“We’re not supposed to let anyone know.”
“Sweetie, please. It’s an emergency.”
Millie sketched the neighborhood, the Sofer’s street, an inset of their house’s floor plan. When she finished her room, she kissed her father and brother and held Hannah close. She pricked her finger, handed Ben the safety pin and touched the map.
“Holy crap,” Enrique said, eyes like hula hoops. “What just happened?”
Hannah waved her hand through the space where Millie had stood. “Whoa.”
Jordan tore another sheet from Millie’s notebook. The impulse overpowered him. He drew the family room’s leather sofas, the plasma screen television and X-Box, the fireplace.
“Dad,” Ben said. “Enrique’s never been to our house.”
Voices cried out, like distant crowd noise from AT&T Park after a homerun. Faint, staccato sounds, pok pok pok pok, followed. One of the kids, Jordan couldn’t tell who, choked on a sob.
“Ben’s right,” Jordan said. “Stupid of me. We need a place you’ve all been, where you feel safe.” He forced himself to stop drawing and turned the page over. His hand flexed and cramped as he fought the compulsion.
“Foster Park?” Ben asked.
“Works for me,” Enrique said.
“Not me,” Hannah whispered. “When I was seven, a man I didn’t know came up to me at the swings.” She buried her face in her hands.
Jordan patted Hannah’s arm. “It’s all good. We’ll pick someplace else.” More screams welled like a ghostly wind, closer this time. “Iolanthe Circle?”
They nodded. Iolanthe Circle: a favorite meditation and contemplation spot, on a hilltop not far from the school grounds. Because of budget cuts, it was closed on Tuesdays, but they’d bypass the visitor’s center and their landing place would be deserted. Jordan let the urge take over, his hand a blur like a video on fast forward. He placed the completed map across his knees to set.
“What are we waiting for?” Enrique said. “Let’s get out of here.” He grabbed the paper.
Jordan’s map, all of it –- Crestview Drive winding up the hill above the school; its circular terminus at the hilltop, parking spaces striped bold and white along the sides; the pebble path into the redwood grove; Iolanthe Circle itself, outlined in smooth grey standing stones two feet high; the wooden meditation benches and Zen labyrinth inside the circle–slid from the page. It sprinkled the floor and settled into a pile, black and fine, like iron filings.
They stared at the heap of dried ink, wordless. Enrique held out the blank page to Jordan. It rattled in his shaking hand. “I didn’t know.”
Jordan closed his own hands over Enrique’s and held them there until Enrique’s were still. “It’s okay,” Jordan said. “How could you have known?”
In the makeup mirror’s dusky light, shadows clung to their faces. Enrique, now immobile, his breath choppy, shallow and too fast. Hannah, wet trails glistening on her cheeks, tearing a black-painted fingernail with her teeth. Ben, his only son, leg jiggling a rapid vibration on the pink-cushioned seat. All on the brink of panic. He could lose them any second, and once he did, he’d never get them back. And none of them would stand a chance.
“Let’s try that again,” he said.
They circled him like the standing stones at Iolanthe. Without anyone suggesting it aloud, they held hands. As Jordan began again, a high, thin siren wail, then two, then three, their rise and fall tumbling over one another in an elaborate braid of sound, carried into the dressing room. “They’re coming,” Hannah said. “Help is coming.” No one said more.
Jordan drew with fast sure strokes, as though some occult energy possessed his hand. The circle took shape on the page again. “The power’s in the blood,” Sarah’d said. Let her be right. Please God, let her be right. He caught a glimpse of Ben’s face silhouetted in the murky light, vacant with terror. He wouldn’t leave the others behind, like his father had. They would face whatever happened, together.
Screams pierced the air, so near Ben said, “That was Ms. Yamamoto. That was her.” The music classroom across the hall? “Cover your ears,” Jordan hissed, and the kids complied, clamping their hands hard to their heads against the coming din. Four seconds of metallic cracks. Then silence, so much worse than sound.
They shivered now, their faces tear-stained and sticky, their open mouths stringy with mucous. The close, sour air smelled of decaying taffeta and velvet and the cloying, powdery perfume of stale makeup. Jordan’s mouth went dry.
He opened the safety pin, pricked his finger tip and squeezed out a round bulb of blood. He resisted calling to Ben. He wanted Ben safe, but what if something went wrong? He could experiment with someone else’s child or his own. A choice awful to contemplate, but Jordan made it, even so.
“Enrique, right hand,” he said. Jordan smeared Enrique’s fingertip with blood and positioned it over the Zen maze. “Close your eyes, picture the maze, and think ‘here.'” Enrique nodded, closed his eyes and touched his finger to the map.
With Jordan, with Millie and Carole, with all the Cartographers he knew, transport happened the instant blood touched the map. Yet Enrique still stood in front of them, eyes closed.
The heavy steel door to the auditorium clanged shut and Enrique’s eyes popped open. “Keep them closed,” Jordan said. “No matter what. Concentrate.”
“I’m trying,” Enrique said. “It’s a little hard to focus.”
Tyler’s shouts pinged off the auditorium’s wood paneled walls. “Where oh where are you, my little Sofer mongrels?”
“Try again,” Jordan said. “Now.” He squeezed another drop of blood onto Enrique’s finger.
For a while, nothing happened. Then the outline of Enrique’s body blurred, like water colors seeping past inked borders. His image faded, became transparent and lost definition, a colored mist hanging in the air.
“What’s this? A backpack? Which whiny snowflake’s is it?” Tyler again. “Yes, Denton. Let’s open it and see.”
“Dad,” Ben whispered. “It’s mine. You said bring our stuff, but I–I didn’t.”
Jordan held his palm up to silence Ben. Down the I-told-you-so path lay more precious minutes they couldn’t afford to lose.
The mist that had been Enrique lingered in the air a moment longer, then dissipated all at once, as though sucked away into a vacuum.
“Hannah, finger,” Jordan said.
In less than a minute, a Hannah-shaped vapor shimmered in front of the costumes on the clothing rack, until an invisible force drew it away.
“Ben,” Jordan said. “It’s time.”
“Denton, look.” Boots clomped on the wooden stairs. Tyler had reached the stage. If they were lucky, he would try the stage right dressing room first. “Ben Sofer’s Algebra II notebook. Your handwriting’s so messy, Ben Sofer. You should be ashamed. It’s your fault these people will die. How I’ll enjoy killing your justice warrior sister.”
Jordan squeezed his finger. The pinprick had already closed. He felt around for the safety pin, putting his hands on nothing, the seconds ticking like a bomb in his brain. He became conscious of Ben’s elbow nudging him, the second pin opened like a V between Ben’s fingers. He jabbed his finger with the pin and laid a thick layer of blood on Ben’s finger.
The knob to the dressing room door jiggled. “Hiding? So unoriginal, Ben Sofer. You disappoint me. Isn’t he a disappointment, Denton?”
Jordan took Ben’s head in both hands and kissed his forehead. “I love you. Go now. I’m right behind you.”
Ben touched the map, just as the shooting started.
Then it stopped, a hole blown in the door where the knob had been. Tyler swung the door open.
He wore combat boots, fatigues slung with cartridge belts and a small black backpack. He carried two handguns in holsters: one at the shoulder, the other at the hip. He held, what Jordan supposed, having seen them only in the movies, was a semi-automatic rifle. That rifle now pointed toward Jordan, who raised his hands, but kept squeezing his fingertip between two adjacent fingers to keep the blood flowing.
Tyler, puzzled, gestured with its muzzle toward Ben’s dissolving mist. “What’s that? Who’re you? Where’s Ben?”
The vapor’s residue sucked away. An electric bullhorn crackled on and a reedy voice projected into the auditorium. “Tyler Nickelton. This is the FBI. We know you can hear us, Tyler. No one else needs to get hurt.”
“You just missed him,” Jordan said.
“I recognize your voice,” Tyler said. “From the phone messages to my house. My parents made me listen, over and over.”
A female voice, quavering and strained, came over the bull horn. “Tyler, sweetheart, it’s Mama.”
Tyler kept the rifle trained on Jordan. “Just like you blue-state vermin to bring an innocent woman into a thing like this.”
A drop of Jordan’s blood trickled from his raised hand onto the green tile floor. Tyler’s head whipped toward the motion. In that tenth of a second, Jordan reached toward the map.
Gunfire deafened Jordan. Something slammed into his shoulder and knocked him to the ground.
He was on his back. Enrique, Hannah and Ben peered down at him. The late afternoon sun shone through the redwoods above their heads. Jordan squinted against its brightness.
“You’re bleeding,” Ben said.
“I’ll call 911,” Hannah said.
“No!” Ben and Jordan said. Ben fished in Jordan’s pocket for his phone, pressed the emergency contact number, and asked the answering service to page their family physician, Dr. Kim. Enrique stripped off his T-shirt and wrapped Jordan’s wound.
Jordan smelled the sweet, earthy metallic scent of his own blood. He felt no pain yet, only numbness. His ears rang. “It worked,” he said.
Ben smiled. “I’m calling Millie.”
A short while later, Millie ran into Iolanthe Circle. She held Jordan’s hand until Dr. Kim arrived with the ambulance.
They had it all planned. When the police and news reporters asked, they told the truth. They just left some things out.
Jordan didn’t have to ask Enrique and Hannah to keep the Cartographers’ secret. They worked out for themselves why those with the power concealed their abilities. Why most people wouldn’t believe, and if anyone did, why that would be dangerous for Jordan, Millie, and others like them. They told Jordan they owed him their lives. The least they could do was to avoid endangering his.
“We hid in a dressing room, but we left before Tyler got to us and headed for Iolanthe Circle,” Hannah said.
“I guess no one saw us leave because they were all focused on staying alive themselves,” Enrique said. “Who’d be looking out a window during lock down? That’s the first thing they tell you not to do.”
“I didn’t see my Dad get shot,” Ben said. “He told me to go and he’d be right behind me.”
“I didn’t see a blood trail from my Dad’s wound,” Millie said. “But I read somewhere gunshot wounds don’t necessarily bleed right away.”
“It happened so fast,” Jordan said. “My shoulder was shattered. I was in shock. I can’t tell you how we got out. I’m just glad we did.”
They saw the rest on the news.
Tyler didn’t wait for SWAT to take him down. He had a pipe bomb in that black backpack. He detonated it there in the dressing room, among the black felt hats adorned with feathers, the green and gold brocade gowns, the worn calfskin character shoes, and the pointed, velveteen slippers, toes curled like the tongues of yawning cats. The dressing room burned before the Fire Department arrived, longer than necessary to reduce two blood-streaked maps to ash.
In Tyler’s room, investigators found hundreds of digital photographs of Millie; the early ones evoking a sense of shameful attraction, the later ones edited to depict violent fantasies. They found reams of what the news called Tyler’s manifesto, and videos of him arguing with Denton, who’d commanded violence against the school and blamed Millie and Ben.
Tyler’s English teacher told reporters his writings demonstrated a rare talent. A psychiatric expert said they, along with the photos and videos, revealed Tyler as psychotic; obsessed with Millie yet full of self-loathing because she wasn’t white, unable to accept her rejection, and plagued by auditory hallucinations.
The weapons came from an underground dealer Tyler found on the internet, in exchange for information about neighborhood homes whose owners were on vacation and vulnerable to burglary.
“You were right,” Jordan said.
Sarah, still in her lab coat, smiled from his workstation display, in front of a dining table covered with books, papers and dirty dishes. Two untidy tween girls squealed, ran through the room shouting, “Hi, Uncle Jordan,” and disappeared, giggling, into the back of the house.
“I wish Dad had known,” she said. “And I wish something in that blood could heal me.”
“Me too,” Jordan said.
Sarah removed her wig and scratched her bald head. “Chemo’s over in two weeks. My oncologist says I’m responding well. She thinks my chances are good.”
“You’ve looked better, brother.”
A blue canvas sling and swathe immobilized Jordan’s reconstructed shoulder. His second surgery, to install a metal pin, had gone well, but a third loomed on the horizon.
“They’ll love me at airports now,” he said. He hesitated. Then he took the leap. “Sarah, thank you.”
She winked twice, the greeting they’d invented in kindergarten. The last time they’d been truly close.
Jordan winked twice back and signed off.
Then he booked plane tickets to Boston for the weekend after Sarah’s chemo ended, for himself, Ben and Millie.
Eighteen people died in the shooting at San Carlos High. Mr. Kramer was one of them, as was Ms. Yamamoto, Ben’s favorite teacher. Many young people the twins had known since pre-school perished that day. The Sofers mourned with the community and, with them, took the first slow steps toward healing.
The day of terror ended for most residents with the pipe bomb blast. A definitive finish to the course set in motion that wet, dreary Tuesday.
For Jordan Sofer, that day signified a beginning–an unreserved commitment to the vow he’d made in Houston, to be there, fully, for the people he loved for as long as they were on this Earth with him.
Several weeks later, while Ben was at baseball practice, Jordan and Millie sat together on a wooden bench in Iolanthe Circle.
“I know you know I’m a lesbian, though we never really discussed it.”
“In case you’re worried about grandchildren, I want you to know I’m planning to have kids when I grow up.”
“Kids are cool. Besides, I want to pass on the Cartographer Gene. It’s too awesome not to.”
The wind whistled through the redwoods. Jordan squeezed Millie’s shoulder. “That’s great, if that’s what you want.”
“I just worry that when the time comes, I won’t be able to find a Cartographer sperm donor. I see myself finding a wife.”
The breeze ruffled Jordan’s hair. He remembered a quiet black woman who came to sit next to him in a class at Stanford. Despite her shyness, she’d made a beeline for him. When no one was looking, she tilted the paper on which she’d been taking notes in neat, architectural printing. The words dropped into her hand. She poured the pile of spiky black ink into his palm. It crumbled into dust, softer than confectioner’s sugar. “I’m Carole,” she said.
“These things have a way of working out,” Jordan said.
Jordan took his daughter’s hand. He felt not even the slightest urge to draw as they went down the hill, on foot, toward the comfort and safety of home.