The crowds keep coming. More and more every day, drawn by rumor and whisper and desperate wish. They come to Shaker Street to see eight-year-old Anabelle Vincent, who lies in a coma-like state–unable to move or speak. They come because a visitor experienced what seemed like a miracle and believed it happened because of Anabelle. Word spreads. There are more visitors, more supposed miracles, more stories on TV and the Internet. But is this the divine at work or something else?
Find out in The Miracle Girl, the debut novel by past contributor Andrew Roe. We are proud to present an excerpt in this weekend’s fiction section. –Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
These things can be explained: the weeping icons, the bleeding statues, the healing of disease, the aberrations of sun and sky and light, the apparitions of Jesus and Mary and Springsteen. Because the answers are there. It’s only a matter of knowing how to look, how to see beyond the glow and the primitive need to believe. But wanting to believe doesn’t make it true. Truth is what makes it true. Was that a quote from somewhere?
This is what Nathaniel Zoline wants to say when his mother asks him what’s new as they browse the laminated, jumbo-sized Red Lobster menus, full of seafood specials and kids’ meals and exotic cocktails he’ll never order. The occasion: his father’s sixty-eighth birthday, a midweek evening out after a day of teaching Linnaeus and binomial nomenclature to bored teenagers, Nathaniel making the drive from Daly City down to San Jose when he’d rather be home, researching, writing, living his true life.
But instead he says what he always says when similarly queried by his mother: “Fine, good. Work is good, things are good. Moving right along. Can’t complain.”
What’s on his mind, though, is the recent increase in reports of the miraculous, the strange, the millennial, as the closing months of 1999 bring more and more surprises. Because when he’s not teaching biology to sophomores, he’s working on his website and sporadically published newsletter, The Smiling Skeptic. And lately it’s all about the girl in the coma in L.A., the one who’d been in a car accident and was now paralyzed, mute, hooked up to machines and tubes, supposedly causing miracles, healing the sick, drawing crowds to her house. That’s why he doesn’t want to be here. He wants to be online so he can see what the day’s search results yield, and he wants to start his article about the girl, about false hope, about the blind embrace of faith.
“Joan,” says his father.
Their waitress, Janelle, is taking orders at the booth across from them. They’re next. A table would have been better (more space, more freedom, not so trapped), but his mother likes booths, always insists even if it means waiting longer to eat.
“Well if I don’t ask we don’t hear anything,” his mother says. “We don’t know what’s going on and I’d like to know. I’d like to know what’s going on in my one and only son’s life. I think that’s fair, Edward. So I have to ask.”
There was someone once. A fellow teacher. Younger. She was a long-term sub for an English teacher who had cancer. The cancer went away and then so did the young teacher who was the long-term sub. He’d thought maybe. If there had been more time.
They order and eat their shrimp salads and lobster-fest specials. The meal concludes with dribbles of conversation, which is fine by him — updates on old neighbors who have died or are dying, the slew of medications required to keep his father halfway healthy, the cashier at Sears who’d overcharged them and they had to return to the store for only $1.50, and they probably spent more on the gas driving back there, but it’s the principle of the thing, you know? There’s dessert, too, a brownie fudge sundae with a lone candle. They all share. Nathaniel’s father handles the bill. They say good-bye in the parking lot. His mother has been using the same perfume for thirty years.
“What about that Janelle?” she tries one last time. “She seemed like a nice girl. Why don’t you go back in and ask her out? I didn’t see a ring. Waitresses are sturdy people. That might be good for you.”
“Joan,” says his father.
There’s fog on the drive home once he hits the 280, thicker and whiter the closer he gets to San Francisco, but he’s not going that far, only to Daly City, an unremarkable, largely unknown suburb just below the famous, glittering city, remaining in the fast lane the entire time despite the weather. First thing back at his apartment, he powers on his computer and attempts to jump online, the pain of the parental chain-restaurant meal just starting to recede; he really should upgrade and graduate from dialup to DSL; he spends way too much time like this, waiting to connect.
Today he’d told his students, “Someone once said, ‘God created, Linnaeus ordered.’ ” But they didn’t blink. Not until he added, “That is, if you believe God created.” He liked a good quote. He’d also quoted Linnaeus himself: “In natural science the principles of truth ought to be confirmed by observation.”
He’d paused then, letting that sink in. Nathaniel was a believer in the principles of truth.
While waiting he makes the short walk to the kitchen and retrieves a Mountain Dew. Then back in his computer chair, hunkering down for another long, bleary-eyed night spent scrolling and reading and writing, clicking hopefully, eternally, on links that half the time are dead or disappointing or something he’s already read, conducting keyword searches (“miracle,” “healing,” “vision,” “stigmata”), compiling the evidence, investigating leads, and sending off e-mails all over the world (Latvia, the Philippines, Texas), updating his site with the most recent news, which, he fervently believes, has led to a slight yet substantial increase in traffic and spurred his vigilance even further.
Finally, yes, he’s online. He checks his e-mail, reads about a poll saying 96 percent of Americans believe in God and digests another millennial/miraculous story (a church statue that supposedly emitted a bright, beautiful light through its eyes, infusing onlookers with the warmth of the divine and the desire to lead better, more productive lives) in which a Modesto, California, Diocese official was quoted as saying: “I think people are mindful of their calendars these days and of what they’re seeing on TV and in the papers. There’s a kind of mild hysteria brewing.” This is the time he looks forward to most. This sacred time online with what — something like 200 billion–plus documents at his disposal. Like a cop on his beat, patrolling the streets. But not for menace. For mystery. The mystery of belief.
After doing his usual searches, he not surprisingly turns up a couple of new stories about the girl. She’s the talk of the message boards and newsgroups and mailing lists he covertly subscribes to (under the alias truebelievernate316) via a Hotmail e-mail address created specifically for this purpose. There are entire websites devoted to her, including the Official Anabelle Vincent Site, prominent among Nathaniel’s bookmarked online destinations. He knows the site’s loud background colors, the amateurish HTML design well. On one page you can post your own prayers and messages of hope, and Nathaniel can spend hours, entire evenings, devouring these mournful, rambling, typo-filled, syntactically challenged dispatches. Some offer their testimonies of the girl’s healing power and first-hand accounts of visits to her house. Others lament they can’t make the trip to Southern California to see Anabelle, but give thanks for cyberspace and how her gifts and shining spirit can be shared like this. He copies and pastes the better examples for his files. Moves on eventually.
He opens a new Microsoft Word document.
These things can be explained, he types.
The words he’s been craving to write all day. To place in the world. And they’re out there now, documented, taking up space, weight. It feels good.
And how can they be explained? Take the weeping statue phenomenon. There’s always the possibility that it’s plain old simple condensation. More likely, though, is a flat-out hoax. Fill an eyedropper with water or Wesson oil or real tears and voilà — instant weeping effigy. Bleeding can be manipulated as well. For example, one of his favorite case studies: the so-called “Miracle of Saint-Marthe,” which happened near Montreal, Canada, in 1985. A statue of the Virgin Mary, belonging to a railroad worker by the name of Jean-Guy Beauregard, appeared to be weeping. Then, after it was taken to another home at the request of Beauregard’s landlord (the crowds, predictably, were getting out of control), the statue began to bleed. Then other nearby statues and crucifixes in the house also started to do the same. Thousands upon thousands showed up, waiting in the cold (it was December) to view the miracle. When the statue was taken in for testing, it was concluded that the “blood” — which Beauregard later admitted was his — also contained pork and beef fat. So whenever the temperature would increase, even a little, the substance would liquefy and run, and there you have your magical bleeding.
Los Angeles isn’t that far away from Daly City, only an hour’s flight south, barely time enough to run the drink cart down the aisle. The Smiling Skeptic might just have to see this miracle girl for himself.
Nathaniel continues typing, sips his Mountain Dew, gains momentum, the right words coming at the right time, beautiful when that happens. Tomorrow there will be more Linnaeus, more naming of species, more yawns from pimply boys and faraway girls. But for now he’s in the chair, writing, wondering how long he can hold out, how far he can go in one sitting. 12:37 a.m. Still and quiet. Like a church. No lights on, nothing but the blurry shine of the screen, the way he likes it, bathing in the computer monitor’s rectangular radiance and nothing else.