‘How long are you going to leave Priscilla alone, when you happen on a perfect, utterly safe opportunity and she rubs up against you and tells you not to be a sissy, and she smells good and feels even better? '
‘Why, Mama, I wouldn't do that! '
Donald heaved a quiet sigh. ‘The hell you wouldn't, Slugger. You have, near enough. Mama, you've got me. What do you do? Nail me into a barrel? Or send me to Kemper? '
‘Kemper isn't far enough; it had better be the Citadel. Children, that's not the answer. Instead - I really meant it when I said I wasn't angry. Let's all engage in a conspiracy to keep you two from being hurt. First, what contraception are you using? '
I had addressed the question to both of them. There was an extended silence, as each (I think) waited for the other to answer.
At last Donald said, ‘We had some rubbers. But they're all gone and I don't have any money. '
(Oh, my God! ) ‘A clear reason why you should include me in your plans. There are both rubbers and fishskins in this house, and you can always have all you want. Priscilla, when did you menstruate last? Starting date? '
‘On Monday the fourteenth, so -‘
No, it wasn't, Priss. The fourteenth was the day we went to Fort Worth: And we passed the French consulate -‘
‘Trade mission. '
‘Well, something French, and they had a lot of bunting and flags out because it was Bastille Day, and you certainly didn't start the curse that day because - well, you remember. So it must have been the following Monday. If it was a Monday:
I said, ‘Priscilla, don't you keep a calendar? '
‘Of course I do! Always. '
‘Will you run and get it, please? Lets turn on a light'
‘Uh - It's in Dallas. '
(Oh, damn! ) ‘Well, I don't want to tall Marian this late at night. Perhaps you two can compare notes and be certain and we won't have to call. Priscilla, do you know why I want that date? '
‘Well, I think I do. You want to count up and tell if I'm fertile tonight'
‘Good. Now both of you listen carefully. Marching orders. Laws of the Medes and the Persians, chiselled in stone. Once we figure it out, Priscilla, you will sleep with me the day you ovulate and three days each side. .. and each month you will stay in my sight during your fertile week. All the time. Every minute. We aren't going to trust to good resolutions. '
I went on, ‘I'm not moralising; I'm just being practical. The other three weeks of each month I will not try to keep you two apart. But you will use fishskins, not rubbers, and you will use them every time. .. because there are thousands of Catholic mothers and quite a few non-Catholic ones who depended solely on "rhythm". You will not make love anywhere but in this house, with me in the house, with no one else in the house, and with all outside doors locked.
‘In public you will always behave like most brothers and sisters, friendly but a little bored with each other. You will never show jealousy over each other; jealousy, possessive behaviour, is a dead giveaway. However, Donald, you can always be your sister's gallant knight, empowered to poke anyone in the jaw or give him a karate chop if that's what it takes to protect her from some oaf. That's both a brother's duty and his proud privilege. '
‘That's what happened, ' he said gruffly.
‘What, Donald? '
‘Gus had her down and was giving her a bad time. So I pulled him off and beat the tar out of him. And he lied about it and Aunt Marian believed him and didn't believe us and told Dad and Dad backed up Aunt Marian and - Anyhow we cut out that night. And didn't have money enough for the bus. So we hitchhiked and saved what money we had for eating. But -‘ Donald started to shake. ‘There were three of them and they took what money I had left and, and - But Priss got away! ' I could hear him suppressing sobs that I pretended not to hear.
‘Donnie was wonderful, ' Priscilla said solemnly. ‘It was last night as we were leaving Tulsa, Mama, on 44. They carne at us and Donnie yelled for me to run and he stood up to them while I ran down the street to a filling-station that was still open. I told the station owner and begged him to call the cops. He was doing so when Donnie showed up and the station owner helped us get a hitch into Joplin, and there we stayed in an all-night Laundromat till it got light, and then we carne straight here, in two hitches. '
(Dear Lord, if there is Anybody up there, why do You do this to children? Maureen Johnson speaking and You're going to have to answer to me. )
I squeezed his shoulder. I'm proud of you, Donald. It sounds like you took a licking and got robbed to keep your sister from being raped. Did they hurt you? Besides that bruise on your face? '
‘Uh, maybe I've got a cracked rib. One of ‘em kicked me when I was down. '
‘Tomorrow we'll get hold of Dr Rumsey. You're both going to need physical exams anyhow. '
‘Donnie ought to have that rib looked at, but I don't need a doctor. Mama, I don't like to be poked at. '
‘You don't have to like it, dear, but as long as you are under my roof, you do have to hold still for it when I think it is necessary. That is not open to argument. But you've met Dr Rumsey before. He delivered you, right in this bed. '
‘Really. His father was our first family doctor, and the present Dr Rumsey has been my doctor since Alice Virgina was born, and he delivered both of you. His son has just finished his internship, so it could happen that his son will deliver your first baby. Because the Rumseys are Howards, too, and practically members of our family. What have Marian and your father told you about the Ira Howard Foundation? '
‘The Ira what? '
‘I've heard of it, ' Donald told me. ‘But just barely. Dad told me to forget what I had heard and wait a couple of years. '
‘I think a couple of years have passed. Priscilla, how would you like to be sixteen, and you, Donald eighteen? Now, I mean. Not two years from now. '
‘Mama, what do you mean? '
I told them what the Foundation is, in a handful of words or less. ‘So a Howard often needs to adjust his birthday to keep from being noticed. We'll discuss it further in the morning; I'm going back to bed. Mama needs the rest - busy day tomorrow. Kiss me goodnight, dears - again. '
‘Yes, Mama. And I'll go back to my bed. .. and I'm sorry I worried you. '
‘We'll handle the worries. You needn't go back to your bed. Unless you want to. '
‘Really truly. I do not believe in burning the horse after the barn has been stolen. ' (If the first billion little wigglers did not shoot you down, dear, the next billion will never get close to the target. So enjoy it while you can - because, if you're pregnant, we'll have a whole new crop of worries. We haven't discussed the real, utterly practical reason to avoid incest. .. but you are going to have to have Old Granny Maureen's Horror Lecture on reinforced harmful recessives, the one I've been giving every little while for centuries, seems like. )
I'm not sure whether this is the frying pan or the fire. Not very many minutes ago I was sitting here in this jail, petting Pixel - he had been gone three days and I had been worried about him - and watching a stupid grope opera for lack of anything else to do, when a squad of spooks - well, four - robed and masked, came in, grabbed me, put their usual dog collar on me, and secured me by four leashes, then snapped them to rings in the walls instead of leading me away.
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