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10 The Mask

He is lying on his own examining table, resting his eyes. The telephone buzzes quietly but Mrs. Quintana, his receptionist, has given up the battle with insurance forms and gone home.

He places his long hands over his face, the fingertips lightly touching his forehead, thumbs resting on the maxillary bones beneath his eyes. His office in the hospital basement is cool even in this late-September heat, and pleasant in winter as well. As practical and comforting as a cave. The lack of windows has never been a problem; artificial lighting is adequate. He has just examined his last patient of the day, a sixteen-year-old with six small gold rings piercing the cartilage of her left ear. She is expecting twins. They will be born small, and in trouble. There was no reason to tell her everything.

He imagines the procedure by which the tiny gold wires were inserted through flesh and spongy bone. It would have to be painful. He is mystified. Children devote slavish attention to these things, but cant be bothered with prophylactics.

He drifts between wakefulness and sleep, thinking of Codi. Her eyes are downturned and secretive, her heart clearly hardened against him already, to have done this. Her hair is in her eyes. She flips it sideways, chewing the inside of her lip and looking out the window when he talks to her. Shed wanted pierced ears at thirteen; hed explained that self-mutilation was preposterous and archaic. Now they discuss shoes. He wants to ask, Do you know what you have inside you? Does your sister know? Hallie is young to understand reproductive matters but its impossible that she wouldnt know, theyre so much of a single mind, and he is outside of it completely. He has no idea what he can say.

Shes in the fifth or sixth month, from the look of her, although Codi was always too thin and now is dangerously thin, and so skillful at disguising it with her clothes he can only tell by other signs. The deepened pigmentation under her eyes and across the bridge of her nose, for one thing, is identical to the mask of pregnancy Alice wore both times, first with Codi, then with Hallie. It stuns him. He feels a sharp pain in his spleen when he looks across the breakfast table each morning and sees this: his wifes face. The ghost of their happiest time returned to inhabit the miserable body of their child. He cant help feeling he has damaged them all, just by linking them together. His family is a web of women dead and alive, with himself at the center like a spider, driven by different instincts. He lies mute, hearing only in the tactile way that a spider hears, touching the threads of the web with long extended fingertips and listening. Listening for trapped life.

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