The ringing of the telephone might have been an air raid siren. Millie and Alicia screamed in unison. Cristof reached the receiver first, placed his hand possessively on it, looked at his parents. Then picked it up with one deep breath. He didn't stammer when he said hello. He would never stammer again.
"Yes," replied Cristof. Enrique grabbed the receiver from his son's hand.
"Mr. Alecira?" The caller repeated.
"This is Mr. Alecira."
"Sir, this is Marine Commander Joseph Terry, Camp Pendleton. We're calling to report that Marine Specialist Second Class David Alecira has been wounded in the line of duty."
Enrique flailed with one hand until he found the wall to steady himself. Millie and Alicia held hands, their interlaced fingers bloodless. Cristof sank to the floor, pressing his ear to Enrique's right leg, as if the voice on the phone could travel through flesh, so that he could hear the commander's words.
Even in the midst of his terror, Enrique thought to ask questions that would let his family know what had happened. His tongue felt like a large dry sponge.
"In the terrorist attack?" He nodded as the caller responded.
"How badly is he hurt? Where is he?"
A pause as if there were static on the line.
The caller replied, "The injury is severe. At least a major concussion, probably some shrapnel pressing on his brain as well. He's in Mount Sinai Hospital ICU, in Beirut. He…" Here Commander Terry's voice softened. "He's comatose, sir, non-responsive as of yesterday evening. We don't have a condition report today, but they don't want to airlift him to Germany for at least several days."
"Comatose." Enrique felt as if he were suddenly hollow. "Can we go to him?"
"Yes. Two family members only. You may collect airline tickets at the Consulate in San Francisco. But remember that Beirut is a danger zone. You travel there at your own risk, sir. We're not able to provide the families with safe passage at this time."
Enrique nodded, forgetting he was talking to a telephone, and touched the receiver with his free hand, gently, the way he might have touched Commander Terry's arm if they had been speaking in person.
"Yes. I understand. You said only two can go?"
"I'm sorry, sir. Only two."
"Pues, I mean, well, then, thank you." Enrique shook his head to clear it. "Thank God it is no worse."
"Yes." The Commander's voice was still gentle. "Thank God. Goodbye, Mr. Alecira. Good luck."
Laying the receiver down in its cradle like an injured bird, Enrique suddenly remembered holding David as a baby, walking the floor at night with his son's warm body against his chest, softly chanting alabados, hoping he could always keep him so close, so safe.
"He has a head wound. Maybe shrapnel. They said he's comatose." Enrique collapsed on the carpet by his younger son, sobbing until he couldn't breathe.
Cristof gathered his father in his arms and rocked him back and forth, whispering, "Don't cry. Don't cry, Papá." But he was crying, too.
"If it were really, really bad," Millie said aloud to no one, "they would send someone to talk to us in person. They did that during Vietnam, I think. They used to send a man in uniform and one in a suit, when we lived in Fresno. They came to a house on our block one afternoon, early on. But then there go to be so many and I don't exactly remember…." She shook her head, expressionless. Then she began to weep. She wrapped her arms around Alicia. Tears had mingled on their faces and they wiped their cheeks with an identical motion. Millie crawled over to Enrique and embraced him and Cristof as best she could. They burrowed against her.
Alicia sat across the room from them for a moment. All her life, she would remember the vision of the man, the boy and the woman holding on to each other as if they'd been swept into the sea. Then Enrique reached out an arm for her and she joined with them, a single frightened organism shaking with grief and wanting one thing. Wanting the comatose boy to wake up, to be whole again. Millie was the first to emerge, smoothing back her hair, wiping her nose and eyes. Then Cristof separated out and rolled over on his belly, fists clenched under his chin. Enrique rose and crossed to the couch. Alicia followed him and sat on his lap, rubbing his shoulder with her face, to dry it and to comfort him.
"I'll stay here with Alicia," Millie whispered. She cleared her throat, her voice rose. "Cristof, you must go to Lebanon with your father. You'll get to use that Arabic, I guess. I'll call Simone so she can get to Beirut when you do, meet you at the airport. Do you suppose the government will have contacted her? You both need to pack. Enough for a few weeks. Who knows if you'll be able to do laundry there? "I don't know what we'll do about school. Cristof, take your math and science books with you. Write me about what you see and I'll show the letters to your English and Geography teachers. That's the best we can do." She caught her breath and stood up, empty of orders.
Jeans and a t-shirt with a Girl Tigers Volleyball logo across her breasts. Her face puffy from crying, dark brown shadows around her Italian eyes. Her hair braided down her back. Enrique looked at her and wondered if he would ever see her so clearly again. Worn out, afraid and somehow, still strong. She clasped her hands. Her wedding ring caught the lamplight. He blinked and the gleam vanished.
She gazed back at him, eye to eye. She couldn't see him clearly, a sign that the time had come for glasses. A distracting thought. At the moment, though, she wanted distraction, didn't want clarity. David's peril threatened her family's frail oneness, the precious understanding of the way things work. Perhaps their vision made no sense, but neither did David lying in a hospital bed in Beirut.
"Hurry up, you two," she said flatly.
"Alicia, go help Cristof find some clothes. I need to talk to Mamá."
Enrique pushed his daughter off his lap, kissing her as she protested.
"Do what I say, mi hijita. This isn't the time for questions."
But, of course, it was. Enrique and Millie climbed to their room, the steep stairway that always seemed so short when they were bursting with lust, or when, arms loaded with Christmas presents, they bounded into the excitement of surprising the children. They stood in the bedroom a long time after the door closed, looking at one other to find in this new and fiery world their own familiar faces. Each trying to decide what to say, how to reassure the other, whether this was or was not an appropriate time to confirm everything solid in each other's arms.