labeled a 'nigger,' 'kike,' or 'mud person.' Her severe emotional disturbance was perfectly understandable in view of the fact that she had been born into and reared in a home that was an incubator of paranoia and hatred, her mind molded into a twisted shape by a combination of parents who were over-the-top Christian fundamentalists whose fundamental belief was that ninety-nine percent of the world's population were servants of Satan bound for Hell, and savage sexual abuse visited upon her by one Rev. William Kenecky, now very much deceased, who had been the leader of the band of zealots to which Vicky's parents had belonged. The cult had not only believed that the world was about to end in nuclear holocaust but had gone to considerable lengths to bring about that goal in order to hasten the Second Coming of Christ. Global nuclear war had been a bit beyond their reach, but they'd damn near succeeded in frying a number of cities and a few million people.

Garth and I had been sucked into the lives, and conspiracy, of these decidedly strange and dangerous people as the result of a plea for help Vicky had written to Santa Claus. Most members of the cult had died horribly in a hysterical act of mass suicide inside a sealed plastic bubble world they'd called Eden, where they'd gone to await 'Rapturing' while the rest of the world burned and was invaded by demons. Despite their best efforts to exterminate themselves and their daughter, we'd managed to rescue Vicky and her parents. The courts had granted my brother and me custody of the child for an indefinite length of time, inasmuch as the parents were currently committed to a psychiatric hospital. Our responsibility was to care for the child until such time as the parents were deemed sufficiently mentally healthy to regain custody of their daughter. I wondered then, and still wondered, if that time would ever come.

I also wondered if Vicky herself could ever be made emotionally and spiritually whole. Children raised in an atmosphere of hate who are also victims of severe sexual abuse rarely ever fully recover to lead normal lives, and Vicky had suffered the extremes of both these crimes against her. But Garth and I loved the girl, and we were determined to provide an atmosphere and emotional support system that would promote healing to the greatest extent possible. We knew we could never give her back her childhood, or erase the Hieronymus Bosch horror of her memories; our goal was to at least nurture the closing of the wounds in her, to help her build emotional scar tissue strong enough to support a reasonably integrated and happy adult no more neurotic than the rest of the general population.

To that end we had bypassed the horde of child psychiatrists and assorted other therapists practicing in New York City and appealed for help to the happiest and most integrated person I knew, and the one person we both thought might do Vicky some good. April Marlowe was one of many women I had loved, but she occupied a special place in my life. She had once saved my mind with her love, after I had survived a nasty bout with sensory deprivation, and it had been this woman who had given me the courage, for the first time in my life, to accept the love of a woman. That had not been an insignificant accomplishment. The fact that April, who now lived with her husband in upstate New York, was a practicing witch might not have sat too well with the judge who had granted us temporary custody, or with any child welfare agency, but we were not answerable to anyone when it came to decisions regarding Vicky, who had to learn to perceive the world, and her place in it, in a totally new way. April Marlowe was the person to do that, to afford Vicky a fresh way of perceiving nature, literally from the ground up. April might be a witch, but-as always with the hopelessly complicated and bizarre hash of human belief systems-it was the singer, not the song, that made the difference.

For much of the year Vicky lived with April and her husband on their farm and attended a very special and highly accredited private school run by April and other members of her Church of Wicca. Summers and vacations she spent with us, either with me in New York or with Garth and his wife at their home on the river in Cairn. Between the rusticity of the farm, the deep understanding of April, the incredible empathy of my brother with the world's walking wounded, and the richness of New York's culture that I could share with her, we hoped there was a process of spiritual detoxification taking place that would eventually give Vicky a new sense of oneness with the world, and with the many different kinds of human beings who inhabited it. The jury was still out, but then we'd only had her less than two years, and there was a lot of poison that had to be leeched from her very young soul.

Now it was the influence, however subtle, of Mary Tree, Garth's beautiful wife who also happened to be a world-famous folksinger, that was giving me pause. Mary and I adored each other, and she had brought to Vicky the invaluable gift of music. In almost every way, Mary was an ideal role model for Vicky. What concerned me was the recent interest Mary had been showing in a kind of not-quite-born-again brand of Christianity, a predilection I couldn't fathom. The fact that I couldn't understand Mary's spiritual needs was of no consequence, but what concerned me was that it was just such a taste for the supernatural that had ground up Vicky in the first place. Mary certainly didn't proselytize, and-at Garth's insistence-never brought up the subject of religion with the child, but I was still anxious about what unconscious signals Mary might be sending to the girl. Vicky had to learn to have faith in herself, the soundness of her own senses, and the people around her, not in any gods even remotely resembling the savage, merciless deity that had ruled the world of her parents and the Reverend Kenecky.

The muscles in my arms and shoulders burned, and were starting to cramp. It was growing darker. We had made it out of the deep channel, which meant we weren't going to be run over by a barge or tanker, but there was still the danger of getting whacked by one of the large powerboats that roared up and down the river, even at night. The lights of the Nyack Boat Club were slipping away off to starboard. We weren't going to make it to that point of landing, and it was doubtful we could even make Memorial Park, a half mile or so further down the shoreline. With luck, we might still be able to park the cat on the beach of one of the riverfront mansions in South Nyack, just before the bridge.

'What do you hear from the lovely Dr. Harper Rhys-Whitney?' my brother asked.

'Nothing,' I replied curtly, digging into the water with my paddle and trying to ignore the stabbing pains in my arms and shoulders. The woman whose absence I was suffering as a kind of persistent, dull ache in my chest was off on one of her annual pilgrimages to the Amazon to hunt for new species of venomous snakes. I missed her terribly, and it was a subject I did not care to discuss. 'They don't have that many phones or mailboxes in the rain forest. What's the hassle at Mary's church?'

Garth grunted. 'A little clash of cultures and a big dose of politics. Church versus State, arguments over worshipping false idols, that sort of thing. They hired this young assistant pastor a few months ago, and he wasn't there a week before he announced that it was inappropriate to display the American flag on the altar. He said it was wrong to display a symbol of nationalism in a place where the business is supposed to be worship of the Creator of the universe. So he took the flag off the altar and locked it away.'

'Oh-oh. Bad move politically.'

'You've got that right. The congregation's been at each other's throats ever since, with the flag-removers a distinct minority. I don't have to tell you which side Mary's on. They're being called unpatriotic, and they accuse the other side of worshipping false gods. It's gotten ugly.'

'The pastor sounds hopelessly naive. They should have taught him in the seminary that patriotism is just another form of religion, and hate is what most politics are about. Theologically, of course, he's absolutely right.'

Garth laughed. 'My brother the theologian. I love it.'

'Why don't you turn on the radio and call for help?'

'We don't have a radio.'

'Oh, that's right. I forgot. Then how about turning on our running lights so we don't get rammed?'

'We don't have any lights.'

'Tell me again whose idea this was.'

'You thought it was a great idea.'

'I'm just a city boy. What do I know about these things?'

'You're the one who taught me how to sail.'

'Mary's on the assistant pastor's side, naturally.'

'Naturally. The other side's led by a big poo-bah by the name of Bennett Carver-who, incidentally, happens to own half the tankers that go up and down this river. After the assistant pastor took the flag down, Carver put a new one back on the altar; the kid took it down, Carver put another up. It went on like that for a while.'

'So tonight they're going to make a final decision on what to do with the flag?'

'Nope. The flag is back on the altar. Bennett Carver's not a man to mess with. The meeting's about whether or not to fire the assistant pastor, and maybe the pastor as well for letting things get out of hand.'

I stopped paddling, leaned forward on the pontoon. 'Shit, brother, I don't know about you, but I am one tired puppy.'

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