The second novel from Tess Almendarez Lojacono:
The Book of Zane
A mental hospital—
Can he solve one to save the other?
Purchase in Pittsburgh, PA:
5825 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh PA, 15217
Purchase in Buffalo, NY:
Talking Leaves Books
3158 Main St., Buffalo
Excerpt: Heaven Is
Claudio stood in the doorway watching his daughter, for once not noticing the thin bunched carpet, low windows, paint peeling from their sills, the chipped bureau his wife had rescued from someone else’s garbage. Mercedes was kneeling by her bed, intent upon a project.
“Hey,” his voice a golden thread, drifting into the room. ”What are you doing?”
She didn’t turn. ”Drawing,” came the grave reply.
He moved closer and looked over her shoulder. A piece of cardboard was balanced on the bed’s flowered comforter. She was using markers. Her mother didn’t allow markers upstairs, in the bedroom, but he wouldn’t say anything. The cardboard was divided into three parts.
He perched on the edge of the bed, careful not to jostle the artist or her work. ”What is it?”
Mercedes stopped for a moment, tilted her head. ”I’m studying on heaven. On how to get to heaven.” She resumed drawing.
“You mean, like what you have to do?”
“You mean like, a map of how to get there?”
They were quiet for a while. Her father studied the cardboard. In the first section, there was a picture of eggs, still in their blue shells, a baby bottle like the one Mercedes had clung to for years, a puppy and what looked like a drawing of a mother holding a little girl, Mercedes and her mom, no doubt. In the middle section was a picture of a foal, cut from a magazine, a purple house and the photo of Mercedes’ mother she kept in her backpack, to look at when she was feeling sad at school. The last section showed a group of full-grown horses, a pizza and a field of pink flowers. Mercedes finished coloring in a crown, just above the flowers. She sat back on her heels.
“See,” she pointed to the blue eggs. ”This is the beginning. On earth. Next, comes life. Regular stuff. Stuff you love, you know? Houses and pets and toys–Ooh! Toys!” She grabbed a green marker and began adding a teddy bear. While she drew she whispered, ”And then there’s heaven.” She added a little more yellow to the crown. “It’s like a chart.”
“It’s a great chart.” Her father’s eyes filled.
“Dad, is heaven the same for everyone?”
“I don’t know.”
She blinked, surprised. ”Oh.”
“I don’t know if it’s even what we think it is. You remember what your mother always said, ‘God knows best’.” Mercedes nodded. He gathered her onto his lap. She was taller than he realized. Her feet almost touched the floor.
“Put your heaven on the chart, Daddy.”
Claudio leaned over her and lifted the photo of his wife; kissed it once and laid it in the section that was heaven.
He was remembering a conversation he had with his Adelina long ago, when they were first married and expecting Mercedes.
“Poor, poor Lourdes! I know there’s something wrong!”
He laughed. ”Adela! You’re always worrying about something! Lourdes has had three children already. Why would anything be wrong with this one?”
Adela frowned. ”It’s not me. She told me this one feels different. We’ll just have to pray for her and the baby. God knows best.”
It turned out Adela was right. This one was different. Leukemia. No sooner was the tiny creature born than she was given a death sentence. Lourdes was out of her mind with grief.
“Claudio,” Adela had pleaded when Mercedes was delivered, healthy, brown and round, ”Lourdes is going to lose her faith. I know it!”
“Now, Adelina, didn’t you say yourself, ‘God knows best’? He’ll take care of her.”
“Yes, yes.” She bit her lip and then, as if hurrying would make it hurt less, plunged ahead. ”He must be the one who gave me the idea, then. I couldn’t have thought it up all by myself.” She stood over the bassinet. ”We can’t know the depth of her grief, but Claudio, Lourdes is a convert. Her belief is not that strong, not yet. If she losesNuria she will lose her faith as well. It will be two deaths, not one. And how will she get into heaven? And here we are with a healthy baby and a strong faith and–”
“You cannot be suggesting that we give our precious baby to Lourdes! You cannot even be thinking that she, that I–”
Adela put her hands on his shoulders. They were the same height exactly. She loved the way she could look straight into his eyes without even getting on her toes. ”Claudio,” she said steadily. ”I’m not talking about giving our child to Lourdes.”
“What?” He was incredulous.
“Claudio, what if God takes our child instead? What if we ask Him to welcome our Mercedes into His kingdom instead of taking little Nuria?” Claudio was stunned into silence. ”She would go straight to heaven! Lourdes would have her baby and her faith and–”
“But she has three other children! She has a husband! She can have more! And we–”
Adela put her hand over his mouth, gently, gently. ”Yes, yes. We have only one. But we will have more as well, no?”
“No! I will never agree to such a thing!” He had stamped and fumed and nearly hit his precious wife. ”What kind of a God do you think He is, that He would make such a bargain with you?”
His anger was proof that he believed God would do just as she suggested, that He would sacrifice an innocent life to save the souls of others. She loved Claudio’s faith, his devotion to God and to her and their new family. She would not ask again. ”You are right, doubtless. I was only looking for a solution. God knows best.” She picked up the baby and fed her, though it was not yet time.
Claudio passed his hand over his eyes. That was so long ago. What kind of God, indeed. Nuria had died at three. Lourdes had left the church. Now Adela was gone too. What would he have done without his Mercedes? Perhaps God really did know best. He pressed his face into her hair.
“Daddy, are you crying?”
“No, Love. Only thinking.”
“Grandma says we have to go to purgatory before we go to heaven, but I don’t know what that looks like. Do you, Daddy?”
He smiled wistfully. ”No one knows what purgatory looks like, though some of us may know a little, how it will feel.”
“Oh,” he stroked her hair. “That too, may be different for everyone. But don’t worry. Whatever it’s like, we can bear it because we know it means heaven’s just around the corner.”
Your unfailing, all-knowing Love,
answer to whispered prayers.
Unbidden and authentic,
comfort of the outcast, gracious Love appear.
Occupy the hollow;
cover our inadequacy;
forgive us the sin of loving one another too much.
Allow us to trust in Your greater plan for our welfare,
granting strength and patience to resist what is not ours
and the courage to act upon our most precious convictions.
Wrapped in the innocent and candid faith of children,
our hope in You sustains.
Punctuate our ordinary time
with Your guiding candle,
luminous in lush and desert,
Grace cup to the dying,
wisdom to the living;
may we be made worthy
of Your infinite clemency,
discovering Holy Treasure
in the mercy we bestow.
Give us courage.
Entrust our days and nights To You
that in pursuit of heaven’s honor
we may celebrate, ever grateful
for the milagros of life, of faith —
Your love-braced cornerstone.