It didn’t matter that he had quit. He was still one of the guilty. He had seen it in her eyes and in the eyes of others.
John Rush smoothed the covers over his wife, tucking them in where her restless moving had pulled them away from the mattress. The twins moved beside him, their smooth hands following his in the task, their blind eyes intent on nothingness.
“Thank you,” he said softly to them, knowing they could not hear him. But it made him feel better to talk.
His wife, Mary, was quiet. Her breathing was smooth, easy--almost as if she were sleeping.
The long sleep.
He touched her forehead, but it was cool. The doctor had said it was a miracle she had lived this long. He stood away from the bed for a moment watching before he went on out to the porch. The twins moved back into what had become a normal position for them in the past months: One on each side of the bed, their thin hands holding Mary’s tightly, the milky blind eyes surveying something that could not be seen by his eyes. Sometimes they would stand like this for hours.
Outside the evening was cool, the light not quite gone. He sat in the rocking chair and waited for the doctor who had promised to come--and yet might not come. The bitterness came back, the self-hate. He remembered a young man and promises made, but not kept; a girl who had believed and never lost faith even when he had retreated back to the land away from everything. Long sullen silences, self-pity, brooding over the news stories that got worse and worse. And the children--one born dead--two born deaf and dumb and blind.
Worse than dead.
You helped, he accused himself. You worked for those who set off the bombs and tested and tested while the cycle went up and up beyond human tolerance--not the death level, but the level where nothing was sure again, the level that made cancer a thing of epidemic proportions, replacing statistically all of the insane multitude of things that man could do to kill himself. Even the good things that the atom had brought were destroyed in the panic that ensued. No matter that you quit. You are still one of the guilty. You have seen it hidden in her eyes and you have seen it in the milky eyes of the twins.
Worse than dead.
Dusk became night and finally the doctor came. It had begun to lightning and a few large drops of rain stroked Rush’s cheek. Not a good year for the farming he had retreated to. Not a good year for anything. He stood to greet the doctor and the other man with him.
“Good evening, doctor,” he said.
“Mr. Rush--” the doctor shook hands gingerly, “I hope you don’t mind me bringing someone along--this is Mr. North. He is with the County Juvenile Office.” The young doctor smiled. “How is the patient this evening?”
“She is the same,” John Rush said to the doctor. He turned to the other man, keeping his face emotionless, hands at his side. He had expected this for some time. “I think you will be wanting to look at the twins. They are by her bed.” He opened the door and motioned them in and then followed.
He heard the Juvenile man catch his breath a little. The twins were playing again. They had left their vigil at the bedside and they were moving swiftly around the small living room, their hands and arms and legs moving in some synchronized game that had no meaning--their movements quick and sure--their faces showing some intensity, some purpose. They moved with grace, avoiding obstructions.
“I thought these children were blind,” Mr. North said.
John smiled a little. “It is unnerving. I have seen them play like this before--though they have not done so for a long time--since my wife has been ill.” He lowered his head. “They are blind, deaf, and dumb.”
“How old are they?”
“They do not seem to be more than eight--nine at the most.”
“They have been well fed,” John said softly.
“How about schooling, Mr. Rush? The teaching of handicapped children is not something that can be done by a person untrained in the field.”
“I have three degrees, Mr. North. When my wife became ill and I began to care for them I taught them to read braille. They picked it up very quickly, though they showed little continued interest in it. I read a number of books in the field of teaching handicapped children...” He let it trail off.
“Your degrees were in physics, were they not, Mr. Rush?” Now the touch of malice came.
“That is correct.” He sat down in one of the wooden chairs. “I quit working long before the witch hunts came. I was never indicted.”
“Nevertheless your degrees are no longer bona fide. All such degrees have been stricken from the records.” He looked down and John saw that his eyes no longer hid the hate. “If your wife dies I doubt that any court would allow you to keep custody of these children.”
A year before--even six months and John would not have protested. Now he had to make the effort. “They are my children--such as they are--and I will fight any attempt to take them from me.”
The Juvenile Man smiled without humor. “My wife and I had a child last year, Mr. Rush. Or perhaps I should say that a child was born to us. I am glad that child was born dead--I think my wife is even glad. Perhaps we should try again--I understand that you and your kind have left us an even chance on a normal birth.” He paused for a moment. “I shall file a petition with the circuit court asking that the Juvenile Office be appointed guardians of your children, Mr. Rush. I hope you do not choose to resist that petition--feeling would run pretty high against an ex-physicist who tried to prove he deserved children.” He turned away stiffly and went out the front door. In a little while Rush heard the car door slam decisively.
The doctor was replacing things in the black bag. “I’m sorry, John. He said he was going to come out here anyway so I invited him to come with me.”
John nodded. “My wife?”
“There is no change.”
“And no chance.”
“There never has been one. The brain tumor is too large and too inaccessible for treatment or surgery. It will be soon now. I am surprised that she has lasted this long. I am prolonging a sure process.” He turned away. “That’s all I can do.”
“Thank you for coming, doctor--I appreciate that.” Rush smiled bitterly, unable to stop himself. “But aren’t you afraid that your other patients will find out?”
The doctor stopped, his face paling slightly. “I took an oath when I graduated from medical school. Sometimes I want to break that oath, but I have not so far.” He paused. “Try as I may I cannot blame them for hating you. You know why.”
Rush wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. “Don’t you realize that the government that punished the men I worked with for their ‘criminal negligence’ is the same government that commissioned them to do that work--that officials were warned and rewarned of the things that small increases in radiation might do and that such things might not show up immediately--and yet they ordered us ahead?” He stopped for a moment and put his head down, touching his work-roughened hands to his eyes. “They put us in prison for refusing to do a job or investigated us until no one could or would trust us in civilian jobs--then when it was done they put us in prison or worse because the very things we warned them of came true.”
“Perhaps that is true,” the doctor said stiffly, “but the choice of refusing was still possible.”
“Some of us did refuse to work,” Rush said softly. “I did, for one. Perhaps you think that we alone will bear the blame. You are wrong. Sooner or later the stigma will spread to all of the sciences--and to you, doctor. Too many now that you can’t save; in a little while the hate will surround you also. When we are gone and they must find something new to hate they will blame you for every malformed baby and every death. You think that one of you will find a cure for this thing. Perhaps you would if you had a hundred years or a thousand years, but you haven’t. They killed a man on the street in New York the other day because he was wearing a white laboratory smock. What do you wear in your office, doctor? Hate-blind eyes can’t tell the difference: Physicist, chemist, doctor ... We all look the same to a fool. Even if there were a cancer cure that is only a part of the problem. There are the babies. Your science cannot cope with the cause--only mine can do that.”
The doctor lowered his head and turned away toward the door.
There was another thing left to say: “If the plumbing went bad in your home, doctor, you would call a plumber, for he would be the one competent to fix it.” Rush shook his head slowly. “But what happens when there are no plumbers left?”
The children were by the bed, their hands holding those of the mother. Gently John Rush tugged those hands away and led them toward their own bed. The small hands were cold in his own and he felt a tiny feeling of revulsion as they tightened. Then the feeling slipped away and was replaced--as if a current had crossed from their hands to his. It was a warm feeling--one that he had known before when they touched him, but for which he had never been able to find mental words to express the sensation.
Slowly he helped them undress. When they were in the single bed he covered them with the top sheet. Their milky eyes surveyed him, unseeing, somehow withdrawn.
“I have not known you well,” he said. “I left that to her. I have sat and brooded and buried myself in the earth until it is too late for much else.” He touched the small heads. “I wish you could hear me. I wish...”
Outside on the road a truck roared past. Instinctively he set to hear it. The faces below him did not change.
He turned away quickly then and went back out on the porch. He filled his pipe and sat down in the old, creaky rocker. A tiny rain had begun to fall hesitantly--as if afraid of striking the sun-hardened ground.
Somewhere out there, somewhere hunted, but not found, the plumbers gathered. There had been a man--what was his name? Masser--that was it. He had been working on a way to inhibit radioactivity--speed up the half-life until they had taken the grant away. If a man can do whatever he thinks of--can he undo that which he has done?