There’s not even a phone number mused Dr Vicky as he turned the useless card over in his hands. To reach Victoire Lambert, he phoned no fewer than six similarly-named tentacles of the family services department only to find that she was retired and living back in Quebec.
Victoire Lambert had nudged the fate of the Enders family more than once. Claire Enders had only prepared one name for a boy and one for a girl, but when faced with unexpected female twins she sat joylessly with her armful of babies and looked out the window to a grey parking lot for inspiration. Two days had passed between her delivery and the visit from Victoire the social worker, a stern French Canadian who had been sent to deal with Claire’s acute post partem depression. Victoire’s efforts to convince the couple that two babies were indeed better than one were heavily responsible for the naming of baby number two on day number three. “Victoire” wasn’t quite American enough for Carl, but they were both happy to call her Victoria so that she could share a nickname with the visiting County Health Board angel.
Victoire Lambert stopped by the Enders home on two separate occasions after the birth in order to ensure the well-being of the twins, now part of an awkward quartet with a wine-soaked mother and a theoretical physicist father, the latter who was often too absorbed in his work to come home for days on end. She scribbled notes for Family Services with derision next to a full kitchen sink.
Had Victoire not passed a rigorous civil service exam and been promoted to Family Liaison Officer, Level Three, she surely would not have even come across the opportunity to influence the destiny of the Enders to such a degree. But she took her newfound powers of decision seriously. Victoire dismissed comments that her title was merely for administrative purposes and ignored the mockery that ensued while she stenciled “Level Three” onto her door in a move of unadulterated professional pride.
After moving downtown and receiving yet another fantastic promotion, Victoire Lambert once again crossed paths with the Enders twins. She had been haunted by the mother’s apparent lack of compassion and was hardly surprised to learn that Claire had left her family a few years down the line. But the father’s self-mutilating behavior with a power tool had taken her off guard. She had visited the newly single father just two months before and found them to be getting by, even if it was not the most conventional household. Victoire had potentially failed these children in the past by signing off on the Enders, letting them slip out of the system of checks and balances that she had so come to believe in as she had climbed ranks to Family Liaison Officer, Level Four.
So when the news came that the twins were abruptly without parental supervision, Victoire fudged paperwork with an artistry that only an officer with level four status could appreciate. Victoire knew she’d done the best for the family. But even now as a retired Level Five atop a snowy hill in the country of her birth, she thought of the Enders girls from time to time. She almost called it fate when her phone rang and the sing-song voice of Doctor Vicky found her at last. He was concerned about a patient of his, he’d explained. His patient had lost his children over twenty years ago and he’d been living in a mental institution to this day.
A barrage of questions floated like music through the line. Did she know where the children were? Could she help in some way? But, ma’am, the situation is very dire, you must understand. Yes, I understand that files are confidential. No, I didn’t know you were retired. Still, please Ms Lambert, do you know where the children are? I am trying to grasp the responsibility you must feel at level five clearance. Yes, I’m aware that it must be a very important classification and I congratulate you on your advancement as a civil servant, but, please, the children? Where are the Enders children? No, I haven’t filled out that form and I-please, ma’am, this is-I need your help. Can you repeat that number? No, I don’t wish to file any, Ms Lambert, I need to find those children very soon. Yes, I respect procedures too. No, I’m not being curt. Yes, I -. No, I-. Yes, ma’am, I – please, Victoire, you gave one of them your name. Carl trusted you. Please let him find his children. No, I wasn’t aware, but…no, I’m sorry I can’t…no, I’m quite sorry, but it’s too far and I don’t have time to…yes, but…yes, Ms Lambert. I’m on my way.
The next day Suresh Venkataraman was stomping the snow off his boots in front of Victoire’s door.
Victoire had unremarkable features that were exaggerated by dark makeup. Round eyes rimmed with black, thin lips stained burgundy and pale skin that showed the lines of the brush used to apply rouge in long strokes down her otherwise unapparent cheekbones. She was dressed in several blacks: a dark, synthetic top with a sheen and fading cotton black, nearly gray, on her trousers. Her hair was the deep, saturated hue that can only be achieved by more than one box of home hair dye. Her whole look seemed to imply a forced sternness that could only come naturally after decades of pretending.
She invited the doctor in and looked at his feet with a raised eyebrow that was obviously a command. Suresh removed his boots and tiptoed carefully in giant white tube socks around the puddle the melting snow was making. The floor matched the walls, knotty pine wood that enhanced the warm yellowy glow from the fireplace. In fact the whole room was pine, from the cupboards to the tables and even the paneled ceiling. The cozy home matched neither the exterior, with its all-weather aluminum siding, nor its owner. Dr Vicky felt as if he’d walked through a carnival door.
“Oat drink?” she asked the Doctor. Her French Canadian accent had come back in full force since retirement and Suresh realized she was offering him warm liquid when she repeated, “Somezing oat to drink?” He nodded and sat down close to the flames.
Victoire cut the corner off a block of butter on the countertop and slid it down into a clay mug, scraping the knife on the side. She then dipped below the counter until just her black bun was visible and rummaged through the lower cupboards. When she came back up, she was holding a bottle of whiskey and a jug of maple syrup. Dr Vicky stared incredulously as she poured them into a metal pan and walked over to the fire. He hadn’t seen it before, but there was a tiny, cast iron shelf sticking out from the fireplace, the perfect size for a saucepan. The syrupy whiskey started to bubble on the fire as Victoire opened a bottle of red wine and held the cork up to her nose, taking a deep, even breath. She took the hot pan and poured it into the mug, melting the butter and stirring with the knife, then topped it off with red wine and handed it to Dr Vicky. “Caribou Lambert. My father’s recipe.” Dr Vicky looked doubtfully into his mug, the butter forming little spheres that looked like primitive eyes on the surface of the winter punch. It was surprisingly good. One Caribou became three as the unlikely pair talked on a dark green cushion atop a knotty pine bench and Suresh recounted the last three months he’d spent with Carl Enders.
What Dr Vicky had seen the first time peering into Carl’s twinkling grey eyes was a partial clouding that came with a type of slow-growing, but untreatable, brain tumor. He had confirmed with a scan that he had brought along to show Victoire, but it now seemed inappropriate so he just described it, the warmth of the Caribou pushing the words out. The headaches and delusions that Carl had experienced as a young father had been the first nudge from the invading growth. Strangely, the artificial limbo that Carl had entered as a drugged and forgotten patient had significantly slowed the growth of the tumor. The time gained, of course, had been lost again to a meaningless life, but Dr Vicky took it as a sign that Carl was meant to meet his grown daughters, adults now who could only hope to know him for a quick second beginning and an even quicker end.
He wanted to know everything Victoire knew about Carl, everything she knew about his children. Dr Vicky was not here for lawyers or revenge. He sat back on the pine couch, letting his head rest in the carved-out heart shape of the back, and left room in the air for Victoire to speak. He was either used to her accent now or it had disappeared like his inhibitions, washed away by Caribou.
Carl Enders came to me when the mother left. Said that he couldn’t take care of them, that he didn’t know how to braid hair, stuff like that. He said he was better at hot air balloon rides than combing out snarls. He didn’t seem like he was going to kill himself, he just wanted help with the girls. I did a home visit, wrote a report. Sure enough, he had a giant basket in his basement, big enough for 4 people to climb into. There was this film strip that he’d project on the wall to make it look like landscapes were rushing by below. I even went for a ride with the girls. Carl blew a fan on our faces as I stood in the basket and looked at that wall. It was fun, actually, almost like the real thing. Well, I’ve never been on a real balloon ride, but I imagine it would be like that.
Carl’s place was full of odd things. I remember beaters, you know attachments for hand mixers? They were hanging from the ceiling on long strings all over the house. I asked what they were for and he just said they were for mixing. Also, he had framed sheets of striped Christmas gift wrap and used them as art. And the girls’ room! He had painted it like a forest and stapled leaves to the ceiling. There were artificial trees in there, even a monkey that hung over one of the beds. It was a bit over-the-top, really. But you could see that he loved them. You could see that, you really could.
He hadn’t told the girls anything yet about their mother’s disappearance and he didn’t know what to say. Didn’t know what to do. His wife had found out that Carl was seeing someone on the side, someone from his lab. I honestly thought she’d be back. He didn’t. I asked when he’d last seen her and he said it was next to the ball pit at Playland. So, I suggested telling the girls that their mother got lost in the balls, that was it was nobody’s fault. If she came back, she could just say she found her way out and what a relief it was, etc. They were small; they couldn’t possibly understand. I mean, they believed they were going on hot air balloon rides every morning.
But I was wrong. I was wrong and she didn’t come back. Carl knew she had left for good and he did something drastic, something meant to be irreversible. His children were home at the time, did you know that? His daughter, Laney, found him sticking a drill in his brain. Can you imagine that? Can you? It must have been awful for her.
I wanted to save those girls, save Laney. They had a better chance of getting adopted as singles anyway. It’s hard enough to place one older child, not to mention two. And Laney would have felt inferior her whole life. Her sister, Vicky, was the smiley one, the talkative one, the one that everyone paid attention to. Did you know they called her Superman? I mean, how was Laney supposed to keep up with Superman? It wasn’t fair. I gave them both a chance by splitting them up. I gave two four year-olds a chance at parents that wanted them, families that loved them.
I redacted their birth certificates, making them each singletons. I even gave them the same name: Victoria Laney Enders. For all practical purposes, they’re the same person, just placed in two different county systems. Laney was adopted right away by a family with the name Victoria. Obviously they didn’t want a Victoria Victoria so they were happy to call her Laney. It was a win-win. I met the family. They’re fantastically rich, fantastically happy. Fantastic. I didn’t follow Vicky, the other daughter, because she was out of my jurisdiction, but I’m sure she found a fantastic family too. She would have been the easier of the two to place. Much brighter. I don’t even mean intelligent, but really brighter, like sunlight. Laney was a child with a dark cloud over her; the Victorias were the best thing that ever happened to her.
I listed their mother as deceased, by the way, in their files. Since she was supposedly wading aimlessly in a ball pit I called it a drowning. Yes, I let her drown. I needed to. I knew at that point what Carl had known before the incident, that she really wasn’t coming back. My team cleared out over 900 empty wine bottles from the cellar of that house after Carl was committed. And Carl didn’t drink, if you know what I’m saying. She definitely wasn’t going to come looking for them. No one was. To be honest, before you called, I believed that Carl was dead. I didn’t think someone could survive the kind of damage he did to himself for very long.
If he’s really alive and aware, I still don’t imagine he knows how long it’s been. The girls must be almost 30 by now. Let’s see, no, 28. They’d be 28. Do you really think it’s the best for them to meet Carl now?