One Door Away from Heaven

Page 42

Old Yeller virtually spins off her back, onto all fours, judging the situation too dangerous to expose her belly any longer, and she sprints away from the dead zone even as Mr. Neary takes his first step toward Curtis.

Trusting the dog's instincts at last, Curtis bolts after her. Fugitives again.

Chapter 39

IF LIBRARIES in southern California had ever been like those portrayed in books and movies-mahogany-dark millwork, shelves rising to the ceiling, cozy little reading nooks tucked into odd corners in labyrinthine stacks-they weren't that way anymore. All surfaces here were easy-clean paint or Formica. Shelves didn't rise to the ceiling because the ceiling was a suspended grid of acoustic tiles punctuated by fluorescent panels that shed too much light to foster any sense of the romance of books. The shelves stood in predictable ranks, metal instead of wood, bolted to the floor for safety in an earthquake.

To Micky, the atmosphere seemed like that in a medical facility: bleak in spite of the brightness, antiseptic, marked not by the quiet of diligent study but by the silence of stoic suffering.

A significant area had been set aside for computers. All offered Internet access.

The chairs were uncomfortable. Harsh light glared off the desk. She felt at home: reminded not of the trailer she shared with Geneva, but of the home provided by the California Department of Corrections.

Other library patrons were busy at half the work stations, but Micky ignored them. She was self-conscious in the coral-pink suit that had so recently made her feel professional, fresh, and self-confident. Besides, after F. Bronson, she'd had enough of people for the day; machines would be more helpful, and better company.

On-line, feeling like a detective, she sought Preston Maddoc, but little in the way of a manhunt was required. The villain came to her on so many linked sites, she was overwhelmed with information.

From a pay phone, she'd canceled the job interview at three o'clock. So she spent the afternoon learning about Dr. Doom, and what she discovered suggested that Leilani was penned in an even darker and more escape-proof death cell than the girl had described.

The essence of Maddoc's story was as simple as the details were outrageous. And the implications were terrifying not just for Leilani but for anyone who currently lived and breathed.

Preston Maddoc's doctorate was in philosophy. Ten years ago, he declared himself a "bioethicist," accepting a position with an Ivy League university, teaching ethics to future doctors.

That breed of bioethicists who call themselves "utilitarians" seek what they believe to be ethical distribution of supposedly limited medical resources by establishing standards for determining who should receive treatment and who should not. Scorning the belief in the sanctity of all human life that has guided Western medicine since Hippocrates, they argue that some human lives have greater moral and social value than others and that the authority to set these comparative values belongs rightfully to their elite group.

Once, a small but significant minority of bioethicists had rejected the utilitarians' cold approach, but the utilitarians had won the battle and now ruled their departments in academia.

Preston Maddoc, as did most bioethicists, believed in denying medical care to the elderly-defined as over sixty-if their illness would impact the quality of their lives, even if patients believed their lives were still worth living or in fact enjoyable. If they could be fully cured, but if the rate of cure was below, say, thirty percent, many bioethicists agreed the elderly should be allowed to die anyway, without treatment, because in utilitarian terms, their age ensured they would contribute less to society than they'd take.

Incredulous, Micky read that nearly all bioethicists believed disabled infants, even those mildly disabled, should be neglected until they died. If the babies developed an infection, they should not be treated. If they developed temporary respiratory problems, breathing should not be assisted; they should suffocate. If disabled babies

have trouble eating, let 'em starve. Disabled people were said to be burdens to society even when they could care for themselves.

Micky felt an anger brewing different from her usual destructive rage. This had nothing to do with abuses and slights that she had suffered. Her ego wasn't involved; this anger had a cleansing purity.

She read an excerpt from the book Practical Ethics, in which Peter Singer, of Princeton University, justified killing newborns with disabilities no more severe than hemophilia: "When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of the happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if the killing of the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others it would be … right to kill him."

Micky had to get up, turn away from this. Outrage had energized her. She couldn't sit still. She walked back and forth, repeatedly flexing her hands, working off energy, trying to calm herself.

Like a child frightened by and yet morbidly drawn to stories of ghouls and monsters, she soon returned to the computer.

Singer had once suggested that if infanticide at the request of the parents will promote the interests of the family and society, then killing the child would be ethical. Further, he had stated that an infant doesn't become a person until sometime during the first year of life, thus opening the door, on a case-by-case basis, to the idea that infanticide could be ethical long after birth.

Preston Maddoc believed that killing children was ethical up to the first indications that they were developing language skills. Say Dada or die.

Most bioethicists supported "supervised" medical experimentation on mentally disabled subjects, on the comatose, and even on unwanted infants in place of animals, arguing that self-aware animals can know anguish, while the mentally disabled, the comatose, and infants cannot.

Asking the mentally disabled what they think is, of course, not necessary, according to this philosophy, because they, like infants and certain other "minimally cognizant people," are "nonpersons" who have no moral claim to a place in the world.

Micky wanted to start a crusade to have bioethicists declared "minimally cognizant," for it seemed clear that they were exhibiting no human characteristics and were more obviously nonpersons than the small, the weak, and the elderly whom they would kill.

Maddoc was a leader-but only one of several-in the movement who wanted to use "cutting-edge bioethics debate and scientific research" to establish a minimum IQ necessary to lead a quality life and to be useful to society. He thought that this threshold would be "well above a Down's syndrome IQ," but he was quick to assure the squeamish that the establishment of a minimum IQ wasn't intended to suggest that society should be culled of the slow-witted currently alive. Rather, it was "an exercise in clarifying our understanding of what constitutes a quality life," toward the day when scientific advances would allow IQ to be accurately predicted in infancy.

Yeah. Sure. And the extermination camps at Dachau and Auschwitz had never been constructed with the intention of using them, only to see if they could be built, if they were architecturally viable.

At first, as she wandered through the bioethics websites, Micky thought this culture of death wasn't serious. It must be a game in which participants competed to see who could be the most outrageous, who could pretend to be the most inhumanly practical, the coldest of mind and heart . Surely this was nothing more than a playful exercise in make-believe evil.

When eventually she acknowledged that these people lived and acted on their philosophy, she felt certain that they were not taken seriously outside their lunatic tower at some far corner of academia. Instead, she soon realized they were at the center of the academic community. Most medical schools required bioethics instruction. More than thirty major universities offered degrees in bioethics. Numerous state and federal laws, crafted by bioethicists, had been enacted with the intention of making contemporary bioethics the moral and legal arbiter of whose life has value.

The disabled are so costly, don't you agree? And the elderly. And the weak. And the dumb. Costly, but also often disturbing to sensitive people, frequently unsightly to look at, icky to interact with, not like us. These poor dear things would be so much happier if they shuffled off; indeed, if they've had the temerity to be born or the bad judgment to suffer a disfiguring accident, then dying is the least that they can do if they have a proper social conscience.

When had the world become a madhouse? :

Micky was beginning to understand her enemy.

Preston Maddoc had seemed half threatening and half a joke.

Not anymore. He was now pure threat. Formidable, frightening. Alien.

Nazi Germany tin addition to trying to eradicate the Jewish people, the Soviet Union, and Mao's China had previously solved the "social problem" posed by the weak and the imperfect, but when utilitarian bioethicists were asked if they had the stomach for such final solutions, they dodged the question by making the astonishing claim that the Nazis and their ilk killed the weak and the infirm for, as Preston put it in one interview, "all the wrong reasons."

Not that the killing itself was wrong, you see, but the thinking behind the Nazis' and the Soviets' actions was unfortunate. We wish to kill them now not out of hatred or prejudice, but because killing a disabled child makes a place for one who is whole, who will please his family more, who will be happier, who will be useful to society and increase "the total amount of happiness." This is not the same, they say, as killing the child to make way for another who is more representative of his Volk, who is more blond, who is more likely to make his nation proud and please his Fuhrer.

"Give me a microscope," Micky muttered, "and maybe in a few centuries, I'll be able to tell the difference."

These people were taken seriously because they operated in the name of compassion, of ecological responsibility, and even of animal rights. Who could argue with compassion for the afflicted, with a professed intention to use natural resources wisely, with the desire to treat all animals with dignity? If the world is our Fatherland, and if it is the only world we have, and if we believe this world is fragile, then the worth of each weak child or aged grandmother must be measured against the loss of the whole world. And dare you argue then for one crippled girl?

Maddoc and oilier famous American and British bioethicists-the two nations in which this madness seemed most deeply rooted- were welcomed as experts on television programs, received approving press, and counseled politicians on progressive legislation dealing with medical care. None of them could safely speak in Germany, however, where crowds jeered them and threatened them with violence. There was nothing like a holocaust to inoculate a society against such savagery.

Micky wondered grimly if a holocaust would be required here, too, before sanity could be restored. Minute by minute, exploring the world of bioethics in general and Preston Maddoc in particular, she became increasingly afraid for her country and for the future.

Worse awaited her discovery.

As she did her research, the library remained bathed in bright fluorescent glare, but she felt darkness steadily rising beneath the light.

Chapter 40

AVOIDING THE LONG LENGTHS of open grassy aisles across which the ranks of vehicles face one another, the dog leads the boy between a motor home and a pickup with a camper shell, runs across an aisle, between two other motor homes, kicking up plumes of dust and bits of dead dry grass, thus in and around the wheel of campsites, through the area of brightly colored tents, eventually back among mechanized campers, dodging grownups and kids and a barbecue and a sunbathing woman in a lounger and a terrified Lhasa apso that squeals away from them. When Curtis at last glances back, he sees that their pursuers, if ever there were any, have given up, proving that he's better at adventuring than he is at socializing.

He remains mortified and shaken.

For a while at least, he doesn't want to leave the commotion and cover of the crowd at this contact vigil. Tonight or tomorrow, maybe he can hitch a ride with someone headed for a more populous area that will provide even better concealment, but right now this is as good as it gets, better than the lonely country road. As long as he avoids another encounter with Mr. Neary, he should be able to hang out in the meadow safely enough-assuming that Clara the smart cow doesn't suddenly drop out of the sky and crush him to death.

Old Yeller whimpers, sits next to a huge Fleetwood motor home, and tilts her head up in the posture of a dog howling at the moon, although no moon rides the sky this afternoon. She's not howling, either, but searching the heavens for a plummeting cow.

Curtis crouches beside her, scratches her ears, and explains as best he can that there's no danger of a Holstein flattening them, whereupon she grins and leans her head into his ministering hands.


The boy looks up to discover that an astonishingly glamorous woman looms over him.

Her toenails are painted azure-blue, so it seems as though they are mirrored to reflect the sky. Indeed, she's such a magical-looking person and the color on her toenails has such lustrous depth that Curtis can easily imagine he is looking at ten mystical entry points to the sky of another world. He is half convinced that if he drops a tiny pebble on one of her toenails, it will not bounce off, but will disappear into the blue, falling through into that other sky.

He can see her perfectly formed toes, for she wears minimalist white sandals. These have high heels made of clear acrylic, so she appears to be standing effortlessly on point, her feet as unsupported as those of a ballerina.

In tight white toreador pants, her legs look impossibly long. Curtis is sure that this must be an illusion fostered by the woman's dramatic appearance and by the severe angle from which he gazes up at her. When he rises from beside the dog, however, he discovers that no trick of perspective is involved. If H. G. Wells's Dr. Moreau, on his mysterious island, had been a success at his genetic experiments, he couldn't have produced a human-gazelle hybrid with more elegant legs than these.

The low-rider pants expose her tanned tummy, which serves as the taut setting for an oval-shaped, bezel-faceted opal the exact same shade of blue as the toenail polish. This gemstone is held securely in her navel by either glue or a cleverly concealed tension device of unimaginable design, or by sorcery.

Her bosoms are of the size that cameras linger on in the movies, brimming the cups of a white halter top. This top is made from such thin and pliant fabric, and supported by such fine-gauge spaghetti straps-capellini straps, actually-that as a wonder of the man-made world, it rivals the Golden Gate Bridge. Scores of engineers and architects might require weeks to study and adequately analyze the design of this astonishingly supportive garment.

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