"Do you see a panther on top of the television?" asked Kay Armstrong.
"Nope." Nancy, who always caught the tail of her mother's fancies as they flew past, giggled. "Can't see a thing."
"A panther?" asked Natalie solemnly. "On the TV? Who in their right mind would have a panther on their TV?"
"Not the Armstrongs," said their father resolutely. "The Armstrongs are very tasteful people. I see nothing on the television at all."
The green panther had stayed there for a month. One afternoon Natalie, in her room, had heard a crash. When she went downstairs, her mother was picking up green ceramic pieces and dropping them into a wastebasket.
"Isn't it amazing," Kay Armstrong had said calmly, "how when something is invisible you are very apt to bump into it very hard with your elbow?"
"Amazing." Natalie grinned, helping her with the last green bits.
Now they were all playing the game again. If they pretended the paper didn't exist, it wouldn't exist.
But it does, Natalie thought. I had to write it. I had to ask them to read it.
And they will have to talk to me about it. Even if it hurts.
MACKENZIE COLLEGE'S APPLICATION blank had not been very different from any of the others. After the routine questions about Natalie's high school grades and activities, and after all the information about SATs, CEEBS, BOGs, and PCSs that sometimes made the whole college application procedure seem like something left glued to the bottom of the bowl when the alphabet soup was all gone, they had the question for which they had left an entire page of blank space.
Most colleges did. It was usually a question about the most interesting or meaningful thing that had happened to the applicant in the past few years. It was a question that panicked Branford, Maine, high school seniors and their guidance counselor, because nothing very exciting happened in Branford, Maine.
They all were very, very sure that the rest of the country was filled with high school seniors who had spent their summers working in leper colonies.
One summer, a pack of wild, rabid dogs had menaced the town of Branford before they were lured into a fenced area and shot by members of the state police. In truth, it was only four wild dogs traveling together; one of them, it was later found in the state laboratory, did have rabies. They had killed numerous chickens and one small calf in a pasture before they were destroyed. It had been a frightening two days; the townspeople were warned, by radio and TV and by police vehicles with loudspeakers, not to venture far from their houses. Small children were kept indoors until the danger was over. Branford high school boys had volunteered to help in tracking the dogs; in Maine, most teen-aged boys were experienced in tracking deer during hunting season. But the state police had refused the offer. Some of the boys had gone out on their own anyway, and one of them had shot the Episcopal minister's Saint Bernard by mistake. Of the five boys involved, none would tell which one had done it; they were all ordered home. They pooled their savings and bought Father Simms, who was reasonable about the whole thing, a new puppy, which he named Expiation and called Pete for short.
The incident nourished Mr. Flanagan, the high school guidance counselor, for two years. When seniors asked his advice on answering the big question of their applications, his eyes lit up. "Tell about the time the whole town stalked the rabid dog pack," he would say.
After a while, no one reminded him anymore that it had been three policemen shooting four dogs in a fenced yard. Most of the kids found themselves writing about the French Club's weekend trip to Quebec. Some preferred to tell of the time that the shack in which the local derelict lived, on the outskirts of town, burned to the ground with him in it; the Athletic Club had sponsored a quick raffle to raise money for his burial, and the entire high school turned out for the funeral. Most of the boys, at one time or another, had paid Willie, the derelict, a quarter to buy them a six-pack of beer. They didn't include that information on the college applications, but they liked to write about how the Branford Glee Club had spontaneously sung, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" as what was left of Willie was laid to rest.
MacKenzie's application had worded the big question a little differently from most. Their question read, "What is the one thing about you that makes you different from the nine hundred high school seniors who will apply, this year, for admission to MacKenzie's freshman class? How will that one quality affect your life in the next four years?"
Natalie had looked at the question for a long time. Then she had taken a yellow legal pad from her desk, uncapped her fountain pen, and written,
The one thing that makes me different is that I have no idea who I really am.
My name is Natalie Chandler Armstrong. I was named for my mother's mother, Natalie Chandler, who is a famous sculptor. She was married to a painter who died before I was born, and they traveled all over the world. They were both very well known. My mother, who was their only child, is not a famous person, but she is artistic, like her parents, and tells fascinating stories about growing up with such an unusual family.
My father, Alden Armstrong, is a very dedicated doctor. He graduated from Harvard Medical School and worked for a while at the Lahey Clinic in Boston before he decided to come to Maine. For a while he was the only medical doctor in our small town. Today there are others, but one wing of our local hospital is named Armstrong after my father. Two years ago, people who had been my father's patients during his twenty years in Branford got together and raised the money to help pay for it and to name it in his honor. It makes me very proud to see his name there.
My younger sister, Nancy, looks exactly like my father, but she has my mother's personality. It's a nice combination.
But my parents adopted me when I was five days old. Of course I have developed characteristics that are like theirs, because they have been my family for seventeen years. But my real parentage is a complete mystery to me. Somewhere there are two people who created me, and I don't know who they are. I have dark brown hair, and light blue eyes. Genetically, that's an unusual combination. Where does it come from? I don't know.
Sometimes I lie awake at night, wondering what the story is behind my birth. Why would anyone give away a baby? Why did they give me away? It makes me angry, puzzled, and sad. Somewhere, I think, it must make them feel the same way. I can't believe that they have forgotten me.
I am sure that this will affect me not only for the next four years, but for my entire life, at least until I find the answers.
I intend to work very hard at college, because I want to be a doctor like my father. But at the same time, I have determined that I am going to try to find my natural parents. I don't know how. But I am sure there must be a way.
The essay, written in Natalie's small, meticulous handwriting, covered the entire sheet of extra-length paper. After she had written it, she set it aside.
On a second sheet, she began again.
The one thing that makes me different is that I want so much to be a good doctor. For two summers I have worked in my father's office, learning how to do simple lab tests, and watching how he deals with patients who entrust their lives and their health to him.
She went on, and filled the second sheet. It was the second essay that she copied carefully onto the application form, and mailed to MacKenzie College.
But it was the first one that she had shown her parents.
"Why?" her mother had asked, shaken. "Why, Natalie? What does it matter? You've been our daughter since you were an infant. Your father and I never think about the fact that you were adopted. Have we done something wrong? Have we made you feel different?"
Natalie had shook her head, biting her lip, mutely. There was no way to explain something she didn't really understand herself. But the feeling was there: the need. She looked at her father, hoping he could help them all. But his face was troubled, too.
"Nat," he had said, finally, "I don't know what to say. I think this search will be a terrible mistake on your part. What possible good could come of it?"
"I don't know," she told them softly. "I don't know. Except that the secrets would be gone."
The word made her father angry. "Secrets? Natalie, your mother and I have kept no secrets from you. We know nothing of your natural parents. That's how it should be. Your adoption was arranged through professionals who never disclosed that information to us. Nor did we ask them to. You became our daughter as much as Nancy did, a year later. And as far as we're concerned, there isn't any difference between the two of you. You were conceived; born; you entered our lives; became our daughters."
"It isn't the same. Nancy was conceived by you, born to you. Don't tell me that's the same. Who was I born to? Why did they give me away?
Her mother touched her hair. "Natalie. Those things don't matter. Really, they don't."
"They do," Natalie insisted. "They do to me."
"Nat," said her father finally, "let your mother and me talk about this together. Right now we're both upset. Give us time, and then we'll all discuss it again."
Natalie nodded reluctantly, and the translucent curtain came down between them. In the two months since their conversation, her parents had not mentioned it again.
IT WAS MAY, and she was arguing with Paul.
Being able to argue comfortably with Paul was one of the things that Natalie liked about their relationship. He was like her father, that way; he listened to what she said, took her seriously, and encouraged her to stick to what she believed, even if he didn't agree with her. Most of the time.
But right now, Paul looked at her for a long time, frowned, and said, "Bullshit."
She had just told him, as she had told Becky and Gretchen that afternoon, about her desire to search for her natural parents. The girls had both said, "Why?"
Paul didn't ask why. He shook his head, and said again, "Bullshit."
They were sitting in his battered Volkswagen, in the driveway of the Armstrongs' house. They had been to a horror movie, and had laughed about it all the way home. The monsters had had visible seams and poorly synchronized eyes, and Paul had imitated a malfunctioning dinosaur as he drove. But the good humor had worn off when they began to talk.
"What do you mean by that?" Natalie was angry. She had expected Paul to understand.
"Nat," he said, "you have great parents, and you have no right to do that to them."
"My God, Paul, you're making me sound like some sort of a creep. I'm not doing anything to them. I love my parents. I just have to find out, that's all."
"Why? What difference does it make? None."
"That's easy for you to say. You know your ancestry all the way back to the Mayflower, practically. You have no idea how it feels not to know what your heritage is."
"Who cares? Natalie, I don't know who my ancestors are. It's all written down, and I've never read it. It doesn't matter to me. It only matters to my mother because she likes to go to those damn DAR conventions. Is that what you want, Nat, to put on a flowered hat and sing 'The StarSpangled Banner'?"
"Cut it out, Paul. You know me better than that. Listen to me for a minute. I don't care about the distant past. I want to find my mother. I want to find out what happened, why I was born, why she gave me away. Who she was. Who she is."