C.A. Masterson fell in love with writing when she was a child running through the wilds of New Jersey (yes,
really, there is such a thing!). The author of four novels, her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in
The Wild Rose Press (2008), A Long Story Short (2008), Dark Sky Magazine (2008), Cezanne's Carrot (2008), The
Harrow (2006), Flesh from Ashes (2005), Quality Women's Fiction (2005), Phase, and The Writer's online edition.
Visit her online at http://catemasters.ning.com. In 2005, Pennwriters awarded All is Calm, All is Bright second
place in its Short Story contest.
All is Calm, All is Bright
The Talbots sat around the Thanksgiving dinner table, hands clasped before their bowed heads, faces aglow beneath the brass
chandelier, looking for all the world like a Norman Rockwell slice of life.
Albert Talbot Sr. thanked God for blessing his family with a bounty of food, and -- most importantly, he stressed -- good health.
His eyes squeezed shut, he implored the Almighty, "Send extra blessings to Jonah" like a preacher on a call-in television show.
Margaret broke from her silent prayer and gave her father-in-law a stern look. Her husband, Albert Jr., looked up and shook his
head. Jonah rocked gently in his chair beside her, eyes heavenward. She tucked the napkin into his shirt collar.
"I'm hungry," Jonah said in his usual monotone.
"Yes, I know. We'll eat soon," she whispered.
"I'm hungry," he said louder. As if she were the one who didn't understand, who needed instructions repeated.
Margaret shot a smile around the table. "I'll just get him started with dinner, if that's all right."
Mrs. Talbot said that was perfectly fine and asked Albert Jr. to begin passing the food. Mr. Talbot raised his eyebrows and fingered
his silver knife and fork as Margaret spooned mashed potatoes, turkey, and peas onto Jonah's plate, careful not to let one food
touch another. Jonah's eyes followed her hand as it moved from bowl to plate, the tips of his fingers on the perfectly aligned Peter
Rabbit stainless steel fork and knife with blunted edges.
Margaret had frowned upon seeing the baby utensils. Mrs. Talbot had blushed, and blustered something about how much Jonah
loved them. "Loved" wasn't quite accurate, they both knew â€“ change was difficult, even painful, for Jonah. Last Thanksgiving, while
Mrs. Talbot looked on in horror, Jonah had bent the tines of the silver fork, upset that his traditional utensils had been changed.
Margaret ate, thankful that the meal was uneventful.
"May I go play video games?" Jonah looked her directly in the eye, startling her into a smile. It always took Margaret aback when
Jonah "surfaced," as she called it, when his autism seemed to lift its veil away from her son, however briefly.
"Of course, sweetie. You were a very good boy at dinner. Thank you."
She watched her son jog to the television in the adjoining room, his hands flapping like fish fins. He carefully opened the doors of
the maple cabinet and lined them up exactly. He took the game controls out, then with two flicks of the remote, set the television to
the proper station and turned on the video game. He sat down, cross-legged, and waited for the screen to prompt "play." He was at
the third level after only a day. Above the polite dinner conversation, Margaret heard the game ping as he racked up points. Jonah
imitated the game sounds perfectly as he made his way through the maze of tunnels, fought off the evil attackers, found the hidden
clues and treasures to reach the highest level. It was more than Albert Jr. had been able to achieve.
Albert Sr. leaned back and rubbed his bloated belly. "The idiot savant beat you at the idiot's game."
Her husband continued to stir his coffee as if his father had said nothing, his back straight, his jaw firm. Her father-in-law smacked
her husband's shoulder with a wink and a guffaw as if to say, 'no harm, no foul.' This made her bristle more â€“ that Albert, at forty-
seven, would not stand up to his father's bullying. Albert Jr. was too much like his mother, whose silence outwardly preserved peace
in the household, but under the surface, the conflict still roiled and churned.
Later that night, Margaret sat on the edge of the bed as Albert stepped into his pajamas. "You should have defended Jonah. Your
father has no right to call him such names."
Her husband said, "I learned a long time ago to be the bigger man, Margaret."
Margaret brushed her hair vigorously. "Bigger? How is not defending your son being bigger than your father?"
Her husband's voice was quiet, his enunciation perfect. "I will never let my father know the damage he is capable of. It will only
"And your silence doesn't?" She'd tired of silence.
Margaret had just read "Goodnight Moon" to Jonah ten times; it had to be ten times without interruption, just after he'd put on his
pajamas and brushed his teeth, then checked that the bathroom light was off. Events had to be in this exact order or he'd thrash
back and forth under the covers.
She brushed her hair as Albert lined up his slippers by the bed so he could step into them easily the next morning. He'd always been
meticulous; it was the reason she hadn't been attracted to him initially. Until the day he'd helped her rescue a dog struck by a van,
and carried it, bleeding, to his car. His caring nature surprised and touched her. They'd begun dating the next day, and married the
Jonah had been born two years later. He'd been a happy, inquisitive baby until just before his third birthday. Then, he turned away
from them when they spoke, humming to himself. He became obsessed with patterns and order, lining up light switch rows, building
intricate Lego constructions. The pediatrician diagnosed Jonah as autistic, but said he was fairly high on the spectrum, and told them
how lucky they were. Margaret tried to view their lives through this perspective, but never felt very lucky.
Except when Jonah played the piano. She kept the stereo tuned to the classical music station; it seemed to calm her son. Jonah
would listen to a song, then pick out the notes on the piano. After three or four practices, he would play the basic melody, his
timing so perfect it made her catch her breath, made her imagine a multitude of Jonahs, as if she saw him through a prism, and each
Jonah was at a different level on the spectrum. Of all the Jonahs, the piano-playing one was Margaret's favorite -- touching her with
his music. She thought it was the only way he knew how to touch her.
"We're leaving after the museum, right?" she asked Albert after slipping into bed beside him.
"Yes." He said it as if he were most grateful for this on Thanksgiving.
The bedroom was dark even though she'd left the door open. Stilted breathing came from the doorway. Margaret lifted her head
from the pillow and saw her son in the shadows.
"I'm wet." He sounded neither sorry nor upset. He never did. That would mean some interior barrier had broken down, some nerve
endings had connected that allowed her son to feel even an isolated emotion, providing her a glimmer of hope.
"All right." She pulled on her robe and ushered him quietly back to his room next door. The maid had been asked to leave an extra
set of sheets in the room, and to make up the bed with a plastic sheet underneath.
Jonah hummed one note as Margaret changed the bed linens. He climbed under the fresh covers mechanically. She hugged his stiff
body and kissed his cheek.
"I love you," she told him.
"I love you," he echoed, looking at the bedpost. She wanted to cup his face in her hands, make him say it again and again, until the
warmth of the emotion melted the stony faÃ§ade that kept him prisoner. But she knew Jonah would cringe, pull away, retreat. She
lived for the days when Jonah looked her fully in the eye, hoping each time that this time would be the day he'd smile and say, "I
love you, Mom" of his own volition, not parroting her. Jonah's tenth birthday was next week, and still she waited.
She went back to bed, and her husband rolled his rigid back away from her. She felt as if she were slipping back into the cold, silent
depths between her husband and son. Margaret waited for Albert to again show any of the initial compassion that made her fall in
love with him. Since Jonah's diagnosis, Albert had withdrawn from her; she felt as if he were dragging her down and down, into the
twilight where they all existed now. She felt as isolated as Jonah, trapped far beneath the surface in a bubble where feelings were
The morning did not so much dawn as slowly diffuse a dull grey pallor across the room. Margaret rose and went to the window.
Thick clouds hung low in the sky, moving as slowly as a glacier, as if they were underwater looking up at the surface.
She let the curtain fall into place. "Maybe we should go straight home, and skip the museum today."
Albert buttoned his shirt, leaving the last one at the collar undone. Always one, never two. Inconsistencies made him jittery, he'd
"We should go today. We'd already planned it, and Father will be insulted if we cancel. Besides, we've already prepared Jonah."
She nodded; their son needed repeated advance warnings of any change in schedule so the deviation wouldn't upset him. Jonah was
comfortable with predictable patterns.
Albert paused to look at her. "And he seemed better yesterday."
Better. It was a word Margaret hated. The implication that he was steadily improving. The false hope it raised.
Jonah was sitting in his bed, humming, when she went in to see if he was ready. Some mornings, he'd completely dress himself, all
his buttons in the correct holes except for the top one, just like his father.
Jonah didn't look at her, didn't look at anything. He did not respond when she asked him if he wanted to go have some fun. He'd
retreated again, so she couldn't find him, like in the nightmares she had.
Margaret dressed her son with no struggle, and brought him downstairs for breakfast. She did not look forward to spending
another day with her in-laws.
In the museum, Albert Sr. tried to engage Jonah, showing him how the mirror distorted their reflections, how the electric charge
made his hair stand up. Jonah turned away quickly, humming loudly, slapping his arms against his chest in brutal hugs. Margaret set
her jaw and glared at her father-in-law, who could never understand why Jonah didn't like sudden changes in anything.
Albert Sr. frowned, mouth set tight as he turned away. "Let's try this room. He can touch the displays."
As they walked through the doorway, Margaret tensed. The room was cavernous, some of the exhibits huge. Open spaces
sometimes made Jonah upset. He'd flail about, as if lost at sea, as if drowning.
When she glanced at him, Jonah was looking beyond the faces of people walking by. The room was filled with children and their
parents, all with the same idea for Black Friday. They moved like cattle through a chute from exhibit to exhibit, Jonah shuffling his
"I wish it weren't so crowded." Margaret felt invisible; neither Albert nor his parents responded.
"Hey, Talbot!" A man waved, then herded his wife and three kids, aged about four through eight, toward them. Margaret turned to
her husband, one eyebrow raised in question.
Albert Jr. answered in a hushed voice, his lips barely moving. "George Henderson. Salesman."
She mouthed "ah" and nodded, fixing a smile on her face.
The couples exchanged introductions, the Henderson children all said hello, then looked to Jonah. When he hummed tunelessly and
turned away, Margaret steered the conversation to trite pleasantries. Her determination to make them forget Jonah's differences
made her forget him, to block him from her mind. Liberated, she talked of the holiday, of her part-time job as a financial consultant,
of the difficulties of living hours away from family.
The metallic notes of Silent Night, as if gonged from a church bell, swelled through the room. Conversations ceased. As if on cue,
every person in the room turned in unison with surprised, delighted faces toward the music, so crude, yet so oddly ethereal.
Then Margaret remembered. "Jonah."
He wasn't in sight. She turned to her husband and said more urgently, "Jonah." His hand clasped her shoulder, and he pointed, a
foreign look of wonder on his face.
"Look," he told her.
She strained on tip-toe to see what the entire room was attuned to: Jonah stood before an exhibit, striking its long metal pipes of
varying length in perfect pitch and timing. He was sounding the final notes to the carol â€“ sleep in heavenly peace. Mr. and Mrs.
Talbot watched in stunned silence.
"How?" was all Albert Sr. could manage.
Albert Jr. shrugged, but Margaret laughed, a bubble of joy escaping as Jonah turned to her and smiled.
Of course he didn't know how. They would never know. But sometimes -- like now -- the feeling that thick shafts of sunlight had
penetrated the surface, suddenly illuminating the shadows that permeated their lives with an astounding, blinding brilliance, was
enough to sustain her.