On Boxing Day morning, Stellar burst into the bathroom as Thalassa was finishing brushing her teeth.
“Oh, Sis!” he said. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean to interrupt your privacy.”
She laughed. “I’m a mother. I’ve been a doctor at camps where the bathroom is an outdoor spigot. I don’t even know what privacy means anymore!”
“My sister the adventurer,” he said.
She pulled out her phone and showed him pictures she’d taken from her various posts. They weren’t the standard touring photos one might expect. Each of these was of a tiny detail: a garland of marigolds on a street in Calcutta; a gargoyle’s grimace on a stone eave in Brussels; street art lining an alley in Rio. It was like looking at the world through his sister’s eyes.
“You’re really doing it,” he said, “what you said you’d do when we were kids. Helping people all over the world.”
“I know it’s selfish of me,” Thalassa said, “to put everything aside so I can follow my dream. But it feels right, so it can’t be all bad, right?”
Stellar chuckled. “The doctor who faces danger and hardship to help out others in places where most people wouldn’t dare to venture complaining of her own selfishness,” he said. “Now that’s a fine contradiction!”
“It’s just that I’m doing what I want to do,” she said, “in spite of everything else. In spite of other obligations.”
Tomas had joined them and stood patiently waiting for an opportunity to ask his uncle something.
“I wouldn’t give it a second thought,” Stellar said. “Dreams come to us for a reason.”
He turned to his nephew.
“Uncle Stellar, do you remember that you said you might maybe show me where the owl sits up in the big pine tree overlooking everything?”
Stellar did remember. “Let’s go after lunch!”
“Just you and me?” asked Tomas.
“Yes! Just us! Next to me, you’ll be the only one to know where the owl sits!”
Thalassa looked at her son, nestled in her brother’s arms. Why should she feel guilty thinking about leaving him here, when he’d have Stellar with him every day to take him on walks and wrap him in hugs, when her mom would fill him with cookies and stories?
That afternoon, while Tomas and Stellar hiked in search of the owl’s pine, Thalassa sat with Kumar.
“Are you having a good time here, Kumie?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Would you like to stay here longer? Would you like to stay while I left on assignment for a while?”
“Where would you go?”
“Could I come?”
“No,” she replied. “It’s not safe for children.”
“Is it safe for moms?”
“It will be safe enough,” she replied. “I will be careful. And there are people there who need me.”
“If I stayed, would Marshie and Tomas stay, too?”
“And would Grandma and Uncle Stellar be here?”
“And would you be back in time for my birthday?”
She would. If she could. She would do her best to be back after three months, which really wasn’t so very long, before his birthday, certainly.
“I suppose so,” he said. “It would be OK.”
Thalassa cleared the table and carried the dishes into the kitchen as Cinnamon came in.
“Grandma!” said Kumar, as he leapt up to give her a hug.
Thalassa found Marshmallow downstairs playing with Princess Spirulina in the doll house.
“I’m thinking of going away for a little while,” Thalassa said. “Not for long. For a job. It’s to help people who are far away and who need a doctor.”
“OK,” said Marshmallow. “Can Princess Spirulina stay here?”
“Yes,” said Thalassa. “Does she want to?”
“Yes, but only if I stay with her.”
“You can stay,” said Thalassa. “Is that OK with you?”
“I guess so,” said Marshmallow. “Are my brothers staying?”
“Will Grandma and Uncle Stellar be here?”
They would be.
“And do you need to go?”
“I don’t know that I need to,” said Thalassa, “but I feel that it is the right thing.”
“Then I suppose you should,” said Marshmallow. “You always do the right thing, and it always works out right.”
Marshmallow turned to the doll. “Now don’t be sad, Princess Spirulina. You know that I will be here to look out for you. And who knows? Maybe Mom will come back with a little sister for you!”
Thalassa went upstairs and turned on the computer. Why did doing the right thing have to be so hard? How could it be so confusing to even know what the right thing to do was?
If she looked inside, if she listened, what did her heart tell her to do? Go, it said. What was easy and what was hard, and what was right and what was wrong? And did any of it even matter? And if lives were saved and lives were lost, who was responsible and who was to blame?
She was just one tiny person on a globe of billions in a universe so vast that a heartbeat seemed hardly to matter.
And yet, sometimes a single keystroke could put in motion a chain of events that would change the lives of hundreds, and if her fingers were the ones to press the keys, so be it.
Thalassa composed an email accepting the position in Turkey. She had faith. She had faith that she was offered the position for a reason, that her brother decided to move back home for a reason, that her children were so happy here for a reason, that her mother raised her to trust her heart for a reason.
She reread the email. She listened to the happy voices of her children playing in the hallway downstairs. And she clicked send.