Chapter no 140 – Forty Minutes‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Fog gives way to sunshine. It assaults the cobblestones, the houses, the windows. Etienne makes it to the bakery in an icy sweat and cuts to the front of the queue. Madame Ruelle’s face looms, moon-white.

“Etienne? But—?”

Vermilion spots open and close in his vision. “Marie-Laure—”

“She is not—?”

Before he can shake his head, Madame Ruelle is lifting the hinged counter and ushering him out; she has him under the arm. The women in the queue are muttering, intrigued or scandalized or both. Madame Ruelle helps him onto the rue Robert Surcouf. The face of Etienne’s watch appears to distend. Forty-one minutes? He can hardly do the math. Her hands grip his shoulder.

“Where could she have gone?”

Tongue so dry, thoughts so sluggish. “Sometimes . . . she visits . . . the sea. Before coming home.”

“But the beaches are closed. The ramparts too.” She looks off over his head. “It must be something else.”

They huddle in the middle of the street. Somewhere a hammer rings. War, Etienne thinks distantly, is a bazaar where lives are traded like any other commodity: chocolate or bullets or parachute silk. Has he traded all those numbers for Marie-Laure’s life?

“No,” he whispers, “she goes to the sea.”

“If they find the bread,” Madame Ruelle whispers, “we will all die.”

He glances again at his watch, but it’s a sun burning his retinas. A single side of salted bacon twists in the butcher’s otherwise empty window, and three schoolboys stand on a bench watching him, waiting for him to fall, and just as he is certain the morning is about to shatter, Etienne sees in his memory the rusted gate leading to the crumbling kennel beneath the ramparts. A place where he used to play with his brother, Henri, and Harold Bazin. A small dripping cavern where a boy could shout and dream.

Stick-thin, alabaster-pale Etienne LeBlanc runs down the rue de Dinan with Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife, on his heels: the least-robust rescue ever assembled. The cathedral bells chime one two three four, all the way to eight; Etienne turns down the rue du Boyer and reaches the slightly angled base of the ramparts, traveling the paths of his youth, navigating by instinct; he turns right, passes through the curtain of swinging ivy, and ahead, behind the same locked gate, in the grotto, shivering, wet to her thighs, wholly intact, crouches Marie-Laure with the ruins of a loaf of bread in her lap. “You came,” she says when she lets them in, when he takes her face in his hands. “You came . . .”

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