THE WORLD IS FULL of broken people. Splints, casts, miracle drugs, and time can't mend fractured hearts, wounded minds, torn spirits.
Currently, sunshine was Micky Bellsong's medication of choice, and southern California in late August was an apothecary with a deep supply of this prescription.
Tuesday afternoon, wearing a bikini and oiled for broiling, Micky reclined in a lounge chair in her aunt Geneva's backyard. The nylon webbing was a nausea-inducing shade of green, and it sagged, too, and the aluminum joints creaked as though the lawn furniture were far older than Micky, who was only twenty-eight, but who sometimes felt ancient.
Her aunt, from whom fate had stolen everything except a reliable sense of humor, referred to the yard as "the garden." That would be the rosebush.
The property was wider than it was deep, to allow the full length of the house trailer to face the street. Instead of a lawn with trees, a narrow covered patio shaded the front entrance. Here in back, a strip of grass extended from one side of the lot to the other, but it provided a scant twelve feet of turf between the door and the rear fence. The grass flourished because Geneva watered it regularly with a hose.
The rosebush, however, responded perversely to tender care. In spite of ample sunshine, water, and plant food, in spite of the regular aeration of its roots and periodic treatment with measured doses of insecticide, the bush remained as scraggly and as blighted us any specimen watered with venom and fed pure sulfur in the Satanic gardens of Hell.
Face to the sun, eyes closed, striving to empty her mind of all thought, yet troubled by insistent memories, Micky had been cooking for half an hour when a small sweet voice asked, "Are you suicidal?"
She turned her head toward the speaker and saw a girl of nine or ten standing at the low, sagging picket fence that separated this trailer space from the one to the west. Sun glare veiled the kid's features.
"Skin cancer kills," the girl explained.
"So does vitamin D deficiency."
"Your bones get soft."
"Rickets. I know. But you can get vitamin D in tuna, eggs, and dairy products. That's better than too much sun."
Closing her eyes again, turning her face to the deadly blazing heavens, Micky said, "Well, I don't intend to live forever."
"Maybe you haven't noticed, but nobody does."
"I probably will," the girl declared.
"How's that work?"
"A little extraterrestrial DNA."
"Yeah, right. You're part alien."
"Not yet. I have to make contact first."
Micky opened her eyes again and squinted at the ET wannabe. "You've been watching too many reruns of The X-Files, kid."
"I've only got until my next birthday, and then all bets are off." The girl moved along the swooning fence to a point where it had entirely collapsed. She clattered across the flattened section of pickets and approached Micky. "Do you believe in life after death?"
"I'm not sure I believe in life before death," Micky said.
"I knew you were suicidal."
"I'm not suicidal. I'm just a wiseass."
Even after stepping off the splintered fence staves onto the grass, the girl moved awkwardly. "We're renting next door. We just moved in. My name's Leilani."
As Leilani drew closer, Micky saw that she wore a complicated steel brace on her left leg, from the ankle to above the knee.
"Isn't that a Hawaiian name?" Micky asked.
"My mother's a little nuts about all things Hawaiian."
Leilani wore khaki shorts. Her right leg was fine, but in the cradle of steel and padding, her left leg appeared to be malformed.
"In fact," Leilani continued, "old Sinsemilla-that's my mother- is a little nuts, period."
"Sinsemilla? That's a …"
"Type of marijuana. Maybe she was Cindy Sue or Barbara way back in the Jurassic period, but she's called herself Sinsemilla as long as I've known her." Leilani settled into a hideous orange-and-blue chair as decrepit as Micky's bile-green lounge. "This lawn furniture sucks."
"Someone gave it to Aunt Geneva for nothing."
"She ought to've been paid to take it. Anyway, they put old Sinsemilla in an institution once and shot like fifty or a hundred thousand volts of electricity through her brain, but it didn't help."
"You shouldn't make up stuff like that about your own mother."
Leilani shrugged. "It's the truth. I couldn't make up anything as weird as what is. In fact, they blasted her brain several times. Probably, if they'd done it just once more, old Sinsemilla would've developed a taste for electricity. Now she'd be sticking her finger in a socket about ten times a day. She's an addictive personality, but she means well."
Although the sky was a furnace grate, although Micky was slick with coconut-scented lotion and sweat, she'd grown all but oblivious of the sun. "How old are you, kid?"
"Nine. But I'm precocious. What's your name?"
"That's a name for a boy or a mouse. So it's probably Michelle. Most women your age are named Michelle or Heather or Courtney."
"No offense intended."
Leilani wrinkled her nose, "too precious."
" Michelina Birdsong."
"No wonder you're suicidal."
Micky cocked her head and frowned skeptically. "I'm not sure I should believe anything you tell me."
"Sometimes names are destiny. Look at you. Two pretty names, and you're as gorgeous as a model-except for all the sweat and your face puffy with a hangover."
"Thanks. I guess."
"Me, on the other hand-I've got one pretty name followed by a clinker like Klonk. Half of me is sort of pretty-"
"You're very pretty," Micky assured her.
This was true. Golden hair. Eyes as blue as gentian petals. The clarity of Leilani's features promised that hers was not the transient beauty of childhood, but an enduring quality.
"Half of me," Leilani conceded, "might turn heads one day, but that's balanced by the fact that I'm a mutant."
"You're not a mutant."
The girl stamped her left foot on the ground, causing the leg brace to rattle softly. She raised her left hand, which proved to be deformed: The little finger and the ring finger were fused into a single misshapen digit that was connected by a thick web of tissue to a gnarled and stubby middle finger.
Until now, Micky hadn't noticed this deformity. "Everyone's got imperfections," she said.
"This isn't like having a big schnoz. I'm either a mutant or a cripple, and I refuse to be a cripple. People pity cripples, but they're afraid of mutants."
"You want people to be afraid of you?"
"Fear implies respect," Leilani said.
"So far, you're not registering high on my terror meter."
"Give me time. You've got a great body
Disconcerted to hear such a thing from a child, Micky covered her discomfort with self-deprecation: "Yeah, well, by nature I'm a huge pudding. I've got to work hard to stay like this."
"No you don't. You were born perfect, and you've got one of those metabolisms tuned like a space-shuttle gyroscope. You could eat half a cow and drink a keg of beer every day, and your butt would actually tighten up a notch."
Micky couldn't remember the last time that she'd been rendered speechless by anyone, but with this girl, she was nearly befuddled into silence. "How would you know?"
"I can tell," Leilani assured her. "You don't run, you don't power walk -"
"Oh? When was your last workout?"
"Yesterday," Micky lied.
"Yeah," said Leilani, "and I was out waltzing all night." She stamped her left foot again, rattling her leg brace. "Having a great metabolism is nothing to be ashamed about. It's not like laziness or anything."
"Thanks for your approval." "Your boobs are real, aren't they?" "Girl, you are an amazing piece of work."
"Thanks. They must be real. Even the best implants don't look that natural. Unless there's major improvement in implant technology, my best hope is to develop good boobs. You can be a mutant and still attract men if you've got great boobs. That's been my observation, anyway. Men can be lovely creatures, but in some ways, they're pathetically predictable." "You're nine, huh?"
"My birthday was February twenty-eighth. That was Ash Wednesday this year. Do you believe in fasting and penitence?"
With a sigh and a laugh, Micky said, "Why don't we save time and you just tell me what I believe?"
"Probably not much of anything," Leilani said, without a pause. "Except in having fun and getting through the day."
Micky was left speechless not by the child's acute perception but by hearing the truth put so bluntly, especially as this was a truth that she had so long avoided contemplating.
"Nothing wrong with having fun," said Leilani. "One of the things I believe, if you want to know, is that we're here to enjoy life." She shook her head. "Amazing. Men must be all over you."
"Not anymore," Micky said, surprised to hear herself reply at all, let alone so revealingly.
A lopsided smile tugged at the right corner of the girl's mouth, and unmistakable merriment enlivened her blue eyes. "Now don't you wish you could see me as a mutant?"
"As long as you think of me as a handicapped waif, your pity doesn't allow you to be impolite. On the other hand, if you could see me as a weird and possibly dangerous mutant, you'd tell me none of this is my business, and you'd hustle me back to my own yard."
"You're looking more like a mutant all the time."
Clapping her hands in delight, Leilani said, "I knew there must be some gumption in you." She rose from her chair with a hitch and pointed across the backyard. "What's that thing?"
"Really. It's a rosebush."
"The potential's there."
"Hardly any leaves."
"Lots of thorns, though," Micky noted.
Squinching her face, Leilani said, "I bet it pulls up its roots late at night and creeps around the neighborhood, eating stray cats."
"Lock your doors."
"We don't have cats." Leilani blinked. "Oh." She grinned. "Good one." She hooked her right hand into an imitation of a claw, raked the air, and hissed.
"What did you mean when you said 'all bets are off'?"
"When did I say that?" Leilani asked disingenuously.
"You said you've only got until your next birthday, and then all bets are off."
"Oh, the alien-contact thing."
Although that wasn't ;in answer, she turned away from Micky and crossed the lawn in steel-stiffened gait.
Micky leaned forward from the angled back of the lounge chair. "Leilani?"
"I say a lot of stuff. Not all of it means anything." At the gap in the broken fence, the girl stopped and turned. "Say, Michelina Bellsong, did I ask whether you believe in life after death?"
"And I was a wiseass."
"Yeah, I remember now."
"So…do you?" Micky asked.
"Do I what?"
"Believe in life after death?"
Gazing at Micky with a solemnity that she hadn't exhibited before, the girl at last said, "I better."
As she negotiated the fallen pickets and crossed the neglected sun-browned lawn next door, the faint click-and-squeak of her leg brace faded until it could have been mistaken for the language of industrious insects hard at work in the hot, dry air.
For a while after the girl had gone into the neighboring house trailer, Micky sat forward in the lounge chair, staring at the door through which she had disappeared.
Leilani was a pretty package of charm, intelligence, and cocky attitude that masked an aching vulnerability. But while remembered moments of their encounter now brought a smile to Micky, she was also left with a vague uneasiness. Like a quick dark fish, some disturbing half-glimpsed truth had seemed to dart beneath the surface of their conversation, though it eluded her net.
The liquid-thick heat of the late-August sun pooled around Micky. She felt as though she were floating in a hot bath.
The scent of recently mown grass saturated the still air: the intoxicating essence of summer.
In the distance rose the lulling rumble-hum of freeway traffic, a not unpleasant drone that might be mistaken for the rhythmic susurration of the sea.
She should have grown drowsy, at least lethargic, but her mind hummed more busily than the traffic, and her body grew stiff with a tension that the sun couldn't cook from her.
Although it seemed unrelated to Leilani Klonk, Micky recalled something that her aunt Geneva had said only the previous evening, over dinner. . . .
'CHANGE ISN'T EASY, Micky. Changing the way you live means changing how you think. Changing how you think means changing what you believe about life. That's hard, sweetie. When we make our own misery, we sometimes cling to it even when we want so bad to change, because the misery is something we know. The misery is comfortable."
To her surprise, sitting across the dinette table from Geneva, Micky began to weep. No racking sobs. Discreet, this weeping. The plate of homemade lasagna blurred in front of her, and hot tears slid down her cheeks. She kept her fork in motion throughout this silent salty storm, loath to acknowledge what was happening to her.
She hadn't cried since childhood. She'd thought that she was beyond tears, too tough for self-pity and too hardened to be moved by the plight of anyone else. With grim determination, angry with herself for this weakness, she continued eating even though her throat grew so thick with emotion that she had difficulty swallowing.