The dog curls on the passenger's seat and lies with his chin on the console, eyes glimmering with the reflected light of the radio readout.
Stroking the mutt's head, rubbing behind one of the floppy ears and then behind the other, the frightened boy takes comfort from the silken coat and the warmth of his friend, successfully repressing a fit of the shivers, though unable entirely to banish an inner chill.
He is the most-wanted fugitive in the fabled West, surely the most desperately sought runaway in the entire country, from sea to shining sea. A mighty power is set hard against him, and ruthless hunters swarm the night.
A melodic voice arises from the radio, recounting the story of a lonesome cowpoke and his girlfriend in faraway Texas, but the boy is no longer in the mood to sing along.
BANSHEES, SHRIKES TEARING at their impaled prey, coyote packs in the heat of the hunt, werewolves in the misery of the moon could not have produced more chilling cries than those that caused Leilani to say, "Old Sinsemilla," and that drew Micky to the open back door of the trailer.
To the door and through it, down three concrete-block steps, onto the lawn in the last magenta murk of twilight, Micky proceeded with caution. Her wariness didn't halt her altogether, because she was certain that someone in terrible pain needed immediate help.
In the yard next door, beyond the sagging picket fence, a white-robed figure thrashed in the gloaming, as though ablaze and frantic to douse the flames. Not a single tongue of fire could be seen.
Micky crazily thought of killer bees, which might also have caused the shrieking figure to perform these frenzied gyrations. With the sun down, however, this was not an hour for bees, not even though the baked earth still radiated stored heat. Besides, the air wasn't vibrating with the hum of an angry swarm.
Micky glanced back at the trailer, where Leilani stood in the open doorway, silhouetted against faint candleglow.
"I haven't had dessert yet," the girl said, and she retreated out of sight.
The apparition in the dark yard next door stopped squealing, but in a silence as disconcerting as the cries had been, it continued to turn, to writhe, to flail at the air. Its diaphanous white robe billowed and whirled as though this were a manic ghost that had no patience for the eerie but tedious pace of a traditional haunting.
When she reached the swagging fence, Micky could see that the tormented spirit was of this earth, not visiting from Beyond. Pale and willowy, the woman spun and swooned and jerked erect and spun again, barefoot in the crisp dead grass.
She didn't seem to be in physical pain, after all. She might have been working off excess energy in a frenetic freestyle dance, but she might just as likely have been suffering some type of spasmodic fit.
She wore a silk or nainsook full-length slip with elaborate embroidery and ribbon lace on the wide shoulder straps and bodice, as well as on the deep flounce that hemmed the skirt. The garment appeared not merely old-fashioned but antique, not feminine in a liberated contemporary let's-have-hot-sex style, but feminine in a frilly post-Victorian sense, and Micky imagined that it had been packed away in someone's attic trunk for decades.
Exhaling explosively, inhaling in great ragged gasps, the woman flung herself toward exhaustion, whether by fit or fandango.
"Are you all right?" Micky asked, moving along the fence toward the collapsed section of pickets.
Apparently neither as a reply nor as an expression of physical pain, the dancing woman let out a pathetic whimper, the fearful sound that a miserable dog might make in a cage at the animal pound.
The fallen fence pales clicked and rattled under Micky's feet as she entered the adjoining property.
Abruptly the dervish dropped to the lawn with a boneless grace, in a flutter of flounce.
Micky hurried to her, knelt at her side. "What's wrong? Are you all right?"
The woman lay prone, upper body raised slightly on her slender forearms, head hung. Her face was an inch or two from the ground and hidden by glossy cascades of hair that appeared to be white in the crosslight of the moon and the fading purple dusk, but that probably matched Leilani's shade of blond. Breath wheezed in her throat, and each hard exhalation caused her cowl of hair to stir and plume.
After a hesitation, Micky put a consoling hand on her shoulder, but Mrs. Maddoc didn't respond to the touch any more than she had reacted to Micky's questions. Tremors quaked through her.
Remaining at the stricken woman's side, Micky looked across the fence and saw Geneva at the back door of the trailer, standing on the top step, watching. Leilani remained inside.
Reliably off-center, Aunt Gen waved gaily, as though the trailer were an ocean liner about to steam out of port on a long holiday.
Micky wasn't surprised to find herself returning the wave. After a week with Geneva, she'd already absorbed a measure of her aunt's attitude toward the bad news and the sorrier turns of life that fate delivered. Gen met misfortune not simply with stoic resignation, but with a sort of amused embrace; she refused to dwell on or even to lament adversities, and she remained determined instead to receive them as though they were disguised blessings from which unexpected benefits would arise in time. Part of Micky figured this approach to hardship and calamity worked best if you'd been shot in the head and if you confused sentimental cinema with reality, but another part of her, the newly evolving Micky, found not only solace but also inspiration in this Gen Zen. This evolving Micky returned her aunt's wave.
Geneva waved again, more exuberantly, but before Micky could become involved in an Abbott and Costello routine involving gestures instead of banter, the fallen woman at her side whimpered pitiably, more than once this time. Her thin cold plaints melted into a moan of abject misery, and the moan quickly dissolved into weeping-not the genteel tears of a melancholy maiden, but wretched racking sobs.
"What's wrong? What can I do?" Micky worried, although she no longer expected a coherent reply or even any response whatsoever.
At the Maddocs' rented mobile home, drapery-filtered lamplight glowed dark sour orange, less welcoming than the baleful fire in a menacing jack-o'-lantern. The draperies were shut tight, and no one watched from any window. Beyond the open back door lay a deserted kitchen dimly revealed by the face of an illuminated wall clock.
If Preston Maddoc, alias Dr. Doom, was at home, his disinterest in his wife's extreme distress couldn't have been more complete.
Micky squeezed the woman's shoulder reassuringly. Although she believed it was the fabrication of Leilani's pyrotechnic imagination, she used the only name that she knew: "Sinsemilla?"
Whip-quick, the woman snapped her head up, blond tresses lashing the air. Her face, half revealed in the gloom, drew taut with shock; the startled eyes flared so wide that white shone around the full circumference of each iris.
She threw off Micky's hand and scooted backward in the grass. A last sob clogged her throat, and when she tried to swallow it, the thick cry resurged, although not as a sob anymore, but as a snarl.
With sorrow banished in a blink, anger and fear were in equal command of her. "You don't own me!"
"Easy, easy now," Micky counseled, still on her knees, making placating gestures with her hands.
"You can't control me with a name!"
"I was only trying to-"
Fury fired her rant, which grew hotter by the word: "Witch with a broomstick up your ass, witch bitch, diabolist, hag, flying down out of the moon with my name on your tongue, think you can spellcast me with a shrewd guess of a name, but that's not going to happen, no one's the boss of me or ever will be, not by magic or money, not with force or doctors or laws or sweet talk, nobody EVER the boss of me!"
In response to this wild irrationality, with the potential for violence implicit in this woman's nuclear-hot anger, Micky realized that only silence and retreat made sense
. Rocking knee to knee in the prickly grass, she edged backward.
Evidently inflamed by this movement even though it represented a clear concession, Sinsemilla spun to her feet with such agitation that she seemed to flail herself erect: skirt flounce churning around her legs, hair tossing like the deadly locks of an enraged Medusa. In her furious ascension, she stirred up an acrid cloud of dust and a powder of dead grass pulverized by a summer of hammering sun.
Through clenched teeth that squeezed each sibilant into a hiss, she said, "Hag of a witch bitch, sorcerer's seed, you don't scare me!"
Having risen from her knees as Sinsemilla whirled upright, Micky sidled toward the fence, reluctant to turn her back on this neighbor from the wrong side of Hell.
A thieving cloud pocketed the silver-coin moon. At the western horizon, us the last livid blister of light drained oil the heel of night, Micky glimpsed enough of a resemblance between this crazed woman and Leilani to be convinced against her will that they were mother and daughter.
When brittle wood cracked and she felt a picket underfoot, she knew that she'd found the passage in the fence. She wanted to glance down, afraid the pickets might trip her, but she kept her attention on her unpredictable neighbor.
Sinsemilla seemed to shed her anger as suddenly as she'd grown it. She adjusted the shoulder straps on her full-length slip, and then seized the roomy skirt in both hands and shook it as if casting off bits of dry grass. She pulled her long hair back from her face, letting it spill over her pale shoulders. Arching her spine, rolling her head, spreading her arms, the woman stretched as languorously as a sleeper waking from a delicious dream.
At what she judged to be a safe distance, perhaps ten feet past the fence, Micky stopped to watch Leilani's mother, half mesmerized by her bizarre performance.
From her back door, Aunt Gen said, "Micky dear, we're putting dessert on the table, so don't be long," and she went inside.
Repenting its larceny, the cloud surrendered the stolen moon, and Sinsemilla raised her slender arms toward the sky as though the lunar light inspired joy. Face tilted to bask in the silvery rays, she turned slowly in place, and then sidestepped in a circle. Soon she began to dance light-footedly, in a graceful swooping manner, as though keeping time to a slow waltz that only she could hear, with her face raised to the moon as if it were an admiring prince who held her in his arms.
Brief trills of laughter escaped Sinsemilla. Not brittle and mad laughter, as Micky might have expected. This was a girlish merriment, sweet and musical, almost shy.
In a minute, the laughter trailed away, and the waltz spun to a conclusion. The woman allowed her invisible partner to escort her to the back-door steps, upon which she sat in a swirl of ruffled embroidery, as a schoolgirl in another age might have been returned to one of the chairs around the dance floor at a cotillion.
Oblivious of Micky, Sinsemilla sat, elbows propped on her knees, chin cupped in the heels of her hands, gazing at the starry sky. She seemed to be a young girl dreamily fantasizing about true romance or filled with wonder as she contemplated the immensity of creation.
Then her fingers fanned across her face. She hung her head. The new round of weeping was subdued, inexpressibly melancholy, so quiet that the lament drifted to Micky as might the voice of a real ghost: the faint sound of a soul trapped in the narrow emptiness between the surface membranes of this world and the next.
Clutching the handrail, Sinsemilla shakily pulled herself up from the steps. She went inside, into the clock light and shadows of her kitchen, and the jack-o'-lantern glow beyond.
Micky scrubbed at her knees with the palms of her hands, rubbing off the prickly blades of dead grass that had stuck to her skin.
The pooled heat of August, like broth in a cannibal's pot, still cooked a thin perspiration from her, and the calm night had no breath to cool the summer soup.
Although the flesh might simmer, the mind had a thermostat of its own. The chill that shivered through Micky seemed cold enough to freeze droplets of sweat into beads of ice upon her brow.
Leilani is as good as dead.
She rejected that unnerving thought as soon as it pierced her. She, too, had grown up in a wretched family, abandoned by her father, left to the care of a cruel mother incapable of love, abused both psychologically and physically-and yet she had survived. Leilani's situation was no better but no worse than Micky's had been, only different. Hardship strengthens those it doesn't break, and already, at nine, Leilani was clearly unbreakable.
Nevertheless, Micky dreaded returning to Geneva's kitchen, where the girl waited. If Sinsemilla in all her baroque detail was not a fabrication, then what of the murderous stepfather, Dr. Doom, and his eleven victims?
Yesterday, in this yard, as Micky had broiled on the lounge chair, amused and a little disoriented by her first encounter with the self-proclaimed dangerous mutant, Leilani had said several peculiar things. Now one of them echoed back in memory. The girl had asked if Micky believed in life after death, and when Micky returned the question, the girl's simple reply had been, I better.
Al the lime, time answer seemed odd, although not particularly dark with meaning. In retrospect, those two words carried a heavier load than any of the freight trains that Micky had imagined escaping on when, as she lay sleepless in another time and place, they had rolled past in the night with a rhythmic clatter and a fine mournful whistle.
Here, now, the hot August darkness. The moon. The stars and the mysteries beyond. No getaway train for Leilani, and perhaps none for Micky herself.
Do you believe in life after death?
Four elderly women, three elderly men, a thirty-year-old mother of two … a six-year-old boy in a wheelchair . . .
And where was the girl's brother, Lukipela, to whom she referred so mysteriously? Was he Preston Maddoc's twelfth victim?
Do you believe in life after death?
"Dear God," Micky whispered, "what am I going to do?"
EIGHTEEN-WHEELERS LOADED with everything from spools of abb to zymometers, reefer semis hauling ice cream or meat, cheese or frozen dinners, flatbeds laden with concrete pipe and construction steel and railroad ties, automobile transports, slat-sided trailers carrying livestock, tankers full of gasoline, chemicals: Scores of mammoth rigs, headlights doused but cab-roof lights and marker lights colorfully aglow, encircle the pump islands in much the way that nibbling stegosaurs and grazing brontosauruses and packs of hunting theropods had eons ago circled too close to the treacherous bogs that swallowed them by the thousands, by the millions. Rumbling-growling-wheezing-panting, each big truck waits for its communion with the nozzle, feeding on two hundred million years of bog distillations.
This is how the motherless boy understands the current theory of bitumen deposits in general and petroleum deposits in particular, as put forth locally in everything from textbooks to the Internet. Yet even though he finds the idea of dinosaurs-to-diesel-fuel silly enough to have first been expounded by Daffy Duck or another Looney Tunes star, he is excited by the spectacle of all these cool trucks congregating at rank upon rank of pumps, in a great dazzle and rumble and fumy reek here in the middle of an otherwise dark, silent, and nearly scent-free desert.