One Door Away from Heaven

Page 13

"Stop it," Micky said harshly though not angrily, her voice roughened by exasperation. "Just, please, stop it."

Leilani pretended puzzlement. "Stop what?"

"You know very well what I mean. Stop all this avoidance. Talk to me, deal with this situation."

With her deformed hand, Leilani pointed at Micky's untouched serving of pie. "Are you going to eat that?"

Micky pulled the plate closer to herself. "I'll trade pie for a serious discussion."

"We've been having a serious discussion."

"There's half a pie left," Geneva offered cheerily.

"I'd love a piece, thanks," Leilani said.

"The half that's left is off-limits," Micky declared. "The only pie in play is my piece."

"Nonsense, Micky," Geneva said. "Tomorrow I can bake another apple pie all for you."

As Geneva rose from the table, Micky said, "Aunt Gen, sit down. This isn't about pie."

"It is from my perspective, said Leilani.

"Listen, kid, you can't come around here, doing your dangerous-young-mutant act, worming your way-"

Grimacing, Leilani said, "Worming?"

"Worming your way into …" Micky fell silent, surprised by what she had been about to say.

"Into your spleen?" Leilani suggested.

For longer than she could remember, Micky hadn't allowed herself to be emotionally affected by anyone to any significant degree.

Leaning across the table as though earnestly determined to help Micky find the elusive word, Leilani said, "Into your gall bladder?"

Caring was dangerous. Caring made you vulnerable. Stay up on the high ramparts, safe behind the battlements.

Geneva said, "Kidneys?"

"Worming your way into our hearts," Micky continued, because saying our instead of my seemed to share the risk and to leave her less exposed, "and then expect us not to care when we see the danger you're in."

Still armored in drollery, with a full bandolier of cheerful banter, Leilani said, "I never thought of myself as heartworm, but I guess it's a perfectly respectable parasite. Anyway, I assure you with all seriousness-if that's what it takes to get the pie-that my mother isn't a danger to me. I've lived with her ever since she popped me out of the oven, and I've still got all my limbs, or at least the same odd arrangement I was born with. She's pathetic, old Sinsemilla, not fearsome. Anyway, she is my mother, and when you're a nine-year-old girl, even an unusually smart one with a gift for gab, you can't just pack your bags, walk out, find a good apartment, get a high-paying job in software design, and be tooling around in your new Corvette by Thursday. I'm sort of stuck with her, if you see what I mean, and I know how to cope with that."

"Child Protective Services-"

"Well-meaning but useless," Leilani interrupted. She seemed to be speaking from experience. "Anyway, the last thing I want is for old Sinsemilla to be put back in the nuthouse for a refresher course in ear-to-ear electrocution, because that'll leave me alone with my pseudofather."

Micky shook her head. "They wouldn't leave you in the care of your mother's boyfriend."

"When I call him my pseudofather, I'm indulging in wishful thinking. He's my legal stepfather. He married old Sinsemilla four years ago, when I was five going on six. I wasn't reading anywhere near at a college level then, but I understood the implications, anyway. It was an amazing wedding, let me tell you, though there wasn't a carved-ice swan. Do you like carved-ice swans, Mrs. D?"

Geneva said, "I've never seen one, dear."

"Neither have I. But the idea appeals to me. And so right after he married Sinsemilla, he said that even though he hadn't actually adopted me and Lukipela, we should start using his last name, but I still use the Klonk I was born with. You've got to be mad to be Mad-doc-that's what Luki and I used to say."

Here came that unsettling shift in the girl's eyes, like a sudden muddy tide washing through clean water, an uncharacteristic despair that even candlelight was sufficiently bright to reveal.

In spite of the news about the marriage, Micky clung to the hope that her newfound desire to act as-so to speak-her sister's keeper could be fulfilled at least to some small extent. "Whether he's your legal stepfather or not, the proper authorities will-"

"The proper authorities didn't nail the guy who killed Mrs. D's husband," Leilani said. "She had to track Alec Baldwin to New Orleans and blow him away herself."

"With great satisfaction," Geneva noted, raising her coffee cup as if in a toast to the liberating power of vengeance.

For once, no sparkle of humor enlivened Leilani's blue eyes, no thinnest paring of a wry smile curled either corner of her mouth, and no sportive note informed her voice as she met Micky's stare with a piercing directness, and said almost in a whisper, "When you were such a pretty little girl and bad people took things from you that you never-ever wanted to give, the proper authorities weren't there for you even once, were they, Michelina?"

Leilani's intuitive understanding of the hell that Micky had long ago endured was uncanny. The empathy in those blue eyes rocked her and left her with the certain sense that the most closely guarded truths about herself had been exposed, ugly secrets around which she had constructed impregnable vaults of shame. And though she had never expected to speak to another human being about those years of ordeal and humiliation, although until this moment she would have angrily denied ever being anyone's victim, she didn't feel wounded by this exposure, as she would have expected, didn't feel mortified or in the least diminished, but felt instead as if a painfully constricting knot had at last come loose inside her, and realized that sympathy, as this girl had shown it to her, did not have to contain any element of condescension.

"Were they ever there?" Leilani asked again.

Not trusting herself to speak, Micky shook her head, which was the first admission she had ever made of the painful past on which her life was built. She slid her guarded dessert, untouched, in front of Leilani.

Geneva was the only one to bring tears to the table, and she blew her nose noisily in a Kleenex. Of course, she might be flashing back to some tender moment she believed that she'd shared with Clark Gable or Jimmy Stewart, or William Holden, but Micky sensed that her aunt was fully in the thrall of this moment and in the firm grip of the real.

Micky said, "It's hard to make up anything as weird as what is."

"Yeah, I heard that somewhere," Leilani replied, picking up her fork.

"He is a murderer-isn't he?-just as your mother turned out to be the way you said she was."

Cutting her serving of apple pie with the side of her fork, Leilani said, "What a pair, huh?"

"But eleven people? How could he-"

"No offense, Micky, but the story of Dr. Doom and his multiple homicides is a dreary tale, more tedious than titillating, and it can only bring this lovely evening to a new low. It's already been dragged pretty low, thanks to old Sinsemilla's performance. If you really want to know about Preston Claudius Maddoc, kissing cousin to the Grim Reaper, try reading the news . He hasn't been on the front pages for a while, but the whole strange story is out there if you want to look it up. As for me, I'd rather eat pie, talk about pie, philosophize about pie, and just in general spend the rest of the evening in a pie kind of mood."

"Yeah, I can see why you'd want to do that. But you've got to know what one question I can't avoid asking."

"Sure, I know," the girl said, lowering her gaze to her plate, but hesitating with her fork poised over the pie.

in a miserable voice, Aunt Gen said, "It's never this bad in the movies."

And Micky said to Leilani, "Did he kill your brother, Lukipela?"


Chapter 12

INSIDE THE RESTAURANT, which must have the capacity to seat at least three hundred, the boy, without dog, glides past the distracted hostess.

Quickly glancing around as he moves, he notices only a few children here and there, all with their families. He'd been hoping for more kids, lots of kids, so he won't be so easy to spot if the wrong people come looking.

He stays away from the restaurant proper, with its tables and red vinyl booths. Instead he goes directly to the lunch counter, where customers occupy fewer than half the stools.

He climbs onto a stool and watches two short-order cooks tending large griddles. They're frying bacon, hamburger patties, eggs, and mounds of crispy hash browns glistening with oil.

As if there's already something of the dog's heart twined with his own, the boy finds his mouth filled with saliva, and he swallows hard to keep from drooling.

"What can I do ya for, big guy?" a counter waitress inquires.

She's a fantastically large person, nearly as round as she is tall: bosoms the size of goose-down pillows, fine hulking shoulders, a neck made to burst restraining collars, and the proud chins of a fattened bull. Her uniform features short sleeves, and her exposed arms are as big as those of a bodybuilder, although without muscle definition- immense, smooth, pink. As if to provide the illusion of height and to balance her spherical body, she boasts a colossal mass of lustrous auburn hair, twisted and braided and flared and folded into an amazing work of architecture, high at the top of which is pinned a little yellow-and-white uniform cap that could be easily mistaken for a resting butterfly.

The boy marvels, wondering what being this woman would be like, whether she always feels as great and powerful as she looks, rhino-powerful, or whether sometimes she feels as weak and frightened as any lesser person. Surely not. She is majestic. She is magnificent, beautiful. She can live by her own rules, do as she wishes, and the world will treat her with awe, with the respect that she deserves.

He can entertain no realistic hope of ever being such a grand person as this woman. With his weak will and unreliable wits, he's barely able to be poor Curtis Hammond. And yet he tries. He says, "My name's Curtis, and my dad sent me in for some grub to go."

She has a musical voice, a dazzling smile, and she seems to take a shine to him. "Well, Curtis, my name's Donella, 'cause my dad was Don and my mom was Ella-and I think what we serve here is a few notches above plain grub."

"It sure smells fantastic." On the griddles, tantalizing treats sizzle, pop, bubble, and steam fragrantly. "Boy, I've never seen a place like this."

"Really? You don't look like you've been raised in a box."

He blinks, thinking furiously, striving to comprehend what she has suggested, but he can't avoid the question: "Were you?"

"Were I what?"

"Raised in a box?"

Donella wrinkles her nose. This is virtually the only part of her face that she can wrinkle, because everything else is gloriously full, round, smooth, and too firmly packed even to dimple. "Curtis, you disappoint me. I thought you were a good boy, a nice boy, not a smart aleck."

Oh, Lord, he's put his foot wrong again, stepped in a pile of doo-doo, figuratively speaking, but he can't understand what he's done to offend and can't imagine how to get himself admitted to her good graces once more. He dare not call undue attention to himself, not with so many murderous hunters looking for someone his size, and he absolutely must obtain food for himself and for Old Yeller, who is depending on him, but Donella controls his access to the grub, or to whatever you call it when it's a few notches above plain grub.

"I am a nice boy," he assures her. "My mother was always proud of me.

Donella's stern expression softens slightly, though she still won't give the enchanting smile with which she first greeted him.

Speaking his heart seems the best way to make amends. "You're so fabulous, so beautiful, so magnificent, Ms. Donella."

Even his compliment fails to pump the air back into her deflated smile. In fact her soft pink features suddenly appear stone-hard, and cold enough to bring an early end to summer across the entire North American continent. "Don't you mock me, Curtis."

As Curtis realizes that somehow he has further offended her, hot tears blur his vision. "I only want you to like me," he pleads.

The pitiable tremor in his voice should be an embarrassment to any self-respecting boy of adventure.

Of course, he isn't adventuring at the moment. He's socializing, which is immeasurably more difficult than engaging in dangerous exploits and heroic deeds.

He's rapidly losing confidence. Lacking adequate self-assurance, no fugitive can maintain a credible deception. Perfect poise is the key to survival. Mom always said so, and Mom knew her stuff.

Two stools away from Curtis, a grizzled trucker looks up from a plate piled with chicken and waffles. "Donella, don't be too hard on the kid. He didn't mean nothing by what he said. Nothing like you think. Can't you see he's not quite right?"

A fly line of panic casts a hook into the boy's heart, and he clutches the edge of the counter to avoid reeling off the stool. He thinks for a moment that they see through him, recognize him as the most-wanted fish for which so many nets have been cast.

"You hush your mouth, Burt Hooper," says the majestic Donella. "A man who wears bib overalls and long Johns instead of proper pants and a shirt isn't a reliable judge of who's not quite right."

Burt Hooper takes this upbraiding without offense, cackles with amusement, and says, "If I got to choose between comfort and being a sex object, I'll choose comfort every time."

"Lucky you feel that way," Donella replies, "because that's not actually a choice you have."

Through a blur of tears, the boy sees the glorious smile once more, a smile as radiant as that of a goddess.

Donella says, "Curtis, I'm sorry I snapped at you."

Trying to regain control of his emotions, but still blubbering a little, he says, "I don't know why I offended you, ma'am. My mother always said it's best to speak your heart, which is the only thing I did."

"I realize that now, sugar. I didn't first see you're . . . one of those rare folks with a pure soul."

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