One Door Away from Heaven

Page 14

"So then … do you think I'm 'not quite right'?" he asks, fiercely gripping the edge of the counter, still half afraid that they are beginning to recognize him for the fugitive he is.

"No, Curtis. I just think you're too sweet for this world."

Her statement both reassures and strangely disconcerts the boy, so he makes another effort at compliment, speaking with sincerity and emotion that cannot be misconstrued as anything else: "You really are beautiful, Ms. Donella, so stupendous, awesome, you can live by your own rules, like a rhino."

Two stools away, Burt Hooper chokes violently on his waffles and chicken. His fork clatters against his plate as he grabs his glass of Pepsi. Sputtering, with cola foaming from his nostrils, face turning as red and mottled as a boiled lobster, he at last clears his throat of food only to fill it with laughter, making such a spectacle of himself that it's evident he would be a lousy fugitive.

Perhaps the trucker has just now remembered a particularly funny joke. His unrestrained hilarity is nonetheless rude, distracting Curtis and Donella from their mutual apologies.

The divine Donella glares at Burt with the expression of a perturbed rhino, lacking only the threat of a large pointed horn to make the comparison perfect.

In the same way that a clatter of laughter had knocked its way through the last of Burt's choking, so now a rattle of words raps out of him between guffaws: "Oh, damn . . . I'm splat… in the middle . . . of Forrest Gump!"

They boy is puzzled. "I know that movie,"

"Never you mind, Curtis," Donella says. "We're no more splat in the middle of Forrest Gump than we are in the middle of Godzilla."

"I sure hope not, ma'am. That was one mean lizard."

Burt is spluttering again, half choking, even though his throat was clear a moment ago, and his deteriorating condition causes the boy concern. The trucker seems on the brink of a medical emergency.

Donella declares, "If anyone around here has a box of chocolates for a brain, then he's sitting in front of a plate of chicken and waffles."

"That's you, Mr. Hooper," Curtis observes. Then he understands. "Oh." The trucker's tears of laughter are this poor afflicted man's way of dealing with his loneliness, his disability, his pain. "I'm sorry, sir." The boy feels deep sympathy for this truck-driving Gump, and he regrets being so insensitive as to have thought that Burt Hooper was simply rude. "I'd help you if I could."

Although the trucker looks vastly amused, this is, of course, purely sham amusement to cover his embarrassment at his own shortcomings. "You help me? How?"

"If I could, I'd make you normal just like Ms. Donella and me."

The intellectually disadvantaged trucker is so deeply touched by this expression of concern that he swivels on his stool, putting his back to Curtis, and struggles to master his emotions. Although to all appearances, Burt Hooper is striving to quell a fit of giddiness, the boy now knows that this is like the laughter of a secretly forlorn clown: genuine if you listen with just your ears, but sadly fraudulent if you listen with your heart.

Exhibiting rhinoscerosian contempt for Mr. Hooper, Donella turns away from him. "Don't you pay any mind to him, Curtis. He's had every opportunity to be normal his whole life, but he's always chosen to be just the sorry soul he is."

This baffles the boy because he's been under the impression that a Gump has no choice but to be a Gump, as nature made him.

"Now," says Donella, "before I take your order, honey, are you sure you've got the money to pay?"

From a pocket of his jeans, he extracts a crumpled wad of currency, including the remaining proceeds from the Hammond larceny and the five bucks that the dog snatched from the breeze in the parking lot.

"Why, you are indeed a gentleman of means," says Donella. "You just put it away for now, and pay the cashier when you leave."

"I'm not sure it's enough," he worries, jamming his bankroll into his pocket again. "I need two bottles of water, a cheeseburger for my dad, a cheeseburger for me, potato chips, and probably two cheeseburgers for Old Yeller."

"Old Yeller would be your dog?"

He beams, for he and the waitress are clearly connecting now. "That's exactly right."

"No sense paying big bucks for cheeseburgers when your dog will like something else better," Donella advises.

"What's that?"

"I'll have the cook grill up a couple meat patties, rare, and mix them with some plain cooked rice and a little gravy. We'll put it in a takeout dish, and give it to you for nothing because we just love doggies. Your pooch will think he's died and gone to Heaven."

The boy almost corrects her on two counts. First, Old Yeller in this case is a she, not a he. Second, the dog surely knows what Heaven's like and won't confuse paradise with a good dinner.

He raises neither issue. Bad guys are looking for him. He's been too long in this one spot. Motion is commotion.

"Thank you, Ms. Donella. You're as wonderful as I just knew you were when I first saw you."

Surprising the boy, she affectionately squeezes his right hand. "Whenever people think they're smarter than you, Curtis, just you remember what I'm going to tell you." She leans across the counter as far as her fabulous bulk will allow, bringing her face closer to his, and she whispers these teaberry-scented words: "You're a better person than any of them."

Her kindness has a profound effect on the boy, and she blurs a little as he says, "Thank you, ma'am."

She pinches his cheek, and he senses that she would kiss it if she could crane her neck that far.

As a desperate but relatively unseasoned fugitive, he has been largely successful at adventuring, and now he's hopeful that he'll learn to be good at socializing too, which is vitally important if he is to pass as an ordinary boy under the name Curtis Hammond or any other.

His confidence is restored.

The loud drumming of fear with which he has lived for the past twenty-four hours has subsided to a faint rataplan of less-exhausting anxiety.

He has found hope. Hope that he will survive. Hope that he will discover a place where he belongs and where he feels at home.

Now, if he can find a toilet, all will be right with the world.

He asks Donella if there's a toilet nearby, and as she writes up his takeout order on a small notepad, she explains that it's more polite to say restroom.

When Curtis clarifies that he doesn't need to rest, but rather that he urgently needs to relieve himself, this explanation touches off another emotional reaction from Burt Hooper, which appears to be laughter, but which is probably something more psychologically complex, as before.

Anyway, the toilet-the restroom-is within sight from the lunch counter, at the end of a long hallway. Even poor Mr. Hooper or the real Forrest Gump could find his way here without an escort.

The facilities are extensive and fascinating, featuring seven stalls, a bank of five urinals from which arises the cedar scent of disinfectant cakes, six sinks with a built-in liquid-soap dispenser at each, and two paper-towel dispensers. A pair of wall-mounted hot-air dryers activate when you hold your hands under them, although these machines aren't smart enough to withhold their heat when your hands are dry.

The vending machine is smarter than the hand dryers . It offers pocket combs, nail clippers, disposable lighters, and more exotic items that the boy can't identify, but it knows whether or not you've fed coins to it. When he pulls a lever without paying, the machine won't give him a packet of Trojans, whatever they might be.

When he realizes that he's the only occupant of the restroom, he seizes the opportunity and runs from stall to stall, pushing all the flush levers in quick succession. The overlapping swish-and-lug of seven toilets strikes him as hilarious, and the combined flow demand causes plumbing to rattle in the walls. Cool.

After he relieves himself, us lie's washing his hands with enough liquid soap to fill the sink with glittering foamy masses of suds, he looks in the streaked mirror and sees a boy who will be all right, given enough time, a boy who will find his way and come to terms with his losses, a boy who will not only live but also flourish.

He decides to continue being Curtis Hammond. Thus far no one has connected the name to the murdered family in Colorado. And since he's grown comfortable with this identity, why change?

He dries his hands thoroughly on paper towels, but then holds them under one of the hot-air blowers, just for the kick of tricking the machine.

Refreshed, hurrying along the corridor between the restrooms and the restaurant, Curtis comes to a sudden halt when he spots two men standing out there at the lunch counter, talking to Burt Hooper. They are tall, made taller by their Stetsons. Both wear their blue jeans tucked into their cowboy boots.

Donella appears to be arguing with Mr. Hooper, probably trying to get him to shut his trap, but poor Mr. Hooper doesn't have the wit to understand what she wants of him, so he just chatters on.

When the trucker points toward the restrooms, the cowboys look up and see Curtis a little past the midpoint of the hall. They stare at him, and he returns their stares.

Maybe they aren't sure if he's his mother's son or some other woman's child. Maybe he could fake them out, pass for an ordinary baseball-loving, school-hating ten-year-old boy whose interests are limited entirely to down-to-earth stuff like TV wrestling, video games, dinosaurs, and serial-flushing public toilets.

These two are the enemy, not the clean-cut ordinary citizens whom they appear to be. No doubt about it. They radiate the telltale intensity: in their stance, in their demeanor. In their eyes.

They will see through him, perhaps not immediately, but soon, and if they get their hands on him, he will be dead for sure. As one, the two cowboys start toward Curtis.

Chapter 13

"INTERGALACTIC SPACECRAFT, alien abductions, an extraterrestrial base hidden on the dark side of the moon, supersecret human and alien crossbreeding programs, saucer-eyed gray aliens who can walk through walls and levitate and play concert-quality clarinet with their butts-Preston Maddoc believes in all of it, and more," Leilani reported.

The power failed. They were conversing by candlelight, but the clock on the oven blinked off, and at the far end of the adjacent living room, a ginger-jar lamp with a rose damask shade went dark with a pink wink. The aged refrigerator choked like a terminal patient on life-support machinery, denied a desperately needed mechanical respirator; the compressor motor rattled and expired.

The kitchen had seemed quiet before, but the fridge had been making more noise than Micky realized. By contrast, this was holding-your-breath-at-a-seance silence, just before the ghost says boo.

Micky found herself staring up expectantly at the ceiling, and she realized that the timing of the power outage, just as Leilani was talking about UFOs, had given her the crazy notion that they had suffered a blackout not because of California's ongoing crisis, but because a pulsing, whirling disc craft from a far nebula was hovering over Geneva's motor home, casting a power pall just like alien ships always did in the movies. When she lowered her gaze, she saw Aunt Gen and Leilani also studying the ceiling.

In this deep quiet, Micky gradually became aware of the whispery sputter-sizzle of burning candle wicks, a sound as faint as the memory of a long-ago serpent's hiss.

Gen sighed. "Rolling blackout. Third World inconvenience with the warm regards of the governor. Not supposed to have them at night, only in high-demand hours. Maybe it's just an ordinary screw-up."

"I can live without power as long as I've got pie," Leilani said, but she still hadn't forked up a mouthful of her second piece.

"So Dr. Doom is a UFO nut," Micky pressed.

"He's a broad-spectrum, three-hundred-sixty-degree, inside-out, all-the-way-around, perfect, true, and complete nut. UFOs are only one of his interests. But since marrying old Sinsemilla, he's pretty much dedicated his life to the saucer circuit. He has this honking big motor home, and we travel all around the country, to the sites of famous close encounters, from Roswell, New Mexico, to Phlegm Falls, Iowa, wherever the aliens are supposed to have been in the past, we go hoping they'll show up again. And when there's a new sighting or a new abduction story, we haul ass for the place, wherever it is, so maybe we'll get there while the action is still hot. The only reason we're renting next door for a week is because the motor home is in the shop for an overhaul, and Dr. Doom won't stay in a hotel or motel because he thinks they're all just breeding grounds for legionnaires' disease and that gross flesh-eating bacteria, whatever it's called."

"You mean you'll be gone in a week?" Aunt Gen asked. A web of worry strung spokes and spirals at the corners of her eyes.

"More like a few days," Leilani said. "We just spent July in Roswell, actually, because it was July 1947 when an alien starship pilot, evidently drunk or asleep at the joystick, crashed his saucer into the desert. Dr. Doom thinks ETs are more likely to visit a site at the same time of year they visited it before, I guess sort of the way college students go to Fort Lauderdale every spring break. And isn't it amazing, really, how often these weird little gray guys are supposed to have totaled one of their gazillion-dollar, galaxy-crossing SUVs? If they ever decide to conquer Earth, I don't think we've got much to worry about. What we're dealing with here is Darth Vader with lots of Larry, Curly, and Moe blood in his veins."

Micky had figured to let the girl wind down, hut the longer that Leilani circled the subject of her brother's fate, the more tightly wound she seemed to become. "Okay, what's the point? What's all this UFO stuff have to do with Lukipela?"

After a hesitation, Leilani said, "Dr. Doom says he's had this vision that we'll both be healed by extraterrestrials."

"Healed?" Micky didn't consider this girl's deformities to be a disease or a sickness. In fact, Leilani's self-assurance, her wit, and her indomitable spirit made it hard to think of her as disabled, even now when her left hand rested on the table, obviously misshapen in the otherwise forgiving glow of the three candles.

"Luki was born with a wickedly malformed pelvis, Tinkertoy hip joints built with monkey logic, a right femur shorter than the left, and some bone fusion in his right foot. Sinsemilla has this theory that hallucinogens during pregnancy give the baby psychic powers."

Back to Table of content

Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.