One Door Away from Heaven

Page 16

The girl forked up another mouthful of pie, and again she chewed with a stoic expression that suggested she was eating broccoli, not with clear distaste, but with the indifference of nutritional duty.

Geneva said, "Well, if it's the police asking after Luki-"

"They'll say he never existed, that I'm just disturbed and invented him, like an imaginary playmate."

"They can't get away with that, dear."

"Sure they can. Even before Dr. Doom, Sinsemilla was footloose. She says we lived in Santa Fe, San Francisco, Monterey, Telluride, Taos, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Tucson, and Coeur d'Alene before Dr. Doom. I remember some places, but I was too little to have memories of them all. A few months here, a few there. She was with different men, too, some doing drugs, selling, all looking for a big easy score of one kind or another, all the move-along type, because if they didn't move along, the local cops would've provided each of 'em with a room and a boyfriend. Anyway, who knows where any of those guys are now or whether they'd remember Luki-or admit to remembering him."

"Birth certificates," Micky suggested. "That would be proof. Where were you born? Where was Luki born?"

Another bite of pie. More joyless chewing. "I don't know."

"You don't know where you were born?"

"Sinsemilla says the Fates can't find you to snip your thread and end your life if they don't know where you were born, and they won't know if you can never speak of the place, so then you'll live forever. And she doesn't believe in doctors, hospitals. She says we were born at home, wherever home was then. At best. . . maybe a midwife. I'd be beyond amazed if our births were ever registered anywhere."

The bitter coffee had grown cool. Micky sipped it anyway. She was afraid that if she didn't drink it, she'd fetch the brandy and drink that instead, regardless of Leilani's objections. Alcohol never soothed her rage. She'd become a drinker because booze inflamed the anger, and for so long she'd cherished her anger. Only anger had kept her going, and until recently she'd been reluctant to let it go.

"You've got your father's name," Geneva said hopefully. "If he could be found . . ."

"I'm not sure Lukipela's dad and mine are the same. Sinsemilla's never said. She might not know herself. Luki and I have the same last name, but that doesn't mean anything. It's not actually our father's name. She's never told us his name. She's got this thing about names. She says they're magical. Knowing someone's name gives you power

over him, and keeping your own name secret gives you more power still."

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 . . .

Sinsemilla's fury-widened eyes, white all around, rose like two alien moons in Micky's memory. She shuddered.

Leilani said, "She just calls him Klonk because she claims that was the noise he made if you rapped him on the head. She hates him a lot, which is maybe why she hates me and Luki a little, too. And Luki more than me, for some reason."

In spite of all that she knew about Sinsemilla Maddoc, Geneva cringed from this charge against the woman. "Leilani, sweetie, even though she's a deeply disturbed person, she's still your mother, and in her own way, she loves you very much." Aunt Gen was childless, not by choice. The love she'd never been able to spend on a daughter or a son hadn't diminished in value over time, but had grown into a wealth of feeling that she now paid out to everyone she knew. "No mother can ever truly hate her child, dear. No mother anywhere."

Micky wished, not for the first time, that she had been Geneva's daughter. How different her life would have been: so free of anger and self-destructive impulses.

Meeting Micky's eyes, Geneva read the love in them, and smiled, but then seemed to read something else as well, something that helped her to understand the depth of her naivete on this matter. Her smile faltered, faded, vanished. "No mother anywhere," she repeated softly, but to Micky this time. "That's what I've always thought. If I'd ever realized differently, I wouldn't have just. . . stood by."

Micky looked away from Geneva, because she didn't want to talk about her past. Not here, not now. This was about Leilani Klonk, not about Michelina Bellsong. Leilani was only nine, and in spite of what she'd been through, she wasn't screwed up yet; she was tough, smart; she had a chance, a future, even if at the moment it seemed to hang by a gossamer thread; she didn't have a thousand stupid choices to live down. In this girl, Micky saw the hope of a good, clean life full of purpose-which she couldn't quite yet see clearly in herself.

Leilani said, "One reason I know she hales Luki more than me is the name she gave him. She says she called me Leilani, which means 'heavenly flower,' because maybe . . . maybe people will think of me as more than just a pathetic cripple. That's old Sinsemilla at the peak of her motherly concern. But she says she knew Luki for what he was even before he popped out of her. Lukipela is Hawaiian for Lucifer."

Appalled, Geneva looked as though she might bring to the table the brandy that Micky had thus far resisted, though strictly for her own fortification.

"Photographs," Micky said. "Pictures of you and Luki. That would be proof he wasn't just your imaginary brother."

"They destroyed all the pictures of him. Because when he comes back with the aliens, he'll be completely fit. If anybody ever saw pictures of him with deformities, they'd know it had to be aliens who made him right. Then the jig would be up for our friends, the ETs. They'd be so busy dodging alien hunters that they wouldn't be able to lift up human civilization and get us into the Parliament of Planets, with all the cool Welcome Wagon gifts and valuable discount coupons that come with membership. Sinsemilla also buys that one. Probably because she wants to. Anyway, I hid two snapshots of Luki, but they found them. Now the only place I can see his face is in my mind. But I take time every day to concentrate on his face, on remembering it, keeping the details sharp, especially his smile. I'm never going to let his face fade away. I'm never going to forget the way he looked." The girl's voice grew softer but also more penetrating, as air finds its way into places from which water is kept out. "He can't have been here ten years and suffered like he did, and then just be gone as if he never lived. That's not right. Hell if it is. Hell if it is. Someone's got to remember, you know. Someone."

Realizing the full horror of the girl's situation, Aunt Gen was reduced to stunned silence and to at least a temporary emotional paralysis. All her life, until now, Geneva Davis had always found exactly the right consoling words for any situation, had known when she could smooth your hackled heart just by lovingly smoothing your hair, quell your fear with a cuddle and a kiss on the brow.

Micky was scared as she hadn't been scared in fifteen years or longer. She felt enslaved once more to fate, to chance, to dangerous men, as helpless as she had been throughout a childhood lived under the threat of those same forces. She could think of no way to rescue Leilani, just as she had never been able to save herself, and this impotence suggested that she might never find the wit, the courage, and the determination to accomplish the far more difficult task of redeeming her own screwed-up life.

Solemnly, Leilani finished the second piece of pie, solemnly, as though she were eating it not to satisfy her own need or desire, but as though she were eating it on behalf of he who could not share this table with them, eating it in the name of a boy with a wickedly malformed pelvis and Tinkertoy hips, a boy who clomped along bravely in one built-up shoe, a brother who had probably liked apple pie and whose memory must be fed in his enduring absence .

A butterfly flutter of light, a sibilant sputter, a serpent of smoke rising lazily from the black stump of a dead wick: One of the three candles burned out, and darkness eagerly pulled its chair a little closer to the table.

Chapter 16

GUNFIRE but also frankfurters. Hunters loom, but the chaos provides cover. Hostility is all around, but hope of escape lies ahead.

Even in the darkest moments, light exists if you have the faith to see it. Fear is a poison produced by the mind, and courage is the antidote stored always ready in the soul. In misfortune lies the seed of future triumph. They have no hope who have no belief in the intelligent design of all things, but those who see meaning in every day will live in joy. Confronted in battle by a superior foe, you will find that a kick to the s*x org*ns is generally effective.

Those sagacities and uncounted others are from Mother's Big Book of Street-Smart Advice for the Hunted and the Would-Be Chameleon. This isn't a published work, of course, although in the boy's mind, he can see those pages as clearly as the pages of any real book that he's ever read, chapter after chapter of hard-won wisdom. His mom had been first of all his mom, but she'd also been a universally admired symbol of resistance to oppression, an advocate of freedom, whose teachings-both her philosophy and her practical survival advice- had been passed from believer to believer, much the way that folk tales were preserved through centuries by being told and retold in the glow of campfire and hearth light.

Curtis hopes that he won't have to kick anyone in the s*x org*ns, but he's prepared to do whatever is required to survive. By nature, he's more of a dreamer than he is a schemer, more poet than warrior, though he's admittedly hard-pressed to see anything either poetic or warriorlike about clutching a package of frankfurters to his chest, scampering like a monkey, and retreating pell-mell from the battle that has broken out behind him.

Around and under more prep tables, past tall cabinets with open shelves full of stacked dishes, taking cover behind hulking culinary equipment of unknown purpose, Curtis moves indirectly but steadily into the end of the kitchen toward which the workers had initially seemed to be directing him.

None of the employees any longer offers guidance. They're too busy diving for cover, belly-crawling like soldiers seeking shelter in an unexpected firefight, and saying their prayers, each of them determined to protect the precious bottom that his mama once talcumed so lovingly.

In addition to the sharp crack of gunfire, Curtis hears lead slugs ricocheting with a whistle or with a cymbal-like ping off range hoods and off other metal surfaces, slamming-thwack!-into wood or plaster, puncturing full soup pots with a flat bonk and drilling empty pots with a hollow reverberant pong. Shot dinnerware explodes in noisy disharmonious chords; bullet-plucked metal racks produce jarring arpeggios; from a severed refrigeration line, a toxic mist of rapidly evaporating coolant hisses like a displeased audience at a symphony of talentless musicians; and perhaps he's able to call forth his poetic side in the midst of warfare, after all.

The FBI doesn't as a matter of habit open negotiations with gunplay, which means the cowboys must have initiated hostilities. And the two men wouldn't resort to violence so immediately if they weren't certain that these Bureau agents know them for who they really are.

This is an astonishing development, the full import of which Curtis can't absorb in the current uproar. If federal authorities have become aware of the dark forces that pursue this motherless boy, then they are aware of the boy himself, and if they can recognize the hunters, they must be able to recognize the boy, as well.

Curtis had thought he was being pursued by a platoon. Perhaps it is instead an army. And the enemies of his enemies are not always his friends, certainly not in this case.

He rounds the end of another work aisle and finds an employee sitting on the floor, wedged into the corner formed by banks of tall cabinets. The kitchen worker is apparently paralyzed by panic.

With his knees drawn up to his chest, the guy's trying to make himself as small as possible, to avoid ricochets and stray bullets. He's wearing a large stainless-steel colander as though it's a hat, holding it in place with both hands, his face entirely concealed, evidently because he thinks this will provide some protection against a head shot.

Elsewhere in the kitchen, a man screams. Maybe he's been shot. Curtis has never heard the cry made by a gunshot victim. This is a hideous squeal of agony. He has heard cries like this before, too often. It's difficult to believe that a mere bullet wound could be the cause of such horrendous, tortured shrieks.

The terror-polished eyes of the man in the colander can be seen through the pattern of small drain holes, and when he speaks fluent Vietnamese, he can be heard in spite of his metal hood: "We're all going to die."

Responding in Vietnamese, Curtis passes along some of his mom's wisdom, which he hopes will give comfort: "In misfortune lies the seed of future triumph."

This isn't the smoothest socializing the boy has done to date, but the terrified worker overreacts to this well-meant if less than completely appropriate advice: "Maniac! Crazy boy!"

Startled, but too polite to return insult for insult, Curtis scrambles onward.

The anguished screams are to the boy's blood as vinegar to milk, and although a thunderous fusillade halts the screaming, it doesn't as quickly halt the curdling. He's losing his appetite for the hot dogs, but he holds fiercely to them, anyway, because he knows from long experience that hunger can quickly return in the wake of even nauseating fear. The heart may heal slowly, but the mind is resilient and the body ever needy.

Besides, he's got Old Yeller to think about. Good pup. I'm coming, pup.

The roar of the long barrage has left his ears ringing. Yet in the aftermath, Curtis is able to hear people shouting, a couple men cursing, a woman, shakily reciting the Hail Mary prayer over and over. The character of all their voices suggests that the battle isn't over and perhaps isn't going to be brief be brief; there's no relief in even one voice among them-only shirk anxiety, urgency, wariness.

Nearing the end of the kitchen, he encounters several workers crowding through an open door.

He considers following them before he realizes that they're entering a walk-in cooler, apparently with the intention of pulling shut the insulated steel door. This might be a bulletproof refuge, or the next-best thing.

Curtis doesn't want a refuge. He wants to find an escape hatch. And quickly.

Another door. Beyond it lies a small storeroom, approximately eight feet wide and ten feet long, with a door at the farther end. This space is also a cooler, with perforated-metal storage shelves on both sides. The shelves hold half-gallon plastic containers of orange juice, grapefruit juice, apple juice, milk, also cartons of eggs, blocks of cheese. . . .

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