One Door Away from Heaven

Page 36

He halts on the ridge, sits up, and through his own eyes looks northeast. The fighting at the ghost town seems to have ceased. The scalawags and the worse scalawags have realized that neither of them has captured their quarry. No longer battling each other, they are turning their attention once more to the search for boy and dog.

The running lights of two helicopters float in the sky. A third is approaching from farther in the east. Reinforcements.

Slouching in his seat once more, Curtis drives down off the ridge, heading farther west into unknown territory that Old Yeller scouts for him with unwavering diligence.

He drives as fast as seems prudent, keeping in mind that his sister-becoming could be hurt if he hits the brakes suddenly at too high a speed.

They need to make good time, however, because he can't expect the dog to be his eyes as long as he would like. Curtis requires no rest. Old Yeller will eventually need to sleep, but Curtis has never slept in his life.

After all, he must remember that he and his sister-becoming are not merely members of different species with far different physical abilities and limitations. More significantly, they were born on different worlds.

Chapter 33

THURSDAY'S GHILD has far to go, according to the old nursery rhyme, and Micky Bellsong was born on a Thursday in May, more than twenty-eight years ago. On this Thursday in August, however, she was too hungover to go as far as she'd planned.

Lemon vodka diminishes mathematical ability. Sometime during the night, she must have counted the fourth double shot as a second, the fifth as a third.

Staring at the bathroom mirror, she said, "Damn lemon flavoring screws up your memory." She couldn't tweak a smile from herself.

She had overslept her first job interview and had risen too late to keep the second. Both were for positions as a waitress.

Although she had experience in food service and liked that work, she hoped to get a computer-related position, customizing software applications. She had compressed three years of instruction into the past sixteen months and had discovered that she possessed the ability and the interest to do well in this work.

In fact, the image of herself as a software-applications mensch was so radically in opposition to the way she'd led her life to date that it formed the center of her vision of a better future. Through the worst year of her existence, this vision had sustained her.

Thus far, seeking to make the dream real, she'd been thwarted by the perception among employers that the economy was sliding, dipping, stalling, coming under a shadow, cooling, taking a breather before the next boom. They had a limitless supply of words and phrases to convey the same rejection.

She hadn't begun to despair yet. Long ago, life had taught her that the world didn't exist to fulfill Michelina Bellsong's dreams or even to encourage them. She expected to have to struggle.

If the job hunt took weeks, however, her resolution to build a new life might prove to be no match for her weaknesses. She had no illusions about herself. She could change. But given an excuse, she herself would be the greatest obstacle to that change.

Now the face in the mirror displeased her, before and after she applied the little makeup she used. She looked good, but she took no pleasure in her appearance. Identity lay in accomplishment, not in mirrors. And she was afraid that before she accomplished anything, she'd again seek solace in the attention her looks could win her.

Which would mean men again.

She had nothing against men. Those who destroyed her childhood weren't typical. She didn't hold the entire male gender responsible for the perversions of a few, any more than she would judge all women by Sinsemilla's example … or by the example she herself had set.

Actually, she liked men more than she should, considering the lessons learned from her experiences with them. She hoped one day to have a rewarding relationship with a good man-perhaps even marriage.

The trick lay in the word good. Her taste in men was not much better than her mother's. Committing herself to the dead-wrong type of man, more than once, had led to her current circumstances, which seemed to her like the burnt-out bottom of a ruined life.

After dressing for a three o'clock job interview-the only one of the day that she would be able to keep and the only one related to her computer training-Micky ate a hangover-curing breakfast at eleven o'clock, while standing at the kitchen sink. She washed down B-complex vitamins and aspirin with Coke, and finished the Coke with two chocolate-covered doughnuts. Her hangovers never involved a sick stomach, and a blast of sugar cleared her booze-fuzzed thoughts.

Leilani was right when she guessed that Micky had a metabolism tuned like a space-shuttle gyroscope. She weighed only one pound more than she had weighed on her sixteenth birthday.

While she stood at the sink, eating, she watched Geneva through the open window. With a garden hose, Aunt Gen hand-watered the lawn against the depredations of the August heat. She wore a straw hat with a wide brim to protect her face from the sun. Sometimes her entire body swayed as she moved the hose back and forth, as though she might be remembering a dance that she had attended in her youth, and as Micky ate the second doughnut, Geneva began to sing softly the love theme from Love in the Afternoon, one of her favorite movies.

Maybe she was thinking about Vernon, the husband whom she'd lost too young. Or maybe she was remembering her affair with Gary Cooper, when she'd been young and French and adored-and Audrey Hepburn.

What a wonderfully unpredictable world it is when being shot in the head can have an up side.

That was Geneva's line, not Micky's, an argument for optimism when Micky grew pessimistic. What a wonderfully unpredictable world it is, Micky, when being shot in the head can have an up side. In spite of an embarrassing moment of confusion now and then, it's delightful to have so many glamorous and romantic memories to draw upon in my old age! I'm not recommending brain damage, mind you, but without my quirky little short circuit, I would never have loved and been loved by Gary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, and I'd certainly never have had that wonderful experience in Ireland with John Wayne!

Leaving Aunt Gen to her fond memories of John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart, or possibly even of Uncle Vernon, Micky left by the front door. She didn't call "Good morning" through the open window, because she was embarrassed to face her aunt. Although Geneva knew that her niece had missed two job interviews, she would never mention this new failure. Gen's bottomless tolerance only sharpened Micky's guilt.

Last evening, she'd left the Camaro's windows open two inches; nevertheless, the interior was sweltering. The air conditioning didn't work, so she drove with the windows all the way down.

She switched on the radio, only to hear a newsman describing, in excited tones, a government-enforced blockade affecting a third of Utah, related to an urgent search for some drug lords and their teams of heavily armed bodyguards. Thirty powerful figures in the illegal drug trade had gathered secretly in Utah to negotiate territorial boundaries as Mafia families had done decades ago, to plan a war against smaller operators, and to devise strategies to overcome importation problems created by a recent tightening of the country's borders. Having learned of this criminal conclave, the FBI moved in to make mass arrests. They were met with an unusual level of violence instead of with the usual volleys of attorneys; the battle had been as fearsome as a clash of military factions. Perhaps a dozen of these drug kingpins were now on the run with highly sophisticated weaponry and with nothing to lose, and they posed a serious threat to the citizenry . Most of these details had not been released by the FBI but had been obtained from unnamed sources. Crisis, the reporter said, using the word repeatedly and pronouncing it as if he found those two syllables as delectable as a lover's breast.

When it wasn't about natural disasters and lunatics shooting up post offices, the news was an endless series of crises, most of which were either wildly exaggerated or entirely imaginary. If ten percent of the crises that the media sold were real, civilization would have collapsed long ago, the planet would be an airless cinder, and Micky would have no need to look for a job or worry about Leilani Klonk.

She punched a preset button, changing stations, found more of the same news story, punched another button, and got the Backstreet Boys. This wasn't exactly her style of music, but the Boys were fun and likely to facilitate her hangover cure.

No news is good news - which is true no matter which of the two possible interpretations you choose to make of those five words.

Cruising up the freeway ramp, remembering Leilani's term from their conversation the previous evening, Micky said, "Proud to be one of the twelve-percenters," and found her first smile of the day.

She had three and a half hours before her interview, and she intended to use this time to get Child Protective Services involved in the girl's case. Last night, when she and Geneva had discussed Leilani, the girl's predicament seemed irresolvable. This morning, either because time brought a better perspective or because too much lemon vodka followed by chocolate doughnuts inspired a measure of optimism, the situation seemed difficult, but not beyond hope.

Chapter 34

LEILANI KLONK, dangerous young mutant, decided that few things were more inspiring than the bonding that occurred when an American family gathered around the breakfast table. Only the night before, Mom and Dad and daughter might have been fussing at one another over who had left the lid off the peanut-butter jar, might have been in disagreement about weightier issues such as whether to watch Touched by an Angel or an episode of Miracle Pets, might even have been setting snakes loose on one another and killing young women; but here at the start of a new day-well, eleven o'clock-the differences of the past could be set aside, and new harmony could be built on the old discord. Here they could plan together for the future, share new dreams, and reaffirm their mutual devotion.

Old Sinsemilla made her breakfast from twenty-seven tablets and capsules of vitamin supplements, a bottle of sparkling water, a small tub of tofu sprinkled with toasted coconut, and a banana. After slicing the unpeeled banana in half-inch circlets, she ate the peel and all, for she believed that good health could be achieved only by the consumption of whole foods as often as possible. Considering her understanding of the term whole foods, dear Mater was well advised never to touch red meat; if she prepared a hamburger, she would also have to whip up a side dish of hoof, horn, and hide.

Dr. Doom breakfasted on chamomile tea, two coddled eggs, and English muffins spread with orange marmalade. Not sharing his wife's preference for whole foods, he failed to eat the tea bags, the egg shells, the cardboard containers in which the muffins had been packaged. He was such a supernaturally neat eater that in his hands the toasted muffins left not one crumb on table or plate. He took small bites and chewed his food thoroughly, ensuring against the possibility that he would choke to death on a honking big piece of something. The best that his optimistic stepdaughter could hope for seemed to be salmonella contamination of the undercooked egg yolks.

Leilani enjoyed a dish of Shredded Wheat garnished with a sliced banana peeled and doused in chocolate milk. The doctor of doom had purchased this forbidden beverage without the tofu-eater's knowledge. Though Leilani would have preferred regular milk, she used chocolate on the cereal to see if her mother would have a cerebral aneurysm at the sight of her child ingesting this hideous poison. The taunt was wasted on Sinsemilla. Crimson-eyed, gray-faced, she languished in the morning-after slough of despond. Whatever drug she'd taken as an eye-opener had not yet delivered her into the Mary Poppins mood that she desired. She probably wouldn't be flying around under a magic umbrella, singing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," until late afternoon.

Meanwhile, as she ate, she read a tattered copy of Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar. She had read this slim volume twice every month since she was fifteen. With each reading, the book had a different meaning for her, although to date none of the meanings had been entirely coherent. Sinsemilla believed, however, that the author represented a new step in human evolution, that he was a prophet with an urgent message to those who were further evolved than the human society that had produced them. Old Sinsemilla sensed that she was a further-evolved human, but in all modesty, she wasn't prepared to make this claim until she fully understood Brautigan's message and, in understanding, achieved her superhuman potential.

While immersed in the book, Sinsemilla was no more communicative than the tofu that quivered on her spoon, yet Dr. Doom frequently addressed her. He didn't expect a response, but seemed to be certain that his comments reached his wife on a subconscious level.

Sometimes he spoke of Tetsy, the young woman whose heart he had "burst" with a massive injection of digitoxin less than twelve hours ago and whose fate he had shared with Leilani upon returning home in the dead hours of the night. At other times he relayed to Sinsemilla and to Leilani the latest gossip and news circulating on the various Internet sites maintained by the large international community of UFO believers, which he monitored on the laptop computer that rested on the table beside his breakfast plate.

Details of the Tetsy snuff were mercifully less vivid than had been the case with other killings in the past, and the latest saucer stories were no weirder than usual. Consequently, the creepy quality of the conversation-and there was always a creepy quality to the most casual chats in this family-was provided by Dr. Doom's coy references to the passion that he had visited upon Sinsemilla during the night.

Over dinner with Micky and Mrs. D the previous evening, Leilani had said that the doom doctor was asexual. This wasn't strictly true.

He didn't chase women, ogle them, or seem to have any interest in the secondary sex characteristics that preoccupied most men and made them such endearingly manipulable creatures. If a total babe in a thong bikini walked past Preston, he wouldn't notice her unless she happened to be a UFO abductee who also carried an alien-human hybrid baby spawned during a steamy weekend of extraterrestrial lust aboard the mother ship.

Under certain circumstances, however, the doom doctor did have a passion for Sinsemilla that he-and these were the perfect words for the act-visited upon her. In a motor home, even in a large one, when a family lives on the road all year, an inevitable intimacy arises that would be stressful even if every member of the family were a saint; and the Maddoc family currently fell three saints short of that ideal composition. Even if you could avoid seeing things that you didn't want to see, you couldn't always avoid hearing them, and even if you clamped pillows over your ears at night and created an acceptable deafness, you couldn't escape knowing all sorts of things that you didn't want to know, including that Preston Maddoc could get romantically inspired only when Sinsemilla was so deeply unconscious that she might as well have been dead.

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