Leilani had shared a hundred nightmares' worth of creepy stuff with Micky and Mrs. D, but she hadn't been able to bring herself to mention this creepiness. Sure, old Preston qualified as a nutball's nut-ball. But he was tall, good-looking, well groomed, and financially independent, which was exactly three qualities more than required to attract women younger and even prettier than Sinsemilla; financial independence alone ought to have ensured that he would never have to settle for a drug-gobbling, electroshocked, road-kill-obsessed, moon-dancing freak who had simultaneously too much past and none at all, and who came with two disabled children. Clearly one thing that won Preston's heart was old Sinsemilla's frequent drug-induced near-comas and her willingness to allow him to use her while she lay inert and insensate and as unaware as mud-which was an arrangement you didn't want to think too much about, considering his fascination with death.
Something else also attracted Preston to Sinsemilla, a quality that no other woman could-or might want to-offer, but Leilani was not quite able to put a name to it. In truth, though she sensed the existence of this mystery at the heart of their strange relationship, she didn't often wonder about it, because she already knew too much of what bonded them and was afraid of knowing more.
So while Sinsemilla read In Watermelon Sugar, while Dr. Doom surfed the Net for the latest saucer news, while all three of them ate breakfast, and while no one mentioned the snake, Leilani made notes in her journal, using a modified form of shorthand that she'd invented and that only she could read. She wanted to complete her account of the incident with the snake while the details were still fresh in memory, but at the same time, she recorded observations about their family breakfast, including most of what Preston said.
Recently she'd been thinking about being a writer when she grew up, assuming that on the eve of her upcoming tenth birthday she was able to avoid the gift of eternal life as a nine-year-old. She hadn't given up on her plan to grow or purchase a set of fabulous hooters with which to bedazzle a nice man, but a girl couldn't rely entirely on her chest, her face, and one pretty leg. Writing fiction remained reputable work, in spite of some of the peculiar people who practiced the art. She'd read that one of the difficulties of being a writer was finding fresh material, and she'd realized that her mother and her stepfather might be a writer's gold mine if you were fortunate enough to survive them.
"This situation in Utah," Preston said, scowling at the screen of his laptop, "is highly suspicious."
On and off, he'd been talking about the blockades on all highways leading into southern Utah and the manhunt for the band of drug lords who were said to be armed like sovereign states.
"Let's never forget how in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the government kept people away from the alien-contact zone with a false story about a nerve-gas spill."
To Preston, Close Encounters of the Third Kind wasn't a science-fiction film, but a thinly disguised documentary. He believed that Steven Spielberg had been abducted by ETs as a child and was being used as an instrument to prepare human society for the imminent arrival of emissaries from the Galactic Congress.
As the doom doctor continued to mutter about the government's history of UFO cover-ups, which he believed explained the true reason for the war in Vietnam, Leilani suspected that when their motor home was repaired, they would be hitting the road for Utah. Already, UFO researchers and full-time close-encounter pilgrims like Preston were gathering at a site in Nevada, near the Utah border, in anticipation of an alien advent so spectacular that the government, even with all its resources, wouldn't be able to pass the event off as swamp gas or weather balloons, or as tobacco-industry skullduggery.
She was surprised, therefore, when a few minutes later, Preston looked up from his laptop, flushed with excitement, and declared, "Idaho. That's where it's happening, Lani. There's been a healing in Idaho. Sinsemilla, did you hear? There's been a healing in Idaho."
Old Sinsemilla either didn't hear or heard but wasn't intrigued. In Watermelon Sugar utterly enthralled her. Her lips didn't move as she read, but her delicate nostrils flared as if she detected the scent of enlightenment, and her jaw muscles clenched and unclenched as she ground her teeth on some wisdom that needed chewing.
Leilani didn't like the prospect of Idaho. It was next door to Montana, where Lukipela had "gone to the stars."
She expected that Preston would haul them to Montana when her birthday approached, next February. After all, if aliens had beamed Luki up to glory in Montana, logic would require a visit to the point of his ascension on the eve of Leilani's tenth, if she had not been miraculously made whole before then.
Besides, the symmetry of it would appeal to Dr. Doom: Leilani and Luki together in death as in life, Lucifer and Heavenly Flower feeding the same worms, one grave for two siblings, brother and sister bonded for eternity in a braiding of bones. Preston, after all, had a sentimental side.
If Montana was six months away, she might have time to prepare an escape or a defense. But if they were in Idaho next week, and if old Sinsemilla wanted to cross into Montana to see where Luki had supposedly met the aliens, Preston might be tempted to bring brother and sister together ahead of schedule. She didn't have an escape plan yet. Or a strategy to defend herself. And she wasn't ready to die.
THE RECEPTION AREA made no concessions to comfort, and in fact the bleakness of the Department of Motor Vehicles would have seemed cheerful by comparison. Only five people waited to see caseworkers, but the lounge offered just four chairs. Because the other four women present were either older than Micky or pregnant, she remained on her feet. In recognition of the power crisis, the air was cooled only to seventy-eight degrees. Except for the smell, which included no trace of vomit, she felt as though she were in a holding pen at a jail.
With a faint note of disapproval, the receptionist explained to Micky that complaints were usually initiated over the telephone and that it was particularly unwise to arrive without an appointment, as this would necessitate a long wait. Micky assured the woman that she was prepared to wait-and reassured her twice again when, during the next forty minutes, the receptionist returned to the subject.
Unlike doctors' offices, this place offered no turn-of-the-century magazines. Reading material consisted of government pamphlets as engagingly written as computer manuals composed in Latin.
When she came out to greet Micky, the first available caseworker introduced herself as F. Bronson. The use of an initial seemed odd, and in F's office, the plaque on her desk proved only slightly more revealing: F. W. BRONSON.
In her late thirties, attractive, F wore black slacks and a black blouse, as though in denial of the season and the heat. She'd hastily pinned up her long brown hair to get it off her neck, and from this impromptu do, a few stray locks dangled limp and damp
The posters in her oven-warm office made the small room seem even warmer: pictures of cats and kittens, black and calico, Siamese and Angora and cute whiskery specimens of no clear breed, scampering and lounging languorously. These furry images lent a claustrophobic feeling to the space and seemed to pour feline warmth into the air.
Seeing her visitor's interest in the posters, F said, "In this work, I deal with so many ignorant, cruel, stupid people . . . sometimes I need to be reminded the world is full of creatures better than us."
"I certainly understand that," said Micky, although she didn't half understand. "I guess for me it would be dog posters."
"My father liked dogs," said F, indicating that Micky should sit in one of the two client chairs in front of the desk. "He was a loudmouthed, self-centered skirt-chaser. I'll go with cats every time."
If dogs as an entire species earned F's undying distrust because her old man liked them, how easy would it be to get on her wrong side with even an innocent remark? Micky counseled herself to adopt the deferent demeanor she'd learned-not easily-to use with authorities.
Settling into the chair behind her desk, F said, "If you'd made an appointment, you wouldn't have had to wait so long."
Pretending she'd heard courteous concern in the woman's remark, Micky said, "No problem. I have a job interview at three, nothing till then, so I have plenty of time."
"What kind of work do you do?"
"Customizing software applications."
"Computers are ruining the world," said F, not contentiously, but with a note of resignation. "People spend more time interacting with machines, less time with other people, and year by year we're losing what little humanity we have left."
Sensing that it was always best to agree with F, which would require Micky to explain her work with demon machines, she sighed, feigned regret, and nodded. "But it's where the jobs are."
F's face pinched with disapproval, but instantly cleared. Although the expression had been subtle and brief, Micky read into it the opinion that defendants at the Nuremberg trials had similar excuses for working the gas chambers at Dachau and Auschwitz.
"You're concerned about a child?" F asked.
"Yeah. Yes. The little girl who lives next door to my aunt. She's in a terrible situation. She-"
"Why isn't your aunt making the complaint?"
"Well, I'm here for both of us. Aunt Gen isn't-"
"I can't approve an inquiry on hearsay," F said, not harshly, almost regretfully. "If your aunt has seen things that cause her to be concerned about this girl, she'll need to speak to me directly."
"Sure, of course, I understand. But, see, I live with my aunt. I know the girl, too."
"You've seen her being abused-struck or shaken?" * "No. I haven't seen any physical abuse taking place. I've-" ii; "But you've seen evidence? Bruises, that sort of thing?"
"No, no. It isn't like that. No one's beating her. It's-"
"No, thank God, Leilani says that's not the case."
"That's her name. The girl."
"They usually say it's not the case. They're ashamed. The truth comes out only through counseling."
"I know that's often the way it goes. But she's different, this kid. She's tough, very smart. She speaks her mind. She'd tell me if there were sexual abuse. She says there isn't. . . and I believe her."
"Do you see her regularly? Do you speak to her?"
"She came to our place for dinner last night. She was-"
"So she's not being confined? We're not talking about abuse by cruel restraint?"
"Restraint? Well, maybe we are, in a way."
"In what way?"
The room was insufferably warm. As in many modern high-rises, for reasons of efficient ventilation and energy conservation, windows did not open. The system fan was on, but it produced more noise than air circulation. "She doesn't want to be in that family. No one would."
"None of us gets to choose our family, Ms. Bellsong. If that alone constituted child abuse, my caseload would quadruple. By cruel restraint, I mean has she been shackled, locked in a room, locked in a closet, tied to a bed?"
"No, nothing like that. But-"
"Criminal neglect? For instance, is the girl suffering from an untreated chronic illness? Is she underweight, starved?"
"She's not starved, no, but I doubt her nutrition's the best. Her mother's apparently not much of a cook."
Leaning back, raising her eyebrows, F said, "Not much of a cook? What am I missing here, Ms. Bellsong?"
Having slid forward on her chair, Micky sat in a supplicatory posture that felt wrong, that made it seem as though she were trying to sell her story to the caseworker. She straightened up, eased back. "Look, Ms. Bronson, I'm sorry, I'm not going about this at all well, but I'm really not wasting your time. This is a unique case, and the standard questions just don't get to the heart of it."
Disconcertingly, while Micky was still talking, F turned to the computer on her desk, as if impatient, and began to type. Judging by the speed at which her fingers flew over the keys, she was familiar with this satanic technology. "All right, let's open a case file, get the basic facts. Then you can tell me the story in your own words, if that'll be easier, and I'll condense it for the report. Your name is Bell-song, Micky?"
"Bellsong, Michelina Teresa." Micky spelled all three names.
F asked for an address and telephone. "We don't disclose any information about the complainant-that's you-to the family we're investigating, but we've got to have it for our records."
When the caseworker requested it, Micky also presented her social-security card.
After entering the number from the card, F worked with the computer for a few minutes, pausing repeatedly to study the screen, entirely involved with the data she summoned, as if she'd forgotten that she had company.
Here was the dehumanizing influence of technology, which she'd so recently decried.
Micky couldn't see the screen. Consequently, she was surprised when F, still focused on the computer, said, "So you were convicted of the possession of stolen property, aiding and abetting document forgery, and possession of forged documents with the intention to sell-including phony driver's licenses, social-security cards. . . ."
F's words did what too much lemon vodka and chocolate doughnuts had failed to accomplish: caused a tremor of nausea to slide through Micky's stomach. "I'm … I mean . . . I'm sorry, but I don't think you have a right to ask me about this."
Still gazing at the screen, F said, "I didn't ask. Just ran an ID check. Says you were sentenced to eighteen months."
"None of that has anything to do with Leilani."
F didn't reply. Her slender fingers stroked the keys, no longer hammering, as though she were finessing information from the system.
"I didn't do anything," Micky said, despising the defensiveness in her voice, and the meekness. "The guy I was with at the time, he was into stuff I didn't know about."
F remained more interested in what the computer told her about Micky than what Micky had to say about herself.