One Door Away from Heaven

Page 52

The gunfire in the store immediately enlivened the night-not merely of itself, but by the effect it had on Earl. Cass wasn't surprised that he reacted with alarm, as she did, but surprise was inadequate to describe her further reaction when she saw the changes occurring in his face during the four shots that followed the first. Unless Earl happened to be a werewolf out of phase with the moon, he wasn't in fact Earl the packaged-macaroni aficionado at all, but something that Cass might not have been prepared to cope with if she hadn't pursued an eight-year fascination with ufology.

She'd been leaning against the motor home, her left hand in the roomy purse slung from her shoulder, and on the sound of the first shot, she had stood up straight. By the time the flat crack of the fifth round split the air and echoed off the side of the Fleetwood, as Earl grew weary of his old dull personality and began to set loose the party animal within, Cass knew what to do, and did it.

When her left hand came out of the purse, it held a 9-mm pistol, which she conveyed to her right hand with a cross-body toss. As she opened fire on an Earl Bockman grown uglier than he had been boring, she thrust her left hand into the purse once more, withdrew a second pistol identical to the first, and opened fire with it, too, hoping that no round would hit a gasoline pump, sever a fuel line, and turn her into a dancing human torch more spectacular than any fabulously costumed role she had ever played on a Vegas stage.

AS SHE STEPPED OUT of the motor home with the 12-gauge, Polly heard the gunfire and knew at once that it didn't originate from the other side of the Fleet wood but came from a point somewhat farther away, perhaps from the store.

Because of a mutual lifelong interest in firearms inspired by Castor and Pollux, the mythological Greek warriors after whom they had been named, and because of a more recent mutual interest in self-defense and martial arts inspired by the three years that they had spent in the higher social echelons of the film industry, Polly and Cass traveled the lonely highways of America with confidence that they could handle any threat that might arise.

Rounding the front of the motor home, Polly heard a fusillade that originated nearer than the first. She recognized the distinct sound of Cass's twin pistols, which she had heard often enough on firing ranges over the years.

When she arrived on scene, shotgun at the ready, she discovered that her sister was dealing with one lonely-highway threat that, in all honesty, they had not foreseen. The evil alien of Old Yeller's succinct laptop message, bursting out of Earl Bockman's ripped and wrenched clothing, pitched violently backward between two gasoline pumps, reeling under the impact of hollow-point 9-mm slugs, twitching and squealing in pain and rage, flopping like a beached fish on the graveled ground between the pumps and the station.

"Got this covered," Cass said, though her face was ghastly pale even in the flattering amber-and-red glow of the Christmas lights, and though her eyes bulged like those of someone suffering from a wildly overactive thyroid gland, and though her hair was seriously in need of a comb. "Curtis must be inside," she added, before following the unpredictable Mr. Bockman between the pumps.

Fearful for Curtis, hurrying toward the building, Polly got a better look at the apparently terminal station proprietor, and she decided that she much preferred Earl when he'd been tall, bald, and boring. Writhing, spasming, coiling, flailing, hissing, snapping-and now shrieking even more furiously when Cass opened fire on him again-he resembled something tin fact, a hideous tangled mass of several somethings that you might call a pest-control company to deal with, assuming you knew a pest-control company that armed its exterminators with semiautomatic weapons and flame-throwers.

The dog sure knew what she was talking about.

USING A LOG-ROLLING TECHNIQUE to get across all the fallen cans of fruit and vegetables, Curtis reaches the front door just in time to see the second killer driven backward between two pumps by a noisy barrage of gunfire. Cass-identifiable by the large purse slung from one shoulder-follows with two pistols, flames spurting from both muzzles. Even in a ten-million-dollar Vegas stage production, surely she had never cut a more dramatic figure than this, not even when she had been nude with a feathered headdress. The boy wishes, however, that he could have had the experience of one of those performances-and at once blushes at this wish, even though it seems to indicate that in spite of his recent problems being Curtis Hammond to fullest effect, he is nonetheless steadily becoming human on a deep emotional level, which is a good thing.

Here comes Polly with a shotgun, looking no less dramatic than her sister, even though also fully clothed. When she sees Curtis in the open door, she calls out his name with evident relief.

Maybe he hears relief where he should hear an angrier quality, because as Polly arrives, she levels the pistol-grip 12-gauge at his head and shouts at him. She has every right to be furious with him, of course, for bringing a pair of otherworldly assassins into her life, and he won't blame her if she shoots him down right here and now, though he might have expected her to be more understanding and though he will be sorry to go.

Then he realizes that she's shouting "Down, dawn, down," and finally the word computes. He drops flat to the ground, and she fires at once into the store. She pumps four thunderous rounds before the bad mom, which he had previously wounded, stops shrieking behind him.

Scrambling to his feet, Curtis is so fascinated by the sight of Polly plucking shotgun shells from her cl**vage with the flair of a magician producing live doves from silk scarves that he turns almost as an afterthought to peer into the store. Something that will strain the county coroner's powers of description lies just inside the door, midst the wreckage of a snack-food display rack, and a golden-orange blizzard of shotgun-blasted potato chips, Doritos, and Cheez Doodles slowly settles in salty drifts upon the carcass.

"Are there more of these damn things?" Polly asks breathlessly, having already reloaded the 12-gauge.

"Plenty more," says Curtis. "But not here, not now-not yet."

Cass has at last dispatched the second killer. She joins her sister, looking disarranged as Curtis has never seen her.

"The fuel tank's probably just about full," Cass says, staring strangely at Curtis.

"Probably," he agrees.

"We should probably be getting out of here real fast," Polly says.

"Probably," Curtis agrees, because although he doesn't want to further endanger them, he's even more averse to the idea of heading out from here alone, on foot into the night. "And real fast isn't fast enough."

"Once we hit the road," Cass says, "you've got some explaining to do, Curtis Hammond."

Hoping he doesn't sound like a sassy-assed, spit-in-the-eye, ungrateful, snot-nosed little punk, Curtis says, "You, too."

Chapter 48

CAFFEINE AND SUGAR, in quantity and in tandem, were supposed to be twin wrecking balls of human health in general and destructive to sleep in particular, but Coke and cookies marginally improved Micky's low spirits and didn't prevent her eyes from growing heavy.

She sat at the kitchen table, dealing out game after game of solitaire, waiting for Leilani. She remained convinced that the girl would find a way to visit before dawn, even though her stepfather had now been alerted to their relationship.

Without delay, immediately upon Leilani's arrival, Micky would drive the girl to Clarissa's in Hemet, in spite of all the parrots and the risk. No time remained for strategy, only for action . And if Hemet proved to be but the first stop on a journey of uncertainly and hardship, Micky was prepared to pay whatever ticket price might be demanded of her.

When eventually even worry, anger, caffeine, and sugar could not stave off drowsiness, and when her neck began to ache from resting her head on her crossed arms upon the table, she carried the seat cushions from the living-room sofa into the kitchen and put them on the floor. She needed to be near enough to the door to be awakened at once by the girl's knock.

She doubted that Maddoc would return, but she didn't dare fall asleep with the door unlocked for Leilani, because if the doom doctor did pay another visit, surely he'd come with syringes of digitoxin, or the equivalent, with the compassionate intention of administering a little mercy.

At 2:30 in the morning, Micky stretched out upon the cushions, head next to the door, expecting to lie awake, and fell instantly asleep.

Her dream began in a hospital where she lay abed and paralyzed, alone and afraid of being alone, because she expected Preston Mad-doc to appear, to have his way with her as she lay helpless, and then to kill her. She called to nurses passing in the hall, but all were deaf, and every nurse wore the face of Micky's mother. She called to passing doctors, who came to the open door to peer at her, but they only smiled and went away; none looked like another, but each was one of her mother's men who, in her childhood, had known her in ways that she hadn't wished to be known. The only sounds were her cries and the soft clatter and the mournful whistle of a passing train, as she had heard night after night in her prison cell. With the fluid transition of a dream, she was out of the hospital, aboard the train, paralyzed but sitting up, alone in a long coach car. The clatter of wheels and rails grew louder, the periodic whistle sounded no longer mournful but like a groan of misery, and the train picked up speed, rocking on the tracks. Journeying through blackness of night into darkness of a different quality, she was delivered to the platform of a deserted train station, where Preston Maddoc, at last appearing, arrived with a wheelchair in which she sat in quadriplegic submission as he took custody of her. He wore a necklace of Leilani's teeth, and held a veil made from the girl's blond hair. When Maddoc fitted this veil to Micky's head, Leilani's tresses draped her ears as well as her face, and she lost all use of the senses thus covered: Struck deaf, mute, blind, denied the faintest of scents, she was left with no perception of her surroundings other than the rolling motion of the wheelchair and the bump of irregularities in the pavement. Maddoc conveyed her toward her fate while she sat unrespited, unpitied, unreprieved.

Micky woke into a warm morning, bone-cold from the repeating dream. The quality of light at the window and then the clock revealed that dawn had come thirty or forty minutes ago.

Having slept with her head against the bolted door, she would have heard even a timid knock. Leilani hadn't come.

Micky got up from the three sofa cushions, stacked them in a pile, and pushed the pile aside.

With sunrise had arrived the courage to open the door, Maddoc or no Maddoc. She crossed the threshold and stood on the yard-square concrete stoop at the head of the three steps.

Quiet reigned at the house next door. No madwoman waltzed in the backyard. No spacecraft hovered in fulfillment of Maddoc's vision.

Single file, three crows flew westward, feathered commuters heading toward a morning's work in the bowers of fig trees or among gnarled olive branches, but none shrieked at Micky from the pickets of the rear fence, as they had harassed her the previous evening.

At that fence, the snarled skeins of thorny rosebush trailers prickled the skin of the morning, and a sparse distribution of sickly leaves mocked Geneva's gardening. But among these familiar barren brambles, three enormous white roses, tinted peach along each petal edge by the ascending sun, greeted the day with slow, heavy nods.

Micky went down the steps and crossed the yard, amazed.

For years, the bush had failed to bloom. The previous afternoon, not one bud, let alone three, could have been found anywhere within this punk-stubborn mass of unruly thorns.

Closer inspection revealed that the three big roses had been snipped from another garden, no doubt elsewhere in the trailer park. With green ribbon, each flower had been secured to this Little Shop of Horrors plant.


The girl had managed to sneak out of the house, after all, but she hadn't knocked, which meant that she'd given up all hope of help and that she was reluctant to risk focusing Maddoc's wrath on Micky and Geneva more than she'd already done.

These three roses, each a perfect specimen and obviously chosen with care, were more than a gift: They were a message. In their white sun-kissed splendor, they said goodbye.

Feeling as though she'd been pierced by every thorn on the bush, Micky turned away from a message that she was emotionally unable to accept, and stared at the house trailer next door. The place appeared to be deserted.

She had crossed the lawn to the fallen fence between properties before she quite realized that she'd begun to move. She was running by the time she reached the neighbors' back door.

Impetuously, even though she hadn't composed an excuse for the visit if Maddoc or Sinsemilla responded, Micky knocked with an urgency that she couldn't quell. She rapped too long, too hard, and when she paused to rub her stinging knuckles against the palm of her other hand, the silence in the house abided as though she had never knocked at all.

As before, drapes shrouded the windows. Micky looked left and right, hoping to see a fold of fabric stir, any indication that she was being watched, that someone still resided here.

When she pounded on the door again and failed once more to draw a response, she tried the knob. Unlocked. The door opened.

Morning hadn't fully arrived in the Maddoc kitchen, where heavy curtains filtered the early daylight. Even with the door open and sunshine streaming past Micky, shadows dominated.

The illuminated clock, brightest point in the room, seemed to float supernaturally upon the wall, as if it were the clock of fate counting down to death. She could hear nothing but the purr of its cat-quiet mechanism.

She shouted into the house: "Hello? Is anyone here? Is anyone home? Hello?"

Unanswered, she crossed the threshold.

The possibility of a trap occurred to her. She didn't think that Maddoc would scheme to lure her farther by silence, and then bludgeon her with a hammer. She was undeniably a trespasser, however; and she could be easily framed for theft if, in answer to Maddoc's call, the police suddenly arrived and found her here. With her prison record, any trumped-up charge might stick.

Dropping all pretense that she was looking for anyone but the girl, she called only Leilani's name as, nervously, she moved deeper into the narrow house. The greasy drapes, the sagging furniture, the matted shag carpet absorbed her voice as effectively as would have the draped walls and the plush surfaces of a funeral home, and step by step she found herself in the steadily constricting embrace of claustrophobia.

As furnished rentals went, this was at the desperation end of the financial spectrum, leased by the week to tenants who more often than not were still scrambling to put together every Friday's rent payment even after Friday had dawned. The contents, aside from being worn to the point of collapse, were utterly impersonal: no souvenirs or knickknacks, no family photographs, not even any ten-dollar artworks on the walls.

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