One Door Away from Heaven

Page 9


Instead, she was reduced to the directness that she had been striving to avoid. "Does he?" she asked Leilani.

Picking up Micky's second can of Budweiser from the table, the girl said, "There's at least a million reasons why that's an absurd idea."

"Give me one."

"Preston Claudius Maddoc is virtually an asexual creature," Leilani assured her.

"There's no such thing."

"What about the ameba?"

Micky understood this special girl well enough to know that the mysteries of her heart were many, that the answers to them could be learned only by earning her complete trust, and that her trust could be gained only by respecting her, by accepting her highly ornamental eccentricities, which included playing her baroque conversational games. In that spirit, Micky said, "I'm not sure amebas are asexual."

"Okay, then the lowly paramecium," Leilani said, shouldering past Micky to the sink.

"I don't even know what a paramecium is."

"Good grief, didn't you go to school?"

"I went, but I didn't listen much. Besides, you aren't studying amebas and parameciums in fourth grade."

"I'm not in fourth grade," Leilani said, pouring the warm beer into the sink. "We're twenty-first-century Gypsies, searching for the stairway to the stars, never staying in one place long enough to put down a single rootlet. I'm homeschooled, currently learning at a twelfth-grade level." The beer, foaming in the drain basket, produced a malty perfume that at once masked the faint smell of the hot wax from the candles on the table. "Dr. Doom is my teacher, on paper, but the fact is I'm self-taught. The word for it is autodidact. I'm an autodidact and a good one, because I'll kick my own ass if I don't learn, which is a sight to see with this leg brace." As though to prove how tough she was, Leilani crumpled the empty beer can in her good hand. "Anyway, Dr. Doom might have been an okay professor

when he worked at the university, but I can't rely on him to educate me now, because it's impossible to concentrate on your lessons when your teacher has his hand up your skirt."

This time, Micky resisted being charmed. "That's not funny, Leilani."

Staring at the partially crushed can in her small fist, avoiding eye contact, the girl said, "Well, I'll admit it's not as amusing as a good dumb-blonde joke, which I enjoy even though I'm a blonde myself, and it isn't a fraction as hilarious as a highly convincing puddle of plastic vomit, and there's no chance whatsoever I'd be making light of the subject if I were actually being molested." She opened the cabinet door under the sink and tossed the can into the trash receptacle. "But the fact is that Dr. Doom would never touch me even if he were that kind of pervert, because he pities me the way you would pity a truck-smashed dog all mangled but still alive on the highway, and he finds my deformities so disgusting that if he dared to kiss me on the cheek, he'd probably puke up his guts."

In spite of the girl's jocular tone, her words were wasps, and the truth in them appeared to sting her, sharp as venom.

Sympathy cinched Micky's heart, but for a moment she was unable to think of something to say that wouldn't be the wrong thing.

Even more loquacious than usual, talking faster, as though the briefest interruption in the flow of words might dam the stream forever, leaving her parched and mute and defenseless, Leilani filled the narrow silence left by Micky's hesitation: "As long back as I can remember, old Preston has touched me only twice, and I don't mean dirty-old-man-going-to-jail touching. Just ordinary touching. Both times, so much blood drained out of the poor dear's face, he looked like one of the walking dead-though I've got to admit he smelled better than your average corpse."

"Stop," Micky said, dismayed to hear the word come out with a harsh edge. Then more softly: "Just stop."

Leilani looked up at last, her lovely face unreadable, as free of all emotional tension as the countenance of the most serene bronze Buddha.

Perhaps the girl mistakenly believed that every secret of her soul was written on her features, or perhaps she saw more in Micky's face than she cared to see. She switched on the light above the sink, returning them to the silken gloom and the suety glow of the candle flames.

"Are you never serious?" Micky asked. "Are you always making with the wisecracks, the patter?"

"I'm always serious, but I'm always laughing inside, too."

"Laughing at what?"

"Haven't you ever stopped and looked around, Michelina Bell-song? Life. It's one long comedy."

They stood but three feet apart, face-to-face, and in spite of Micky's compassionate intentions, a peculiar quality of confrontation had crept into their exchange.

"I don't get your attitude."

"Oh, Micky B, you get it, all right. You're a smartie just like me. There's always too much going on in your head, just like in mine. You sort of hide it, but I can see."

"You know what I think?" Micky asked.

"I know what you think and why. You think Dr. Doom diddles little girls, because that's what experience has taught you to think. I feel bad about that, Micky B, about whatever you went through."

Word by word, the girl quieted almost to a whisper, yet her soft voice had the power to hammer open a door in Micky's heart, a door that had for a long time been kept locked, barred, and bolted. Beyond lay feelings tumultuous and unresolved, emotions so powerful that the mere recognition of them, after long denial, knocked the breath out of her.

"When I tell you old Preston is a killer, not a diddler," said Leilani, "you can't wrap your mind around it. I know why you can't, too, and that's all right."

Slam the door. Throw shut the locks, the bars, the bolts. Before the girl could say more, Micky turned away from the threshold of those unwanted memories, found her breath and voice: "That's not what I was going to say. What I think is you're afraid to stop laughing-"

"Scared shitless," Leilani agreed.

Unprepared for the girl's admission, Micky stumbled a few words further. " - because you . . . because if . . ."

"I know all the bemuses. No need to list them."

Sometime during the two days she'd known Leilani, Micky arrived, as though by whirlwind, in a strange territory. She'd been journeying through a land of mirrors that initially appeared to be as baffling and as unreal as a funhouse, and yet repeatedly she had encountered reflections of herself so excruciatingly precise in their details and of such explicit depth that she turned away from them in revulsion or in anger, or in fear. The clear-eyed, steel-supported girl, larky and lurching, seemed at first to be a fabulist whose flamboyant fantasies rivaled Dorothy's dreams of Oz; however, Micky could get no glimpse of yellow bricks on this road, and here, now, in the lingering sour scent of warm beer, in this small kitchen where only a trinity of candle flames held back the insistent sinuous shadows, with the sudden sound of a toilet flushing elsewhere in the trailer, she was stricken by the terrible perception that under Leilani's mismatched feet had never been anything other than the rough track of reality.

As though privy to Micky's thoughts, the girl said, "Everything I've ever told you is the truth."

Outside: a shriek.

Micky looked to the open window, where the last murky glow of the drowning twilight radiated weak purple beams through black tides of incoming night .

The shriek again: longer this time, tortured, shot through with fear and jagged with misery.

"Old Sinsemilla," said Leilani.

Chapter 8

LESS THAN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS after the close call in Colorado, with the house fire and the hideous screams still vivid in memory, the motherless boy relaxes behind the steering wheel of a new Ford Explorer, while the harlequin dog sits erect beside him in the passenger's seat, listening to a radio program of classic Western tunes-at the moment, "Ghost Riders in the Sky"-as they sail through the Utah night, four feet above the highway.

Sometimes, from the side windows, depending on the encroaching landscape, they are able to see the starry sky, low near the horizon, but nothing of the greater vault above, where ghost riders would be likely to gallop. The windshield provides a view only of another-and unoccupied-Explorer ahead, plus the underside of the vehicles on the upper platform of this double-deck automobile carrier.

In the late afternoon, they had boarded the auto transport in the immense parking lot of a busy truck stop near Provo, while the driver lingered over a slice of pie in the diner. The door of one of the Explorers opened for the boy, and he quickly slipped inside.

The dog had continued to be an instinctive conspirator, huddling quietly with his master, below the windows, until the pie-powered trucker returned and they ventured out upon the road again. Even then, in daylight, they had slouched low, to avoid being seen by passing motorists who might signal the driver about his stowaways.

With some of the money taken from the Hammond farmhouse, the famished boy had purchased two cheeseburgers at the truck stop. Soon after the truck began to roll, he'd eaten one sandwich and fed the other, in pieces, to the mutt.

He had been less generous with the small bag of potato chips. They were crisp and so delicious that he groaned with pleasure while eating them.

This apparently had been an exotic treat to the dog, as well. When first given a chip, he turned the morsel on his tongue, as though puzzled by the texture or the taste, warily tested the edibility of the offering, then crunched the salty delicacy with exaggerated movements of his jaws. The hound likewise had savored each of three additional tidbits that his young master was conned into sharing, instead of wolfing them down.

The boy had drunk bottled water from the container, but this had proved more difficult for the dog, resulting in splashed upholstery and wet fur. In the console between the seats were molded-plastic cupholders, and when the boy filled one of these with water, his companion lapped it up efficiently.

Since decamping from the Colorado mountains, they had journeyed wherever a series of convenient rides had taken them.

For now, they travel without a destination, vagabonds but not carefree.

The killers are exceptionally well trained in stalking, using both their natural skills and electronic support, so resourceful and cunning that they are likely to track down their quarry no matter how successful the boy might be at quickly putting miles between himself and them. Although distance won't foil his enemies, time is his ally. The longer he eludes that savage crew, the fainter his trail becomes-or at least this is what he believes. Every hour of survival will bring him closer to ultimate freedom, and each new sunrise will allow a slight diminishment of his fear.

Now, in the Utah night, he sits boldly in the Explorer and sings along with the catchy music on the radio, having pretty much learned the repeating chorus and also each verse as he first heard it. Ghost riders in the sky. Can there be such things?

Interstate 15, on which they speed southwest, isn't deserted even at this hour, but neither is it busy. Beyond the wide median strip, traffic races northeast toward Salt Lake City, with what seems like angry energy, as knights might thunder toward a joust, lances of light piercing the high-desert darkness. In these nearer southbound lanes, cars overtake the auto transport and, from time to time, large trucks pass, as well.

The digital readout on the radio, powered by the car's battery, emits a glow, but the faint radiance is insufficient to illuminate the boy or to draw the attention of any motorist rocketing by at seventy or eighty miles per hour. He's not concerned about being seen, only about losing the comforting music when the battery eventually dies.

Cozy in the dark SUV, in the embracing scent of new leather and the comforting smell of the damp but drying dog, he isn't much interested in those passing travelers. He's peripherally aware of them only because of their roaring engines and their wind wakes, which buffet the transport.

"Ghost Riders in the Sky" is followed by "Cool Water," a song about a thirst-plagued cowboy and his horse as they cross burning desert sands. After "Cool Water" comes a spate of advertisements, nothing to sing along with.

When the boy looks out the window in the driver's door, he sees a familiar vehicle streaking past, faster than ever it had gone when he and the dog had ridden in the back of it among horse blankets and saddles. The white cab features a spotlight rack on the roof. Black canvas walls enclose the cargo bed. This appears to be the truck that had been parked along the lonely county road near the Hammond place, less than twenty-four hours ago.

Of course, that vehicle hadn't been unique. Hundreds like it must be in use on ranches across the West.

Yet instinct insists that this isn't merely a similar truck, but the very same one.

He and the dog had abandoned that wheeled sanctuary shortly after dawn, west of Grand Junction, when the driver and his associate stopped to refuel and grab breakfast.

This auto carrier is their third rolling refuge since dawn, three rides during a day in which they have ricocheted across Utah with the unpredictability of a pinball. After all this time and considering the haphazard nature of their journey, the likelihood of a chance encounter with the saddlery-laden truck is small, though it isn't beyond the realm of possibility.

A coincidence, however, is frequently a glimpse of a pattern otherwise hidden. His heart tells him indisputably what his mind resists: This is no random event, but part of the elaborate design in a tapestry, and at the center of the design is he himself, caught and murdered.

The brow of the cab gleams as white as skull bone. One loose corner of black canvas flaps like the Reaper's robe. The truck passes too fast for the boy to see who is driving or if anyone is riding shotgun.

Supposing he had glimpsed two men wearing cowboy hats, he still couldn't have been sure that they were the same people who had driven him out of the mountains and west through Grand Junction. He has never seen their faces clearly.

Even if he could have identified them, they might no longer be innocent horsemen transporting ornate saddles to a rodeo or a show arena. They might have become part of the net that is closing around him, straining the dry sea of the desert for the sole survivor of the massacre in Colorado.

Now they are gone into the night, either unaware that they have passed within feet of him-or alert to his presence and planning to capture him at a roadblock ahead.

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