“Done,” Agnes said. “Now put away the three dollars, and let's have our lesson before my water breaks."
“Water can break?” Maria asked, looking toward the faucet at the kitchen sink. She sighed. “I have so much to be learned."
CLOUDS SWARMED THE late-afternoon sun, and the Oregon sky grew sapphire where still revealed. Cops gathered like bright-eyed crows in the lengthening shadow of the fire tower.
Because the tower stood on a ridgeline that marked the divide between county and state property, most of the attending constabulary were county deputies, but two state troopers were present, as well.
With the uniformed troopers was a stocky, late-fortyish, brush-cut man in black slacks and a gray herringbone sports jacket. His face was almost pan flat, his first chin weak, his second chin stronger than the first, and his function unknown to Junior. He would have been the least likely man to be noticed in a ten-thousand-man convention of nonentities, if not for the port-wine birthmark that surrounded his right eye, darkening most of the bridge of his nose, brightening half his forehead, and returning around the eye to stain the upper portion of his cheek.
Among themselves, the authorities spoke more often than not in murmurs. Or perhaps Junior was too distracted to hear them clearly.
He was having difficulty focusing his attention on the problem at hand. Through his mind, odd and disconnected thoughts rolled like slow, greasy, eye-of-the-hurricane waves on an ominous sea.
Earlier, after sprinting down the fire road, he had been breathing hard when he reached his Chevy, and by the time that he'd raced to Spruce Hills, the nearest town, he had spiraled down into this strange condition. His driving became so erratic that a black-and-white had tried to pull him over, but by then he was a block from a hospital, and he didn't stop until he got there, taking the entry drive too sharply, jolting across the curb, nearly slamming into a parked car, sliding to a stop in a no-parking zone at the emergency entrance, lurching like a drunkard as he got out of the Chevy, screaming at the cop to get an ambulance.
All the way back to the ridge, sitting up front beside a county deputy in a police cruiser, with an ambulance and other patrol cars racing close behind them, Junior had shaken uncontrollably. When he tried to respond to the officer's questions, his uncharacteristically thin voice cracked more often than not, and he was able to croak only, Jesus, dear Jesus,” over and over.
When the highway passed through a sunless ravine, he had broken into a sour sweat at the sight of the bloody pulsing reflections of the revolving rooftop beacons on the bracketing cut-shale walls. Now and then, the siren shrieked to clear traffic ahead, and he felt the urge to scream with it, to let loose a wail of terror and anguish and confusion and loss.
He repressed the scream, however, because he sensed that if he gave voice to it, he wouldn't be able to silence himself for a long long time.
Getting out of the stuffy car into air much chillier than it had been when he'd left this place, Junior stood unsteadily as the police and the paramedics gathered around him. Then he led them through the wild grass to Naomi, moving haltingly, stumbling on small stones that the others navigated with ease.
Junior knew that he looked as guilty as any man had ever looked this side of the first apple and the perfect garden. The sweating, the spasms of violent tremors, the defensive note that he could not keep out of his voice, the inability to look anyone directly in the eyes for more than a few seconds-all were telltales that none of these professionals would overlook. He desperately needed to get a grip on himself, but he couldn't find a handle.
Now, here, once more to the body of his bride.
Livor mortis had already set in, blood draining to the lowest points of her body, leaving the fronts of her bare legs, one side of each bare arm, and her face ghastly pale.
Her lead gaze was still surprisingly clear. How remarkable that the impact hadn't caused a starburst hemorrhage in either of her exquisite, lavender-blue eyes. No blood, lust surprise.
Junior was aware that all the cops were watching him as he stared down at the body, and he frantically tried to think what an innocent husband would be likely to do or say, but his imagination failed him. His thoughts could not be organized.
His inner turmoil boiled ever more fiercely, and the external evidence of it grew more obvious. In the cool air of the fading afternoon, he perspired as profusely as a man already being strapped into an electric chair; it streamed, gushed. He shook, shook, and he was half convinced that he could hear his bones rattling together like the shells of hard-boiled eggs in a rolling cook pot.
Had he ever thought he could get away with this? He must have been delusional, temporarily mad.
One of the paramedics knelt beside the body, checking Naomi for a pulse, although in these circumstances, his action was such a formality that it was almost harebrained.
Someone eased in closer beside Junior and said, “How did it happen again?"
He looked up into the eyes of the stocky man with the birthmark. They were gray eyes, hard as nail heads, but clear and surprisingly beautiful in that otherwise unfortunate face.
The man's voice echoed hollowly in Junior's ears, as if coming from the far end of a tunnel. Or from the terminus of a death-row hallway, on the long walk between the last meal and the execution chamber.
Junior tipped his head back and gazed up toward the section of broken-out railing along the high observation deck.
He was aware of others looking up, too.
Everyone was silent. The day was morgue-still. The crows had fled the sky, but a single hawk gilded soundlessly, like justice with its prey in sight, high above the tower.
“She. Was eating. Dried apricots.” Junior spoke almost in a whisper yet the ridge was so quiet that he had no doubt each of these uniformed but unofficial jurors heard him clearly. “Walking. Around the deck. Paused. The view. She. She. She leaned. Gone."
Abruptly, Junior Cain turned away from the tower, from the body of his lost love, dropped to his knees, and vomited. Vomited more explosively than he had ever done in the depths of the worst sickness of his life. Bitter, thick, grossly out of proportion to the simple lunch that he had eaten, up came a dreadfully reeking vomitus. He was untroubled by nausea, but his abdominal muscles contracted painfully, so tightly that he thought he would be cinched in two, and up came more, and still more, spasm after spasm, until he spewed a thin gruel green with bile, which surely had to be the last of it, but was not, for here was more bile, so acidic that his gums burned from contact with it—Oh God, please no-still more. His entire body heaving. Choking as he aspirated a piece of something vile. He squeezed his watering eyes shut against the sight of the flood, but he could not block out the stench.
One of the paramedics had stooped beside him to press a cool hand against the nape of his neck. Now this man said urgently, “Kenny!
We've got hematemesis here!"
Running footsteps, heading toward the ambulance. Apparently Kenny. The second paramedic.
To become a physical therapist, Junior had taken more than massage classes, so he knew what hematemesis meant. Hematemesis: vomiting of blood.
Opening his eyes blinking back his tears just as more agonizing contractions knotted his abdomen, he could see ribbons of red in the watery green mess that gushed from him. Bright red. Gastric blood would be dark. This must be pharyngeal blood. Unless an artery had ruptured in his stomach, torn by the incredible violence of these intransigent spasms, in which case he was puking his life away.
He wondered if the hawk had descended in a constricting gyre, justice coming down, but he could not lift his head to see.
Now, without realizing when it had happened, he had been lowered from his knees to his right side. Head elevated and tilted by one of the paramedics. So he could expel the bile, the blood, rather than choke on it.
The twisting pain in his gut was extraordinary, death raptures.
Undiminished antiperistaltic waves coursed through his duodenum, stomach, and esophagus, and now he gasped desperately for air between each expulsion, without much success.
A cold wetness just above the crook of his left elbow. A sting. A tourniquet of flexible rubber tubing had been tied around his left arm, to make a vein swell more visibly, and the sting had been the prick of a hypodermic needle.
They would have given him an antinausea medication. It most likely wasn't going to work quickly enough to save him.
He thought he heard the soft swoosh of knife-edge wings slicing the January air. He dared not look up. More in his throat. The agony. Darkness poured into his head, as if it were blood rising relentlessly from his flooded stomach and esophagus.
HAVING COMPLETED HER English lesson, Maria Elena Gonzalez went home with a plastic shopping bag full of precisely damaged clothes and a smaller, paper bag containing cherry muffins for her two girls.
When she closed the front door and turned away from it, Agnes bumped her swollen belly into Joey. His eyebrows shot up, and he put his hands on her distended abdomen, as if she were more fragile than a robin's egg and more valuable than one by Faberge.
“Now?” he asked.
“I'd like to tidy up the kitchen first."
Pleadingly: “Aggie, no."
He reminded her of the Worry Bear from a book she'd already IL bought for her baby's collection.
The Worry Bear carries worries in his pockets. Under his Panama hat and in two gold lockets. Carries worries on his back and under his arms. Nevertheless, dear old Worry Bear has his charms.
Agnes's contractions were getting more frequent and slightly more severe, so she said, “All right, but let me go tell Edom and Jacob that we're leaving."
Edom and Jacob Isaacson were her older brothers, who lived in two small apartments above the four-car garage at the back of the property.
“I've already told them,” Joey said, wheeling away from her and yanking open the door of the foyer closet with such force that she thought he would tear it off its hinges.
He produced her coat as if by legerdemain. Magically, she found her arms in the sleeves and the collar around her neck, though given her size lately, putting on anything other than a hat usually required strategy and persistence.
When she turned to him again, he had already slipped into his jacket and snatched the car keys off the foyer table. He put his left hand under her right arm, as though Agnes were feeble and in need of support, and he swept her through the door, onto the front porch.
He didn't pause to lock the house behind them. Bright Beach, in 1965, was as free of criminals as it was untroubled by lumbering brontosaurs.
The afternoon was winding down, and the lowering sky seemed to be drawn steadily toward the earth by threads of gray light that reeled westward, ever faster, over the horizon's spool. The air smelled like rain waiting to happen.
The beetle-green Pontiac waited in the driveway, with a shine that tempted nature to throw around some bad weather. Joey always kept a spotless car, and he probably wouldn't have had time to earn a living if he had resided in some shine-spoiling climate rather than in southern California.
“Are you all right?” he asked as he opened the passenger's door and helped her into the car.
“Right as rain."
“Good as gold."
The inside of the Pontiac smelled pleasantly of lemons, though the rearview mirror was not hung with one of those tacky decorative deodorizers. The seats, regularly treated with leather soap, were softer and more supple than they had been when the car had shipped out of Detroit, and the instrument panel sparkled.
As Joey opened the driver's door and got in behind the steering wheel, he said, “Okay?"
“Fine as silk."
“You look pale."
“Fit as a fiddle."
“You're mocking me, aren't you?"
“You beg so sweetly to be mocked, how could I possibly withhold it from you?"
Just as Joey pulled his door shut, a contraction gripped Agnes. She grimaced, sucking air sharply between her clenched teeth.
“Oh, no,” said the Worry Bear. “Oh, no."
“Good heavens, sweetie, relax. This isn't ordinary pain. This is happy pain. Our little girl's going to be with us before the day is done."
“Trust a mother's intuition."
“A father's got some, too.” He was so nervous that the key rattled interminably against the ignition plate before, at last, he was able to insert it. “Should be a boy, because then you'll always have a man around the house."
“You planning to run off with some blonde?"
He couldn't get the car started, because he repeatedly tried to turn the key in the wrong direction. “You know what I mean. I'm going to be around a long time yet, but women outlive men by several years. Actuarial tables aren't wrong."
“Always the insurance agent."
“Well, it's true,” he said, finally turning the key in the proper direction and firing up the engine.
“Gonna sell me a policy?"
“I didn't sell anyone else today. Gotta make a living. You all right?"
“Scared,” she said.
Instead of shifting the car into drive, he placed one of his bearish hands over both of her hands. “Something feel wrong?"
“I'm afraid you'll drive us straight into a tree."
He looked hurt. “I'm the safest driver in Bright Beach. My auto rates prove it."
“Not today. If it takes you as long to get the car in gear as it did to slip that key in the ignition, our little girl will be sitting up and saying 'dada' by the time we get to the hospital."
“Just calm down."
“I am calm,” he assured her.
He released the hand brake, shifted the car into reverse instead of into drive, and backed away from the street, along the side of the house.
Startled, he braked to a halt. Agnes didn't say anything until Joey had taken three or four deep, slow breaths, and then she pointed at the windshield. “The hospital's that way."
He regarded her sheepishly. “You all right?"
“Our little girl's going to walk backward her whole life if you drive in reverse all the way to the hospital."
“If it is a little girl, she's going to be exactly don't think I could handle two of you.” he said.
“We'll keep you young."
With great deliberation, Joey shifted gears and followed the drive way to the street, where he peered left and then right with the squint-eyed suspicion of a Marine commando scouting dangerous territory. He turned right.
“Make sure Edom delivers the pies in the morning,” Agnes reminded him.