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“Please let me help you.” Softer still: “Please.”

Chyna kissed the hand once more, and at last she felt the girl’s fingers stir. They opened partway, cold and stiff, but would not relax entirely, as hooked and rigid as a skeleton’s fingers in which the joints had calcified.

Ariel’s desire to reach out for help, tempered by her paralyzing fear of commitment, was achingly familiar to Chyna. It struck in her a chord of sympathy and pity for this girl, for all lost girls, and her throat tightened so severely that for a moment she was unable to swallow or breathe.

Then she slipped one cuffed hand into Ariel’s and the other over it, got up from the footstool, and said, “Come on, child. Come with me. Out of here.”

Though Ariel’s face remained as expressionless as an egg, though she continued to look through Chyna with the otherworldly detachment of a novitiate in the thrall of a holy visitation, her head spinning with visions, she got up from the armchair. After taking only two steps toward the door, however, she stopped and would not go farther in spite of Chyna’s pleas. The girl might be able to envision an imaginary world in which she could find a fragile peace, a Wild Wood of her own, but perhaps she was no longer able to imagine that this world extended beyond the walls of her cell and, failing to visualize it, could not cross the threshold into it.

Chyna released Ariel’s hand. She selected a doll — a bisque charmer with golden ringlets and painted green eyes, wearing a white eyelet pinafore over a blue dress. She pressed it against the girl’s breast and encouraged her to embrace it. She wasn’t sure why the collection was here, but perhaps Ariel liked the dolls, in which case she might come along more readily if given one for comfort.

Initially, Ariel was unresponsive, standing with one hand still fisted at her side and the other like a half-open crab claw. Then, without shifting her gaze from faraway things, she took the doll in both hands, gripping it by the legs. Like the shadow of a bird in flight, a fierce expression crossed her face and was gone before it could be clearly read. She turned, swung the doll as if it were a sledgehammer, and smashed its head into the top of the dinette table, shattering the unglazed-china face.

Startled, Chyna said, “Honey, no,” and gripped the girl by the shoulder.

Ariel wrenched away from Chyna and slammed the doll into the table again, harder than before, and Chyna stepped backward, not in fear but in respect of the girl’s fury. And fury it was, a righteous anger, not merely an autistic spasm, in spite of the fact that she remained expressionless.

She pounded the doll against the table repeatedly, until its smashed head broke and spun across the room and bounced off a wall, until both its arms cracked and fell away, until it was ruined beyond repair. Then she dropped it and stood trembling, arms hanging at her sides. She was still staring into the Elsewhere and was no more with Chyna than she had ever been.

From the bookcases, from atop the cabinets, from the shadowed corners of the room, the dolls watched intently, as if they were thrilled by her outburst and in some strange way feeding on it as Vess himself would have fed if he’d been there to see.

Chyna wanted to put her arms around the girl, but the handcuffs made it impossible to embrace her. Instead, she touched Ariel’s face and kissed her on the forehead. “Ariel, untouched and alive.”

Rigid, shaking, Ariel neither pulled away from Chyna nor leaned toward her. Gradually the girl’s trembling subsided.

“I need your help,” Chyna pleaded. “I need you.”

This time, as if sleepwalking, Ariel allowed herself to be led from the cell.

They crossed the fallen door through the vestibule. In the cellar, Chyna picked up the drill from the floor, plugged it into the power strip on the wall, and put it on the workbench.

She had no timepiece for reference, but she was sure that nine o’clock had come and gone. In the night were dogs waiting and Edgler Vess somewhere at work, bemused by waking dreams of returning home to his pair of captives.

Trying unsuccessfully to get the girl’s eyes to focus on her, Chyna explained what they needed to do. She might be able to drive the motor home while handcuffed, though not without some difficulty, as she would have to let go of the steering wheel to shift gears. Dealing with the dogs while cuffed would be a lot harder. Perhaps impossible. If they were to make the best use of the time remaining before Vess’s return, and if they were to have the best chance of getting away, Ariel was going to have to drill out the locks on the manacles.

The girl gave no indication that she heard a word of what Chyna told her. Indeed, before Chyna finished, Ariel’s lips were moving again in a silent conversation with some phantom; she didn’t “speak” ceaselessly but paused from time to time as if receiving a response from an imaginary friend.

Nevertheless, Chyna showed her how to hold the drill and press the trigger. The girl didn’t blink at the sudden shriek of the motor and the air-cutting whistle of the whirling bit.

“Now you hold it,” Chyna said.

Oblivious, Ariel stood with her arms at her sides, hands half open and fingers hooked as they had been since she had dropped the ruined doll.

“We don’t have much time, honey.”

In her clockless Elsewhere, time meant nothing to Ariel.

Chyna put the drill on the workbench. She drew the girl in front of the tool and placed her hands on it.

Ariel didn’t pull away or let her hands slide off the drill, but she didn’t lift it either.

Chyna knew that the girl heard her, understood the situation, and, on some level, yearned to help.

“Our hopes are in your hands, honey. You can do it.”

She retrieved the workbench stool from the outer vestibule door, which it had been propping open, and sat down. She put her hands on the workbench, wrists turned to expose the tiny keyhole on the left manacle.

Staring at the concrete-block wall, through the wall, speaking soundlessly to a psychic friend beyond all walls, Ariel seemed to be unaware of the drill. Or to her it might have been not a drill but another object altogether, one that filled her either with hope or with fear, the thing of which she spoke to her phantom friend.

Even if the girl picked up the drill and focused her eyes on the manacle, the chance that she would be able to perform this task seemed slim. The chance that she would avoid boring through Chyna’s palm or wrist seemed slimmer still.

On the other hand, although the likelihood of salvation from any trouble or enemy in this life was always slim, Chyna had survived uncounted nights of blood rage and questing lust. Survival was far different from salvation, of course, but it was a prerequisite.

Anyway, she was ready to do now what she had never been able to do before, not even with Laura Templeton: trust. Trust without reservation. And if this girl tried and failed, let the drill slip and damaged flesh rather than steel, Chyna wasn’t going to blame her for the failure. Sometimes, just trying was a triumph.

And she knew Ariel wanted to try.

She knew.

For a minute or so, Chyna encouraged the girl to begin, and when that didn’t work, she tried waiting in silence. But silence led her thoughts to the bronze stags and the clock over which they leaped on the living room mantel, and in her mind’s eye the clock acquired the face of the young man who hung in the motor home closet, eyelids tightly stitched and lips sewn shut in a silence even deeper than that in the cellar.

With no calculation, surprised to hear what she was doing but relying on instinct, Chyna began to tell Ariel what had happened on the long-ago night of her eighth birthday: the cottage in Key West, the storm, Jim Woltz, the frantic palmetto beetle under the low-slung iron bed…

Drunk on Dos Equis and high on a pair of small white pills that he had popped with the first bottle of beer, Woltz had teased Chyna because she had failed to blow out all the candles on her birthday cake in a single breath, leaving one aflame. “This is bad luck, kid. Oh, man, this brings a world of grief down on us. If you don’t get all the candles out, you invite gremlins and trolls into your life, all sorts of bad characters after your stash and cash.” Just then the night sky had convulsed with white light, and the shadows of palm fronds had leaped across the kitchen windows. The cottage rattled in the shock waves of thunderclaps as hard as bomb blasts, and the storm broke. “See?” Woltz said. “If we don’t rectify this situation right away, then some bad guys will get the best of us and chop us up into bloody chunks and put us in bait buckets and go out on some deep-sea boat, trolling for sharks, using us as chum. Do you want to be shark chum, kid?” This speech frightened Chyna, but her mother found it amusing. Her mother had been drinking vodka with lemonade since late afternoon.

Woltz relit the candles and insisted that Chyna try once more. When she failed again to extinguish more than seven with one breath, Woltz seized her hand, licked her thumb and index finger, his tongue lingering in a way that disgusted her, and then forced her to snuff the remaining flame by pinching the candlewick. Although there was a brief hotness against her skin, she had not been burned; however, her fingers had been marked with black smudges from the smoking wick, and the sight of them had terrified her.

When Chyna began to cry, Woltz held her by one arm, keeping her in her chair, while Anne relit the eight, insisting that she try again. The third time, Chyna was able to extinguish only six candles with her first shuddery breath. When Woltz attempted to make her pinch both flames with her fingers, she pulled loose and ran out of the kitchen, intending to flee to the beach, but lightning had shattered like bright mirrors around the cottage, the night flashing with sharp silver fragments, and thunder as fierce as the cannonades of warships boomed out of the Gulf of Mexico, so she had fled instead to the small room in which she slept, crawled under the sagging bed, into those secret shadows where the palmetto beetle waited.

“Woltz, the stinking sonofabitch, came through the house after me,” Chyna told Ariel, “shouting my name, knocking over furniture, slamming doors, saying he was going to chop me up for chum and then scatter me in the sea. Later I realized it was an act. He’d been trying to scare the crap out of me. He always liked to scare me, make me cry, ’cause I didn’t cry easily…never easily….”

Chyna stopped, unable to go on.

Ariel stared not toward the wall, as before, but down at the power drill on which her hands were placed. Whether she saw the drill was another matter; her eyes were still far away.

The girl might not be listening, yet Chyna felt compelled to tell the rest of what had happened that night in Key West.

This was the first time she had ever revealed to anyone, other than Laura, any of the things that had happened to her when she was a child. Shame had always silenced her, which was inexplicable because none of the degradation she endured had resulted from her own actions. She had been a victim, small and defenseless; yet she was burdened with the shame that all her tormentors, including her mother, were incapable of feeling.

She had hidden some of the worst details of her past even from Laura Templeton, her only good friend. Often, on the brink of a revelation to Laura, she would pull back from disclosure and speak not about the events that she had endured and not about the people who had tormented her but about places — Key West, Mendocino County, New Orleans, San Francisco, Wyoming — where she had lived. She was lyrical when the subject was the natural beauty of mountains, plains, bayous, or low moonlit breakers rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico, but she could feel anger tightening her face and shame coloring it when she told the harder truths about the friends of Anne who had populated her childhood.

Now her throat was tight. She was curiously aware of the weight of her heart, like a stone in her chest, heavy with the past.

Sick with shame and anger, she nevertheless sensed that she must finish telling Ariel what had happened during that Florida night of unextinguished candles. Revelation might be a door out of darkness.

“Oh, God, how I hated him, the greasy bastard, stinking of beer and sweat, crashing around my room, drunk and screaming, going to cut me up for bait, Anne laughing out in the living room and then at the doorway, that drunken laugh of hers, hooting and shrill, thinking he was so funny, Jesus, and all the time it was my birthday, my special day, my birthday.” Tears might have come now if she had not spent a lifetime learning to repress them. “And the palmetto all over me, frantic, scurrying, up my back and into my hair…”

In the sticky, suffocating Key West heat, thunder had rattled in the window and sung in the bedsprings, and cold blue reflections of lightning had fluttered like a dream fire across the painted wood floor. Chyna almost screamed when the tropical cockroach, as big as her little-girl hand, burrowed through her long hair, but fear of Woltz kept her silent. She endured, as well, when the beetle scuttled out of her hair, across her shoulder, down her slender arm, to the floor, hoping that it would flee into the room, not daring to fling it away for fear that any movement she made would be heard by Woltz in spite of the thunder, in spite of his shouted threats and curses, even over her mother’s laughter. But the palmetto scurried along her side to one of her bare feet and began to explore that end of her again, foot and ankle, calf and thigh. Then it crawled under one leg of her shorts, into the cleft of her butt, antennae quivering. She had lain in a paralysis of terror, wanting only for the torment to end, for lightning to strike her, for God to take her away to somewhere better than this hateful world.

Laughing, her mother had entered the room: “Jimmy, you nut, she’s not here. She’s gone outside, along the beach somewhere, like always.” And Woltz said, “Well, if she comes back, I’m going to cut her up for chum, I swear I am.” Then he laughed and said, “Man, did you see her eyes? Christ! She was scared shitless.” “Yeah,” Anne said, “she’s a gutless little wuss. She’ll be hiding out there for hours. I don’t know when the hell she’ll ever grow up.” Woltz said, “Sure doesn’t take after her mother. You were born grown up, weren’t you, baby?” “Listen, as**ole,” Anne said, “you pull any crap like that with me, I’m sure not going to run like she did. I’ll kick your balls so hard you’ll have to change your name to Nancy.” Woltz roared with laughter, and from under the bed Chyna saw her mother’s bare feet approach Woltz’s feet, and then her mother was giggling.

Fat and obscene and agitated, the palmetto had crawled out from under the waistband of Chyna’s shorts and into the small of her back, moving toward her neck, and she had been unable to bear the thought of it in her hair again. Regardless of the consequence, she reached back as the beetle crossed her tube top, and seized it. The thing twitched, squirmed in her hand, but she tightened her fist.


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