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She pulled a cushion off a chair and put it under Nina's head, then ran into the kitchen where the numbers of the police and fire departments were on the wall phone. Shakily, she reported Nina's heart attack and gave the fire department their address.

When she hung up, she knew everything was going to be all right because she had already lost one parent to a heart attack, her father, and it would be just too absurd to lose Nina the same way. Life had absurd moments, yes, but life itself wasn't absurd. Life was strange, difficult, miraculous, precious, tenuous, mysterious, but not flat-out absurd. So Nina would live because Nina dying made no sense.

Still scared and worried but feeling better, Laura hurried back to the living room and knelt beside her foster mother, held her.

Newport Beach had first-rate emergency services. The ambulance arrived no more than three or four minutes after Laura had called for it. The two paramedics were efficient and well equipped. Within just a few minutes, however, they pronounced Nina dead, and no doubt she had been dead from the moment she collapsed.

One week after Laura returned to McIlroy and eight days before Christmas, Mrs. Bowmaine reassigned Tammy Hinsen to the fourth bed in the Ackersons' room. In an unusual private session with Laura, Ruth, and Thelma, the social worker explained the reasoning behind that reassignment: “I know you say Tammy isn't happy with you girls, but she seems to get along better there than anywhere else. We've had her in several rooms, but the other children can't tolerate her. I don't know what it is about the child that makes her an outcast, but her other roommates usually end up using her as a punching bag.”

Back in their room, before Tammy arrived, Thelma settled into a basic yoga position on the floor, legs folded in a pretzel form, heels against hips. She had become interested in yoga when the Beatles endorsed Eastern meditation, and she had said that when she finally met Paul McCartney (which was her indisputable destiny), “it would be nice if we have something in common, which we will if I can talk with some authority about this yoga crap.”

Now, instead of meditating she said, “What would that cow have done if I'd said, 'Mrs. Bowmaine, the kids don't like Tammy because she let herself be diddled by the Eel, and she helped him target other vulnerable girls, so as far as they're concerned, she's the enemy.' What would Bovine Bowmaine have done when I laid that on her?”

“She'd have called you a lying scuz,” Laura said, flopping down on her sway-backed bed.

“No doubt. Then she'd have eaten me for lunch. Do you believe the size of that woman? She gets bigger by the week. Anyone that big is dangerous, a ravenous omnivore capable of eating the nearest child, bones and all, as casually as she'd consume a pint of fudge ripple.”

At the window, looking down at the playground behind the mansion, Ruth said, “It's not fair the way the other kids treat Tammy.”

“Life isn't fair,” Laura said.

“Life isn't a weenie roast, either,” Thelma said. “Jeez, Shane, don't wax philosophical if you're going to be trite. You know we hate triteness here only slightly less than we hate turning on the radio and hearing Bobbie Gentry singing Ode to Billy Joe.”

When Tammy moved in an hour later, Laura was tense. She had killed Sheener, after all, and Tammy had been dependent on him. She expected Tammy to be bitter and angry, but in fact the girl greeted her only with a sincere, shy, and piercingly sad smile.

After Tammy had been with them two days, it became clear that she viewed the loss of the Eel's twisted affections with perverse regret but also with relief. The fiery temper she had revealed when she tore apart Laura's books was quenched. She was once again that drab, bony, washed-out girl who, on Laura's first day at McIlroy, had seemed more of an apparition than a real person, in danger of dissolving into smoky ectoplasm and, with the first good draft, dissipating entirely.

After the deaths of the Eel and Nina Dockweiler, Laura attended half-hour sessions with Dr. Boone, a psychotherapist, when he visited McIlroy every Tuesday and Saturday. Boone was unable to understand that Laura could absorb the shock of Willy Sheener's attack and Nina's tragic death without psychological damage. He was puzzled by her articulate discussions of her feelings and the adult vocabulary with which she expressed her adjustment to events in Newport Beach. Having been motherless, having lost her father, having endured many crises and much terror-but most of all, having benefited from her father's wondrous love-she was as resilient as a sponge, absorbing what life presented. However, though she could speak of Sheener with dispassion and of Nina with as much affection as sadness, the psychiatrist viewed her adjustment as merely apparent and not real.

“So you dream about Willy Sheener?” he asked as he sat beside her on the sofa in the small office reserved for him at McIlroy.

“I've only dreamed of him twice. Nightmares, of course. But all kids have nightmares.”

“You dream about Nina, too. Are those nightmares?”

“Oh, no! Those are lovely dreams.”

He looked surprised. “When you think of Nina, you feel sad?”

“Yes. But also ... I remember the fun of shopping with her, trying on dresses and sweaters. I remember her smile and her laugh.”

“And guilt? Do you feel guilty about what happened to Nina?”

“No. Maybe Nina wouldn't have died if I hadn't moved in with them and drawn Sheener after me, but I can't feel guilty about that. I tried hard to be a good foster daughter to them, and they were happy with me. What happened was that life dropped a big custard pie on us, and that's not my fault; you can never see the custard pies coming. It's not good slapstick if you see the pie coming.”

“Custard pie?” he asked, perplexed. “You see life as slapstick comedy? Like the Three Stooges?”


“Life is just a joke then?”

“No. Life is serious and a joke at the same time.”

“But how can that be?”

“If you don't know,” she said, “maybe I should be the one asking the questions here.”

She filled many pages of her current notebook with observations about Dr. Will Boone. Of her unknown guardian, however, she wrote nothing. She tried not to think of him, either. He had failed her. Laura had come to depend on him; his heroic efforts on her behalf had made her feel special, and feeling special had helped her cope since her father's death. Now she felt foolish for ever looking beyond herself for survival. She still had the note he had left on her desk after her father's funeral, but she no longer reread it. And day by day her guardian's previous efforts on her behalf seemed more like fantasies akin to those of Santa Claus, which must be outgrown.

On Christmas afternoon they returned to their room with the gifts they received from charities and do-gooders. They wound up in a sing-along of holiday songs, and both Laura and the twins were amazed when Tammy joined in. She sang in a low, tentative voice.

Over the next couple of weeks she nearly ceased biting her nails altogether. She was only slightly more outgoing than usual, but she seemed calmer, more content with herself than she had ever been.

“When there's no perv around to bother her,” Thelma said, “maybe she gradually starts to feel clean again.”

Friday, January 12, 1968, was Laura's thirteenth birthday, but she did not celebrate it. She could find no joy in the occasion.

On Monday, she was transferred from McIlroy to Caswell Hall, a shelter for older children in Anaheim, five miles away.

Ruth and Thelma helped her carry her belongings downstairs to the front foyer. Laura had never imagined that she would so intensely regret leaving McIlroy.

“We'll be coming in May,” Thelma assured her. “We turn thirteen on May second, and then we're out of here. We'll be together again.”

When the social worker from Caswell arrived, Laura was reluctant to go. But she went.

Caswell Hall was an old high school that had been converted to dormitories, recreational lounges, and offices for social workers. As a result the atmosphere was more institutional than at McIlroy. Caswell was also more dangerous than McIlroy because the kids were older and because many were borderline juvenile delinquents. Marijuana and pills were available, and fights among the boys- and even among the girls-were not infrequent. Cliques formed, as they had at McIlroy, but at Caswell some of the cliques were perilously close in structure and function to street gangs. Thievery was common.

Within a few weeks Laura realized that there were two types of survivors in life: those, like her, who found the requisite strength in having once been loved with great intensity; and those who, having not been loved, learned to thrive on hatred, suspicion, and the meager rewards of revenge. They were at once scornful of the need for human feeling and envious of the capacity for it.

She lived with great caution at Caswell but never allowed fear to diminish her. The thugs were frightening but also pathetic and, in their posturing and rituals of violence, even funny. She found no one like the Ackersons with whom to share the black humor, so she filled her notebooks with it. In those neatly written monologues, she turned inward while she waited for the Ackersons to be thirteen; that was an intensely rich time of self-discovery and increasing understanding of the slapstick, tragic world into which she had been born.

On Saturday, March 30, she was in her room at Caswell, reading, when she heard one of her roomies-a whiny girl named Fran Wickert-talking to another girl in the hall, discussing a fire in which kids had been killed. Laura was eavesdropping with only half an ear until she heard the word “McIlroy.”

A chill pierced her, freezing her heart, numbing her hands. She dropped the book and raced into the hallway, startling the girls. “When? When was this fire?”

“Yesterday,” Fran said.

“How many were k-killed?”

“Not many, two kids I think, maybe only one, but I heard if you was there you could smell burnin' meat. Is that the grossest thing-”

Advancing on Fran, Laura said, “What were their names?”

“Hey, let me go.”

“Tell me their names!”

“I don't know any names. Christ, what's the matter with you?”

Laura did not remember letting go of Fran, and she did not recall leaving the grounds of the shelter, but suddenly she found herself on Katella Avenue, blocks from Caswell Hall. Katella was a commercial street in that area, and in some places there was no sidewalk, so she ran on the shoulder of the road, heading east, with traffic whizzing by on her right side. Caswell was five miles from McIlroy, and she was not sure she knew the entire route, but trusting to instinct she ran until she was exhausted, then walked until she could run again.

The rational course would have been to go straight to one of the Caswell counselors and ask for the names of those kids killed in the fire at McIlroy. But Laura had the peculiar idea that the Ackerson twins' fate rested entirely upon her willingness to make the difficult trip to McIlroy to inquire about them, that if she asked about them by phone she would be told they were dead, that if instead she endured the physical punishment of the five-mile run, she'd find the Ackersons were safe. That was superstition, but she succumbed to it anyway.

Twilight descended. The late-March sky was filled with muddy-red and purple light, and the edges of the scattered clouds appeared to be aflame by the time Laura came within sight of the McIlroy Home. With relief she saw that the front of the old mansion was unmarked by fire.

Although she was soaked with sweat and shaking with exhaustion, though she had a throbbing headache, she did not slow when he saw the unscorched mansion but maintained her pace for the final block. She passed six kids in the ground-floor hallways and three more on the stairs, and two of them spoke to her by name. But she did not stop to ask them about the blaze. She had to see.

On the last flight of stairs she caught the scent of a fire's aftermath: the acrid, tarry stench of burnt things; the lingering, sour smell of smoke. When she went through the door at the top of she stairwell, she saw that the windows were open at each end of the third-floor hall and that electric fans had been set up in the middle of the corridor to blow the tainted air in both directions.

The Ackersons' room had a new, unpainted door frame and door, but the surrounding wall was scorched and smeared with black soot. A hand-printed sign warned of danger. Like all the doors in McIlroy, this one had no lock, so she ignored the sign and flung open the door and stepped across the threshold and saw what she had been so afraid of seeing: destruction.

The hall lights behind her and the purple glow of twilight at the windows did not adequately illuminate the room, but she saw that the remains of the furniture had been cleaned out; the place was empty but for the reeking ghost of the fire. The floor was blackened by soot and charred, though it looked structurally sound. The walls were smoke-damaged. The closet doors had been reduced to ashes but for a few burnt chunks of wood clinging to the hinges, which had partially melted. Both windows had blown out or been broken by those fleeing the flames; now those gaps were temporarily covered by sections of clear-plastic dropcloths stapled to the walls. Fortunately for the other kids at McIlroy, the fire had burned upward rather than outward, eating through the ceiling. She looked overhead into the mansion's attic where massive, blackened beams were dimly visible in the gloom. Apparently the flames had been stopped before they'd broken through to the roof, for she could not see the sky.

She was breathing laboriously, noisily, not only because of the exhausting trip from Caswell but because a vise of panic was squeezing her chest painfully, making it difficult to inhale. And every breath of the bitterly scented air brought the nauseating taste of carbon.

From that moment in her room at Caswell when she had heard of the fire at McIlroy, she had known the cause, though she had not wanted to admit to the knowledge. Tammy Hinsen once had been caught with a can of lighter fluid and matches with which she planned to set herself afire. On hearing of that intended self-immolation, Laura had known that Tammy had been serious about it because immolation seemed such a right form of suicide for her, an externalization of the inner fire that had been consuming her for years.

Please, God, she was alone in the room when she did it, please.

Gagging on the stink and taste of destruction, Laura turned away from the fire-blasted room and stepped into the third-floor corridor.


She looked up and saw Rebecca Bogner. Laura's breath came and went in wrenching inhalations, shuddering exhalations, but somehow she croaked their names: “Ruth . . . Thelma?”

Rebecca's bleak expression denied the possibility that the twins had escaped unharmed, but Laura repeated the precious names, and in her ragged voice she heard a pathetic, beseeching note.