He grabs the handle on a container of orange juice, making a mental note to return to Utah someday—assuming he ever gets out of the state alive—to make restitution for this and for the hot dogs. He’s sincere in his intention to pay for what he takes, but nevertheless he feels like a criminal.
Putting all his hopes on the door at the end of this cooler, Curtis discovers that it opens into a larger and warmer receiving room stacked with those supplies that don’t need refrigeration. Cartons of napkins, toilet tissue, cleaning fluids, floor wax.
Logically, a receiving room should open to the outdoors, to a loading dock or to a parking lot, and beyond the next door, he finds logic rewarded. A warm breeze, free of kitchen odors and the smell of gunfire, leaps at him, like a playful dog, and tosses his hair.
He turns right on the dimly lighted dock and sprints to the end. Four concrete steps lead down to another blacktop parking lot, which is only half as well lighted as those he’s seen previously.
Most of the vehicles back here probably belong to employees of the restaurant, the service station, the motel, and the associated enterprises. Pickup trucks are favored over cars, and the few SUVs have a desert-scorched, sand-abraided, brush-scratched look acquired by more arduous use than trips to the supermarket.
With the container of Florida’s lines! in one hand, the package of hot dogs firmly in the other, Curtis clashes between two SUVs, frantic to get out of sight before the FBI agents, the hunters in cowboy disguise, possibly the juice police, and maybe frankfurter-enforcement officers all descend on him at once, blasting away.
Just as he plunges into the shadows between the vehicles, he hears shouting, people running — suddenly so close.
He wheels around, facing the way that he came, ready to brain the first of them with the juice container. The hot dogs are useless as a weapon. His mother’s self-defense instructions never involved sausages of any kind. After the juice, all he can count on is kicking their s*x org*ns.
Two, three, five men burst past the front of the parallel SUVs, a formidable pack of husky specimens, all wearing either black vests or black windbreakers with the letters FBI blazing in white across their chests and backs. Two carry shotguns; the others have handguns. They are prepared, pumped, pissed — and so intently focused on the rear entrance to the restaurant that not one of them catches sight of Curtis as they race past. They leave him untouched, and still in possession of his dangerous jug of orange juice and his pathetic wieners.
Sucking in great lungfuls of the astringent desert air, giving it back hotter than he receives it, the boy weaves westward, using the employees’ vehicles for cover. He’s not sure where he should go, but he’s eager to put some distance between himself and this complex of buildings.
He rounds the tailgate of a Dodge pickup, hurrying into a new aisle, and here the loyal dog is waiting, a black shape splashed with a few whorls of white, like tossed-off scarves of moonlight floating on the night-stained surface of a pond. She is alert, ears pricked, drawn not by the frankfurters but by an awareness of her master’s predicament.
Good pup. Let’s get out of here.
She whips around — no older than she is yellow — and trots away, not at a full run, but at a pace that the boy can match. Trusting her sharper senses, assuming she won’t lead them straight into any associates of the cowboys who might be — surely are — in the vicinity, or into another posse of FBI agents bristling with weapons, Curtis follows her.
TO EVERYONE but Noah Farrel, the Haven of the Lonesome and the Long Forgotten was known as Cielo Vista Care Home. The real name of the establishment promised a view of Heaven but provided something more like a glimpse of Purgatory.
He wasn’t entirely sure why he had given the place another—and so maudlin—name by which he usually thought of it. Life otherwise had entirely purged him of sentimentality, although he would admit to an ever-dwindling but not yet eradicated capacity for romanticism.
Not that anything about the care home was romantic, other than its Spanish architecture and lattice-shaded sidewalks draped with yellow and purple bougainvillea. In spite of those inviting arbors, no one would come here in search of love or chivalrous adventure.
Throughout the institution, the floors—gray vinyl speckled with peach and turquoise—were immaculate. Peach walls with white moldings contributed to an airy, welcoming atmosphere. Cleanliness and cheery colors, however, proved insufficient to con Noah into a holiday mood.
This was a private establishment with a dedicated, friendly staff. Noah appreciated their professionalism, but their smiles and greetings seemed false, not because he doubted their sincerity, but because he himself found it hard to raise a genuine smile in this place, and because he arrived under such a weight of guilt that his heart was too compressed to contain the more expansive emotions.
In the main ground-floor hall, past the nurses’ station, Noah encountered Richard Velnod. Richard preferred to be called Rickster, the affectionate nickname that his dad had given him.
Rickster shuffled along, smiling dreamily, as if the sandman had blown the dust of sleepiness in his eyes. With his thick neck, heavy rounded shoulders, and short arms and legs, he brought to mind characters of fantasy and fairy lore, though always a benign version: a kindly troll or perhaps a good-hearted kobold on his way to watch over—rather than torment—coal miners in deep dangerous tunnels.
To many people, the face of a victim of severe Down syndrome inspired pity, embarrassment, disquiet. Instead, each time Noah saw this boy—twenty-six but to some degree a boy forever—he was pierced by an awareness of the bond of imperfection that all the sons and daughters of this world share without exception, and by gratitude that the worst of his own imperfections were within his ability to make right if he could find the willpower to deal with them.
“Does the little orange lady like the dark out?” Rickster asked.
“What little orange lady would that be?” Noah asked.
Rickster’s hands were cupped together as though they concealed a treasure that he was bearing as a gift to throne or altar.
When Noah leaned close to have a look, Rickster’s hands parted hesitantly; a wary oyster, jealous of its precious pearl, might have opened its shell to feed in this guarded fashion. In the palm of the lower hand crawled a ladybug, orange carapace like a polished bead.
“She sort of flies a little.” Rickster quickly closed his hands. “I’ll put her loose.” He glanced at the new-fallen night beyond a nearby window. “Maybe she’s scared. Out in the dark, I mean.”
“I know ladybugs,” Noah said. “They all love the night.”
“You sure? The sky goes away in the dark, and everything gets so big. I don’t want her scared.”
In Rickster’s soft features, as well as in his earnest eyes, were a profound natural kindness that he hadn’t needed to learn by example and an innocence that could not be corrupted, which required that his concern for the insect be addressed seriously.
“Birds are something ladybugs worry about, you know.”
” ‘Cause birds eat bugs.”
“Exactly right. But a lot of birds go to roost at night and stay there till morning. Your little orange lady is safer in the dark.”
Rickster’s sloped brow, his flat nose, and the heavy lines of his face seemed best suited for morose expressions, yet his smile was broad and winning. “I put a lot of things loose, you know?” “I know.”
Flies, ants. Moths weary from battling window glass or fat from feasting on wool. Wriggling spiders. Tiny pill bugs curled as tightly as threatened armadillos. All these and more had been rescued by this child-man, taken out of Cielo Vista, and set free.
Once, when an outlaw mouse scurried from room to room and along hallways, eluding a comic posse of janitors and nurses, Rickster knelt and extended a hand to it. As though sensing the spirit of St. Francis reborn, the frightened fugitive scampered directly to him, onto his palm, up his arm, finally to a stop on his slumped shoulder. To the delight and applause of the staff and residents, he walked outside and released the trembling creature on the rear lawn, where it dashed out of sight into a bed of red and coral-pink impatiens.
As it was no doubt a domestic mouse, favoring hearth over field, the beastie had most likely hidden among the flowers only until its terror passed. By nightfall it would have found a way back into the heated and cat-free sanctuary of the care home.
From these rescues, Noah inferred that Rickster considered residence in Cielo Vista, in spite of its caring staff and comforts, to be an unnatural condition for any form of life.
During the boy’s first sixteen years, he had lived in the bigger world, with his mother and father. They had been killed by a drunk driver on the Pacific Coast Highway: Only ten minutes from home, they suddenly found themselves even closer than ten minutes to paradise.
Rickster’s uncle, executor of the estate, was also guardian of the boy. An embarrassment to his relatives, Rickster was dispatched to Cielo Vista. He arrived shy, scared, without protest. A week later, he became the benefactor to bugs, emancipator of mice.
“I put loose a lady like this once before, twice maybe, but those were daylight.”
Suspecting that Rickster might be a little afraid of the night, Noah said, “Do you want me to take her outside and turn her free?”
“No thanks. I want to see her go. I’ll put her on the roses. She’ll like them.”
With hands cupped protectively and held near his heart, he shuffled toward the lobby and the front entrance.
Noah’s feet felt as heavily iron-shod as Rickster’s appeared to be, but he tried not to shuffle the rest of the way to Laura’s room.
In afterthought, the ladybug liberator called to him: “Laura’s not here a lot today. Gone off in one of those places she goes.”
Noah stopped, dismayed. “Which one?”
Without looking back, the boy said, “The one that’s sad.”
At the end of the hall, her room was small but not cramped, and nothing about it cried hospital or whispered sanitarium. The faux-Persian rug, though inexpensive, lent grace and warmth to the space: jewel-sharp, jewel-dark colors, like a pirate’s treasure of sapphires spilled among emeralds, scattered with rubies. The furnishings were not typical institutional Formica-and-case-steel items, but maple stained and finished to the color and glimmer of Cabernet.
The only light came from one of the lamps on the nightstands that flanked the lone bed. Laura didn’t share quarters, because she didn’t possess the capacity to socialize to the extent that the care home required of a roommate.
Barefoot, wearing white cotton pants and a pink blouse, she lay on the bed, atop the rumpled chenille spread, head upon a pillow, her back to the door and to the lamp, her face in shadow. She didn’t stir when he entered or acknowledge his presence when he rounded the bed and stood gazing down at her.
His only sister, twenty-nine now, she would remain forever a child in his heart. When she was twelve, he’d lost her. Until then, she’d been a radiance, the one brightness in a family that otherwise lived in shadow and fed on darkness.
Beautiful at twelve, still half beautiful, she lay on her left side, presenting only her right profile, which was unmarked by the violence that had changed her life. The unrevealed half of her face, pressed into the pillow, was the phantom-of-the-opera hemisphere, its battered bone structure held together by cords of scar tissue.
Although the finest restorative surgeon couldn’t have rebuilt her beauty, the worst of the horror might have been smoothed out oilier crushed features and a plain profile constructed from the ruins. Insurance companies, however, decline to pay for expensive plastic-surgery when the patient also suffers serious brain damage that allows little self-awareness and no hope of a normal life.
As Rickster had warned, Laura was in one of her private places. Oblivious of everything around her, she stared raptly into some other world of memory or fantasy, as though watching a drama unfold for an audience of one.
Other days, she might lie here smiling, eyes shining with amusement, occasionally issuing a soft murmur of delight. But now she had gone to the sad place, the second-worst of the unknown lands in which her roaming spirit seemed to travel. Dampness darkened the pillowcase under her head, her cheek was wet, pendent salty jewels quivered on her lashes, and fresh tears shimmered in her brown eyes.
Noah spoke her name, but as he expected, Laura didn’t respond.
He touched her brow. She didn’t twitch or even so much as blink in response.
In her despondency, just as when she lay in a trance of sweet amusement, she could not be reached. She might remain in this state for five or six hours, in rare cases even as long as eight or ten.
When not cataleptic, she could dress and feed herself, though she appeared mildly bemused, as if not entirely sure what she was doing or why she was doing it. In that more common condition, Laura now and then answered to her name, although usually she appeared not to know who she was — or to care.
She seldom spoke, and never recognized Noah. If she possessed any memory whatsoever of the days when she’d been whole, her shattered recollections were scattered across the darkscape of her mind in fragments so minuscule that she could no more easily piece them together than she could gather from the beach all the tiny chips of broken seashells, worn to polished flakes by ages of relentless tides, and reassemble them into their original architectures.
Noah settled into the armchair, from which he was able to see her dreamlit gaze, the periodic blink of her eyelids, and the slow steady flow of tears.
As difficult as it was to watch over her when she lay in this trance of despair, Noah was grateful that she hadn’t descended into the more disturbing realm where she sometimes became lost. In that even less hospitable place, her tearless eyes filled with horror, and sharp fear carved ugly lines in the lovely half of her face.
“Profit from this case will buy another six months here,” Noah told her. “So now we have the first half of next year covered.”
Providing for Laura was the reason that he worked, the reason that he lived in a low-rent apartment, drove a rustbucket, never traveled, and bought his clothes at warehouse-clubs. Providing for Laura was, in fact, the reason that he lived at all.
If he had acted responsibly all those years ago, when she was twelve and he was sixteen, if he’d had the courage to turn against his contemptible family and to do the right thing, his sister would not have been beaten and left for dead. Her life wouldn’t now be a long series of waking dreams and nightmares punctuated by spells of bewildered placidity.
“You’d like Constance Tavenall,” he said. “If you’d had a chance to grow up, I think you’d have been a lot like her.”
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