Page 56

Standing there in the kitchen, Kylie can barely remember some of what mattered so much only a few hours ago. All she knows is that if she waits much longer, the cake will begin to go stale, or ants will get to it, or someone will wander in and cut a piece. She’ll go to Gideon’s right now, before she can change her mind.

There’s no lettuce in the refrigerator, so Kylie takes the first interesting edible she spies—half of an uneaten Snickers that Gillian left to melt on the counter. Kylie’s about to rush back upstairs, but when she turns she sees that the toad has followed her.

Too hungry to wait, Kylie guesses.

She takes the toad in her hand and breaks off a tiny sliver of the candy bar. But then the oddest thing happens: When she goes to feed the toad, it opens its mouth and spits out a ring.

“Gee.” Kylie laughs. “Thanks.”

The ring is heavy and cold when she holds it in her hand. The toad must have found it in the mud; damp earth is caked over the band so thickly it’s impossible for Kylie to see this gift for what it really is. If she stopped to examine it, if she held it up to the light and took a good look, she’d discover that the silver has a strange purple tint. Drops of blood are hidden beneath the patina of dirt. If she hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to Gideon’s, if she realized what it was she had, she would have taken that ring out to the backyard and buried it, beneath the lilacs, where it belongs. Instead, Kylie goes ahead and tosses it into the little Fiestaware saucer on which her mother keeps a pathetic example of a cactus. She grabs the cake and pushes the screen door open with her hip, and as soon as she’s outside she leans to place the toad in the grass.

“There you go,” she tells it, but the toad is still there, motionless on the lawn, when Kylie has already turned the corner onto the next block.

Gideon lives on the other side of the Turnpike, in a development that pretends to be fancier than it is. The houses in his neighborhood have decks and finished basements and French doors leading to well-tended gardens. Usually it takes Kylie twelve minutes to get there from her house, but that’s if she’s running and not carrying a large chocolate cake. Tonight, she doesn’t want to drop the cake, so her pace is measured as she walks past the gas station and the shopping center, where there are a supermarket, a Chinese restaurant, and a deli, side by side, as well as the ice cream parlor where Antonia works. Then she has a choice; she can walk past Bruno’s, the tavern at the end of the shopping center, which has a pink neon sign and a nasty feel to it, or she can cross the Turnpike and take a shortcut across the overgrown field, where everyone says a health club will soon be built, complete with an Olympic-size pool.

Since there are two guys coming out of Bruno’s, talking to each other in too-loud voices, Kylie opts for the field. She can cut through, and be two blocks away from Gideon’s. The weeds are so high and scratchy that Kylie wishes that she were wearing jeans instead of shorts. Still, it’s a pretty night, and the foul smell of the puddles at the far end of the field, where mosquitoes have been breeding all summer, is replaced by the scent of chocolate frosting from the cake Kylie’s about to deliver. Kylie is wondering if it will be too late for her to stay and play a game of one-on-one—Gideon has a regulation basketball hoop set up in his driveway, a gift of guilt from his father, right after he divorced Gideon’s mother—when she notices that the air around her is growing murky and cold. There’s a black edge to this field. Something is wrong. Kylie starts to walk faster, and that’s when it happens. That’s when they call out for her to wait up.

She sees exactly who they are and what they want when she looks over her shoulder. The two men from the tavern have crossed the Turnpike and are following her; they’re big and their shadows have a crimson cast and they’re calling her Baby. They’re saying, “Hey, don’t you understand English? Wait up. Just wait.”

Kylie can already feel her heart beating too hard, even before she starts to run. She knows what kind of men they are; they’re like the one they had to get rid of out in the garden. They get mad the way he does, for no reason at all, except some pain deep inside that they’re not even aware of anymore, and they want to hurt somebody. They want to do it right now. The cake hits against Kylie’s chest; the weeds are thorny and scratch at her. The men let out a whoop when she starts to run, as if she’s made it more fun to track her. If they’re smashed, they won’t bother to run after her, but they’re not that drunk yet. Kylie throws the cake away, and it splatters when it hits the ground, where it will be food for the field mice and the ants. She can still smell the frosting, though; it’s all over her hands. She will never again be able to eat chocolate. The scent of it will set her heart racing. The taste will turn her stomach.