The most wanted, p.13
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       The Most Wanted, p.13
 

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  Whoever designed the house had really kitchen-sinked it. There were yards of crumbling gingerbread lattices over carved lintels, wrought-iron rails overgrown with trumpet vine that reached out from the arms of a huge, shedding pecan tree. The front garden looked like an EPA site; Stuart would later say he’d expected to find a car buried in the yard. A series of abused mailboxes of various vintages lined the front walk.

  “Someone evidently went postal,” Stuart said. I punched him on the shoulder. “Why do you have such bad friends?” he asked.

  “I don’t have bad friends,” I replied. “Why do you have such bad manners?”

  “She’s just typical of . . . everybody, Anne. ‘Why don’t they spend money on children instead of convicted killers?’ As if it were a genuine set of equal options—you know, just like adoption, not abortion.”

  “Stuart, she is typical of everybody. Everybody doesn’t give a shit whether somebody who killed his whole family also has a sad history.”

  “Do you know just what this place looks like?” Stuart asked me, looking up at the house again and shrugging off my explanation like a wet shirt.

  And I, feeling suddenly as though a question had just been answered by telegram, said, “Yes, exactly.”

  “It looks like the big old house in It’s a Wonderful Life.”

  “Yes, it does. Exactly. Mary and George were coming home from the dance and they threw stones at the windows and the one who broke the first pane got his wish . . .” Stuart had already picked up a little rock. He had a good arm, from years of high-stake lawyer’s softball teams, but he came nowhere near any of the six or seven thousand still-unbroken panes in that house. He was picking up another stone when I said, “Now, wait. That’s not fair. I get to try first.”

  At first Stuart looked at me as though I weren’t quite there. It dawned on me that he hadn’t fully entered into this re-creation of the sacred Capra romantic moment; he was pissed, pissed like a kid, and just felt like breaking something. Right then, the moon shrugged a cloud and shone directly on a huge pair of eight-paneled windows fronting what I realized I’d just decided would be my bedroom. Stuart was a good sport; he grinned and handed me his stone and reminded me to use my shoulder, not my wrist. And I put it right through a pane that couldn’t have been more than five inches by five, which would later cost me nearly a hundred bucks to replace, and I turned to Stuart and slapped my hands on my thighs and said, “And that is how that is done. I get my wish.”

  I only got to gloat for a minute.

  Stuart was gazing over my shoulder, alarmed.

  “What?” I whispered, whirling around and almost colliding with the lap of a big blond guy carrying a big pointed stake. My forehead hit him at about waist level. I looked up and up, reaching back blindly for Stuart’s hand, before I realized with relief that the guy probably wasn’t really a hobo defending his jungle with . . . yes, a sledgehammer. He was actually carrying a lettered sign. And wearing painter’s overalls. And a feed cap. Just a big, blond Texas guy.

  He said, “You shouldn’t bust out the windows. It’s not nice.”

  Is this, like, Lenny? I thought, and righted myself. “I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “We were being foolish. We just . . . I’ll gladly pay for it.”

  The blond guy looked up at the overhang of the eaves. “I don’t know who you’d pay, ma’am. The owner . . .”

  “Yes?”

  “Well, she’s dead, ma’am,” he answered, beginning to pound a For Sale sign into one of the few unmailboxed spaces in the yard.

  “Are you her son?” I asked stupidly, trying to piece things together.

  “Nope. I just do a lot of repair work and stuff around the neighborhood. People have some beautiful gardens—I care-take a few of them. This lady had some nice plantings. You hate to see it all ruined. Somebody’s going to spade all this up and put a damned hedge in here or something.”

  Still alert, but recovered, Stuart asked, “How long has this place been abandoned?”

  “I don’t know,” said the blond man. “What? Five years? The old lady for sure still lived here when I was in college. Maybe it’s more like eight or nine years. A house won’t hold up long in this climate with nobody to mind it.”

  “Didn’t she have . . . family?”

  “Not that I ever saw. I guess somebody finally decided to sell it to one of those brokers who takes on vacant houses. It’s really beautiful inside. And under here”—he pointed to the heap of mailboxes—“there’s this gorgeous perennial garden.” Even in the deepening dark, I could see his smile grow eager. “Hibiscus and cacti and . . . well, that’s a Rio Grande abutilon, that orange flower. And see that tree with the trunk the same green as the branches? That’s paloverde. Evening primrose all over. My house is two blocks away. Gardens are kind of a passion of mine, but even I don’t have this nice a garden. Or the space for it.”

  “I could imagine having this garden,” I said then. Stuart stared at me. “Well,” I said, standing erect with some effort. “I think I’ll buy this house. Stuart, don’t you think I should buy this house? How much is it?”

  “I don’t know, ma’am. It might be . . . well, it can’t be much. I was just out here this afternoon sort of doing the rounds and I ran into the real estate agent—he was on his way to his kid’s softball game—so I said I’d stick this in here for him. . . .”

  “Real close neighborhood,” Stuart muttered; unkindly, I thought.

  “Judging by my house,” the man went on, “I’d say . . . maybe sixty thousand. Or not even. It’s . . . ah, it needs a lot.”

  “Well, we could—”

  “We?” Stuart asked. “That’s not what you said. You said you might buy this house.”

  “I meant we,” I said. “Stuart, want to buy a house? With me?” I turned back, craning my neck to look eye-to-eye with the blond giant, and asked, “What sort of house is this?”

  “This,” he said, pushing back the brim of his denim baseball cap, “is a Queen Anne.”

  “See?” I said to Stuart. “There you have it!”

  “See what, Anne?” he asked me.

  “Well, look at the address. It’s forty forty . . . what street is this?”

  “Azalea Road.”

  “Forty forty Azalea Road. I’m going to be forty. And I broke the window. It’s an omen. And . . . and . . . I was talking to the warden at Solamente River today, and he said—though I didn’t agree with this—you don’t have to do a thing just because you can. . . .”

  “And your point?” Stuart asked, a little coldly.

  “Well, by the same token, that means you shouldn’t avoid doing a thing just because you . . . just because it’s possible to think of all kinds of reasons that would stop you.”

  “Anne, we don’t need a house. We haven’t even decided whether we’re going to get—”

  “Stop. I want this house,” I said. I felt like sitting down on the bottom step and bawling. “And I want to go back to Amor Ausente.”

  “I like that restaurant,” said the blond man. “My name’s Charley Wilder, by the way. My mother lives around here too. And one of my brothers. What do you guys do?”

  “I’m a lawyer,” Stuart said.

  I said, “I’m a lawyer too.”

  “A pair of lawyers?” I could hear Stuart’s scornful quiet snort, and I hoped this nice kid couldn’t; Stuart could be so impatient with the slow speed of Texas geniality. “Now, the couple across the street are lawyers too. They’re both men, though. . . .” Stuart snorted aloud then, but I had the odd feeling that the teasing had been deliberate, that the blond man had a firm grip on the reins. “And the guy who owns Amor Ausente lives right”—he took off his cap and, with his yellow hair springing free in lank curls—“right over there on the corner. The big adobe place.”

  “I never met him,” I told Charley Wilder. “But we eat there all the time. And go for drinks.” That was probably obvious.

  “Ramón. He’s a character. ‘Lost Love,’ ” said t
he blond man. “That’s what the name of the restaurant means. But you probably know the story. . . .”

  I turned to Stuart. “I thought you said it was the sad lady of—”

  “Anne, I just said that because you kept asking. You know more Spanish than I do. You know what amor means.”

  “But why did I believe you?”

  The young man added, “This guy started the restaurant when his wife ran off with a cowboy—”

  “He ate to forget,” said Stuart.

  “That’s my line,” I told him.

  “Excuse me,” Charley asked. “Should I leave the sign?”

  “We’d probably just throw rocks at it,” I told him.

  “Or each other,” Stuart added.

  Charley pounded the sign in with a few sure blows. “I’ll let you two work this one out,” he said.

  CHAPTER SIX

  Arley

  I HAD TO work in the morning, though I was as sick as a dog eating grass. Elena breezed in right the same time as me, and she looked as if she’d spent the night at a beauty parlor, her hair all twisted up over one ear, her blush swept up just so over her cheekbones. She did stupid stuff the whole first hour, knocking two of my orders right off the pass-through window on purpose, splashing guck out of the bus tub on my uniform, laughing and talking in Spanish to the dishwasher, Eduardo, pointing over at me when she knew I could see. But I didn’t pay her the compliment of noticing one thing.

  I just told Cully the plates were greasy. I didn’t let her get to me. Annie always says I’m self-possessed. After I got over thinking she meant that I had a demon in me, I kind of agreed. It must come from being alone so much, because after a certain amount of pushing, I just hit a point where nothing can touch me. It’s like in running: you get to a place after a mile or so where you know you could just keep on going forever if it wasn’t for the fact that it would eventually kill you.

  That morning at work, it got to be kind of interesting, seeing Elena twist herself inside out trying to make me notice her tricks. I just tried to forget last night and make myself think about what I was going to write to Dillon in my emergency postcard: “I’m coming to see you. If that’s not okay, please write soon”? When it came to that, I didn’t feel so self-possessed. But I tried to act as though I felt confident. It was a way I’d get accustomed to acting very soon, and with even less reason for confidence.

  On my break, I went up to the phone booth on the corner of Alameda and Honora Streets—you couldn’t see it from the restaurant—and called Connie G.

  She said right away, “Arley. Oh, honey, are you okay?”

  I held my breath. This is crazy, I thought. Unless Elena told her sister about Cam and all. I just said, real slowly, “I’m okay. I’m fine, Connie.”

  “I know you were there. Tina Secora’s little sister Allie was telling me she saw you and Cam. And I know Elena likes that boy Eric. Or she did. Now I guess she won’t be seeing him. . . .”

  It was like the crazy wind, the one off the desert that Mrs. G. says used to make the Apaches kill their brothers in the night. I had no idea what she was talking about. Did she think it was such a big deal some kid got arrested for underage drinking? Then I remembered that truck’s window, the eerie light on the top of the ambulance.

  I had to ask her, though I didn’t want to know.

  “Did you see any of it?” Connie asked then.

  I said, “Connie, I know what Elena thinks, but I didn’t see a thing.”

  “Well, did she see any of it?”

  “I . . . I guess . . . Did you ask her?”

  “I didn’t even know it happened until after she left for work.”

  “Oh.”

  “Does Elena know? Did Cam drive you two home?”

  “We took the bus. . . .” I realized, then, she did mean the accident, whatever it was. Thank you, God, thank you, I thought, sagging against the cold glass of the booth, finally letting myself feel how chilled I was without my jacket, which I’d had to leave in the washing machine that morning—it was all over with throw-up. “I don’t even know what kid it was.”

  “Girl, it was the Nevadas boy.”

  My stomach jumped. I remembered the sound of that bike in the night. “Ricky or Gary?”

  “No, the other one, the cousin. Corty. He lives up by us.”

  “I don’t even know Corty Nevadas. Did he go to the hospital? Or just the police station? How old is he?”

  Connie was so silent, I thought the phone had gone out. “Arley,” she said, so gently I knew that anything she said was going to make me cry. “Arley, they took him to the morgue, girl. His head was ripped almost off. . . .”

  “What?”

  “He was hanging out of the passenger side of that car, the Dorey kid’s car, his daddy’s classic Ford something-or-other. Some kid named Raiford got it out of the garage and he was driving around and around that circle driveway, and then some other kid—I don’t know who, but it was on the news that he was just sixteen—opened the door of a pickup and it tore Corty Nevadas’s head right—”

  “Don’t tell me any more!” I yelled at her. “Oh, poor Corty. Poor Eric. He’s such a good boy. . . .”

  “I know.”

  “And he was just drinking is all. Nothing but that. God, oh God. I have to tell Elena. . . . You call up and tell Elena, okay?”

  “Why, Arley? What’s the matter?”

  “Nothing! Nothing! I just can’t tell her is all, and I know she has no idea, or if she does, she’s crazy, because she’s running around in there laughing her head off—oh God, I didn’t mean that. . . .”

  “Arley, you all are too young for that kind of party.”

  “Yes!” I said. “Yes, we are!”

  “Honey, why’d you call me?”

  I was so tense, I had to hold on to the roots of my hair to stop the gnashing of the pain in my jaws. “I—uh—I wanted to know when you would go back out to Solamente River.”

  “Mmm, next Saturday.”

  “Do you stay over? At, like, a motel?”

  “No, I come back. You only get an hour.”

  “Are you going to drive over there?”

  “I don’t have a car, Arley. And Gracie’s is getting fixed. I’m taking the bus up. The Greyhound.”

  “Can I come with you?”

  “It’s a public bus.”

  “Oh, okay. Okay.”

  “I’m sorry, Arley, honey. Of course you can come with me. You mean to see Dillon really.”

  “I really want to, —want to,” I said, realizing then how much I did. “Connie, just don’t tell Elena I’m going. Don’t tell her. I want to tell her myself.”

  “Okay,” she said, softly. “So this is why he was asking all about you—”

  “He asked about me?”

  “He didn’t ask me himself. He sent me a note with Kevin. He wanted to know all about you, were you serious about any man or anything. And I told Kevin . . . well, I didn’t know how you felt.”

  “What?”

  “I told Kevin I didn’t think a guy Dillon’s age should be all that interested in a little bitty girl in the ninth grade.”

  All the vinegar steeped into that pig sandwich from the night before came right back up my throat like a gully wash right then. I had to bend over and spit out the door, and I saw Mr. Justice, leaning on the stop-and-go pole at the corner and looking at me. He started toward me, but I shut the door and shut my eyes and turned away. My legs were churning back and forth like they did when I didn’t drink enough water before I ran. When I opened my eyes, he was walking the other way.

  “. . . though I guess you could say it wouldn’t do anyone any harm. You can’t do anything but talk, anyway,” Connie was saying. “Plus this is about half my fault for telling you about him in the first place.”

  “You told him I was only fourteen?”

  “What?”

  “I gotta go, Connie,” I said. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay? I . . . It’s too hot out here.” I threw th
e phone down and it didn’t even go into the cradle, but I just left it hanging and ran back toward the restaurant like there was rats after me. It only took me about two minutes to get there, but I saw Elena burst out the door, her hair all down, crying, and she just about knocked me over, grabbing me around the waist. How’d Connie called her so fast? But I knew she had.

  “I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry. I was mad at you. I was, like, getting back at you for keeping secrets from me. . . . I’m so sorry I was such a jerk with Cam. I’m . . . oh God, did you hear about Corty? Oh God, Arley . . . Eric Dorey’s going to go to jail. It was his house . . .”

  Then I was crying myself, hugging her hard, inhaling the way she smelled of vanilla and serrano peppers like it was oxygen from a canister, relieved at how strong and the same my best friend felt. But if I tell the truth, I was only half crying because of our fight and poor Corty Nevadas. I didn’t give a damn if every kid in Bexar County got his head busted like a pumpkin right then. No, it was that I felt sure Dillon hated me for my lies, and I was never going to hear from him again, and I realized just how much my whole world had started to contract into smaller and smaller circles, like the narrow end of a fluted shell, and how, in the space left by that smallest of circles, with Dillon at the center, I could not move or turn away.

  When we couldn’t stop crying, even as we wiped the tables clean, Ginny Jack sensibly told us both to go home. Instead, we went and sat in Alamo Plaza and got piña colada snow cones; Elena actually helped me plan my emergency postcard, though she still didn’t approve of Dillon and especially, as she put it, my “doggin’ after him.” What she suggested I write was really brilliant: “I know that you know what you know. And I’m sorry. But people a lot older than me have done things a lot more foolish for a lot less reason. I do not have very much experience, and someday you will be glad.”

  I asked her, “What do I mean by that?”

  “It means you didn’t sleep with another boy. He would want to be the first one.”

 
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