The most wanted, p.37
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       The Most Wanted, p.37

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 

  Then, at about nine o’clock, the power failed.

  The lights just winked, and went up, and went down, and Emmylou’s voice sank and died away right in the middle of “That Old Loving-You Feeling.”

  It wasn’t dark, because of the fire. That fire was standing straight up like a wave against the hills, and the air outside was filling with little flickers of ash, gathering like smoke. I had no idea how bad it really was, how gasoline had been laid down over days on that wet-and-dried grass. I had no idea that the fire protection service had to pull people off little fires all over the county—there were about forty other grass fires that night—to come and help out on the ridge. I had no idea that one of those big houses was already gone and three would be destroyed by morning. I didn’t know there was a roadblock, which had stopped Annie and Charley at the highway, and that Jack had promised them I was okay and said someone was headed over to get me in a few minutes. I didn’t know that some of the emergency vehicles had their tires slashed, which sent people running around in circles.

  But I wasn’t afraid of the fire. I knew that the wind was blowing away from me, and that even though it was only a few miles off, grass fires go uphill because of the way hot air rises. What I was scared of was trying to walk through the pitch dark a mile up a dirt-pack road to the highway with my baby. I figured I’d just lie down and wait, awake, for Annie to come.

  And that was what I did. So I lay down, but I guess I slept.

  When I heard the crash, I opened my eyes, but I didn’t sit up and I didn’t cry out. The windows were all lit orange from the fire. It was not closer, but it was bigger. I made that out right away. I could see trees with flaming ribbons waving above them behind Dillon’s back and over Dillon’s head as he stood there. He had kicked the door in.

  I didn’t speak.

  I lay there with my eyes open, not moving one muscle, thinking, clearly, that I was asleep and dreaming and even understanding why I was dreaming like I was. Hot air came whooshing in the open door, and Dillon came walking across the room, fast, and stood looking down on Desi in her crib. Then he turned, and I could feel his eyes on me, as I lay there not six feet away. Like a little kid, I tried to slit down my eyes and pretend I was invisible. He wore a denim shirt, all shiny with dirt, and his hair was long. When he put his face on mine, I felt a stubble of beard on his chin. He knelt beside me, and he put a hand on either side of my face, and he pressed his cheek against my cheek the way he did the time we made love, so hard it almost hurt, so hard I had a tender spot there for days. And then he kissed me, opening up my mouth bit by bit with his tongue, exploring it like the inside of a cave, so slowly, for so long, as if there was something he was trying to find inside me that would keep him alive if he could drink it. I put up my arms then, to touch him, to put my hands inside his shirt and feel his skin; but he shook my hands off and, in one step and one motion, turned and scooped Desi up from her crib.

  In track, they taught us to strengthen our hamstrings by getting to our feet without using our hands. I did it so many times, practicing, it got to be second nature, a single motion, a leap to a stride. And that was the way I was up, across that cabin floor as though my legs were built of coiled springs.

  He was standing on the porch, a step outside the door, holding Desiree cradled in his right arm, just looking at her sleeping face, not petting or touching her or anything. I didn’t feel real, but felt more as if my soul’s transparent shape had lifted out of my body, and my body were still back on that bed, watching.

  “Give me my baby,” I said to Dillon. He looked up, his head all ringed by orange light, as if it were sunrise—in his eyes there were two little fires. He started to smile. His lips moved. I took Desiree with both my hands under her arms and pulled her away from Dillon so hard I nearly spun around backward.

  He was shot already. He must have been.

  He was hit before I even heard the second blast. The shot shrieked off the gutter, and the gutter clattered down to the porch. It was seconds. I wouldn’t have had time to snap my fingers.

  Nobody, not Miss Merrill or even Annie, really believes me that Dillon was still alive when he was knocked back against the cabin wall. Jack Becker said—he said it over and over, and in the exact same words, like he was trying to get me to understand—that those soft bullets “went in like a peashooter and out like a flying saucer” and that Dillon was dead before his knees hit the porch. At first I didn’t notice—though it’s hard to believe that you wouldn’t notice—all his blood and tissue spattered on the walls like someone had thrown a bucket of black paint. I just saw him look up once at me and then sort of lay himself down, his right arm just hanging. You could smell the burning fabric of his shirt, and the burning skin even through the general smoke of the burning air. He said, “Wait! . . . wait for me . . . ,” and his head drooped over and he fell. I got down there, holding Desi against me, and kind of crawled over to him. I don’t think I even realized what had happened to him. I wasn’t really thinking about someone out there with a gun.

  Dillon’s eyes were open, but only halfway, as if he’d tried to drift off to sleep, but forgot in the middle just how. From the front, he looked just like himself, and when I put my face on the part of his chest that wasn’t bleeding, he smelled just like himself, like clean wood and salt. I touched the tip of his nose; it was cold as an ice cube.

  In my arms, Desi was awake, her little eyes focused straight on my face. But she didn’t make a peep. It was only when all the girl’s yelling and swearing and screaming got so close behind me that I paid it any mind, there was so much noise from the fire, roaring and squealing and spitting, and the sirens, getting closer.

  It was because I knew the voice that I turned to look. I saw two of them in that funny light, going around and around on the lawn like a couple square-dancing. Except the tall one had the little one by the elbows and the little figure was kicking back and throwing his head so hard that his baseball cap finally flew off and all this yellow hair came falling down, and I could tell, even at a distance of thirty yards or more, that it was my sister’s voice I’d heard yelling out, “Let me alone, you fucking scum!” The taller one I couldn’t see, until they danced up closer to the porch, him trying to wrestle her down.

  “You hurt?” the man called out.

  I couldn’t say a thing.

  “Girl? Are you hurt?”

  “I’m . . . okay,” I gasped out. It wasn’t a voice loud enough for anyone to hear an inch away.

  A police car came roaring up the dirt road and onto the lawn, and some big guy in a regular policeman’s uniform jumped out and bounded over to the porch. And then Jack, right away, with Pedro, pulled in and ran over. Jack put his arm around me. “We’re here, honey,” he kept saying. “We’re here.”

  I handed Desiree to Jack and went to Dillon. The officer turned him over and Dillon’s hand, a hand streaked with his own blood, brushed my thigh. The blood was already drying, but I found some there later on, and had to sponge it off. Langtry was still screaming and fighting. “That’s your husband, Arley!” she yelled. “Your perfect husband! He loved you so much, Arley! So much he never let me alone one night! Look at him!”

  The officer on the porch looked up and said, “He’s dead, ma’am. He never knew what hit him.”

  I said, “I know.”

  And then the tall man who’d had hold of my sister came up on the porch, out of the shadows and said, “Arley, hey.”

  “Hey,” I said then. “Hey, Mister Justice.”

  “The baby’s not hurt, is she?”

  “No—she’s okay.”

  His face all streaked with sweat and dirt, but his blue eyes seemed to darken with what he said. “I first thought she hit the baby, too. Your sister.”

  “You know she’s my sister?”

  “I know who she is.”

  “How did you see them coming?”

  “Well, I’m always around. I found me a little trailer in the woods. Nothing but squirrels living
in it before. I just saw the two of them, and it looked wrong to me, people heading up toward a fire. I thought it might be someone looking for you.”

  “You knew it was me? Out here?”

  “Yes,” he said.

  I didn’t even know I was crying until I started feeling drops rolling down, wetting my neck. Then Desi started to cough and fuss, and I just picked up my shirt and put her on my breast. I sat down on the steps, and Mr. Justice sat on the lower step, a couple of feet from me. Jack went down to help the other police get Lang into the car. She was trying to bite. Someone finally put a plastic rod in her mouth, crosswise.

  Then, all of a sudden, Charley came loping up out of the shadows. They’d stopped him, then Annie, way up at the top of the road. He kneeled down by me and pulled me against his chest.

  “Arley,” he was panting, “Arley. Thank God. My God.”

  Two police officers were shaking out a blanket between them and laying it over Dillon. I looked over Charley’s shoulder to try to see Dillon’s face, but I could only see his hair, a tuft of his buttermilk hair sticking straight up, like a cowlick a little boy might have to wet down for school. Charley turned my chin away, as if he could stop me from seeing what I saw.

  “Who’s this, Arley?” he asked, real softly.

  “This here’s Mister Justice,” I told him.

  “Pleased,” Mr. Justice said, his old face creased in a big broad smile. And that was when I saw the cleft in his chin.

  EPILOGUE

  Arley

  DESI’S VERY VERBAL for two. Everyone says so, so it’s not as if I’m bragging. For months, she wouldn’t hardly say a word but “Mama”—which as far as I can tell is sort of like a reflex—and “light.”

  She was nearly eighteen months old, and I was getting frantic thinking either there was something wrong with her, or that she remembered the night of the fire and “light” meant something terrible to her. I don’t know if babies have memories from the womb; but I do know that they’ll feel the way you feel. If Desi’s having a hissy fit—Annie calls them “grand mal tantrums”—and I’m impatient when I pick her up to soothe her, it just sets her off worse.

  The first time she said “light” was Republic Day. We were all sitting on the balcony outside Annie’s bedroom at Azalea Road to watch the fireworks from downtown. At the first big pop, Desi screamed. Now, all babies are scared of loud sounds, but I was sitting very relaxed so she wouldn’t be startled, and her whole body went rigid and she hid her face, even when everyone said “Pretty, pretty” and Charley’s Claude played “Where’s the baby hiding?”

  There’s no telling.

  I guess when she’s grown, Desi will have to sort out her feelings about her daddy. Maybe, by then, I’ll have sorted out my own.

  Two years isn’t really so long, when you think of it broken up into seasons, or semesters, or segments of a life. But it’s long in other ways. It’s long enough for a baby to grow into a little girl with hair you can tie in two tiny pigtails. It’s long enough for her to sass you, when you take the Tabasco sauce bottle away from her and tell her, “No way, girl,” for her to just look at you and tell you, “Yes way, Mama!”

  It’s long enough to fear a death, then want it, then recoil from it, and then recover.

  But reasoning things out might take forever, especially for me. I’ve really lived my life backward, being old before I got to be young. Knowing all about birth and all about death but not very much yet about life.

  It’s still that way.

  Didn’t go to high school, but now I’m in college. I go two days a week to the University of Texas in Austin. I only take six hours, under a special program for single mothers. And I did get a scholarship, a good thing, since Annie’s up to her ears in bills and struggling hard to start her private practice. The classes I take are nineteenth-century British and American poetry and twentieth-century American literature. Slow and easy, I thought, when I signed up. Start with what you know.

  I also audit a creative-writing class. That’s the one I love best. The professor keeps telling me I ought to be taking it for credit; he says, “You have a natural voice.” Sometimes I think he means I sound like a girl who grew up in the river valley. Sometimes I think he just has a sort of crush on me. But I intend to keep at it.

  It was reading all those stories and poems for classes aloud to Desi, while I was studying, that made her start talking for real. She started overnight. There was this little problem with her front teeth. They looked funny to start with, kind of grayish, and then I left her on the bottle too long and the enamel started to come off. Of course, I was going around explaining to Jeanine and Elena and those guys, “Look, the enamel is coming right off her poor little old teeth,” never thinking the baby would hear or understand. Then one day, all of a sudden, when she was twenty months, Desi said, “Animal coming out of my mouth.” No words for almost two years, and then a six-word sentence! She heard “enamel” as “animal,” and by the next day, wasn’t she saying, “Mama, a cow coming out of my mouth”? Everybody laughed so hard and made her repeat it so much that it got good on her, of course. But she doesn’t just say that. She also says, “Tiger, tiger, burning bright!” and a hundred other things. When she walks out on the balcony in my room, she says, “Now, you be careful, baby,” just like she was taking care of herself. Elena says there are seven signs of being gifted and that Desi has all seven. I guess she knows, since she’s studying at UT to be a kindergarten teacher.

  “Child will be a lawyer, like her grandma here,” Charley likes to say, and Annie gives him her lemon-juice-mouth look. “Grandma” doesn’t sit too well with her. Myself, I don’t think Desi’ll be a lawyer. I think she’ll be a poet. Dillon’s poems were good; no one can argue with that. Some of them were published in this book of writing from prison and in a few magazines. I got that money, and I keep it for Desi in a bank account. When I said to Annie that Desi inherited her gift of words from both sides, Annie just walked away mad.

  I know it just means she loves me. If I never mention Dillon’s name again, it will be too soon for her. That night at the cabin, when she came running up, the FBI agents were in the yard. We heard one of the FBI agents say, “I’m sorry, ma’am. No access. We’re from the Bureau.”

  And then we heard Annie: “I don’t care if you’re a fucking chest of drawers. You get out of my way or I’ll . . . I’ll shoot off your leg!” It almost made me laugh, even then, it was quite a moment. But I don’t really like when they joke about it. Someone died that night. You can’t erase that. Or that he was my husband. Annie sort of wants to downplay that part, like it didn’t happen. But I won’t let her do it, I’m done with that kind of thinking forever. The way I figure, there’s been enough hidden in my life for seven times my seventeen years, enough connections with people that looked fine and real, but weren’t.

  I have to know it all, remember it all, and live with it all. There was this one magazine story, about how Mama knew the whole time Lang wasn’t dead, that she only cut her leg climbing out the window with Dillon. Mama told the magazine she wouldn’t have cared if Lang had walked right out the door. And she didn’t care if Dillon found me, either. “Things just happen how they’re going to,” she said.

  Anyhow, in the story, there were some more of my poems. My old friend Eric Dorey read those, and he called me and said, “Arley, your mama’s not fit to be around people. I hope she’s jealous of you because you’re making something of your life.” Then he told me, “I won’t ever forgive you if you don’t go to a four-year school. You should aim at the stars, girl, and then, if you don’t make it, you can adjust your sights down.” When he said that, something in me just answered, okay, he’s right, I can do this. Right then, I guess, was when I gave up for good on that old idea of going to technical school. There was a time when even cosmetology would have been too big a goal for a girl like me, but I’m not that girl anymore. If it ever seemed like some great idea to cover things up so they looked good—even if they
’re ugly or painful underneath—it seems foolish now. In fact, I think that’s why people write, to uncover the lessons of the hard times. Maybe that’s why I always felt so drawn to poetry. Those powerful words sort of just grab you by the chin and won’t let you look away.

  Eric’s right. We’re sort of going out now, and he says it all the time—that you can regret your whole life stuff you never had the nerve to try. Annie thinks I’m following in her footsteps, being an English major, and I am. But I also think it’s because of a part of me, a caring part and a brave part, that didn’t come from Mama. I think it came from Mr. Justice.

  Eventually, of course, I would have found out that Mr. Justice was my daddy. It wasn’t like no one knew. Avalon’s small, and even San Antonio and the hilly country have their share of people who knew all about how Mama took to following the Righteous Ramblers—Mr. Justice’s cowboy band—all around South Texas and beyond when she was no more than a girl, working for the band. As for her getting pregnant during those years, I don’t know why she didn’t use birth control. Ignorance and passion sure can go together. But maybe she had a plan, too, because it’s hard to believe you could make the same mistake three times.

  Eric and I went to the library once and searched the fiche for music reviews. And we saw this newspaper picture of Mr. Justice when he was about thirty, the age he was when Mama met him, when she was no older than I am now. Drink and hard living hadn’t claimed any of his looks yet. And he was fine. Handsomer than Cam, who I guess is the one who looks most like him.

 
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