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47. JAMIE: Homecoming

e felt like he was wearing a diaper.  God, that was depressing, but not as depressing, he guessed, as ending up with one ball.  Not as depressing as lying dead in a field.  Not even as depressing as being 37 years old and having no job, no wife, no kids, no home, and not an ounce of fucking ambition.

He leaned on George, clutching the towel he was wearing like a skirt.

“I don’t know if I want to go back there,” he said, stopping outside the MAL, which looked weirdly like someone was trying to open it up again.

George sighed heavily.  “You don’t have anywhere else to go.  And your sister’s been out of her mind with worry about you.”

“She’s going to give me such a hard time.”

“Jeez, Jamie,” the vet said.  “Pull up your socks, would you?”

“Can’t I just stay with you?” Jamie said.  “I’ll sleep in the stable, help you with….whatever it is you do with horses.”

“No,” George said shortly.

“Jesus, Taryn was right,” Jamie said.  “You really can be a prick.”

“Listen,” George said, letting him go so precipitously he thought he was going to crumple right there on the sidewalk.  “I don’t need to do this.  I’ll leave you right now if you want.”

“No, man,” Jamie said.  “I’m sorry.  I want to go home.”

Want wasn’t exactly the word.  Need was more like it.  Didn’t have anywhere better to go at the moment, especially with one semi-detached ball, was the real story.

He hobbled up the staircase leaning on George’s now distinctly stiffer shoulder.  As they got toward the top of the flight, he could hear voices inside.  His sister haranguing the old man, no doubt, trying to get him to lay off the booze.  Just as she would undoubtedly do to Jamie.

But wait, he thought, as the voices became clearer.  That didn’t sound like his father.  That didn’t even sound like English.  Jamie had never quite made it over to Europe, but he recognized French when he heard it.
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45. DARRELL: Going Crooked

arrell ran not into the woods where he’d heard them go but the other way, down the road, past their car, past the place where he’d turned back toward Juliette earlier in the night. He felt horrible not going after her again now but he also knew it would be crazy, to plunge into the forest where he knew they were. He had to save himself now; that was his best chance of saving her.

Why had she done that? It was so crazy, the way she’d jumped right out there in the brightly lit room. And then, when she was freaking lucky enough to make it out of the house alive, it was even more insane for her to bang on the window, to throw freaking rocks at the white Nazi freaks! What was wrong with her? That girl was out of her mind.

She was just crazy enough that she would drive them crazy, running around in the woods after her.  Had she taken a gun that maybe was lying there, before she ran out into the night?  Or maybe a knife?  Might that have been why she threw the rocks, because she knew she could turn the tables on them?

He thought he heard a shot in the distance.  Or maybe that was just his feet pounding on the road.  Or his heart banging against his ribs.

The driveway was so long, the trees on either side of it so overgrown, it almost felt as if he were lost in the woods again.  Was that his own feet he was hearing, or theirs?  Oh shit, oh shit, he was so fucking scared.

And scared for her, too.  He hated to think of her out there, with them after her, even as crazy as she was.  But he hated to think about her, period, because every time he did, he felt even worse for not doing anything to help her.

At last, there was the road up ahead.  He sprinted the final yards.  It was beginning to get light, the trees finally gray and distinct from one another instead of one overwhelming black mass.

He could hear a car.  Running to the shoulder of the road, he waved his arms frantically over his head.  But the car just sped past, a lone white arm extended from the passenger window as if in greeting, or dismissal.

“Nigger,” he thought he heard as if from the car’s exhaust.

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44. CORA: French Diplomacy

ora was awake, daylight just beginning to sift through the windows, though she was not sure she had ever fallen asleep.

She could remember sitting alone in the living room, feeling so restless and helpless knowing Juliette was out there somewhere. Finally, she’d lain down on the sofa, her mind alive with images of her little girl in the woods, or on the dark streets: Somewhere beyond Cora’s reach. Or were those dreams?

Now she was awake, itchy to get out there and find her daughter.

She heard voices, male voices, heavy footsteps on the wooden stairs. They seemed to be speaking French. She shook her head, wondering if she was hallucinating. Or hallucinating again.

Then the door banged open.

There stood Medhi, her ex. With him was Hugo, Juliette’s ex. Or current: Cora never could keep that straight, and suspected Juliette couldn’t either.

At any other moment, Cora would have started screaming at Medhi for all his sins, would have pushed him back down the stairs or run out into the street herself.

But now, after only a moment’s hesitation, she walked straight into his arms.

Letting her forehead rest against his shoulder, breathing in the starch of his shirt, the musky scent of his neck, feeling the tickle of his hair against her cheek, feeling herself release all the worry and all the tears, brought back every moment she’d spent like this with him over all the years. Weeping for joy when he asked her to marry him and when she found out she was pregnant with Juliette. Crying in pain when she lost pregnancy after pregnancy and later when her mother died. Medhi’s steady strength, his warm shoulder and his hand on her back had been the constant through all the most important events of her life.

“It’s all right, I’m here, we’ll find her,” he said, and she let herself cry harder, collapse into him more thoroughly.

I was such a fool to ever leave, she told herself. I never should have taken Juliette away, never should have left Paris, should have learned to live with this man, my husband, no matter what.

“What I don’t understand,” Medhi said, gently stepping away from her, “is how our daughter got lost in the first place.”

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43. JULIETTE: Savior Behavior

t last, the American monsters were asleep.

The lights still blazed overhead, but Juliette could hear both of them snoring like pigs. The bed above sagged in the middle so low to the ground that she and Darrell were forced to opposite sides of their hiding place. If one of the disgusting snorting hogs had needed to reach under the bed for a dropped nipple clamp, perhaps, he (or she: the woman seemed the worse of the two) would surely have discovered Juliette and Darrell cowering there.

But they’d had desultory sex with no climax, they’d tossed and turned and muttered, they’d farted and fought, and now, miraculously, they were asleep. It was time for Juliette and Darrell to escape.

Darrell had kept his eyes squeezed shut for much of the ordeal, but now Juliette snaked her hand over and tapped him, pointing over her shoulder to signal that they should make their break.

She was astonished to see him shake his head no.

No? NO???? Was the boy an idiot? Did he plan to lie there all night, perhaps get up in the morning and cook the druggie murderers above them some breakfast?

But he was still shaking his head, looking terrified.

She made a face that was meant to signal, What the fuck? But his only response was to keep shaking his head and to look even more scared.

There was no arguing. And she certainly did not plan to lie trapped beneath the monsters’ bed one second more than she had to. Let Darrell be too frightened to move. She was not going to let him keep her imprisoned there with him.

With a little Heidi Klum wave and smile, she slid back and got swiftly to her feet. God, that light was so fucking bright. She couldn’t believe she was standing there fully exposed in the room, the monster couple — not so very large, now that she was looming above them — curled back to back beneath a rag of a blanket.

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42. DARRELL: Be A Man

e walked far enough down the drive that he felt like he was surrounded by forest again, before he decided for sure that Juliette was not going to follow him.

He really wanted to keep going. Find the road that was surely at the end of this track and thumb a ride back home. Do whatever his mom told him from now until the end of time.

But he couldn’t leave Juliette here by herself. Be a man, he told himself. Go back.

She was nowhere to be seen. At first he thought she might have run back into the woods, but then he saw one of the old casement windows pushed in and realized she must have gone inside.

Shit! Tell that girl something she was not supposed to do, and she’d run right toward it, arms open.

Darrell climbed on top of the banged up metal garbage can she must have pulled under the window and peered inside, ruffled granny curtains flapping around his ears.

“Julie?”

“What?” came her muffled voice.

“Where are you?”

“In bed.”

Shit. Telling her to get up and get outside RIGHT NOW, the way Dwayne talked to his wife, was not going to do anything but make Juliette mad. She was like his mom in that way: Nobody was going to boss her around, and especially not a man.

But was Darrell a man? He was back here, going after her, not leaving her alone, because he was trying to be a man in the best possible sense of the word, right? And how could he be a good man, and not a bad man, when he wasn’t sure how to be a man at all?

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41. DaSHAWN: The Bitch’s Bitch

aShawn gazed in Taryn’s direction as she talked, trying to keep his face composed in what he guessed might be a posture of listening. He nodded slowly and steadily, like a fucking Emmitt Smith bobblehead, and held his mouth slightly open and relaxed, and stared with wide eyes at her pretty little white face, all juiced up like fucking Hillary Clinton or something, but much much hotter. And DaShawn kept listening, like he was fucking Obama with the TV cameras turned on.

She had big plans, this little girl. Was talking about starting a crank factory, but major league, not some little one-pot meth kitchen where you save up your piss to reclaim the one molecule that might be left that could make somebody high.

No, she was talking a proper fucking plant, like Tyson’s, so efficient they take you from egg to KFC in 18 days. She’d recruit workers, runners; she’d buy land, a farm, camouflage everything beneath bona fide crops; she’d keep horses as a cover, even race them.

Not she. We.

“What do you want me in this deal for?” DaShawn asked.

She smiled, sweet as when she was asking for another hundred dollar advance.

“Why, DaShawn,” she said. “Because you’re the only man never tried to fuck me.”

He looked away at that, the memory of what he’d done that night on the houseboat pressing down on him. More than once over the past weeks, he’d thought of that incident and wondered whether that was the cause of everything going wrong. It wasn’t like him to dwell, but he found himself waking up out of the deepest sleep and reliving that moment when he’d slipped his finger inside her, worrying it over and over in a way he didn’t replay Tiff’s murder or the cops shutting him down, moments that by all rights should have worried him more.

But he had not been responsible for those other events, he told himself. And what had happened with Taryn, that he’d done.

“What would my part be?” he asked her.

“We’d work that out as we go along,” she told him. “Security. Personnel. Community relations. Whatever I need you for, I guess.”

He’d never worked for anybody before, never mind a bitch. And now was she saying he’d be the bitch’s bitch?

(more…)

38. LaTONYA: The Big Must

aTonya trudged down the street with Cora, feeling as if her arm were missing.  No, worse than her arm: Her head.  No, not her head: Her heart.

She had to find Darrell, that was all.  Every thread of her being was trained on this goal.  She had to find her son, bring him home safe, and not let anything bad happen to him ever again.

Cora’s phone buzzed and she stopped and stared at it.

“Medhi and Hugo say they haven’t heard from Juliette, so I don’t think they’re trying to get to France, not yet anyway,” Cora told her.

France?  Darrell might have some kind of crush on this girl, but LaTonya could not imagine him having the gumption to go to France, no matter how hard he might want to get away.

“Darrell’s a homebody,” LaTonya told Cora.  “I have a feeling he hasn’t gone far.  I bet he’s hiding out near here, somewhere.”

“I wish I was as confident about Juliette,” said Cora.  “I’m afraid I have no idea what that girl is going to do, anymore.  I feel like I don’t even know her.”

LaTonya wasn’t sure whether she should like Cora, with her rarefied history and her foreign airs, but she did.  In high school, they couldn’t have been more different, LaTonya already pregnant sophomore year and by graduation the mother of toddler twins, while Cora was Miss Ambition, racking up A’s and running all the clubs and working at her parents’ restaurant and then going back East to college, an experience that to LaTonya at the time seemed as unknowable and, more to the point, unhaveable as riding your very own rocket ship to the moon.

Now, though, they were just two single moms stuck in Hot Springs, trying to do their best.  And it was not Cora but her wild, foreign daughter who seemed like the enemy.

“Do you think your daughter would try to convince him to leave Hot Springs?” LaTonya asked, fear rising in her chest.  “To hitch a ride to Little Rock, or maybe Memphis, or somewhere?”

Darrell had never even been out of Arkansas, and showed not much gumption about ever leaving, a fact which usually dismayed LaTonya but now was of some comfort.
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37. TARYN: The CEO of Trouble

he really thought they were going to come and save her.

After she pulled herself on board the drifting boat, she huddled wet and shivering under a blanket until she felt more disgusting than battered. Then she peeled off her wet clothes and tossed them overboard. She dried herself off as best she could and scavenged warm clothes from what George had left behind. Crawled into bed as if it were any normal night and went to sleep.

It was crazy, the way your entire world could be blown apart and you could still sleep as usual, your brain shutting down, leaving your body vulnerable to a world of threats. But Taryn had known that for a long time, since she was a child; had come to count on it, even. No matter what kind of hell your waking life gave you, at night you could reenter the gates of heaven.

When she woke, the sun was blazing and the boat was rocking on the open water. She remembered immediately where she was and what had happened, but she felt strangely more optimistic, stretching luxuriously and going out on the deck to admire the view. It was actually nicer out here, the water stretching for what seemed like miles all around, the hills with their spring fur of green beyond, protection from the wider world.

She didn’t blame George for freaking out, really, after all she’d put him through. What was he supposed to think, when he saw the safe open, the pills gone? And the truth is, she had been playing around with the oxies. How was he supposed to know that she’d thrown them away, that she’d actually managed to pull back from the precipice that so many others had hurtled over?

It was weird, how calm she felt, how optimistic. Her car would be found, near the dock, keys still in the ignition, purse inside, and someone would get worried about her and call the police. Or somebody, anybody, would spot the houseboat bobbing on the open water and realize something wasn’t right. Or George, most likely, would put it all together and sound the alarm himself. Whichever, she wouldn’t be stuck out here long, and while she was, she might as well enjoy it.

She took off her sweatshirt and lay flat on the deck, below the wind, sunbathing. When she was hungry, she went inside and scavenged food. Thanks to the solar panels and wind generators that thrifty, ecologically-conscious George had installed, the little refrigerator was still humming along, the stove still worked. Hell, she could probably stay here for days with no problem.

It wasn’t until the third day that she began to feel seriously unsettled. The sky had turned cloudy, threatening rain, the wind cold again. Power boats zoomed by and no one gave her a second glance. What was wrong with these people? What was wrong with George, to not care whether she lived or died?

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36. JAMIE: The Slave

o.”

Jamie felt the muzzle of the rifle dig into his ribs, but still he hesitated.

“This stuff is dangerous,” he said.

The tattoo artist laughed. “That’s what you’re for. Now git.”

Fog rose from the fields that stretched all around them, newly plowed in preparation for the spring planting. There was a barn, empty except for hay, to his left; the farmhouse lay dark and slumbering in the distance to the right.

And ahead, curved and white as the moon, looking like a giant white capsule — a big metal Tylenol, maybe — elevated on stilts was the tank. The tank that held the anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. The stuff Jamie was charged with stealing so that the tattoo artist and his Nazi girlfriend could brew up a big old batch of crank.

Jamie had never been involved in this part of the process before. He was usually up for the smoking, and maybe a little bit of the distribution, with some light assistance thanks to the family pharmacy on the manufacturing end.

But running across farmland in the middle of the night with an empty propane tank in one hand, a cordless drill in the other, and a length of tubing knotted around his neck: That was not his thing.

He tried to tell them that, but they informed him that he didn’t have a thing anymore. He was a slave now, they said. And if he didn’t do what they told him to do, he’d be dead.

He could feel the rifle trained on his back as he rapped on the tank, as they’d instructed, to locate the exact level of the anhydrous. Once he figured out where that was, he was supposed to drill into the metal, insert the tubing, then tip the whole thing ever so carefully to fill up the smaller tank without spilling anything.

A spill would be disastrous, even if it didn’t eat into his flesh or make him go blind or burn out his vocal chords. The sharp smell, the cloud that would form over the whole property, the potential for a massive explosion: These things could attract unwanted attention. And would result, the Nazis told him, in his imminent demise.

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35. JIMMIE SUE: I See What I See

hat a commotion!

First LaTonya ran in, pulling Cora into a corner in some intense and supposedly “secret” conversation.

Then LaTonya’s big blowhard son, the minister one who claimed to be a man of God — ha! — stormed in, demanding that he be in charge of the search and investigation.

At least both of the women ignored him, Jimmie Sue would give them that, but then Cora insisted on calling the police, which upset LaTonya no end.  She was going on about how Cora didn’t understand, the police treated a black boy different than they did a white girl, and that Darrell hadn’t done anything wrong but the police had it in for him, she knew they did.

LaTonya kept casting glances in Jimmie Sue’s direction, and Jimmie Sue knew what that was all about: LaTonya was wondering whether Jimmie Sue knew that Darrell was involved in the fire at her place.  Well, of course Jimmie Sue knew.  Even if she hadn’t seen him and Cora’s little French girl there that night, she would know.

How could these people come to her, ask her to read the cards about their most intimate fears and wishes, and then think her ignorant about what was really in their hearts, and in her own?

But she kept sitting there, Senior snoring on her shoulder, shuffling her cards and then slowly turning them over one by one, seeing what she could see.  They might have asked her.  She would have told them.  But they were too caught up in their own illusions of control.

Senior was startled awake when the police showed up, a tall Irish-looking kid and his somewhat-rotund Latina partner, way too relaxed about the whole thing for Cora’s taste.  They took down the descriptions of the two “youth,” as they called them; listened to Dwayne’s rant about Darrell and Juliette’s “blasphemy,” as he called it; listened with sympathetic expressions on their faces to the mothers’ worries.  Then they politely said that they would wait 24 hours until they filed an official missing persons report and commenced a search, that there was no evidence of kidnapping or other foul play, and that the adolescents would undoubtedly return home safe as soon as they got hungry and tired.

“This is totally ridiculous,” spat Cora.

“What’s the matter?” asked Senior foggily.

“Nothing, darlin’,” Jimmie Sue told him.  She wasn’t sure he’d even registered fully that Cora and Juliette were in the house, so there was no point in telling him that his granddaughter had gone missing.  ”Go back to sleep.”

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