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64. TARYN: Candy

ou could tell without thinking who was at the festival.

Car gone. Lights thriftily turned off. Dog tied up.

Everybody piled into the vehicle and went together, and nobody locked their door. Or if they did lock it, they left the key under the mat or above the doorjam.

She didn’t even try sneaking, just made DaShawn sit scrunched down, as a black man would be the one thing that would arouse suspicion out here, with the engine idling, then walked right into the house and took what she wanted.

Not the jewelry. None of these dowdy farm wives had anything worth stealing.

Not the money. Money here had already been converted into combines, or livestock, or soybeans.

It was the guns she wanted.

Some kept them displayed in the living room, in a shiny walnut and glass case. If the case was locked, she had no problem grabbing a pot from the kitchen and smashing the case, grabbing all the guns and walking out the door.

If they weren’t in the living room, they were in the basement: red tile floor, pool table, makeshift bar, a couple of stools with black leatherette seats. Her stepfather had set up a bar in their basement like this, spent all his time down there.

That was one thing she’d loved about the houseboat: no basement.

This was the first house she’d been in where she hadn’t found at least one gun proudly displayed in the living room or perched on a rack in the basement.

She might have just walked out but now it was a challenge. There was nothing obvious about this farmhouse that made it any different than any other farmhouse. So where else might they be keeping the guns?

She checked the pantry and the coat closet but didn’t find anything there, which left the second floor. Wooden stairs creaking as she climbed, she stood in the second floor hallway and took in the layout.

Master bedroom, sun streaming in the windows, girly pink and white coverlet neatly on the bed. Sewing room with daybed pushed against one wall. Dinky little bathroom. And room with its door shut tight.

63. CORA: Love Is All Around

edhi wanted to see more of Ho Springs, so Cora decided to take him to the festival. Like most residents of the town, she hated the jamboree, which drew denizens from the hills and the surrounding towns, invited mayhem along with its pleasanter pursuits. But she knew Medhi would be amused by the American-ness of it all. And now that the crisis with Juliette was past, she wanted to get out of the house and do something fun.

Indeed, there were throngs of people everywhere they went, ringing every musical act, queuing up for every fairway ride, clamoring for hotdogs and cotton candy and especially beer.

Medhi bought himself a towering cone of cotton candy, blue and high as Marge Simpson’s hair, and then walked along grinning at it, tickled by the way it looked.

“Aren’t you going to eat it?” Cora asked him.

He made a face and shook his head. “Never.”

“Can I have a bite?”

“You’ll get fat.”

“Do you think I’m fat?”

With his free hand, he hugged her to him. “I think you’re delicious.”

Despite his reassurances, that was enough to set off the old paranoia, the too-familiar alarm bells. After she hit 40, as her body accommodated the inevitable ripples and sags, was when Medhi’s eye started to wander. More than his eye. The younger women, the thinner women: They were everywhere, all the time.

“I wish I could believe that,” she muttered.

He stopped walking, handed the cotton candy to a stunned teenager who happened to be passing, and took her in his arms. “You’re the love of my life,” he said. “You know that.”

She’d been so sure she wanted to leave him. But it had been so much harder than she’d anticipated, moving here, being a parent to Juliette on her own, being alone. She wanted to believe they could be together again, the way she always wanted it to be, the way it had been, for a little while, anyway. Yet she couldn’t help but note the caginess of his statement.

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.”


39. GEORGE: Dumping Out the Boxes

eorge was bent over a horse’s hoof, trying to dig out whatever was making the animal limp, when Jamie McAdams collapsed into the mud right in front of him.

He might have heard Jamie stagger into the barn if it weren’t for the general din of the racetrack all around him. But instead his focus had narrowed to a few square inches of equine flesh and bone, the way he needed to keep things these days. He thought of his life as a smooth plain with a series of boxes on it. In the first most important box was Beth, in another box their room at the Barstow, in another his extended family, in another the track and the horses under his care. He stayed calm by dealing with the contents of only one box at a time.

There was a large, torn, dirty, messy, crammed-full box that was Taryn, but that one he’d sealed up with extra-strong tape and put into storage.

If Jamie McAdams fit in any of the boxes, it was deep in one shadowy corner of the Taryn box. Not somewhere George wanted to go.

“God, man, what’s going on?” George said, feeling not all that alarmed, moving not all that quickly.

Jamie was drunk, was his first guess. High, second. Generally messed up, next.

It wasn’t until he bent over Jamie, touched his skin, looked in his eyes, saw the condition of his clothes — in particular, his jeans — that he grew alarmed.

“Jamie,” he said, shaking the man, the doctor in him taking over from the devastated husband, the helping-sick-people box taking precedence over the hating-guys-who-fucked-my-wife box. “Jamie, what happened to you?”

Jamie seemed to rouse. “Annie,” he croaked. He brought one filthy trembling hand slowly to his thigh. “Eating my ball.”

His jeans were ripped there, no torn, no eaten away, it looked like. Suddenly George understood. There’d been some kind of accident involving anhydrous ammonia — Annie, some of the meth makers called it — and it had seared through Jamie’s clothes and was undoubtedly burning into the skin beneath.

“All right,” George said, trying not to panic. The treatment, short of a hospital burn unit, was water, lots of water, but it was supposed to be administered immediately after contact with the highly caustic chemical, one drop of which could melt a man’s testicles, turn his eye to jelly, render him unable to speak. George ran and got the hose, big enough to put out a fire in the barn or to spray down a couple dozen horses. He didn’t want to drown Jamie, just wash away what he could of the poison before he even attempted to do anything else. Then George turned on the water, hard enough to wash off the powerful ammonia, gentle enough not to flush away Jamie’s genitals with it.


27. GEORGE: The Sleeping Game

eorge drew the Queen Frostine card, and immediately tried to shove it back in the pile before Beth could see. But too late: The little girl’s eyes caught the vision of the lavender-bedecked fairy queen and her face started to crumple.

“I wanted to get the queen,” she said, a whimper at the edge of her voice.

“I drew this card by mistake!” George cried, trying to put it in her hand. “Look, did you see that? It was supposed to be your card which means you would….”

He swooped her pink playing piece up into the air, bouncing onto the queen’s space and then hopping ahead. “…..jump all the way to the end which means you are the big winner!”

Beth broke down in giggles. “Oh, Daddy,” she said.

“Enough Candy Land? What do you say we go out for a walk? See if we can pick some flowers for Mommy?”

It was his day off and Taryn had taken the opportunity to go into town to get her hair done. He’d offered to drive her, figured that he and Beth could get an ice cream, take a stroll down Bath House Row and see what stores were starting to open up for the season.

But Taryn had said no, she could get there perfectly fine on her own, and she had other things to do besides: buy clothes to replace everything she’d left behind when she’d moved back in, look for something for his upcoming birthday. When he hesitated, she said, “Don’t you trust me, George? How can you be married to me, if you don’t trust me?”

She was right, of course she was right. So he’d smiled and kissed her and let her go.

Now Beth was shaking her head no, she didn’t want to go for a walk.

“How about we feed the fish? I bet they’re hungry after a long winter with no bugs on the water.”

Again, Beth shook her head.

“Well, what do you want to do? Play tea party with Bunny and your dolls?” Please God, he thought: anything but another round of Candy Land.

“Let’s play the sleeping game.”

“The sleeping game? How do you play that?”

“You lie here on the floor,” Beth said, “on your tummy. Then you close your eyes and I play with your hair and tickle your back.”

George did as he was told. It wasn’t until he was fully stretched out, lulled by the rock of the boat, his daughter’s delicate fingers drumming on his shoulders, that it occurred to him to wonder what was happening.

26. LaTONYA: I Want My Son

ou have been so wonderful, taking your brother in hand,” LaTonya said, sitting across the long shiny black table from her son Dwayne.

She was careful to keep her voice modulated, mindful that, above all else, what Dwayne needed to hear was praise. That’s what Cora McAdams had told her, anyway.

She’d gone to Cora for help getting Darrell back, or advice, or — well, she wasn’t sure what. She just didn’t know where else to turn. George had his hands full now that he was back with his wife. DaShawn, never. She couldn’t reveal herself to the women who worked for her at the spa. And friends — she hadn’t had time for friends in more years that she could remember.

But Cora’s daughter, she was friendly somehow with Darrell. Cora was a single mother, dealing with difficult circumstances. Of all people in the world, Cora, LaTonya hoped, could help.

“I certainly feel it’s my duty under the Lord to help,” said Dwayne now, nodding his big head, accepting his due.

He wouldn’t think any of it was bullshit, Cora had said. He’d lap it all up.

“The boy needs a strong role model,” LaTonya said.

“Of course,” Dwayne said, nodding again. His father’s head had been huge like that. They were both bull-headed, in every sense of the word.

LaTonya gazed at her hands, laid flat out in front of her on the table. Give me my son, she thought. Give me my fucking son.

“I’m so glad I was able to rely on you to vouch for him with the police,” LaTonya said.

“I was happy to do it,” said Dwayne, “since you could not be found.”

“I was at work, and then at class, and then I was studying for my medical school tests with George Forrest….”

“Pursuing your own ambitions when you should have been home with the boy.”

LaTonya breathed in deeply through her nose. “I am that child’s sole support, just as I was your sole support. I am trying to make a better life for him, to send him to college, as I sent you and your brother to college….”

“A child needs a parent at home.”

“And what would you have me do then, go on welfare? I’ve heard you rail against that, from the pulpit….”

“The boy is out of control!” cried Dwayne, waving his finger in the air.

“He is not out of control,” LaTonya said, her voice rising. “He’s a good boy, Dwayne. Maybe not as almighty perfect as you, but….”

Oh no, she was losing it now. Don’t get angry, Cora had said. This man will not be bullied…..

LaTonya took a deep breath. “I just want to see my son, Dwayne.”


25: JAMIE: Inked

e blew an extra $2 on gas to drive all the way out beyond the lake, to a roadside tattoo parlor where he’d never been before and he didn’t know anybody. He owed the three shops closer to town money, and all he had was a 20, which he hoped would be just enough to buy him a teeny tiny toad on the inside of his wrist, or hopping right on top of his bicep, somewhere he’d be able to see it and remember that little guy from the woods.

He couldn’t believe there was somebody there already, and not just anybody, but a bodacious babe, and a showcase too, with ink over much of the visible surface of her body, which was to say much of her body. Spring had sprung outside, but it was not what anyone would call hot. However, this honey was wearing cutoffs as brief as a bikini bottom and a torn-up tee shirt that barely covered her impressive though not thoroughly genuine-looking tits. She was half-reclining in the chair, her long slim legs propped up on the footrests, wiggling her knees: apart, together, apart, together.

“I still think it’s going to look hotter on the back,” said the tattoo artist, who had a long scraggly graying beard like Brad Pitt’s and was wearing a camouflage print cap, like at any minute he might drop his irons and snatch up a gun instead, run out into the woods behind the shop and shoot him some hajis.

“I want it on the front,” the girl said in a flat voice. “When someone looks at it, I want to see what’s in their eyes.”

The artist shrugged and lifted the white paper stencil onto the woman’s chest, smoothing it out. Neither of them looked up at Jamie, who wondered, for a moment, whether something with the frog had rendered him invisible. The woman had a teardrop inked on one cheek, a rose with the name Terry on her shoulder, and a swastika arrayed around her belly button. Then the tattoo guy lifted up the stencil and held up a mirror for the woman to see.

The woman, who had straight black hair, nearly Asian looking, lifted her chin and arched her back, twisting her head this way and that as if admiring a new piece of jewelry.

“Bingo,” she said.

The tattoo was of the top half of a woman’s torso: cartoonish breasts even bigger than the woman’s own, seductive shoulders, neck ending in a raggedy edge, right at the hollow at the base of the woman’s own throat.

“All right,” the tattoo guy said, revving his gun. “Lie back.”

Jamie should go. Maybe he wasn’t even here. Maybe they were so high they hadn’t noticed him. Very slowly, very carefully, he began walking backwards, feeling as if he was rewinding time.

“You want something?” the tattoo guy said, at the same moment he inked the curved line of the bottom of one of the figure’s breasts.

“Uh, it’s okay,” Jamie said.

“Sit down. I’ll be done in a while.”

Jamie gestured toward the door. “I’ll be back….”

The guy laughed, looked at the woman. “A B-back,” he said.

“Let him go.”

“Sit down,” the guy said.


20. DWAYNE: Right Hand of the Lord

ord knows what he’s doing.

Phone rang, police calling, saying they got his brother in jail, and his other brother too, and his mama nowhere to be found, Dwayne knew he had to get down there. No matter he was already asleep. That phone call was like the Lord himself calling.

Dwayne knew all the cops. Had to. Half of them, the half that wasn’t Catholic or heathen, came to the Divine Light. Chief too.

“What’s he done?” Dwayne said to the chief, dressed not in uniform but in a green shirt with an alligator on the chest.

“Now, we’re not saying he’s done nothing,” the chief said. “Seems he was just there, maybe, getting a pizza. But he was the one found the body.”

Dwayne felt himself go cold. DaShawn had done some bad things in his time — lots of bad things, all bad things, starting with lying beside his twin in the crib hitting him so hard with the plastic rattle that Dwayne came up with a black eye — but murder was something else.

Dwayne leaned in toward the chief. “Are you saying you think DaShawn might have killed someone?”

“Not DaShawn. DaShawn I seed myself behind the bar, whole time it was going on. I’m talking about your other brother, Darrell.”

At this Dwayne felt his knees buckle. He’d promised his mother he would look out for Darrell, the way a father would. But the boy eluded him, slipped out of Youth Group, would not even come to church on Sundays.

Now, though, the Lord had put the boy in Dwayne’s hands.

“Can I see him?” Dwayne whispered.

The chief brought him back into the station, down a hallway and into a small room where Darrell sat, dried tears streaking his cheeks.

“What have you done?” Dwayne said.

“Nothing. I swear.”

Dwayne listened to a lot of sinners, heard a lot of confessions. And there was something confusing in his little brother’s voice, something that said he was telling the truth, and then again something that said he was lying.

Dwayne turned to the chief. “What happens now?”