For men, I think, love is a thing formed of equal parts lust and astonishment. The astonishment part women understand. The lust part they only think they understand. Very few ¡ª perhaps one in twenty ¡ª have any concept of what it really is or how deep it runs. That's probably just as well for their sleep and peace of mind. And I'm not talking about the lust of satyrs and rapists and molesters; I'm talking about the lust of shoe-clerks and high-school principals.
Not to mention writers and lawyers.
We turned into Mattie's dooryard at ten to eleven, and as I parked my Chevy beside her rusted-out Jeep, the trailer door opened and Mat-tie came out on the top step. I sucked in my breath, and beside me I could hear John sucking in his.
She was very likely the most beautiful young woman I have ever seen in my life as she stood there in her rose-colored shorts and matching middy top. The shorts were not short enough to be cheap (my mother's word) but plenty short enough to be provocative. Her top tied in floppy string bows across the shoulders and showed just enough tan to dream on. Her hair hung to her shoulders. She was smiling and waving. I thought, She's made it ¡ª take her into the country-club dining room now, dressed just as she is, and she shuts everyone else down.
'Oh Lordy,' John said. There was a kind of dismayed longing in his voice. 'All that and a bag of chips.'
'Yeah,' I said. 'Put your eyes back in your head, big boy.'
He made cupping motions with his hands as if doing just that.
George, meanwhile, had pulled his Altima in next to us.
'Come on,' I said, opening my door. 'Time to party.'
'I can't touch her, Mike,' John said. 'I'll melt.'
'Come on, you goof.'
Mattie came down the steps and past the pot with the tomato plant in it. Ki was behind her, dressed in an outfit similar to her mother's, only in a shade of dark green. She had the shys again, I saw; she kept one steadying hand on Mattie's leg and one thumb in her mouth.
'The guys are here! The guys are here!' Mattie cried, laughing, and threw herself into my arms. She hugged me tight and kissed the corner of my mouth. I hugged her back and kissed her cheek. Then she moved on to John, read his shirt, patted her hands together in applause, and then hugged him. He hugged back pretty well for a guy who was afraid he might melt, I thought, picking her up off her feet and swinging her around in a circle while she hung onto his neck and laughed.
'Rich lady, rich lady, rich lady!' John chanted, then set her down on the cork soles of her white shoes.
'Free lady, free lady, free lady!' she chanted back. 'The hell with rich!' Before he could reply, she kissed him firmly on the mouth. His arms rose to slip around her, but she stepped back before they could catch hold. She turned to Rommie and George, who were standing side-by-side and looking like fellows who might want to explain all about the Mormon Church.
I took a step forward, meaning to do the introductions, but John was taking care of that, and one of his arms managed to accomplish its mission after all ¡ª it circled her waist as he led her forward toward the men.
Meanwhile a little hand slipped into mine. I looked down and saw Ki looking up at me. Her face was grave and pale and every bit as beautiful as her mother's. Her blonde hair, freshly washed and shining, was held back with a velvet scrunchy.
'Guess the fridgeafator people don't like me now,' she said. The laughter and insouciance were gone, at least for the moment. She looked on the verge of tears. 'My letters all went bye-bye.'
I picked her up and set her in the crook of my arm as I had on the day I'd met her walking down the middle of Route 68 in her bathing suit. I kissed her forehead and then the tip of her nose. Her skin was perfect silk. 'I know they did,' I said. 'I'll buy you some more.'
'Promise?' Doubtful dark blue eyes fixed on mine.
'Promise. And I'll teach you special words like "zygote" and "bibulous". I know lots of special words.'
'A hundred and eighty.'
Thunder rumbled in the west. It didn't seem louder, but it was more focused, somehow. Ki's eyes went in that direction, then came back to mine. 'I'm scared, Mike.'
'Scared? Of what?'
'Ofi don't know. The lady in Mattie's dress. The men we saw.' Then she looked over my shoulder. 'Here comes Mommy.' I have heard actresses deliver the line Not in front of the children in that exact same tone of voice. Kyra wiggled in the circle of my arms. 'Land me.'
I landed her. Mattie, John, Rommie, and George came over to join us. Ki ran to Mattie, who picked her up and then eyed us like a general surveying her troops.
'Got the beer?' she asked me.
'Yessum. A case of Bud and a dozen mixed sodas, as well. Plus lemonade.'
'Great. Mr. Kennedy ¡ª '
'George, then. And if you call me ma'am again, I'll punch you in the nose. I'm Mattie. Would you drive down to the Lakeview General'-she pointed to the store on Route 68, about half a mile from us ¡ª 'and get some ice?'
'Mr. Bissonette ¡ª '
'There's a little garden at the north end of the trailer, Rommie. Can you find a couple of good-looking lettuces?'
'I think I can handle that.'
'John, let's get the meat into the fridge. As for you, Michael . . . ' She pointed to the barbecue. 'The briquets are the self-lighting kind ¡ª just drop a match and stand back. Do your duty.'
'Aye, good lady,' I said, and dropped to my knees in front of her. That finally got a giggle out of Ki.
Laughing, Mattie took my hand and pulled me back onto my feet. 'Come on, Sir Galahad,' she said. 'It's going to rain. I want to be safe inside and too stuffed to jump when it does.'
In the city, parties begin with greetings at the door, gathered-in coats, and those peculiar little air-kisses (when, exactly, did that social oddity begin?). In the country, they begin with chores. You fetch, you carry, you hunt for stuff like barbecue tongs and oven mitts. The hostess drafts a couple of men to move the picnic table, then decides it was actually better where it was and asks them to put it back. And at some point you discover that you're having fun.
I piled briquets until they looked approximately like the pyramid on the bag, then touched a match to them. They blazed up satisfyingly and I stood back, wiping my forearm across my forehead. Cool and clear might be coming, but it surely wasn't in hailing distance yet. The sun had burned through and the day had gone from dull to dazzling, yet in the west black-satin thunderheads continued to stack up. It was as if night had burst a blood-vessel in the sky over there.
I looked around at Kyra. 'What, honey?'
'Will you take care of me?'
'Yes,' I said with no hesitation at all.
For a moment something about my response ¡ª perhaps only the quickness of it ¡ª seemed to trouble her. Then she smiled. 'Okay,' she said. 'Look, here comes the ice-man!'
George was back from the store. He parked and got out. I walked over with Kyra, she holding my hand and swinging it possessively back and forth. Rommie came with us, juggling three heads of lettuce ¡ª I didn't think he was much of a threat to the guy who had fascinated Ki on the common Saturday night.
George opened the Altima's back door and brought out two bags of ice. 'The store was closed,' he said. 'Sign said WILL RE-OPEN AT 5 P.M. That seemed a little too long to wait, so I took the ice and put the money through the mail-slot.'
They'd closed for Royce Merrill's funeral, of course. Had given up almost a full day's custom at the height of the tourist season to see the old fellow into the ground. It was sort of touching. I thought it was also sort of creepy.
'Can I carry some ice?' Kyra asked.
'I guess, but don't frizzicate yourself,' George said, and carefully put a five-pound bag of ice into Ki's outstretched arms.
'Frizzicate,' Kyra said, giggling. She began walking toward the trailer, where Mattie was just coming out. John was behind her and regarding her with the eyes of a gutshot beagle. 'Mommy, look! I'm frizzicating!'
I took the other bag. 'I know the icebox is outside, but don't they keep a padlock on it?'
'I am friends with most padlocks,' George said.
'Oh. I see.'
'Mike! Catch!' John tossed a red Frisbee. It floated toward me, but high. I jumped for it, snagged it, and suddenly Devore was back in my head: What's wrong with you, Rogette? You never used to throw like a girl Get him!
I looked down and saw Ki looking up. 'Don't think about sad stuff,' she said.
I smiled at her, then flipped her the Frisbee. 'Okay, no sad stuff. Go on, sweetheart. Toss it to your mom. Let's see if you can.'
She smiled back, turned, and made a quick, accurate flip to her mother ¡ª the toss was so hard that Mattie almost flubbed it. Whatever else Kyra Devore might have been, she was a Frisbee champion in the making.
Mattie tossed the Frisbee to George, who turned, the tail of his absurd brown suitcoat flaring, and caught it deftly behind his back. Mattie laughed and applauded, the hem of her top flirting with her navel.
'Showoff!' John called from the steps.
'Jealousy is such an ugly emotion,' George said to Rommie Bissonette, and flipped him the Frisbee. Rommie floated it back to John, but it went wide and bonked off the side of the trailer. As John hurried down the steps to get it, Mattie turned to me. 'My boombox is on the coffee-table in the living room, along with a stack of CDs. Most of them are pretty old, but at least it's music. Will you bring them out?'
I went inside, where it was hot in spite of three strategically placed fans working overtime. I looked at the grim, mass-produced furniture, and at Mattie's rather noble effort to impart some character: the van Gogh print that should not have looked at home in a trailer kitchenette but did, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks over the sofa, the tie-dyed curtains that would have made Jo laugh. There was a bravery here that made me sad for her and furious at Max Devore all over again. Dead or not, I wanted to kick his ass.
I went into the living room and saw the new Mary Higgins Clark on the sofa end-table with a bookmark sticking out of it. Lying beside it in a heap were a couple of little-girl hair ribbons ¡ª something about them looked familiar to me, although I couldn't remember ever having seen Ki wearing them. I stood there a moment longer, frowning, then grabbed the boombox and CDs and went back outside. 'Hey, guys,' I said. 'Let's rock.'
I was okay until she danced. I don't know if it matters to you, but it does to me. I was okay until she danced. After that I was lost.
We took the Frisbee around to the rear of the house, partly so we wouldn't piss off any funeral-bound townies with our rowdiness and good cheer, mostly because Mattie's back yard was a good place to play ¡ª level ground and low grass. After a couple of missed catches, Mattie kicked off her party-shoes, dashed barefoot into the house, and came back in her sneakers. After that she was a lot better.
We threw the Frisbee, yelled insults at each other, drank beer, laughed a lot. Ki wasn't much on the catching part, but she had a phenomenal arm for a kid of three and played with gusto. Rommie had set the boombox up on the trailer's back step, and it spun out a haze of late-eighties and early-nineties music: U2, Tears for Fears, the Eurythmics, Crowded House, A Flock of Seagulls, Ah-Hah, the Bangles, Melissa Etheridge, Huey Lewis and the News. It seemed to me that I knew every song, every riff.
We sweated and sprinted in the noon light. We watched Mattie's long, tanned legs flash and listened to the bright runs of Kyra's laughter. At one point Rommie Bissonette went head over heels, all the change spilling out of his pockets, and John laughed until he had to sit down. Tears rolled from his eyes. Ki ran over and plopped on his defenseless lap. John stopped laughing in a hurry. 'Ooofl' he cried, looking at me with shining, wounded eyes as his bruised balls no doubt tried to climb back inside his body.
'Kyra Devore!' Mattie cried, looking at John apprehensively.
'I taggled my own quartermack,' Ki said proudly.
John smiled feebly at her and staggered to his feet. 'Yes,' he said. 'You did. And the ref calls fifteen yards for squashing.'
'Are you okay, man?' George asked. He looked concerned, but his voice was grinning.
'I'm fine,' John said, and spun him the Frisbee. It wobbled feebly across the yard. 'Go on, throw. Let's see whatcha got.'
The thunder rumbled louder, but the black clouds were all still west of us; the sky overhead remained a harmless humid blue. Birds still sang and crickets hummed in the grass. There was a heat-shimmer over the barbecue, and it would soon be time to slap on John's New York steaks. The Frisbee still flew, red against the green of the grass and trees, the blue of the sky. I was still in lust, but everything was still all right ¡ª men are in lust all over the world and damned near all of the time, and the icecaps don't melt. But she danced, and everything changed.
It was an old Don Henley song, one driven by a really nasty guitar riff.
'Oh God, I love this one,' Mattie cried. The Frisbee came to her. She caught it, dropped it, stepped on it as if it were a hot red spot falling on a nightclub stage, and began to shake. She put her hands first behind her neck and then on her hips and then behind her back. She danced standing with the toes of her sneakers on the Frisbee. She danced without moving. She danced as they say in that song ¡ª like a wave on the ocean.
'The government bugged the men's room
in the local disco lounge,
And all she wants to do is dance, dance . . .
To keep the boys from selling
all the weapons they can scrounge,
And all she wants to do, all she wants to do is dance.'
Women are sexy when they dance ¡ª incredibly sexy ¡ª but that wasn't what I reacted to, or how I reacted. The lust I was coping with, but this was more than lust, and not copeable. It was something that sucked the wind out of me and left me feeling utterly at her mercy. In that moment she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, not a pretty woman in shorts and a middy top dancing in place on a Frisbee, but Venus revealed. She was everything I had missed during the last four years, when I'd been so badly off I didn't know I was missing anything. She robbed me of any last defenses I might have had. The age difference didn't matter. If I looked to people like my tongue was hanging out even when my mouth was shut, then so be it. If I lost my dignity, my pride, my sense of self, then so be it. Four years on my own had taught me there are worse things to lose.
How long did she stand there, dancing? I don't know. Probably not long, not even a minute, and then she realized we were looking at her, rapt ¡ª because to some degree they all saw what I saw and felt what I felt. For that minute or however long it was, I don't think any of us used much oxygen.
She stepped off the Frisbee, laughing and blushing at the same time, confused but not really uncomfortable. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I just . . . I love that song.'
'All she wants to do is dance,' Rommie said.
'Yes, sometimes that's all she wants,' Mattie said, and blushed harder than ever. 'Excuse me, I have to use the facility.' She tossed me the Frisbee and then dashed for the trailer.
I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself back to reality, and saw John doing the same thing. George Kennedy was wearing a mildly stunned expression, as if someone had fed him a light sedative and it was finally taking effect.
Thunder rumbled. This time it did sound closer.
I skimmed the Frisbee to Rommie. 'What do you think?'
'I think I'm in love,' he said, and then seemed to give himself a small mental shake ¡ª it was a thing you could see in his eyes. 'I also think it's time we got going on those steaks if we're going to eat outside. Want to help me?'
'I will, too,' John said.
We walked back to the trailer, leaving George and Kyra to play toss. Kyra was asking George if he had ever caught any crinimals. In the kitchen, Mattie was standing beside the open fridge and stacking steaks on a platter. 'Thank God you guys came in. I was on the point of giving up and gobbling one of these just the way it is. They're the most beautiful things I ever saw.'
'You're the most beautiful thing I ever saw,' John said. He was being totally sincere, but the smile she gave him was distracted and a little bemused. I made a mental note to myself: never compliment a woman on her beauty when she has a couple of raw steaks in her hands. It just doesn't turn the windmill somehow.
'How are you at barbecuing meat?' she asked me. 'Tell the truth, because these are way too good to mess up.'
'I can hold my own.'
'Okay, you're hired. John, you're assisting. Rommie, help me do salads.'
George and Ki had come around to the front of the trailer and were now sitting in lawn-chairs like a couple of old cronies at their London club. George was telling Ki how he had shot it out with Rolfe Nedeau and the Real Bad Gang on Lisbon Street in 1993.
'George, what's happening to your nose?' John asked. 'It's getting so long.'
'Do you mind?' George asked. 'I'm having a conversation here.'
'Mr. Kennedy has caught lots of crooked crinimals,' Kyra said. 'He caught the Real Bad Gang and put them in Supermax.'
'Yes,' I said. 'Mr. Kennedy also won an Academy Award for acting in a movie called Cool Hand Luke.'
'That's absolutely correct,' George said. He raised his right hand and crossed the two fingers. 'Me and Paul Newman. Just like that.'
'We have his pusgetti sauce,' Ki said gravely, and that got John laughing again. It didn't hit me the same way, but laughter is catching; just watching John was enough to break me up after a few seconds. We were howling like a couple of fools as we slapped the steaks on the grill. It's a wonder we didn't burn our hands off.
'Why are they laughing?' Ki asked George.
'Because they're foolish men with little tiny brains,' George said. 'Now listen, Ki ¡ª I got them all except for the Human Headcase. He jumped into his car and I jumped into mine. The details of that chase are nothing for a little girl to hear ¡ª '
George regaled her with them anyway while John and I stood grinning at each other across Mattie's barbecue. 'This is great, isn't it?' John said, and I nodded.
Mattie came out with corn wrapped in aluminum foil, followed by Rommie, who had a large salad bowl clasped in his arms and negotiated the steps carefully, trying to peer over the top of the bowl as he made his way down them.
We sat at the picnic table, George and Rommie on one side, John and I flanking Mattie on the other. Ki sat at the head, perched on a stack of old magazines in a lawn-chair. Mattie tied a dishtowel around her neck, an indignity Ki submitted to only because (a) she was wearing new clothes, and (b) a dishtowel wasn't a baby-bib, at least technically speaking.
We ate hugely ¡ª salad, steak (and John was right, it really was the best I'd ever had), roasted corn on the cob, 'strewberry snortcake' for dessert. By the time we'd gotten around to the snortcake, the thunderheads were noticeably closer and there was a hot, jerky breeze blowing around the yard.
'Mattie, if I never eat a meal as good as this one again, I won't be surprised,' Rommie said. 'Thanks ever so much for having me.'
'Thank you,' she said. There were tears standing in her eyes. She took my hand on one side and John's on the other. She squeezed both. 'Thank you all. If you knew what things were like for Ki and me before this last week . . . ' She shook her head, gave John and me a final squeeze, and let go. 'But that's over.'
'Look at the baby,' George said, amused.
Ki had slumped back in her lawn-chair and was looking at us with glazing eyes. Most of her hair had come out of the scrunchy and lay in clumps against her cheeks. There was a dab of whipped cream on her nose and a single yellow kernel of corn sitting in the middle of her chin.
'I threw the Frisbee six fousan times,' Kyra said. She spoke in a distant, declamatory tone. 'I tired.'
Mattie started to get up. I put my hand on her arm. 'Let me?'
She nodded, smiling. 'If you want.'
I picked Kyra up and carried her around to the steps. Thunder rumbled again, a long, low roll that sounded like the snarl of a huge dog. I looked up at the encroaching clouds, and as I did, movement caught my eye. It was an old blue car heading west on Wasp Hill Road toward the lake. The only reason I noticed it was that it was wearing one of those stupid bumper-stickers from the Village Cafe: HORN BROKEN ¡ª WATCH FOR FINGER.
I carried Ki up the steps and through the door, turning her so I wouldn't bump her head. 'Take care of me,' she said in her sleep. There was a sadness in her voice that chilled me. It was as if she knew she was asking the impossible. 'Take care of me, I'm little, Mama says I'm a little guy.'
'I'll take care of you,' I said, and kissed that silky place between her eyes again. 'Don't worry, Ki, go to sleep.'
I carried her to her room and put her on her bed. By then she was totally conked out. I wiped the cream off her nose and picked the corn-kernel off her chin. I glanced at my watch and saw it was ten 'til two. They would be gathering at Grace Baptist by now. Bill Dean was wearing a gray tie. Buddy Jellison had a hat on. He was standing behind the church with some other men who were smoking before going inside.
I turned. Mattie was in the doorway. 'Mike,' she said. 'Come here, please.'
I went to her. There was no cloth between her waist and my hands this time. Her skin was warm, and as silky as her daughter's. She looked up at me, her lips parted. Her hips pressed forward, and when she felt what was hard down there, she pressed harder against it.
'Mike,' she said again.
I closed my eyes. I felt like someone who has just come to the doorway of a brightly lit room full of people laughing and talking. And dancing. Because sometimes that is all we want to do.
I want to come in, I thought. That's what I want to do, all I want to do. Let me do what I want. Let me ¡ª
I realized I was saying it aloud, whispering it rapidly into her ear as I held her with my hands going up and down her back, my fingertips ridging her spine, touching her shoulderblades, then coming around in front to cup her small breasts.
'Yes,' she said. 'What we both want. Yes. That's fine.'
Slowly, she reached up with her thumbs and wiped the wet places from under my eyes. I drew back from her. 'The key ¡ª '
She smiled a little. 'You know where it is.'
'I'll come tonight.'
'I've been . . . ' I had to clear my throat. I looked at Kyra, who was deeply asleep. 'I've been lonely. I don't think I knew it, but I have been.'
'Me too. And I knew it for both of us. Kiss, please.'
I kissed her. I think our tongues touched, but I'm not sure. What I remember most clearly is the liveness of her. She was like a dreidel lightly spinning in my arms.
'Hey!' John called from outside, and we sprang apart. 'You guys want to give us a little help? It's gonna rain!'
'Thanks for finally making up your mind,' she said to me in a low voice. She turned and hurried back up the doublewide's narrow corridor. The next time she spoke to me, I don't think she knew who she was talking to, or where she was. The next time she spoke to me, she was dying.
'Don't wake the baby,' I heard her tell John, and his response: 'Oh, sorry, sorry.'
I stood where I was a moment longer, getting my breath, then slipped into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. I remember seeing a blue plastic whale in the bathtub as I turned to take a towel off the rack. I remember thinking that it probably blew bubbles out of its spout-hole, and I even remember having a momentary glimmer of an idea ¡ª a children's story about a spouting whale. Would you call him Willie? Nah, too obvious. Wilhelm, now ¡ª that had a fine round ring to it, simultaneously grand and amusing. Wilhelm the Spouting Whale.
I remember the bang of thunder from overhead. I remember how happy I was, with the decision finally made and the night to look forward to. I remember the murmur of men's voices and the murmur of Mattie's response as she told them where to put the stuff. Then I heard all of them going back out again.
I looked down at myself and saw a certain lump was subsiding. I remember thinking there was nothing so absurd-looking as a sexually excited man and knew I'd had this same thought before, perhaps in a dream. I left the bathroom, checked on Kyra again ¡ª rolled over on her side, fast asleep ¡ª and then went down the hall. I had just reached the living room when gunfire erupted outside. I never confused the sound with thunder. There was a moment when my mind fumbled toward the idea of backfires ¡ª some kid's hotrod ¡ª and then I knew. Part of me had been expecting something to happen . . . but it had been expecting ghosts rather than gunfire. A fatal lapse.
It was the rapid pah! pah! pah! of an auto-fire weapon ¡ª a Glock nine-millimeter, as it turned out. Mattie screamed ¡ª a high, drilling scream that froze my blood. I heard John cry out in pain and George Kennedy bellow, 'Down, down! For the love of Christ, get her down!'
Something hit the trailer like a hard spatter of hail ¡ª a rattle of punching sounds running from west to east. Something split the air in front of my eyes ¡ª I heard it. There was an almost-musical sproing sound, like a snapping guitar string. On the kitchen table, the salad bowl one of them had just brought in shattered.
I ran for the door and nearly dived down the cement-block steps. I saw the barbecue overturned, with the glowing coals already setting patches of the scant front-yard grass on fire. I saw Rommie Bissonette sitting with his legs outstretched, looking stupidly down at his ankle, which was soaked with blood. Mattie was on her hands and knees by the barbecue with her hair hanging in her face ¡ª it was as if she meant to sweep up the hot coals before they could cause some real trouble. John staggered toward me, holding out a hand. The arm above it was soaked with blood.
And I saw the car I'd seen before ¡ª the nondescript sedan with the joke sticker on it. It had gone up the road ¡ª the men inside making that first pass to check us out ¡ª then turned around and come back. The shooter was still leaning out the front passenger window. I could see the stubby smoking weapon in his hands. It had a wire stock. His features were a blue blank broken only by huge gaping eyesockets ¡ª a ski-mask.
Overhead, thunder gave a long, awakening roar.
George Kennedy was walking toward the car, not hurrying, kicking hot spilled coals out of his way as he went, not bothering about the dark-red stain that was spreading on the right thigh of his pants, reaching behind himself, not hurrying even when the shooter pulled back in and shouted 'Go go go!' at the driver, who was also wearing a blue mask, George not hurrying, no, not hurrying a bit, and even before I saw the pistol in his hand, I knew why he had never taken off his absurd Pa Kettle suit jacket, why he had even played Frisbee in it.
The blue car (it turned out to be a 1987 Ford registered to Mrs. Sonia Belliveau of Auburn and reported stolen the day before) had pulled over onto the shoulder and had never really stopped rolling. Now it accelerated, spewing dry brown dust out from under its rear tires, fishtailing, knocking Mattie's RFD box off its post and sending it flying into the road.
George still didn't hurry. He brought his hands together, holding his gun with his right and steadying with his left. He squeezed off five deliberate shots. The first two went into the trunk ¡ª I saw the holes appear. The third blew in the back window of the departing Ford, and I heard someone shout in pain. The fourth went I don't know where. The fifth blew the left rear tire. The Ford veered to that side. The driver almost brought it back, then lost it completely. The car ploughed into the ditch thirty yards below Mattie's trailer and rolled over on its side. There was a whumpf! and the rear end was engulfed in flames. One of George's shots must have hit the gas-tank. The shooter began struggling to get out through the passenger window.
'Ki . . . get Ki . . . away . . . ' A hoarse, whispering voice.
Mattie was crawling toward me. One side of her head ¡ª the right side ¡ª still looked all right, but the left side was a ruin. One dazed blue eye peered out from between clumps of bloody hair. Skull-fragments littered her tanned shoulder like bits of broken crockery. How I would love to tell you I don't remember any of this, how I would love to have someone else tell you that Michael Noonan died before he saw that, but I cannot. Alas is the word for it in the crossword puzzles, a four-letter word meaning to express great sorrow.
'Ki . . . Mike, get Ki . . . '
I knelt and put my arms around her. She struggled against me. She was young and strong, and even with the gray matter of her brain bulging through the broken wall of her skull she struggled against me, crying for her daughter, wanting to reach her and protect her and get her to safety.
'Mattie, it's all right,' I said. Down at the Grace Baptist Church, at the far end of the zone I was in, they were singing 'Blessed Assurance' . . . but most of their eyes were as blank as the eye now peering at me through the tangle of bloody hair. 'Mattie, stop, rest, it's all right.'
'Ki . . . get Ki . . . don't let them . . . '
'They won't hurt her, Mattie, I promise.'
She slid against me, slippery as a fish, and screamed her daughter's name, holding out her bloody hands toward the trailer. The rose-colored shorts and top had gone bright red. Blood spattered the grass as she thrashed and pulled. From down the hill there was a guttural explosion as the Ford's gas-tank exploded. Black smoke rose toward a black sky. Thunder roared long and loud, as if the sky were saying You want noise? Yeah? I'll give you noise.
'Say Mattie's all right, Mike!' John cried in a wavering voice. 'Oh for God's sake say she's ¡ª '
He dropped to his knees beside me, his eyes rolling up until nothing showed but the whites. He reached for me, grabbed my shoulder, then tore damned near half my shirt off as he lost his battle to stay conscious and fell on his side next to Mattie. A curd of white goo bubbled from one corner of his mouth. Twelve feet away, near the overturned barbecue, Rommie was trying to get on his feet, his teeth clenched in pain. George was standing in the middle of Wasp Hill Road, reloading his gun from a pouch he'd apparently had in his coat pocket and watching as the shooter worked to get clear of the overturned car before it was engulfed. The entire right leg of George's pants was red now. He may live but he'll never wear that suit again, I thought.
I held Mattie. I put my face down to hers, put my mouth to the ear that was still there and said: 'Kyra's okay. She's sleeping. She's fine, I promise.'
Mattie seemed to understand. She stopped straining against me and collapsed to the grass, trembling all over. 'Ki . . . Ki . . . ' This was the last of her talking on earth. One of her hands reached out blindly, groped at a tuft of grass, and yanked it out.
'Over here,' I heard George saying. 'Get over here, motherfuck, don't you even think about turning your back on me.'
'How bad is she?' Rommie asked, hobbling over. His face was as white as paper. And before I could reply: 'Oh Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Blessed be the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Oh Mary born without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee. Oh no, oh Mike, no.' He began again, this time lapsing into Lewiston street-French, what the old folks call La Parle.
'Quit it,' I said, and he did. It was as if he had only been waiting to be told. 'Go inside and check on Kyra. Can you?'
'Yes.' He started toward the trailer, holding his leg and lurching along. With each lurch he gave a high yip of pain, but somehow he kept going. I could smell burning tufts of grass. I could smell electric rain on a rising wind. And under my hands I could feel the light spin of the dreidel slowing down as she went.
I turned her over, held her in my arms, and rocked her back and forth. At Grace Baptist the minister was now reading Psalm 139 for Royce: If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me, even the night shall be light. The minister was reading and the Martians were listening. I rocked her back and forth in my arms under the black thunderheads. I was supposed to come to her that night, use the key under the pot and come to her. She had danced with the toes of her white sneakers on the red Frisbee, had danced like a wave on the ocean, and now she was dying in my arms while the grass burned in little clumps and the man who had fancied her as much as I had lay unconscious beside her, his right arm painted red from the short sleeve of his WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS tee-shirt all the way down to his bony, freckled wrist.
'Mattie,' I said. 'Mattie, Mattie, Mattie.' I rocked her and smoothed my hand across her forehead, which on the right side was miraculously unsplattered by the blood that had drenched her. Her hair fell over the ruined left side of her face. 'Mattie,' I said. 'Mattie, Mattie, oh Mattie.'
Lightning flashed ¡ª the first stroke I had seen. It lit the western sky in a bright blue arc. Mattie trembled strongly in my arms ¡ª all the way from neck to toes she trembled. Her lips pressed together. Her brow furrowed, as if in concentration. Her hand came up and seemed to grab for the back of my neck, as a person falling from a cliff may grasp blindly at anything to hold on just a little longer. Then it fell away and lay limply on the grass, palm up. She trembled once more ¡ª the whole delicate weight of her trembled in my arms ¡ª and then she was still.