An intensely emotional and provocative story, Little Girl Gone explores the secret hopes and fears that drive good people to do dangerous things . . . and the courage it takes to make things right.
|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
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Little Girl Gone
By Drusilla Campbell
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Drusilla Campbell
All right reserved.
Madora Welles was twelve when she learned that some girls are lucky in life, others not so much. On the day her father walked into the desert, she learned that luck can run out in a single day. After that, there’s no more Daddy telling the whole story of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” start to finish, in one minute flat. No more laughing Mommy standing by with a stopwatch to make sure he doesn’t cheat. Lucky girls did not have fathers who changed from happy to sad, easy to angry to tears in the space of an hour, locked themselves in the shed and banged on things with a hammer. No lucky girl ever had a father who walked into the desert and put a bullet in his brain.
Yuma, Arizona: the town is laid out like a grid on the desert flats. Single-story buildings, fast-food joints on every corner, dust and heat and wind, lots of military, and a pretty good baseball team. That’s about it.
Madora’s mother, Rachel, said Yuma killed her husband, said it was killing her too. To save herself she turned on the television, stepped into other people’s stories, and got lost. For a long time she forgot to care about her daughter. Failing in school, drinking, and wading into the river of drugs that ran through the middle of Yuma, Madora was seventeen when she met Willis Brock.
Madora’s best friend was Kay-Kay, a girl from a family with slightly better luck than her own. Instead of using a gun, Kay-Kay’s father had been drinking himself to death for a few years when she and Madora latched onto each other like twins separated at birth. Rachel recognized trouble when she saw it come through the door chewing gum and smelling of tobacco, but Madora had stopped listening to her by then. Rachel fell asleep in front of the television, in the old La-Z-Boy lounger that still smelled like Old Spice.
Madora and Kay-Kay and a boy named Randy who knew someone who knew someone else who had a car drove south of Yuma, into the desert near the border, where they had heard there was a party house and big action. Rachel had told Madora a thousand times to stay away from the border, but in the years after her father’s suicide, Madora’s life was all about escape and rebellion; and the drugs and remote setting excited her. Until the bikers came she was having a good time drinking bourbon from a bottle and smoking grass, taking her social cues from Kay-Kay. Unconsciously, she copied Kay-Kay’s slope-shouldered, world-wary posture, and she was careful not to smile too much or laugh too loudly. Not that there was ever much humor at parties like this; and what passed for conversation was dissing and one-upping, arguments and aimless, convoluted complaints and comparisons of this night to others, this weed to the stuff they smoked the week before.
At seventeen, Madora’s thinking was neither introspective nor analytical, but she was conscious of being different from Kay-Kay and the slackers around her and of wishing she were not. She wanted to eradicate the part of herself that was like her father: a dreamer, a hoper, a wisher upon first stars. At the party that night in the desert she kept to herself the resilient romantic notions that floated in the back of her mind. Never mind the odds against it: a handsome boy would come through the door, and he would look at her the way her father once had and she would feel as she once did, like the luckiest girl in the world.
Instead the bikers came. Voices rose and the air snapped; the music got louder and the run-down old house vibrated to the bass beat.
Kay-Kay put her mouth close to Madora’s ear, her breath an oily whiskey ribbon. “I’m gonna do it.” It was so noisy, she had to say it twice. “Those guys, they brought crank. I’m gonna try it.”
Madora had been drinking and toking all night. Kay-Kay’s words didn’t really sink in, but what her friend did, she wanted to do as well. “Me too.”
In a room at the back of the house, they sat on the floor opposite a bearded man with a gold front tooth who said his name was Jammer. Men and girls—long-haired and skinhead, pierced and tattooed and leather jacketed, all strangers to Madora—leaned against each other, stood or squatted with their backs to the wall. Jammer wore a black tank top so tight it cut into the muscles of his overdeveloped arms and shoulders and chest, and his hands were spotted with burn scabs. He held a six-inch pipe with a bulb at the end and played the flame of a lighter under the glass taking care not to touch it with the fire, rolling the pipe as he did.
Madora watched in fascination as the pale amber cube in the bulb dissolved. Her lip hurt and she realized she was biting down on it. I shouldn’t be here, she thought, and looked at Kay-Kay. One sign that her friend wanted to leave and Madora would have popped to her feet in an instant. But Kay-Kay was mesmerized by the pipe in Jammer’s hand. She leaned forward, watching avidly as he turned and rolled it. A drop of saliva hung suspended from her lower lip.
The others in the room passed a joint and spoke softly; occasionally Madora heard someone laugh. The door to the rest of the house was shut, but beneath her Madora felt the beat of the music. In the smoky room her eyes watered and blurred. A man crouched behind her, pressing his knees into her back. He held her shoulders and urged her to lean back.
“Relax, chicky, you’re gonna love this.”
Jammer held out the pipe to Madora, and Kay-Kay elbowed her gently and grinned encouragement. Madora thought of a birthday party, the expectant moment just before the lighted cake and the singing began.
The man behind her stroked her arm, running his fingers along her shoulder and up into her hair. He whispered, “Don’t be afraid. I’ll take care of you.”
She took the pipe between her fingers and put her lips around the tube. She started to inhale, but just as she did, the image of the birthday party came back to her, and she saw her father holding the cake; and she was six again, and no matter what, Daddy would always take care of her. Her throat closed; her hand came up and dashed the pipe onto the floor. Someone yelled and her head exploded in white light and there was no yelling or talking, no music anywhere, just a burning pain as if her head were an egg and someone had thrown it against the wall.
She struggled to her feet, fell to her knees, and stood up again. Someone grabbed her and pushed her against the wall. Hands groped at the front of her T-shirt and she flailed and tried to scream but her throat and her lungs had frozen shut. More hands grabbed her arms and dragged her across the floor; her ballerina slippers came off her feet, and her bare heels tore on the broken linoleum. A door opened and she fell forward into a wall of fresh air. Someone shoved her into a chair and she sat down hard, gagging for air.
A voice growled. “Stay with her.”
Kay-Kay’s voice came from far away. “Holy shit, are you all right?”
Madora’s left cheek jerked as her eye blinked crazily.
“You want me to call your mom? Oh, Jesus, Madora, I can’t get her to come out here.”
Madora wanted to stop the twitching, but her hand couldn’t find her face.
“No one’s gonna stop partying to drive you home.”
Her hands and feet and head were attached by strings. She bobbled like a puppet.
“Jammer said you only got a whiff. Lucky, huh? Are you listening, Mad? He says like only one in a trillion people react bad like you. It might’ve killed you. I can’t believe how lucky you were.”
Someone was stirring her brain with a wooden spoon.
“No one wants to leave yet, and anyway, Jammer says you’ll feel better.”
Then she was alone on the porch outside the house. A coyote padding across the yard stopped to look at her, moonlight reflected in its yellow eyes. Kay-Kay returned and sat beside her for a few moments, holding her sweating hands, and then she went back in the house.
The desert temperature dropped, and the air, cold and dry, lay over everything. The sweat dried on Madora’s body and she shivered, and her teeth rattled like bones in a paper bag. She dragged her feet up onto the chair and wrapped her arms around her knees. She rested her face on her knees and tried to close her eyes, but the lids bounced as if on springs. In the house someone had turned up a CD of an old Doors recording. The keyboard riffs scored her senses and the beat got down inside her, deep. Her muscles ached with it.
Car lights streaked across the cholla and prickly pear. For a moment she was sightless, then bleary-eyed, and the figure coming toward her seemed to emerge out of water like something blessed, a holy vision. Without knowing why, she tried to rise from the chair where she’d been cowering. Her legs wobbled under her and he reached out, helping her to balance.
“Hey, little girl, you better stay down.”
She saw two of him, sometimes three, floating like a mirage, but his voice was clear and strong. Under it, the pounding beat and the keyboard riffs grew fainter until they seemed to come from far out in the desert, where she knew there must be a party going on but nothing that concerned her anymore.
“Don’t be afraid, little girl. Willis won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
Five Years Later
Madora Welles rose from the living room sectional where she had spent the night and drank a cup of instant coffee, standing in the carport outside the kitchen. The cement was cool and slightly damp, and her bare feet stuck to it in a pleasant way. She ran her fingers through her light brown hair, a color her father had long ago described as mouse. Little Mouse had been one of his pet names for her. Little Mouse, Pug because her nose was pert, Runt because she was short. Sweetheart Girl.
How odd that her father’s voice, though he had been gone ten years, still came into her mind as if he were sending messages by a circuitry available only to them.
Before six on an early summer morning, as the moon dropped below the western horizon, the sky over the Laguna Mountains was a wash of pale yellow, and the cool air smelled of sage and pepper and damp sand and stone. Rough chaparral covered the bottom and slopes of Evers Canyon, softened by the cream-colored blossoms of the chamise and the curves and hollows of the tumbled, biscuit-colored boulders. The rocks were ancient, Willis said, maybe two hundred million years old.
Madora was twenty-two years old, and two hundred million was a number so big she wasn’t even sure how to write it.
From behind the Lagunas, the sun rose and kissed the head of Evers Canyon that loomed directly behind Madora’s house. In the nearest town, Arroyo, and in San Diego, thirty miles west, people were just waking up, but Madora was alert as she and the dog walked across the yard and the cul-de-sac to where a weathered sign marked a trailhead into Cleveland National Forest, a vast, barren territory of mountains, rocks, and chaparral. A rock one hundred yards up the trail resembled a chair, and she often went there to sit and think and watch the land as she waited for the sun; but this morning Willis wanted her to stay near the house. She leaned back against the trail sign and swallowed the last of her coffee as she waited for the sun line to slip down from the canyon rim and melt the stiffness in her shoulders and neck. Willis said she’d feel better if she lost twenty pounds.
It was June and the weather had turned the corner, heading into full summer. The balls of sagebrush scattered across the sloping land were already brown. Soon the house would oven up and stay hot day and night until October. Although Madora opened all the windows to lure the slightest breeze, at the dead end of Evers Canyon the trapped air did not move much. Dust settled on every surface and clung to the curtains’ coarse weave. It powdered Madora’s skin, got in her eyes and hair and ears; her nose was so dry it sometimes bled. June meant that July was on its way and right behind it August and September, the hottest months of the year. Fire season.
The pit bull Madora had found as a puppy pushed against her leg, wanting attention. Though Foo was only a few months old, his personality had begun to organize itself into a mixture of aggression and timidity, curiosity, loyalty, and affection. During the previous night the cries coming from the woman in the trailer behind the house seemed to frighten him. He whimpered until Madora drew him against the curve of her body where she lay on the sectional.
There had been five cabbage-sized pups in the box at the side of the road, only Foo left alive and him just barely. Brown and white and squint-eyed, he had felt in her hands like a small warm loaf of bread. Coyotes would have gotten him if Madora had not seen the box. Coyotes and hawks. Spiders and snakes. The world was full of danger. In Cleveland National Forest even the plants had spikes and thorns.
She buried the puppies in the sand along the dry stream at the back of the house and gathered stones for a cairn. She gave Foo water and then evaporated milk from an eyedropper and put a hot water bottle and a scrap of blanket in a box for him to snuggle up to. Willis said they couldn’t afford a dog, but Madora convinced him otherwise, pointing out that a pit bull would be a good watchdog. He needed shots and a tag with his name: Foo. Madora wanted him to have a proper license from the county, but Willis didn’t like signing forms that required his name and address.
Foo had become part of Madora’s nursery of injured animals and struggling plants. But he was more than that. His companionable presence made the long days less monotonous. She talked to him about the things that mattered to her; and as he listened, his small bright eyes never left her face, as if he believed she had all the answers, if only he could figure out what the questions were.
Under the carport there were pots and planters and whiskey barrels full of zinnias and cosmos and petunias, flowers that endured the heat as long as they were watered. On a shelf made of bricks and boards, a homemade cage held a rabbit with one ear ripped by a hawk. After six weeks it still cowered at the back of the cage. In another cage, she kept a coyote pup she’d raised from skin and bones, wild and mean. She had found him on the far side of the truck trailer where the girl was.
As Madora walked back across the road, back to the house, a stranger, a hiker or a boy riding a mountain bike, would have seen a fair-skinned girl made beautiful by innocence, candid green eyes, and skin turned to gold by the sun. But almost no one ever came this far up Evers Canyon; there were much easier trails into the Cleveland.
Madora and Willis had lived in the three-room house at the end of Red Rock Road for almost four years, renting from a man they had never met who kept the rent low as long as they paid on time and asked no favors or improvements. In Madora’s memory the months and seasons blurred; one summer was as hot as another, one winter as dry as the next. Country life suited her, but nature’s ruthlessness was frightening. On a walk with Willis she had stepped into a spider’s net cast between two trees on opposite sides of the trail. As she pulled the sticky webbing from her hair and face, a butterfly came away in her hand, its wings as dull and dry as paper. Madora wanted to destroy the web, but Willis admired the intricacy of the silken weave. He said there was a circle of life and coyotes and spiders as much as girls and butterflies were part of it.
Madora didn’t believe that life was a circle. Tending her damaged animals, she saw that it was more like a canyon back, where some got trapped and only a few rescued.
In the truck trailer up on cement blocks, the girl named Linda had screamed through the small hours of the night. Willis worked as a home health care provider and before that he had been a medic in the Marine Corps. He promised that compared to fixing men torn up by IEDs and land mines, delivering a baby was nothing. But still she screamed. Willis had given her pills, but Madora guessed from the cries that they had not been sufficient to ease her labor pains. Anyone walking by could have heard the noise she made, but the house was at the end of the road, almost a mile from its nearest neighbor, and the residents of Evers Canyon kept to their own business.
In the kitchen Madora followed the directions Willis had made her repeat back to him a half dozen times. She put a clean plastic tub in the sink with an old towel folded on the bottom. Another towel she folded in half and laid out on the counter beside the sink. On the other side she put a clean sponge and a bottle of lemon-colored extra-gentle bath soap and a third towel. The day before she had scoured every surface in the kitchen with Clorox, making her eyes burn and water. On her hands and knees she scrubbed the kitchen floor until she thought she would wear through the old vinyl to the gappy floorboards beneath. Afterwards she wouldn’t let Willis wear his shoes indoors until he pointed out that if Foo could run in and out, he should be able to as well. Madora could not ban Foo. He would be hurt and confused. She gave him a bath and washed the floor again.
She heard Willis come around the corner of the carport, his boots crunching in the gravel. He opened the screen door and let it slam behind him. He carried a bundle in his arms, wrapped in a flannel blanket.
“Do you remember what I told you?”
She nodded, taking the baby from him.
“When you’re done, put him in that nightgown thing with the cord at the bottom.” Willis’s black hair had come out of its ponytail and hung down thick and straight on either side of his handsome face, casting shadows and deepening the lines of exhaustion that accentuated the slant of his cheekbones. He looked like John the Baptist in a picture on the wall of the Sunday school Madora attended as a child.
In Madora’s arms, the newborn was light, a feather in a balloon wrapped in tissue.
“He’s so small.”
“Around six pounds, I’d guess. Not bad, considering.”
“Passed out, but she’ll be okay. She tore bad, so I had to give her more pills than I wanted. I stitched her, though. No problemo.” He walked out of the tiny kitchen toward the back of the house, his voice muffled through his sweat-stained shirt as he pulled it over his head. “While I’m gone I want you to go in there and give her a good wash and change the sheets. I bought some of them female napkin things. She’ll need those.”
“How long will you be gone?”
He didn’t answer.
The baby in Madora’s arms did not feel as she remembered her baby dolls had, the snug way their rubber bottoms had rested in the curve of her arm when she was seven years old. Her grip on this shapeless mass was uncertain, and it was a relief to lay him on the towel beside the sink. She pulled back an edge of the thin blanket so she could see his face. She was sorry to think he was ugly, but it was the truth. His low forehead was covered with black hair, his nose squashy, and his skin as red and scratched as if he’d been in a playground fight. She laid her index finger on his cheek and his puffy eyelids fluttered—such thick black lashes!—and opened just enough so that Madora could see that his eyes were the color of deep water.
“You had a rough time, didn’t you, little guy?” Her voice appeared to startle him. He jerked his arms and legs and made Madora laugh. At the sound, his eyes widened. She smiled at him and put her face close, wanting him to see her smile, as if this might go some way toward assuring him a happy life.
Be lucky, she thought.
As Willis had instructed, she ran a few inches of warm water into the plastic tub in the sink and unwrapped the blanket from around the baby’s body. She stifled a wash of disgust at the sight of his flesh painted with a sticky slime of blood and a white, almost cheesy substance. An inch of tied-off umbilicus hung from his stomach. Madora wished she knew if all babies looked this awful in the first moments of life. It would be a disaster and ruin all Willis’s plans if he tried to give the baby boy to the lawyer and he was rejected. Willis was in a saving frenzy, talking about medical school and how much he needed the lawyer’s twenty-five thousand in cash.
When the water touched the boy, he went rigid and yelped—a cracking huff of surprise that subsided when his chest and arms and legs submerged. After a moment, he seemed to like the water, and Madora wondered if it reminded him of the time before he was born. Did a baby in the womb feel imprisoned or safely cared for? It seemed like the older she got, the more often such crazy and unanswerable questions popped into her mind.
She poured a minute drop of liquid soap into the palm of her hand and smoothed it over his saggy mottled skin. His eyes stayed locked on hers, hardly blinking. She was not sure if he actually saw her; still his fixed, deepwater stare had an absorbing intensity and she believed that he was memorizing her. A year from now, if she saw him in a stroller in a supermarket, he would look up at her, lock eyes, and know her.
From the bathroom Madora heard the sound of shower water hitting the metal wall of the stall. Normally she didn’t like it when Willis used too much water, but this morning she would not mind if he took one of his long scalding showers and drained the tank.
The slippery baby bundle rested on her forearm and she ran her fingers between each digit of his feet and hands. She lathered the thicket of black hair and felt the pulse beneath the softness at the back of his head. Willis had told her what this tender spot was called and warned her to be careful of it. She trembled with the fragility of his body, and her tears salted the warm water. Cradling his buttocks in her palm, she smoothed away the sticky residue of the birth canal, moving her fingers up under his chin and beneath his arms. From between his legs, a cloud of bubbles popped to the surface of the bath and Madora laughed.
She lifted him from the water, long and limp and skinny; and as she did he cried again, a piercing sound Madora understood immediately as surprise and cold. She quickly wrapped him in a fresh towel and held him against her heart, patting and crooning soft assurances that he would soon be warm.
No one needed to tell her how to hold him and pat him dry. The skill was born in her, an instinct. Since she held her first baby doll, she had wanted to be a mother. In high school, career day never interested her. Kay-Kay had talked about joining the army and called Madora a wuss because the idea did not appeal to her.
The water sounds from the bathroom stopped, and the shower’s plastic door banged against the outside of the stall.
“We have to hurry now,” she whispered, fiddling with the disposable diaper, determining front from back. “We don’t want to make Willis cross, do we?” In the dry air of the June morning, his hair was a dark nimbus, floating like the tag ends of sweet dreams from before he was born. Madora slipped the cotton gown over his head and tied it at the bottom with a drawstring, enclosing his feet. The gown was blue for a boy, though they had not known what the sex of the baby would be.
It would have been dangerous to take Linda to a doctor, and so Willis had handled everything. From the perfection of this little boy, it seemed he’d been right when he said a doctor was not necessary. “All over the world women have babies without the help of doctors.”
During her five months in the trailer Linda had never spoken about the baby’s father, even when Madora asked directly. Whoever he was, Madora knew he didn’t deserve anything as precious as the lamb in her arms. Nor did Linda. Willis had arranged for him to be adopted through an attorney who specialized in such matters, a friend of the nephew of one of Willis’s clients. The adoption attorney did not ask many questions and told Willis it would not be necessary for Linda to sign any papers. He would deliver the baby to his new parents. There would be a birth certificate with their names on it.
He would not need to be fed immediately, according to Willis, but she hoped the lawyer had made arrangements just in case. There should be another person with him to hold this small creature and prepare a bottle when he cried. A pain cut through Madora when she imagined him strapped into a cold car seat, hungry and suffering and only hours old, just new in the world and passed from hand to hand like something bought in a store.
Willis came into the kitchen wearing the Levi’s she’d pressed for him and the heavy denim shirt that was as dark as the baby’s eyes. He had combed back his hair and twisted it up on his head. He looked from the baby to her and smiled and lifted his soft, felt cowboy hat off a hook and put it on.
In Madora’s experience even the most attractive people had imperfections—a bump on the bridge of the nose or one eyelid a little droopy—but Willis’s face had no such irregularities. The two sides matched exactly, and this balance gave his face not only beauty but also an appealing serenity because there was nothing about it that needed to be adjusted. The first time she saw him, he was standing in front of her on the porch of the old house in the desert. So beautiful and calm. She thought he must be an angel.
She said, “I’m worried about him.”
“The lawyer? He’ll be there.”
“I checked him over. He’s fine.”
“What if he gets hungry?”
“The lawyer’ll take care of that. We’re going to meet up in Carlsbad.”
“Let me come with you.”
“I’m tired, Madora. I want to get rid of this—”
“He’s not a this. He’s a boy.”
Willis’s expression said that he had heard enough. “Give him to me.”
She pulled back, ducking her head.
“You ought to try being a little sympathetic, Madora. I’ve been up all night. Linda just had a baby and she’s pretty knocked out, but she’ll come to soon, and when she does, she’ll need you.”
The baby arched his back and twisted his mouth, making sucking sounds as Willis took him from Madora. She opened the screen door.
He stopped under the carport and scowled at her.
She said, “I want to have a baby.”
“Is that was this is all about?” His chuckle was softly derisive. “You got bit by the baby bug?”
“I’d be a good mother.” She knew this. “Please?”
“Don’t push me, Madora.”
The Great Dane truck trailer where Linda had spent almost five months of her pregnancy was eight feet wide and twenty-seven feet long. Up on blocks, the trailer had been on the property when Madora and Willis moved in. An eyesore, but too big to move.
Like many neglected rural properties, this one had for some time been a dumping ground for derelict machinery and equipment, but Madora disregarded the trash when she saw the little house. Stepping across the threshold for the first time four years ago, she had been afraid to hope that Willis would finally want to settle down, marry her, and have a family. A weight dropped from her shoulders when he said the spot suited him fine. She disregarded the cracked and bumpy orange and brown linoleum, the oven that did not work, the stained sink. These were temporary eyesores and inconveniences. All that mattered was that the gypsy months of wandering the West were over and her real life had begun. As if to prove he felt the same, Willis had taken the time to paint the house a deep, forest green and trimmed the windows in white. Working as a team all one weekend, they had dragged the rusty backhoes and graders, the carcass of a refrigerator, the flat tires and corroded tanks and coils of wire, and dumped them behind a mound of boulders, where they still lay like the skeletal remains of the property’s history. The Great Dane trailer could not be moved without a tow truck, so they stippled its battered aluminum exterior in camouflage shades of gray and green and tan that blended with the sycamores and dusty cottonwoods along the dry creek bed at the back of the property.
Initially, Willis had been fascinated by the trailer, but then he forgot about it and more than three years passed. Eight months ago, he had cut a window-sized hole up high on one side and installed an air-conditioning unit and an electric generator to power it and a few lights. Madora assumed he was making a room for himself, a place to study when he went back to school.
He never mentioned Linda. He just brought her home and put her in the trailer one rainy night.
He had brought her into the kitchen, water dripping off his ankle-length plastic raincoat, his black hair plastered and shining against his head. Behind him, had stood a girl with straggly hair in frayed-out Levi’s and a yellow T-shirt, hip shot out, staring down at her bare feet.
Madora remembered thinking that Linda looked like a Tinkertoy, round in the middle with sticks for arms and legs.
“She’s pregnant, Willis.”
“You think I’m blind?”
“You’ve got to take her to a doctor.”
“Pregnancy isn’t a disease, Madora. Besides, I’m a Marine Corps medic. I can manage a pregnancy. It’s not brain surgery.”
At that moment, Madora was juggling four or five thoughts at the same time, and it was hard to know what to say first. She didn’t mind helping this pregnant teen with nowhere to go, and she admired Willis for his generosity and didn’t want him to think she was stingy. But they were always short of money by the end of the month, and feeding one more was going to be a stretch.
“And where’s she going to sleep, Willis? We’ve only got the one bedroom.”
“I fixed up the Dane.”
“The trailer? But it’s freezing out there.” All the blankets they owned were on Madora and Willis’s bed, plus an old sleeping bag. And still they were cold at night.
“I put a mattress down and a couple of blankets and she can wear those flannel pajamas.”
The ones he had given Madora. A gift of soft, blue flannel pajamas at the start of the cold weather, a surprise. She loved his occasional and unexpected bursts of generosity, and she knew it was small of her to begrudge this girl the comfort of warm pajamas.
“What’s she going to eat?”
“I stopped on the way home and got a couple of burritos.”
“Where’d the mattress come from? And the blankets? We don’t have any extra blankets.” If she asked too many questions Willis would become defensive and then angry and accusing. He would say she did not believe in him and lacked commitment to their shared life, the terms of which he set without consulting her. And that was all right. She was by nature a follower. He was smarter than she and far more worldly. But she needed to know the truth. “Did you plan this ahead, Willis?”
“I’m going to take her over to the trailer now.” He opened a kitchen drawer where this and that collected and pulled out a padlock.
“What do you need that for?” Another question.
“She’s been on the street, Madora.” His tone implied Madora was a stupid girl, perhaps a little retarded. “Do I have to tell you what that means? She’s probably got drugs in her system and she could start hallucinating and walk right out the door. Believe me, Madora, I know about this kind of thing. The lock’s for her own good.” He paused. “Get it?”
All Madora knew of the world was what she’d seen from behind Willis, on tiptoes, looking over his shoulder. What he said made perfect sense.
“She needs a hot drink,” he said. “Make a thermos of tea and put a lot of sugar in it. I’ll come back and get it.” Before he left he smiled at Madora. “I don’t want you getting wet, catching a chill. It’s pretty bad out there. I’ll come back for the tea. Don’t trouble yourself.”
“Just tell me first. Did you plan this out ahead of time?”
He had never hit her, never even threatened her, but sometimes Madora felt the possibility of violence flow between them like an electric current.
“I’ll tell you the truth, and will you then be satisfied or will I have to keep explaining myself?” He sighed like a porter putting down his load after a long day. “I’m not going to lie, Madora, about how much this hurts me, your doubt. After all we’ve been through and all we’ve been to each other, you still don’t trust me. When the person I love most in the world doesn’t trust me or believe in me, do you know the pain, Madora? Trust and love, they’re almost the same thing. If you don’t trust me, it means you don’t love me. You can’t love me.”
The wind rose, whining up Evers Canyon and moaning in the eaves of the house, driving the rain hard against the windows. A draft came in at the floorboards and ran like a spider up the back of Madora’s leg. Along the creek somewhere a branch broke off a cottonwood, sounding like a pistol crack.
Willis sat, resting his elbows on his knees. “Maybe I should have told you before, but it happened too fast. I didn’t do a lot of thinking or planning.”
And yet he had a mattress and blankets in the trailer, waiting. Madora let the thought slide away, out of her mind forever.
“I admit, I’ve been watching Linda for a couple of days. Every time I went into Arroyo she’d be standing by the long stoplight near the freeway, holding up this feeble little sign saying she’s pregnant and hungry, and today when I saw her, in the pouring rain, I knew I had to bring her home.” His dark eyes looked into Madora’s, and she read in his expression a deep and inexpressible longing to be understood. “And I knew—I thought I knew—you’d want to help her too. I guess I just totally misunderstood.” He stood up. “If you really want me to, Madora, I’ll take her back to town. But is it okay if she eats? First? She needs something.”
Awash with shame, Madora laid her hand against his cheek. The goodness of the man brought tears into her eyes. “You’re right; you did the right thing. We’ll make the trailer comfortable for her.” Madora would not think about the mattress and blankets laid out in advance or consider the implications of the padlock. “You go along and get her settled. When you come back I’ll have her tea ready.”
And the flannel pajamas.
A few miles away, in the town of Arroyo, Django Jones dreamed of his mother. She was wearing her favorite red dress with the pleats that flipped out around her knees, and her hair shimmered with lights of silver, copper, and gold. Django had a green garden hose in his hand and he was spraying her and she was laughing. Her laugh was like light, like rain, like water splashing over rocks.
The room in which he awoke—it was the third morning now—was a quarter the size of his bedroom at home, and he could tell from the boxes shoved into the closet and corners that it had been a kind of utility room before his arrival. Across the room on a beat-up old dining room table, Django’s backpack reminded him that he was going to school that day whether he wanted to or not. He tried to imagine Arroyo Elementary School, K through eight, and he knew he wasn’t going to like it.
He fished his laptop off the floor beside the bed, powered on, and checked the time against the clock on the table. He had half an hour before he needed to get up. As he logged on, his hands trembled with hope.
First he Googled Jacky Jones, his father, and there were many new entries: bios and obits and memorials, a lot of people writing about how they knew him when he was the hottest guitarist out of England in the early seventies. He scanned these quickly. A woman wrote about having sex with him after a concert and making a plaster cast of his penis.
He went to Facebook and did a quick scroll, not paying much attention to the entries, looking for a clue that his parents were alive. He was sure they would find a way to send him a message. He went to his e-mail, saw nothing interesting. If the story of the accident was part of a top secret government thing, a message from his parents verifying this would be in code, of course. Django was smart; he would figure it out. Or, if they were being held for ransom, the note would come by mail or maybe a telephone call. Django’s father was super rich and famous, and his half brother, Huck, was probably a billionaire. The kidnappers would want a lot of money, but Django had made up his mind that he wouldn’t call the FBI when he heard from them. The feds would tell him to be cagey, not to pay the demand, but he was willing to pay any amount to rescue his mother and father.
There was nada from his homies on Facebook or e-mail or Twitter despite his having written them a couple of times every day since he got to his aunt’s house. Plus texting and tweeting and leaving messages on their cells. He looked up at the ceiling and opened his eyes wide to dry up the tears he felt coming. He blinked hard but it didn’t help. He was twelve and everyone said his parents were dead so it was normal to cry; but Django had never wanted to be normal.
Jacky and Caro Jones had driven to Reno over the Memorial Day weekend because Jacky wanted to try out his new black Ferrari on Interstate 395, the sweeping stretches of highway and long sight lines north of Bishop. If they had left Reno a half hour later or stopped in Bishop for coffee, if they’d gotten sleepy and decided to risk the bedbugs in a roadside motel. If they hadn’t been driving back to Beverly Hills late Monday night along the dark, deserted highway through the Rand Mountains, the hilly, twisty section between Johannesburg and Randsburg. If a drunk in a pickup had not shot out of an unmarked side road: no lights, ninety miles an hour.
Django wanted to jam a pencil through his ear, kill his imagination and obliterate the screams and the sound of metal slamming into metal.
The morning after the accident when Django came into the kitchen, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, it had not seemed unusual to see his father’s manager, Ira, leaning against the kitchen counter, drinking coffee. Ira had been his father’s manager since the seventies, and they often had morning meetings at the house in Beverly Hills.
It was Ira who had broken the news and swore to Django that his parents had not suffered. Death had come instantly, he said. The news charred Django like a sapling struck by lightning. It burned a hollow space inside him that now, two weeks later, he knew nothing would ever fill. That first morning, Mrs. Hancock, the housekeeper, put her arms around him, and they sat beside each other on the double chair on the kitchen porch. As Django recalled—his memory of those first days had big holes in it—they sat there all day as the sun moved across the wide planks of the whitewashed floor; but it couldn’t have been that long because his parent’s lawyer came, Mr. Guerin; and he and Ira closed themselves in Jacky’s office. While they talked Django went outside and sat by the swimming pool. His father said that exercise was the best thing when a person was upset so he tried to swim laps, but he only got to the middle of the pool before he couldn’t be bothered. He lay on his back and floated, staring up at the gray sky. Typical June gloom.
The truth was, when Ira told him his parents were dead, Django had not felt much of anything except stunned. And later, when he started to think about what automobile accident and dead really meant—what Ira and Mr. Guerin would call the long-term ramifications—he mostly felt scared because no one seemed to know what was going to happen to him. He thought he was probably too rich to go to an orphanage, but he had seen the musical Oliver! when the senior students at Beverly Country Day presented it at Christmas. After the performance he had asked his mother what gruel was and she said oatmeal, and his father said it was oatmeal mixed with sand and lint and dirt and dog hair swept up off the floor. Django knew he would never have to eat anything so awful, but he remembered the song the orphans sang about food, glorious food and it looped through his brain. He went to sleep thinking/singing it and woke up with it still going round and round.
The first day was the longest day in the history of the world. Then, near dinnertime, Huck, his older half brother, turboed through the front door with his bodyguard behind him, talking fast like always. Then Django heard the bawling sounds come out of his mouth and there was no way he could stop them. Huck was almost thirty, the son of Django’s father by his first marriage. He had his San Francisco Giants baseball hat on backwards, and he was crying too.
Time and memory got tricky again after that. Mrs. Hancock packed a bag for him and he loaded his laptop and iPad into his backpack. He hunted all over for his phone, and then he found it, in plain sight, right where it was supposed to be. Ira had driven them to a small airport in the valley where Huck’s plane was parked. Ira told Django, “Your dad was a great guy and you’re his boy all the way.” That was when Ira’s saggy-baggy face drooped even further and he began crying; and seeing an old guy cry embarrassed Django, but he cried too. Junior, one of the buffed-up bodyguards who always traveled with Huck, picked Django up and carried him over his shoulder and onto the plane like he was two years old.
The chopper they took from the San Jose airport landed on the helipad in Huck’s backyard. Huck disappeared into his office, and Junior handed Django over to a girl who said she was his brother’s personal assistant. Time passed and Django ate a lot and watched television and played video games, and every day people came and went and looked at him and there were more phone calls and quiet voices behind closed doors.
Huck’s girlfriend, Cassandra, walked around the house in a bikini, and when she hugged him her boobs weren’t soft like they looked. Django smelled marijuana in her hair, same as in his mother’s after a party. Cassandra brought him cocoa and popcorn and cinnamon toast and asked him how he felt, trying to be motherly.
Once, when they were playing gin rummy, he asked her, “Are you going to marry my brother?” He had been thinking about what it would be like to live in this house with her until he grew up.
She thought he was joking. “My parents’ll kill me if I don’t finish college.”
Huck had given Django some games his company was developing and asked him to test them out, but Django couldn’t take the task seriously. So what if his score went backwards and his avatar got pounded? In real life—every minute—the living, breathing Django was fighting to outrun his misery and the awful sounds and images in his head.
He thought he was going to stay with Huck; but after almost two weeks and lots more murmuring behind closed doors, there was another flight in a small plane, only this time Huck stayed behind because of business. Junior kept Django company and turned him over to Ira and Mr. Guerin at Montgomery Field in San Diego. They drove for an hour to his aunt Robin’s house in a town called Arroyo.
Mr. Guerin told him he was going to live in Arroyo now. “Your mother’s sister, your aunt Robin, will be your guardian.”
“But I don’t even know her. I never met her in my life.”
“I know, Django, I know. But your parents wanted it this way. They rewrote their wills last year for that particular reason.”
“Does she have kids?”
“No. She’s never been married. She’s a spinster.”
Old maid, Django thought. Was anyone, ever, going to tell him some good news?
“I want to stay with Huck.”
“I’m sorry, Django,” Mr. Guerin said, blinking hard. “I’m terribly sorry.”
Not only were Django’s mom and dad gone forever; the Django who lived in Beverly Hills was gone too. The person who woke up in his aunt Robin’s house looked like Django Jones—same straight blond hair and brown eyes, five feet four inches tall, one hundred and ten pounds—but he was just a shadow.
He had been with Aunt Robin since Tuesday. Today was Thursday, which was a stupid-ass day to start going to a new school, but nobody had asked him his opinion. Around here he just got told.
His aunt had been kind to him, but she was a chilly kind of person, a perpetual-motion robot who never stopped moving for long enough to really look at him. She was constantly off to do something or go somewhere. She was an accountant with a lot of clients. Around the house she was always cleaning and cooking and sorting through papers and drawers and cupboards, carrying laundry up and down stairs and ironing. Robin had a vegetable garden big enough to feed every kid at Beverly Country Day, and when she wasn’t working in the house she was outside in a big hat pulling weeds and watering each plant by hand to conserve H2O.
No matter what she was doing, there was a subzero negative force field around her like the one that protected Jett Jones when he liberated the children held captive on Planet Chiron in the second Jett Jones Boy of the Future novel.
At BCD Django had a great sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Cody, who told him he should write a science fiction novel because he needed somewhere constructive to put his imagination before it got him into trouble. At first Django thought it would be hard to make up a story with a plot and outer-space scenery, but pretty soon he got the hang of it. His father had started calling him Mr. Spielberg Sir and bought him a new laptop.
Django had called his teacher from Huck’s, but he realized when Mr. Cody’s voice got thick and gravelly that his call had upset him. It was the same when he phoned his homies, Lenny and Roid. They talked, but it was freaky, not like it had been.
Django put aside his laptop and closed his eyes.
Life would not be so demented if his friends would just communicate.
Django had never had a lot of friends, but Lenny and Roid were a couple of weirdos like him and they were tight. They were math geniuses, but Django was the more creative type, although he aced math and science. Django and his friends were a posse, Mr. Cody said. Something else he said: “Give you dudes time, you’re gonna rule the world.” Django wondered if this was still true, now that everything in the world had changed.
Django’s mom said he was like the empath on Star Trek. Often he could sense what people thought and felt just by watching and listening for the words under their words, the words they didn’t say. In this way, he knew without being told that Aunt Robin was sending him to school to get rid of him for a few hours.
Django got out of bed and stood at the window. In whichever direction he looked he saw hills and scrub and rocks. Except for the radio he heard playing down in the kitchen, the quiet was so intense it made him think of church and funerals and death.
A memorial service had been held at Forest Lawn. A grown-up kind of thing. Django didn’t attend but he read about it online and knew that hundreds of famous people were there, including all the members of his dad’s old band. Huck faxed Django articles from the Los Angeles Times and Variety, and he said there was going to be a story in Rolling Stone. Someone would call him for an interview but he didn’t have to talk if he didn’t want to. All the articles said the same thing, that Jacky Jones was one of the great rock guitarists and composers of the twentieth century. There had been music and speeches at the funeral. Paparazzi. Django was glad to stay away. He didn’t want to be photographed and stared at. The poor little orphan kid.
He dropped to the floor and lay on his back, staring at the cracks in the ceiling, trying not to remember the time before. After a while he rolled onto his stomach and began, slowly, to hit his forehead against the wood. He would keep it up until something good happened.
Willis left to deliver the baby to the attorney, and Madora walked across the dusty yard back to the trailer. On top of a plastic basket full of clean sheets, blankets, and towels, she carried a thermos of chicken noodle soup. At the curbside door of the trailer she put the basket down and returned to the house for soap and a bucket of warm water. Back and forth, Foo tagged along behind her, his stubby tail aquiver with interest. The curbside door was padlocked and Madora’s hands were sweaty with frustration before she got the combination right; it broke apart, and she opened the narrow door to a rush of close, unpleasant air. She jammed the door wide with a stick and brought everything in and set it on the table where Linda ate her meals. Foo watched outside, longing to be invited in, though he never had been.
Madora looked at the girl in the bed, at the mess of bloody sheets and towels Willis had left to be cleaned up. She had an impulse to turn around and walk out the door, lock up, and pretend there had never been a girl named Linda, no baby boy with deepwater blue eyes.
Madora had begged Willis to take Linda to the hospital, reminding him that she was only sixteen, a teenager with slim hips and a flat, boyish figure; but he had been confident, even cocky, about how easy it would be to deliver the baby in the trailer. To everything she said, he had the same reply: “Childbirth is easy. If it was hard, the human race would have died out by now.”
Perfectly still, Linda rested on her side facing the interior side of the trailer’s roll-up door. Her pale hair, darkened by sweat, lay against her neck and shoulders as if painted on. For a moment, Madora wondered if Willis had taken the baby and left her with a dead girl.
“Linda? You okay?” She was afraid to touch her.
Linda turned her head on the pillow. Purple shadows encircled her eyes, making her milk-white face look almost clownish. A pulse ticked in one lid of her half-shut eyes, rimmed red-orange. She tried to speak, but her words were barely discernable, a groggy, undifferentiated burr. It didn’t matter what she meant to say. Madora took the meaning. The girl’s pain and grief and fear, her shame, and even her rage came into Madora’s consciousness like the shock of a gunshot fired close to her head. She dropped to her knees beside the bed, trembling, and spoke without thinking.
“Oh, God, Linda, I’m so sorry.” Willis had not even shown her the child. “He should have…”
Madora stopped herself from saying more. It felt dangerous to criticize Willis.
Linda gripped Madora’s wrist, digging her bitten nails between the tendons.
“It’s too late.” Madora shook her head. “He’s gone. Willis took him an hour ago.”
Linda’s eyes widened, as if it wasn’t enough to hear the words; she needed more light to see the truth on Madora’s face.
“I couldn’t stop him.” And she had not tried because she believed that the baby was better off with the lawyer’s clients than with Linda, a homeless girl, a panhandler.
Madora wouldn’t bother washing the sheets, just bundle them and put them in the trash; and if Willis said that was wasteful, he could try himself to get the blood out. She imagined how it would feel to speak so boldly to him. Then stopped herself. Even imagining was dangerous, for she might become so comfortable in her own opinions that one day she would forget and speak them aloud.
“You’ll be okay. When Willis gets back he’ll give you some more pain meds. And then you just have to heal.”
Linda dug into her wrist again. “Shower…”
Linda was never supposed to leave the trailer without Willis. He told Madora that a pregnant girl needed exercise, so he occasionally took Linda for walks up to the ridge overlooking Evers Canyon. Sometimes they even went for drives: Madora behind the wheel of the big Chevy Tahoe; and Linda, blindfolded for the first ten or fifteen miles, leaning against Willis in the backseat, her arm through his and her head on his shoulder. Willis toyed with Linda’s fair hair, twisting it around his index finger. Seeing them paired this way, Madora felt a stab of jealousy, though she knew there was nothing sexual between them. The single time she had let jealousy get the better of her good sense and mentioned sex, Willis was appalled and withdrew from her as if she had struck him. Later, when he could talk about his feelings, he told Madora that he was attached to Linda as a brother would be, and she believed him.
On the hikes and car trips that were Linda’s reward for being cooperative, she only once made trouble.
They had driven over the mountains into the Anza-Borrego Desert to see the wildflowers that were bountiful after a wet winter and spring. Near the poppy preserve they had turned off the road and driven a few hundred feet to a roundabout where there were no other cars. Where a trail followed a wash, acres of orange-gold poppies bloomed on either side, interrupted here and there by pools of blue lupine. The air buzzed with the business of bees. Madora had thought for an instant of her father and the care with which he and Rachel had tended the gardens behind the house in Yuma, vegetables in the middle and flowers on all four sides. Lost for a moment in her memory, she had relaxed her grip on Linda’s hand; and when she did, the girl broke away from her and ran back toward the road, yelling for help, though the desert was as empty as a scoured pan. She was seven months pregnant then and unsteady on her feet, a toddler easy to catch; and Willis had laughed at her clumsy effort and let her get as far as the road before he ambled after her. But back in the car he was ominously silent as he bound her feet and hands with plastic zip ties.
“I’m not an unkind man, Linda.” In the rearview mirror Madora saw his dark eyes, drooping with grief. “I thought you’d like a little trip, a chance to see something beautiful. I guess I was wrong. I guess I don’t know you at all, Linda.”
Through the Tahoe’s tinted windows he stared out at the barren mountains as Madora drove up the Montezuma Grade.
“I took you off the streets. You were pregnant, hungry—”
Madora saw such pain and disappointment in his expression that she almost stopped the car. She wanted to slap Linda silly for making this good man unhappy, for being too stupid to realize that without him she would be lying dead somewhere.
Although it was against Willis’s rules, Madora knew it would be safe to take Linda into the house for a shower. She was too weak to run away. Willis had said he’d be working an extra shift at Shady Hills Retirement Home when he finished his business with the attorney and not to expect him before six or seven that night.
Madora handed her a clean sheet. “Wrap this around yourself and then stand next to me. I’ll help you walk.” She folded a cotton dish towel and tied it as a blindfold.
By the time they reached the house, Linda was bleeding. Maybe from inside, maybe the stitches. Madora didn’t know about such things. A trail of blood followed them into the bathroom.
“Stand in the shower, lean against the side, but don’t turn on the water.”
It might not be safe for her to shower if she was bleeding. Possibly she shouldn’t even be standing.
“You’re not going to pass out, are you? I can’t carry you back to the trailer, and if Willis—”
“I… can… Okay.”
Once upon a time in another life Madora had fallen out of a tree and torn a gash in her forearm. A doctor with a tiny anchor tattooed between his index and middle fingers had stitched it up and told her to keep it dry. That night her mother had covered it with a plastic bag so she could take a shower. A plastic bag didn’t seem feasible under the circumstances, but Linda had to be cleaned up; Madora knew that. And the stitches should probably be kept dry. She was in the realm of guesswork now, going on instinct enhanced by her desire—her need—to help Linda because she owed it to the baby to care for his mother. She felt connected to the girl now, as if through the boy they were related.
She ran back to the trailer and got one of the sanitary napkins Willis had left there. In the kitchen she tore a clean plastic bag from a roll and cut two long strips about ten inches wide, not an easy thing to do until she figured out a way to pull the plastic against the sharp edge of the scissors. In the bathroom Linda stood in the shower stall, resting her forehead against one metal side. Madora handed her the napkin.
Excerpted from Little Girl Gone by Drusilla Campbell Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. Excerpted by permission.
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