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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 12


  Precisely then the first snow frolicked down the sky, flakes as big as rose petals, wheeling through the bleak dark and flaring in the light of the pathway lamps. They vanished into the black water but gathered on the stiff brown grass and on the pavement. So quickly did smaller snowflakes follow the larger ones in such greater numbers that I knew this would be a storm that the city would long remember, whereupon the night breeze stiffened just enough to be called a wind.

  When I looked at the dead man’s watch on my wrist, I saw that the moment of our rendezvous had arrived. On time, the Land Rover appeared, following the one-way blacktop service lane, but then she turned off the road and drove across the picnic meadow, to the shore of the pond, switching from headlights to parking lights as she drew near.

  The vehicle looked immense, maybe because I knew Gwyneth was petite and I couldn’t quite believe that a hundred-pound girl could maintain control of such a formidable machine. I was also a little spooked because I’d never ridden in a motor vehicle before, only under a tarp on a flatbed and only once.

  Sometimes your life rolls away with you, like a big stone going downhill fast, as on the day when my mother put me out on my own, and then nothing is ever the same. I could feel my long-stable world in motion again, beginning here, as Gwyneth stopped the Rover beside me, and though the roll can sometimes be a good thing, and you come to rest in a better kind of life, there are no guarantees.

  If that night I had listed a thousand ways that my coming life might possibly be different from the one I had lived for the past eighteen years, what I might lose and gain, I would not have proved prescient about anything, and I would have greatly underestimated both the losses and the gains.

  33

  I KNEW WHAT A SEAT BELT WAS, AND I KNEW THAT the law required its use. I had never before trusted my life to one, however, and though it sounded simple enough when I read about someone belting up in a novel, I took so long figuring it out that Gwyneth said she wished she could help me. She said it with sweet forbearance, not with impatience or scorn. But if she tried to assist me, we’d almost certainly touch, which she couldn’t tolerate.

  At last I got it done, though I felt no safer in the belt than out of it. I did feel dangerously trammeled. I wondered which was the greater risk: being thrown through the windshield when not wearing a belt or being trapped in a burning car because the belt buckle would not release.

  I said, “Does it have air bags, too?”

  “Yes, of course.”

  “What do I need to do about that?”

  “Nothing,” she said. “Air bags are automatic.”

  “I guess that’s nice.”

  “Well, it’s easy. Anyway, I’m not going to crash into anything.”

  “Have you ever?”

  “No. But I don’t drive much, hardly at all.”

  She switched on the headlights, released the brake, and piloted that monster SUV across the picnic meadow to the service lane as easy as if it were an amusement-park ride gliding on a rail, the steering wheel just for show.

  Let me tell you, it was quite a sensation: sitting up in a warm capsule and moving smoothly through the cold night, across the land and then the blacktop, windows all around so you could have a good look at anything you wanted to see. Lots of books have thrilling scenes involving cars or trucks, but none of them prepared me for the sheer delight of that ride, for the magic-carpet quality.

  As Gwyneth turned out of the park onto the avenue, I said, “With your social phobia, how did you learn to drive?”

  “Daddy taught me. When I turned thirteen, we went way out in the country a few times, just the two of us. He worried that when he was eventually gone, something might happen that I would need to leave the city.”

  “Something like what?”

  “Like just about anything. Anything can happen.”

  “But if you left the city, where would you go?”

  “There’s a place. But that doesn’t matter right now.”

  The streets were busy, cars crowding all around us. Delivery trucks. Buses. Well-bundled people on the sidewalks hurried through the wintry night.

  I said, “When you got your driver’s license, you must have had to be around a lot of people at the DMV or somewhere.”

  “I don’t have a driver’s license.”

  I can’t say that I was shocked, but I was a little dismayed. “It’s against the law to drive without a license.”

  “It’s illegal,” she said, “but it’s not immoral.”

  “What if you’re in an accident and hurt someone?”

  “With or without a license, an accident can happen. The fault wouldn’t be in the lack of a license. The fault would be driving inattentively or recklessly, or drunk.”

  “You don’t drive drunk, do you?”

  “No. And not inattentively or recklessly, either.”

  I considered all of that for a minute, and I guess she wondered what my silence meant.

  She said, “Well?”

  “Well, I guess it’s okay then.”

  “It’s okay,” she assured me.

  “All right. Good. You see what the snow’s doing?”

  “Snowing.”

  “No, I mean the way it floats over the front of the car and up and over the roof and never touches the glass.”

  “When we’re moving, we create a slipstream that floats the snow over us.” She pulled to a stop at a red traffic light, and right away the snow stuck and melted on the warm glass. “See?”

  “Neat,” I said.

  A Clear in hospital blues appeared out of the slanting snow and stepped into the street, indifferent to the foul weather. He stopped in the middle of the intersection and turned his head from side to side, the way they do, maybe looking for something but almost seeming to be listening more than looking.

  The traffic light changed, and Gwyneth ran down the Clear. I saw him pass through the SUV between our seats, but I didn’t turn to watch him recede out the tailgate.

  I didn’t say anything to her about him. What could I have said? She tolerated my hood and mask and gloves, my inexperience and what must have seemed to her to be my deeply paranoid conviction that most people, if not all, would respond to the sight of me with disgust and violence. If I told her about the Clears and the Fogs, she might decide that I was one kind of crazy too many for her taste, pull the Rover to the curb, and tell me to get out.

  Our relationship was delicate, perhaps no less so than the crystal intricacy of those first huge snowflakes that had spiraled around me in the Commons. We had at once accepted each other because we could accept no one else. I admired her brave attempts to cope with her phobia, and perhaps she admired the way that I had coped with what she assumed was my irrational paranoia. We were outcasts, she by election, I by the condition in which I was born, but that did not ensure our friendship. She didn’t want the world, and the world didn’t want me, and when you thought about that, it became clear that we were less alike than we seemed to be, that strains could easily develop that would lead to an irreconcilable parting.

  Already I loved her. I would be content to love her all of my life without touching her, but I saw no indication that she loved me in the same way, or at all. Considering her social phobia, if she were to suspect the depth of my feelings for her, she might recoil, retreat, and banish me. She might not be capable of loving me as I already loved her, let alone in the more profound way that I would surely come to love her over time. I drew hope from the fact that she had clearly loved her father, and I needed that hope because, after living my life with one loss after another, losing this might at last break me.

  I hadn’t thought to ask, but now I did: “Where are we going?”

  “To see someone.”

  “Who?”

  Until this moment, the girl’s Goth makeup had seemed exotic and fanciful, but it did not convey upon her an air of danger. Now her face hardened, her mouth became like a crack in stone, her teeth clenched as if she had bitten into so
mething that she wanted to tear apart, and the scarlet bead on her pierced lip glistened and seemed to quiver as if it were a real drop of blood.

  In answer to my question, she said, “Nobody knows her name. They say she’s dead, but I refuse to believe it. I refuse.”

  34

  THE STREET WAS IN A COMFORTABLE NEIGHBORHOOD, lined with maples, their bare limbs a becoming architecture, a perfect grace when green, and as red as fire in autumn. The yellow-brick house stood behind a shallow front yard and a raised porch trimmed with Christmas lights. A wreath hung on the door.

  When Gwyneth parked at the curb, I expected to stay in the car, but she said, “I want you to come in with me. You’ll be safe.”

  “The only house in the city that I’ve ever been in is yours. The only one. A house is a trap, a place that I don’t know and too few ways out.”

  “Not this house.”

  “I can’t.”

  “You can, Addison.”

  I slid lower in my seat.

  She said, “They won’t harm you.”

  “Who are they?”

  “They take care of her.”

  “Of the girl with no name?”

  “Yes. Come on now. I want you to see her.”

  “Why?”

  She opened her mouth to reply—and had no words. For a moment she stared out at the black limbs of the maples as the wind slowly knitted a white lacework across their bark. She said, “I don’t know. I don’t know why I want you to see her. But I know you must. It’s important that you do. I know it’s important.”

  I took a deep breath and let it out as if with it I would also exhale my doubt.

  She said, “I called them earlier. They know we’re coming. I told them that you have … issues. Serious issues. They understand me, the way I am. They’ll be respectful, Addison.”

  “I guess if you aren’t afraid of them, I shouldn’t be, either.”

  In spite of what I said, I dreaded going inside, but I got out and closed the passenger door and waited for her to come around the front of the Land Rover.

  Snow at once diamonded her black hair, and the skiff on the sidewalk plumed around her silver shoes.

  Just then I realized another similarity between her and the marionette, besides the black diamonds of makeup and the eyes. The puppet wore a black tuxedo with a black shirt and a white tie, and Gwyneth was dressed in black but for her shoes.

  I almost turned away from the house, but I loved her, and so I followed her through the gate in a spearpoint iron fence.

  “His name is Walter,” Gwyneth said. “He’s a widower with two young children. He was a medic in the military, and he’s a physician assistant now.”

  She strode more than stepped, and she seemed to skate more than stride, and I thought that this girl would never lose her footing on treacherous ground or slip on ice, so extraordinary was her poise.

  Stepping onto the porch, she said, “His sister, Janet, lives here, too. And an older woman, Cora. Janet and Cora are nurses. The patient is never left alone for more than a few minutes.”

  “Isn’t this too many people for you?” I asked.

  “They understand my problem. They don’t get too close. They make sure there’s never more than two in the same room with me. You’ll be all right.”

  “I don’t know.”

  “I do,” she said. “You’ll be all right.”

  The bell press sounded chimes, which we could hear through the wreathed door, there on the Christmas-lighted porch.

  Almost at once the door opened, and a man said, “Gwyn, we’ve missed you coming around.”

  I couldn’t see him because I kept my head down, afraid that my ski mask was insufficient disguise, that he would know me by my eyes.

  She said, “I’m no less like I’ve always been, Walter, so there aren’t a lot of days I go anywhere. But tonight is … special.”

  With considerable apprehension, I followed her into a foyer with a plank floor and a round, flowered rug. A solemn voice issued from a television in a nearby room.

  When Walter said, “This must be Addison,” I said, “I’m sorry my shoes are wet,” and Walter said, “It’s nothing, just a little snow.”

  I liked his voice. He sounded kind. I wondered about his appearance, but I didn’t raise my head to look.

  Gwyneth said, “Remember Addison’s rules like I told you,” and Walter said he remembered, and she said, “Where are the children?”

  “In the kitchen. They know to stay there.”

  “I’d love to see them, I really would, but this is hard on Addison.”

  I wondered how neurotic Walter thought I was. He probably thought I was past neurotic and all the way to crazy.

  He said, “Janet’s in the kitchen. She was getting dinner when you called, but she’s putting it on hold.”

  “I’m sorry I gave you such short notice.”

  “You’re like family, Gwyn. We don’t need any notice at all. I’ll go see if she needs help with the kids or something.”

  When just the two of us were in the foyer, Gwyneth said, “Are you okay?”

  “Yeah. I’m all right. Are you okay?”

  She said, “I’ve been better.”

  I raised my head and scoped the foyer. An archway on the right led to the living room. Everything was clean and neat and bright and pretty, a place of harmony, absent of conflict. I thought that those who lived here must feel safe, and I was pleased for them, more than pleased, happy that such a life was possible for them and for so many people.

  The voice on the television said that the plague in China had actually begun across the border in North Korea.

  A woman entered the hallway from the kitchen, and I lowered my head once more. She greeted Gwyneth and introduced herself to me—she was Janet—and I said that I was pleased to meet her, though I looked at nothing but the round, flowered carpet.

  Janet led us to the second floor. We waited at the top of the stairs while she went along the hallway to a room at the end, where Cora, the older nurse, tended to the nameless girl.

  Because I felt that someone of bad intent had quietly ascended the stairs behind us, blocking the way out, I turned to look, but no one followed us.

  Janet and Cora came out of the patient’s room, went into another directly across the hall, and closed that door.

  “This is important,” Gwyneth said.

  “I guess it must be.”

  “I know now why I brought you here.”

  “Why?”

  Instead of answering me, she went down the hallway to the open door, and I went with her. At that threshold, she hesitated. She raised her hands as though to cover her face, but then she closed them into fists, and on the one nearer me, the faux tattoo of a blue lizard flexed as if it might come to life and spring off her skin. Brow furrowed, eyes tight shut, jaws clenched, pulse visible in her temple, she appeared to be in pain or struggling to repress great anger. But then I thought—I don’t know why—that perhaps this was the posture in which she prayed, if she prayed at all.

  She opened her eyes and lowered her fists. She went into the room. In consideration of me, she switched off the overhead light and used the dimmer on a reading lamp to soften its glow to the point that, within my hood, my eyes could not easily be seen.

  I looked at the closed door behind which Janet and Cora had retreated. I looked back toward the head of the stairs.

  Crossing the threshold, I saw upon it the cryptic inscription that I had found at the entrances to Gwyneth’s apartment.

  The large room contained two armchairs, side tables, a dresser, nightstands. There were also two beds, the farther one neatly made and accessorized with decorative pillows, the nearer one a hospital bed.

  The upper half of the motorized mattress was elevated, and upon it, reposing in a realm deeper than mere sleep, lay a girl of perhaps six. If she had been an avatar, the incarnation not of a goddess but of a principle, her face would have been befitting for the avatar of peace or charity
, or hope, and if she had been capable of expression, her smile might have been miraculous in its effect.

  Standing beside the child, looking down at her but speaking to me, Gwyneth said, “If Ryan Telford kills me, if anyone kills me, you have to take care of her. Protect her. At any cost. Any cost.”

  35

  THE HOMELESS MAN HAD IN THE NIGHT COME TO the bottom of his current bottle, and subsequently he had awakened repeatedly from dreams of deprivation in which everyone that he had failed during his life returned to thwart his every attempt to acquire even just one more pint of the distiller’s art. He was therefore on the move at first light, which was not his habit, to search the commercial alleyways in his territory, seeking redeemable soda cans and other humble treasures in the set-out trash that had long sustained him.

  So it was that in a Dumpster he found the badly beaten, naked body of a girl of about three, which he thought was a corpse until from it issued the thinnest mewl of abject misery, like that of a kitten he had once found run down in traffic, with still a minute or two of this world in it. Most of his life, he had chosen to flee from responsibilities. But at the core of him remained the dry kernel of the better man that he had once hoped to become, and the child’s muted cry spoke to that remnant. He discovered that he yet had the capacity for pity.

  In his worn-thin, patched, and greasy clothes, tangled hair bristling from beneath a stained and half-crushed brown fedora not otherwise seen on the head of a city man in decades, eyes bloodshot blue, nose scrawled over with visible capillaries, he kicked open the door to a popular doughnut shop a block from the Dumpster. With the battered child draped over his long, bony arms, weeping bitterly, shouting “Ambulance, ambulance,” he entered among the incredulous customers waiting to place their orders, two of whom were police officers.

  Initially but not for long, he was suspected of being the party responsible for the girl’s condition. But his discovery of her in the viscous mounds of trash had wrenched something askew in his fragile constitution, and when the girl was taken from his arms, he could no longer stand upright or control his shaking hands, which alternately scrabbled at the floor in useless gestures and plucked at his face and chest as though something offensive clung to him that he was desperate to cast off. He ended the morning not in a jail cell but as a patient in the same hospital to which the girl had been rushed.