Settings
Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 5


  I don’t much like the superheroes and supervillains in many of those comic books because, maybe except for Batman, the way they pose dramatically all the time really does reflect how they think of themselves. Very self-righteous, whether saving the world or blowing it up. So in the thrall of power fantasies. This girl looked like she stepped out of a comic book, but somehow I could tell that the way she posed wasn’t a reflection of how she really thought of herself.

  Or maybe I was deluded. The fallow soil of loneliness is fertile ground for self-deception.

  After regarding me from a distance, she took her hands from her hips and approached neither warily nor boldly, but with the same effortless grace that she had shown earlier.

  As she stepped into the lamplight that fell across the books by Dickens, I said, “Please stop there.” She did. We were no more than twelve feet apart, but my hoodie and the fact that I had disabled the nearest sconce spared her from the shock of my appearance.

  As for her appearance, I hadn’t realized when I glimpsed her in flight that she accessorized and painted herself so grotesquely. In her pierced right nostril, she wore a silver nose ring fashioned as a snake devouring its tail. Pinned to her lower lip, bright against the black lipstick, a polished red bead looked like a drop of blood. Her flawless skin was as pale as powdered sugar, and she emphasized that pallor by applying mascara and creme-stick makeup as thick as greasepaint. With her jet-black and curiously chopped hair, the look was Goth, I suppose, but a personalized version of the standard Goth-girl style. For one thing, the creme formed carefully drawn diamonds, the upper points at midbrow, the lower points two inches down her cheeks, which reminded me of certain harlequins but also recalled to mind a most disturbing tuxedoed marionette that I had once seen in the lighted window of an antique-toy store.

  At the center of those black diamonds were eyes identical to those of the marionette. Whites as white and veinless as hard-boiled eggs, anthracite-dark irises with deep-red striations so subtle that they were visible only when the angle of her head allowed the light to find them. Because my life seldom brought me face-to-face with other people, because I was familiar with the variety of human faces and the color range of eyes only from books of photography, I could not say for certain that such eyes were uncommon, but they were so disconcerting that I imagined they must be rare.

  “So you want to help me,” she said.

  “Yes. Whatever I can do to help you.”

  “No one can help me,” she declared with no slightest indication of bitterness or despair. “Only one person could ever help me, and he’s dead. You will die, too, if you associate with me, and you’ll die cruelly.”

  12

  I STOOD IN THE SHADOWS SHORT OF DICKENS, SHE in the lamplight, and I saw that her fingernails were painted black and that tattooed on the backs of her hands were curled blue lizards with forked red tongues.

  “That wasn’t a threat, when I said you’ll have a cruel death,” she clarified. “It’s just the truth. You don’t want to be around me.”

  “Who was the one person who could help you?” I asked.

  “It doesn’t matter. That’s another place, another time. I can’t bring it back by talking about it. The past is dead.”

  “If it were dead, it wouldn’t smell so sweet.”

  “It isn’t sweet to me,” she said.

  “I think it is. When you said ‘another place, another time,’ the words softened you.”

  “Imagine whatever you want. There’s nothing soft here. I’m all bone and carapace and quills.”

  I smiled, but of course she couldn’t see my face. Sometimes it is my smile that most terrifies them. “What’s your name?”

  “You don’t need to know.”

  “No, I don’t. I’d just like to know.”

  The thread-thin red striations brightened in her black-black eyes. “What’s your name again, lost boy?”

  “Addison, like I said.”

  “Addison what?”

  “My mother’s last name was Goodheart.”

  “Did she have one?”

  “She was a thief and maybe worse. She wanted to be kind, kinder than she knew how to be. But I loved her.”

  “What was your father’s name?”

  “She never told me.”

  “My mother died in childbirth,” she said, and I thought that in a sense my mother had died from childbirth, eight years after the fact, but I said nothing.

  The girl looked toward the rococo ceiling, where the chandeliers hung dark, gazed up as if the rich moldings around the deep coffers and the sky scene of golden clouds within each coffer were visible to her by some spectrum of light invisible.

  When she looked toward me again, she said, “What are you doing in the library after midnight?”

  “I came to read. And just to be here in the grandness of it.”

  She studied me for a long moment, though I presented hardly more than a silhouette. Then she said, “Gwyneth.”

  “What’s your last name, Gwyneth?”

  “I don’t use one.”

  “But you have one.”

  As I waited for her reply, I decided that all the Goth was more than fashion, that it might not be fashion at all, that it might be armor.

  When at last she spoke, she didn’t give me her surname, but instead said, “You saw me running from him, but I never saw you.”

  “I’m unusually discreet.”

  She looked at the set of Dickens novels on the shelves to her right. She slid her fingers along the leather bindings, the titles glowing in lamplight. “Are these valuable?”

  “Not really. They’re a matched set, published in the 1970s.”

  “They’re wonderfully made.”

  “The leather’s been hand-tooled. The lettering is gilded.”

  “People make so many beautiful things.”

  “Some people.”

  When she turned her attention to me again, she said, “How did you know where to find me, in there with the Lebow children?”

  “I saw you leaving the reading room when he was in the street looking for you. I figured you must have studied the blueprints in the basement archives. So did I.”

  “Why did you study them?” she asked.

  “I thought the bones of the structure might be as beautiful as the finished building. And they are. Why did you study them?”

  For maybe half a minute, she considered her reply, or perhaps she considered whether to answer or not. “I like to know places. All over the city. Better than anyone knows them. People have lost their history, the what and how and why of things. They know so little of the places where they live.”

  “You don’t stay here every night. I would have seen you before.”

  “I don’t stay here at all. I visit now and then.”

  “Where do you live?”

  “Here and there. All over. I like to move around.”

  Seeing through her bold makeup wasn’t easy, but I thought that underneath she might be very lovely. “Who is he, the one who chased you?”

  She said, “Ryan Telford. He’s the curator of the library’s rare-book and art collections.”

  “Did he think you were stealing stuff or vandalizing?”

  “No. He was surprised to discover me.”

  “They don’t know I come here, either.”

  “I mean he was surprised to discover me in particular. He knows me from … another place and time.”

  “Where, when?” I asked.

  “It’s not important. He wanted to rape me then, and he almost did. He wanted to rape me tonight. Though he used a cruder word than rape.”

  Sadness overcame me. “I don’t know what to say to that.”

  “Who does?”

  “How old are you?” I asked.

  “Does it matter?”

  “I guess not.”

  She said, “I’m eighteen.”

  “I thought no older than sixteen, maybe even thirteen now that I’ve seen you up close.”


  “I have a boyish body.”

  “Well, no.”

  “Well, yes,” she said. “Boyish the way that very young girls can seem boyish. Why do you hide your face?”

  I was intrigued that she had taken so long to ask the question. “I don’t want to scare you off.”

  “I don’t care about appearances.”

  “It’s not just appearances.”

  “Then what is it?”

  “When they see me, people are repulsed, afraid. Some of them hate me or think they do, and then … well, it goes badly.”

  “Were you burned or something?”

  “If it were only that,” I said. “A couple of them tried to set me on fire once, but I was already … already what I am before they tried.”

  “It’s not cold in here. So are the gloves part of it?”

  “Yes.”

  She shrugged. “They look like hands to me.”

  “They are. But they … suggest the rest of me.”

  “You’re like the Grim Reaper in that hood.”

  “Look like but am not.”

  “If you don’t want me to see you, I won’t try,” she said. “You can trust me.”

  “I think I can.”

  “You can. But I have a rule, too.”

  “What rule?”

  “You can’t touch me. Not even the slightest, most casual touch. Especially not skin to skin. Especially not that. But also not your glove to my jacket. No one can touch me. I won’t permit it.”

  “All right.”

  “That was quick enough to be a lie.”

  “But it wasn’t. If I touch you, you’ll pull the hood off my head. Or if instead you make the first move and pull the hood off my head, then I’ll touch you. We hold each other hostage to our eccentricities.” I smiled again, an unseen smile. “We’re made for each other.”

  13

  AT THE AGE OF EIGHT, WITH NO IDEA WHERE I WAS bound, I came to the city on a Sunday night, aboard an eighteen-wheeler with a flatbed trailer hauling large industrial machinery that I couldn’t identify. The machines were secured to the truck with chains and covered with tarps. Between the tarps and the machines were nooks where a boy of my size could conceal himself. I had gotten aboard when the driver had been having dinner, near twilight, in the coffee shop at a truck stop.

  Two days earlier, I had run out of things to eat. My mother had sent me away with a backpack full of food, which I supplemented with apples from an untended orchard that I chanced upon. Although I had raised myself more than I’d been raised, though I had grown up more in the wilds than in our small house, I possessed no knowledge of what safely edible smorgasbord, if any, forests and fields might offer.

  After a day of hunger, early on Sunday morning, I made my way through a sort of pine barrens, where the soil was peaty. The land spread out too flat and the underbrush grew too sparse to allow me to feel safe. For the most part, there was nothing to hide behind but trees, with the boughs far overhead and the trunks not all that thick. When I looked around, I seemed to be in a dream about a vast cloister where thousands of columns stood in no discernible pattern. Through the staggered trees, you couldn’t see far in a straight line. But as I passed through, horizontal movement in all that vertical architecture and stillness, I couldn’t possibly be missed by anyone who happened to be there.

  Voices raised in song should have sent me scurrying toward some distant silent place, but instead I found myself drawn to them. I ran in a crouch and then, nearing the last of the pines, crawled to the tree line. Cars and pickups were parked on a graveled area a hundred yards to my left. Half that distance to the right, a languid river flowed like molten silver in the early light.

  About forty people were gathered at the water’s edge, singing a hymn, and the preacher stood in the river with a woman of about thirty-five, engaged upon a full-immersion baptism. To one side of the choir stood a man and two children, who seemed to be waiting their turns for salvation.

  Directly ahead of me, across an expanse of grass, past all those people, stood a humble clapboard church, white with pale-blue trim. Near the building, in the shade of a great spreading oak, were chairs surrounding picnic tables that appeared to be laden with enough food to provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner during a full day of church and family fun.

  The members of the congregation stood with their backs to me, busy with their hymnals and focused on the joyous event in the river. If the minister looked my way, I would be screened by the members of his congregation. I might not have much time, but I thought I would have enough.

  I stripped off my backpack, zippered open its main compartments, broke from the trees, and sprinted to the picnic tables. On the grass near them were baseballs, bats, and gloves, also a badminton net not yet erected, rackets, and shuttlecocks. I had never played such games or heard of them, and those items meant nothing to me; I would not be able to identify them, in memory, until years later.

  When I tore the foil off a platter, I found thick slices of ham. I wrapped several in the foil and shoved them in the backpack. There were potato salads and pasta salads covered with plastic wrap or lids, pies and cakes, none of them easy enough to pack. But I also found baskets of homemade rolls and biscuits covered by napkins, oranges, bananas, hard-boiled eggs pickled purple in beet juice, and cookies of all kinds.

  From a pocket of my jeans, I withdrew part of the wad of cash that my mother had given me, peeled off a few bills, and dropped them on the table. Considered in retrospect, I probably paid far too much for what I had taken. But at the time, shaking with hunger, I felt that no price was too high to satisfy my growling stomach.

  Sweating cans of soda and tea and juice were layered in plastic tubs of ice. After I slipped the straps of the backpack over my shoulders, I snatched up a cold Coca-Cola.

  Just then someone behind me said, “Child, it’s time for the Lord, not breakfast yet.”

  Startled, I turned, looked up, and saw a man coming out of a side door of the church, carrying a pan piled high with barbecued chicken legs.

  Under thinning hair and a high brow, his face was soft and kindly—until he saw my face enclosed but not fully hidden by the hood of my jacket. Behind wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes widened as if the darkness of Armageddon had suddenly fallen upon the world and as if he were straining to see what must surely be the devil come to wage a final battle. The pan of chicken legs dropped from his hands, the color drained from his face in an instant, and he staggered two steps backward on abruptly weak legs. When he had taken in the totality of my face, he focused on my eyes, and a strangled sound escaped him.

  “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m so sorry, so sorry, so sorry.”

  My apology meant nothing to him, nor did the cash upon the table, which I pointed out to him. He plucked a Louisville Slugger off the grass, lunged forward, and swung it, cutting the air above my head with enough power to have blasted a ball out of the park if the game had been under way.

  I feinted left, he swung, I ducked and dodged right, he swung again and was almost quick enough to slam me. But then he seemed to be shocked by—aghast at—his sudden ferocious assault on a creature as small as a child, and he dropped the bat. Again, he reeled back from me, his face now wrenched with what might have been remorse or even anguish, a flood of tears sorrowing into his eyes, and he put one hand to his mouth as a cry of something like grief came from him.

  They were singing louder than ever at the river. No one had yet seen the encounter by the picnic tables.

  “I’ll go,” I said, “I’m sorry, I’ll go.”

  As I broke into a run, I thought that in spite of his tears and his wrenching sobs, he was stooping to grab the baseball bat again. I raced past the back of the church, across mown grass, into a wild meadow, angling away from the river, desperate for the next pine barren, hoping that it would be furnished with more brush and with a topography more friendly to a fugitive.

  I never glanced over my shoulder. I don’t know whether the churchm
an pursued me for a quarter mile or a hundred yards, or any distance at all. Perhaps half an hour later, after the land had risen from peaty flats to more solid slopes, when my lungs burned and I began to flag, I paused on a wooded knoll to look back through the trees, whereupon I saw that no vigilantes were at my heels.

  Driven by fear that temporarily quelled my hunger, I walked for another two hours, until I found a place that seemed remote enough to be safe. I sat upon a fern-skirted outcropping of rocks to eat some of what I had acquired at the church, my table a broad flat stone, luncheon music provided by birds high in the surrounding pines.

  As I ate, I wondered at the farrago of emotions that the very sight of me had stirred up in the churchman with the soft and kindly face. I expected to inspire terror. Likewise repulsion and disgust. But his reaction had been more complicated than that of the stabbed man who tried to stab me in turn, more nuanced than the homicidal loathing of the midwives as it had been recounted to me by Mother. Even in its brevity, the churchman’s reaction to me had been almost as complicated as the much longer relationship between me and my mother.

  Mother and I had never discussed what I might be, as if it was burden enough to know that I was an abomination from which even she, having carried me within her, most often had to avert her eyes. My body, my hands, my face, my eyes, my impact on everyone who saw me: Any attempt to discuss those things, analyze them, and theorize about my nature only sharpened her aversion to me, sickened her until mere depression became despair.

  A bird of some kind, small with a blue chest, dared to perch on the edge of the large flat stone that served as my table. I scattered biscuit crumbs toward it, and the bird hopped closer as it feasted. It had no fear of me, did not expect me to seize it in one fist and crush the life from it, knew that it was safe with me, and it was safe.