Gap-Toothed Girl (Part 2)
  • [Read Part 1 here]

     

    Chapter 5

     

    One dark December day, when Dusty May was eleven-years-old, a strong-looking Latin youth, perhaps twenty-seven, muscular and cross-hatched with scars, who was part of a roving carnival and who was manning one of the games Dusty was playing, asked her in rapid Spanish, and with a wink and a lewd gaze, if she was Mexican or Indian or half-breed, or did she even know.

    The man did not expect her to understand, but Kenneth Dvorak had taught her to speak Spanish, and she spoke it well, and now she answered the man in kind — or, rather, she started to:

    Before she had time to finish her answer, her foster father appeared as if from nowhere — and in a phenomenal blur of speed, without any hesitation or compunction whatsoever, he swatted the man with an iron-like right fist directly on the young man’s ear, and then again with a left: swatted him violently, smashing the man’s jaw to smithereens, so that before he toppled down onto the straw-carpeted ground, he drooled out a huge mouthful of blood and teeth.

    In virtually the same motion, Kenneth Dvorak swept Dusty up into his arms and carried her safely away. The whole incident lasted no more than sixty seconds.

    Later that same evening, he explained to her in his rich calm voice that her racial pedigree, as everyone’s racial pedigree, is meaningless — because race, he said, is unchosen.

    He told her to always remember this. “Always,” he repeated.

    He told her that anyone placing any essential importance upon her race or skin color, whether in denigration or commendation, is espousing a form of racism, which, he said, is a type of collectivism — but a type, he told her, of the most primitive kind — and as such it seeks to ascribe moral significance to an unchosen aspect of the human condition: genetic chemistry and the automatic amalgamation of our DNA codes, which in actuality fall completely outside the realm of choice.

    He told her that humans are defined and therefore united by one thing alone, and that is the human faculty of reason, which is the rational faculty.

    He said that all humans who are born healthy, regardless of race or skin color or sex or sexual orientation, possess this faculty, and he said that to define humans by anything other than the rational faculty, whether by race, sex, color, class, or gender, is an attempt to bestow moral worth in the absence of any moral action one way or the other, and that it is also an attempt to define by means of non-essential characteristics — which, he said, is to define incorrectly.

    He told her that such an attempt will only ever serve to divide people endlessly and then he quoted something to her, in a lilting language she didn’t understand:

    Lo maggior don che Dio per sua larghezza
    fesse creando, e a la sua bontate
    più conformato, e quel ch’e’ più apprezza,
    fu de la volontà la libertate;
    di che le creature intelligenti,
    e tutte e sole, fuore e son dotate
    .

    “The greatest gift which God in His bounty bestowed in creating, and the most conformed to His own goodness and that which He most prizes, was the freedom of the will, with which the creatures that have intelligence, they all and they alone, were and are endowed,” he said.

    He said that life is action and action is movement, and that humans are defined by their actions, not blood or race or racial ancestry or sex or gender, and mind is movement in the intellectual sphere.

    Thereafter, Dusty May never really thought about her Lakota blood.

     

    Chapter 6

     

    And yet throughout that small area, the little Lakota orphan became known for her strength and her skill — the girl with silken black hair who won gymnastics contests and the affections of everybody. Or almost everybody.

    One man alone in the township of Templeton kept himself free from any affection for Dusty May, and no matter her discipline, no matter her sweetness of disposition, he remained indifferent to her and aloof.

    That man was Wesson Weekly, her teacher.

    Weekly belonged to that race of monstrous yet remarkable men who, if ordered to do so by a superior – someone to whom he’d pledged his total allegiance, which he did only rarely and with great caution – he’d hold his arm over a blowtorch until the flame burned a hole clean through.

    He had the psychology of a cyborg, pure and unassailable, which creates peculiar sympathies and antipathies, and which is all of a piece, never perturbed, never in doubt, never able to conceive of being wrong.

    Around his home and his businesses, he was above nothing and never asked anyone to perform any task he wouldn’t do himself. He therefore did everything: cleaned toilets and bathroom stalls, mopped floors, laundry, cooking, dishes. But he was always unquestionably the one in command.

    His wife – ten children later and past her prime – still retained a vestige of her former loveliness. She was silent and submissive and existed purely to please him.

    Weekly never drank.

    He never smoked.

    He never used drugs.

    He was born in a brothel. His mother was a Nevada prostitute who had no husband and who, drug-addled and sick, died shortly after he slid screaming from the bone-carved womb.

    He was thus raised in an orphanage and grew up thinking of himself cut-off and shut-off from normalized society. As a child and all throughout his childhood he secretly despaired of ever entering it.

    He was just over medium height and extraordinarily strong. He kept a military-like regimen of exercise, as he had all his life – for the orphanage that raised him instituted just such a regimen, and at age eighteen, he entered the army.

    He spend the next ten years of his life there: a special-forces soldier who saw a great deal of combat and blood.

    His face was wedge-shaped and gaunt. He was unusual-looking yet somehow handsome. He had an upturned nose the nostrils of which looked bored-out with an auger. He kept his sandy-colored hair cropped close to the skull – not a crew-cut but high-and-tight – just as he had all through his military career, the sideburns perfectly symmetrical and neatly trimmed, shaped like a miniature pair of pointy cowboy boots. He was otherwise clean-shaven.

    One felt ill-at-ease looking too long into the dark caves of his nostrils, which in a strange sort of way aped his all-pupil eyes that were so dark and baleful-looking, enshadowed by the eaves of his brow-ridge.

    When he smiled, which was infrequently, his lips pulled back and up simultaneously in such a way as to expose his gums and his big square teeth. It gave him a kind of crazed-horse look.

    He had one overwhelming weakness, and that was his crippling fear of heights, which his entire adult life he’d striven to overcome, but never successfully. He often dreamt of suddenly finding himself astronomically high among the cauliflower clouds, up in the stratosphere, atop a thin balance beam, the earth below a tiny blue ball like a planet viewed through the wrong end of a telescope, and he so paralyzed with fear that he must crawl his way along the beam, inching and terrified.

    Distilled down to his essence, he was an amalgamation of two sentiments, both of which in and of themselves were unremarkable and even common, but in him they were taken to such an extreme that they’d become something abominable: arrant loyalty to authority and arrant antipathy for its opposite – unbridled freedom.

    In some way he couldn’t quite identify but which he unquestionably felt and over which he even lost sleep, Dusty May, his best student ever, represented this latter thing.

     

    Chapter 7

     

    One monumental morning shortly after she turned sixteen, Dusty May came across an old photo in her father’s library. She discovered it inside a torn magazine, among a box of discards. The photo depicted, in beautiful black-and-white, a young ballerina walking en point atop a row of wine bottles. The ballerina wore a cat mask and black leotards. She was very lovely. When Dusty’s eyes fell upon the photo, she felt herself transported to an alien world of pure fascination.

    She examined the photo microscopically.

    She sought to know more about this magical human who walked like a cat upon the upright bottles. But there was no actual article and no real information, apart from a name and a date in the bottom left corner:

    “German Ballerina Bianca Passarge, 1954.”

    It intrigued her in a way she couldn’t describe, even to herself.

    She went to the library several times a day for a week straight just to look at the photo, until, before she quite knew it, a radical idea had hatched open inside her head: an idea which in equal measure exhilarated and terrified her.

    After that, she spent a great deal of time reading books about ballet – slowly, painfully, for unbeknownst to her (though quite known to her foster father) she was dyslexic, and reading was uncommonly difficult.

    More than anything, she loved looking at the photographs of all the beautiful dancers.

    She was astonished to discover their feats of sheer strength, which she indeed knew something about, but in her eyes their strength was mixed with refinement and pure poise, which she felt she lacked.

    Over a period of ten days, without quite realizing it, this was something she came to see as an explicit metaphor for her own life: strength and poise in perfect harmony and perfect balance with each other.

    She wanted that for herself. 

    She wanted it now more than she’d ever wanted anything.

    And so it was on the 22nd of August, 2005, about one hour before sunset, this waifish-looking girl with defiant eyes and a gap-toothed smile stood at the third-story window of the huge home in which she’d been brought up – the presence of the man who owned it, her foster father Kenneth Dvorak, thundering silently throughout its hallways, and the hallways of her head.

    She was not smiling now.

    She stared across the lumpy landscape spread out below her. A reef of clouds stood piled on the western horizon, and purple thunderheads hung static curtains of rain. Her brows were knitted in stormy thought.

    It was here, watching the sun go down, that she made her final decision.

    She ran away.

    Shortly after which, the enigmas began.

     

    Chapter 8

     

    When Kenneth Dvorak awoke, he knew before he was consciously aware of it that something was amiss. 

    He lay alone in his bed. It was very early. The room was suffused in a soft sea-colored light. He slept in the nude. His vast corpus tilted the mattress when he turned onto his back. He lay for a brief time squinting at the huge beams of maplewood smothered in shadow across his high ceiling. On his desk beyond, there were petri dishes and a large, technological-looking microscope. He folded his covers back into a large dogear and swung his legs out of bed.

    He put on his robe and went to Dusty’s room.

    She was not there. 

    Her bed was made and empty.

    He went straight to the telephone and called up Wes Weekly, whose wife Bird answered.

    “Hello?”

    “This is Kenneth.”

    “I was just getting ready to call you.”

    “Why?”

    “Wes isn’t here.”

    “Where is he?”

    “I don’t know,” she said. “He was gone when I woke.”

     

    Chapter 9

     

    The bells of Saint John struck six the moment she emerged from the depot. She hurried down the city sidewalks, a small swift figure in a mushroom-shaped cap that partially hid her face, large cat-like sunglasses, which hid her face even more, black jeans and a denim jacket with a high cut, a small black backpack on her back. Her hair was tucked under her cap, and this gave her an almost boyish mien. She paused only once to glance behind her – as though she suddenly sensed she was being followed. She saw nothing, however, except empty streets and vaporous sidewalks – and yet deep inside her mind, she could not shake the feeling that she was being pursued. Ragged ghosts of steam blew over her.

    Before facing forward, she lifted her eyes briefly to the sky. She surveyed the heavens. The tolling bell struck again. It struck her heart with a gothic pang. Bats were doing square root over the tarnished towers to the west. She scanned the sky for a moment, as though something were perhaps watching her from above. But the pewter sky was empty, save for bats and, much higher above, a solitary hawk describing slow parabolas across the void.

    She continued on. 

    She walked purposefully in her black sneakers, her shoulders straight, a sure and confident walk, especially in one so young – a walk that disclosed the great familiarity she had with her own physicality. Yet her hands were sweating and clammy, her fingers trembling, which she noticed only now, and she balled them into little fists and stuffed them like two kidneys into the pockets of her jacket.

    The pewter light poured down around her. She increased her speed. She was walking vaguely east. She passed by a building with boarded-up windows and in front of this building a beggar crouched upon the sidewalk. He was wrapped in black rags and bent in mute supplication or prayer. In her backpack she carried a detailed map of the city – a map she’d striven to memorize – and still she felt slightly confused and turned-around and unsure of her way.

    By and by, she came to a fountain thundering water in the middle of a vast city square. The square was deserted. The plash of the falling water soothed her. A cool breeze came off the water and carried with it small dapples of moisture that flecked her face. She stopped walking and looked behind her again. She rotated a slow 360 degrees, her dark eyes narrowed behind her dark glasses. The square was so big that she could scarcely make out the other side. She saw no one. She unshouldered her pack and removed the map and familiarized herself anew.
     
    The carillon continued its dolorous toll.

     

    Chapter 10

     

    Not thirty minutes later, a quarter-mile in the direction she’d just walked, she came to a dance-studio, and here, in a moment of total devastation, the plan she’d staked her entire life upon came apart in a silent explosion. 

    This studio was owned by a famous ballet teacher, about whom she’d read much — a man she’d never met nor even set eyes upon, but a man she planned on walking right up to, showing him the photo of the magical human who danced catlike upon the wine bottles, and saying to him:

    “Will you teach me how to do this?”

    When, however, she came to the numbered address of the famous dance-studio, she saw immediately why she’d passed by it a half-hour before without seeing it: the name and sign were stripped, the windows boarded up, the dance-studio closed. 

    She peered in through the tinted glass of the front door. 

    Through the darkness, far back, she saw strips of yellow police tape and chalk lines on the floor outlining the shape of a human body.

     

    Chapter 11

     

    It was getting darker, but there was still plenty of daylight. The light was curiously sharp. She re-coordinated. She backtracked. She started toward the fountain again, but then changed her mind. She walked back down the block that the abandoned studio was on, where she again passed by the beggar in black. For some reason, then, she did not know why, it came to her suddenly, and with a great shock, that a few days before she’d run away from her home, she’d written the name of this dance studio on a soft paper-pad, the imprint of which had perhaps bled through.

    What could she do?
     
    Her eyes went back to the beggar. He was still crouched in silent supplication, but the instant she looked at him, he abruptly lifted his head, and for a brief but intense moment he gazed directly into her eyes. His movement was like the flash of a knife. She shuddered and caught her breath. 

    In that moment, in the wan and grainy twilight, though his hat was pulled down over his forehead and his face was streaked with dirt, it seemed to her that she recognized him.
     
    She experienced the sensation of one unexpectedly face-to-face with a deadly beast.

    For a split second, she felt herself unable to move or breathe at all and, horror-stricken, she saw a blinding explosion of white, like a bolt of lightning blazing across the blackness of her brain. She went dizzy and even felt herself totter. Through her dark glasses, she stood staring at the man, who had lowered his head again. She did not breathe or speak. She thought: This cannot be, this is not real, I must be dreaming.

    At last, she felt herself able to move, and she hurried on. 

     

    Chapter 12

     

    She came at length to the local youth hostel some two miles away. She went inside. With a wad of cash that she’d saved over the course of years, she paid for a private room, and that first night passed without incident, until she slept. 

    She slept deeply, and while she slept, an army of little beings, almost microscopic, marched into her room, under her door, and they climbed up her bed and streamed inside her body, entering her through all her cavities. She was fully aware of these tiny creatures, as she was aware also that they had been created by her scientific foster father Kenneth Dvorak, who, Godlike, had sought all his adult life to bring inanimate things into being, who animated these beings into moving things from inorganic matter, who had somehow discovered a way to breathe vital breath – his own breath, perhaps – into non-living entities, who had devised something mysterious and phenomenal in his lab of making.

    “What lives?” he said to her. His thunderous voice, sourceless and unbidden, resounded around the bone concavity of her skull. “And what is life if not motion, and what is mind if not motion in the sphere of the intellect?”

    The little beings poured thickly inside her even as he spoke inside her mind. They poured into her external flesh and dispersed throughout her body, and when, at last, they were all inside her, they began to go to work on her bones and tissues and all her living organs, but at a cellular level, deep, deep down inside her body, seeking to demolish her little by little, breaching the integrity of her bones and her whole person – her body enmeshed with her brain. They sought one by one to dismantle the living components of her flesh and bone, which made her animate and alive, and it was only with a great effort of her mind and her will that she could defend herself from within. The glowing force at her core which was her essence remained an impregnable field, though it was at this that they hammered most vigorously — hammered and blasted and rammed.

    She lay upon her bed only partially asleep, absolutely aware the whole time what was happening, yet nonetheless totally paralyzed, unable to move a single muscle in her entire body – except once, with extraordinary effort, she was able to barely open her eyes for a moment, and then her leaden lids dropped shut again.

    By means of her brain and her brain alone was she able to fight this army of tiny creatures which her foster father had unleashed in his laboratory of germ warfare and arcane devisings, and fight this army she did. She did.

     

    Chapter 13

     

    The next evening, around nine, while she sat alone in her room thinking and ruminating, she heard the door of the hostel open two floors below. It opened with an ominious creak and then came footsteps, directly after which she heard a masculine voice that sounded to her deliberately hushed.

    After that, for a brief time, all was silent as before. Then the sound of footsteps resumed. They were coming up the stairs toward her room. She sat completely still. The lights in her room were off, the room darkling. She glanced at the door. It was bolted and chained, and she felt a rush of relief pour through her.
     
    She listened closely. 

    The floors of the hostel were old and wooden. They creaked with rocking-chair moans under the slow-creeping steps, which sounded heavy: the footsteps of a man.

    She stared at the door. 

    She did not make the slightest movement or sound. She fixed her eyes on the keyhole through which she could see a star of beaming light. 

    Suddenly, that star of light was extinguished, as though something had blotted it out – and in that moment she knew without any doubt that a person was looking in through her keyhole. But all the lights were off, and her room was smothered in velvety darkness. She did not breathe.

    After half a minute, that gleaming star of light reappeared, and she again heard the masculine footsteps creak and then recede.

    But a moment after that, she heard also this same person checking into the room directly next to hers.  

     

    Chapter 14

     

    Fully clothed and silent, a silently moving girl, she lay back on the pillows behind her and tried to calm her brain. She attempted to rest, but she was unable to even shut her eyes.

    She lay like this for a long time, her mind swarming in wild surmise.

    Outside, the crickets in the trees stridulated with such demonic ferocity that they sounded to her as if they might saw themselves in half. A breeze the size of a child’s wrist blew over her. It parted the cloth curtains. Beyond in the low-hanging sky, the dove-gray clouds were pulling slowly apart, a solitary star winking with a cold and greenish light. She stared at it.

    She thought of her foster father and letters he’d written her, when he was away: kind, thoughtful, often profound letters in his beautiful quick handwriting, which she’d come to love, and now she thought of one of those letters, from years ago:

    “You are a star” (this letter said) “a rare and precious star. Don’t ever forget. And don’t ever let it go. Don’t you know? Don’t get mired in mediocrity, Dusty May, or live in bondage to banality. Dusty May, you were meant for more. You were meant to soar.

    Even now, after everything, recalling his words, she felt the sincerity in his voice – because he was sincere, because he loved her so. As she loved him.
     
    As he had spoken many such things her. 

    Alone in the youth hostel and thinking of it now, the inexpressibly complicated feeling which she was no stranger to tore through her again unbidden, perhaps for the millionth time in her life: the sense of sheer love mixed with sheer revulsion which she had for him, who was so good to her so often, who had done so much that was good and gentle and kind, who loved her so deeply in return, who had committed such unspeakable deeds.

    She lay in thought. Her eyes were wide open: deep black pools liquid with life and a furious defiance.

    She was startled out of reverie by the sound of footsteps approaching again. These steps, less heavy-sounding, were indeed coming toward her door. Was it the young woman who had checked her into this room, who had been sweet to her? 

    She sat up.

    At the base of her door glowed a luminous strip of light.

    Through this strip of light a folded piece of paper suddenly appeared.

    Then the footsteps receded.

    Dusty May stared long at the paper on the floor before she at last rose to retrieve it.

    She unfolded the page.

    There was only one word, in large printed letters, and she was easily able to discern this word in the darkness:

    “RUN”

     

    Chapter 15

     

    Hogan Phillips, the forensic psychologist, six-foot-five, two-hundred-sixty pounds, leaned back in his oak swivel chair and stared out his study-room window. The chair crepitated beneath him with an almost human-like sound. His view ran across a long lush garden of creamy daisies and magenta Morning Glories and then into a series of variegated fields. A curious stillness hung in the air, an enchanted quality creeping in with the mist, the dusky sky hourless, slate-blue: an unbroken bell adumbrating rain.

    His coffee cup stood steaming on his desk. He reached for it now and took a careful sip. The room was warm.

    He was half-Cherokee, half-black, and at fifty-five-years-old, he’d never felt sharper, stronger, surer. He still had a full head of hair, moon-colored, which he wore cropped short, the forelock dangling over his left eye like a wave about to capsize. Never married, though a great lover of the female flesh, Hogan Phillips maintained now an almost ascetical lifestyle, as he had for the last fifteen years of his life. Over the long arc of his life as well, he’d developed the tear-ducts of the chronic insomniac, the bloodshot eyes of the habitual ruminator.

    He’d initially tried to battle his insomnia by reading more – big books deep into the night: dense tomes of forensic, philosophic, or economic literature.

    When that didn’t work, he began exercising more: a religious regimen, which he kept to this day, of dips and push-ups, pull-ups off his warm basement bars, a huge man bowing the creaking pipes of plumbing beneath his home, and then long runs into the iron dawn.

    He stared now through his large plate-glass window. The August evening was collapsing into night. The air hung blue and grainy. Presently he heard, from around the other side of the house, out of his view, a car crackle up the gravel driveway, and he checked his watch.

    He took another sip of coffee. Then he rose up from his moaning chair and went to the front door to meet his noctivagant visitor.

     

    Chapter 16

     

    The young man on his doorstep had brown hair and chocolate-brown eyes so large and wet-looking that they reminded Hogan of a stuffed elk. He had a long scar down one side of his face. He stood drenched in the sodium porch light. He was medium height, flat-stomached and uncommonly lean but muscular, with arms like a gymnast – or a wrestler, thought former high-school heavyweight state-champion Hogan Phillips.

    From his doorstep, Hogan eyed his visitor with great interest.

    In sheer size, Hogan dwarfed him, but there was a certain aura about the young man, apart from his obvious fitness – an excess of energy, an overwhelming sense of healthiness, which set him apart and gave the young man an indescribably formidable presence.

    They shook hands in silence and then Hogan led the young man down a short hallway that opened up into his living room. In the other direction, a steep staircase descended into eerie blackness. The living room was spacious and bare to the point of minimalism. It was lit with a soft eggshell light. A whisper of lavender laced the air. Outside, the mist was oozing in across the fields.

    The young man stood for a moment upon the threshold. His shoes were lead-gray and had flat soles. He scanned the room slowly. Hogan gestured with an open palm for the young man to sit. But the young man did not immediately do so. Hogan watched him: the strange untouchable healthiness of the young man’s body. Hogan offered him a drink, which the young man declined. Overhead, the electric light flickered once, and in distance came the long sad wail of the train.

    At slight length, the young man moved to the chair Hogan had offered. He seated himself and crossed his legs smoothly, left over right. Hogan sat opposite him, an ash coffee table between them.

    “Thank you for making time,” the young man said.

    “It is my pleasure.”

    “You have a beautiful home.”

    “Thank you.”

    “I didn’t realize it was quite — you know — like this out here.”

    “Quite like what?”

    “So calm and peaceful.”

    “Yes. That gets into your blood.”

    “The quiet?”

    “The stillness, yes,” Hogan said, “the serenity.”

    They were both silent for a moment.

    “Are you retired from your official work, Mr. Phillips?”

    “Hogan, please. No, I still work.”

    “What exactly does a forensic psychologist do?”

    “Different things. In a general sense, a forensic psychologist provides psychological insight into legal matters, both criminal and civil.”

    “You are criminal, though, correct — a criminal-forensic psych?”

    “Yes, I am. Initially I studied agriculture. Then anthropology. First and foremost, I regard myself as a forensic anthropologist.”

    “Oh?”

    “Yes.”

    “But you switched to psychology?”

    “I do both. Body and brain.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Forensic anthropology is the physical-anatomical aspect of the same profession. Psychology studies a person’s psychological-subconscious motivations.”

    “Have you always run a private practice?”

    “Yes. I’m primarily hired by law enforcement to help the investigative process. But I’m hired by other people as well.”

    The young man nodded and his wet-looking cow eyes went philosophically to the floor.

    Outside, the darkness was nearly accomplished. Reflected ghost-like upon Hogan’s windowpanes, their seated figures appeared to be hovering just above the misty fields.

    “Do you know what the first rule of forensic psychology is?” Hogan said.

    “No.”

    “As people do one thing, so they do everything.”

    “That’s Buddhist,” the young man said.

    “Yes, I believe it is.”

    “Why is it the number one rule of forensic psychology?”

    “Because people’s behavior in one area invariably manifests in other areas. Because we do what we repeatedly desire, what we repeatedly think, and we are what we repeatedly do.”

    “Faithful in a little, faithful in a lot.”

    “Yes.”

    “You see this sort of thing often?”

    “What?”

    “People’s behavior in one area coming out in other areas.”

    “All the time.”

    The young man was silent.

    “It’s been said that the second half of a person’s life consists largely of living with the habits developed during the first,” Hogan said. “Most people are a mix: we operate along a spectrum. The question is always a question of degrees. But the values and habits we develop when we’re young unquestionably shape us for the rest of our lives. And good principles drive out bad. This is true in every sphere of life: political, economic, psychological or epistemological or ethical.

    The young man considered this. Hogan eyed the complicated plexus of veins like webs on each of the young man’s forearms.

    “Be careful what you learn to love,” the young man said. “Life is barely long enough to master one thing.”

    “What is that?”

    “Something I once read.”

    “It is well said.”

    “Do you believe authentic change in a person is possible later in life?”

    “Yes. But very difficult.”

    “What does it require? Fundamentally?”

    “A sincere and unremitting desire, fundamentally.”

    “You’ve seen many bad things,” the young man said. It was not quite a question.

    “Yes. So many. So bad.”

    “What does that word mean to a forensic psychologist?”

    “Bad?”

    “Yes.”

    “Things harmful to human flourishing and human life, which is not just physical but psychological. The bad is that which frustrates this, in both the doer and in others.”

    “A psychological definition of evil I once heard – psychological as opposed to religious – is vanity and laziness taken to a deeper level.”

    “Perhaps. One thing concerning this subject I’ve definitely come to understand, though gradually, over all the years: the more extreme a person’s desires and values, the more those desires and values become the person’s essence.”

    “What exactly do you mean?”

    “One cannot easily think of pathological people — whether arsonists, exhibitionists, terrorists, rapists, murderers or whathaveyou — as fundamentally anything but. The extreme nature of their values defines them.”

    The young man took a moment to consider this as well. Then, very abruptly, he produced a crinkled note from the breast pocket of his tee-shirt. He passed it to Hogan Phillips, who opened it and saw, in strange thrusting letters, these words:

    “He has done unspeakable things. I am running. If you don’t hear from me after one month, I am caught, or dead.”

    Hogan studied the note, as well as the paper, for some time and then looked up at the young man. “What is this?” he said.

    “Something that was recently sent to me.”

    “Has one month passed?”

    “No, not quite.”

    “You said on the phone that you wanted to meet because you had questions for me about the father of this missing girl,” Hogan said.

    “Yes. That is why I’m here.”

    “I’ll answer them if I can.”

    The young man nodded. “Thank you,” he said.

     

    Chapter 17

     

    “How long did you know Kenneth Dvorak?” the young man asked.

    “A long time,” Hogan said. “Since we were children.” Hogan paused, thoughtfully.

    The young man watched him.

    “He is …” Hogan said, and paused again.

    “Yes?”

    “A peculiar fellow. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I’ve never known anybody remotely like him.”

    “How so?”

    Hogan again took a long moment. The house creaked softly around them.

    “It’s difficult to put into precise words,” he said at last. “We’re the same age, and I’ve known him since I was seven-years-old, and yet I’m sincere when I say I don’t really have any better understanding of him now than I did then.”

    “Were you friends?”

    “Yes.”

    There was another long pause. The scorching wail of a locomotive cut through the dead silence beyond. Creamy mist lay folded over the clover fields.

    “At one time, in fact, we were close friends,” Hogan said, “insofar as anyone can really be close friends with Kenneth.”

    “You grew up together?”

    “Yes. We were in elementary, junior high, and high school together – and then we were in the same agriculture school. Our personalities and our worldview were always quite different, but we did share something fundamental in common – though I’m still not sure precisely what that thing was.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “We had a certain connection that none of the others had, but it was so subtle that it’s very difficult to pinpoint. I’ve thought a lot about this. I’ve never really gotten to the bottom of it. Still, it did give us a delicate but unmistakable bond. Also, we both began our careers at the same time, and we were in the Army at the same time. Professionally, we both advanced at approximately the same pace, as well, and excelled. He grew up on a farm, as did I. In fact, his father was a somewhat famous and innovative farmer, and Kenneth himself was an unbelievably hard-worker, even when he was very young. He had a way of doing things that was always slightly unorthodox but oddly smart – smart in a way that made you think: how obvious. And yet it also made you think that you wouldn’t have thought of it in a hundred years.”

    “Can you give me an example?”

    “He invented his own form of math to solve engineering problems on the farm. And this was when he was just a young teenager. Look here: I was a math person too – I’ve always liked numbers and math – and yet I never understood his methods. And not for want of trying, either. But you can see the internal logic in them.”

    The young man didn’t say anything to this but went deeper into contemplation.

    “Kenneth was far more driven than me or anyone I knew, and perhaps inordinately brilliant because of how driven he was. Make no mistake: he is brilliant. He’s also a very private person, even among his family, and I don’t even think his wife knew him fully.”

    “No?”

    Hogan shook is head.

    “How did she die?”

    “His wife?”

    “Yes.”

    “A car accident. She drowned.”

    “There were rumors – ”

    “Unsubstantiated.”

    Another brief silence fell.

    Over the raggedy horizon to the east, a huge humpbacked moon crept up and stood brooding and rust-colored and raw across the western world.

    “You were saying you thought not even his wife knew him in full.”

    “Yes. This is what I think. Though we grew up together, Kenneth’s childhood is shadowy. I knew him in elementary school, but not outside of it. He was raised in a deeply religious home, back when that religion still had a lot of ‘the old salt in it,’ as he once put it to me. I think I remember this description verbatim after forty-five years because I liked it very much. And yet somewhere along the line, after seminary or even while he was still in school, his religious convictions began rather rapidly to shift.”

    “In what way?”

    “Kenneth was always an incredible reader. I mean, encyclopedic. More than anyone I’ve ever known, and this is not an exaggeration. No matter how much you guess he’s read, I promise you’ll underestimate it.”

    “Oh?”

    “Yes. Last I knew he spoke twenty-two different languages, and spoke them well – all self-taught. He can write Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Cyrillic. More than anything, he’s indefatigably thoughtful. He won’t rest until he’s followed an idea to its conclusion. This is one of the things I liked most about him.”

    “Because you saw yourself in it,” said the young man, who not only knew Hogan Phillips, but knew quite a lot about him, from reading his work — knew and admired him.

    Hogan appeared to take no notice of these last words, however.

    “Around age thirty-three – and this is my point,” Hogan said, “when he was engaged in so much reading and study, his religious convictions started tilting toward the political.”

    “Do you mean that his religious convictions gave way to the political and then took the place of?”

    “No, I don’t mean that. But that is the right question to ask.”

    “What do you mean, then?”

    “I mean that he began to fuse his religious convictions with his political, and in this way you could say he created a new sort of religious order. Also at this time, his interest in agriculture and genetic modification went to another level. I know this because it was then that he ceased seeing people at all, myself included. In fact, the last time I ever saw Kenneth was in his lab.”

    “What was he doing?”

    “He’d figured out a way to introduce genes into a certain type of bean plant. After the genes were introduced, they coaxed the plants into producing micronutrients of beta carotene and homocysteine, which the human body then converts into vitamin A and vitamin B. Kenneth also managed in this same bean plant to create a genetically modified version that was resistant to disease. It was ingenious and even his detractors concede that in this area of bio-genetic chemistry and agriculture, among others, he’s exceptional.”

    Hogan fell momentarily mute. The young man continued to watch him.

    “One of the last things Kenneth told me in person,” Hogan said, “is that he’d found a way to (as he put it) ‘animate inanimate matter.'”

    “What did he mean by that?”

    “That he’d solved the problem of how single-cellular life could arise naturally on planet earth from a complicated soup of non-living chemicals and other inanimate matter.”

    “Is it true?”

    “I don’t know. But it would not surprise me. Some people believed also that he was engaged at this time in highly illegal activity: the creation and cultivation of viruses and deadly germs, preparing an arsenal for germ warfare. It was a real rumor, and I myself have never entirely discounted it.”

    The young man didn’t speak.

    “To your initial question,” Hogan said, “I knew Kenneth as well as anyone. And I know that he overcame a great deal of hostility and adversity and harassment.” Here, for the first time in this conversation, Hogan’s voice and face grew dramatic. “Extraordinary amounts,” he added. “And this included his foiling a number of plots to destroy his lab by bomb or arson. Kenneth was not cowed, however. Of all people, he would never be cowed or bullied. One simply can’t imagine it. In fact, it almost seemed as though he was ready for it. There was even a shootout Kenneth was involved in, protecting his research and his property, a shootout in which people died – Kenneth killed them – and for which Kenneth was completely exonerated on the grounds of a self-defense and protection of his property.”

    “I recall reading about that,” the young man said.

    “Yes. All his acquaintances without exception – myself foremost among them – were therefore shocked when he bought a huge area of land near a depopulated village in eastern Nevada, land he was able to purchase because this village was on the brink of ghost-town, and here he started his strange little church, which was founded in agriculture and his own religion, and which grew rapdily.”

    “Strange in what way?”

    “What I alluded to before: the religious doctrine was very vague on the notion of God, but explicitly political, and the methods of farming were much in line with those who were so opposed to his genetically modified plants. Kenneth understood agriculture as well as any living person, and he understood as well the importance of organic matter – in the true sense of that word.”

    “Make that clearer.”

    “He understood, as all Ag students do, the importance of organic matter as a component of the soil – and understood also that soil fertility and the kind of crops you grow on a soil are not determined by humus alone.”

    “In this I’m not knowledgeable,” said the young man.

    “Soil fertility is determined by the amount of active organic matter, the amount of available mineral nutrients, the activities of soil organisms, chemical activities in the soil solution and the physical condition of the soil – and this is not new data: humans have understood it for a very long time. Ever since we have had soil scientists, they have recognized the values of organic matter. But I know for a fact that Kenneth always felt as though a perfectly good word – ’organic’ – had been taken and appropriated and stretched to cover an entire doctrine most of which fell completely outside the bounds of that word. He also believed that there was really no such thing as ‘unnatural’ and that synthetic and natural were purely a question of form.”

    “I see,” the young man said. “And so when he bought up such vast amounts of land and started this farm, you were surprised.”

    “That’s hardly the word for it. But almost immediately, he began making money – the farm itself began making money – and a great deal of it. Before he even began, he’d established an inexpensive infrastructure for distribution and for advertising the farms diverse products.”

    “The farm flourished.”

    “Yes. As did his flock. And the doctrine Kenneth founded was steeped as much in economics and agriculture as it was in morality and God. Kenneth then discovered oil on his land, and he began cultivating that. So that the farm soon moved completely off the grid. I believe part of him actually wanted to secede from the country. I really do. And yet it wasn’t communistic – at least, not totally. The last time I tried to visit him, before he shut me out for good, I had the definite sense that Kenneth sought to control people not through property but by means of some other thing or way.”

    “What other thing or way?”

    “I don’t know. Some deeper method: as he modified genes, I often thought, from deep within at the fundamental level, beyond the cellular, so the total individual, which he once told me with a smile was ‘merely a tiny part of a much larger organic whole.’ Unquote.” Hogan paused. “To tell the God’s honest truth, I never thought he believed this doctrine. At all.”

    “Which?”

    “The religion he preaches, and its economic-political counterpart.”

    “No? Then what was he in it for? Money?”

    “No.” Hogan paused, appeared to ponder. “I don’t know what he was in it for, but I do know that it wasn’t money or fame.”

    They were both silent for several beats. 

    “When Kenneth was in the military,” Hogan said, “he was a medic. He once saved the life of a Green Beret – a man who’d been shot in the chest. Kenneth not only expertly dressed the man’s wound out in the field, but also carried this man for well over a hundred miles, over the course of days, deep in enemy territory. It was an act of incredible strength and heroism – truly the stuff of Congressional Medals of Honor. This man was forever after devoted to Kenneth. And yet for all Kenneth’s undeniable intellectual power and his strength and his power to do good – in short, all his life-giving properties, and the thing inside him capable of such acts – I’ve always sensed that at the root of it all, something in him fundamentally worships at the shrine of death and violence.”

    Another long silence ensued. The blood-orange moon wobbled up higher in the east.

    “As people do one thing,” Hogan said, “so they do everything. This is what makes Kenneth difficult to comprehend. He is complex: capable of great violence and cruelty – I’ve seen it firsthand – but also great kindness. He genuinely mourns the loss of loved ones. I’ve seen that firsthand, as well. One thing is for certain, though.”

    “What is that?”

    “A person’s behavior, good or bad, bleeds through into all number of different areas.”

    “Bleeds through?”

    “Yes,” Hogan said. “It bleeds through.”

     

    Chapter 18

     

    After reading the one-word note, Dusty May did not immediately move. For a full hour, she stood like statuary in the middle of the room, thinking, ruminating.

    What did the word mean? 

    Was it an elaborate trick? A ploy to flush her out?

    Or was it perhaps, after all, entirely in her head?

    She looked down at the very real paper in her very real hand, and she thought:

    This is not all in my head.

    She made a roll of her money and stuffed this into her front pocket. Careful as she was, quiet as she was, a quarter slipped out and rolled clattering across the wooden floor. She winced.

    In the predawn darkness, she slid open the rear window and looked carefully up and down the streets, two stories below. There was no one to be seen. The streets looked labyrinthian and misty. A deep silence hung over the city. The boulevards and alleyways seemed utterly deserted. But there were so many trees and shrubs and shadows and places where any person might easily hide. 

    Her black searching eyes flashed in the darkness.

    “Come, Dusty May,” she whispered to herself. 

    She strapped her backpack over her shoulders and then slipped silently through the open window. She scaled down the cold wet metal ladder of the fire escape and then dropped to the soundless street below.

     

    Chapter 19

     

    Immediately upon hitting the pavement, she darted off into the darkness of marginal backstreets. From here she began threading her way through a maze-like city she did not know. She made more turns than were necessary and even at several points doubled-back, as though to throw a hound off its scent: a maneuver characteristic of the hunted doe.

    Above her, the clouds whirled away like canon smoke, disclosing a full moon which shone down from the sky like a blind human eye — an eye bleeding through the fabric of the night. She could not decide if the full moon, which lighted her way but also exposed her, was good or bad for her plight. 

    The moon sliced the streets into intricate prisms of shadow and light. 

    She felt she could glide along through the darkness of the shadows on one side of the street, while at the same time keeping her eyes on the lighted sections across the way. Perhaps she did not pay enough attention to the dark side. Yet she felt certain that at this moment no one was pursuing her.

    She didn’t know where she was going, but she did not feel afraid. Almost instinctively, she translated the shock of all her negative emotions into work and physical activity: her fundamental answer to everything now, after so many years of practice and self-discipline, the motions of her body in concert with her brain, self-generated action, wiping away all fears and incomprehensibility and the persistent sense of loneliness within her. 

    Threading her way rapidly through the streets, she felt something greater, something not from without but from within, an invisible force, leading her forward. Yet she had no definite plan. She was not even sure if all this was as she imagined. Wasn’t everything a little too strange? She wanted no more strangeness in her life. She was absolutely determined to uplift herself and to never go back to the house from which she’d escaped. She was like a rare animal who’d at last broken free from her cage, and now she sought a hole in which she might hide: a deep hole that did not terminate but went profoundly down and then rose back up, finally opening into a sunlit valley of fiery green grass and radiant fields of promise.

    One hour later, the city still smoldering in leathery dark, she stopped walking at last.

    As if by instinct, she turned around. 

    At that moment, she distinctly saw a black shape following her quite closely from the other side of the street. This figure was making every effort to keep itself concealed, staying deep within the shadows, but for a brief moment, the figure passed beneath a tangerine streetlight, and this is when she saw it. The shape quickly vanished back into the shadows. 

    “Come, Dusty May!” she again whispered to herself.

    She dropped down to the ground and slid under a parked pickup truck that sat gleaming in the moonlight. She moved like a spider beneath it.

    She sprung up on the other side and then dashed into a narrow alleyway between two buildings, along the backside of which she circled around and went rapidly back in the approximate direction from which she’d just come. Here the street branched off at a sharp angle into a cul-de-sac, and this cul-de-sac is what she ran down, headlong.

     

    Chapter 20

     

    At the end of the cul-de-sac, behind a row of private houses, a large park stretched away into the dark. This park contained tennis courts and basketball courts and a baseball diamond — and looming skeletally beyond that, a steel lookout tower which rose 400 feet into the air. During the day, a caged elevator took people up to the top of this tower to an observation deck. Now, in the early morning, it stood mute and dimensionless against the purple sky. 

    Dusty darted between the private homes and over undulant lawns, and then she vaulted a low wooden fence that bordered the sleeping houses in all their ordered rows. At the border of the parkland, she realized that if she wanted get to the other side, there was no way to avoid exposing herself in the vast and lighted sprawl.
     
    She stopped on the edge and for a moment looked back – beyond the fence over which she’d just leapt. She peered with her sharp eyes down the cul-de-sac behind her.

    She saw no one. A lumberyard glowed in the far distance. The moon in its circuit soared higher overhead. There was a small bicycle path that went anfractuously to her right and then dipped down into a lighted tunnel, and now she had to decide:

    Should she go right, down the sinuous path into the light of the tunnel, or should she run through the wide-open space of the park?

    She again looked to the right. She remembered from her map that on the other side of this tunnel was the train station — and there, she felt, lay safety. 

    She therefore started to turn this way, but the instant she did, she saw in the distant light of the tunnel what first looked to be a black statue. But it wasn’t.

    It was a man.

    Who?

    Who was it?

    She did not know. She was startled. She looked back over her shoulder. There was no one behind her.

    Had he been here all along, and was he unrelated to her pursuer?

    Or had he just been posted here this moment, waiting for her, guarding the passageway to her safety?

    She looked back to the moonlit park before her.

    She didn’t hesitate a second longer.

    She sprinted as fast as she was able across the lighted space. It was a long way. She ran over gray stubble grass, a tiny figure in black tennis shoes gliding beneath the moonlight.

    A quarter-mile later, on the other side of the open park, she found herself half-crouched among soft damp woodchips that composed the ground upon which stood monkey-bars and teeter-totters and swing sets and a wide wavy slide. On her left, close enough for her to reach out and touch, a gigantic bullfrog of rubber sat beside a gigantic rubber tortoise, both waiting for little people to sit upon their backs and rock.

    She stood up straight, sweating and panting in the shadows beneath the slide. The ground felt spongy. Her breath came hard. The air was damp. She pushed her hair out of her eyes. Her shirt was soaked with sweat. All was silent but for her breath. She felt her shoulders slouch in fatigue from running so fast and so far, no sleep for far too long, her nerves stretched membrane-thin. She stood in the darkness of the playground and rested. Tiny tanagers in the tall trees beyond watched her with sesame eyes. 

    By and by she peered out from under the slide and looked over the park she’d just run across, and for a long moment she saw nothing. The park was deserted. The streets beyond were deserted. In fact, a full ten minutes passed, her breathing normalized, her fatigue fading, when suddenly the figure appeared. 

    It was forbidding in its black-clad presence, a club-like object in its hand, a long dark coat and round hat, a swift unswerving tread pounding through the darkness. The figure paused only a moment on the other side of the park, as if to get a more accurate bearing, and then it went energetically in the very direction Dusty May had come.

    The black shape was now moving directly toward her.

    She watched it. 

    She watched it come.

    In that instant, under the full moon and the soaring lights of the park, the face of the figure shone perfectly, and she saw the horrifying visage of her former teacher and her foster father’s fanatic friend: Wesson Weekly.

     

    Chapter 21

     

    Uncertainty was now gone for Dusty May. Fortunately, it continued for the man pursuing her, who still did not know precisely where she was – or what had suddenly come into her mind.

    She took a deep breath. 

    The invisible force inside her pushed her toward the steel tower, as she remembered something that gave her hope.

    She waited until her pursuer was within earshot. Then, with a deliberate noise, she made her way to the looming tower of steel. He heard her and spotted her. He followed swiftly after. 

    Dusty ran. 

    “Stop! Dusty May, stop!”

    His voice was booming and authoritative, as if it would halt her movement by its sheer volume and the weight and power of its authority.

    It had the opposite effect on her: she increased her speed and even thought of Kenneth Dvorak’s words that life is movement and mind is movement in the intellectual sphere.

    She passed by a series of basketball courts whose free-throw lines glowed phosphorescent in the dark. She ran over the courts and through. She quickly came to the base of the towering structure and saw a sign that said:

    CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS

    Still running, she circled the entire perimeter of the tower, her breath pluming. Madly she scanned the structure for a ladder. She could see the black shape moving toward her with a terrifying sense of purpose. She found a ladder at last. It began twelve feet above her head, far higher than she could ever leap. But this did not prevent her from moving up the metal skeleton.

    With trembling fingers, she cinched her backpack more securely around her ribcage. She made sure her money was pushed deep down into the pointy tip of her front pocket. With both hands, she clutched the great sweep of metal that arced enormously from the ground, forming one foot of the tower. Then, slung underneath it upsidedown, like an orangutan, she began moving upward, hand over hand, inching toward the ladder. The metal was flat and cold. From this vantage, upsidedown, she saw all the way up through the naked beams, up, up, up to the pinnacle of the tower, which was sunk in cottony mist. Out of the corner of her eye, then, she caught movement: the black shape pounding toward her. She looked up through the tower in despair.

    She slithered on.

    When she came to the ladder, Weekly was directly below her. He was running with long club in hand, his hat now gone, and now he leapt with all his might. She was still upsidedown. He grunted loudly — a low and beast-like moan — and as he leapt, he swung the club at her head.

    It missed.

    She thought she heard it swish past, imagined she felt wind from its force pass over her. The heavy wooden club clattered against the metal. Weekly landed on his knees and then sprung up instantly. He threw off his coat and, leaving the club on the ground, began scaling the base of the tower.

    Spider-like, Dusty went up. She knew there was no going back now – not ever — and, gazing upward, she felt as though she were climbing into the misty heavens of the unknown, where eagles rode the thermals and molten meteorites rocketed down through the stratosphere, burning themselves into smoking spalls of galactic ore.

    She was not afraid of heights. She knew her pursuer was. 

    The ladder was wet and slick. She climbed on. She climbed cautiously, yet she was quick and strong. From below, she was scarcely visible in her dark clothes. Such a quietly moving person who even in such a state made hardly any sound at all. Between her feet, she could see him below her. Unlike her, he was totally unencumbered — no jacket, no backpack — and still he moved with much less certainty and silence than she did. He labored greatly. Yet he, too, was very agile and strong. The muscle striations in his forearms stood out like metal grooves. He reached the ladder when she was approximately halfway to the top, and here he began a straight upward pursuit, after her.

     

    Chapter 22

     

    The first kernel of daylight grew in the east and then spread out across the August sky, nullifying the morning stars one by one. The mist blew away. The sky overhead went leaden and gray.

    Below her, moving slower the higher he climbed, Wes Weekly struggled upward, stomach surging. Vertigo rocked him like a club-blow.

    Dusty continued up.

    When she came to the top of the tower, the whole eastern sky was alight and glowing, a strange cabbage-green, the last stars gleaming like snake eyes within the celadon vault. Cars were beginning to crawl along the highways far below. It was very early. She stood atop the metal platform, and she stood completely exposed. She held onto the rail and looked down. The baseball diamond looked pristine and toy-like so distant beneath her feet. A small wind blew over her. It lifted her Indian-black hair. Her skin was the color of toffee. South of the tower, on the edge of the park down below, a string of small ponds lay smoking like pools of hot milk, or mercury, the river beyond slow and level: laid across the land like a blade.

    The metal platform was fenced off and under construction. A long I-beam cantilevered some fifty feet out into high open space. It stood perfectly horizontal and went almost to the top of a construction crane, the huge white mast of which lay angled dramatically across the empty sky.

    Dusty produced a small cylindrical object from the inside of her coat pocket. She looked down. She realized only now how much slower her pursuer was coming — slower, it seemed, with each rung. And yet he was still climbing, still coming — coming for her — and she knew he would not stop. 

    She drew back from the hole through which the ladder penetrated the platform. She waited. She looked again at the I-beam jutting out into space. It was perhaps one foot wide. She got down onto her knees and sat on the back of her feet. 

    She could see him clearly through the metal mesh of the platform. She watched him come. Her black eyes contained no emotion but sat in their sockets like dark slots.

    When, at last, her wolfish pursuer was near the top, she leaned over and peered straight down at him through the circular ladder-hole. He heard her movement above, and he gazed upward. His face was beat-red, agleam with sweat. His nostrils looked like auger holes, his crazy eyes charged with suffering. He was nearly paralyzed by his fear of heights, and yet he was climbing higher still. Suddenly he grunted. She did not know why, but the sound of it went through her with a chilling tremor. He was very close now. She moved with great celerity.

    Extreme situations can produce flashes of lightning, which sometimes blind and sometimes illuminate. Weekly’s wild gaze saw what was about to happen — but he saw it a fraction too late.

    Dusty brought forth the cylindrical object in her hand and in the same motion she released its contents down onto his upturned face. 

    It was mace.

    She gassed him fully in his eyes. He grunted again and screamed more loudly still. He squished his eyes shut and buried his chin into his chest. He clung desperately to the ladder, draping his right arm through the rung and holding it with the crook of his elbow. She sprayed more mace onto him, showering his head with toxic rain, and she kept spraying until the can was empty.

    Weekly clung to the ladder and held his breath. The cool breeze blew. She watched him. She watched him do the unthinkable:

    He continued climbing up toward her.

    She threw the empty can of mace at him, striking him on the crown of his head, but for all the force with which she threw it, the empty can was not heavy or solid enough to do much damage.

    It bounced off his misshapen skull with a ice-like tink and then went cartwheeling through space to the ground below.

    His right hand reached for the top rung. His eyes, barely open, wept hot chemical tears. She saw his sandy-colored hair blowing in the breeze. She sat down on the platform, and with both feet, she stomped on his head. She did it again. With a swift backhanded motion of his right arm, his left hand still holding with an iron-grip to the ladder, he swiped purblind for her — and caught her left foot under his arm.

    She felt his great strength, saw the globe-like bulge of biceps pulsing beneath his tee-shirt sleeve. He clutched her foot against his body, held it in his armpit, and simultaneously he twisted his torso in such a way that it seemed to her at all once that he’d pull them both off the tower together if he could, sending them tumbling to their deaths as one.

    She jerked back with such force that it astonished him. She broke free and with the energy of ultimate struggle, she jumped to her feet and bound across the small platform — and without any hesitation, she leapt the metal fence that enclosed the observation deck.

    She walked out onto the I-beam which stretched fifty feet away into open space, toward the mast of the crane.

    They act swiftly who are in ultimate clash with their destiny.

     

    Chapter 23

     

    The ground loomed 400 feet below. Yet for a moment, stepping onto the beam, she felt herself almost uplifted, and as though she were moving across pure air itself.

    Before she had time to think, she was ten feet away from the observation deck, walking the beam which was damp with morning dew, both arms stretched out horizontal for balance, and from below, she looked a black cruciform figure, graceful and diminutive and otherworldly against the nacre heavens.

    It was then that she heard another loud moan behind her. She did not look back.

    She stepped carefully but did not inch or creep: one foot in front of the other, a small slip of her tennis shoe on the dew-moist metal, which sent her heart into her throat, but still walking, still moving forward — a very wide balance beam indeed, she told herself — while the breeze came harder, pouring over and under her like water without any sound, and then a gust of wind that went wildly about her hair, blowing black strands everywhere across her face, and her black eyes watered, and all the open sky swarming around her in a vertiginous swirl, and still she kept walking farther out into space.

    When she was at last near the other end of the beam, she felt the thick metal shudder beneath her. Then she heard a dull bong which sent sound vibrations up through her feet and into her legs and pelvis. Still, she did not look back.

    She came to the end of the beam and knew that this was the hardest part of all: two feet away to the top of the crane mast.

    She sat with great care on the edge of the beam. Her legs dangled below her. She touched the mast with the tip of her tennis shoe. It was solid. She clutched each side of the metal, cold beneath her grip, her small dark hands white now from her clutch, and only at this time did she allow herself to glance back over her shoulder.

    What she saw astonished her:

    Wesson Weekly, who had first tried to shake the beam but found it too solid to budge, was now on all fours partway out on the beam but locked there, motionless, completely paralyzed with acrophobic panic. He clung to the beam in a giant bear-hug, his eyes squished shut, and he could no longer move at all, not forward or backward.

    She saw his face turn ashen and then paper-white. The heights were too great for him. She turned back to the crane mast. She reached out with her hand. To her overwhelming relief, she found she was able to touch the top of the mast, but only just.

    Yet it was again with the unhesitating energy of ultimate struggle which her body contained that Dusty May inhaled once deeply and then, in a reckless instant of life or death, she pushed herself, half leaping from her rear, toward the iron-lace of the crane mast. Unmoored for a fraction of a moment in empty space, she floated and clutched madly at the soaring mast.

    She caught it.

    The metal smacked her face with force, but she was safe.

    She hugged the cold crane and then she got her feet under her. She looked back to the beam she’d just walked. She saw her pursuer still paralyzed in the exact same spot, but he was open-eyed now, wild-eyed, grunting and screaming and moaning, watching her as if he would bring her down with the tractor-beam of his gaze alone.

    Their eyes met and locked.

    His face was plastered with saliva. His nose bled. She held his fear-crazed stare for a full ten seconds, and then she began climbing down the crane.

    Seconds later, something — perhaps another moan of hatred — made her look back.

    What she saw next shook and astounded her forever.

    She saw Wesson Weekly deliberately push himself off the edge of the beam and fall to his death.

    She watched him plummet soundlessly into the cold gray void below, dropping down through empty space, almost serenely turning through the air — no more animal cries now but silent as a martyr — before bursting in an explosion of blood on the ground below.


     

    PART 3

     

    She drifted south into the baked desert country of Arizona — sun-struck little villages where the foehn wind blew dry and hot down the leeward side of the White Mountains, and lenticular clouds hovered in the sky like alien saucers. It was important for her in these days to keep moving. She grew quickly to love the hot wind and the heat and the desert. She ate little, drank a great deal of water. She slept in hostels, YWCA’s, roadside motels, all-night laundromats. She spent hours staring at the nighttime sky strewn utterly with emerald stars. Her money meanwhile dribbled away. Her situation grew grave. She was sixteen-years-old.

    In Phoenix, she discovered she could make instant cash doing front flips and backflips. People would give five or ten or even twenty dollars to watch her do these flips off the ungiving pavement, so that in one week’s time, she had more money in her pocket than when she’d left home.

    One afternoon three weeks after she’d watched Wesson Weekly plummet to his death, at a park where martial artists, gymnasts, parkourists, body-builders, and other elite athletes exercised and competed, she bet a group of massive men over half of all she had that she could do more consecutive pull-ups than any one of them, and this bet was quickly accepted by the fittest of them all.

    It was a warm windless day. She produced five crisp one-hundred dollar bills from her front pocket for everyone to see. For three days in a row now, she’d been observing from afar the athletes at this park, and she felt sure of her skill and strength matched against theirs. Her focus was pure.

    The man laughed in a slow friendly way who accepted before any of the others, and all the others laughed as well — at first.

    Her challenger was twenty-four, shirtless, blue-eyed, bald, with a fine-shaped skull, cafe-au-lait skin, and long lithe muscles: lats like an hourglass, wasp-waisted, mutant abdominals.

    A young lady came over to Dusty and, speaking softly in her ear, advised her against competing against this particular man.

    “Why?” Dusty said.

    “He’s the strongest and he’s the best,” the young lady said. “He’s famous.”

    Dusty didn’t say anything, but shook her head to indicate that she didn’t care about any of this.

    They flipped a coin to determine who would go first, and Dusty May lost the toss.

    The young man introduced himself:

    “My name is Jason.” He smiled. His teeth were very straight and very white. She thought him handsome.

    “My name is Dusty.”

    “Nice to meet you, Dusty. I’ll go first.”

    She nodded. “Wide-grip,” she said. “And they must be real pull-ups — clean pull-ups. All the way past the chin, all the way down to full-arm extension, but no pausing or resting at the top or the bottom. Do you agree?”

    Jason laughed again, and so did the others.

    “Of course,” Jason said.

    By now, a large group of people had gathered around them. Many wondered if this was a practical joke of some sort, and several looked for hidden cameras.

    Jason designated one man from among the group to count. This man wore a gray baseball cap, which he now turned around backwards. Jason chalked-up his hands and clapped his palms together, sending a miniature explosion of chalk-dust into the air. He gripped the pull-up bar and began.

    He was practiced and exceptionally strong. He wasn’t entirely used to extending all the way down, without a slight crook at the elbows, yet his form was perfect. He had virtually no fat anywhere on his body, and his wide back squirmed with muscles, his biceps like cantaloups.

    Dusty watched him.

    The counter barked out each number loudly and clearly.

    “One. Two. Three. Four. Five …”

    Jason had his legs crossed at the ankles, tucked up at about a forty-five degree angle. The soles of his sneakers were red and had arrowhead-shaped treads, and there were grass blades stuck to them. Dusty’s black eyes were emotionless. She wore pleated khaki shorts and a light beige tee-shirt with half sleeves. Her arms were thin and extraordinarily dark from all her recent exposure to the sharp western sunlight. The crowd had grown larger and everyone except the counter was silent.

    Jason started to visibly tire at twenty-two pull-ups. His finely shaped skull glistered with perspiration, and the sun reflected off his head in a diamond-shaped pattern. He kept going. His back tapered perfectly into his narrow waist.

    At thirty-two pull-ups, he grew a little shaky.

    At thirty-seven, his form went more sloppy still, yet he managed seven more after that, all of which were just passable, and then he dropped lightly to the ground. He was breathing hard. The wormy vein that ran down each of his biceps stood engorged and throbbing.

    The onlookers clapped.

    He turned around. Somebody threw him a white cloth, and he toweled off his face and his bald head, and then he nodded to Dusty.

    “It makes a large difference when you must go all the way up and all the way down,” she said. She was not speaking in any way condescendingly but in total commiseration for the difficulty of the task.

    Jason didn’t reply. He was still winded.

    Dusty tied back her silken black hair, which was like the hair of a Japanese girl. Jason offered her his bag of chalk. She accepted in silence, her lips parting slightly in a smile, revealing the dark gap between her two front teeth. She chalked her hands and then stood underneath the pull-up bar. She was not tall enough to reach it. The ground beneath her was grassy. The whiteness of the chalk made the darkness of her skin more emphatic. She took a deep breath.

    A great many people were gathered around now to watch this impromptu contest of strength, a number of whom, however, were still questioning whether it was real or a joke. Some of the onlookers murmured. All eyes were now upon her.

    Abruptly, then, like a panther, Dusty May sprung up to the bluish bar. She hung for just a split second. Then she adjusted her grip and began.

    She cranked out pull-ups like a machine, her motions so fluid, so deft. She cranked them out. She was methodical and crisp. She went all the way up and all the way down. The counter was counting faster for her than he had for Jason.

    When she got to twenty-five, it was clear to everybody that this was no joke.

    When she got to thirty, she had still not visibly slowed.

    When she got to thirty-five, everybody grew strangely hushed, serious even. When she got to forty, it was clear to all that she would win. When she got to fifty, it looked as though she might still have more in her.

    She dropped from the bar and turned to Jason — who did not have five-hundred dollars.


     

    Chapter 25

     


    Dusty May was not quite so naive, and the truth was she didn’t expect he’d be able to pay. In fact, she had other designs.

    She went over to Jason, who was eating from a large bag of jellybeans, and she spoke not in a whisper but in a voice so soft that no one else heard it but him. She spoke at some length. He was facing forward, still eating jellybeans one at a time, and he appeared to be listening intently. He nodded.

    (to be continued …)

     

    Chapter 26

     

    “If you bring forth that which is within you, it will uplift you,” the man said. “If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

    “What is that?” she said.

    “It is a half quote.”

    “What does it mean?

    “It means that fulfilling the promise which your brain and body contain will give you more abundant life, and ignoring your promise has the power to destroy you. It means that doing the things which cultivate your living potential are good. The things that stunt it are bad.”

    Dusty didn’t say anything.

    “Tell me, Dusty May,” he said. “Do you know the meaning of the words integrate and integral and integer and integrity?”

    She thought for a moment and then shook her head. “Not well enough to put into words,” she said.

    “They mean ‘entire,'” he said, “whole, all of a piece. They mean the same on the outside as on the inside.”

    Dusty didn’t reply.

    “When a structure has integrity,” he said, “it is whole. It is entire. When the integrity of a structure has been breached, the structure is in danger. When I brought you here, you said that you’d never seen a building like this. Would you like to know why?”

    “Yes,” she said.

    “Because most people build things as they build their lives: haphazardly, whimsically, without focus or purpose or a theme to unify them.”

    She didn’t say anything, but he saw a slight crease appear above the bridge of her nose. He watched her.

    “The body and the brain also require a unifying theme,” he said.

    The crease deepened above the bridge of her nose.

    “Yes,” he said. “Now, think of music as brain. Think of dance as body. You must integrate them. They must be united by a theme.”




    [Gap-Toothed Girl: Part 1]


    July 11th, 2018 | journalpulp | No Comments | Tags: , , ,

About The Author

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning as the constant in my life.

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