Gap-Toothed Girl

 

Chapter 1

 

Tournament night in a sweltering Las Vegas stadium, and the girl with the gap-toothed smile stood bleeding in her ballet slippers. The sodium lights of the arena lay upcast on the low-hanging sky above. There was an electrical charge in the air: a crackling undercurrent that came neither from the lights nor from the distant heat lightning, but from the galvanized excitement of the crowd.

Before her, some twenty feet away and elevated four feet off the ground, there stretched a long green balance beam, atop which, at the southernmost end, stood ten empty whiskey bottles. The bottles were perfectly upright and in single file. A small springboard crouched in front.

She closed her eyes and inhaled. The air was dry. She stood alone upon the stage. She was dusky-limbed, Lakota. She held her breath a moment and then she released it.

When she opened her eyes, her gaze settled on the objects before her: the springboard, the balance beam, the whiskey bottles. The heat hung heavy. A rill of sweat slid between her breasts. She didn’t see the tiny camera-flash explosions igniting everywhere around her from within the darkness of the stadium. She forgot that there were thousands of eyes fixed upon her. She forgot also the pain in her toe and was unaware of blood leaking like ink across the entire top part of her slipper.

Offstage in the shadows, a lanky youth in a baseball cap gave a thumbs-up, but it wasn’t directed toward her.

A man with a microphone emerged on stage. He was thin and well-dressed and darkly complexioned.

A hush came over the crowd. The man held the microphone to his mouth. His voice came booming through the speakers with great clarity.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “ladies and gentleman. May I have your attention, please. Thank you. We are finally at the end of the night, and — my Lord — what a night it’s been. What a competition.”

The crowd erupted.

“We have seen — excuse me, please — we have seen tonight some of the very best dancers in the world, and I’m sure you know this is not an exaggeration at all. We have only one more to go. Did we save the best for last? Need I remind you that there’s fifty thousand dollars at stake here?”

He paused.

“Now,” he said, “now, then. Do you see this young woman up on the stage with me? I’m told she’s about to do something that only one other person in human history has done, and that was a German dancer named Bianca Passarge, in 1954 — except Ms. Passarge, I’m told, was not mounting a balance beam when she did her routine. Can this little girl — all 115 pounds of her — I say, can she do it? Can she steal the money from these big city boys and girls, the Bronx break dancers and West Coast B-Boys and all the others who have astounded us here tonight with their strength and agility and grace? Folks, we are about to find out.”

The crowd erupted again. The MC turned and looked at the girl on stage behind him.

He winked.

He lowered the microphone and said in an unamplified voice that sounded peculiar to her:

“Are you ready?”

He smiled kindly.

She nodded.

He gave her the A-OK sign with his fingers and nodded back. Then her lips broke open in return, disclosing, very slightly, her endearing gap-toothed smile.

He brought the microphone back to his mouth and turned again to the audience.

“Here we go!” he said.

The crowd went dead-silent in anticipation.

“Okay, okay!” she thought. All ten of her fingers wiggled unconsciously and in unison.

Abruptly, then, the lights above her darkened while simultaneously the lights behind her brightened, and then the music began: fast-paced and throbbing and happy.

She bolted forward.

She sprinted toward the balance beam and with astonishing speed executed a back handspring onto the springboard, vaulting into a full fluid backflip on one foot upon the beam — which in the very same motion turned into another back handspring, and then another, all to within inches of the bottles at the far end of the beam. This entire process took no more than four seconds. Here she paused for a fraction and then performed a half turn. From there she leapt lightly onto the first upright whiskey bottle, which wobbled only slightly under her weight. She placed her other toe catlike upon the next whiskey bottle, and then she raised herself en point to great heights….

 

Chapter 2

 

She was called Dusty May. Her biological father, Winston Musgrave, whom she didn’t know, was a Lakota acrobat of uncanny strength and coordination. For a time he was part of a traveling circus, which is when he met Dusty’s Shoshone mother Shonda — in Wendover, Nevada — while passing through. He had ropy arms and a vespine waist, and Dusty was conceived on a star-blown night in late May, along the outskirts of town, upon the canvas floor of a dusty tent where the circus was pitched. The next day he was gone.

Shonda, her pretty mother, carried Dusty to term, named her Dusty May and then, because of her poverty, gave her up for adoption.

This is how Dusty came to be raised in foster care.

Her foster father was a man named Kenneth Dvorak, a mighty Christian who, at six-foot-seven, two hundred and seventy pounds, bald as a stone but handsome, commanded the attention of anyone whom he came in contact with. He was a pastor, and a very wealthy one at that. He had a large home in Templeton, Nevada, which home housed seven foster children and four of his own. He was a man of distinction. He spoke well. People argued about his modesty. His voice was rich and round and sonorously soothing. He had a special spot in his heart for Dusty, who was the youngest of all his children, both biological and foster. He admired her silent determination, the unbreakable glint he saw in her infinitely black Lakota eyes. Shortly after Dusty turned thirteen, he began systematically abusing and raping her, though from the time she was a very young child, she’d been periodically molested by any number of her foster siblings, including the twins, who were the oldest, Cora and Corrine.

Still, she remained a spirited girl who kindled and cultivated the glowing force at the core of her being, which she felt no one and no thing could ever damage or touch, because it lay buried so deeply inside her, and because it was all hers, because she had created it.

On a warm autumn day when Dusty was eight-years-old, looking out the window with a pair of binoculars her foster father had given her, she descried a young man walking tightrope-style around the thin cylindrical railing that circumscribed a nearby gymnasium. It was a large building and a long rail. He was walking the entire perimeter of the thing. He was stripped to the waist. He wore faded blue jeans. She’d never seen him before, and she stood at the window, the binoculars glued to her eyes, transfixed. He wasn’t muscular but thin and graceful, not tall, black-haired, swarthy, beautiful. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He didn’t seem to be having any difficulty, yet it was such a long way around and such a thin rail that she expected at any moment he’d lose his balance and fall. But he never did. Banana-colored leaves see-sawed around him. She watched until he was finished.

When, at last, he came to the end, he did something that amazed her even more:

He leapt from the rail to a chainlink fence, some four feet to his right, and for a moment clung spider-like to the fence. Then he glided up to the top and from here, in one motion, vaulted over the fence, a full eight feet onto what she thought was the grassy ground.

Immediately, however, he came bouncing back up, high into the air, and then did a slow and effortless backflip, and kept bouncing. And bouncing. Dusty realized immediately what was happening:

A deep pit had been dug into the earth, a trampoline mat installed over the top of the pit.

Later that day, she asked her foster father if she might be allowed to play on the trampoline, and he said yes.

So it began.

Chapter 3

 

It began the morning after the evening Dusty asked her foster father for permission to play. He had always allowed her to roam, this mountainous man, though unknown to her, she was always watched, by him or by one of his many men, among whom was a fellow named Wes Weekly, a devoted member of Kenneth Dvorak’s congregation and also his close friend. In fact, this very man owned the state-of-the-art gymnastics facility that comprised the trampolines, and he himself, no longer young, was in extraordinary physical condition. He personally coached the children.

Thus, this bright autumn morning, she made her way alone down the leafy lanes that led to his property — so excited that she several times broke into a run.

There were three trampolines behind the fence, and she chose the one farthest away. A large white sign with red stenciled letters said:

PLEASE REMOVE YOUR SHOES

Dusty slipped out of her sneakers and hopped sock-footed onto the trampoline mat. The daytime moon hung half-crumbled in the sky above, and the sky was burnished blue.

She began to jump. Her Indian-black hair lifted and fell. Soon she got her feet underneath her and grew more confident. She bounced higher and higher until, before long, she felt as though she were flying. After a while she half came to believe that the only thing preventing her from making it all the way up to the moon was her will and her will exclusively.

She was at it for some time before she realized she wasn’t alone.

Observing her from grass, some twenty feet away, was the young man she’d watched spellbound through binoculars the day before.

He appeared suddenly, a friendly presence with a crooked smile and large brown eyes that were like blots of melting chocolate. He approached.

She stopped jumping.

He was at least nine years older than her. Immediately her eyes went to the long and wormy scar that ran the entire left side of his face clear down his neck, and he noticed her eyeing the scar.

“Admiring my seam?” he said. He cocked his head so that she might better see the length of it.

“It’s a vacation souvenir I got four years ago, when I dove into a lake that I didn’t know had rebar in it. I almost bled to death.”

He leapt lightly onto the trampoline mat, and she stepped back. “But I’m still standing!” he said.

He bounced once and landed on his knees and then bounced back up onto his feet. He did it again. So relaxed, so natural-looking.

“Now you try it,” he said.

She did it.

He smiled wider. He was one of the snaggle-toothed, the serene.

He told her his name was David. He said that he was the son of Wes Weekly, who owned the trampolines. He told her that he lived in Las Vegas with his mother and stepfather, and that he was here only for a few days, as a visitor. She could feel his kindness: it radiated from him like a force-field. Indeed, it was largely this that gave her the courage to tell him she wanted to learn backflips and front flips, as she had seen him do the day before.

She held his gaze with some effort as she spoke.

He told her to watch closely, then. He said for her to pay attention to exactly what he was doing.

She stood off to the side, on the grass. He jumped. He spoke as he jumped, explaining everything while he did flips, both front and back. He spoke at length.

He told her that backflips are easier than front flips. He said that front flips are more dangerous. “Contrary to popular belief,” he said.

He said that the most important thing to remember about any acrobatic maneuver is, first, you must fully decide and, second, you must fully follow through with that decision.

He said you must not overthink it, and you must not let your nerves get in the way.

He said that anything less than a total commitment to the move can cause injuries.

She listened to his every word, and she watched him with lidless fixity. She thought that he was the most beautiful person she’d ever seen.

He said that, like most things, the first one you do is the most difficult. He said that after the first one, they all get easier.

He did backflip after backflip, slowly, effortlessly, describing to her precisely what he was doing and explaining to her the whole time precisely how he was doing it.

He told her once again that the most important thing for her to remember is to not hesitate after she decided to act. He said you decide and you act.

“And that,” he said, ceasing, “is the whole secret of life.”

He winked.

“Ready to try?”

She nodded.

“Would you like me to spot you?”

She shook her head.

“Okay.”

He stepped off to one side, onto the grass, and with an open palm gestured for her to get on the trampoline.

He told her to do what she’d just watched him do.

She bounced several times, getting her feet back under her. He observed her. He did not say another word. He could see her thinking. He could feel her deciding. In an instant, then, as sudden as a bone-snap, she somersaulted backward and landed, a little overcorrected but safely, upon her feet. It took her two seconds before she realized that she had done it. It surprised her how easy it was.

He applauded.

She stood for a long moment, motionless and winded not so much from exertion as from the pure surge of adrenaline which came sloshing through her veins like nitroglycerin: the sense of limitless potential contained within her body and brain, the sudden knowledge of that, combined with the realization that she and she alone had done this thing, the touch of fear mixed with courage — it all converged in this moment and satisfied a secret hunger deep within her, something profound and poignant which she didn’t know existed until right now, something unbearably private. She felt as though she’d been blasted out of rocket-launcher.

“I think you’ve got the stuff,” he said.

Chapter 4

 

The town of Templeton lay in a river valley along the east-central edge of Nevada, about fifty miles west of the Utah border, a lorn but lovely sector of the state that even most Nevadans knew nothing of. The landscape itself, with its cirque-like bluffs and rarified air, exuded a pristine sparseness and sense of isolation, which Dusty May in her child’s mind always likened to Andean crags and the strange Patagonian lands she’d read stories about.

The Crystal River coursed down from the flinty hills ten miles to the east and flowed sinuously through the center of the village. The whole area was a hotbed of geothermal activity, webbed with a network of subsurface springs which bubbled up here and there all throughout the region. Long ago these springs had been harnessed and cultivated in many places around Templeton — which is why Wes Weekly’s gymnasium contained eight circular tubs of graded temperature and an eye-popping olympic-sized pool that was kept hyper-clean and cool for lap swimming.

Alone now and buoyant in the hottest of the hot tubs, Dusty May couldn’t stop thinking about the trampoline, the backflips, the black-haired boy. Undreamed of vistas suddenly yawned open before her. She felt now that anything was possible, and this feeling gave her a euphoric rush the likes of which she’d never experienced. She could not repress her smile, her gap-tooth grin. Her thin brown legs undulated below her in the rippled water. Her big eyes utterly black yet bright with life. She stared at her legs and thought of the bones and blood and muscles they contained. Her Indian-black hair hung damp and beaded. The water was so hot that she felt as though she were being boiled alive slowly. She stood it for as long as she could and then emerged steaming and dove headlong into the icy swimming pool, her powerful little heart hammering.

***

The next four years, every day virtually without exception, she practiced the slippery art of gymnastic balance: she burned through boxes of athletic tape, tube after tube of gooey salve, conical blocks of hand-chalk.

In the early morning, she swam laps in Wes Weekly’s olympic-sized pool.

In the evening, she tumbled and swung and negotiated the balance beam.

The swimming was her idea.

She practiced indefatigably. She practiced and she learned. Among other things, she learned greater discipline and discovered, in a manner that struck her rather like the dawning of a revelation, that the better she got, the greater her desire grew: her desire for skill. In this way, her passion for the thing was incremental and willed — and, the moment she explicitly grasped this, her entire view of human existence was recast and restructured in her mind.

Thus, over the course of six years, she grew increasingly certain that in every significant area, her destiny was under her own control.

This newly developed knowledge armed her in a subtle but insurmountable way.


Part 2




 

 

Chapter 5

 

One dark December day, when Dusty May was eleven-years-old, a strong-looking Latin man, perhaps thirty-five, who was part of a roving carnival and who was supervising one of the games Dusty was playing and winning, asked her in rapid Spanish, and with a wink and lewd look, 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.

In a phenomenal blur of speed and strength, without any hesitation or compunction whatsoever, he swatted the man with an iron-like right fist directly on the man’s ear, and then again with a left — swatted him violently, smashing the man’s jaw to smithereens, so that before the man toppled down onto the straw-carpeted ground, he drooled out a huge mouthful of blood and teeth.

In virtually the same motion, Kenneth Dvorak then 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 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 importance 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 movement, not race or racial ancestry or sex or gender, and that 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 young girl 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 into a mysterious 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 bulk tilted the mattress hugely 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,” she said.

“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 away 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 huge 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 noticing: 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.
 
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 is not real, I must be dreaming.

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

 

Chapter 12

 

She hurried on and 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 humans, 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?– her?ears and nose and mouth and her lower parts as well. 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 little humans 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 devised something mysterious and phenomenal in his lab of making.

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

The little beings poured thickly inside her even as he spoke inside her mind , these minute creatures of his own making, through her external flesh, and when, at last, they were all inside of 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, demolishing 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. 

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 they dropped shut again.

By means of her brain and her brain alone was she able to fight this army of tiny humans 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 velvet 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 deeply 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 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 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 certain 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 kind 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 moan. 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 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 so purely peaceful out here.”

“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, 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?”

“Correct. 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.

“It used to be that you’d have to have all the required licensing and spend a lot of money each year for access to private databases,” Hogan said, “but that’s no longer the case: anyone with an internet connection these days can find virtually anything out there. Data just flies through space, and it’s not even hard to catch. Often, you have to try harder to not find it. It is a?brave new world we live in.”

The young man didn’t reply.

Outside, the darkness was nearly accomplished, and their reflected figures upon Hogan’s windowpane 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, isn’t it?” 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 established 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.”

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?”

“An 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 life, which is not just physical but psychological. The bad is that which frustrates this.”

“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 believe: the more extreme a person’s desires and values, the more those desires and values become the person’s essence.”

“Make that clearer.”

“One cannot easily think of arsonists or exhibitionists or murderers or whathaveyou as fundamentally anything but. Jeffrey Dahmer, the Son of Sam, Lynette Fromme — whoever — no matter what else they did and do and loved, are essentially defined by their extreme desires, which they developed and then acted upon. In this way, the extreme nature of their values becomes their core essence, I now believe, as they become the essence of each person who holds to such extreme things. You will never think of them as much more than this, and for a specific reason.”

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.”

“I’ll pay you for your time, of course.”

“There is no need for that. Only if you hire me.”

The young man nodded.

 

Chapter 17

 

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

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

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.

Outside, a huge humpbacked moon crept up over the eastern horizon and glowed rust-colored and brooding over 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 — knew and admired him.

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

“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 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 Hogan’s voice and face, for the first time in this conversation, 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 that importance of organic matter — in the true sense.”

“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. So 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. 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 was ‘merely a tiny part of a much larger organic whole.’ Unquote.” Hogan paused. “But to tell the 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 Kennth’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 into a star-sprent sky.

“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. Psychopaths don’t really care. He does. He genuinely mourns the loss of loved ones. One thing, though, is for certain.”

“What is that?”

“A person’s behavior, good or bad, bleeds through into any 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 all 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 below her 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 lightly through the open window. She scaled down the cold wet metal ladder of the fire escape — down, down, down — and then dropped to the silent 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 decided 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 shot back up, finally opening into a sunlit valley of fiery green grass and radiant fields of promise.

One hour later, the city still smothered 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 light 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 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 looked like an insect scaling the naked verticalities. Between her feet, she could see him below her. He moved with less certainty than she did. But unlike her he was totally unencumbered — no jacket, no backpack — and 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 up, 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, negating 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’s stomach surged. 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, almost radioactive-looking, a strange cabbage-green. The last stars gleamed like snake eyes among the greenish heavens. Cars were beginning to crawl along the highways far below. It was very early. She stood atop the metal platform, completely exposed. She held onto the rail and looked down. The baseball diamond looked toy-like and pristine. 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 open sky. 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 never 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 it 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 went 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.

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:

Wes 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 fear. 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.

Then, seconds later, something, perhaps another moan of hatred, made her look back. What she saw shook her and astounded beyond measure.

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

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


(to be continued …)

[Gap-Toothed Girl: Part 1]

2 Comments

  • Alejandro

    July 13, 2018

    Just in time for the weekend – thank you Mr. Harvey. Weekend coffee is best enjoyed with an engaged mind.

  • Ray

    July 14, 2018

    It is always good to see you, my friend.

    May I recommend reading Part 2 here on The Journal Pulp?

    I’ve been having some formatting issues with this website.

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