Jolie raises her head, and her eyes are the green of lotus leaves. She stops plucking at her denim jacket. Like doves floating to a roost, her hands settle on her knees. The tic is gone from the corner of her left eye. Speaking of her aunt’s and uncle’s suffering distresses and agitates her. I think this subject distresses and agitates her, too, and perhaps even to a greater degree. But to speak of it at all, she needs to impose upon herself, with a kind of yogic application of willpower, a serenity that allows her to comment from the clear upper air that lies above all storm and shadow.
She says, “You know what a sensorium is?”
“Like the sensory apparatus of the body. All the sensory organs, nerves. Through me—through us—he’s able to have the world that he can’t be seen in anymore. Not just the sights and sounds and tastes but all of that from lots of different perspectives, from all of our perspectives instead of just one. And what he’s unable to experience there in his shell, in his gross body that no eye would want to look upon or hand would want to touch, he can feel by living in us, by feeling what we feel, sharing our sensations, requiring us to provide whatever experience he wants most at any moment. There’s no privacy in the Corner. There’s no place in your heart where you can be alone to feel sorry for yourself, to heal from the latest thing he did to you. He crawls in there with you. He drinks your sorrow and mocks your hope of healing.”
I am badly shaken.
Chronologically she is twelve, but emotionally she is older, and intellectually older still.
Compared to her deep strength, I am weak. I am a fumbling fry cook trying to do the best he can with his strange sixth sense, but she is Joan of Arc, fighting against impossible odds, not for her country but for her soul—while Hiskott, in the reach of his power and considering his cruelty, is a more formidable enemy than even the army of England. Jolie, who began this war with the inadequate arms and defenses of a seven-year-old child, has triumphed merely by enduring, has raised the siege of Orléans every day for five long years, and it seems to me that I am in the presence of one who might be a saint in the making.
Now I fully understand why she has no fear of Orc. Or perhaps of anything.
At the end of the hallway, head cocked and curious, Boo stands before the sealed pair of stainless-steel doors.
Jolie says, “This time, with you here, if Hiskott tries to possess me while I’m beyond his reach, and he can’t find me … well, then he’ll kill me as soon as I reappear.”
“So you’ll stay here until I can take him down.”
“I can’t stay here forever and ever,” she says.
“And I don’t have forever. Today. It’s got to be done today—and sooner than later.”
She has restrained her curiosity until now. “Why can’t he get into your mind and possess you?”
“I don’t know, Jolie. But I always have been hard-headed.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Maybe I just don’t have much of a mind for him to get his tentacles around.”
“Or that. He says he can’t access the woman with you, either.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Who is she?”
Getting to my feet, I say, “Now that is the million-dollar question.”
“You don’t know who she is?”
“I just met her yesterday. I know her first name. That’s a start. In a year or two, I’ll know her last name, if she has a last name, which she says she doesn’t.”
Rising to her feet, Jolie says, “Are you always a little silly?”
“I’m usually a lot silly.”
“It’ll get you killed in the Corner.”
“Maybe not. So far, being at least a little silly has kept me alive.”
“He’ll have them all searching for you, anyone who doesn’t have to be up at the diner or the service station. You can’t go anywhere in the Corner without being seen.”
“Well, I’m just an ordinary, everyday, nothing-special fry cook. People tend to look right through guys like me.”
She stares at me solemnly for a beat, but then she proves to be still capable of a small smile.
I would give just about anything to hear Jolie laugh one day. I don’t think she’s laughed in a long time.
At the end of the hallway, my ghost dog walks through the steel doors.
Before I leave the fearless girl with Orc the inhuman mummy in the subterranean passageway between the possessed land of Harmony and the unknown government-sponsored atrocities of Wyvern (which makes this already as unusual a sentence as any I’ve ever written in these memoirs), she tells me one more important thing that I should know before I try to beard the lion in his den.
And speaking of peculiar language, why do we say beard the lion instead of confront the lion? The image it brings to mind is of me crawling recklessly into a cave to use spirit gum to attach a fake beard to a sleeping feline of daunting size. Because no lion is ever going to be induced to play Abraham Lincoln in a stage play, there would seem to be no reason to glue a beard on a lion other than to poke fun at it and laugh at its humiliation as the other lions mock it mercilessly. I’m sure that Ozzie Boone knows the origin of that expression, and no doubt our finest universities are crawling with intellectuals who have spent their entire academic careers writing papers about bearding lions—not to mention thick, learned volumes about the derivation of such sayings as belling the cat and spanking the monkey—but from time to time I am saddened to think that I will almost certainly not live long enough or have sufficient leisure to research such peculiarities of language myself, which I might enjoy doing.
Anyway, the one additional thing of importance that Jolie has to tell me before I leave her is this: Although Hiskott is secretive and self-contained, he doesn’t live alone in the big house on the hill. Over the years, he has read the memories—and sometimes taken temporary control—of guests who stay in the motor-court cottages, and on three occasions, he has asserted permanent dominion over them and has taken them into his house, whereafter they are never seen again. In every case, these seem to be individuals who are pretty much loners, without families who might miss them. After stripping the plates off those people’s cars, Donny parks them in the deep shade of a grove of oaks, halfway down the hills between the motor court and the family’s houses, where they are cannibalized for parts as the service station needs them and are allowed otherwise to fall into ruin. Food and anything else Hiskott demands is brought to him by the family, but no one has cleaned for him in over three years; therefore none of the Harmonys has seen the inside of the house since the first of those three luckless souls walked zombie-like through the front door.
“So it seems they do the cleaning,” Jolie says. “But we’re pretty sure they aren’t just used like we are. He’s got some other purpose for them, which is why he never lets us see them.”
“Maybe he uses them as his Praetorian Guard, his ultimate protectors, in case one of your family should ever slip the leash and try to kill him.”
“Like bodyguards.” Clearly she long ago came to this conclusion and has given it considerable thought without finding it a fully satisfactory explanation. “But why wouldn’t he be just as worried that one of them might slip the leash?”
So many things in my continuing education are learned by going where I have to go and doing what I have to do. Therefore, my only answer is: “I guess I’ll find out.”
Jolie surprises me by throwing her arms around me and pressing one ear against my chest, as though listening to my heart to judge the strength, steadiness, and truth of it. She is more than a foot shorter than I am, so slight for such a strong girl.
I return the hug, suddenly certain that I will fail her, though since childhood I have expected myself to fail much more often than I actually do.
“I’ve waited five years for you,” she says. “I knew you’d come one day. I always knew.”
Perhaps to her I’m a knight in shining armor who cannot fail to win the day. I know that I am less capable and less noble than the knights of folklore and fairy tales. My only armor is my belief that life has meaning and that, when my last sun has set and my last moon has risen, when the dawn comes that marks the moment when I am born with the dead, there will be mercy. If thinking me a knight nourishes her hope, however, I might count myself a success for having done this if nothing more.
When we step back from each other, she has no tears to wipe away, because she is beyond easy sentimentality and too tough to cry for herself. Her eyes are lotus-leaf green, but she is no lotus-eater; she has survived not by forgetting but by remembering. I see in her a diligent accountant who records the puppetmaster’s every offense in a mental ledger. When the day comes to settle accounts, she will know what his payment must be. Although she is young and small, she will do whatever she can to help her family wring from him the full and terrible balance that he owed.
“I’ll do my best to get him,” I promise. “But my best might not be good enough.”
“Whatever,” she says. “You won’t just run and save yourself. I know you won’t. You run toward things, not away from them. I don’t know who you are, except you’re not Harry Potter. There’s something about you, I don’t know what it is, but it’s something, and it’s good.”
Only a worse fool than I would reply to that, for any response would diminish either her or me, or both of us. Such genuine trust, so sweetly expressed, bears witness to an innocence in the human heart that endures even in this broken world and that longs to ring the bell backward and undo the days of history until all such trust would be justified in a world started anew and as it always should have been.
“Jolie, I’ll need a flashlight to find my way out. But I don’t want to leave you here without one, in case these lights go off again and stay off.”
“I’ve got two.” She fishes the second mini flashlight from a pocket of her denim jacket and presents it to me.
“The big pipe that we followed up through the hills and out of the Corner—do other tributary drains feed it?”
“Yeah. Five. When you’re going back—three to your left, two on your right. You can’t walk upright in any of them. You have to stoop. Sometimes you have to crawl.”
“Tell me where they go.”
“Nowhere. At the end of each, it’s been sealed off. I don’t know why or when. But storm water hasn’t been flowing through those drains in a long time, maybe ever since the people at Fort Wyvern connected their escape hatch to the system—if it is an escape hatch.”
“So I can’t go anywhere except back to the beach.”
“No. But I don’t think they’ll be waiting there for you. See … well, there’s something else. But if I tell you, I don’t want it to be another weight on your mind. You’ve got enough to worry about.”
“Tell me anyway. I love to worry. I’m aces at it.”
She hesitates. From a hip pocket of her jeans, she extracts a slim wallet, flips it open, and shows me a photograph of a handsome boy of about eight.
“Is that Maxy?”
“Yeah. Hiskott said Maxy had to die ’cause he was too beautiful. He really was a cute little boy. So we’re supposed to think it was envy because Hiskott has changed into something super-ugly. But I don’t think that’s why he killed Maxy.”
Even as tough as she has become, Jolie is silenced by grief. A tremor of the mouth tests her composure, but she presses her lips together. She folds the lost boy away and returns him to her pocket.
“Lately,” she continues, “he’s been taunting all of us, using my family to tell me I’m beautiful, more beautiful than Maxy. He’s trying to terrify me and torment all the others with the thought that he’ll use them to beat me and rip me apart the way he used them to kill Maxy. But it’s a lie.”
“What’s a lie?”
“I’m not beautiful.”
“But Jolie … you really are.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t see it. I don’t believe it. I know it’s a lie. I can’t be beautiful. Not after what I did.”
“What do you mean?”
With one foot, she pushes a folded moving blanket close to Orc. She kneels on it, staring down into the creature’s shriveled face.
When she speaks, her voice is controlled, allowing no sharp emotions that might be suitable to her words, colored only by a quiet melancholy. “It starts, and it’s horrible. I’m screaming at them to stop, pleading. One after another of them going at Maxy—my family, his family. And they were trying to restrain each other. They were trying. But Hiskott moves so fast, from this one to that one, you never know where he’s going next. Such violent kicking, punching, gouging. Maxy’s blood … on everyone. I can’t stop them, Maxy’s almost dead, and I’ve got to run away, I can’t bear to see the end of it.”
With no evident distaste, with a deliberate tenderness, Jolie lifts the hand with which the briefly animated, mummified cadaver had tapped the floor.
Examining the wickedly long fingers, she says, “I start to run but then I’m standing over Maxy, and I don’t know where I got the knife that’s in my hand. Big knife. He’s not quite dead. Bewildered, half conscious. He’s just eight. I’m nine. He recognizes me. His eyes clear for a moment. I stab him once and then again. And again. And that’s the end of him.”
Her silence has such substance that for a moment I’m not able to force words into it. But then: “It wasn’t you, Jolie.”
“In a way, it was.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“In a way,” she insists.
“He was controlling you.”
In that awful voice of tightly tethered sorrow, in words too mature for her age, she says, “But I saw it. Lived it. I felt flesh and bone resist the knife. I saw him seeing me when the life went out of his eyes.”
My sense is that if I drop to my knees beside her and try to comfort her, she will not allow herself to be hugged as before. She will thrash away from me, and the bond between us will be damaged. This is her grief, to which she clings in honor of her murdered cousin, and this is her guilt that, although unearned, is perhaps proof to her that in spite of what she was made to do, she is still human. I know a great deal about grief and guilt, but while this is like unto my grief and guilt, it is not mine, and I have no right to tell her what she should feel.