I think I love him just the same. It sure feels like love or what I think love should feel like. You’d probably say it happened too fast to be love, though they do say there’s such a thing as love at first sight, so that’s my answer to the too-fast criticism. Well, I do have to admit it’s not the way he looks that knocked me flat. I think we could all agree Harry’s no Justin Bieber. Of course he’s not really Harry Potter, but it’s what I have, so that’s got to be his name for a while. Harry is adorable enough, he’s cute, but lots of guys are cute, I guess, you see herds of them on TV. Why I love him is, I don’t know, because he seems very brave and kind and sweet. All that stuff but something else, too. I don’t know what something else, but he’s different somehow, and what I’m trying to say is it’s a good kind of difference, whatever it is.
There go the lights again, fluttering, and that whummm-whummm sound. Old Orc doesn’t react this time. Orc doesn’t always do his thing when the sound comes. Mostly, he just lies there being dead. I don’t know why I like sitting with Orc. I’ve always felt safe with him. Maybe it’s because he’s dead and all, but I don’t think that’s the whole reason. He’s so big and ugly you’d think nothing could ever kill him, but something sure enough did. So if something can kill old Orc, something can kill anything, even Dr. Norris Hiskott, so maybe that’s why I really like sitting with Orc. I’m not a child—or at least I’m not a naive child who thinks whatever killed Orc will come along and offer to kill Hiskott for me. Nothing could ever be that easy. Hiskott says dying is easy and we should never forget how easy it is. But dying is never easy, and what he means is that killing is easy, at least for him.
The thing about me loving Harry is I’m twelve and he’s maybe thirty or thirty-five, whatever, so he’ll have to wait like six years for me to grow up. I mean if he kills Hiskott and sets us free, he’ll have to wait. He’ll never do that. As kind and sweet and brave as he is, he probably has a girl already and a hundred others chasing after him. So what I’ll have to do is I’ll have to always love him from afar. Unrequited love. That’s what they generally call it. I’ll love him forever in a deeply, deeply sad kind of way, which maybe you think sounds pretty depressing, but it isn’t. Being obsessed about a deeply sad unrequited love can take your mind off worse things, of which there are thousands, and sometimes it’s better to dwell endlessly on what you can’t have (which is Harry) than on what might happen to you at any moment in Harmony Corner (which is anything).
The whummm-whummm has stopped and the lights haven’t gone out this time, and Orc just lies there, and Harry hasn’t been gone long, though it feels like a decade since I last saw him. When you’re in love, I guess time gets all distorted. And not only when you’re in love. When my aunt Lois tried to kill herself and all, she said it was because she felt like she’d been trapped in the Corner for a hundred years, but that was two years ago, so it wasn’t a hundred, it was only three. Uncle Greg caught her before she did it, and the way he cried and cried, Aunt Lois realized what she almost did was pretty selfish, and she’s never tried it again. Mom says what keeps her from trying what Aunt Lois tried is me, the way I handle all this for a girl so young. Mom’s been saying that same thing for years, which is why I know I have to be tough and handle it without going nuts or bawling my eyes out. The thing is, if you get what I mean, by staying hopeful and not moping around in a black depression, I’m keeping both of us alive until something happens. And something will, something good, and maybe that’s Harry, who’s now been gone for like twenty years.
I get up from the floor, figuring I should pace the corridor back and forth until I wear the edge off my nerves or just collapse unconscious from exhaustion, so I don’t have to worry about Harry, and just then something pretty interesting happens. The fourth door, the one I was never able to pry open, now opens with a whoosh. On the other side there’s just darkness, which at first seems a little threatening, as you might imagine. I’m like, should I run or not, but there’s nowhere to run except back to the Corner, where Hiskott can find me as easy as a bird can find a worm, not that I mean he’s a bird and I’m a worm. He’s the worm.
Anyway, nothing comes out of the darkness over there, and after a minute or so, I don’t feel so threatened anymore. Walking toward the open doors, I say hello, but no one answers me. So I say that my name is Jolie Ann Harmony, as if maybe someone’s in the darkness but won’t speak to a stranger, which is pretty dumb when you think about it. But after five years as a prisoner of Hiskott, nobody should expect my social skills to be super-great or anything.
I’m standing right on the threshold, and still I can’t see ten inches into the room beyond, it’s so black in there. I have my little flashlight, so I can explore if I want, and let’s face it, there’s nothing else to do here except go crazy, which I can’t do on account of my mom. Anyway, crazy isn’t me.
I return to Orc to fetch a moving blanket, which I roll tight. At the doorway again, I lay the blanket roll across the threshold so that the doors can’t close behind me and I can get back from wherever I’m going.
Just then, far out there in the dark, a yellow light comes on. I wait, but it isn’t getting closer, it’s a fixed lamp somewhere, and maybe someone turned it on to let me know where I need to go and all, because they know I don’t have a clue, which I don’t mean as a put-down of myself, it’s just the truth in this particular case.
When I cross the threshold, the floor in this new place is like hard rubber, you almost bounce along it. When I say my name again just to see if maybe we can’t start some conversation after all, my voice sounds as though I’ve got a flannel sack over my head and am talking from the bottom of a dry stone well, though I don’t know why I’d ever be in such a situation unless some maniac serial killer stashed me down there for some unspeakable reason.
Also when I talk, the walls throb with blue light, so that I can see the room is maybe forty feet on a side. Those throbbing blue walls are covered with hundreds of cones sort of like what I saw once in a TV series where this guy was a talk-show host working in a sound booth in a radio station or somewhere. It’s like the big cones are soaking up my voice but at the same time turning the sound of it into blue light, which didn’t happen in the TV show. The faster and more I talk, the brighter the light becomes, sort of pulsing in time with my words.
If you want my opinion, it’s a weird room, but it doesn’t feel like a dangerous place. It’s even kind of peaceful, though it does make you feel half deaf and makes your skin look blue like the freaky people on the planet in that movie Avatar. I mean, it’s not the kind of room where you think maybe you’ll find dead na*ed people hanging on chains from the ceiling. Anyway, there’s plenty of blue light as long as I keep talking, so I start reciting a couple of Shel Silverstein poems I’ve memorized, and I verse myself all the way across the room to a big round opening you could drive a Mack truck through if you knew how to drive, which I don’t. I can see through it to the yellow light that first drew me in here, if you remember, and it’s still as far away as it ever was, as if it must be moving from me as fast as I head toward it.
When I try to go through this big round door, it turns out to be more of a window but not glass. It’s cold and clear and kind of gummy, and when I try to step back from it, I can’t. I’m not stuck in the stuff exactly, but it holds me, and then it seems to fold around me, which you can imagine sort of freaks me out, as if the stuff is going to seal me up in a clear cocoon and suffocate me. But then it turns out to be a door after all, and after it folds around me, the stuff unfolds, and I’m on the other side. I don’t know, that doesn’t quite explain how it feels. Maybe it’s more like the clear stuff that fills the doorway is some giant amoeba that sucks you in from one room and spits you out into the next, except it isn’t that, either.
Anyway, in the next room are six dead people all in those bulky white hazmat suits like you see on TV news when there’s been a toxic-chemical spill or clouds of acid vapor or something else that always reminds you why you shouldn’t watch the news. I pick them out one by one with my flashlight. Maybe these aren’t exactly hazmat suits but more airtight, like space suits, because the helmets aren’t like hazmat hoods, they actually lock into this rubber seal thing on the neck of the suit. They’ve all got tanks of air on their backs, like scuba divers. If you really need to know, through the faceplates on their helmets, I can see what’s left of their faces, which isn’t much, and they’ve been dead a long time. The room with the cones on the walls was weird but okay. This room isn’t okay. It’s trouble, and I’m all over covered with gooseflesh, and then someone says, “Jolie Ann Harmony.”
As the eighteen-wheeler turns onto the county road, I weave off the shoulder and onto the blacktop, trying not to look inebriated, trying instead to appear suddenly afflicted, as with a seizure or a stroke. Most people don’t have sympathy for sloppy drunks who might vomit on them, but they’re likely to rush to the aid of a clean-cut young fellow who seems to have been suddenly dealt a cruel blow by fate. Unfortunately, I am about to contribute to one good Samaritan’s transformation into a cynic.
I make no claim to being an actor. Therefore, as I stagger into the middle of the road, I hold in my mind’s eye the image of Johnny Depp playing Jack Sparrow on the way to the gallows, toning down the flamboyance but not too much. I collapse onto my left side, half in one lane and half in the other, my eyes squinched shut and my face contorted in agony, with the hope that the truck driver doesn’t turn out to be the sloppy drunk that I am striving not to appear to be.
As the air brakes hiss, I’m relieved that I won’t have my head crushed by a massive long-haul tire. The door opens, and there’s a clank that might be a cleated boot landing on the cab step. As he hurries to me, the driver makes a jingling sound. I assume he’s not Santa Claus, that what I’m hearing is a cluster of keys chained to his belt and a lot of coins in his pockets.
When he kneels before me, he does appear to be Saint Nick, though barbered for a summer vacation: his luxuriant holiday mustache and beard still white but considerably trimmed down, his flowing locks cut back. His eyes still twinkle, however, and his dimples are merry, his cheeks like roses, his nose like a cherry. His belly doesn’t shake like a bowl full of jelly, but he would be well advised to forego a truck-stop cheeseburger now and then in favor of a salad.
“Son,” he says, “what’s wrong, what’s happened?”
Before responding, I wince, not with pain and not because I’m getting better at this acting business. There’s such genuine concern in his face and voice, and he puts one hand on my shoulder with such tenderness, that I have no doubt I’ve chosen to hijack the truck of a nice man. I’d feel better about this if the driver were a snake-eyed, stubbled, scar-faced, cruel-mouthed, sneering lout in a T-shirt that said SCREW YOU, with swastikas tattooed on his arms. But I can’t keep lurching into the road and collapsing in front of eighteen-wheelers all morning until I find my ideal victim.
I pretend to have trouble speaking, sputtering out a series of muffled syllables that almost seem to mean something, as if my tongue is half again as thick as it ought to be. This has the desired effect of causing him to lean in closer and to ask me to repeat what I’ve just said, whereupon I draw the pistol from beneath my sweatshirt, poke the barrel into his gut, and snarl in my best tough-guy voice, “You don’t have to die here, that’s up to you,” though to my ear I sound about as tough as Mickey Mouse.
Happily, he’s a sucker for bad acting and not a savvy judge of character. His eyes widen, and all the twinkle in them goes as flat as a glass of 7UP left exposed to the air for a day. His dimples don’t look so merry anymore; they appear to be puckered scars. Once like a bow, his mouth sort of unties itself a little, trembling, as he says, “I’ve got a family.”
Before traffic comes along, I’ve got to get this done. We rise warily to our feet as I continue to press the gun into his belly.
“You want to see your kids again,” I warn him, “come along quiet like to the driver’s door.”
He accompanies me without resistance, putting his hands up until I order him to put them down and act natural, but he isn’t quiet and in fact he babbles. “I don’t have children, wish I did, love kids, it just never was meant to be.”
“But you want to see your wife again, so be cool.”
“Veronica died five years ago.”
“My wife. Cancer. I miss her a lot.”
I’m stealing the truck of a childless widower.
As we arrive at the driver’s door, I remind him that he said he had a family.
“My mom and dad live with me, and my sister Berniece, she never married, and my nephew Timmy, he’s eleven, his folks died in a car wreck two years ago. You shoot me, I’m their sole support, it would be awful, please don’t do that to them.”
I’m stealing the truck of a childless widower who’s devoted to his aging parents, supports a spinster sister, and takes in orphans.
Standing at the open door, I inquire: “You have insurance?”
“A good life policy. Now I see it’s not big enough.”
“I meant truck insurance.”
“Oh, sure, the rig is covered.”
“You an owner-operator?”
“Used to be. Now I’m a company driver for the benefits.”
“That makes me feel better, sir. Unless they’ll fire you.”
“They won’t. Company policy on hijack is let it go, don’t fight back, life comes first.”
“Sounds like a good employer.”
“They’re nice folks.”
“You been hijacked before, sir?”
“This is my first—and I hope last.”
“I hope it’s my last, too.”
A cluster of cars and trucks races by on the coast highway at the top of the slope, and their slipstreams spiral into vortexes that spin down the embankment, causing the tall pale-gold grass to flail like the hair of wildly dancing women. No vehicle appears at the top of the exit ramp.
“Hijackers come in teams,” my victim says. “You being alone sort of disarmed me.”
“I apologize for the deception, sir. Now walk north a couple miles. If you flag down any traffic, then I’ll kill you and them.”