A Dirty Job Chapter 17
WAS IT GOOD FOR YOU?
The next morning, Jane’s girlfriend Cassie heard someone in the hall and opened the door. Charlie stood there, covered in blood, black goo, and smelling of sandalwood and almond oil; he had a cut over his ear, blood crusted in his nose, the front of his pants were in shreds, and there were tiny black feathers stuck to him everywhere.
“Why, Charlie,” she said, somewhat surprised, “it appears that I underestimated you.
or any similar topic only for you
When you decide to get your freak on, you do not mess around.”
“Shower,” Charlie said.
“Daddy!” Sophie called from her bedroom. She came running out with arms thrown wide, followed by two giant dogs and a lesbian aunt in Brooks Brothers. Halfway across the living room she saw her father, turned, and went squealing out of the room in terror.
Jane pulled up by the couch and stared. “Jesus, Chuck, what’d you do, try to fuck a leopard?”
“Something like that,” Charlie said. He stumbled by her and went through his bedroom to the master bath.
Jane looked at Cassandra, who was trying to keep her smile from breaking into laughter. “You wanted him to get out more.”
“You tell him about Mom?” Jane said.
“Thought that news should come from you,” said Cassandra.
Well, guns suck, I can tell you that,” said Babd, the most recent of the three death divas to make an appearance Above. “Sure, they look great from down here, but up close – noisy, impersonal – give me a battle-ax or a cudgel any day.”
“I like to cudgel,” said Macha, who had her claws up inside Madison McKerny’s severed head and was working the mouth like a hand puppet.
“It’s your own fault,” scolded Nemain. She had one of Madison McKerny’s silicone implants – bits of fuck-puppet gore still clinging to it – and was pressing it to Babd’s wounds to heal them. Even as the black flesh regenerated, the red glow in the implant dimmed. “We’re wasting the power in these. And after waiting years to get another soul?”
Babd sighed. “I suppose in retrospect the hand job wasn’t such a great idea.”
“I suppose the hand job wasn’t such a great idea,” mocked Macha’s hand puppet.
“I did that on the battlefields of the North, what, ten thousand times?” said Babd. “A final wank for the dying warrior – just seemed like the least I could do. I’m especially good at it, you know. It takes a powerful touch to keep a soldier hard when his guts are running between his fingers.”
“She is good at it,” said Orcus. “I’ll vouch for that.” He leaned back on his throne to display three feet of black, bull death-wood to show his enthusiasm.
“Not now, I just did my lipstick,” puppeted Macha with the head, making its eyes bug out with her claws so it appeared that the dead girl was impressed by Orcus’s prodigious unit.
They all snickered. She’d had Orcus and her Morrigan sisters giggling all morning with her puppet show, putting the implants on a shelf and working the head above them. “Of course they’re real, he really paid for them, didn’t he?”
They’d been giddy since pulling the soul vessels out of the fuck puppet’s grave, that victory even overshadowing Babd’s failure to kill the Death Merchant. But as the light ebbed out of the implants, their mood darkened. Nemain threw the useless implant against the bulkhead of the ship and it exploded and spattered the room with clear goo.
“What a waste,” she growled. “We will take the Above, and I will eat his liver while he watches.”
“What is it with you and eating livers?” Babd said. “I hate liver.”
“Patience, Princesses,” said Orcus as he weighed the remaining implant in his talon. “We were a thousand years coming to this place, for this battle, a few more to gather our force will but make the victory sweeter.” He snatched the head away from Macha and took a bite out of it as if it were a crisp, ripe plum. “You really could have passed on the hand job, though,” he said, spraying bits of brain at Babd.
I’ve got us on a flight to Phoenix at two,” Jane said. “We connect there to a commuter and we’re in Sedona by suppertime.”
Charlie had just come out of the shower and wore only a pair of fresh jeans. He was drying his hair with a beige towel, leaving red streaks on it from his still-bleeding scalp. He sat down on the bed.
“Wait, wait, wait. How long has she known?”
“They diagnosed her six months ago. It had already spread from her colon to her other organs.”
“And she waited until now to tell us.”
“She didn’t tell us. A guy named Buddy called. Evidently they’ve been living together. He said she didn’t want us to worry. He broke down on the phone.”
“Mom’s living with a guy?” Charlie was staring at the red stripes on the towel. He’d been up all night, trying to explain to Inspector Rivera what had happened in the alley, without actually telling him anything. He was bleeding, battered, exhausted, and his mother was dying. “I can’t believe her. She flipped when Rachel moved in before we were married.”
“Yeah, well, you can yell at her for being a hypocrite when you see her tonight.”
“I can’t go, Jane. I have the store, and Sophie – she’s too little for something like this.”
“I called Ray and Lily, they’ve got the shop covered. Cassandra will watch Sophie overnight and the Communist-bloc ladies can watch her until Cassie gets home from work.”
“Cassie’s not coming with you?”
“Charlie, Mom still refers to me as her tomboy.”
“Oh yeah, sorry.” Charlie sighed. He was nostalgic for the days when Jane was the freak in the family and he was the normal one. “You going to try to reconcile that with her?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really have a plan. I don’t even know if she’s lucid. I’ve been on autopilot since I heard. I was waiting for you to get home so I could fall apart.”
Charlie stood up, went to his sister, and put his arms around her. “You did great. I’m back, I got it from here. What do you need?”
She hugged him back, then pushed back with tears in her eyes. “I need to go home and pack. I’ll come by at noon with a cab to get you, okay?”
“I’ll be ready.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe Mom is living with a guy.”
“A guy named Buddy,” Jane said.
“The slut,” Charlie said.
Jane laughed, which is all that Charlie wanted right then.
Lois Asher was sleeping when Charlie and Jane arrived at her home in Sedona. A potbellied sunburned man wearing Bermuda shorts and a safari shirt let them in: Buddy. He sat at the kitchen table with Charlie and Jane, and professed his love for their mother, told them about his own life as an aircraft mechanic in Illinois before he retired, then recited a play-by-play of what they had done since Lois had been diagnosed. She’d gone through three courses of chemotherapy, then, sick and hairless, she had given in. Charlie and Jane looked at each other, feeling guilty that they hadn’t been there to help.
“She didn’t want to bother you two,” Buddy said. “She’s been acting like dying was something she could do in her spare time, between hair appointments.”
Charlie snapped to attention. That was the kind of thing he’d thought to himself several times when he was retrieving a soul vessel and had seen people who were so far in denial about what was happening to them that they were still buying five-year calendars.
“Women, what are you gonna do with ’em,” Buddy said, winking at Jane.
Charlie suddenly felt a great wave of affection for this sunburned little bald guy who his mother was shacked up with.
“We want to thank you for being here for her, Buddy.”
“Yeah.” Jane nodded, still looking a little dazed.
“Well, I’m here for the whole shebang, and then some, if you need me.”
“Thanks,” Charlie said. “We will.” And they would, because it was immediately evident to Charlie that Buddy was going to hang on himself only as long as he felt he was needed.
“Buddy,” said a soft female voice from behind Charlie. He turned to see a big, thirtyish woman in scrubs: another hospice worker – another of the amazing women that Charlie had seen in the homes of the dying, helping to deliver them into the next world with as much comfort and dignity and even joy as they could gather – benevolent Valkyries, midwives of the final light, they were – and as Charlie watched them at work, he saw that rather than become detached from, or callous to their job, they became involved with every patient and every family. They were present. He’d seen them grieve with a hundred different families, taking part in an intensity of emotion that most people would feel only a few times in their lives. Watching them over the years had made Charlie feel more reverent toward his task of being a Death Merchant. It might be a curse on him, but ultimately, it wasn’t about him, it was about serving, and the transcendence in serving, and the hospice workers had taught him that.
The woman’s name tag read GRACE. Charlie smiled.
“Buddy,” she said. “She’s awake and she’s asking for you.”
Charlie stood. “Grace, I’m Charlie, Lois’s son. This is my sister, Jane.”
“Oh, she talks about you two all the time.”
“She does?” said Jane, a tad surprised.
“Oh yes. She tells me you were quite the tomboy,” Grace said. “And you – ” she said to Charlie. “You used to be nice but then something happened.”
“I learned to talk,” Charlie said.
“That’s when I stopped liking him,” Jane said.
Lois Asher was propped in a nest of pillows, wearing a perfectly coiffed gray wig tied back in the style she had always worn her real hair, a silver squash-blossom necklace and matching earrings and rings, a mauve silk nightgown that blended so well with the Southwestern decor of the bedroom that it looked as if Lois might be trying to disappear into her surroundings. And she did, except the space she’d made for herself in the world was a little bigger than she now required. There was a gap between the wig and her scalp, her nightgown hung almost empty, and her rings jangled on her fingers like bangles. It was clear to Charlie that she hadn’t actually been sleeping when they’d arrived, but had sent Buddy out with the excuse to give Grace time to dress and arrange her for presentation to her children.
Charlie noticed that the squash-blossom necklace was glowing dull red against Lois’s nightgown and he felt a long, sad sigh rise in his chest. He hugged his mother and could feel the bones in her back and shoulders, as delicate and fragile as a bird’s. Jane tried to fight down a sob as soon as she saw her mother, but managed only to produce what sounded like a painful snort. She fell to her knees at her mother’s bedside.
Charlie knew it was perhaps the stupidest question one could ask the dying, yet he asked: “How are you doing, Mom?”
She patted his hand. “I could use an old-fashioned. Buddy won’t let me have any alcohol, since I can’t keep it down. You met Buddy?”
“He seems like a nice man,” Jane said.
“Oh, he is. He’s been good to me. We’re just friends, you know.”
Charlie looked across the bed at Jane, who raised her eyebrows.
“It’s okay, we know you guys are living together,” Charlie said.
“Living together? Me? What do you take me for?”
“Never mind, Mom.”
His mother waved off the thought as if she was shooing a fly. “And how is that little Jewish girl of yours, Charlie?”
“Sophie? She’s doing great, Mom.”
“No, that’s not it.”
“What’s not it?”
“It wasn’t Sophie, it was something else. Pretty girl – too good for you, really.”
“You’re thinking of Rachel, Mom. She passed on five years ago, remember?”
“Well, you can’t blame her, can you? You were such a sweet little boy, then I don’t know what happened to you. Do you remember?”
“Yeah, Mom, I was sweet.”
Lois looked at her daughter. “And what about you, Jane, have you found yourself a nice man? I hate the idea of you being alone.”
“Still looking for Mr. Right,” Jane said, giving Charlie the “we’ve got to get away and have an emergency meeting” head toss that she had practiced around their mother since she was eight.
“Mom, Jane and I will be right back. We can call Sophie and talk to her then, okay?”
“Who’s Sophie?” Lois asked.
“She’s your granddaughter, Mom. You remember, beautiful little Sophie?”
“Don’t be silly, Charles, I’m not old enough to be a grandmother.”
Outside the bedroom Jane fumbled around and in her purse and produced a pack of cigarettes, but couldn’t figure out whether to smoke one or not. “Holy Motown Jesus with Pips, what the fuck is going on in there?”
“She’s got a lot of morphine in her, Jane. Did you smell that acrid smell? That’s her sweat glands trying to take the poisons out of her body that her kidneys and liver would normally filter. Her organs are starting to shut down, it means that there’s a lot of toxins going to her brain.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve read about it. Look, she never lived in reality completely, you know that? She hated the shop and hated Dad’s work, even though it supported her. She hated his collecting, even though she was just as bad. And the thing with Buddy not living here – she’s trying to reconcile who she’s always thought she was with who she really is.”
“Is that why I still want to punch her lights out?” Jane said. “That’s wrong, isn’t it?”
“Well, I suppose – “
“I’m a horrible person. My mother is dying of cancer and I want to punch her lights out.”
Charlie put his arm around his sister’s shoulder and started walking her toward the front door so she could go outside and smoke. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said. “You’re doing the same thing, trying to reconcile all the moms that Mom ever was – the one you wanted, the one she was when you needed her and she was there, the one she was when she didn’t understand. Most of us don’t live our lives with one, integrated self that meets the world, we’re a whole bunch of selves. When someone dies, they all integrate into the soul – the essence of who we are, beyond the different faces we wear throughout our lives. You’re just hating the selves you’ve always hated, and loving the ones you’ve always loved. It’s bound to mess you up.”
Jane stopped and stepped back from him. “Then how come it’s not messing you up?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because of what I went through with Rachel.”
“So you think that when someone dies suddenly like that, that this face-reconciliation thing happens?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a conscious process. Maybe more for you than for Mom, you know what I mean? You feel like you have to put things right before she’s gone, and it’s frustrating.”
“So what happens if she doesn’t integrate all that before she dies. What happens if I don’t?”
“I think you get another chance.”
“Really? Like reincarnation? What about Jesus and stuff?”
“I think that there’s a lot of stuff that’s not in the book. In any of the books.”
“Where’s this coming from? I never got the impression you were spiritual. You wouldn’t even go to yoga with me.”
“I wouldn’t go to yoga with you because I’m not bendy, not because I’m not spiritual.”
They’d gotten to the door, and when Charlie pulled it open it made the same sound a refrigerator door makes. When they stepped out onto the front porch he realized why, as a wave of hundred-and-ten-degree heat hit them.
“Jeez, did you accidentally open the door to hell?” Jane said. “I don’t need to smoke this badly. Get inside, get inside, get inside.” She shoved him inside and closed the door. “That’s heinous. Why would someone live in this climate?”
“I’m confused,” Charlie said. “Did you start smoking again or not?”
“I didn’t really,” Jane said. “I just have one when I’m really stressed out. It’s like thumbing your nose at Death. Haven’t you ever felt like doing that?”
“You have no idea,” Charlie said.
With Charlie and Jane there, they sent the hospice nurse home at night and watched Lois in four-hour shifts. Charlie gave his mother her medication, wiped her mouth, fed her what little she would take in, but by now she was mostly having sips of water or apple juice, and he listened as she lamented losing her looks and her things, as she remembered being a great beauty, the belle of the ball at parties before he was born, an object of desire, which clearly she loved more than being a wife or a mother or any of the dozen other faces she had worn in her life. Sometimes she would actually turn her attention to her son…
“I loved you as a little boy. I would take you to caf??s in North Beach and everyone would just dote on you. You were so sweet. Beautiful. Both of us were.”
“Remember when we dumped all of the cereal out of the boxes so you could get the prize out? A little submarine, I think? Do you remember?”
“I remember, Mom.”
“We were close then.”
“Yeah, we were.”
Charlie would take her hand then and let her remember great times that they had never really had. The time had long passed for correcting facts and changing impressions.
When she exhausted herself he let her sleep, and read by a flashlight sitting in the chair at her bedside. He was there, in the middle of the night, reading a crime novel, when the door opened and a slight man of about fifty crept into the room, stopped by the door, and looked around. He wore sneakers and black jeans, a long-sleeved black T-shirt – but for the oversized wire-frame glasses, he was just short a hand grenade and a survival knife from looking like someone on a commando mission.
“Just be quiet,” Charlie said softly. “She’s sleeping.”
The little man jumped straight up about two feet and came down in a crouch. He was breathing hard and Charlie was afraid he might faint if he didn’t relax.
“It’s okay. It’s in the top drawer of that dresser over there – it’s a squash-blossom necklace. Take it.”
The little man ducked behind the door, then peeked around the edge. “You can see me?”
“Yes.” Charlie put his book down and got up from the chair, and went to the dresser.
“Oh, this is bad. This is really, really bad.”
“It’s not that bad,” Charlie said.
The little man shook his head violently. “No, it’s really bad. Look away. Look over there. I’m not here. I’m not here. You can’t see me.”
“Here it is,” Charlie said. He took the squash-blossom necklace from its velvet case in the drawer and held it up.
“What you’re looking for.”
“How did you know?”
“Because I do what you do. I’m a Death Merchant.”
Then Charlie remembered that Minty Fresh said he had coined the term, so maybe only the Death Merchants in San Francisco knew it. “I collect soul vessels.”
“No, you don’t. You can’t see me. You can’t see me. Sleep. Sleep.” The little man was waving his hands up and down in the air like he was drawing a curtain of deception before him, or possibly clearing spiderwebs out of the room.
“These are not the droids you seek,” Charlie said, grinning.
“You don’t have Jedi powers, you git. Just take the necklace.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Come with me,” Charlie said. “It’s time for my sister to watch her anyway.” He led the little guy out of his mother’s room into the living room. They stood by the front window, looking at the sun coming up and casting shadows of the broken teeth of the red rock mountains around them. “What’s your name?”
“Vern. Vern Glover.”
“I’m Charlie. Nice to meet you. How long does she have, Vern?”
“What do you mean?”
“How long on your calendar. How many days were left?”
“How do you know about that?”
“I told you. I do what you do. I can see you. I can see that necklace glowing red. I know what you are.”
“But you can’t. The Great Big Book says that horrible Forces of Darkness will rise if I talk to you.”
“See this cut over my ear, Vern?”
“Forces of Darkness. Fuck ’em. Fuck the Forces of Darkness, Vern. How long does my mother have?”
“It’s your mother? I’m sorry, Charlie. She has two more days.”
“Okay,” Charlie said, nodding. “Then we’d better go get a doughnut.”
“Doughnut! Doughnut! You like doughnuts, don’t you?”
“Yes, but why?”
“Because the continuance of human existence as we know it depends on us having doughnuts together.”
“Really?” Vern’s eyes went wide.
“No, not really. I’m just fucking with you.” Charlie put his arm around Vern’s shoulder. “But let’s go get one anyway. I’ll wake my sister for her watch.”
Charlie called home from his mobile phone to check on Sophie. Then, satisfied she was safe, he returned to the booth at Dunkin’ Donuts, where Vern and a cruller were waiting for him. Vern had taken off his stocking cap and had a wild mop of silver gray hair over large, aviator-frame glasses that made him look like a tan and wiry mad scientist.
“So like she was really hot?”
“Vern, you wouldn’t believe. I’m telling you, body of a goddess. Covered with really fine feathers, soft as down.” Charlie innately recognized another Beta Male like he recognized another Death Merchant, so he nearly stumbled over himself to tell the story of his adventure with the sexy sewer harpy, knowing he had a sympathetic audience.
“But she was going to put her claw through your brain, right?”
“Yeah, she said she was, but you know something, I think there was some chemistry there.”
“You don’t think it was just that she had your crank in her hand at the time, because that can cloud a guy’s judgment.”
“Yeah, there’s that, but still, you have to think, of all the Death Merchants in all of the cities on the planet, she chose me to share the death wank. I think she had a thing for me.”
“Well, you’re in the City of Two Bridges,” said Vern, brushing a little maple glaze from the corner of his mouth. “That’s where it’s supposed to happen.”
“Where what’s supposed to happen?” Charlie had really enjoyed being the senior Death Merchant, acting as the elder statesman to Vern, who had been called to recruit souls only six months ago. Now he was thrown.
“In The Great Big Book of Death, it says that we can’t talk about what we do, or try to find each other, or the Forces of Darkness will rise up in the City of Two Bridges and there will be a horrible battle and the Underworld will rise and cover the land if we lose. You guys have two bridges in San Francisco, right?”
Charlie tried to hide his surprise. Vern had obviously gotten a different version of the Great Big Book than they got in San Francisco. “Well, two main ones, yes. Sorry, it’s been a long time since I read the book. Remind me why the City of Two Bridges is so important?”
Vern gave Charlie the big “duh” look. “Because that is where the new Luminatus, the Great Death, will take power.”
“Oh yeah, of course, the Luminatus.” Charlie thumped himself in the side of the head. He had no idea what Vern was talking about.
“You think that they won’t need us anymore, after the Great Death takes power?” Vern asked. “I mean, will there be layoffs? Because the Big Book makes it sound like the Luminatus rising is a good thing, but I’ve been making a ton of money since I got this gig.”
Yeah, that’s going to be our problem, layoffs, Charlie thought. “I think we’ll be fine. Like the book says, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.”
“Right, right, right. So this cop that shot the sexy-goddess babe, he didn’t do anything?”
“No, not nothing. First he put me in the back of his cop car and tried to get me to tell him what had been going on when he showed up, and what had been going on for these last few years he’s been checking on me.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“I told him that it was as much a mystery to me as it was to him.”
“And he believed that?”
“No. He didn’t. But he did believe it when I told him that if I told him more it would get worse, so we came up with a story that justified his firing his weapon. A guy with a gun taking a shot at me, then at him – descriptions, everything. Then when he was sure we had it straight, he took me to the station and I wrote out my statement.”
“That’s it, he let you go.”
“No, then he told me stories about his career, and the weird stuff he’s encountered, and why because of that, he was going to let me go. The guy is a complete nut job. He believes in vampires and demons and giant owls – he said that he once handled a call for a polar-bear attack in Santa Barbara.”
“Wow,” said Vern. “You lucked out.”
“I called him before we left the city. He’s going to check on my building until I get home, make sure my daughter is okay.” Charlie hadn’t told Vern about the hellhounds.
“You must be worried sick about her,” Vern said. “I have a kid, she’s a junior in high school, lives with my ex-wife in Phoenix.”
“Yeah, so you know,” Charlie said. “So, Vern, you’ve never seen any of these dark creatures? Never heard voices coming out of the storm drains? Nothing like that?”
“Nope. Not like you’re talking about. We don’t have storm drains in Sedona. We have a desert with rivers through it.”
“Right, but have you ever missed getting a soul vessel?”
“Yeah, at first, when I got the Great Big Book, I thought it was a joke. I skipped three or four of them.”
“And nothing happened?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that. I’d wake up early, and look up at the mountain above my house, and there’d be a shadow there, looked like a big oil slick.”
“So, it would be on the wrong side of the mountain. It would be on the same side as the sun. And during the course of the day, it moved down the mountain. Oh, if you didn’t look at it, watch it, you’d look right by it, but it was coming down into the city, hour by hour. I drove out to where I saw it going, and waited for it.”
“You could hear crows calling. I waited until it got a half a block from me, moving so slow you could barely see it, but it got louder and louder, like a huge flock of crows. Scared the bejesus out of me. I went home, looked up the name I’d written down during the night, and they lived in the neighborhood I’d been in. The shadow was coming out of the mountain for the soul vessel.”
“Did it get it?”
“I guess. I didn’t.”
“And nothing happened?”
“Oh yeah, something happened. The next time the shadow moved faster, like a cloud blowing over. And I followed it, and sure enough, it was heading right for a woman’s house whose name was on my calendar. That’s when I realized that the Great Big Book wasn’t bullshitting.”
“But the shadow thing, it never came for you?”
“Third time,” Vern said.
“There was a third time?”
“Oh yeah, like you didn’t think this was all a load of crap when it first started happening to you?”
“Okay, good point,” Charlie said. “Sorry. Go on.”
“So, the third time, the shadow comes down off a mountain on the other side of town, at night, during a full moon, and this time, you can see the crows flying in it. Not like really see them, but like shadows of them. Some people noticed it that time. I got in my car again, took my dog, Scottie, with me. I already knew where the thing was going. I pulled up a couple of doors down from the guy’s house – to warn him, you know. I didn’t realize yet what the book was saying about us not being seen, otherwise I would have just gone for the soul vessel. Anyway, I’m at the door, and the shadow is coming across the street, all the edges shaped like crows, and Scottie starts barking like mad, and runs at it. Brave little guy. Anyway, as soon as the shadow touches him he yelps and drops over dead. Meantime, a woman comes to the door, and I look in and see a statue, like a fake Remington bronze on the table in the foyer behind her, and it’s glowing red, like red-hot. And I blow by her and grab it. And the shadow evaporates. Just like that, it’s gone. That’s the last time I was late getting a soul vessel.”
“Sorry about your dog,” Charlie said. “What did you tell the woman?”
“That’s the funny thing, I didn’t tell her anything. She was talking to her husband in the next room, and he wasn’t answering her, and she runs back to see what happened to him. Didn’t even look at me. Turns out the guy was having a heart attack. I took the statue, went and picked up Scottie’s body, and left.”
“That had to be tough.”
“I thought I was Death for a while, you know, special. Because the guy croaked with me there, but it was just coincidence.”
“Yeah, that happened to me, too,” Charlie said. But he was still disturbed by the whole “great battle” revelation. “Vern, would you mind if I took a look at your Great Big Book?”
“I don’t think so, Charlie. In fact, I think we’d better say goodbye. I mean, if the Great Big Book is right, and I don’t have any reason to believe it’s not, then we shouldn’t even be talking.”
“But it’s a different version than I have.”
“You don’t think there’s a reason for that?” Vern said. His eyes magnified in his big glasses made him look like a madman for a second.
“Okay, then,” Charlie said. “But e-mail me, okay? That shouldn’t hurt.”
Vern looked in his coffee cup like he was thinking, as if by telling the story of the shadow that came down out of the mountains, he’d frightened himself. Finally he looked up and smiled. “You know, I’d like that. I could use some pointers, and if something weird starts to happen, we’ll stop.”
“Deal,” Charlie said. He drove Vern back to his car, which was parked around the block from his mother’s house, and they said good-bye.
Jane met Charlie at the door. “Where have you been? I need the car to go get her floss.”
“I brought doughnuts,” Charlie said, holding up the box, maybe a little too proud.
“Well, that’s not the same, is it?”
“Dental floss. Can you believe it? Charlie, if I’m still flossing on my deathbed, you have my permission to garrote me with it. No, I’m leaving you instructions to garrote me with it.”
“Okay,” Charlie said. “So other than that, she’s okay?”
Jane was digging in her purse, had found her cigarettes and was looking for her lighter. “Like gum disease is the big danger at this point. Goddammit! Did they take my lighter at the airport?”
“You still don’t smoke, Jane,” Charlie said.
She looked up. “So what’s your point?”
“Nothing.” He handed her the keys to the rental car. “Can you grab me some toothpaste while you’re out?”
She gave up searching for the lighter and threw the cigarettes back into her purse. “What is it with this family and the compulsive dental hygiene?”
“I forgot to bring any.”
“Okay.” Jane braced the keys in her hand, ready to go in the ignition, and tucked her purse under her arm like a football. She dropped into a crouch and pulled down her mirrored, wraparound sunglasses that, with her short platinum blond hair and Charlie’s black pinstripe suit, made her look a little like a cyborg assassin from the future getting ready to dash out into the poisonous atmosphere of planet Duran Duran. “It’s fucking hot out there, isn’t it?”
Charlie nodded and held up the doughnut box again. “The glazed have suffered.”
“Oh,” Jane said, lifting her glasses again. “Cassandra called. After you called this morning she noticed your date book on the nightstand. Well actually, she said that Alvin and Mohammed dragged her in there and pushed it at her. She wondered if you needed it.”
“What about Sophie, is she okay?”
“No, she’s been abducted by aliens, but I wanted you to digest the bad news about forgetting your date book first.”
“You know, that right there is why Mom is ashamed of you,” Charlie said.
Jane laughed. “Guess what? She’s not.”
“No, this morning. She told me that she always knew who I was, always knew what I was, and that she has always loved me, just the way I am.”
“Did you card her? There’s an impostor in our mom’s bed.”
“Shut up, it was nice. Important.”
“She was probably just saying that because she’s dying.”
“She did say that she wished I wouldn’t wear men’s suits all the time.”
“She’s not alone on that one,” Charlie said.
Jane fell back into assault mode. “I’m off on the floss mission. Call Cassandra.”
“Done,” Charlie said.
“And Buddy needs a doughnut.” Jane threw open the door and ran out into the heat screaming like a berserker charging the enemy.
Charlie closed the door behind her so as not to let the air-conditioning out, and watched through the glass as his sister ran across the zero-scaped yard like she was on fire. He looked beyond her to the red rock mesa rising out of the desert. There seemed to be a deep crevasse in it that he hadn’t seen there before. He looked again, and saw that it wasn’t a crevasse at all, just a long, sharp shadow.
Then he ran out into the driveway and looked at the position of the sun, then at the shadow. It was on the wrong side of the mesa. There couldn’t be a shadow on this side – the sun was also on this side. He shaded his eyes and watched the shadow until he thought his brains were cooking in the sun. It was moving, slowly, but moving, and not the way a shadow moves. It was moving with purpose, against the sun, toward his mother’s house.
“My date book,” he said to himself. “Oh, shit.”