The Passage Page 2

She held Amy tight against her chest. -You're right. She ain't yours. She ain't yours and never will be. You leave or I'm calling the sheriff, I swear

-Don't you do me like this, Jean. I mean it.

-Well, I'm doing it. That's just what I'm doing.

Then he was up and slamming through the house, taking his things, tossing them back into the cardboard cartons he'd used to carry them into the house, months ago. Why hadn't she thought it right then, how strange it was that he didn't even have a proper suitcase? She sat at the kitchen table holding Amy on her lap, watching the clock over the stove and counting off the minutes until he returned to the kitchen to hit her again.

But then she heard the front door swing open, and his heavy footsteps on the porch. He went in and out awhile, carrying the boxes, leaving the front door open so cold air spilled through the house. Finally he came into the kitchen, tracking snow, leaving little patches of it waffled to the floor with the soles of his boots.

-Fine. Fine. You want me to leave? You watch me. He took the bottle of Old Crow from the table. Last chance, he said.

Jeanette said nothing, didn't even look at him.

-So that's how it is. Fine. You mind I have one for the road?

Which was when Jeanette reached out and swatted his glass across the kitchen, smacked it with her open hand like a ping-pong ball with a paddle. She knew she was going to do this for about half a second before she did, knowing it wasn't the best idea she'd ever had, but by then it was too late. The glass hit the wall with a hollow thud and fell to the floor, unbroken. She closed her eyes, holding Amy tight, knowing what would come. For a moment the sound of the glass rolling on the floor seemed to be the only thing in the room. She could feel Bill's anger rising off him like waves of heat.

-You just see what the world has in store for you, Jeanette. You remember I said that.

Then his footsteps carried him out of the room and he was gone.

She paid the oil man what she could and turned the thermostat down to fifty, to make it last. See, Amy honey, it's like a big camping trip we're on, she said as she stuffed the little girl's hands into mittens and wedged a hat onto her head. There now, it's not so cold, not really. It's like an adventure. They slept together under a pile of old quilts, the room so icy their breath fogged the air over their faces. She took a job at night, cleaning up at the high school, leaving Amy with a neighbor lady, but when the woman took sick and had to go into the hospital, Jeanette had to leave Amy alone. She explained to Amy what to do: stay in bed, don't answer the door, just close your eyes and I'll be home before you know it. She'd make sure Amy was asleep before creeping out the door, then stride quickly down the snow-crusted drive to where she'd parked her car, away from the house, so Amy wouldn't hear it turning over.

But then she made the mistake one night of telling someone about this, another woman on the work crew, when the two of them had stepped out for a smoke. Jeanette had never liked smoking at all and didn't want to spend the money, but the cigarettes helped her stay awake, and without a smoke break there was nothing to look forward to, just more toilets to scrub and halls to be mopped. She told the woman, whose name was Alice, not to tell anyone, she knew she could get in trouble leaving Amy alone like that, but of course that's just what Alice did; she went straight to the superintendent, who fired Jeanette on the spot. Leaving a child like that ain't right, he told her in his office by the boilers, a room no bigger than ten feet square with a dented metal desk and an old easy chair with the plush popping out and a calendar on the wall that wasn't even the right year; the air was always so hot and close in there Jeanette could barely breathe. He said, You count your lucky stars I'm not calling the county on you. She wondered when she'd become someone a person could say this to and not be wrong. He'd been nice enough to her until then, and maybe she could have made him understand the situation, that without the money from cleaning she didn't know what she'd do, but she was too tired to find the words. She took her last check and drove home in her crappy old car, the Kia she'd bought in high school when it was already six years old and falling apart so fast she could practically see the nuts and bolts bouncing on the pavement in her rearview mirror; and when she stopped at the Quick Mart to buy a pack of Capris and then the engine wouldn't start up again, she started to cry. She couldn't make herself stop crying for half an hour.

The problem was the battery; a new one cost her eighty-three dollars at Sears, but by then she'd missed a week of work and lost her job at the Box, too. She had just enough money left to leave, packing up their things in a couple of grocery sacks and the cartons Bill had left behind.

No one ever knew what became of them. The house sat empty; the pipes froze and split like bursting fruit. When spring came, the water poured from them for days and days until the utility company, realizing nobody was paying the bill, sent a couple of men to turn it off. The mice moved in, and when an upstairs window was broken in a summer thunderstorm, the swallows; they built their nests in the bedroom where Jeanette and Amy had slept in the cold, and soon the house was filled with the sound and smell of birds.

In Dubuque, Jeanette worked the night shift at a gas station, Amy sleeping on the sofa in the back room, until the owner found out and sent her packing. It was summer, they were living in the Kia, using the washroom behind the station to clean up, so leaving was just a matter of driving away. For a time they stayed with a friend of Jeanette's in Rochester, a girl she'd known in school who'd gone up there for a nursing degree; Jeanette took a job mopping floors at the same hospital where the friend worked, but the pay was just minimum wage, and the friend's apartment was too small for them to stay; she moved into a motel, but there was no one to look after Amy, the friend couldn't do it and didn't know anyone who could, and they ended up living in the Kia again. It was September; already a chill was in the air. The radio spoke all day of war. She drove south, getting as far as Memphis before the Kia gave out for good.

The man who picked them up in the Mercedes said his name was John-a lie, she guessed, from the way he said it, like a child telling a story about who broke the lamp, sizing her up for a second before he spoke. My name is ... John. She guessed he was fifty, but she wasn't a good judge of these things. He had a well-trimmed beard and was wearing a tight dark suit, like a funeral director. While he drove he kept glancing at Amy in the rearview mirror, adjusting himself in his seat, asking Jeanette questions about herself, where she was going, the kinds of things she liked to do, what had brought her to the Great State of Tennessee. The car reminded her of Bill Reynolds's Grand Prix, only nicer. With the windows closed you could barely hear anything outside, and the seats were so soft she felt like she was sitting in a dish of ice cream. She felt like falling asleep. By the time they pulled into the motel she hardly cared what was going to happen. It seemed inevitable. They were near the airport; the land was flat, like Iowa, and in the twilight she could see the lights of the planes circling the field, moving in slow, sleepy arcs like targets in a shooting gallery.

Amy, honey, Mama's going to go inside with this nice man for a minute, okay? You just look at your picture book, honey.

He was polite enough, going about his business, calling her baby and such, and before he left he put fifty dollars on the nightstand-enough for Jeanette to buy a room for the night for her and Amy.

But others weren't as nice.

During the night, she'd lock Amy in the room with the TV on to make some noise and walk out to the highway in front of the motel and just kind of stand there, and it didn't take long. Somebody would stop, always a man, and once they'd worked things out, she'd take him back to the motel. Before she let the man inside she'd go into the room by herself and carry Amy to the bathroom, where she'd made a bed for her in the tub out of some extra blankets and pillows.

Amy was six. She was quiet, barely talked most of the time, but she'd taught herself to read some, from looking at the same books over and over, and could do her numbers. One time they were watching Wheel of Fortune, and when the time came for the woman to spend the money she'd won, the little girl knew just what she could buy, that she couldn't afford the vacation to Cancun but could have the living room set with enough money left over for the his-and-her golf clubs. Jeanette thought it was probably smart of Amy to figure this out, maybe more than smart, and she guessed she should probably be in school, but Jeanette didn't know where there were any schools around there. It was all auto-body-repair and pawn shops and motels like the one they lived in, the SuperSix. The owner was a man who looked a lot like Elvis Presley, not the handsome young one but the old fat one with the sweaty hair and chunky gold glasses that made his eyes look like fish swimming in a tank, and he wore a satin jacket with a lightning bolt down the back, just like Elvis had. Mostly he just sat at his desk behind the counter, playing solitaire and smoking a little cigar with a plastic tip. Jeanette paid him in cash each week for the room and if she threw in an extra fifty he didn't bother her any. One day he asked her if she had anything for protection, if maybe she wanted to buy a gun from him. She said sure, how much, and he told her another hundred. He showed her a rusty-looking little revolver, a .22, and when she put it in her hand right there in the office it didn't seem like much at all, let alone something that could shoot a person. But it was small enough to fit in the purse she carried out to the highway and she didn't think it would be a bad thing to have around. -Careful where you point that, the manager said, and Jeanette said, Okay, if you're afraid of it, it must work. You sold yourself a gun.

And she was glad she had it. Just knowing it was in her purse made her realize she'd been afraid before and now wasn't, or at least not so much. The gun was like a secret, the secret of who she was, like she was carrying the last bit of herself in her purse. The other Jeanette, the one who stood on the highway in her stretchy top and skirt, who cocked her hip and smiled and said, What you want, baby? There something I can help you with tonight?-that Jeanette was a made-up person, like a woman in a story she wasn't sure she wanted to know the end of.

The man who picked her up the night it happened wasn't the one she would have thought. The bad ones you could usually tell right off, and sometimes she said no thanks and just kept walking. But this one looked nice, a college boy she guessed, or at least young enough to go to college, and nicely dressed, wearing crisp khaki pants and one of those shirts with the little man on the horse swinging the hammer. He looked like someone going on a date, which made her laugh to herself when she got into the car, a big Ford Expo with a rack on the top for a bike or something else.

But then a funny thing happened. He wouldn't drive to the motel. Some men wanted her to do them right there, in the car, not even bothering to pull over, but when she started in on this, thinking that was what he wanted, he pushed her gently away. He wanted to take her out, he said. She asked, What do you mean, out?

-Someplace nice, he explained. Wouldn't you rather go someplace nice? I'll pay you more than whatever you usually get.

She thought about Amy sleeping back in the room and guessed it wouldn't make much difference, one way or the other. As long as it ain't more than an hour, she said. Then you got to take me back.

But it was more than an hour, a lot more; by the time they got where they were going, Jeanette was afraid. He pulled up to a house with a big sign over the porch showing three shapes that looked almost like letters but not quite, and Jeanette knew what it was: a fraternity. Some place a bunch of rich boys lived and got drunk on their daddy's money, pretending to go to school to become doctors and lawyers.

-You'll like my friends, he said. Come on, I want you to meet them.

-I ain't going in there, she said. You take me back now.

He paused, both hands on the wheel, and when she saw his face and what was in his eyes, the slow mad hunger, he suddenly didn't look like such a nice boy anymore.

-That, he said, is not an option. I'd have to say that's not on the menu just now.

-The hell it ain't.

She threw the door of the truck open and made to walk away, never mind she didn't know where she was, but then he was out too, and he grabbed her by the arm. It was pretty clear now what was waiting inside the house, what he wanted, how everything was going to shape up. It was her fault for not understanding this before-long before, maybe as far back as the Box on the day Bill Reynolds had come in. She realized the boy was afraid, too-that somebody was making him do this, the friends inside the house, or it felt like it to him, anyway. But she didn't care. He got behind her and tried to get his arm around her neck to lock her with his elbow, and she hit him, hard, where it counted, with the back of her fist, which made him yell, calling her bitch and whore and all the rest, and strike her across the face. She lost her balance and fell backward, and then he was on top of her, his legs astride her waist like a jockey riding a horse, slapping and hitting, trying to pin her arms. Once he did this it would all be over. He probably wouldn't care if she was conscious or not, she thought, when he did it; none of them would. She reached into her purse where it lay on the grass. Her life was so strange to her it didn't seem like it was even her own anymore, if it had ever been hers to begin with. But everything made sense to a gun. A gun knew what it was, and she felt the cool metal of the revolver slide into her palm, like it wanted to be there. Her mind said, Don't think, Jeanette, and she pushed the barrel against the side of the boy's head, feeling the skin and bone where it pressed against him, figuring that was close enough she couldn't miss, and then she pulled the trigger.

It took her the rest of the night to get home. After the boy had fallen off her, she'd run as fast as she could to the biggest road she could see, a wide boulevard glowing under streetlights, just in time to grab a bus. She didn't know if there was blood on her clothes or what, but the driver hardly looked at her as he explained how to get back to the airport, and she sat in the back where no one could see. In any case, the bus was almost empty. She had no idea where she was; the bus inched along through neighborhoods of houses and stores, all dark, past a big church and then signs for the zoo, and finally entered downtown, where she stood in a Plexiglas shelter, shivering in the damp, and waited for a second bus. She'd lost her watch somehow and didn't know the time. Maybe it had come off somehow when they were fighting and the police could use it as a clue. But it was just a Timex she'd bought at Walgreens, and she thought it couldn't tell them much. The gun was what would do it; she'd tossed it on the lawn, or so she remembered. Her hand was still a little numb from the force of it going off in her fist, the bones chiming like a tuning fork that wouldn't stop.

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