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Five-year-old Grace lived with two strangers on the fringes of a desert. Biology and the law labeled them her parents but Grace had never found them other than alien. As best she could tell, they felt the same way.
Ardis Normand Blades was twenty-eight years old, tall, reedy, long-haired, and patchily blond-bearded, with a sliver of morose face dramatized by jug ears. Those bat-like appendages notwithstanding, he was semi–decent-looking in a greasy, vaguely dangerous way. Only semi because some of his God-given looks were long eroded by dope and alcohol and a near-perfect record of bad decisions.
Ardis’s childhood had been a swamp of neglect and apathy. Troublesome at school, he’d been tested numerous times by counselors of uneven qualifications. Each of them had been surprised to find Ardis’s IQ significantly higher than his dull mien and chronically maladaptive behavior suggested. He’d made it through ninth grade grudgingly, could read at the fourth-grade level, had abandoned arithmetic before mastering long division.
All that limited Ardis’s occupational goals and when he wasn’t maxing out his welfare and his unemployment benefits, his jobs ranged from dishwasher to janitor to fry cook. The exception was a brief, unfortunate tenure as a carpenter’s assistant that left him minus a pinkie and phobic of heavy machinery.
Women of a certain type were drawn to Ardis’s easy smile and good bone structure. Dodie Funderburk was one of those. Her academic achievements rivaled Ardis’s and helped cement a shallow rapport.
Dodie and Ardis met when they both worked at Flapper-Jack’s Pancake Palace, a struggling highway stop on the outskirts of the Antelope Valley. Ardis was charged with scraping the grill and mopping the floors after closing. Dodie bussed tables during the night shift then lingered so she could earn some extra money draining the grease traps and sweeping the dining room. The side benefit of her working late was hanging with Ardis, just the two of them smoking and trudging in the shabby eatery.
They began flirting the first night they met, were doing it by the second, Dodie perched spread-legged on the kitchen counter, Ardis just tall enough to get to the goal without a footstool. He was barely shy of twenty-two and already a serious alcoholic and dabbler in meth. Dodie, three years younger, had never enjoyed regular periods and she’d always been a little curvy so it took four months for her to realize she and Ardis had created an embryo.
One night at Flapper she figured she should say something because her belly was getting swelled up. Walking over to Ardis, who was smoking a blunt and mopping, she lifted up her T-shirt.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s what happens.”
Dodie said, “Sure does.”
Ardis puffed and shrugged. “Got no money to get rid of it.”
“Okay,” said Dodie. “Maybe I’ll keep it.”
He walked away from her.
“You love me, Ardie?”
“Okay, I’ll keep it.”
Marriage had never been considered. Ardis had no desire for it and while Dodie might not have minded, the way she figured they were already living together in her single-wide in a nice slot at Desert Dreams Park because it was bigger than Ardis’s horse trailer at the rear of the long-dead palm tree farm where he’d been squatting for two years. On top of that, filing paper was a hassle and cost money and no one Dodie knew, including her own parents, ever bothered. Dodie’s father had booked before she was born and she figured Ardis might do the same thing. She could handle living alone, her mother had lived alone just fine and anything that retarded bitch could do, Dodie could do better.
She didn’t show a real big bump for a while and went back to pretending it wasn’t happening. That got harder and harder and sometimes, when she was by herself, her thoughts tried to get happy with the situation. Other times she got low and had feelings deep inside that rose up like heartburn and made her cry. Maybe a baby would be fun, dressing it up, buying toys you could also play with. Having someone think she was smart.
Pushing out the baby was eighteen hours of torture and Ardis wouldn’t stick around in the delivery room for more than a few minutes, getting grossed out or bored with Dodie’s screaming and cussing. Mostly, he just craved a smoke. Each time he returned, Dodie screamed at him worse, yelling filthy things that made the nurses flinch. Then she got too exhausted to even do that and became a crawled-up little worm, suffering by herself, oh God how long could she last this way?
When Dodie cried out in agony she mostly got ignored unless a nurse felt like being nice and shot stuff into her I.V. that didn’t work so good, anyway. What Dodie really could’ve used she couldn’t have because it was illegal.
After all that hell, the baby wasn’t laying right, had to be turned like a hot dog on a grill, and guess who that made feel like she was being all torn up? Finally, Dodie felt the slimy thing shoot out of her and the glimpse she caught was gray and not moving.
The doctor, a black guy who’d just showed up, said, “That’s a serious cord, wrapped around . . . three places.”
Then the room got all quiet and Dodie figured she’d pushed out something dead and at that moment, no big deal, main thing is she wasn’t hurting no more and her and Ardis could go back to the way it was before.
A slapping noise then a humongous Waaaaah!
“There we go,” said the doctor. “Nice and pink, Apgar two elevated to eight.”
After that, there was all sorts of murmuring and clicking and buzzing. Dodie lay there feeling she’d been hollowed out like a melon, just wanting to sleep forever.
One of the nurses, the short one with the cheeks like tomatoes, said, “Here’s your new daughter, dear. Fresh out of the oven, loud and healthy, good set of lungs on her.”
Which was stupid, bread and cake didn’t make noise and they didn’t chew up your insides like a chain saw. But Dodie, too spent to argue, closed her eyes and felt the weight of the baby settle on her chest.
The apple-cheeked nurse said, “Hold her, dear. With your arms, she needs your comfort.” Folding Dodie’s limbs over the blanket-wrapped bundle and pressing down so they’d stay there.
Dodie wanted to smack the bitch. She kept her hands in place so the cow would finally let go.
The nurse said, “There you go, dear, that’s right—oh, she’s a cute one. After all your hard work, a fine bit of grace, no?”
Dodie thought: At least I got a name for it.
That night, they brought the baby to her to feed, even though she said all she wanted was to sleep.
“Oh, sweetie,” said another nurse, “you can forget about sleep for a while.”
Two days later, Dodie and Ardis took the baby home.
Bitch was right.
Five-year-old Grace had no idea how she’d survived from infancy. She’d seen other families with babies in the trailer park, had a notion of what it took to raise an infant. Had the strangers actually done all that when she was tiny and helpless? Hard to believe, they sure didn’t feed her much now.
It wasn’t a matter of no food, there were always leftovers from the McDonald’s, where Ardis now worked along with junk pilfered from the Dairy Queen, where Dodie swept up nightly. Plus stuff each of them shoplifted. They just never had real meals where everyone sat down together. The few times it happened, Grace would cram as much as she could into her mouth, chew fast, swallow hard, and go for more. When Ardis was feeling mellow he’d slip her candy. But there was rarely an offer to prepare a meal and mostly Grace went to sleep with a gnawing in her tummy.
Sometimes, when the strangers were asleep, she’d sneak into the kitchenette and stuff her face with whatever was there. Careful to clean up. Though she was the only one who really did any cleaning of the trailer.
By five, Grace had learned how to take care of herself.
Sometimes when she left the single-wide hungry, a neighbor would notice and give her something. Mrs. Reilly was the best. She actually cooked and baked and when she wasn’t wild-eyed and dehydrated from vodka and ranting about niggers and greasers, she’d be generous with Grace and the other kids in the trailer park. Even the Mexican kids.
During the day, Mrs. Reilly cleaned model homes in sprawling developments that remained mostly unsold. The Antelope Valley, with its punishing heat and bitter night winds, was up and down economically, usually more down than up.
The bulk of the residents at Desert Dreams worked low-paying jobs. Some were disabled, mentally or physically or both, and sat around wondering how long they’d live. A few able-bodied idlers did nothing but drink and toke and loaf. Everyone at the trailer park was knowledgeable about the alphabet soup of government programs a person could score when functioning at or near the poverty line.
One of those funds was for day care, which at Desert Dreams meant that the state and the county paid Mrs. Rodriguez to watch a dozen children at her Peach State double-wide with the pots of cactus ringing the trailer. With that many kids, no one got much attention, but with the TV always on to cartoons, and boxes of books and toys left over from Mrs. Rodriguez’s now-adult children, plus castoffs and dumpster-dive prizes, plus plenty of space in the dirt to crawl around, just be careful of the needly plants, the day care was okay with Grace.
She wasn’t much for playing with other children, liked watching Sesame Street and Electric Company, and by four she’d learned from the shows how to put letters together into rudimentary words. Years later, she realized she’d been blessed with an inherent grasp of the architecture of language. At the day care, she just looked at it as word-fun, another way of figuring things out because that was her thing: figuring the strangers out, figuring out how to eat, how to stay clean, what people meant when they did and said things.
Grace at five could read at an advanced first-grade level but she never told anyone, why would she?
For sure the strangers wouldn’t care; by now Ardis was mostly drunk when he bothered to show up at all and Dodie had taken to mumbling about getting the hell out of there and going somewhere she could be free.
When drunk and mumbling collided, the result could be scary. Ardis never hit Dodie with a closed fist but there was plenty of faking blows like he was going to and a whole lot of open-hand slaps that connected with flesh haphazardly. Sometimes Ardis barely touched Dodie. Sometimes his hand on her flesh made loud, snappy noises.
Sometimes Dodie had marks on her and had to use extra makeup. Lots of women at Desert Dreams were patching up the same way.
Some of the men were hiding injuries, too. Like Mr. Rodriguez, who didn’t usually live with Mrs. Rodriguez—one day Grace saw him bleeding from his nose and running away from the double-wide, Mrs. Rodriguez stepping out and picking up a cactus pot like she was going to throw it at him.
She didn’t. He was gone too fast and Mrs. Rodriguez loved her plants.
With Ardis and Dodie, the damage could go both ways, Dodie butting into Ardis’s chair on purpose when he slumped in the kitchenette, snoring. That made him wake with a start and drool and start choking on his drool, then he’d nod off again and Dodie would point at him and make stupid faces and laugh.
Sometimes she flipped him off behind his back or called him dirty names, not caring that Grace could see and hear.
Sometimes, when Ardis was deeply asleep, really stoned, Dodie would sneak up behind him and use her nails to flick the back of his head hard and if that didn’t do the trick, she’d give his hair a yank and wait to see what happened.
When Ardis’s droopy eyes opened, confused, Dodie would be standing behind him pointing and laughing silently.
Grace pretended not to notice any of that. Mostly she crawled into the corner of the trailer’s front room that served as her sleeping space. The single fetid bedroom at the back of the trailer was reserved for Dodie and when Ardis showed up, both of them. Often at night, instead of sleeping Grace would turn on the TV and watch without sound, laughing to herself at how crazy people could look moving their lips. Or, she’d read one of the books she stole from Mrs. Rodriguez and, later, from the preschool.
She had her collection of words, new ones arriving all the time, and she could also add up numbers and make sense of how numbers worked and how to figure things out without asking anyone.
One day, she figured, she’d be by herself and that stuff could probably help.
Dr. Grace Blades cradled the woman in her arms.
Many therapists shied away from physical contact. Grace shied away from nothing.
The Haunted needed more than kind words, soft looks, and uh-huhs. They deserved more than the pathetic lie known as empathy.
Grace had no respect for the concept of empathy. She’d lived in the red room.
The woman continued to cry on Grace’s shoulder. Her hands, nestled in Grace’s cool, firm grip, were small and moist and limp. Watching the way she melted into Grace’s comfort, an observer might guess this was an early phase of treatment.
The woman was a therapeutic success who returned yearly for what Grace thought of as “show-off” sessions.
Look how well I’m doing, Doctor.
Yes, you are.
This year, as always, she’d requested an appointment on that worst of days, the anniversary, and Grace knew much of the forty-five minutes would be spent in tears.
The woman’s name was Helen. She’d begun treatment three years ago, seeing Grace as often as she needed, until moving from L.A. to Montana. Grace had offered to find her a local referral but Helen refused, as Grace figured she would.
Four years ago, to the day, Helen’s nineteen-year-old daughter had been raped, strangled, and mutilated. Identifying the monster who’d accomplished all that hadn’t taken much in the way of detection. He lived with his parents across an alley from the girl’s studio apartment in Culver City, with a rear window affording him a full view of the girl’s bedroom. Despite an extensive record of peeping that had escalated to sexual battery, he’d been coddled by the courts and allowed to live his life at will. Stupid and impulsive, he hadn’t bothered to dispose of his bloody clothing or the bent, crimson-stained knife he’d lifted from his victim’s kitchen.