The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 17

“I never imagined she wanted a child,” Brian said. “Of the women I knew back then, she was the least likely to pine for motherhood.”

If Amy should not touch him just now, she could stand at another window, sharing the pre-twilight view to which he unburdened himself.

“When she got pregnant, it was an ugly scene. But not how you might expect. She said she wanted my baby, needed it, she said, but she never wanted to see me again.”

“Don’t you have common-law rights or something?”

“I tried to discuss that with her, but all she wanted to talk about was how I took the crown as the world’s biggest loser.”

“If that’s what she thought of you, why did she want your baby?”

“It was weird. She was vicious. Such contempt, loathing. She ripped my taste in clothes, music, books, my financial prospects, everything-some true, some not. I had to get away from her.”

The westering sun fired the intricacies of a fretwork of clouds. The majesty of the light and sky was a striking contrast to the base story that he had to tell.

“I expected her to call. She didn’t. Told myself good riddance, it wasn’t any of my business now. But some things she’d said about me had the sting of truth. I didn’t like what I saw in mirrors anymore. I kept thinking of the baby she was carrying, my baby.”

Whatever faults he had in those days, he’d grown into a good man. Later, he might want to hear that from her, but not now.

“I needed a month to realize, if I didn’t have that baby in my life, then my life would never be right. It would be distorted, more distorted every year. So I called Vanessa. She’d changed her phone number. I went to her apartment. Moved. No forwarding address.”

Amy remembered he had once seen the baby. “But you found her.”

“Three months I tried mutual acquaintances. She wasn’t seeing them anymore. Pulled up all her roots. Eventually I got some money for a private detective. Even he had some trouble tracking her down.”

Spilling across the clouds from the tipped snifter of the sun, the light was a richer shade of brandy than before, and the blue sky itself began to take some of the stain.

“She had a huge, expensive apartment overlooking Newport Harbor. A wealthy land developer named Parker Hisscus was paying the rent.”

“That’s a big name around here.”

“She was six months pregnant when I visited her. Gave me five minutes, so I could see the style he kept her in. Then she had the maid show me out. Next morning, a friend of Hisscus came to see me.”

“He was that obvious?”

“I don’t mean muscle. The guy was unsavory but polite. Wanted me to know Hisscus would marry the lady after the birth of their baby.”

“If it was their baby, why wait?”

“I wondered. And then this guy offers me a commission-a custom home to design for another friend of Hisscus.”

“If it were his baby, he wouldn’t try to buy it that way.”

“I turned down the commission. Went to an attorney. Then another attorney. Same story from both. If Vanessa and Hisscus say he’s the dad, I have no grounds to push for a DNA test.”

Threads of self-disgust and quiet anger had been sewn through Brian’s voice thus far, but now Amy heard something like sorrow, too.

“I kept trying to find a way, and then one night she came to my place with the baby not two weeks old, born premature. She said…”

For a moment, he could not repeat Vanessa’s words to him.

Then: “She said, ‘Here’s what you pumped into me. This stupid little freak. Your stupid little freak has screwed up everything.’”

“So it was over with her and Hisscus.”

“I never understood what was going on there anyway. But it was over, it wasn’t his baby, and she was out. She wanted money, whatever I could pay for the baby. I showed her my checkbook, savings-account balance. So there I was, made a baby and put it in a situation where it’s up for sale, I’m no better than she was.”

“Not true,” Amy said at once. “You wanted the girl.”

“I couldn’t get the money till morning, but she wouldn’t leave the baby with me. She was crazy bitter. Her eyes were more black than green, something so dark had come into them. I wanted to take the baby, but I was afraid if I tried, she’d kill it, smash its head. She needed money, so I thought she’d bring the baby back for it.”

“But she never did.”

“No. She never did. God help me, out of fear, I let her walk away that night, take my baby away.”

“And she’s been tormenting you ever since.”

The low orange candle of the sun spread the warm intoxicating light farther across the western sky.

“Unless it’s a federal case with the FBI,” Brian said, “it’s not possible to track somebody from an e-mail address. I can’t prove I’m the girl’s father. Vanessa’s careful what she says in the e-mails.”

“And private investigators haven’t been able to find her?”

“No. She lives way off the grid, maybe under a new name, new Social Security number, new everything. Anyway, what she’s done to me doesn’t matter. But what has she done to my daughter? What has she done to Hope?”

By intuition, Amy understood his last question. “That’s what you’ve named her-Hope.”


“Whatever Vanessa’s done,” Amy said, “what’s important now is, you might get a chance to make it right.”

This was the “big thing” of which he’d spoken earlier, bigger than the drawings that he had done of Nickie’s eyes, bigger than the auditory hallucinations and the mysterious shadows he had glimpsed at the periphery of vision, bigger than his dream and waking up on the inexplicably made bed. After ten years, he might be able to get his daughter back.

Amy had read his e-mail to Vanessa, in which he avoided argument and manipulation: I am at your mercy. I have no power over you, and you have every power over me. If one day you will let me have what I want, that will be because it serves you best to relent, not because I have earned it or deserve it.

After waking from his dream of storm-racked Kansas, Brian had found a reply from her. He held it in his hand now, as he stood at the window.

You still want your little piglet? You piss me off, there in your cozy life, everything the way you like it, never sacrificed a damn thing. You want this little freak on your back? All right. I’m ready for that. But I want something from you. Stand by.

The quality of light had changed enough to permit upon the pane a transparent reflection of Amy’s face.

With his secrets all revealed, and with his own face forming on the glass before him, Brian turned now toward Amy.

She joined him at his window and took his hand.

He said, “She’s going to want every dime, everything I own.”

Smiling, Amy repeated, in this new context, what she had said earlier. “Not everything. There’s still you and me.”

Chapter 35

The severed limbs, the headless torso, the eyeless head, and the pried-out glass eyes of the doll are arranged beside the lunch tray on the desk, where Moongirl carefully placed them.

Not once during the dismemberment and beheading did Piggy appear to notice the destruction her mother was committing. Now she ignores the ruins.

Harrow suspects that, this time, Piggy has outwitted her mother. Instead of giving the most elaborate dress of her creation to her favorite doll, perhaps she has given it to her least favorite.

This is a small triumph, but in the child’s life, there is no other kind.

If Moongirl realizes that she has been deceived, she will make Piggy pay dearly. Even now, Harrow can see how the woman struggles to contain her fury at the child’s indifference to the savaging of the doll.

Like Harrow, Moongirl has the cold intellect of a machine and a body that is machinelike in the perfection of its form and function, but she only pretends to understand and control her emotions as Harrow understands and controls his.

The range of her emotions is limited to anger, hatred, envy, greed, desire, and self-love. He is not sure if she realizes this or if she thinks she is complete.

While she cannot exert iron control of herself, she understands that she empowers herself by repressing her emotions. The longer that anger and hatred are unexpressed or only partly expressed, the purer and more poisonous they become, until they make a more potent elixir than any that a wizard could concoct.

She sits beside the desk, glaring at her daughter, and though her long-distilled hatred is lethal, she will not strike a murderous blow yet. She will wait through this night and the following day, until-very soon now-she can have all the deaths that she most wants.

“I bought the potato salad special for you, Piggy.”

The blades of light penetrating the cracks in the storm shutters are not pellucid or golden any longer, but a murky orange. The cut-glass vase has gone dark. The auroral glimmer has disappeared from the ceiling over Piggy’s head.

Thin spears of orange sunlight touch only the wood surfaces of the furniture, here a decorative pillow, there an oil painting of a seascape.

Yet by some curious mechanism of soft reflection, elfin light twinkles in unlikely corners of the shadowy room: in the glass beads of the shade on the lamp that stands on the far side of the child’s bed, in the glass knob on a distant closet door…



“The potato salad.”


“I’m waiting.”

“I had two cookies.”

“Cookies aren’t enough.”

“And a sandwich.”

“Why do you do this to me?”

Piggy says nothing.

“You’re a little ingrate.”

“I’m full.”

“You know what an ingrate is?”


“You don’t know much, do you?”

Piggy shakes her head.

“Eat the potato salad.”



“Later,” says Piggy.

“No. Now.”


“Don’t just say okay. Do it.”

The child neither speaks nor reaches for the potato salad.

Diamonds dark at throat and wrist in spite of the desk lamp, Moongirl rises from her chair, snatches up the potato salad, and throws it.

The container strikes a wall and bursts open, splattering the plaster and showering the floor with spit-spiced potato salad.

Bright tears sting Piggy’s eyes, and her wet cheeks shine.

“Clean it up.”


From the desk, Moongirl seizes the pieces of the ruined doll and throws them hard across the room. She grabs as well the open bag of cookies and throws that.

“Clean it up.”


“Every smear and crumb.”


“And don’t give me tears, you little fat-faced fraud.”

Moongirl turns and, diamonds darkling, strides from the room, no doubt to settle herself with her collection of cleansing solutions and emollient lotions for face and body, in a dreamy two-hour regimen that seldom fails to leave her in a better mood.

Perched on the arm of the upholstered chair, Harrow watches the child. As simple as she is, and plain and slow, she has about her a mystery that intrigues him and that seems in some way deeper than the mystery of her mother’s madness.

Piggy sits for a minute, unmoving.

As though her tears are as astringent as rubbing alcohol, they swiftly evaporate from her cheeks. In remarkably short order, her eyes are dry as well.

She opens the second lunchbox bag of potato chips and eats one. Then another. Then a third. Slowly she empties the bag.

After wiping her fingers on a paper napkin, she pushes aside the tray and picks up the doll on which she was working when her mother and Harrow first entered the room. She merely holds the doll, does nothing with it other than study its face.

The odd thought occurs to him that Piggy, plain simple Piggy, may be the only person he has ever known who is only and exactly who she appears to be, which may be why she seems mysterious.

And here, unexpectedly, is the Look that Harrow has lately seen subtly transform the child’s features, the quality that is not beauty but that might be akin to it. The defining word for the Look still eludes him.

Outside, the wounded day issues a bloody glow that lacks the strength to press through the cracks in the shutters. Only the desk lamp illuminates the room.

Yet elfin lights persist in the crystal beads of the lampshade in the darkest corner, in the glass doorknob far from the desk, in a gold-leaf detail of a picture frame, in window glass that is not at an angle to reflect the desk lamp.

Harrow has the peculiar feeling that he and the child are not alone in the room, though of course they are.

Piggy will not clean up the mess her mother made as long as Harrow remains to watch her. She stoops to such tasks only when she is alone.

He rises from the arm of the chair, stands watching her for a moment, walks to the door, turns, and looks at her again.

Rarely does he say anything to the child. More rarely still does she speak to him.

Suddenly the expression on her face so infuriates him that if he were a man without absolute control of his emotions, he would knock it off her with one hard punch.

Without looking at Harrow, she says, “Good-bye,” and he finds himself outside the room, closing the door.

“You’ll burn like pig fat,” he mutters as he turns the deadbolt lock, and he feels his face flush because this juvenile threat, while worthy of Moongirl, is beneath him.

Chapter 36

The man known as Eliot Rosewater to Vernon Lesley was known as Billy Pilgrim to the associate who had flown the two-engine aircraft to the abandoned military facility in the Mojave.

The pilot, who had worked with Billy on many occasions, called himself Gunther Schloss, and was Gunny to his friends. Billy thought Gunther Schloss sounded like a true name, a born name, but he would not have bet a penny on it.

Gunny looked like a Gunther Schloss ought to look: tall, thick-necked, muscular, with white-blond hair and blue eyes and a face made for the cover of White Supremacist Monthly.

In fact he was married to a lovely black woman in Costa Rica and to a charming Chinese woman in San Francisco. He wasn’t a fascist but an anarchist, and during one bizarre week in Havana, he had smoked a lot of ganja with Fidel Castro. You could hire Gunny Schloss to kill just about anyone, if it was someone you for some reason didn’t want to kill yourself, but he cried every time he watched Steel Magnolias, which he did once a year.

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