One Door Away from Heaven Page 2

Geneva, who knew her niece’s stoic nature, nevertheless didn’t seem surprised by the tears. She didn’t comment on them, because she surely knew that consolation wouldn’t be welcome.

By the time Micky’s vision cleared and her plate was clean, she was able to say, “I can do what I need to do. I can get where I want to go, no matter how hard it is.”

Geneva added one thought before changing the subject: “It’s also true that sometimes—not often, but once in a great while—your life can change for the better in one moment of grace, almost a sort of miracle. Something so powerful can happen, someone so special come along, some precious understanding descend on you so unexpectedly that it just pivots you in a new direction, changes you forever. Girl, I’d give everything I have if that could happen for you.”

To stave off more tears, Micky said, “That’s sweet, Aunt Gen, but everything you have doesn’t amount to squat.”

Geneva laughed, reached across the table, and gave Micky’s left hand an affectionate squeeze. “That’s true enough, honey. But I’ve still got about half a squat more than you do.”

STRANGELY, here in the sunshine, less than a day later, Micky couldn’t stop thinking about the transforming moment of grace that Geneva had wished for her. She didn’t believe in miracles, neither the supernatural sort that involved guardian angels and the radiant hand of God revealed nor the merely statistical variety that might present her with a winning lottery ticket.

Yet she had the curious and unsettling sensation of movement within, of a turning in her heart and mind, toward a new point on the compass.

“Just indigestion,” she murmured with self-derision, because she knew that she was the same shiftless, screwed-up woman who had come to Geneva a week ago with two suitcases full of clothes, an ‘81 Chevrolet Camaro that whiffered and wheezed worse than a pneumonic horse, and a past that wound like chains around her.

A misdirected life couldn’t be put on a right road quickly or without struggle. For all of Geneva’s appealing talk of a miraculous moment of transformation, nothing had happened to pivot Micky toward grace.

Nevertheless, for reasons that she could not understand, every aspect of this day—the spangled sunshine, the heat, the rumble of the distant freeway traffic, the fragrances of cut grass and sweat-soured coconut oil, three yellow butterflies as bright as gift-box bows—suddenly seemed full of meaning, mystery, and moment.

Chapter 2

IN A FAINT and inconstant breeze, waves stir through the lush meadow. At this lonely hour, in this strange place, a boy can easily imagine that monsters swim ceaselessly through the moon-silvered sea of grass that shimmers out there beyond the trees.

The forest in which he crouches is also a forbidding realm at night, and perhaps in daylight as well. Fear has been his companion for the past hour, as he’s traveled twisting trails through exotic underbrush, beneath interlaced boughs that have provided only an occasional brief glimpse of the night sky.

Predators on the wooden highways overhead might be stalking him, leaping gracefully limb to limb, as silent and as merciless as the cold stars beneath which they prowl. Or perhaps without warning, a hideous tunneling something, all teeth and appetite, will explode out of the forest floor under his feet, biting him in half or swallowing him whole.

A vivid imagination has always been his refuge. Tonight it is his curse.

Before him, past this final line of trees, the meadow waits. Waits. Too bright under the fat moon. Deceptively peaceful.

He suspects this is a killing ground. He doubts that he will reach the next stand of trees alive.

Sheltering against a weathered outcropping of rock, he wishes desperately that his mother were with him. But she will never be at his side again in this life.

An hour ago, he witnessed her murder.

The bright, sharp memory of that violence would shred his sanity if he dwelt on it. For the sake of survival, he must forget, at least for now, that particular terror, that unbearable loss.

Huddled in the hostile night, he hears himself making miserable sounds. His mother always told him that he was a brave boy; but no brave boy surrenders this easily to his misery.

Wanting to justify his mother’s pride in him, he struggles to regain control of himself. Later, if he lives, he’ll have a lifetime for anguish, loss, and loneliness.

Gradually he finds strength not in the memory of her murder, not in a thirst for vengeance or justice, but in the memory of her love, her toughness, her steely resolution. His wretched sobbing subsides.


The darkness of the woods.

The meadow waiting under the moon.

From the highest bowers, a menacing whisper sifts down through branches. Maybe it is nothing more than a breeze that has found an open door in the attic of the forest.

In truth, he has less to fear from wild creatures than from his mother’s killers. He has no doubt that they still pursue him.

They should have caught him long ago. This territory, however, is as unknown to them as it is to him.

And perhaps his mother’s spirit watches over him.

Even if she’s here in the night, unseen at his side, he can’t rely on her. He has no guardian but himself, no hope other than his wits and courage.

Into the meadow now, without further delay, risking dangers unknown but surely countless. A ripe grassy scent overlays the more subtle smell of rich, raw soil.

The land slopes down to the west. The earth is soft, and the grass is easily trampled. When he pauses to look back, even the pale moonlamp is bright enough to reveal the route he followed.

He has no choice but to forge on.

If he ever dreamed, he could convince himself that he’s in a dream now, that this landscape seems strange because it exists only in his mind, that regardless of how long or how fast he runs, he’ll never arrive at a destination, but will race perpetually through alternating stretches of moon-dazzled meadow and bristling blind-dark forest.

In fact, he has no idea where he’s going. He’s not familiar with this land. Civilization might lie within reach, but more likely than not, he’s plunging deeper into a vast wilderness.

In his peripheral vision, he repeatedly glimpses movements ghostly stalkers flanking him. Each time that he looks more directly, he sees only tall grass trembling in the breeze. Yet these phantom out runners frighten him, and breath by ragged breath, he becomes increasingly convinced that he won’t live to reach the next growth of trees.

At the mere thought of survival, guilt churns a bitter butter in his blood. He has no right to live when everyone else perished.

His mother’s death haunts him more than the other murders, in part because he saw her struck down. He heard the screams of the others, but by the time he found them, they were dead, and their steaming remains were so grisly that he could not make an emotional connection between the loved ones he had known and those hideous cadavers.

Now, from moonlight into darkling forest once more. The meadow behind him. The tangled maze of brush and bramble ahead.

Against all odds, he’s still alive.

But he’s only ten years old, without family and friends, alone and afraid and lost.

Chapter 3

NOAH FARREL WAS SITTING in his parked Chevy, minding someone else’s business, when the windshield imploded.

Noshing on a cream-filled snack cake, contentedly plastering a fresh coat of fat on his artery walls, he suddenly found himself holding a half-eaten treat rendered crunchier but inedible by sprinkles of gummy-prickly safety glass.

Even as Noah dropped the ruined cake, the front passenger’s-side window shattered under the impact of a tire iron.

He bolted from the car through the driver’s door, looked across the roof, and confronted a man mountain with a shaved head and a nose ring. The Chevy stood in an open space midway between massive Indian laurels, and though it wasn’t shaded by the trees, it was sixty or eighty feet from the nearest streetlamp and thus in gloom; however, the glow of the Chevy’s interior lights allowed Noah to see the window-basher. The guy grinned and winked.

Movement to Noah’s left drew his attention. A few feet away, another demolition expert swung a sledgehammer at a headlight.

This steroid-inflated gentleman wore sneakers, pink workout pants with a drawstring waist, and a black T-shirt. The impressive mass of bone in his brow surely weighed more than the five-pound sledge that he swung, and his upper lip was nearly as long as his ponytail.

Even as the last of the cracked plastic and the shattered glass from the headlamp rang and rattled against the pavement, the human Good & Plenty slammed the hammer against the hood of the car.

Simultaneously, the guy with the polished head and the decorated nostril used the Iug-wrench end of the tire iron to break out the rear window on the passenger’s side, perhaps because he’d been offended by his reflection.

The noise grew hellish. Prone to headaches these days, Noah wanted nothing more than quiet and a pair of aspirin.

“Excuse me,” he said to the bargain-basement Thor as the hammer arced high over the hood again, and he leaned into the car through the open door to pluck the key from the ignition.

His house key was on the same ring. When he finally got home, by whatever means, he didn’t want to discover that these behemoths were hosting a World Wrestling Federation beer party in his bungalow.

On the passenger’s seat lay the digital camera that contained photos of the philandering husband entering the house across the street and being greeted at the door by his lover. If Noah reached for the camera, he’d no doubt be left with a hand full of bones as shattered as the windshield.

Pocketing his keys, he walked away, past modest ranch-style houses with neatly trimmed lawns and shrubs, where moon-silvered trees stood whisperless in the warm still air.

Behind him, underlying the steady rhythmic crash of the hammer, the tire iron took up a syncopated beat, tattooing the Chevy fenders and trunk lid.

Here on the perimeter of a respectable residential neighborhood in Anaheim, the home of Disneyland, scenes from A Clockwork Orange weren’t reenacted every day. Nevertheless, made fearful by too much television news, the residents proved more cautious than curious. No one ventured outside to discover the reason for the fracas.

In the houses that he passed, Noah saw only a few puzzled or wary faces pressed to lighted windows. None of them was Mickey, Minnie, Donald, or Goofy.

When he glanced back, he noticed a Lincoln Navigator pulling away from the curb across the street, no doubt containing associates of the creative pair who were making modern art out of his car. Every ten or twelve steps, he checked on the SUV, and always it drifted slowly along in his wake, pacing him.

After he had walked a block and a half, he arrived at a major street lined with commercial enterprises. Many businesses were closed now, at 9:20 on a ‘Tuesday night.

The Chevy-smashing shivaree continued unabated, but distance and intervening layers of laurel branches filtered cacophony into a muted clump-and-crackle.

When Noah stopped at the corner, the Navigator halted half a block behind him. The driver waited to see which way he would go.

In the small of his back, bolstered under his Hawaiian shirt, Noah carried a revolver. He didn’t think he would need the weapon. Nevertheless, he had no plans to remake it into a plowshare.

He turned right and, within another block and a half, arrived at a tavern. Here he might not be able to obtain aspirin, but ice-cold Dos Equis would be available.

When it came to health care, he wasn’t a fanatic about specific remedies.

The long bar lay to the right of the door. In a row down the center of the room, each of eight plank-top tables bore a candle in an amber-glass holder.

Fewer than half the stools and chairs were occupied. Several guys and one woman wore cowboy hats, as though they had been abducted and then displaced in space or time by meddling extraterrestrials.

The concrete floor, painted ruby-red, appeared to have been mopped at least a couple times since Christmas, and underlying the stale-beer smell was a faint scent of disinfectant. If the place had cockroaches, they would probably be small enough that Noah might just be able to wrestle them into submission.

Along the left wall were high-backed wooden booths with seats padded in red leatherette, a few unoccupied. He settled into the booth farthest from the door.

He ordered a beer from a waitress who had evidently sewn herself into her faded, peg-legged blue jeans and red checkered shirt. If her br**sts weren’t real, the nation was facing a serious silicone shortage. “You want a glass?” she asked. “The bottle’s probably cleaner.” “Has to be,” she agreed as she headed for the bar.

While Alan Jackson filled the jukebox with a melancholy lament about loneliness, Noah fished the automobile-club card out of his wallet, he unclipped the phone from his belt and called the twenty-four-hour help-line number.

The woman who assisted him sounded like his aunt Lilly, his old man’s sister, whom he hadn’t seen in fifteen years, but her voice had no sentimental effect on him. Lilly had shot Noah’s dad in the head, killing him, and had wounded Noah himself—once in the left shoulder, once in the right thigh—when he was sixteen, thereby squelching any affection he might have felt toward her.

“The tires will probably be slashed,” he told the auto-club woman, “so send a flatbed instead of a standard tow truck.” He gave her the address where the car could be found and also the name of the dealership to which it should be delivered. “Tomorrow morning’s soon enough. Better not send anyone out there until the Beagle Boys have hammered themselves into exhaustion.”


“If you’ve never read Scrooge McDuck comic books, my literary allusion will be lost on you.”

Arriving just then with a Dos Equis, the cowgirl waitress said, “When I was seventeen, I applied for a character job at Disneyland, but they turned me down.”

Pressing END on his phone, Noah frowned. “Character job?”

“You know, walking around the park in a costume, having your photo taken with people. I wanted to be Minnie Mouse or at least maybe Snow White, but I was too busty.”

“Minnie’s pretty flat-chested.”

“Yeah, well, she’s a mouse.”

“Good point,” Noah said.

“And their idea was that Snow White—she ought to look virginal. I don’t know why.”

“Maybe because if Snow was as sexy as you, people would start to wonder what she might’ve been up to with those seven dwarves— which isn’t a Disney sort of thought.”

She brightened. “Hey, you probably got something there.” Then her sigh vented volumes of disappointment. “I sure did want to be Minnie.”

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