Ruby comes in.

You sure stirred the pot, Sarah Mary Williams. They’re out looking for you. Say they just want to ask you some questions and get to the bottom of things—but I don’t like the look in their eyes, some of them. I’ve seen it before.

She opens the closet door and begins to sift through the clothes hanging there.

They say you made a mess of that Abraham Todd.

I wouldn’t of done it if—

You don’t have to tell me. Those Todd boys have hearts as black as I’ve seen. God help you, I’m sure he deserved whatever you gave him. But now his brother Moses has you on his agenda, and that’s a man without an ounce of foolishness to distract him from his set course. And that means we have to get you out of here. Put this on.

Temple’s hand is throbbing now, so Ruby helps her take off her clothes and stuff them in the duffel bag.

What happened to the bra we got you?

Temple says nothing and raises her arms so Ruby can drape her in the yellow cotton sundress she has taken from her own closet. It has lace trim, and it itches against her skin.

What’s this for? Temple asks.

It’ll attract less attention. Everyone around here who’s not out hunting you is dressed up for services.

Services?

It’s Sunday, sweetie. That’s what we do on Sundays.

It’s been a long time since Temple has distinguished between days of the week.

Then Ruby scrubs Temple’s face with a washcloth and takes a hair clip and puts it between her lips and does something with Temple’s hair and then slips the clip in and locks it down.

There now, Ruby says. Don’t you look nice.

Temple looks into the mirror. There’s a soft pillowy girl looking back at her.

I look like a muffin. Where do those men think I got to?

They think you already left. They’re out looking for you in the streets. Apparently someone also broke into the armory last night.

Ruby’s glance lands on Temple’s heavy duffel bag sitting by the door.

I just took one or two is all.

It’s all right, Sarah Mary. You’re going to need some help. I don’t like to think of it—you out there with all those things. I wish you could’ve stayed with us, but that Moses Todd isn’t going to let it happen. Come on, now. We just need to get you as far as the elevator.

Temple uses her good hand to swing the duffel onto her shoulder while Ruby opens the door and glances up and down the hallway.

Here we go.

On the way to the elevator they pass one family, a man and a woman and a little boy, and they are talking about airplanes and how they stay up in the air and if the boy will ever see one in real life. Ruby and Temple smile and say good morning as they pass.

They are alone in the elevator and Ruby presses a button that says P2 and when the door opens they are in a deserted parking garage packed with cars and Temple follows Ruby to the end of one of the rows where she stops behind a midsized Toyota with its taillight busted out.

I can’t give you one of the nice ones, Ruby says. But it’ll be weeks before they notice this one’s missing. It runs, and it’s got a full tank, I checked already. Here, give me that.

She takes the duffel from Temple and puts it on the passenger seat of the car.

Now you listen to me, Ruby says, taking Temple by the shoulders and looking straight into her eyes. I know some nice people north of here about an hour. They’ll take care of you—tell them you know me. Just follow the signs for Williston and look for a gated compound off the freeway. You got that?

I got it.

You be careful, all right?

Temple doesn’t know what to say, but the moment calls for something.

You done a good thing here, she says. It’s an act of generosity that goes past the ordinary. You’re a right person, like a queen or somethin.

Go on now, Ruby says, looking worried and teary. I suspect you’ve got more troubles ahead of you than behind.

SHE DRIVES north an hour, but she can’t find the place Ruby told her about. The signs are no help. Once she was a safe distance outside the city, she stopped by the side of the road to study a sign and she found the name of a town that was forty-one miles away and thought that might be Williston because that would be about an hour’s drive. So she memorized the look of the name and followed the signs, but now here she is and there’s nothing like a compound at all.

Then it starts to rain and she pulls into the parking lot of a strip mall and shuts down the motor and listens to the drops drumming on the roof of the car.

The rain is bad luck. It stands to reason, she thinks, that the rain ought to come and wash away the impurities of the world. A cleansing like the holy flood was, to slough away the dead and bring dandelions and butterflies to bear every which way on the ruined surface of the world. But it doesn’t work like that. Instead, it just gets cold and damp and shivery in your collar, and afterward, when the sun comes back from behind the clouds, there’s just more mold and rot than there was previous, and the stink rises like gas from every soil and stone.

THE RAIN comes down hard, and she would rather wait it out inside somewhere. There is a warehouse-sized toystore in the strip mall, the colorful sign over the glass doors with all the letters still intact—which she takes as a sign of good things.

She reaches into the duffel and takes out one of the pistols, an M9, and ejects the magazine to make sure it’s topped off. Then she pulls the car up onto the sidewalk under the store’s overhang right in front of the wide glass doors and gets out.

The smell of the air is already worse—ozone and canker mixed. The pestilence dribbling to the surface and oozing into puddles of decay on the asphalt. A film coalesces over the water, a waxy skin that splits like gelatin when you tread on it.

Inside the electricity is out but the tall windows in front cast a workable gray light over most of the store. She walks up and down the aisles, fingering the dusty packages and trying to imagine a family room filled with colorful plastic dolls and cars, abstract magnetic construction kits, spacecraft adorned with stickers, miniature pianos with keys that light up when you press them. Silly, the casual and disposable fantasy of such objects.

In one aisle she finds a rack of miniature die-cast toys. She takes one, a fighter jet, and tears the plastic open and holds the thing in the palm of her hand. She remembers the boy earlier this morning asking his parents about airplanes. And she thinks of something else from a long time ago.

Malcolm in the passenger seat, on their way to Hollis Bend, him pointing at something through the windshield.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com