Not to mention the long kitchen knife gripped in the skinless hand.
I’m gon kill you.
Easy there, Miss Muffett.
The girl comes at her, the knife raised. Temple trips the girl and dodges the blade. But she takes the full impact of the girl’s body against her own. She’s knocked to the ground and all the wind goes out of her. Coughing, she hops up into a crouch, her head swimming, the girl standing over her with the knife.
Let up, little girl, Temple says. Or I’m gonna have to hurt you.
But the girl stretches out her leg and thrusts her foot into Temple’s chest, and it feels like a sledgehammer driving her backward. She drags herself back, away from the advancing girl, watching those exposed fingerbones tighten skeletal around the handle of the knife.
Then a man’s voice, in the trees:
Millie, what the hell you doin girl? I tole you just to watch her till I got back.
A man, different from the one she saw before, but big, like the other, graying skin pulled away in parts, one eyelid sewn shut over a sunken hole.
He points to the knife in the girl’s hand.
Mama’s gon kill you she finds out you been in her kitchen. Come on, now, Mama told us to bring this one back too.
And they lift her, one on each side, and she can smell the reechy rot of their skin, and her head swims and her stomach bubbles, and she tries to use her legs to keep up, but most of the time she just feels her feet dragging along the ground.
THEY CARRY her to the road, and she notices, through the blurry haze of her vision, that the car is empty. Maury is gone. She wonders where he could have gotten to. She wonders, in a distant way, if they have taken him away.
Farther down the road they come to a town, little more than a crossroads with small brick shops. She can feel her feet bump over the rails of an old railroad track running east and west, one of the long red-striped wooden guards pointing straight up to the darkening sky, another broken off a couple feet above the base.
She tries to walk on her own but stumbles and lets herself be carried. Her shoulders ache and her arms are sore where their bony hands are gripped around them.
The streets are empty. They drag her in the direction of a building on the corner. It is shaped like a town hall or a municipal building. It says something over the door, but she doesn’t know the words.
Then a voice she recognizes—a man’s voice—calls out from behind them.
Just one goddamn second, the voice says.
The hands let go of her, and she drops to her knees and keels forward. Her head turns in circles, and her stomach, and the gravel on the street digs into her palms. It takes all her effort, but she turns and lifts her head enough to see.
Moses Todd, she says.
It’s him, sure enough. There he stands, like some kind of cowboy, in the middle of the intersection, a broken stoplight swaying slightly over his head and in his outstretched arm a pistol leveled at the man standing over her.
Step away from the girl, Moses Todd says.
But something happens, and the man with the sewn-shut eyelid moves behind her suddenly and closes his hands around her skull like a vise and lifts her upright so she has to reach up and grab his wrists to keep her neck from snapping.
Put yer gun down, the man says, his voice wet and loud just behind her. Put it down now or I’m gon kill her.
Moses laughs and keeps the gun steady.
Look at the pickle you got yourself in, little girl. Seems like everybody in the world wants a share of your final breaths.
I swear hell I’m gon kill her, says the man again, wrenching her head slightly to the side.
Then Moses Todd raises his gaze from Temple to the man, and a serious look comes across his face.
She ain’t yours to kill, he says. She’s mine.
And the gun explodes and she feels a wetness spray the back of her head and the hands holding her up go slack and she drops to the ground and looks behind her and sees the body of the man collapsed on the tarmac, the back of his head spilled open and a soft mushy hole in his face where his left cheek used to be.
The girl Millie who was standing on the other side of her is already running away around the corner of the brick building.
Temple manages to lift her body up to a sitting position, her knees numb beneath her.
Moses Todd walks over and towers in front of her. He looks down at her, almost sadly.
Now it’s your turn, little girl. I told you you should of killed me.
You did, she says, trying to find out where in her body all her strength was hiding at the moment. You sure enough did.
I reckon your life is mine twice over now, he says. Once by debt and once by forfeit.
I reckon it is.
You got anything else you want to say?
Her head swirls like a stirred pot. She feels for any spare force in her arms, but it’s not there. They hang limply at her sides. She’s tired. She’s never been so tired, and that’s saying something because she’s been tired a lot in the stretching span of her lifetime.
Don’t worry yourself about it, she says. I guess I could of seen Niagara Falls once—that would of been nice. But it don’t matter much.
Niagara Falls. How come?
Beats me. It’s just big is all I know. One of God’s marvels.
Moses Todd nods his head.
Yeah, he says.
She looks up at him, and the corners of his mouth creep up into something like a smile, a smile that says, It’s okay I’m with you there in your smoky little girlhead, and he sighs heavily and looks on down the road into the distance.
All right, then, he says and raises the pistol to her forehead. It’ll be quick—you’ll start dreamin of heaven before you feel a thing. But you might want to close your eyes.
She does, she closes her eyes and thinks of all sorts of things, Malcolm and Maury the dummy and the lighthouse where you could see the vastness of the ocean, and she thinks about flying over that ocean and watching it unfold under her for ever and ever, skimming the surface and going faster and faster until everything blurs from speed and up and down don’t mean anything and the air becomes thick and solid around her and the face of God is right there too, nuzzling up against her, and amen she says, amen, amen, amen—
She hears the shot—and something’s wrong, because she knows she shouldn’t hear anything. But her head is mixed up, and she’s sweating a lot now, and part of her mind is still flying over the surface of the ocean—and she opens her eyes and sees Moses Todd before her, dropping the pistol to the ground and gripping his shoulder, blood coming out brown from between his fingers.
Son of a bitch, he says and starts to back away from her.