Take it, she says.
He doesn’t move. He sits there, his back against the wall, considering her. There is something in his face that she doesn’t want to look at. Loathing she can handle, she knows what to do with antipathy. But affection she can’t abide.
I ain’t givin you the keys, she says. This knife, it don’t mean nothin. It’ll give you a fightin chance, but I hope they put you in the ground, you understand?
He rises to his feet, and, without changing his expression at all, he dusts off his hands and takes the knife from her.
I ain’t savin you, she says. This ain’t savin you. You somehow make it outta here and track me down, you best come with a furious rage—because I got no use for your sympathy.
He nods, his eyes on her like he’s reading a book he’s just getting to the end of and can’t be interrupted.
I ain’t savin you, she says again, even though she doesn’t want to and even though each time she says it it sounds to her less like an oath and more like a plea. I ain’t savin you, you understand me?
Those eyes on her, brutal and profound and even paternal. And when he says it, he says it like signing a grave contract:
She turns to leave, but before she reaches the stairs, Moses calls out to her.
One more thing, he says, and even though she stops to listen she doesn’t turn around. His voice has a challenge in it, as though he would diminish her. I’ve seen evil, girl, and you ain’t it.
Then what am I? she says, still not looking at him.
She waits for a moment longer, but when he doesn’t respond she continues up the stairs, feeling his eyes follow her all the way out.
TEMPLE FINDS a window in the back of the place that leads out onto an alley, and she steals away, taking the big lumbering man by the hand and pulling him along to keep pace with her as she sprints from one coverture to the next, until they are far enough out of town that they can slow their pace.
They keep the road on their left and follow it until they arrive back at the place where the car is. Someone has pushed it into a ditch where it sits angled downward into the weeds, and the driver’s door hangs agape.
The duffel bag full of guns is gone, but she finds one pistol with a full clip she stowed beneath the driver’s seat. There’s a burlap sack wedged in the corner of the trunk, and she takes that and fills it with whatever she can salvage—some clothes, including the yellow sundress Ruby gave her weeks before, some maps she was using to navigate her way west, a half bottle of water, a lighter, and the remains of a large package of cheese crackers.
In the glove compartment she finds the die-cast fighter jet she got in the toy store. She turns it over and over in her hands.
Hey, Maury, come here.
She holds it out to him, but he doesn’t take it.
Look, she says. It’s an airplane. Like up in the air.
She points to the sky and then illustrates how the jet fighter would fly through it, making swooshing sounds to accompany the demonstration.
Here, you can have it.
This time he takes it and holds it in his palm, staring down at it as though waiting for it to take off on its own power.
Don’t lose it now, she says. Put it in your pocket.
She also finds, pushed all the way into the back of the glove compartment, the plastic bag with the tip of her finger in it. It’s gotten shriveled up like a raisin and gray all over except the nail, which is still painted soft pink. She looks at her other nine fingernails, and there’s not a trace of that cotton candy polish left anywhere. Instead, there’s blood caked black and hard under the tips of her nails, as though she has claws meant for digging instead of fingers.
She rolls the plastic bag into a cylinder and stuffs it into her pocket.
Say goodbye to the vehicle, she says to Maury. We’re hoofin it for a while till we can find us some new wheels.
They skirt the town on their way back, but in the distance they can hear hollering and wailing—deep cries of anger and mourning.
I guess they found the mess we left, she says. You suppose they’ll come after us, Maury? We gotta watch our backs. I wonder what they done with ole Mose.
A couple miles out of town they pick up the railroad and follow it east so they can stay off the main road but still be able to move quickly and to see if anyone’s coming up behind them. Temple uses the gurkha knife to cut Maury a walking stick, and he lets it drag along the wooden ties, producing a rhythmic tap of wood on wood like the cycling of an ancient pedometer measuring the unfolded distance of their journey.
The sun dips lower in the sky ahead of them, and their shadows are the only things that follow them, stretching long and distorted behind. Their feet crunch on the gravel of the rail bed, and she notices that the rails themselves are not rusted brown but shiny, and she wonders if they are still in use by someone.
The sun goes down but the sky stays bright for a long time as though they are walking along the very perimeter of a flat earth. It is still light when the dry kudzu-choked trees on their right thin to reveal a river running parallel to them.
Ain’t that a sight, she says.
The water is broad and slow moving, and the verge is thick with reeds. She looks hard into the distance behind them but sees nothing.
Come on, Maury. You need a bath almost as bad as I do.
So they strip off their clothes and walk into the water as the grimy supplicants of a desecrated earth—the man’s body pale and thick, almost hairless, sitting like a sunken stone in the shallows, motionless as the water finds its course around the simple obstruction, and she, like a tiny despoiled innocent washing away the marks of her ruin, dunking her head under the water as if there she would find the baptismal kingdom of heaven, and rising up again with the pink of her flesh beginning to show through the mask of putrefaction. She runs her fingers through her hair and watches the water sweeping away the clots of blood and tissue, the splinters of bone. From above she might be seen to carry a tail like a comet, she the bright head followed by an elongated swirling deltoid of red-brown muck. Afterward, she sits waist-deep and picks away bits of glass buried in the skin of her face and hands, and she rinses her cuts in the cool water until the burn ceases.
Then she takes her clothes from the grassy shore and soaks them in the water and wrings them until all the crustiness is gone out of them—though the rusty stains won’t come clean and, she supposes, never will.
By the time they emerge purified from the river, the sky has grown an inky purple, and stars are visible between the smoky night clouds.
They gather twigs and slash from the woods, and she piles it up and uses a tangle of dry grass to light a fire behind a rocky outcropping, where it won’t be seen from the direction of the town behind them. She drapes her clothes over the rocks near the fire and watches the steam rise from them in wispy gray tongues while they dry. The night wind comes cool and her skin prickles all over with goose bumps.