Mission Road Page 37

’’You don\'t have any siblings.’’

’’Present tense, that\'s true. But . . . I did. An older brother. He died at age ten. He never saw a doctor. We couldn\'t get good treatment because of who my family was warlords, landowners, traitors. We didn\'t even know what was wrong with him. He was frail, clumsy. He broke bones a lot. Finally his body just . . . quit on him. Since then, since I came to America, I\'ve figured out what he had.’’

I was silent for a verse of ’’We Three Kings.’’ ’’Muscular dystrophy?’’

’’I\'ve been talking to doctors,’’ Maia said. ’’It passes through the mother\'s side, even if the mother doesn\'t have it. A boy child would have about a fifty percent chance of inheriting the disease.’’

’’And . . . is it a boy?’’

’’I don\'t know yet, Tres. I kind of don\'t want to know.’’

Maia\'s present was still next to me on the porch rail. I stared at the green bow and said nothing.

’’You didn\'t choose to be a dad, Tres. You\'re not obligated to help. Especially not . . .’’

She didn\'t finish, but I understood: Especially not after Ralph\'s death.

I slid her the present. ’’Open it.’’

She looked at the battered shoebox. One of the many things I\'ve never mastered is gift-wrapping. The box looked like it had been packaged by a clumsy, color-blind kindergartner.

Maia set her tea on the railing and opened the box. Inside, wads of tissue paper and a smaller box. Inside that, a still smaller box. This one black velvet.

She opened the hinged lid.

’’Corny, I know,’’ I said. ’’Ana helped me. She guessed the right size.’’

Maia held up the ring like it was critical case evidence. ’’Tres ’’

’’I didn\'t know about diamonds. The guy said that one was good. I didn\'t figure you for a diamond person, but Ana thought it was the right thing. So ’’

’’Tres ’’

’’If you think it\'s a bad idea . . .’’ My face felt hot. ’’I mean, I know it\'s weird.’’

’’You\'re proposing to me?’’

’’You could keep the Austin apartment for business. The house here is huge. I mean . . . I never figured myself for old-fashioned, but the kid needs a dad. I mean, he\'s got one, but he needs one full-time. So, yeah. I\'m proposing. Marriage, I mean.’’


’’Is that a no?’’

She threw her arms around me and kissed me hard. The tea hit the porch and went rolling, splattering all over the place. The diamond ring dug into my neck.

When she finally let go I felt dizzy, like I\'d just been pulled back from the edge of a cliff.

’’That\'s a yes, stupid,’’ she told me. ’’A very big yes.’’

She kissed me again, and I tried to force myself back into my life, but I couldn\'t do it. Something had changed. Something huge.

Nat King Cole was playing inside. The air outside was getting colder.

Mrs. Loomis called to us from the front door. She had atole for us to try. She and Sam were waiting to play Old Maid. We\'d promised them a game.

Maia ran her hands through my hair. ’’Tres, do you have any idea what you\'re getting yourself into?’’

’’None,’’ I admitted. ’’Absolutely none.’’

’’That makes two of us,’’ she said. ’’Come on.’’

She took my hand and led me inside, where the rest of our makeshift family was waiting.

JULY 14, 1987

WHEN SHE WAS SURE THE POLICEWOMAN was gone, thirteen-year-old Madeleine White opened the passenger\'s door of the Mercedes and got out.

She stared at her brother\'s body. A halo of blood glistened around his head. His fingers were curled like claws into the dirt.

She didn\'t want to get closer. She wanted to run. But a hot, scratchy rope knotted around her heart, pulling her forward.

She had watched the argument.

Until the end, she\'d been more afraid of Frankie than the policewoman. Even now, as he lay motionless on the pavement, Madeleine was certain he\'d get up. He was dazed, or faking it. You couldn\'t kill Frankie that easily.

She took another step toward him. Rain began to splatter her clothes, soaking into the cheap green cotton of her patient scrubs.

She wanted to be back at the facility. She hated the security guard for springing her from her room, shuffling her without explanation to a service exit where Frankie had been waiting. Frankie had handed him a thick roll of cash, told him, You didn\'t see anything, then driven away with her.

She wasn\'t supposed to leave. The judge had said so. She hadn\'t been outside Stokes-McLean in four months.

’’I\'m going to show you something,’’ Frankie told her. ’’I\'m going to make you understand.’’

He wouldn\'t say where they were going. All she knew: This wasn\'t the way home.

He took a lazy route through the South Side, past dark fields and clapboard houses, store signs in Spanish, Hispanic men sitting in pools of yellow light outside cantinas. He seemed to be giving her a tour, going slow so she could memorize every storefront, every turn.

She wondered how much he\'d heard from her counselors. She\'d started talking about him in therapy. She hated him now, for the times he\'d hit her, the things he\'d said, the nights she\'d awakened and found him sitting at the foot of her bed.

She knew now that Frankie had killed those women. She\'d even toyed with the idea of talking to the police.

In art class, she\'d made a clay sculpture of his face. The counselors said it would make her feel better if she smashed it, to get power over him. Most of the kids were younger than she. They\'d all been se*ually or physically abused before they did whatever violence got them committed. Their clay images were crude little voodoo dolls which they smashed with enthusiasm. But Madeleine was an artist. She made Frankie\'s clay bust with the same care as the blue self-portrait she\'d drawn him for Christmas.

The bust looked just like him. Even the counselors said so. But she couldn\'t smash it. Every day they would encourage her to do so, but the clay hardened, drying in splotchy white patches like mold.

The counselors must\'ve broken confidentiality to warn Frankie. They\'d probably taken his money just like that son-of-a-bitch security guard.

Frankie turned onto Mission Road, a crumbling stretch of blacktop that led nowhere except into deeper darkness.

Then the cop pulled them over.

Frankie grabbed Madeleine and shoved her back against the door. ’’Not one sound. Whatever happens, you stay in this f*king car or I\'ll slap the shit out of you. Understand?’’

Now, looking down at his body, she could still feel the electric charge of his rage, the promise of violence that made her skin tingle.

I\'m going to make you understand.

She knelt. The policewoman\'s baton lay next to Frankie\'s motionless hand.

She thought about her classmate, the girl in the locker room who\'d teased her about Frankie being a psychopath. Rumors were all around town, the girl said. Frankie raped women. He got off on strangling them. The girl asked if he\'d tried anything with Madeleine.

Madeleine remembered picking up the nearest heavy object, a biology textbook. She remembered hitting the girl in the face, then slamming her to the floor, pummeling her, not realizing until her friends pulled her off that the girl wasn\'t fighting back.

She had done that to someone she barely knew, yet she couldn\'t touch a clay mask of Frankie\'s face.

She realized she should be doing something running, calling the police. But she couldn\'t call the police. The police had done this.

Cicadas chirred in the woods. Water was trickling somewhere a stream out in the fields. Far off in the direction the police car had gone, a single streetlight gleamed.

This was the place Frankie had killed those women. Madeleine was sure of it.

And he had brought her here, his own sister.

If the lady cop hadn\'t come . . .

The wound was just behind Frankie\'s ear. His hair was sticky with blood.

Madeleine felt no anger toward the policewoman. Instead, she felt a strange kind of awe. One quick strike . . . was that really all it took to stop him?

A siren wailed in the distance. Maybe another police car, maybe something else.

She didn\'t want the policewoman to get in trouble. Frankie had made a world of trouble for all those women he\'d hurt. She didn\'t want Frankie to ever get up.

She tried to think of what to do. She couldn\'t go home. Her father would never believe Frankie had meant to hurt her. He would somehow turn this into her fault.

The hospital was just over those fields.

She would have to walk miles in the dark, but she could do it. The security guard would let her in. He\'d keep quiet. What choice did he have? He couldn\'t say anything without getting himself in trouble. The counselors may have betrayed her, but Stokes-McLean was still the safest place she\'d ever known. She would just have to be more careful. She couldn\'t talk about her family anymore. Nobody could help her but herself.

She\'d leave Frankie, pretend she was never here. As long as he stayed motionless, as long as he couldn\'t hurt her anymore . . .

Then he groaned. Madeleine started to tremble when Frankie rolled onto his back.

His face was unmarred, his eyes so like hers were dazed, searching the sky. He didn\'t look exactly conscious, but he was trying to make a fist, like he was trying to grab hold of life, pull himself back.

In that instant, Madeleine knew what would happen. Frankie would live. He would get better. He would punish her. The lady cop, whoever she was, would die for daring to touch him, just like the other women had.

It wasn\'t fair.

She looked down at her brother\'s face, pale and perfectly sculpted, so much like the clay bust. She heard her counselor\'s voice: Take control. You\'ll never be free of him otherwise.

She picked up the policewoman\'s baton.

AFTERWARD, SHE RAN DEEP INTO THE woods. Cactus tore at her legs. Branches scraped her face.

She didn\'t look back.

She stumbled in a stream, dropped the baton in the water. She kept going, running from the sound of the police siren somewhere behind her, impossibly thin and weak, but growing steadily louder, like a lament from the other side of the world.

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