Read an Excerpt
JULY 4, 2001
Seventy-two years later
Angela Toussaint's Fourth of July party began well enough, but no one would remember that because of the way it would end. That's what everyone would talk about later. The way it ended.
Angela didn't want to have a party that day. Maybe it was the lawyer in her, but she was too much of a stickler to enjoy hosting parties, brooding over details. Is there enough food? What if there's an accident with the fireworks? Will somebody have too much beer and break his neck on those steep steps outside? Angela didn't have the hostess gene, and she couldn't remember why she ever wanted to throw a Fourth of July party at Gramma Marie's house. Like most of the well-intentioned plans in her life, the party had grown into something to dread.
"Shit on me."
Angela's digital clock said it was just after six. The first guests would be here in less than a half hour, and she wasn't fully dressed. Still damp from the shower, Angela tore through her jumbled pile of shirts in the top drawer of her grandmother's old mahogany dresser, searching for a T-shirt that wasn't political enough to raise eyebrows and draw her into an argument from the start. TREATMENT, NOT PRISON. IT'S A WOMAN'S CHOICE. STRAIGHT BUT NOT NARROW. She opted for a peach-colored Juneteenth T-shirt a promoter in L.A. had given her last year, and she wiggled into it. Frankly, she'd rather be hosting a Juneteenth party anyway, commemorating the end of slavery. What had the War for Independence done for her ancestors?
Two clamplike hands encircled Angela's bare waist from behind. She froze, alarmed, unable to see because she was trapped inside the cotton shirt, her arms snared above her head. "Tariq?"
"It's Crispus Attucks, back from the dead to give you a brother's perspective on the Boston Massacre," a low-pitched voice rasped.
Angela's heart bucked. Jesus. She poked her head through the shirt's collar and found Tariq's smiling face behind her. She gazed at the deeply graven lines that carved her husband's features, at the unruliness of his bushy moustache splaying toward his cheeks as if it intended to become a beard, and it occurred to her that Tariq wasn't handsome so much as sturdy. At U.C.L.A., watching him dart through and around bigger, stronger men with a football cradled under his arm like a bundled infant, she had felt her juices flowing on a much deeper level than her juices had flowed for any of the men she'd met at law school. Much to her surprise, Tariq Hill had scorned hoochies and loved his books, planning to get an M.B.A. one day and her juices swept her away. Then, as her punishment for letting her juices do her thinking, time had taught her the downside: Tariq's demeanor often mimicked his rugged look; unyielding, impatient, even unkind. He made her nervous. Not always, by any stretch, but far, far too often.
So, Angela couldn't help it. She let out a tiny gasp, even after she saw Tariq's face.
She hoped he hadn't heard her gasp. He had.
"What the hell's wrong with you? It's just me," Tariq said, no longer sounding playful. That was the tone, understated, nearly robotic. She hadn't heard this tone from Tariq since he'd been here, but there was no mistaking it. The tone was Tariq's mask, flung clumsily over his anger. Hiding everything he didn't want her to see.
Damn. She'd pissed him off, and right before the party.
Angela forced a bright smile. "Sorry. You scared me," she said.
Tariq's lips curled ruefully, and Angela saw his annoyance shift from her back to himself. His eyes were suddenly soft. Angela was only five-foot-three, and this was one of the rare times the twelve inches separating her face from her husband's did not feel like an impossible distance. She had to dial her head back more than fifteen years to remember seeing Tariq's eyes this soft.
"My fault, babe. I should've knocked. That's on me." He kissed the top of her head, massaging her damp, short-cropped hair with one hand.
Apology accepted, she thought. But were they going to spend all of their time apologizing to each other from now on, tiptoeing around each other's weaknesses?
Angela wasn't used to having Tariq here. Summers belonged to Corey. She'd come to Sacajawea expecting nothing more than summer visitation with her son, when she took a two-and-a-half-month leave from her law firm to become a full-time parent, rediscovering the person her son was turning into since he'd moved to Oakland with his dad. This trip was their third year running, a tradition. More like a reunion.
But two weeks ago, Tariq had shown up in his faded old VW van, the one he had driven when they eloped to Vegas when she was pregnant, and his presence created a reunion of an entirely different kind. The three of them were spending the warm months here at Gramma Marie's house, in the folds of this quiet logging and fishing town on the banks of the Columbia River in southwestern Washington state, with ninety minutes isolating them from Portland, the nearest major city. Peace and seclusion, no distractions, no excuses. And if they could live together, just for a summer, Angela believed there was still hope they could dig up something warm and living from the ice that had settled over their marriage long ago. Their last chance.
The shredded, soulful moan in Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long to Stop Now" playing on Angela's bedroom CD player was barely audible beneath the Will Smith bassline shaking the walls from Corey's room across the hall, but Redding's vocal caresses filled the room in their silence. Tariq's eyes turned glazed and wolfish. "I love this song," he said.
Angela's thighs squirmed. Last night, once again, Tariq had tapped on her bedroom door and asked for an invitation into her room wearing nothing but his boxers. She and Tariq had made love five times since his arrival, and she felt their sexual play creeping back toward the much-anticipated ritual it had been in the old days, dueling appetites. Last night, she'd dismounted him after her sweet, sudden orgasm and enveloped him within the hot moisture of her mouth and tongue.
"What are you thinking about, Mr. Hill?" Angela said, knowing full well. She hadn't given him oral sex since a year before he moved to Oakland. Today, she guessed, Tariq was one happy man.
"I'm thinking about what's in those Levi's," Tariq said, his eyes boldly assessing the modest spread of her hips. "And a certain debt I can't wait to repay."
She wanted to say, I can't wait either, but she only smiled. There was still an artifice to this, occasional puppet strings flitting into her vision that kept her from sinking into the fantasy. For one thing, they had separate rooms and were still hiding from Corey like two boarding-school students ducking from their dormitory monitor. And neither of them had dared utter the terrifying words "I love you," for fear of the silence that might follow.
But God, this felt good. Not quite right, but maybe it was getting there.
"Baby, please hold that thought, okay? It's after six. I need to go downstairs...."
"Yeah, I think I need to go on down, too." He teased her with his fingertip, drawing his index finger across her breast until her nipple sprang to attention. His voice was a breath in her ear. "I'd like to go down right now."
Somehow, despite her fluttering chest and a persistent smoldering where her thighs met, Angela pulled herself away, leading Tariq out of the room by the hand, toward the stairs. Tariq walked behind her, rubbing just close enough that she could feel the solidness of his erection beneath his grilling apron. It was a tempting invitation. More than tempting. Until a week and a half ago, Angela hadn't had sex in exactly five hundred days. With Tariq behind her on the stairs, Angela's body went to war with her reason, and almost won. She squirmed against him, then found her resolve. "You better quit following me around with that thing and go put the ribs on."
"Yes, ma'am," Tariq said. And he stepped back.
No argument. No sarcasm. That was good. There hadn't been much sarcasm from him all summer. Mostly smiles, and easy cooperation. Tariq had cut down to one or two cigarettes a day, smoking on the deck outside without being asked, a ritual more than an addiction. This was not the same Tariq who left four years ago. She'd hardly met this Tariq. She had a lot to learn about him.
He kissed the top of her head again. "I'm gonna check on those ribs."
Maybe Gramma Marie's house would cast some sort of cleansing spell on their family, Angela thought. Gramma Marie would have loved the idea of her coming back to the house she'd called "that ugly old house" when she'd been too young to see it for what it was, before she knew about the magic it could work. She tried to work the same magic every summer with Corey, and up until exactly two weeks ago, she'd begun to think the magic wouldn't happen. She'd begun to think that maybe Gramma Marie wasn't preserved in this house after all, that maybe she should take Corey away to New York instead, or somewhere mind-blowing like Egypt. She'd been mourning the loss of the magic until the moment Tariq's van had driven up and Corey had looked out of the living room's picture window and said, Dad's here, his tone dazed, his face emblazoned with an expression of pure joy Angela would never forget.
At last, it was happening, after all this time. Gramma Marie's magic was back.
In the living room, Angela surveyed her grandmother's 1920s-era quartered white oak furniture, relics from another time. She rested a warm gaze on the old Starr upright player piano against the wall, remembering how she'd hated that scarred piano once, not merely because of Gramma Marie's mandatory one-hour daily practice sessions Angela could play decent blues and gospel piano to this day for no other reason than her grandmother's stubbornness but because of the way the keys moved by themselves when Gramma Marie put on her music rolls, as if an invisible man, a ghost of some kind, were sitting at the bench. Now, she treasured the piano. It held Gramma Marie's spirit intact. So did the tall, oak grandfather clock that had kept Angela awake all through high school until age finally silenced it. And the matching rocker where Gramma Marie had spent her days rocking against the cushioned leather seat, gnawing peanuts. And, of course, Gramma Marie's collection of porcelain figurines were all preserving pieces of Gramma Marie's spirit, too; strawberries, dogs, ballerinas, flower vases, miniature teapots, juicy watermelon slices, and little dark-skinned children sporting short pants or unruly plaits. Even the ugly-as-sin, featureless, little dark clay dolls scattered among the figurines, which Angela had never much cared for because they seemed unfinished and vaguely misshapen, were helping bring Gramma Marie back to her. Gramma Marie's house, she decided, would bring them all good luck.
Tariq's head emerged from the French doors leading to the dining room, his face framed between the whitewashed wood panels. "Hey, Snook?" he said softly, using his long-ago pet name. "All playing aside, I'm glad I'm here this summer, babe. I should have said that before now. This is long overdue."
"Not as glad as I am," she said. "Glad isn't even the word."
"We have some talking to do. Tonight, after this party. All right? Real talking."
Unexpectedly, Angela's entire body felt rigid. "I swear, Tariq, I don't know if I have it in me to sit through another one of our bad talks. I really don't."
"I know," Tariq said, blinking. "Let's do better this time then, Snook. I've..."
But his voice trailed off. Angela heard quick-paced footsteps descending the wooden staircase, and Corey appeared from the foyer. At fifteen, Corey was bony and only five-foot-six, although he'd hoped to inherit his father's genes for height and musculature. So far, Angela's tiny stature had offset any memorable growth spurts, something else she figured her son blamed her for.
"What's going on?" Corey said, suspicious. If she and Tariq were talking too long, their son assumed they were fighting. She couldn't blame him. Fighting was the one thing she and Tariq had always been good at together over money, over parenting styles, and their worst, over that raggedy damned handgun a friend of Tariq's had given him years ago. She'd finally convinced him to sell it, but had they ever recovered from that one night? That fight with Tariq was the closest Angela had felt to having a nervous breakdown, and even as she had listened to herself screaming in rage, she'd wondered why Tariq wasn't trying to comfort her. Instead, she'd seen something change in Tariq's eyes, tightening. His forearm had knotted, and his closed hand had risen suddenly, ready to strike her.
That was when Corey had come out of his room. Nine years old, crying because Mommy and Daddy were yelling. The sound of their son's cries had snapped both of them back to themselves. Ever since, it seemed, Corey had been their wary referee. His face still wore the same expression, prepared for chaos.
"Nothing's going on," Angela said, swatting Corey's backside in his too-baggy denim shorts. "Go upstairs and turn that music off. I don't want that blasting when people get here. I'm about to put on some jazz."
"Oh, you afraid we're gonna sound too ghetto? It's just Will. It ain't like I've got on nothin' hard-core." Corey was purposely butchering his grammar, an affectation he'd adopted since he'd moved to Oakland, trying to pretend away all his years of private school so he wouldn't stand out. The sound of it grated on Angela's ear.
"Go on back up and do what your mama says," Tariq said. "Don't get smart."
Corey leveled a gaze at his father, as if he had turned traitor. Then he seemed to lose focus, as if he were exhausted. He cut his eyes away before turning to amble back toward the stairs. "I thought maybe Sean was here," Corey mumbled. "I gotta go to Sean's later."
"What about the fireworks?" Tariq said.
"I dunno, Dad." Corey's voice was muted as his feet shuffled up the stairs. "I don't feel like it. My stomach's not right today, man."
"What'd he say? His stomach?" Tariq said, angry. He sprang into the living room with one of those sudden motions that had always made Angela wonder if a man that big could hurt someone just by moving so fast. His size had always scared her, even if the presence of the gun had scared her more. "Does that boy know we spent two hundred dollars on fireworks? Lemme go talk to him."
Watching Tariq follow Corey, Angela knew that the frail opportunity that had just bloomed between her and her husband, whatever it was, had been lost for now. His mood had changed, an aspect of the old Tariq she remembered very well.
Let's do better this time then, Snook. I've
He's what? Angela wondered, frustrated. She felt a certainty, every bit as irrational as it was gloomy, that their conversation couldn't wait, not this time. A part of her was convinced that if she didn't find out right now what feelings she had stirred in Tariq, she would never know. All of Angela's worst nightmares tended to come to merry realization one after the other, as if they were on a hellish train schedule, so it was no wonder she struggled against her grim imagination. There was always something worse waiting. One more bad thing.
Tariq called out to her from upstairs. "Snook, did you remember the ice?"
Shit. She'd forgotten. Their freezer's ice machine was too slow for a party.
"You want me to go?" Tariq called again, guessing at her silence, and Angela felt herself relax. His mood must not have changed that much after all.
"No, you put the ribs on," she said. "It'll just take me a few minutes to run into town, baby."
Angela found her pocketbook on the red upholstered seat of Gramma Marie's glossy mahogany chair sitting near the foot of the stairs, the empty throne. It was an eye-catching chair, almost more artwork than furniture, standing on lovely legs carved to look as if they were braided, mirroring the seat-back's twisting, lacelike designs. Beside the chair, an old-fashioned telephone table displayed a yellowed photograph of Gramma Marie and Red John taken during the 1920s, when they had both been young. Angela gazed at the picture, amazed to realize that her grandmother must have been in her early thirties when this photograph was taken, younger than Angela was now. Gramma Marie's midnight skin was model-smooth, her broad, prominent nose was as intriguing as an African maiden's, and she wore her thick hair in well-kept French braids that wound around her head, the same style she had favored until the end of her life. Angela had never met her grandmother's husband because he had died in a logging accident long before Angela was born, but to Angela, her strong-featured grandmother and Native American mate, with his long hair and dark, meditative face, were still the Lord and Lady of this manor.
"'Bye, Gramma Marie," Angela said softly to the photograph, as habit compelled her. And the photograph spoke back to her, or at least it always seemed to because Angela could best remember her grandmother's husky voice when she gazed at her preserved face: Adieu, cher.
Outside, Angela could smell her past buried among the ferns and salal in the earthy scent of the cool forest floor. She stood atop the high ridge where the house was perched, accessible from the private clay road below only by climbing the twenty-one stone steps a climb Gramma Marie had been perfectly capable of achieving, thank you very much, until her sudden death from pneumonia at the age of ninety-two. Above the steps, the house appeared like a doll's house set against the wilderness, prominently displaying the large picture window Angela and Tariq had built after they claimed the house as their own. Gramma Marie's house had been built in 1907, and except for the picture window, internal refurbishing, roof work, painting, and electrical and plumbing updates, the roomy house remained as it had always been: a cheery blue post-Victorian with five bedrooms, twin pairs of narrow white columns on either side of the porch to greet visitors, and a round window positioned like a watchful eye from the attic. The boxy second story sat atop the smaller first level like a fat, nesting bird. The house bordered nearly virgin woods and a creek that had been in Angela's family for three generations now. Gramma Marie had left plenty of money, too, but the property meant more to Angela. I never got my mule, Gramma Marie used to say, but I damn sure got my forty acres. The true number was closer to sixty acres, Angela had since learned. Those acres were hers now, and Corey's.
The clay road below, which locals called Toussaint Lane, petered out about thirty yards beyond Gramma Marie's house, vanishing as a thin dirt trail into the woods. Local kids, herself included, used to hike a half-mile into those woods on Gramma Marie's property to The Spot, a large clearing with a fire-pit and ring of logs where they drank beer, smoked, and necked. And that wasn't all they could do there, she had discovered in high school. Myles Fisher, her high school sweetheart and first true friend, had become her first true lover one day at The Spot. Two blankets, a layer of fir needles, and mutual eagerness had cushioned their bodies from the hard ground.
No lovemaking experience had felt quite like it, although Myles's tentative touches, unlearned but earnest, didn't rival Tariq's hungry assuredness. Tariq was the best lover Angela had ever known. But there had been something about that time at The Spot, something it had taken years to work out of her memory that revisited her each time she thought about the ground where their naked bodies had lain.
Myles, like her, had left Sacajawea as soon as he had his high school diploma, and she hadn't seen him since. They had both been in such a hurry to get away, and sometimes she wondered why. This was a place of healing. Gramma Marie had always said so, and the people of Sacajawea still seemed to believe it, as if they considered this house their town's temple, a place to whisper their wishes. A place to make things right after they'd gone wrong.
"I want a family again," Angela whispered to the house and the forest that embraced it.
In the woods, a hidden bird shrieked. Exactly as if it were laughing at her.*
Marlene Odell's age-spotted fingers tapped in the price code for bagged ice at her cash register at Downtown Foods, a dimly lighted grocery store with shelves crammed tight. Year by year, Angela noticed rarer items springing up around the store: Brie, couscous, Thai seasonings, black-eyed peas, instant grits. There was even a small section of sushi on ice in the back. More like civilization. This store was small, but Marlene and her husband cared about what people wanted.
"I hear you've got a surprise coming later," Marlene said.
"What kind of surprise?"
Marlene shrugged, gazing at Angela through loose puffs of silver hair. "The kind you have to wait to see for yourself. Someone I expect you'll be happy to see."
"I'm not sure I like surprises," Angela said, but she left it alone. She and Tariq had planned for thirty guests exactly, but the world wouldn't come to an end if one more showed up. Angela dug for loose dollar bills crumpled in her back pocket. "Thanks for working on the holiday while the rest of us are having a good time, Marlene. This street is like a ghost town today. I was afraid I'd have to go over to the bait shop on the river for ice."
"Don't thank me, thank the cheap SOB who thinks he's my boss. Rolf sent me out here bright and early. I was happy as a clam drinking my coffee and watching the colored man, Bryant Gumbel, on the morning news."
Angela took a deep, calming breath. Marlene Odell must be seventy-five by now, and a lifetime ago she'd caught Angela stealing a handful of Tootsie Rolls from this store. She'd also driven over to personally report the theft to Gramma Marie, thereby becoming responsible for the worst whipping of Angela's life. So, Angela couldn't think of a tactful way to tell a woman who'd known her since she was a thieving child that the term colored was woefully outmoded. Young or old, Sacajawea residents freely referred to Gramma Marie as their colored pioneer, oblivious to how insulting it sounded. Colored outdated Negro, even! But, hell, after Angela and Myles moved away for college and then Gramma Marie passed on, no other black person had lived in Sacajawea. Maybe a lily-white town couldn't know any better.
It was the crowning irony: Angela loved her grandmother's house, but she hated living in such a speck of a town. She always had, starting with the summers she spent at Gramma Marie's house when she was very young. As a child, downtown Sacajawea had reminded her of the set of Little House on the Prairie, and she'd wandered through the streets feeling jarred by the foreignness of everything around her. Where was the convenience store where she could buy pickled pigs' feet and a hot sausage? Where was the record store? The game room? As a transplanted Los Angelina, the concept of camping meant nothing to her, and she had decided after one outing that fishing was a whole lot of hype about nothing. All these years later, she was still searching for something interesting in Sacajawea to catch her eye.
If not for Gramma Marie's pioneering days, Angela would never have heard of this out-of-the-way logging town, which was accessible from Portland only by a two-lane riverfront road from Sacajawea's larger neighbor, Longview, or a ferry from Westport, Oregon, beyond Puget Island. Sacajawea's main street was home to the grocery store, the courthouse, the fire hall, a pharmacy, a saloon, the old hotel, three antique stores, Ming's Chinese, a used-book store, the U Save gas station, a drive-thru espresso stand called Joltz, the diner, and Subway Heaven, which sold sandwiches and hand-churned ice cream. There was no movie theater, no health club, no McDonald's. Main Street really was the main street. Aside from the River Rat Lounge off the pier, some warehouses, and a few offices converted from homes on the surrounding streets, Main Street was nearly all there was.
But if Angela wanted to spend summers in her grandmother's house, Sacajawea came with it as a package deal. And each year Angela returned, she could practically hear Gramma Marie whispering in her ear: When do you plan to invite folks over proper, Li'l Angel? Because despite Sacajawea's clear summer skies, a placid river perfect for sailing, and the genteel backdrop of Mount Hood amid the Cascade range, this was not a resort town where people camped for the summer and kept to themselves. Tourists drove farther west for that, to the sands of Long Beach on the Pacific coast. Aside from the handful of vacationers who frequented the town's two popular B&Bs, most people in Sacajawea had lived here for generations, earning hourly wages in the mills in Longview or taking down trees in the woods. And even if Sacajawea had been a more sometimey place, the rules would have been different for Angela, or anyone else who was kin to Marie Toussaint.
Marlene and the other townspeople would be deeply offended if they knew how she, Corey, and Tariq cackled about Sacajaweans' quaint habits. Like how the proprietors of the small cluster of businesses that called itself "downtown" always had their radios tuned to the same oldies station that played The Four Seasons, Bobby Darin, and Elvis Presley, creating an overall effect Corey called "Time Warp, U.S.A." And how even the beefiest-looking bill-capped rednecks with gun racks mounted in their pickups' rear windows drove past them in town and greeted them with wide grins and neighborly waves like characters straight out of a Frank Capra movie. Angela tried to imagine her neighbors in L.A. waving at her with big smiles as they drove through Hollywood Hills on their way to work, and it was a good laugh. Oh yes, and that colored thing. That could be funny, too, in the right mood. Sure enough, Angela noticed "Teen Angel" playing on the store's tinny speakers. Time Warp, U.S.A., all right.
"How's Corey doing?" Marlene asked, her gaze suddenly probing. "I keep seeing him with that new boy, Sean. They're always running here and there, those two."
Marlene's tone put Angela on alert. Teenagers became secretive as part of their code of behavior, and Corey gave vague answers when she asked how he and his friend Sean spent their time. He'd come home with an ugly scrape on his arm the other day, claiming he'd been thrown by Sean's horse, but the skittishness in his eyes had made her wonder what more there was to the story. "They're not getting into trouble, are they?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that," Marlene said, but Angela was sure Marlene's inquiry had left something unsaid, a judgment. Sean Leahy's family lived in a trailer on the land adjacent to Gramma Marie's property, and as newcomers, the Leahys were subject to disapproving scrutiny from the residents. Either new people were considered city-folk trying to spoil their town, or they were vagabonds who couldn't be trusted. Sean seemed to be a good kid, though. His father was a single parent, and although Mr. Leahy was eccentric in his dress he strung beads and feathers through his shaggy blond hair Angela hadn't noticed anything worrisome about him. The guy had three foster kids, which made him a good citizen in her book.
"I'm just glad Corey's finally found a real friend here," Angela said. "I need all the help I can get dragging him here every summer. But I'm afraid not to, with all the nonsense waiting for him in the city. Gangs, drugs, guns, all that. It's unbelievable."
"Oh, I believe it," Marlene said with a knowing look. "Your poor grandmother had such a time with you. But you were a breeze compared to Dominique. Now, she was a handful at Corey's age, believe me."
Angela had not expected to hear her mother's name today. This was one of those rare days she had not thought once about her mother. Now, she remembered why she kept her interactions with Sacajawea residents to a minimum: They knew too much. They knew the things she rarely mentioned to even her closest friends in L.A. Here, casual conversation was painful.
Everybody here knew what had happened to Dominique Toussaint, that she had swallowed a bottle of Sominex with her morning glass of orange juice. At the start of Angela's freshman year in high school in L.A., she had found her mother slumped dead across the kitchen table. Angela had come home from school, walked through the back door, and seen her mother with one long arm reaching across the Formica, holding on to the table like a raft in the middle of the sea. But they didn't know everything. They didn't know the first words in Angela's mind as she stared at the top of her mother's braided scalp in its death-pose on that tabletop: Thank you, God.
"Gramma Marie was the best thing that ever happened to me, Marlene," Angela said quietly, nudging those memories away. "I'm just hoping this town has been good for Corey, too. Even if Gramma Marie isn't here."
"Oh, sure. Harder to go wrong here. We all know where you live."
Angela suddenly noticed the display case beneath the cash register, where she saw a collection of gleaming pellet guns for sale, beneath a handwritten sign promising TWENTY PERCENT OFF. Guns always caught her eye. The guns looked real to her, like the kind that used bullets. People in Sacajawea gave their children pellet guns and BB guns the way her friends gave their children Game Boys. God, she hated guns! Two years as a public defender right out of law school had taught her that along with a harrowing incident at twelve, when she'd walked into her mother's bedroom to find Dominique Toussaint standing in front of her bureau mirror with a handgun in her mouth. It's not loaded, sugar, she'd offered Angela quickly, as if that made it all right.
Angela's party mood, as much as she'd mustered one at all, was suddenly gone.
If she could have been honest, she would have told Marlene she wished she'd never planned a party, because she wasn't the kind of person who could enjoy several hours with people she had known a long time but had never known well. And she wanted to be alone with her family, because she had no way of knowing if this was the last time they would live together. And, to put it plainly, if she was going to throw a party, she'd rather do it in L.A., where she could also invite her more rhythmically inclined black, Latino, and gay friends and spend the night dancing to salsa and old-school funk. But none of those reasons were quite right, Angela realized. She just didn't want this party to happen she never had, not from the start and she wasn't sure why.
Suddenly, the bag of ice she'd been cradling on the counter above the gun display felt so cold at her fingertips that it seemed to nip her. As she drew her hands away, a too-cold sensation seized her hands, racing up her arms. She shuddered, and it was gone. Angela stared down at her reddened fingertips, surprised. How could she have gotten a cold-burn that quickly?
"Have a good time, Angie," Marlene said as Angela jangled through the automatic door with her ice. "That party at the Good House will be the talk of the town. Folks'll be glad to see you."
"If I hadn't done it, Gramma Marie's ghost would have whipped my hide," Angela said.
By the time Angela loaded the ice onto the scrap-covered passenger-side floor of Tariq's van, she was bothered by Main Street's quiet. The street was festooned with red, white, and blue streamers and bows that had been up for weeks now, but it was too still. Angela didn't like the absence of cars and pickups beside the curb, the empty parking lot at the courthouse, the dead neon signs hanging in the windows of Main Video and Joltz, drained of light. And there wasn't a single person on the street. She saw a few sailboats listing lazily on the river, in need of stronger breezes, but everyone else in town seemed to be hidden away. Angela locked her door as soon as she climbed into the van, an L.A. habit she usually forgot after her first few days back in Sacajawea. She sat a moment before turning the key in the ignition, watching Marlene through the wall-size window as she shelved cans in the deserted store. The image struck Angela as lonely. No, more than lonely. Like something to grieve, something inevitable.
Angela wished she could stay here and put off the rest of the day. Just for a while.
But the ice was melting, and it was time for the party to start.*
The first guests arrived at 6:30 sharp, on Angela's heels. They would have less than an hour to sample Angela's 7-Up punch, and they would never taste Tariq's marinated beef ribs. That wasn't the way it was planned, but that's the way it turned out.
Everyone she'd invited came, and most of them brought stories.
"I haven't set foot inside the Good House since I-don't-know-when," Art Brunell said, clasping Angela's hand warmly as his squat figure filled the doorway. His brow was dotted with sweat from his climb up the steps. "It's going on twenty-five years now. My mother used to send me out here for your grandma's root teas. Boy, did I love coming over to Mrs. T'saint's house. I memorized the order of all the presidents once just so she'd let me have a piece of pie, and believe me, it was worth the trouble. How you doin', Angie? Hope life's as good for you as it is for me."
His green eyes shone through his wire-rimmed eyeglasses with the same zeal and ardent kindness Angela remembered from high school. It was hard not to like Art, even though, like most locals, he pronounced Angela's surname phonetically instead of saying Too-SAUNT, the French pronunciation she preferred.
"That's a tall order for mere mortals, Art, but I'm doing all right. Where's Liza?"
"Huffing and puffing right behind him," Liza Brunell called, breathless. "And I have those jars of elderberry preserves I've been promising you. My friends get samples whether they want them or not." Liza's careworn face had been much more luminous in her senior picture as Liza Kerr, the school's star actress with an eye toward Broadway. She'd been damn good, too. In those days, Liza had considered Art a cornball like they all did, and she'd never imagined birthing Art's freckled six-year-old son, who was at her side. The boy's hair was an orange nest, reminiscent of Liza's, and he fidgeted as if his skin made him itch. All three Brunells wore campaign T-shirts proclaiming YOUR TOWN'S FUTURE=ART BRUNELL FOR MAYOR. Angela had never asked Liza if she'd made her peace living in a place she'd sworn to escape, but she envied the way Liza and Art fit each other. Maybe Broadway had never been real to Liza, but this was.
"Is this your baby Glenn?" Angela said. "He's growing fast, just like Corey. Children are definitely not forever, are they?"
"No, they're not, thank goodness," Liza said. She nudged Angela as she walked into the foyer, her eyes dancing. "Oh, I've got a surprise for you."
"Liza, this town can't keep a secret. You're the second person who's brought it up in twenty minutes. Just tell me what's going on."
"If I told you, it wouldn't be a surprise, would it?"
Before Angela could press Liza, Glenn began screaming as he gazed at the foyer ceiling. "Lookit, Mom! This house is way big!" Angela could only imagine how he must act at home.
"Well, keep it down. You don't have to throw a fit. It's not like you've never seen a nice house," Liza said, as if her son's outburst cast doubt on Art's much-whispered Big Bucks from his law practice in Longview. Angela heard rivalry in her friend's voice. All through high school, she and Liza had raced to see who could get more, faster. Liza had never left Sacajawea, but she'd still done just fine: Rumor had it that Liza only worked part-time at the grocery store with Marlene because she chose to, since Art quietly owned a million dollars in real estate throughout western Washington. Art and Liza never talked about how much they had. They lived in a three-bedroom house on five acres near State Route Four, like anybody else.
"No, Glenn's right. The Good House is special," Art said, as somberly as if he were speaking of a church. He gazed up at the foyer's chandelier, which sparkled from its recent cleaning. Illuminated by the stained-glass window built in a half-moon shape in the door, the chandelier cast rainbow-colored teardrops onto the staircase and throughout the foyer. Art rested his hand on his son's head, and Angela noticed their identical sunburns, probably from a day's fishing. "Wow, this is a hell of a house. Hasn't changed a bit, Angie."
"Don't say hell, Dad," Glenn said, teasing.
"Stop that, Glenn," Liza snapped. "I've told you, repeating it's not funny."
Angela recognized the quick look that passed between father and son, because she had seen that look countless times between Tariq and Corey: Lighten up, Mom.
In the living room, Rob Graybold, another former classmate who was now the county sheriff, was holding court near the French doors, entrancing a huddle of guests with stories about transients running crystal meth laboratories in the woods. Crowding attentively near him were a new physician, Rhonda Something from Portland; the Everlys, an older couple who served as caretakers for Angela's house and yard during the months she was away; and June McEwan, the Sacajawea County High principal. Laney Keane, president of the county historical society, was admiring the player piano in a corner by herself. And Angela could hear laughter from a bigger knot of guests who had gathered in the kitchen, the room that somehow became the nucleus of any party. The murmur of combined conversations was a roar to Angela, burying the melodic squeal of Coltrane's saxophone on the stereo. If a bomb dropped here today, she mused, Sacajawea would be history.
"Dad, how come it's called the Good House?" Glenn Brunell asked.
Laney Keane gave the boy a smile that softened her pinched face. "In the first place, Glenn, this house was built in 1907 by the town pharmacist, Elijah Goode. He chose this place because he said the land felt 'blessed beyond all description,' or in any case that's what he wrote to his brother in Boston. Marie Toussaint worked for him for a time, and he left her this house in his will."
"Are you kidding me?" Art said, hoisting his son onto his back with a grunt. "I never heard that. I always figured it was something to do with Mrs. T'saint and her teas."
"Oh, no, it's much more than that," Laney said, as if their ignorance distressed her. "In 1929, three years after Marie Toussaint took ownership of this house, a mudslide destroyed the other homes on this side of town. Mrs. Toussaint and her husband brought their neighbors in, pulling some of them out of the muck with their bare hands. Have you heard that story, Angela?"
"Only every other Sunday," Angela said, remembering Gramma Marie's fondness for elaborate storytelling. In another era, her grandmother might have been a griot. "She told me she even had her neighbors' goats in this living room. Chickens, pigs, you name it. She had to throw out her foyer rug." Gramma Marie also told her she'd been treated badly by her neighbors until that mudslide. Angela repressed a sour chuckle, wondering how her guests would react to that portion of their heritage. And did you hear about the time Sheriff Kerr shot up Gramma Marie's door and shattered the round attic window with buckshot? Have another Bud and I'll tell you....
"Did people die?" Glenn asked Laney eagerly.
"No, thank goodness," Laney said. "And as far as I know, this house has been called the Good House ever since."
"Well, it's those teas I remember," Art Brunell said. "Those weren't just your normal teas. My papa used to swear up and down that Mrs. T'saint's teas could cure anything from a head cold to a cold bed. He said it was voodoo for sure."
Angela felt her ears burning with embarrassment in the ensuing laughter, and she slowly eased her way out of the living room, toward the now-empty foyer. She knew where this was going: Sooner or later, someone would ask her what Gramma Marie used to put in those teas, treating Angela like the progeny of a legendary medicine woman. Gramma Marie had earned a nursing degree, that was all, and her Chinook husband, whom most people condescendingly called Red John, had likely taught her a thing or two about the medicinal qualities of regional herbs. Gramma Marie, despite her roots in Louisiana and her Creole surname, had not been some kind of witch doctor. Would anyone assume she had been a witch if she and her husband had been white?
But the townspeople weren't the only ones to blame, Angela reminded herself. Gramma Marie had played the stereotype for all it was worth, giving her customers mystical-sounding instructions Now don't you ever drink this in a bad mood, or it'll have the opposite effect, and other nonsense Angela overheard from time to time, remnants of old bayou superstitions. That kind of talk had crept up in Angela's mother, too. During her bad spells, Dominique Toussaint had claimed she was hearing the voices of demons laughing in her ears before she'd silenced them with a bottle of downers, that is. Maybe Gramma Marie had sown the seeds for her mother's delusions, Angela thought. She was glad her grandmother had never tried to pass any of it on to her. As a child, she'd been afraid whatever was wrong with her mother might be catching somehow.
Angela went to the kitchen, where Melanie Graybold and Faith Henriksen, both of whom owned shops in town, were red-faced with laughter over a joke she had missed. Angela snuck behind them and glanced out of the breakfast nook's bay window toward the patch of grass cleared away for their backyard and deck. Half a dozen men congregated around the grill with Tariq. With the back door propped open, she could smell beef cooking and hear the men debating starters for a fantasy football league.
Earlier, she'd overheard the men talking about some new law against mole-trapping while Tariq nodded sagely, pretending an escapee from the Chicago projects knew anything about outdoor life. Tariq wouldn't know a mole from a raccoon. She was glad he had steered the conversation back to comfortable ground. Tariq knew football that, and a few volumes' worth of finance, economic theory, and post-Reconstruction history and sociology, if he could find anyone who cared. The more he enjoyed himself at the party, the better his mood later. The better for both of them.
A glass of Pellegrino on ice might help her nerves, she decided. She'd brought a supply of the sparkling mineral water from L.A., and she drank it constantly, a substitute for the Chardonnay she no longer allowed herself to enjoy because she enjoyed it too much. Pellegrino was safer, since the last thing Corey needed was a mother as incapable of coping with daily life as hers had been.
After finding a glass, Angela clawed into the half-empty bag of ice sagging in the kitchen sink. That cold-burn sensation seized her arm again, exactly as it had at the store, except, if anything, it was more pronounced this time. Like her arm had been injected with ice.
Angela yelped, drawing her hand away with a spasm that nearly knocked the glass from the counter. "Dammit," she hissed, shaking her arm out. It tingled, then the strange sensation vanished. Great. Now she was probably having an anxiety attack, just in time for the party.
Corey walked from behind her, gazing at her with those almond-shaped eyes that mirrored her own. Although he was slightly bent over, Corey stood above her, a new development this summer that was hard for Angela to get used to. Corey was less a child each day.
"Can I talk to you? I have to give you something." Corey sounded distressed.
Angela forgot about her arm. "Baby, how's your stomach?"
"Whatever, it's a'ight," Corey said. He took the crook of her arm, steering her toward the privacy of the foyer that ended behind the stairs, near the closed door leading to the wine cellar. He took a breath. "Mom, I did something, and I have to make it right. It's been heavy on my mind."
Shit, Angela thought. Something in Oakland. Or something with Sean. Suddenly, Angela remembered Marlene's inquiry about Sean at the market: They're always running here and there....
Angela felt inexplicably panicked. Her belly was as tight as it got some nights in L.A., when she lay awake wondering where Corey was at that precise moment, if his father had met any of the parents of the kids their son was spending his time with. Wondering if Corey was already sexually active, in danger of becoming a parent or catching a disease. Or if Corey might be in the wrong car at the wrong time when an Oakland cop might show up with an attitude. The worries came in a flood, deepening and multiplying. That was the thing about summers during the summers, she didn't worry as much. But she was worried now.
Corey slowly raised his closed palm, then unfolded it painstakingly, like a flower-bud. There, nestled among the dark crisscrossing lines that foretold her son's future, sat a small gold band with tiny figures sculpted all around it. When Angela saw the ring, her mouth fell open with a long, stunned gasp. Her eyes beheld it, unblinking.
"At first, I was gonna play like I'd seen it at a yard sale or something, and say, 'Hey, Mom, look what I found, it's just like Gramma Marie's.' But it's the same one."
Angela's heart bounded, although she was afraid to trust her eyes. The solid gold ring was carved with African symbols that looked both geometric and oddly singular, unknowable. Gramma Marie had been wearing that ring the day she died. She'd motioned for Angela to come closer, then she'd slipped the slick, warm gold across Angela's finger, making her promise to keep it always. This ring had been Gramma Marie's good-bye to her, and Angela hadn't seen it in four years.
It had been stolen. Whatever bastard had broken in through her bedroom window and stolen this ring had also somehow broken her life, the parts that mattered.
Now, the ring was back. This was impossible. Angela stared at the ring, not touching it.
Corey's voice wavered as he met her confused eyes. His explanation tumbled out. "I threw the brick and broke your window, Mom. It sounds dumb now, but there was this girl I liked, right? Her name was Sherita, and I knew the ring was special to you, and I thought maybe it would be special to her." Corey swallowed, glancing away. His voice became a monotone, signaling that he had spent time rehearsing this speech."It was just dumb kid stuff. I said I'd let her wear it for a week. But she said she saw me talking to some girl before the week was over, and she wouldn't give it back. I was afraid to tell you I took it. So I threw the brick and broke the window and knocked your jewelry all over the floor, and you thought somebody stole it. I said to myself, 'If she asks me if I did it, I won't lie.' But you never did ask, Mom."
He looked relieved to be finished, blinking fast.
Angela took the ring and stared at its beautiful symbols, which looked like shiny golden light-etchings against the sunken surface. A triangle with a cross in the center, a double wave, a pear shape. Slowly, she slid the ring onto the bare finger where she had once worn her wedding ring. It was snug, but not too tight. Perfect fit, like the day it had been given to her. Thinking of her grandmother, Angela could nearly smell the rose-scented talcum powder Gramma Marie had dusted herself with. She felt a shift in time, as if she were standing before this cellar door with her grandmother again as she had when she was Corey's age. Angela had hauled box after box of preserves down those steps, stacking the jars in the compartments that had been built for wine. Now, Li'l Angel, you be careful on those steps. The jars were dusty now, and the preserves inside were surely dried or rotten, but some of them were still down there exactly where she'd put them.
Angela felt a single icy fingernail brush the back of her neck, hearkening to the strange cold-burn she'd felt at the store and in the kitchen. Something felt wrong.
"How did you get this ring back?" she whispered.
Corey didn't look her in the eye. "I wrote letters to see if Sherita was still staying down there, and she was. I paid her for it with extra money I made from Sean's dad, grooming his horses. I was thinking about how stealing your ring was one thing I wish I could take back. So I did."
No wonder Corey had been behaving so strangely! He must have lain awake half the night, wondering how he was going to finally tell her the truth. And yet, it wasn't all truth, either. Not yet. Corey spoke quickly when he was lying, like now.
"And she still had it?" Without meaning to, Angela had shifted into her courtroom voice.
Corey shrugged. This time, he looked at her and smiled, trying to imitate his father's playfulness, the Hill men's charm. "Well, it's a damn nice ring. Like they say on TV, I cared enough to give the very best. You know what I'm sayin'?"
Corey knew better than to cuss in front of her, no matter how grown he thought he was, and she'd told him she would skin him alive the next time he dropped youknowwhatimsayin into a conversation with her, which sounded as ignorant to her as Jimmie Walker's Dy-no-mite had sounded to Gramma Marie. She wanted to slap her son's face. How many times had she told the story of her stolen ring as a woeful loss? How many times had she felt genuine hurt over it, sometimes at the mere sight of Gramma Marie's photograph, as if allowing someone to take her ring had been a shameful act on her part? How dare Corey let all these years go by without saying anything!
Then, Angela's anger melted, swallowed by relief. Bliss. She breathed in deeply, feeling lightheaded. Could this be real? Maybe her secretly spoken wish was coming true after all. She squeezed her own fingers, enjoying the solidness and texture of the ring.
"I know you're mad at me, huh? Well, I've been thinkin' about a punishment "
"Corey..." Eyes smarting, Angela cut him off. She cupped his chin in her palm. "I don't know if you remember, but not long after you took this ring, everything fell apart for us. Your daddy and I lived in separate houses, in separate cities, and we forced you to choose between us. I think maybe that's punishment enough. What do you think?"
Now, it was Corey's turn to be silent. His lips were mashed tightly together, thinned out. He was fighting tears, she knew.
"Come here, baby," she said, reaching up to him, and he leaned against her in a hug, as he hadn't in far too long. Angela felt her heart pounding from the simple pleasure of embracing a child who rarely gave her the opportunity anymore. "When you stole this ring, you were being a selfish, thoughtless little boy. But getting it back to me saving your money, writing a letter to that girl, using your head that was the work of a young man. That makes me proud of you, Corey. That lets me know you're doing all right despite everything we've put you through. I'm glad, and I thank you with all my heart."
"It ain't all that, Mom," Corey said. She heard moisture in his nose.
"Yes, it is. I love this ring. And I love you."
Corey exhaled, and his breath warmed her neck. He gave her a tight squeeze before releasing her. Then, his gaze was dead-on. "Mom, did Gramma Marie tell you stuff about the ring? Like, those symbols. Did she tell you what they mean?"
"It's West African, she told me. She got it from her grandmother, and I forget how far it goes back before that. At least another generation. I guess she thought it was a good-luck charm."
He lowered his voice. "But what about the symbols? She never told you anything about them? Like...if they're supposed to have powers or something like that?"
"You know," Corey said sheepishly. "If they could...make things happen?"
Angela didn't have the heart to ridicule him. The guests' speculations about Gramma Marie must have fired up his imagination, and how would he know any better? Corey had only been five when Gramma Marie died, and he barely remembered her. This was the first time he'd asked about his great-grandmother with real interest, as if he wanted something from her memory.
"What kind of things, Corey?" she said. "I don't understand."
Corey's gaze shifted away, then back again. His sigh seemed to harbor real sadness. "Nothin'. Forget it."
"Well, hold on. Gramma Marie held on to a lot of old folks' superstitions, so she might have mentioned something about the ring," Angela said quickly. One of Corey's major complaints about her was that she didn't take his concerns as seriously as Tariq did. "I'll have to sleep on it, okay? Ask me tomorrow. When it's not so crazy."
"Yeah, a'ight," Corey said, although his face didn't brighten. "Things are good with you and Dad this summer, right? I hear ya'll sneakin' around at night, those floors creaking. Ya'll ain't fooling nobody. Thought you should know."
Angela laughed, rubbing his short, wiry hair. "Don't get your hopes up, but we're trying."
"Cool. Guess we all make mistakes, huh? Some small and some big." Corey's eyes were unusually solemn and wistful now. He pressed his hand to his abdomen, like a pregnant woman feeling her baby kick. "And you just gotta' try to fix them, right?"
"Corey, you look awful. Are you sure you're all right? You don't have to help with the fireworks if you want to go lie down. I'll explain it to your dad."
Angela saw uncertainty on her son's face or, more precisely, what she saw looked more like he could not choose one facial expression. First he looked nearly stricken, then sharply annoyed, then resigned. Corey rarely allowed his emotions to surface so baldly in front of her, and watching his face reminded her of studying her mother's warring emotions as a child, trying to guess which version of Dominique Toussaint would emerge next.
"I'm fine, dag," Corey said impatiently.
"Then do me a favor and go to the cellar and bring some sodas up, okay? They're stacked in the corner. Bring up a couple of cases. And you might as well bring the fireworks up, too."
His eyes flickered to the cellar door and back. She thought she heard the thckk as Corey sucked his teeth. Gramma Marie would have knocked her across the room for making a sound like that, but she and Corey had just had a rare nice talk, an actual conversation, so she ignored it.
"I have to go to Sean's," Corey said.
"Take that up with Tariq, but we both know what he'll say. I tried to talk you guys out of a big light show, but your dad's looking forward to it," Angela said. "Now go get the sodas, please."
Corey didn't answer. What was wrong with him today? Angela watched him prop open the cellar door and stare down a moment before he descended the stairs in silence.
She heard Gramma Marie's voice in her head: Now, Li'l Angel, you be careful.
Angela was about to tell him to tug on the string and turn on the light when he suddenly leaned back to gaze at her from beyond the narrow doorway. All at once, his tentative expression shed itself of everything except the unrestrained love he'd shown her when he was four and five. So loving he almost looked feverish. Little Corey. God, she missed that sweet, happy young kid. And he was here again, smiling at her like a photograph from easier days.
"I'm gonna take care of you good, Mom," he said with an exaggerated wink. "You wait."
Angela never forgot that smile from Corey.
If she had glanced at her watch, she would have noticed that it was 7:15 p.m. Exactly five minutes before the party would be over.*
At 7:16, the doorbell rang.
Tariq was standing over the backyard barbecue grill cooking ribs, talking draft picks with Logan Prescott, Gunnar Michaelsen, and Tom Brock, who were all long timers with the Sacajawea Logging Company. A few yards from them, the seven young children at the party, including Glenn Brunell, were playing kickball in the clearing. Only the bigger kids were allowed to go after the ball if it got kicked too far into the woods, because there was a very steep dropoff that could be dangerous.
So far, so good.
In the living room, the player piano was limping through an atonal version of "Getting to Know You," and it irked Angela that Laney Keane or someone had put on a piano roll without her permission. The piano wasn't a toy, as Gramma Marie always used to say. Sheriff Rob Graybold had wrested the conversation away from Laney Keane's historical reflections, and the group was listening intently to his theories on why people became child molesters. Because he hadn't expected to be on duty today, Rob was halfway through his second Bud Light.
All talk of Elijah Goode or Marie Toussaint and her cure-all teas had been forgotten.
Angela answered the door, and it was then that she received the second of her three big surprises of the day: A dark-skinned black man stood on her front porch with a half-dozen huge sunflowers. The man on the porch had shaved his head clean, sported a thin moustache, and had no sign of the round-frame glasses he'd worn in high school, but she knew his mouth. His teeth. His eyes. Myles Fisher was waiting on the porch just as he had when he'd come to fetch her on prom night. "Well, I will be damned," Angela said.
Liza Brunell squeezed Angela's shoulder from behind. "Aren't you surprised?"
In Myles's hand, the sunflowers truly did look like sunshine on stems. Angela squealed, laughing. "Myles, look at you!"
Myles stepped toward her and hugged her with unself-conscious firmness. She tried not to notice the pleasant, refined scent of his cologne or how broad his shoulders had grown since high school. She gave his lips only a polite peck before she pulled away, but she felt giddy in a way that scared her. Myles's eyes shone like burnished copper pennies, and his shaved head suited him well, making him look self-assured, controlled. She couldn't pull her eyes away from his face.
"Angela Marie Toussaint," he said, pronouncing each syllable of her name slowly, with affection. "For once, I don't know what to say."
"I thought you were in D.C.!"
"He's interviewing to be the new boss at the Lower Columbia News over in Longview," Liza broke in, excited. "He came to the market Tuesday and I couldn't believe my eyes. I said he should come to the party and surprise you."
"That's the only reason I didn't call sooner," Myles said, his gaze deepening. "I wanted to see this look on your face. Liza nabbed me my first day back in town."
Myles had been working as an editor at The Washington Post for years, she'd heard. Why would he leave the Post for such a tiny paper? Myles patted her hand, seeing her bewilderment. "Ma's sick," he said quietly, and Angela suddenly understood. His adoptive parents had been older, and Ma Fisher's husband had died when Myles was only a junior in college. She must be close to ninety by now, and she was probably the only family he had left.
"I'm so sorry about Ma Fisher, but I'm thrilled to see you, Myles. When some people leave town, they leave town. I haven't seen your sorry ass in more than twenty years."
"You've obviously mistaken me for a much older man." Myles's eyes drank in the details of the house with the same appreciation he'd shown for her, and she understood that, too. He'd had many good times here. "Look at this place! Angie, you've done good. Gramma Marie is beaming down from Heaven, darlin'. She says, 'Fantastique, cher.'"
She squeezed his hand. "I hope so."
Angela was glad Tariq was out back grilling and couldn't see her face, because she didn't want to learn whether or not her husband's jealous streak was still intact. After a couple of beers, Tariq could act foolish over nothing. And frankly, this might be the one time it wasn't exactly nothing, because Myles looked good. His face had rounded out in an attractive way, and his build had grown stocky, shedding his adolescent lean-muscled wiriness. The defining lines of his chest were visible through his tight, bone-colored Lycra shirt. He worked out, apparently. Not in the rigorous way Tariq lifted weights to feel like he was still an athlete, but enough.
Liza caught Angela's gaze and wagged a finger at her, and Angela smiled. For an instant, she felt as if she were back in the hallway of Sacajawea County High, an odd, gratifying feeling. She wondered why she hadn't had a party like this long ago.
"I need to meet the man who stole my girl," Myles said. "Where's this Mustafa guy you married? The big, bad football player? Is it true he can read, too?"
"Fool, you better hush. His name is Tariq," Angela said, slapping at his shoulder. "Nobody told you to go to Columbia. Maybe if you'd gone to U.C.L.A. like we both planned..."
"Is that Myles Fisher I hear?" Art Brunell's voice thundered from the living room. "Mark my words, folks: The first thing I'm gonna do when I'm elected mayor is set up restrictions so we don't have any more of these deadbeat yokels moving back into town!"
Everyone laughed then, a sound that resounded throughout the house. Angela couldn't remember the last time she laughed that hard, like someone dizzy on champagne.
Then, it was 7:20.
For the rest of her life, this was all Angela would remember: loud, braying laughter. Off-key piano strains. Children outside shrieking, Get the ball! Then, smothering everything else beneath it, the powerful sound of something exploding in a POP.
Whatever it was, it was right near them, in the house. In the foyer.
Angela looked at Myles at first, as if his arrival had brought the sound somehow, but he only looked deeply startled, shoulders hunching. Then, she realized the sound had come from beneath them. The cellar.
"What the hell " Rob Graybold said. "Who's setting off firecrackers?"
The explosion brought a hush to the room. Even the children outside were quiet. So was the piano, the birds, and any other sounds that had been present, near or distant, before then. Or, at least they seemed to be silent. In the silence, the memory of the sound loomed larger. The sunflowers were on the floor, at her feet.
Corey, Angela thought, her mind splintering. Then, she shouted his name.
Sheriff Rob Graybold went down the cellar stairs first, and she leaned on him, pushing. He'd told her to stay back, to let him take a look, but she didn't hear him, and she wouldn't have listened if she had. The cellar light was on, a naked bulb shining overhead. Her eyes followed the neat brick patterns on the cellar wall, blurring lines. She couldn't see past Rob. She couldn't see Corey.
"What happened? An-geee?" she heard Tariq call in alarm, from miles away.
She smelled gunpowder. Goddamn fireworks. They were illegal in California, with good reason. Children lost limbs and eyes. Why the hell had she let Tariq go out with Corey and buy rockets that were meant to light the sky?
It won't be too bad. There's a doctor here. Whatever it is, it won't be too bad.
Rob Graybold went frozen where he stood on the steps, and Angela couldn't move past him. She heard the air seep out of his lungs in a whooshing sound because she was so close to him, pressed tight. She felt his heart pounding, and she could smell pungent perspiration from his underarms, beneath the stink of burnt powder.
"Dear Mary and Joseph," Rob Graybold said. He turned around and tried to take Angela's arm, tugging so hard it hurt. "We need to get that doctor in here, Angie," he said, pale as milk. "Don't go down there."
But by now, Angela was screaming. She writhed against Rob Graybold until she squeezed herself past him, and her struggle brought both of them stumbling down the cellar stairs, off-balance.
Corey was lying on his stomach in the exact center of the cellar floor. His head was turned away from her, one arm raised nearly to his face, the other limp at his side, palm upward. He looked like he was taking a nap. And he must have dropped some of the drinks, some of the red ones, maybe some bottles of cherry syrup, because his head lay in the midst of a red puddle that reached almost as far as the wine shelves against the far wall. And the puddle was growing.
Another smell threaded its way through the scent of smoke and perspiration, a thick odor she couldn't allow herself to recognize yet, though she knew perfectly well what it was.
She didn't see any bags of fireworks or cartons of soda near Corey. The only thing she did see was a very realistic black toy gun in the middle of the red puddle, inches from Corey's hand. The gun bore a remarkable resemblance to the gun Tariq had, a black Glock with a taped butt, the one he'd kept in his nightstand drawer until she finally won the fight and he took it to a gun shop and got rid of it. Yes, he got rid of it. He said he did. He marched into the house and said, I hope you're happy now, bitch, and showed her the receipt. It was the first and last time he had ever called her that word, and he'd later said he was sorry. But he'd gotten rid of it because she'd screamed at him, telling him how she'd walked into her mother's bedroom to find Mama standing there with a gun in her mouth when she was twelve, and it just wasn't safe to have a gun, not with a child in the house. Angela always tried to be careful, just like Gramma Marie said.
"He got rid of it," Angela rasped, even though she was seeing that gun again, with that same tape wrapped around the butt, a mirage from a life she had left behind. "He got rid of it."
Angela repeated those five words and nothing else for the next half hour. All the while, Gramma Marie's gold ring gleamed on her finger as absolute proof that some things can come back after they're gone.
As far as most of the guests at Angela Toussaint's Fourth of July party knew, it was the first bad thing that had ever happened at the Good House.
Copyright © 2003 by Tananarive Due