The Passage Page 25

It was, he thought, the damnedest thing. They shot out from under the freeway into sunshine again, the woman driving so fast, it was like she'd forgotten he was there. They hit some railroad tracks and the Denali bounced so high he felt his head actually touch the ceiling. It seemed to jar her, too; she hit the brakes, too hard, sending him pitching forward against the dash, then turned the wheel and pulled into a parking lot with a dry cleaner's and a Shipley Do-Nuts. And without looking at Anthony or saying a word to him, she dropped her head onto the steering wheel and began to cry.

He'd never seen a white woman cry before, not up close, just movies and TV. In the sealed cabin of the Denali, he could smell her tears, like melting wax, and the clean smell of her hair. Then he realized he could smell himself, too, which he hadn't done in a long time, and the smell was nothing good. It was bad, really bad, like spoiled meat and sour milk, and he looked down at his body, his dirty hands and arms and the same T-shirt and jeans he'd worn for days and days, and felt ashamed.

After some time she lifted her face off the wheel and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "What's your name?"


For a moment, Carter wondered if maybe she was going to drive him straight to the police. The car was so clean and new he felt like a big dirty stain sitting there. But if she could smell him, she didn't show it any.

"I can get out here," Carter said. "I'm sorry to have caused you trouble like I did."

"You? What did you do? You didn't do anything." She took in a long breath, tilted her head back against the headrest, and closed her eyes. "Jesus, my husband's going to kill me. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Rachel, what were you thinking?"

She seemed angry, and Carter guessed she was waiting for him to just get out on his own. They were a few blocks north of Richmond; from there he could catch a bus back to the place he'd been sleeping, a vacant lot down on Westpark beside the recycling center. It was a good spot, he'd had no trouble there, and if it rained the people at the center let him sleep in one of the empty garages. He had a little over ten dollars on him, some bills and change from his morning under the 610-enough to get home with, and buy something to eat.

He put his hand on the door.

"No," she said quickly. "Don't go." She turned toward him. Her eyes, puffy from crying, searched his face. "You have to tell me if you meant it."

Carter drew a blank. "Ma'am?"

"What you wrote on the sign. What you said. 'God bless you.' I heard you say it. Because the thing is," the woman said, not waiting for his answer, "I don't feel blessed, Anthony." She gave a haunted laugh, showing a row of tiny, pearl-like teeth. "Isn't that strange? I should, but I just don't. I feel awful. I feel awful all the time."

Carter didn't know what to say. How could a white lady like her feel awful? In the corner of his eye, he could see the empty baby seat in back, with its bright array of toys, and he wondered where the child was now. Maybe he should say something about her having a baby, how nice that must be for her. Folks liked having babies in his experience, women especially.

"It doesn't matter," the woman said. She was staring vacantly out the windshield toward the doughnut shop. "I know what you're thinking. You don't have to say anything. I probably just seem like some crazy woman."

"You seems all right to me."

She laughed again, bitterly. "Well that's just it, isn't it? That's the thing. I seem all right. You can ask anybody. Rachel Wood has everything a person could want. Rachel Wood seems perfectly all right ... "

For a minute they just sat there, the woman quietly crying and staring woefully into space, Carter still wondering if he should get out of the car or not. But the lady was upset, and it felt wrong to leave her like that. He wondered if she wanted him to feel sorry for her. Rachel Wood: he guessed that was her name, that she was talking about herself. But he couldn't say for sure. Maybe Rachel Wood was a friend of hers, or somebody who was looking after the baby. He knew he'd have to go sooner or later. Whatever mood had taken her would pass, and she'd figure out she'd just about gotten herself shot for this smelly nigger who was sitting in her car. But for the moment, the feel of cool air on his face from the dashboard vents and the woman's strange, sad silence were enough to keep him where he was.

"What's your last name, Anthony?"

The question wasn't one he could remember anybody asking him. "Carter," he said.

What she did next surprised him more than anything that had happened so far. She turned in her seat and, looking right at him with a clear gaze, offered him her hand to shake.

"Well," she said, her voice still etched with sadness, "how do you do, Mr. Carter. I'm Rachel Wood."

Mr. Carter: he liked that. Her hand was small but she shook like a man, her grip strong. He felt-but he couldn't think of the words for it. He watched to see if she'd wipe her hand off, but she made no move to do this.

"Oh my God!" Her eyes widened with amazement. "My husband's going to have a heart attack. You can't tell him about what happened back there. I mean it. You absolutely can't."

Carter shook his head.

"I mean, it's not his fault he's such a complete and total a**hole. He just wouldn't see it the way we do. You have to promise, Mr. Carter."

"I won't say nothing."

"Good." She nodded briskly, satisfied, and pointed her eyes out the windshield again, her smooth brow furrowing thoughtfully. "Doughnuts. Now, I don't know why I stopped here of all places. You probably don't want doughnuts, do you?"

Just the word made a blast of saliva wash down the insides of his mouth. He felt his stomach growl. "Doughnuts is all right," Carter said. "The coffee's good."

"But they're not a real meal, are they?" Her voice was firm; she'd decided something. "A real meal is what you need."

That was when Carter realized what the feeling was. He felt seen. Like all along he'd been a ghost without knowing it. It came to him all of a sudden that she meant to take him with her, take him home. He'd heard about folks like her but never believed it.

"You know, Mr. Carter, I think God put you under that freeway today for a reason. I think he was trying to tell me something." She put the Denali in gear. "You and I are going to be friends. I can just feel it."

And they were friends, just like she'd said. That was the funny thing. He and this white lady, Mrs. Wood, with her husband-old enough to be her father, though Carter almost never saw him-and her big house under the live oaks with its thick lawn and hedges, and her two little girls-not just the baby but the older one too, cute as a bug like her sister was, the two of them like something in a picture. He felt it right down to the marrow, the deepest part of him. They were friends. She'd done things for him that no one ever had; it was as if she'd opened the door to her car and inside was a whole big room, and in that room were people, and voices saying his name and food to eat and a bed to sleep on and all the rest. She'd gotten him work, not just her yard but other houses, too; and wherever he went, people called him Mr. Carter, asking him if maybe he could do something a little extra today, because they were having folks over: blowing leaves off the patio or painting a set of chairs or pulling leaves from the gutters, or even walking a dog every now and again. Mr. Carter, I know you must be busy, but if it's not too much trouble, could you ... ? And always he said yes, and in the envelope under the mat or the flowerpot they'd leave an extra ten or twenty, without his having to ask. He liked these other folks, but the truth was they didn't matter to him; he did it all for her. Wednesdays, the best day of the week-her day-she'd wave to him from a window as he wheeled the mower from the garage, and sometimes, lots of times, come out of the house when he was done and cleaning up-she didn't leave the money under the mat like the others, but put it in his hand-and maybe sit for a spell with cold glasses of tea on the patio, telling him things about her life, but asking him about his, too. They'd talk like real people, sitting in the shade. Mr. Carter, she'd tell him, you're a godsend. Mr. Carter, I don't know how I ever got one thing done without you. You're the piece of the puzzle that was missing.

He loved her. It was true. That was the mystery, the sad and sorrowful mystery of it all. As he lay now in the dark and cold, he felt the tears coming, rising all the way from his gut. How could anybody ever say he'd done anything to Mrs. Wood when he'd loved her like he did? Because he knew. Knew that even though she smiled and laughed and went about her business, shopping and playing her tennis and taking trips to the salon, inside of her was an empty place, he'd seen it that first day in the car, and his heart went out to this, like he could fill it for her just by wanting to. The days when she didn't come out to the yard, more and more as time went by, he'd catch sight of her, sometimes, sitting on the sofa for hours, letting the baby just cry and cry because she was wet or hungry, but not moving a muscle: it was like all the air had gone out of her. Some days he didn't see her at all, and he guessed she was deep in the house somewhere, being sad. He'd do extra things on those days, trimming the hedges just so, or picking weeds out of the walk, hoping if he waited long enough she'd come out with the tea. The tea meant she was all right, that she'd gotten through another day of feeling awful like she did.

And then that afternoon in the yard-that terrible afternoon-he found the older girl, Haley, alone. It was December, the air raw with dampness, the pool full of winter leaves; the little girl, who was in kindergarten, was wearing her blue school shorts and a collared blouse but nothing else, not even shoes, and sitting on the patio. She was holding a doll, a Barbie. Didn't she have school today? Carter asked, and she shook her head, not looking at him. Was her mama around? Daddy's in Mexico, the girl stated, and shivered in the cold. With his girlfriend. Her mama wouldn't get out of bed.

He tried the door but it was locked, and rang the bell and then he called up to the windows, but no one answered. He didn't know what to make of the little girl, outside alone like that, but there was lots he didn't know about people like the Woods, not everything they did made sense to him. All he had was his dirty old sweater to give the girl, but she took it, wrapping it around herself like a blanket. He got to work on the lawn, thinking maybe the noise of the mower would wake up Mrs. Wood and she'd remember her little girl was outside alone by the pool, that she'd accidentally locked the door somehow. Mr. Carter, I don't know how it happened, I fell asleep somehow, thank God you were here.

He finished the lawn, the girl watching him silently with her doll, and got the skimmer from the garage to clean the pool. That was when he found it, along the edge of the path: a baby toad. Weren't no bigger than a penny. He was lucky he'd missed it with the mower. He bent to pick it up; it weighed nothing in his hand. If he hadn't been looking at it with his own eyes he'd have said his hand was empty, that's how light it was. Maybe it was the girl watching him from the patio, or else Mrs. Wood sleeping behind him in the house; but it seemed, right then, like the toad could set things right somehow, this tiny thing in the grass.

-C'mere, he said to the girl. C'mere, I've got something to show you. Just a little baby of a thing, Miss Haley. A little baby thing like you.

He turned then to find Mrs. Wood, standing in the yard behind him, not ten feet away; she must have come out the front, because he hadn't heard a sound. She was wearing a big T-shirt, like a nightgown, her hair all whichaway around her face.

-Mrs. Wood, he said, why there you are, glad to see you're up now. I was just about to show Haley here-

Get away from her!

But it wasn't Mrs. Wood, not the one he knew. Her eyes were gone all wild and crazy. She looked like she didn't know who he was.

-Mrs. Wood, I just meant to show her something nice-

Get away! Get away! Run, Haley, run!

And before he could say another word she'd shoved him, hard, with all her strength; he tumbled backward, his foot tangled on the skimmer where he'd left it on the pool deck. He reached out, a reflex, his fingertips catching and holding the front of her shirt; he felt his weight taking her with him, nothing he could do to stop it, and that was when they fell into the water.

The water. It hit him like a fist, his nose and eyes and mouth filling with it, with its awful chemical taste, like demon's breath. She was under and over and all around him as they sank, their arms and legs twisted around each other's like a net; he tried to free himself but she held fast, dragging him down and down. He couldn't swim, not a stroke, he could sort of bob along if he had to but even that scared him, and he had no strength to stop her. He craned his head to find the shining surface of the water where it met the air, but it could have been a mile away. She was pulling him down, into a world of silence, as if the pool were an inverted piece of sky, and that was when he figured it: that was where she wanted to go. That's where she'd been headed, all along, since that day under the freeway when she had stopped her car and said his name. Whatever had kept her in that other world, the one above the water, had finally snapped, like the string of a kite, but the world was upside down, and now the kite was falling. She pulled him into a hug, her chin against his shoulder, and for an instant he glimpsed her eyes through the swirling water and saw they were full of a terrible, final darkness. Oh please, he thought, let me. I'll die if you want me to, I would die for you if you asked, let me be the one to die instead. All he had to do was breathe. He knew that as clear as he knew his own name, but try as he might he couldn't make himself do this; he had lived his life too long to give it up by will alone. They hit the bottom with a soft thump, Mrs. Wood still holding him, and he felt her shoulders twitch when she took the first breath. She took another, and then a third, the bubbles of the last air in her lungs rising beside his ear like a whispered secret-God bless you, Mr. Carter-and then she let him go.

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