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The Passage

The Passage

Page 22

Doyle turned around. "Lie down, Amy."

"It's all right, let her look." Wolgast raised his voice so Amy could hear. "Don't listen to Phil. You look all you want, honey."

Doyle leaned his head toward Wolgast's. "What are you ... doing?"

Wolgast kept his eyes ahead. "Relax."

Honey. Where had that come from? The streets teemed with people, all walking in the same direction, carrying blankets and plastic coolers and lawn chairs. Many were holding small children by the hand or pushing strollers: farm people, ranch people, dressed in jeans and overalls, everyone in boots, some of the men wearing Stetson hats. Here and there Wolgast saw wide puddles of standing water, but the night sky was crisp and dry. The rain had pushed through; the fair was on.

Wolgast flowed with the traffic to the high school, where a marquee-style sign read, BRANCH COUNTY CONSOLIDATED HS: GO WILDCATS: SPRING FLING, MARCH 20-22. A man in a reflective orange vest waved them into the lot, where a second man directed them to extra parking in a muddy field. Wolgast shut off the engine and glanced at Amy through the rearview; her attention was directed out the window, toward the lights and sounds of the fair.

Doyle cleared his throat. "You're kidding, right?"

Wolgast twisted in his seat. "Amy, Phil and I are going to step outside for a second to talk. Okay?"

The little girl nodded; suddenly, the two of them had an understanding, one Doyle wasn't part of.

"We'll be right back," said Wolgast.

Outside, Doyle met him at the back of the Tahoe. "We're not doing this," he said.

"What's the harm?"

Doyle lowered his voice. "We're lucky we haven't seen a local yet. Think about it. Two men in suits and a little girl-you think we won't stand out?"

"We'll separate. I'll take Amy. We can change in the car. Go get yourself a beer, have some fun."

"You're not thinking clearly, boss. She's a prisoner."

"No, she's not."

Doyle sighed. "You know what I mean."

"Do I? She's a kid, Phil. A little girl."

They were standing very close; Wolgast could smell the staleness on Doyle, after hours in the Tahoe. A group of teenagers walked past, and for a moment they fell silent. The parking lot was filling up.

"Look, I'm not made of stone," Doyle said quietly. "You think I don't know how f**ked up this is? It's all I can do not to throw up out the window."

"You seem pretty relaxed, actually. You slept like a baby the whole way from Little Rock."

Doyle frowned defensively. "Fine, shoot me. I was tired. But we are not taking her on a bunch of kiddie rides. Kiddie rides are not part of the plan."

"One hour," Wolgast said. "You can't leave her cooped up in a car all day without a break. Let her have a little fun, blow off some steam. Sykes doesn't have to know a thing about it. Then we'll get back on the road. She'll probably sleep the rest of the way."

"And what if she takes off?"

"She won't."

"I don't know how you can be so sure."

"You can shadow us. If anything happens, there's two of us."

Doyle frowned skeptically. "Look, you're in charge. It's your call. But I still don't like it."

"Sixty minutes," Wolgast said. "Then we're gone."

In the front seat of the Tahoe, they wriggled into sport shirts and jeans while Amy waited. Then Wolgast explained to Amy what they were going to do.

"You have to stay close," he said. "Don't talk to anyone. Do you promise?"

"Why can't I talk to anyone?"

"It's just a rule. If you don't promise, we can't go."

The girl thought a moment, then nodded. "I promise," she said.

Doyle hung back as they made their way to the entrance of the fairgrounds. The air was sweet with the smell of frying grease. Over the PA system a man's voice, flat as the Oklahoma plain, was calling out numbers for bingo. B ... seven. G ... thirty. Q ... sixteen.

"Listen," Wolgast said to Amy, when he was sure Doyle was out of earshot. "I know it might seem strange, but I want you to pretend something. Can you do that for me?"

They stopped on the path. Wolgast saw that the girl's hair was a mess. He crouched to face her and did his best to smooth it out with his fingers, pushing it away from her face. Her shirt had the word SASSY on it, outlined with some kind of glittery flakes. He zipped up her sweatshirt against the evening's chill.

"Pretend I'm your daddy. Not your real daddy, just a pretend daddy. If anyone asks, that's who I am, okay?"

"But I'm not supposed to talk to anyone. You said."

"Yes, but if we do. That's what you should say." Wolgast looked over her shoulder to where Doyle was waiting, his hands in his pockets. He was wearing a windbreaker over his polo shirt, zipped to the chin; Wolgast knew he was still armed, that his weapon lay snug in its holster under his arm. Wolgast had left his weapon in the glove compartment.

"So, let's try it. Who's the nice man you're with, little girl?"

"My daddy?" the girl ventured.

"Like you mean it. Pretend."

"My ... daddy."

A solid performance, Wolgast thought. The kid should act. "Attagirl."

"Can we ride on the twirly?"

"The twirly. Which one's the twirly, sweetheart?" Honey, sweetheart. He couldn't seem to stop himself; the words just popped out.

"That."

Wolgast looked where Amy was pointing. In the air beyond the ticket booth he saw a huge contraption with rotating disks at the end of each arm, spinning out its riders in brightly colored carts. The Octopus.

"Of course we can," he said, and felt himself smile. "We can do whatever you want."

At the entrance he paid for their admission and moved down the line to a second booth to buy tickets for the rides. He thought she might want to eat, but decided to wait; it might, he reasoned, make her feel sick on the rides. He realized he liked thinking this way, imagining her experience, the things that would make her happy. Even he could feel it, the excitement of the fair. A bunch of broken-down rides, most of them probably dangerous as hell, but wasn't that the point? Why had he said only an hour?

"Ready?"

The line for the Octopus was long but moved quickly. When their turn to board came, the operator stopped them with a raised hand.

"How old is she?"

The man squinted skeptically over his cigarette. Purple tattoos snaked along his bare forearms. Before Wolgast could open his mouth to answer, Amy stepped forward. "I'm eight."

Just then Wolgast saw the sign, propped on a folding chair: NO RIDERS UNDER SEVEN YEARS OF AGE.

"She don't look eight," the man said.

"Well, she is," Wolgast said. "She's with me."

The operator looked Amy up and down, then shrugged. "It's your lunch," he said.

They climbed into the wobbling car; the tattooed man pushed the safety bar against their waists. With a lurch the car rose into the air and abruptly halted so other riders could board behind them.

"Scared?"

Amy was pressed against him, her sweatshirt drawn up around her face in the cold, both hands clutching the bar. Her eyes were very wide. She shook her head emphatically. "Uh-uh."

Four more times the car lifted and stopped. At its apex, the view took in the whole fairgrounds, the high school and its parking lots, the little town of Homer beyond, with its grid of lighted streets. Traffic was still streaming in from the county road. From so far up, the cars seemed to move with the sluggishness of targets in a shooting gallery. Wolgast was scanning the ground below for Doyle when he felt the car lurch again.

"Hold on!"

They descended in a spinning, plunging rush, their bodies pressing upward against the bar. Screams of pleasure filled the air. Wolgast closed his eyes against the force of their descent. He hadn't been on a carnival ride in years and years; the violence of it was astonishing. He felt Amy's weight against his body, pushed toward him by the car's momentum as they spun and fell. When he looked again, they were dipping close to the ground, skating just inches above the hard-packed field, the lights of the fair whirling around them like a rain of shooting stars; then they were vaulted skyward once more. Six, seven, eight times around, each rotation rising and falling in a wave. It took forever and was over in an instant.

As they began their jerking descent to disembark, Wolgast looked down at Amy's face; still that neutral, appraising gaze, yet he detected, behind the darkness of her eyes, a warm light of happiness. A new feeling opened inside him: no one had ever given her such a present.

"So how was that?" he asked, grinning at her.

"That was cool." Amy lifted her face quickly. "I want to go again."

The operator freed them from the bar; they returned to the back of the line. Ahead of them stood a large woman in a flowered housedress and her husband, a weather-beaten man in jeans and a tight western shirt, a fat plug of tobacco pouched under his lip.

"Aren't you the cutest," she proclaimed, and looked warmly at Wolgast. "How old is she?"

"I'm eight," Amy said, and slipped her hand into Wolgast's. "This is my daddy."

The woman laughed, her eyebrows lifting like parachutes catching the air. Her cheeks were clumsily rouged. "Of course he's your daddy, honey. Anyone can see that. It's just as plain as the nose on your face." She poked her husband in the ribs. "Isn't she the cutest, Earl?"

The man nodded. "You bet."

"What's your name, honey?" the woman asked.

"Amy."

The woman shifted her eyes to Wolgast again. "I've got a niece just about her age, doesn't speak half so well. You must be so proud."

Wolgast was too amazed to respond. He felt as if he were still on the ride, his mind and body caught in some tremendous gravitational force. He thought of Doyle, wondering if he was watching the scene unfold from somewhere in the crowds. But then he knew he didn't care; let Doyle watch.

"We're driving to Colorado," Amy added, and squeezed Wolgast's hand conspiratorially. "To visit my grandmother."

"Is that so? Well, your grandmother's very lucky, to have a girl like you come to visit."

"She's sick. We have to take her to the doctor."

The woman's face fell with sympathy. "I'm sorry to hear it." She spoke with quiet earnestness to Wolgast. "I hope everything's all right. We'll keep you in our prayers."

"Thank you," he managed.

They rode the Octopus three more times. As they moved into the fairgrounds in search of dinner, Wolgast couldn't spot Doyle anywhere; either he was shadowing them like a pro or he had decided to leave them alone. There were a lot of pretty women around. Maybe, Wolgast thought, he'd gotten distracted.

Wolgast bought Amy a hot dog and they sat together at a picnic table. He watched her eat: three bites, four bites, then it was gone. He got her a second and, when that was gone, a funnel cake, dusted with powdered sugar, and a carton of milk. Not the most nutritious meal, but at least she had the milk.

"What's next?" he asked her.

Amy's cheeks were spattered with sugar and grease. She reached up to wipe them with the back of her hand, but Wolgast stopped her. "Use a napkin," he said, and handed one to her.

"The carousel," she said.

"Really? Seems pretty tame after the Octopus."

"They got one?"

"I'm sure they do."

The carousel, Wolgast thought. Of course. The Octopus was for one part of her, the grown-up part, the part that could watch and wait and lie with confident charm to the woman in the line; the carousel was for the other Amy, for the little girl she really was. Under the spell of the evening, its lights and sounds and the still-churning part of him that had ridden the Octopus four times in a row, he wanted to ask her things: who she really was; about her mother, her father if she had one, and where she was from; about the nun, Lacey, and what had happened at the zoo, the craziness in the parking lot. Who are you, Amy? What brought you here, what brought you to me? And how do you know I'm afraid, that I'm afraid all the time? She took his hand again as they walked; the feel of her palm against his own was almost electrical, the source of a warm current that seemed to spread through his body as they walked. When she saw the carousel with its glowing deck of painted horses, he felt her pleasure actually pass from her body into his.

Lila, he thought. Lila, this was what I wanted. Did you know? It's all I ever wanted.

He handed the operator their tickets. Amy picked a horse on the outer rim, a white Lipizzaner stallion frozen in mid-prance, grinning a bright row of ceramic teeth. The ride was almost empty; it was past nine o'clock, and the youngest children had gone home.

"Stand next to me," Amy commanded.

He did; he placed one hand on the pole, another on the horse's bridle, as if he were leading her. Her legs were too short to reach the stirrups, which dangled freely; he told her to hold tight.

That was when he saw Doyle, standing not a hundred feet away, beyond a row of hay bales that marked the edge of the beer tent, talking energetically to a young woman with great handfuls of red hair. He was telling a story, Wolgast could see, gesturing with his cup to make some point or pace a punch line, inhabiting the role of the handsome fiber-optic salesman from Indianapolis-just as Amy had done with the woman in line, spinning out the detail of the sick grandmother in Colorado. It was what you did, Wolgast understood; you started to tell a story about who you were, and soon enough the lies were all you had and you became that person. Beneath his feet, the carousel's wooden decking shuddered as its gears engaged; with a burp of music from speakers overhead, the carousel began to move as the woman, in a gesture of practiced flirtatiousness, tossed back her head to laugh, while at the same time reaching out to touch Doyle, quickly, on the shoulder. Then the deck of the carousel turned and the two of them were gone from sight.

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