"Shut up, you stupid bitch.” Something heavy thudded against the floor of the apartment overhead. The walls of Jolie’s room trembled like a junkie with the shakes.
Jolie froze with the blow dryer pointed at her tousled hair. The old woman upstairs was a mouse of a thing, as shrunken as a Halloween jack-o-lantern three weeks into November. Jolie had only seen the old woman outside of her apartment once since she and Jessie had moved in. The poor thing was furtively fetching the newspaper from outside her own door, and when she’d seen Jolie, she’d become so frightened that she’d dropped it in her rush to get back inside.
The floorboards overhead transmitted the woman’s whimpers, oozing her misery through the ceiling. Jolie switched off the blow dryer and steadied herself against the counter, overwhelmed by the intensity of the woman’s fear.
Breathe, Jolie. Just breathe. It’s not happening to you, she tried to tell herself.
“Get up, you dried up old bag,” the abusive husband shouted. “Get up and face me like a human being.” His words slurred, bleeding one into another without consonants.
He’s drunk again, Jolie thought.
It wasn’t the first time Jolie had been forced to take a front row seat in the theater of their failed marriage. The woman’s bleating noises sounded like a wounded animal.
“Did you hear me, Helen? Get up or I’ll hit you again.” The woman mumbled something unintelligible into the floor. “Stand up and face me, or I swear I’ll kill you where you lay,” the man threatened.
If the points of his consonants were being blurred by alcohol, something else had trampled the old woman’s completely flat. She begged the old man for mercy in a voice Jolie’s ears could not understand.
She’s ill, Jolie realized. She can’t speak.
There was a scuffle, then the sound of something being dragged across the floor. Shrieks rang out over the percussion of heels scrabbling against the floor.
“Is this what you want?” Slap. “Why do you make me do this?” Slap. “Stop crying, Helen. You know how upset I get when you cry.” Slap. “Stop it now.” Slap.
Helen’s protests weren’t in any dictionary, but Jolie understood them. Helen was begging for her life.
Jolie picked up a shoe and threw it at the ceiling.
“Shut up, up there. You know I can hear you down here, don’t you?”
“Who the fuck cares? Who is that, that little whore from downstairs? Mind your own business you little bitch.” There was another slap, and Helen cried out in pain.
“Stop it!” Jolie shouted. “Stop hitting her or I’ll call the police.”
“Get the fuck up off the floor, Helen,” the man’s attention returned to his victim.
“Leave her alone!” Jolie shouted again. “I’m calling nine-one-one.” She pulled her phone from her pocket and dialed. “Do you hear me? They’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“Stand up or I’ll kick you again,” the man shouted at his wife, ignoring Jolie. “You know I will.”
Helen screamed in a half-human voice that sounded like the death shrieks of rabbits attacked by wolves on a National Geographic program she’d watched.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?” the voice on the phone sounded like the start of a comedy routine, but right now nothing was funny.
“There’s a man upstairs beating his wife. We’re at the Tropical Paradise apartments on Mountain View; Quad F.”
“Hurry!” Jolie dropped her phone onto the couch and ran out of the apartment, taking the stairs two at a time.
“Leave her alone, old man. Do you hear me? Don’t touch her.” Jolie reached the landing and threw herself against the door, banging her fists against it. “Helen, are you all right? Helen, open the door. Let me in.”
The door flew open. A wiry old man stood framed in the doorway, looking like a piece of dead fruit tossed out to rot in the sun. His stained t-shirt hung over his shriveled body like half peeled skin. The whites of his eyes were jaundiced, and he stank.
“Helen, are you okay?” Jolie tried to see past him. “I called the police. They’ll be here any minute.” She could hear Helen sobbing, inside. “Helen?” There was no answer. “I’m coming in,” she warned the man, standing in a dazed stupor near the door. Jolie slipped by and into a chaos that folded around two realities: the world everybody saw and the other world that sometimes bled through.
The rancid smells of filth overpowered even the old man’s sour scent. Helen’s sobs came from behind a barricade of furniture in the living room. The man moved past Jolie and stepped in front of it, his eyes blazing.
Helen crawled out from behind the torn and toppled furniture, her face bruised, her lip bleeding down her chin.
“Are you okay, Helen?” Jolie asked.
“G’oaaaaw,” the old woman gurgled motioning for Jolie to leave.
“Get out of here, bitch!” the old man growled. “What I do in my house is none of your business.” His voice and his body language looked like they had been copied from the creature that Rory had summoned on Solstice. Jolie’s hands began to shake.
“What you’re doing is wrong. You’re going to kill her.” She stood her ground. “That can’t be what you want.” The man looked down at Helen, and for a moment the demonic disfiguration on his face softened, changing it to the face of an unhappy, aging man. He looked around at the room as if he wasn’t sure where he was or why Helen was bleeding on the floor. “You were angry just now,” Jolie explained carefully, hoping he could hold on to his humanity. “But you didn’t mean to hurt her. I know you didn’t. You care about her. Please let me come over and clean her up.” The man frowned as he backed up into the kitchen.
Jolie moved cautiously forward, careful not to make any sudden moves, and knelt beside the old woman.
“It’s going to be okay. Help is on the way, Helen.”
“Noooo,” the old woman moaned, shaking her head.
There was a growl from the kitchen and a body slammed into Jolie. Claw-like hands pressed deep into the tendons of her neck, stopping her breath, compressing her vision into a shrinking black dot with a pin prick glow of a demon’s red eye at the center. Her hands frantically scratched at the flesh and bone vise around her throat, but it did not budge.
Thtop! Thtop! Helen’s hands stroked Jolie’s arms, unable to reach high enough to get to the point of crucial contact.
“Please stop, Axel.” Jolie heard the voice locked inside Helen, the voice that had been hers before a stroke had imprisoned her inside her aging body. “They’ll take you away and lock you up. Then what will I do? What will happen to me? What will happen to me?” she wailed.
The red glow in the black dot faded. A small, bright iris took its place.
“Joliette?” Jolie heard Mem’s, voice. “What are you doing?”
“Dying,” Jolie replied very matter-of-factly. “Life wasn’t like you said at all. You weren’t there. I was alone and it sucked. So, I’m done," she announced smugly.
“Sweetheart." Jolie could hear the patient smile in Mem’s voice. “Things are not the way either of us wanted, but you can’t just give up. You’ve barely lived. You have so much left to see and do, Cherie. You’re a Boulette, and we Boulette’s don’t give up. You need to fight back, Jolie. Fight back, now!”
Something deep within Jolie pulled itself together into a tight spinning ball of energy then let go.
The room exploded like a hand grenade, the old man’s hands raking gouges in Jolie’s neck as he was thrown across the room.
Air rushed into Jolie’s lungs and she collapsed onto the floor, coughing.
“Jolie? Jolie, are you up here?” Remy’s voice penetrated the muddle of Jolie’s mind. She looked around, disturbed by the condition of the strange place. It looked like a hurricane had hit it.
“Shit.” Remy stood in the doorway staring at the aftermath of Jolie’s battle for her life. “What happened?”
Helen groaned from the floor.
“Axel.” Jolie heard the old woman’s thoughts, though her physical speech was still a tortured exercise in language gone awry. Jolie’s eyes tracked Helen’s grief-stricken gaze.
The old man lay bent back over a chair that had slid up against the counter, in a most unnatural position.
Helen turned to Jolie, mumbling words she could not push past her paralyzed lips.
"You need to go,” Jolie heard the woman’s thoughts. ”It’s no use you staying and getting caught up in this. The police have been here before. The thing they won’t understand is you and your part. Leave now, before they come.”
Jolie tried to get to her feet, gasping in pain as she failed, and then Remy was there, lifting her into his arms.
“Hold on to me,” he commanded. Jolie wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned her head against his chest, unable to do anything more. “I think we need to talk about all the things you didn’t do, Jolie Figg,” Remy said as he carried her down the stairs.
“Not now.” She struggled to get air past her crushed vocal chords.
“No, not now,” Remy agreed as he settled her behind him on his scooter. “Right now, all I want you to think about is holding on to me. Don’t let go.”
Jolie remembered anchoring her awareness to Remy’s heartbeat, her arms wrapped around his waist. The cool evening wind washed the tears off her cheeks, a field of stars stretching across the sky above them.
She had no understanding of distance or how long they drove. The traffic and the city fell behind, the scents of sage, creosote, and pine pulling them into the desert’s embrace, wiping away the ugliness of the scene in the apartment.
The dramatic stone escarpments of Red Rock National Conservation Area loomed tall and powerful beneath the rising full moon, glossing the stone peaks in silver light while their bases remained as dark and solid as the bones of the ancient dinosaurs hidden beneath them.
Remy turned his scooter onto a dirt road, slowing as he wove around the pot holes. Somewhere nearby, a burro brayed, the haunting hee-haw echoing off the red stone faces that protected Calico Basin like a pair of protective arms. The shaggy animals came into view, standing in a group not far from the road. An old black jack stood guard over them, standing between them and the road. He watched Remy and Jolie go by on the scooter as if taking their measure, his solemn face resigned to his herd’s plight. The city was encroaching on his world and the greed of expansion had never been kind to those who had come before, be they two or four-legged.
Jolie turned her head, looking back over her shoulder until she could see him no more.
“Where are we going, Sean?” she tried to whisper through her crushed vocal chords.
“Sh. Don’t talk, Jo. Just hold on,” the boy in front of her whispered back.” It was not Sean’s voice, but it was a gentle voice. “I’m taking you someplace safe.”
Skateboard boy. Jolie remembered. Remy. Remy had scooped her up and taken her away. The sharp, brittle edge that Jolie hid behind wanted to laugh and mock this doomed boy for the notion that he could keep anyone safe, especially her. He was about to be killed and she--she knew things, saw things that he did not. But what had happened at the apartment, had drained and separated Jolie from all of her sharp-tongued sarcasm.
She had seen death up close before. But with Rory, she had merely nudged the scales of justice. What had happened at the apartments was something different. She had pushed Axel away from her with what? Her energy? Magic? Her intention? How was that possible? She had acted purely on instinct, not knowing what she was doing. I was just trying to get his hands off my throat, she thought, frightened. What else was she supposed to do? He had been trying to squeeze the life from her.
“Remy? What’s happened?” a woman’s voice broke into Jolie’s confusion.
The scooter had stopped and the looming shadows of the red rock mountains curved around them.
“Dear Creator. Bring her inside, nephew. Put her in the little room in the back.” Jolie felt her bits gathered up like a package that had been ripped apart. Remy laid her down on a bed and pulled up a cotton blanket with a multi-colored star quilted onto its face. The bare beams of a log cabin supported the roof above. Mismatched furniture: a vintage dressing table, old chests of drawers, and trunks were pushed up against the walls as if they needed the support to stand.
“Just try and rest, dear.” The woman’s voice was as kind as her face. “We’ll talk in the morning.” She tucked the quilt around Jolie, there was the soft swish of fabric and the door closed to allow a sliver of light to come in from the next room.
“What happened to her?” a thickly accented woman’s voice demanded.
“Remy hasn’t had a chance to explain. Is everyone ready to go in, Yanna?”
“I’ll just put the wasna in a bowl,” the second woman replied.
“Okay. I’ll get them lined up.”
Jolie had just closed her eyes when the wooden door swung open again, spilling light over her in the bed.
The fortuneteller’s face hovered over her like a disembodied head.
“So you were lost. Rest easy. I have found you.”
“Yanna Maria, we’re waiting for you,” the kind voiced woman called from the outer door. The fortune teller’s face vanished and the light from the door waned back to a crescent sliver.
Jolie looked out the little wood-framed window that faced west. Twin peaks in the escarpment, like a pair of rounded breasts, shone in the moonlight. She could not have said how long she lay there, just looking at the red rock cliff face, but once again light spilled across the bed. Remy pulled a chair up beside her.
“Sleep, if you can, Jo. I’ll be right here.” He gently moved the hair back off her face, touching her forehead with cool, gentle fingers. She longed to take his hand and curl herself around it. Wavering between waking hallucination and haunted sleep, Jolie’s mind drifted away on the sound of drums beating out the heartbeat beneath the stone breasts shimmering outside her window.