For The Dead by Timothy Hallinan
A Poke Rafferty Thriller (#6)
Publication Date: November 4, 2014
The river is wider than it should be and it’s the wrong color. Instead of its usual reddish brown, a gift of the topsoil it steals from the rice farmers upstream, it’s a cold, metallic gray-green, the color of the sea beneath clouds. And it runs faster than it should, fast enough to whip up curving rills of white foam where the water quickens over the tops of stones.
Although the sky is a bottomless, unblemished blue, the girl can’t find the sun. She sits on the green bank, shadowless, watching the river’s flow, not knowing her name and not very bothered by it. Several names come to her, and they all seem to be hers, but she knows she only has one. If she could see her face, she thinks, if she knew how old she is, she’d know which name to accept.
The landscape offers no clues or indications. There’s nothing but the stunted forest with its ragged, disorderly trees and waist-high scrub, and the wide gray-green river, flowing swiftly toward her and then past her, leaving her here, a stationary dot on its passage to the sea.
A pale distance away, the river bends to the right and disappears behind a faded green treeline. All that water rounding the bend, resolutely silent, unaware of her. But why shouldn’t it be unaware of her? She’s barely aware of herself.
Experimentally, she examines her right hand, holding it just above the ground with its tangled green cover. Her hand is so sharp that it seems closer than it is, and she can see the faint blue map of veins beneath her skin pulse with each heartbeat. She feels the blood rushing through them, a tiny river within her, and that thought draws her eyes back to the larger river, and then upstream to the bend where it vanishes.
And she knows—with no feeling of discovery, but as though she has always known—that up there, out of sight, on the far side of the bend, the river is bringing something to her. Bearing it, whatever it is, on its unstoppable flow.
And it’s something enormous.
She thinks, “I need to talk to my mother.” And then the day dims and the girl shivers and realizes that she’s grown suddenly cold.
For the thousandth time since they began to live together, Rose wakes up shivering and asks herself why Poke puts the air-con on high every night, turning their bedroom into a refrigerator, and then steals every blanket on the bed so he can build a fort against the cold he has created.
My mother? she thinks as a tiny scrap of her dream surfaces like a fragment of mosaic and then sinks again. Why would my mother come to me? Or did she? Mostly, it seems, mostly, it was the river.
Rose never knowingly ignores a dream. Automatically, she checks the time, which is announced in the sleepy-blue numerals of the bedside clock as 2:46. Too late to call. If something is wrong, there’s nothing she can do now. She’ll call first thing in the morning, make Poke bring her the phone while his silly, fancy coffee is dripping and the water is heating for her Nescafé.
Still. The dream.
She stretches her arms and her legs and then sits up and reaches for the pack of Marlboro Golds parked permanently on the table, just in front of her big glass ashtray, with this week’s disposable lighter lying obediently on top of it. She knows the smoke will wake Poke, so she makes a silent deal with herself. She won’t hold the lighter in place when she picks up the pack, and if the lighter falls off she’ll put the pack back and go to sleep.
When the pack is in front of her, the lighter is dead center on top.
She palms the lighter and flips open the top of the box, inhaling the rich brown aroma. Even in the dark, the precise white cylinders of the filters are comfortingly clean and—unused. They promise hours of solitary pleasure. For so many years, the years when she was dancing in the bars on Patpong, being dragged night after night to hotels by sodden, besotted customers, the moment when it was finally over and she was once again alone—free to breathe again, free to light up a cigarette that belonged to no one but her, to pay attention to no one’s pleasure but her own—had gleamed in front of her like a lantern seen through dark trees. It said, Here you are. Here you can be safe again. Here you can be you again.
She flicks the lighter and looks down at the cigarette, so secure, so snug, so right between her long fingers. There’s been one there for so long that she can barely feel it; in fact, sometimes when she lights one it’s just because she’s become aware of its absence. Smoking this one now is just a matter of inches: inches to put the filter between her lips, inches to bring the flame to the tip. But instead of putting it in her mouth, she thinks, I need to talk to my mother, and sees briefly and vividly the river in her dream, broad and gray-green. Breathes in the clean air of the forest.
She lets the lighter go dark and puts the cigarette back in the pack, replaces both objects on the table. The cold darkness presses itself against her. She can feel Poke to her right, can feel, with a mother’s ability to penetrate walls, Miaow breathing safely, asleep in her own room. She can feel the city outside pulling at her like a tide in her veins, its straight streets deceptively orderly, a reassuring grid imposed on chaos: need, fear, desire, envy, desolation, hopelessness, the invisible web woven by those on both sides of the karmic wheel, those who curse it and the fortunate ones who accept it as their due.
But up here, in the rooms the three of them share, everything is where it should be. Nothing rolls around. The lines between them are straight and strong. Sometimes when she’s sitting in her spot on the couch in the living room, she imagines them, each lost in whatever he or she is doing but connected nonetheless by a pale, transparent yellow line, like concentrated light. She can walk through the line between Poke and Miaow and feel it go straight through her, warm as the sun.
Poke, she thinks. Warm, she thinks.
She bends down and touches first her left foot and then her right, which may at the moment be the coldest foot in all of Southeast Asia. Poke has his back to her, knees drawn up, the human core of a mountain range of blankets. He sleeps naked, and it’s easy, as she slips the foot beneath the blankets, to target the warm bare skin on the small of his back.
The mountain erupts, blankets flying everywhere, and whatever he says, the English is too fast for her to follow it. He sits there wild-eyed, blankets pooled down around his hips, breathing like he’s just run a mile, and before he can say anything else, she wraps both arms around his warm neck and pulls him down to her. Says, her mouth inches from his, “Pay attention to me.”
For what seems like the second time in an instant, Miaow sits up. The coolness of her forehead tells her she’s been perspiring in spite of the single lightweight sheet that covers her.
She hears herself panting. Her heart sounds a quicker-than-normal rhythm in her ears, muffled as a drum in a distant room. But everything she’s looking for right now is here, it’s all here, after all: her dresser, her closet door framing the pale ghosts of her clothes, the rectangular blotches that represent her paintings and drawings. So even though the room is so dark she hates it, hates the paint she made Poke choose nine weeks ago, still, she is in her room, which means that she was only dreaming that she woke up before.
When her bed was on the sidewalk. Crowded, like most Bangkok sidewalks, dusk but not yet dark: bat-time, mosquito-time, evening crowd-time, people pushing their way around the bed without noticing what it was, without seeing her as she sat bolt upright with the sheet clutched to her chest. Trying to hide the dirty T-shirt, the ragged shorts, the blackened feet and scabby knees, the grimy nails, dark skin, snotty upper lip, and tangled hair of a street child.
They flowed around her like water around a stone, as though she were something of no value, not worth a glance. But dirty. A few women tugged at their skirts or moved their purses from one arm to another, as though they were afraid something might hop on them from the filthy child, lost in the bed in the middle of the sidewalk.
The filthy child. The impoverished, lice-ridden, terrified child she has tried so frantically to leave behind. The child no one at her fancy school knows she ever was.
Miaow realizes she’s clenching the bottom sheet in her hand, so hard her forearm is cramping. She releases the cloth, flexes her fingers, and picks up her pillow. She stands it on end in her lap and puts both arms around it, hugging it to her. It’s not enough. She thinks about going into the other room to crawl in between Poke and Rose as they mumble permission they won’t remember in the morning.
She hasn’t done that in years.
But she hasn’t had this dream in years, either. It’s been five years now since she was seven or eight and couldn’t read and didn’t know her full name, and they took her off the sidewalk and put her in this safe little box eight stories up. Wrapped a life around her, a life she hadn’t even known how to imagine.
Why dream it now?
She could talk about it tomorrow at school with Andrew, she thinks, except that Andrew doesn’t know she was ever a street child, and anyway he’s so boy. Dreams and feelings don’t interest him. He lives in that strange boy world where the only things that matter are the things you can see in hard light, the things you can bump into and measure and argue about: “It’s not yellow, it’s green, and if it were yellow, it would be a statistical improbability.” If you said, “It feels green,” he’d snort. Her least favorite thing about Andrew is his snort.
She has to learn to manage him, she thinks, the way Rose manages Poke. Rose has gotten Poke, well, maybe not to accept that everything she believes in is real, but at least to acknowledge that it’s all in the room with them—the wonderful Rose-cloud of feelings and hopes and memories and beliefs and dreams. The maybes, the what-ifs, the wouldn’t-it-be-fines, the ghosts and the spirits of place. If Poke were to draw a map of their apartment, he’d probably find a way to put it in.
And Rose would tell him he got the color wrong.
The same way she did, Miaow did, in this room. Picked a color so dark she can barely see her own feet. So here she is, wide awake in a room that’s way too dark, and they’re in there, sound asleep.
But still, there are walls around them, keeping out everything that’s not-them. In a few hours it’ll be light and they’ll all say hello to one another again and pass one another in the rooms and the hallway, surrounded by the smell of Poke’s stupid coffee, and—and—they’ll fuel up from one another before they go out into the day.
She hugs the pillow closer. Everything is fine. She’s here to stay. They’re here to stay. She’s got school, she’s got a few friends, she’s got Andrew, such as he is. The filthy child has been left far, far behind. Everything is fine.
So why did she have that dream again? Without thinking, she glances at the clock. It’s 2:51 AM.
Excerpted from For the Dead by Timothy Hallinan. Copyright © 2014 by Timothy Hallinan.