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The Vanishing Half / (by Brit Bennett, 2020) -

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The Vanishing Half /   (by Brit Bennett, 2020) -

The Vanishing Half / (by Brit Bennett, 2020) -

2020 New York Times. . -, , . . , , , , . , , . . , . . . , , . "" "- ", , , , .

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: 292
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The Vanishing Half / (by Brit Bennett, 2020) -
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2020
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Brit Bennett
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Shayna Small
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/ / upper-intermediate
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upper-intermediate
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11:34:06
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Vanishing Half / :

.doc (Word) brit_bennett_-_the_vanishing_half.doc [717 Kb] (c: 2) .
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audiobook (MP3) .


: The Vanishing Half

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One T he morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort. The barely awake customers clamored around him, ten or so, although more would lie and say that they_d been there too, if only to pretend that this once, they_d witnessed something truly exciting. In that little farm town, nothing surprising ever happened, not since the Vignes twins had disappeared. But that morning in April 1968, on his way to work, Lou spotted Desiree Vignes walking along Partridge Road, carrying a small leather suitcase. She looked exactly the same as when she_d left at sixteen_still light, her skin the color of sand barely wet. Her hipless body reminding him of a branch caught in a strong breeze. She was hurrying, her head bent, and_Lou paused here, a bit of a showman_she was holding the hand of a girl, seven or eight, and black as tar. _Blueblack,_ he said. _Like she flown direct from Africa._ Lou_s Egg House splintered into a dozen different conversations. The line cook wondered if it had been Desiree after all, since Lou was turning sixty in May and still too vain to wear his eyeglasses. The waitress said that it had to be_even a blind man could spot a Vignes girl and it certainly couldn_t have been that other one. The diners, abandoning grits and eggs on the counter, didn_t care about that Vignes foolishness_who on earth was the dark child? Could she possibly be Desiree_s? _Well, who else_s could it be?_ Lou said. He grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser, dabbing his damp forehead. _Maybe it_s an orphan that got took in._ _I just don_t see how nothin that black coulda come out Desiree._ _Desiree seem like the type to take in no orphan to you?_ Of course she didn_t. She was a selfish girl. If they remembered anything about Desiree, it was that and most didn_t recall much more. The twins had been gone fourteen years, nearly as long as anyone had ever known them. Vanished from bed after the Founder_s Day dance, while their mother slept right down the hall. One morning, the twins crowded in front of their bathroom mirror, four identical girls fussing with their hair. The next, the bed was empty, the covers pulled back like any other day, taut when Stella made it, crumpled when Desiree did. The town spent all morning searching for them, calling their names through the woods, wondering stupidly if they had been taken. Their disappearance seemed as sudden as the rapture, all of Mallard the sinners left behind. Naturally, the truth was neither sinister nor mystical; the twins soon surfaced in New Orleans, selfish girls running from responsibility. They wouldn_t stay away long. City living would tire them out. They_d run out of money and gall and come sniffling back to their mother_s porch. But they never returned again. Instead, after a year, the twins scattered, their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find. Now she was back, Lord knows why. Homesick, maybe. Missing her mother after all those years or wanting to flaunt that dark daughter of hers. In Mallard, nobody married dark. Nobody left either, but Desiree had already done that. Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far. In Lou_s Egg House, the crowd dissolved, the line cook snapping on his hairnet, the waitress counting nickels on the table, men in coveralls gulping coffee before heading out to the refinery. Lou leaned against the smudged window, staring out at the road. He ought to call Adele Vignes. Didn_t seem right for her to be ambushed by her own daughter, not after everything she_d already been through. Now Desiree and that dark child. Lord. He reached for the phone. _You think they fixin to stay?_ the line cook asked. _Who knows? She sure seem in a hurry though,_ Lou said. _Wonder what she hurryin to. Look right past me, didn_t wave or nothin._ _Uppity. And what reason she got to be uppity?_ _Lord,_ Lou said. _I never seen a child that black before._ _ IT WAS A strange town. Mallard, named after the ring-necked ducks living in the rice fields and marshes. A town that, like any other, was more idea than place. The idea arrived to Alphonse Decuir in 1848, as he stood in the sugarcane fields he_d inherited from the father who_d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place. His mother, rest her soul, had hated his lightness; when he was a boy, she_d shoved him under the sun, begging him to darken. Maybe that_s what made him first dream of the town. Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift. He_d married a mulatto even lighter than himself. She was pregnant then with their first child, and he imagined his children_s children_s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before. Soon others came. Soon idea and place became inseparable, and Mallard carried throughout the rest of St. Landry Parish. Colored people whispered about it, wondered about it. White people couldn_t believe it even existed. When St. Catherine_s was built in 1938, the diocese sent over a young priest from Dublin who arrived certain that he was lost. Didn_t the bishop tell him that Mallard was a colored town? Well, who were these people walking about? Fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek? Was this who counted for colored in America, who whites wanted to keep separate? Well, how could they ever tell the difference? By the time the Vignes twins were born, Alphonse Decuir was dead, long gone. But his great-great-great-granddaughters inherited his legacy, whether they wanted to or not. Even Desiree, who complained before every Founder_s Day picnic, who rolled her eyes when the founder was mentioned in school, as if none of that business had anything to do with her. This would stick after the twins disappeared. How Desiree never wanted to be a part of the town that was her birthright. How she felt that you could flick away history like shrugging a hand off your shoulder. You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both. And yet, if Alphonse Decuir could have strolled through the town he_d once imagined, he would have been thrilled by the sight of his great-great-great-granddaughters. Twin girls, creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair. He would have marveled at them. For the child to be a little more perfect than the parents. What could be more wonderful than that? _ THE VIGNES TWINS vanished on August 14, 1954, right after the Founder_s Day dance, which, everyone realized later, had been their plan all along. Stella, the clever one, would have predicted that the town would be distracted. Sun-drunk from the long barbecue in the town square, where Willie Lee, the butcher, smoked racks of ribs and brisket and hot links. Then the speech by Mayor Fontenot, Father Cavanaugh blessing the food, the children already fidgety, picking flecks of crispy chicken skin from plates held by praying parents. A long afternoon of celebration while the band played, the night ending in a dance in the school gymnasium, where the grown folks stumbled home after too many cups of Trinity Thierry_s rum punch, the few hours back in that gym pulling them tenderly toward their younger selves. On any other night, Sal Delafosse might have peeked out his window to see two girls walking under moonlight. Adele Vignes would have heard the floorboards creak. Even Lou LeBon, closing down the diner, might have seen the twins through the foggy glass panes. But on Founder_s Day, Lou_s Egg House closed early. Sal, feeling suddenly spry, rocked to sleep with his wife. Adele snored through her cups of rum punch, dreaming of dancing with her husband at homecoming. No one saw the twins sneak out, exactly how they_d intended. The idea hadn_t been Stella_s at all_during that final summer, it was Desiree who_d decided to run away after the picnic. Which should not have been surprising, perhaps. Hadn_t she, for years, told anyone who would listen that she couldn_t wait to leave Mallard? Mostly she_d told Stella, who indulged her with the patience of a girl long used to hearing delusions. To Stella, leaving Mallard seemed as fantastical as flying to China. Technically possible, but that didn_t mean that she could ever imagine herself doing it. But Desiree had always fantasized about life outside of this little farm town. When the twins saw Roman Holiday at the nickel theater in Opelousas, she_d barely been able to hear the dialogue over the other colored kids in the balcony, rowdy and bored, tossing popcorn at the white people sitting below. But she_d pressed against the railing, transfixed, imagining herself gliding above the clouds to some far-off place like Paris or Rome. She_d never even been to New Orleans, only two hours away. _Only thing waitin for you out there is wildness,_ her mother always said, which of course made Desiree want to go even more. The twins knew a girl named Farrah Thibodeaux who, a year ago, had fled to the city and it sounded so simple. How hard could leaving be if Farrah, one year older than they, had done it? Desiree imagined herself escaping into the city and becoming an actress. She_d only starred in one play in her life_Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade_but when she_d taken center stage, she_d felt, for a second, that maybe Mallard wasn_t the dullest town in America. Her classmates cheering for her, Stella receding into the darkness of the gym, Desiree feeling like only herself for once, not a twin, not one half of an incomplete pair. But the next year, she_d lost the role of Viola in Twelfth Night to the mayor_s daughter, after her father had made a last-second donation to the school, and after an evening sulking in the stage wing as Mary Lou Fontenot beamed and waved to the crowd, she told her sister that she could not wait to leave Mallard. _You always say that,_ Stella said. _Because it_s always true._ But it wasn_t, not really. She didn_t hate Mallard as much as she felt trapped by its smallness. She_d trampled the same dirt roads her entire life; she_d carved her initials on the bottom of school desks that her mother had once used, and that her children would someday, feeling her jagged scratching with their fingers. And the school was in the same building it_d always been, all the grades together, so that even moving up to Mallard High hadn_t felt like a progression at all, just a step across the hallway. Maybe she would have been able to endure all this if it weren_t for everyone_s obsession with lightness. Syl Guillory and Jack Richard arguing in the barber shop about whose wife was fairer, or her mother yelling after her to always wear a hat, or people believing ridiculous things, like drinking coffee or eating chocolate while pregnant might turn a baby dark. Her father had been so light that, on a cold morning, she could turn his arm over to see the blue of his veins. But none of that mattered when the white men came for him, so how could she care about lightness after that? She barely remembered him now; it scared her a little. Life before he died seemed like only a story she_d been told. A time when her mother hadn_t risen at dawn to clean white people_s houses or taken in extra washing on the weekends, clotheslines zigzagging across their living room. The twins used to love hiding behind the quilts and sheets before Desiree realized how humiliating it was, your home always filled with strangers_ dirty things. _If it was true, then you_d do something about it,_ Stella said. She was always so practical. On Sunday nights, Stella ironed her clothes for the entire week, unlike Desiree, who rushed around each morning to find a clean dress and finish the homework crushed in the bottom of her book bag. Stella liked school. She_d earned top marks in arithmetic since kindergarten, and during her sophomore year, Mrs. Belton even allowed her to teach a few classes to the younger grades. She_d given Stella a worn calculus textbook from her own Spelman days, and for weeks, Stella lay in bed trying to decipher the odd shapes and long strings of numbers nestled in parentheses. Once, Desiree flipped through the book, but the equations spanned like an ancient language and Stella snatched the book back, as if by looking at it, Desiree had sullied it somehow. Stella wanted to become a schoolteacher at Mallard High someday. But every time Desiree imagined her own future in Mallard, life carrying on forever as it always had, she felt something clawing at her throat. When she mentioned leaving, Stella never wanted to talk about it. _We can_t leave Mama,_ she always said, and, chastened, Desiree fell silent. She_s already lost so much, was the part that never needed to be said. _ ON THE LAST DAY of tenth grade, their mother came home from work and announced that the twins would not be returning to school in the fall. They_d had enough schooling, she said, easing gingerly onto the couch to rest her feet, and she needed them to work. The twins were sixteen then and stunned, although maybe Stella should have noticed the bills that arrived more frequently, or Desiree should have wondered why, in the past month alone, their mother had sent her to Fontenot_s twice to ask for more credit. Still, the girls stared at each other in silence as their mother unlaced her shoes. Stella looked like she_d been socked in the gut. _But I can work and go to school too,_ she said. _I_ll find a way__ _You can_t, honey,_ her mother said. _You gotta be there during the day. You know I wouldn_t do this if I didn_t need to._ _I know, but__ _And Nancy Belton got you teachin the class. What more do you need to learn?_ She had already found them a job cleaning a house in Opelousas and they would start in the morning. Desiree hated helping her mother clean. Plunging her hands into dirty dishwater, stooping over mops, knowing that someday, her fingers would also grow fat and gnarled from scrubbing white folks_ clothes. But at least there would be no more tests or studying or memorizing, no more listening to lectures, bored to tears. She was an adult now. Finally, life would really begin. But as the twins started dinner, Stella remained silent and glum, rinsing carrots under the sink. _I thought__ she said. _I guess I just thought__ She wanted to go to college someday and of course she_d get into Spelman or Howard or wherever else she wanted to go. The thought had always terrified Desiree, Stella moving to Atlanta or D.C. without her. A small part of her felt relieved; now Stella couldn_t possibly leave her behind. Still, she hated to see her sister sad. _You could still go,_ Desiree said. _Later, I mean._ _How? You have to finish high school first._ _Well, you can do that then. Night classes or somethin. You_ll finish in no time, you know you will._ Stella grew quiet again, chopping carrots for the stew. She knew how desperate their mother was and would never fight her on her decision. But she was so rattled that her knife slipped and she cut her finger instead. _Damn it!_ she whispered loudly, startling Desiree beside her. Stella hardly ever swore, especially not where their mother might overhear. She dropped the knife, a thin red line of blood seeping out her index finger, and without thinking, Desiree stuck Stella_s bleeding finger in her own mouth, like she_d done when they were little and Stella wouldn_t stop crying. She knew they were far too old for this now, but she still kept Stella_s finger in her mouth, tasting her metallic blood. Stella watched her silently. Her eyes looked wet, but she wasn_t crying. _That_s nasty,_ Stella said, but she didn_t pull away. _ ALL SUMMER, the twins rode the morning bus into Opelousas, where they reported to a giant white house hidden behind iron gates topped with white marble lions. The display seemed so theatrically absurd that Desiree laughed when she first saw them, but Stella only stared warily, as if those lions might spring to life at any moment and maul her. When their mother found them the job, Desiree knew the family would be rich and white. But she_d never expected a house like this: a diamond chandelier dripping from a ceiling so high, she had to climb to the top of the ladder to dust it; a long spiraling staircase that made her dizzy as she traced a rag along the banister; a large kitchen she mopped, passing appliances that looked so futuristic and new, she could not even tell how to use them. Sometimes she lost Stella and had to search for her, wanting to call her name but afraid to send her voice echoing off the ceilings. Once, she_d found her polishing the bedroom dresser, staring off into the vanity mirror adorned by tiny bottles of lotions, wistfully, as if she wanted to sit on that plush bench and rub scented cream onto her hands like Audrey Hepburn might. Admire herself for the sake of it, as if she lived in a world where women did such a thing. But then Desiree_s reflection appeared behind her, and Stella looked away, ashamed, almost, to be seen wanting anything at all. The family was called the Duponts. A wife with feathery blonde hair who sat around all afternoon, heavy-lidded and bored. A husband who worked at St. Landry Bank and Trust. Two boys shoving each other in front of the color television set_she_d never seen one before_and a colicky, bald baby. On their first day, Mrs. Dupont studied the twins a minute, then said absently to her husband, _What pretty girls. So light, aren_t they?_ Mr. Dupont just nodded. He was an awkward, fumbling man who wore Coke-bottle glasses with lenses so thick his eyes turned into beads. Whenever he passed Desiree, he tilted his head, as if he were quizzing himself. _Which one are you again?_ he_d ask. _Stella,_ she sometimes told him, just for fun. She_d always been a great liar. The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same. Stella never wanted to switch places. She was always certain that they would get caught, but lying_or acting_was only possible if you committed fully. Desiree had spent years studying Stella. The way she played with her hem, how she tucked her hair behind her ear or gazed up hesitantly before saying hello. She could mirror her sister, mimic her voice, inhabit her body in her own. She felt special, knowing that she could pretend to be Stella but Stella could never be her. All summer, the twins were out of sight. No girls walking along Partridge Road or sliding into a back booth at Lou_s or heading to the football field to watch the boys practice. Each morning, the twins disappeared inside the Duponts_ house and in the evening, they emerged exhausted, feet swollen, Desiree slumping against the bus window during the ride home. Summer was nearly over and she couldn_t bring herself to imagine autumn, scrubbing bathroom floors while her friends gossiped in the lunchroom and planned homecoming dances. Would this be the rest of her life? Constricted to a house that swallowed her as soon as she stepped inside? There was one way out. She knew it_she_d always known it_but by August, she was thinking about New Orleans relentlessly. The morning of Founder_s Day, already dreading returning to the Duponts_, she nudged Stella across the bed and said, _Let_s go._ Stella groaned, rolling over, the sheets knotted around her ankles. She_d always been a wild sleeper, prone to nightmares she never talked about. _Where?_ Stella said. _You know where. I_m tired of talkin about it, let_s just go._ She was beginning to feel as if an escape door had appeared before her, and if she waited any longer, it might disappear forever. But she couldn_t go without Stella. She_d never been without her sister and part of her wondered if she could even survive the separation. _Come on,_ she said. _Do you wanna be cleanin after the Duponts forever?_ She would never know for sure what did it. Maybe Stella was also bored. Maybe, practical as she was, Stella recognized that they could earn more money in New Orleans, send it home and help Mama better that way. Or maybe she_d seen that escape door vanishing too and realized that everything she wanted existed outside of Mallard. Who cared why she changed her mind? All that mattered was that Stella finally said, _Okay._ All afternoon, the twins lingered at the Founder_s Day picnic, Desiree feeling like she might burst open from carrying their secret. But Stella seemed just as calm as usual. She was the only person Desiree ever shared her secrets with. Stella knew about the tests Desiree had failed, how she_d forged her mother_s signature on the back instead of showing her. She knew about all the knickknacks Desiree had stolen from Fontenot_s_a tube of lipstick, a pack of buttons, a silver cuff link_ because she could, because it felt nice, when the mayor_s daughter fluttered past, knowing that she had taken something from her. Stella listened, sometimes judged, but never told, and that was the part that mattered most. Telling Stella a secret was like whispering into a jar and screwing the lid tight. Nothing escaped her. But she hadn_t imagined then that Stella was keeping secrets of her own. Days after the Vignes twins left Mallard, the river flooded, turning all the roads to muck. If they_d waited a day longer, the storm would_ve flushed them out. If not rain, then the mud. They would_ve trudged halfway down Partridge Road, then thought, forget it. They weren_t tough girls. Wouldn_t have lasted five miles down a muddy country road_they would_ve returned home, drenched, and fallen asleep in their beds, Desiree admitting that she_d been impulsive, Stella that she was only being loyal. But it didn_t rain that night. The sky was clear when the twins left home without looking back. _ ON THE MORNING Desiree returned, she got herself half lost on the way to her mother_s house. Being half lost was worse than being fully lost_it was impossible to know which part of you knew the way. Partridge Road bled into the woods and then what? A turn at the river but which direction? A town always looked different once you_d returned, like a house where all the furniture had shifted three inches. You wouldn_t mistake it for a stranger_s house but you_d keep banging your shins on the table corners. She paused in the mouth of the woods, overwhelmed by all those pine trees, stretching on endlessly. She tried to search for anything familiar, fiddling with her scarf. Through the gauzy blue fabric, you could barely see the bruise. _Mama?_ Jude said. _We almost there?_ She was gazing up at Desiree with those big moon eyes, looking so much like Sam that Desiree glanced away. _Yes,_ she said. _Almost._ _How much more?_ _Just a little while, baby. It_s right through these woods. Mama_s just catchin her bearings, that_s all._ The first time Sam hit her, Desiree started to think about returning home. They_d been married three years then, but she still felt like they were honeymooners. Sam still made her shiver when he licked icing off her finger or kissed her neck while she pouted into her lipstick. Washington, D.C., had started to feel like a type of home, where she might be able to imagine the rest of her life playing out without Stella in it. Then, one spring night, six years ago, she_d forgotten to sew a button on his shirt, and when he reminded her, she told him that she was too busy cooking dinner, he_d have to sew it himself. She was tired from work; it was late enough that she could hear The Ed Sullivan Show in the living room, Diahann Carroll trilling _It Had to Be You._ She lowered the chicken into the oven, and when she turned, Sam_s hand smashed hot against her mouth. She was twenty-four years old. She had never been slapped in the face before. _Leave him,_ her friend Roberta told her over the phone. _You stay, he thinks he can get away with it._ _It ain_t that simple,_ Desiree said. She glanced toward her baby_s room, touching her swollen lip. She suddenly imagined Stella_s face, her own but unbruised. _Why?_ Roberta said. _You love him? And he loves you so much, he knocked your head off your shoulders?_ _It wasn_t that bad,_ she said. _And you aim to stick around until it is?_ By the time Desiree found the nerve to leave, she hadn_t spoken to Stella since she_d passed over. She had no way to reach her and didn_t even know where she lived now. Still, weaving through Union Station, her daughter confused and clinging to her arm, she only wanted to call her sister. Hours earlier, in the middle of another argument, Sam had grabbed her by the throat and aimed his handgun at her face, his eyes as clear as the first time he_d kissed her. He would kill her someday. She knew this even after he released her and she rolled, gasping, onto her side. That night, she pretended to fall asleep beside him, then, for the second time in her life, she packed a bag in darkness. At the train station, she raced to the ticket counter with the cash she_d stolen from Sam_s wallet, gripping her daughter_s hand, breathing so hard her stomach hurt. What now, she asked Stella in her head. Where do I go? But of course, Stella didn_t answer. And of course, there was only one place to go. _How much more?_ Jude asked. _A little bit, baby. We almost there._ Almost home, but what did that mean anymore? Her mother might cast her out before she even reached the front steps. She would take one look at Jude before pointing them back down the road. Of course that dark man beat you. What you expect? A spite marriage don_t last. She stooped to pick up her daughter, hoisting her onto her hip. She was walking now without thinking, just to keep her body moving. Maybe it was a mistake to return to Mallard. Maybe they should have gone somewhere new, started over fresh. But it was too late now for regrets. She could already hear the river. She started toward it, her daughter hanging heavy around her neck. The river would right her. She would stand on the bank and remember the way. _ IN D.C., Desiree Vignes had learned to read fingerprints. She had never even known that this was something you could learn until the spring of 1956, when walking down Canal Street, she spotted a flyer tacked outside a bakery window announcing that the federal government was hiring. She_d paused in the doorway, staring at the poster. Stella had been gone six months then, time falling in a slow, steady drip. She would forget sometimes, as strange as it sounded. She would hear a funny joke on the streetcar or pass a friend they once knew and she would turn to tell Stella, _Hey did you__ before remembering that she was gone. That she had left Desiree, for the first time ever, alone. And yet, even after six months, Desiree still held out hope. Stella would call. She would send a letter. But each evening, she groped inside the empty mailbox and waited beside a phone that refused to ring. Stella had gone on to craft a new life without her in it, and Desiree was miserable living in the city where Stella abandoned her. So she_d written down the number from the yellow flyer pressed against the bakery window and she went to the recruitment office as soon as she got off from work. The recruiter, skeptical that she_d find anyone of good character in that whole city, was surprised by the neat young woman sitting in front of her. She glanced at her application, stumbling where the girl had marked colored. Then she tapped her pen on the box labeled hometown. _Mallard,_ she said. _I_ve never heard of the place._ _It_s just a little town,_ Desiree said. _North of here._ _Mr. Hoover likes small towns. The best folks come from small towns, he always says._ _Well,_ Desiree said, _Mallard is as small town as it gets._ _ IN D.C., she tried to bury her grief. She rented a room from the other colored woman in the fingerprinting department, Roberta Thomas. More a basement than a room, actually_dark and windowless but clean, and most importantly, affordable. _It ain_t much,_ Roberta told her on her first day of work. _But if you really need a place._ She_d offered tentatively, as if she were hoping Desiree might turn her down. She was exhausted, three children and all, and honestly, Desiree just seemed like another to take care of. But she pitied the girl, barely eighteen, alone in a new city, so the basement it was: a single bed, a dresser, the radiator rattling her to sleep each night. Desiree told herself that she was starting over but she thought of Stella even more now, wondering what she would make of this city. She_d left New Orleans to escape the memory of her but she still couldn_t fall asleep without rolling over to feel for Stella in bed beside her. At the Bureau, Desiree learned arches and loops and whorls. A radial loop, flowing toward the thumb, versus an ulnar loop, flowing toward the pinky. A central pocket loop whorl from a double loop whorl. A young finger from an old one whose ridges were worn down with age. She could identify one person out of a million by studying a ridge: its width, shape, pores, contour, breaks, and creases. On her desk each morning: fingerprints lifted from stolen cars and bullet casings, broken windows and door handles and knives. She processed the fingerprints of antiwar protesters and identified the remains of dead soldiers arriving home wedged on dry ice. She was studying fingerprints lifted from a stolen gun the first time Sam Winston walked past. He wore a lavender tie with a matching silk handkerchief, and she was shocked by the brightness of the tie and the boldness of the jet-black brother who_d found the nerve to wear it. Later, when she saw him eating lunch with the other attorneys, she turned to Roberta and said, _I didn_t know there were colored prosecutors._ Roberta snorted. _Of course there is,_ she said. _This ain_t that down poke town you come from._ Roberta had never heard of Mallard. Nobody outside of St. Landry Parish had, and when Desiree told Sam, he struggled to even imagine it. _You_re jivin,_ he said. _A whole town of folks as light as you?_ He_d invited her to lunch one afternoon, leaning over her cubicle after he_d stopped by to ask about a set of fingerprints. Later, he told her that he hadn_t been so desperate about those prints at all, he_d just wanted to find a reason to introduce himself. Now they were sitting in the National Arboretum, watching ducks glide over the pond. _Lighter even,_ she said, thinking about Mrs. Fontenot, who_d always boasted that her children were the color of clabber. Sam laughed. _Well, you gotta bring me down there sometime,_ he said. _I gotta see this light-skinned city for myself._ But he was only flirting. He was born in Ohio and had never ventured south of Virginia. His mother had wanted to send him to Morehouse but no, he was a Buckeye back before all the dormitories desegregated. He_d sat in classrooms where white professors refused to answer his questions. He_d scraped piss-yellow snow off his windshield each winter. Dated light girls who would not hold his hand in public. Northern racism, he knew. That southern kind, you could keep. As far as he was concerned, his folks had escaped the South for a reason and who was he to question their judgment? Those rednecks probably wouldn_t even let him come home, he always joked. He might go down to visit and wind up chopping cotton. _You wouldn_t like Mallard,_ she told him. _Why not?_ _Because. They funny down there. Colorstruck. That_s why I left._ Not exactly, although she wanted him to believe that she was nothing like the place she_d come from. She wanted him to believe anything beside the truth: that she was only young and bored and she_d dragged her sister to a city where she_d lost herself. He was quiet a minute, considering this, then he tilted the bag of breadcrumbs toward her. He had been ripping up the crust of his sandwich so she could feed the ducks, the type of subtle gallantry she would learn to love about him. She smiled, dipping her hand inside. She told him that she had never been with a man like him before, but the truth was, she had never really been with a man at all. So she was surprised and delighted by every little thing he did: Sam escorting her into restaurants with white tablecloths and ornate silverware; Sam inviting her to the theater, surprising her with tickets to see Ella Fitzgerald. When he brought her home the first time, she_d wandered around his bachelor_s apartment, amazed by his neat linens, his color-coded wardrobe, his big spacious bed. She_d nearly cried when she_d returned to Roberta_s basement after that. He would never again offer to visit home with her. She would never ask him to. She_d told him in the beginning that she hated Mallard. _I don_t believe you,_ he said. They were lying in his bed, listening to the rain. _What_s there to believe? I told you how I feel._ _Negroes always love our hometowns,_ he said. _Even though we_re always from the worst places. Only white folks got the freedom to hate home._ He was raised in the projects of Cleveland and he loved that city with the fierceness of someone who hadn_t been given much to love. She_d only been given a town she_d always wanted to escape and a mother who_d made it clear that she was not welcomed back. She hadn_t told Sam about Stella yet_it seemed like another thing about Mallard that he wouldn_t understand. But as rain splattered against the metal fire escape, she turned toward him and said that she had a twin sister who_d decided to become someone else. _She_ll get tired of all that playacting,_ he said. _Bet she comes running back, feeling foolish. You_re way too sweet for anyone to stay away._ He kissed her forehead, and she held him tighter, his heart thumping against her ear. This was back in the beginning. Before his hands curled into fists, before he called her uppity yellow bitch or crazy as your sister or off thinkin you white. Back when she_d found herself starting to trust him. _ MANY YEARS LATER, when her eyesight would begin to fade, she would blame the years she_d spent squinting at sheets of fingerprints and marking their ridges. Roberta told her once that soon the entire fingerprinting system would be operated by machines. The Japanese were already testing out the technology. But how could a machine study a fingerprint better than the trained eye? Desiree saw patterns that most people couldn_t. She could read a person_s life off his fingertips. During training, she_d practiced reading her own fingerprints, those intricate designs that marked her as unique. Stella had a scar on her left index finger from when she_d cut herself with a knife, one of many ways that their fingerprints were different. Sometimes who you were came down to the small things. _ ADELE VIGNES LIVED in a white shotgun house that lurked on the edge of the woods, a house first built by the founder and inhabited by generations of Decuirs ever since. When she_d first married, her new husband, Leon Vignes, had wandered down the hall, inspecting the ancient furniture. He was a repairman who wanted to be a woodworker and he ran a finger along the slender table legs, admiring the craftsmanship. He_d never expected to one day live in a home imbued with so much history, but then again, he_d never expected to marry a Decuir girl. A girl with Heritage. He could trace his own family to a long line of French winegrowers who_d hoped to build a vineyard in the New World before discovering that Louisiana was too hot and humid for grapes and settled instead for sugarcane. Big thinking crushed by reality_that_s what he_d inherited. His own parents had set their sights more reasonably; they_d run a speakeasy on the edge of Mallard called the Surly Goat. The more pious in Mallard would later trace the tragedies to that sinful business: four Vignes brothers, none of whom lived past thirty. Leon, the runt of the litter, the first to die. The house had faded with time but, somehow, still seemed exactly as Desiree had remembered it. She stepped into the clearing, gripping her own daughter tighter, shoulders stinging with each step. Those brass columns, teal roof, the narrow front porch where her mother was sitting on a rocking chair, snapping green beans into a bowl of water. Her mother still slight, her hair trailing down her back, temples now tinted gray. Desiree paused, her daughter hanging heavy from her neck. The years pushing her back like a hand to her chest. _Wonderin when y_all would make it out here. You know Lou already called, sayin he seen you._ Her mother was talking to her but staring at the child in her arms. _Mighty big to be carried._ Desiree finally set her daughter down. Her back ached, but pain, at least, felt familiar. A hurting body kept you alert, awake, which was better than how numb she_d felt on the train, moving but trapped in place. She nudged her daughter forward. _Go give your Maman a kiss,_ she said. _Go on, it_s all right._ Her daughter clamped around her legs, too shy to move, but she nudged her again until the girl dutifully climbed the steps, hesitating a second before she put an arm around her grandmother. Adele pulled back to get a better look at her, touching her mussed braids. _Go take a bath,_ she said. _Y_all smell like outside._ In the bathroom, Desiree knelt on the cracked tile to run her daughter a bath in the clawfoot tub. She tested the water feeling, somehow, as if she were dreaming. The mirror blackened in the top corner, the chipped scalloped sink, the wooden floors creaking in the places she_d learned to avoid if she wanted to sneak in past curfew. Her mother snapping green beans on the porch, as if it were a normal morning. And yet, they hadn_t spoken since Stella left. Desiree had called home, gulping back tears, and her mother said, _You did this._ What could she even say? She was the one who_d pushed Stella to leave home in the first place. Now her sister had decided she_d rather be white and her mother blamed her because Stella was no longer there to blame. In the kitchen, she sank into a chair, realizing a moment later, that she_d sat in the same place she always had, Stella_s chair empty beside her. Her mother was busying at the stove, and for a long moment, Desiree stared at her stiffened back. _So that_s what you been up to,_ her mother said. _What do you mean?_ _You know what I mean._ Her mother turned, her eyes brimming with tears. _You hate us that much, don_t you?_ Desiree pushed away from the table. _I knew I shouldn_t have come here__ _Sit down__ _If that_s all you got to say to me__ _What do you expect? You come from God knows where, draggin some child that don_t look one lick like you__ _We_ll go,_ Desiree said. _You can be mad at me all you want, Mama, but you not gonna be nasty to my girl._ _I said sit down,_ her mother said again, this time quieter. She slid a yellow square of cornbread across the table. _I_m just surprised. Can_t I be surprised?_ All those times Desiree had imagined calling home. When she_d arrived in D.C., settling in Roberta_s basement, her mother with no way to reach her. Or after Sam proposed, and they took engagement photographs under the cherry blossoms. She_d slid a picture into an envelope, even addressed it, but she couldn_t bring herself to send it. Not because she was ashamed of him_that was how Sam took it_but because what was the point of sharing good news with someone who couldn_t be happy for you? She already knew what her mother would tell her. You don_t love that dark man. You_re only marrying him out of rebellion and the worst thing to give a rebelling child is attention. You_ll understand someday when you have a child of your own. After the wedding, after the cake had been cut, after their friends had wandered boozy and laughing into the streets, she_d slumped in the back of the reception hall in her frilly white dress and cried. She had never imagined that she might get married someday without her sister and mother by her side. She_d even thought about calling after she_d given birth to a baby girl at Freedmen_s Hospital. When Jude was born, the colored nurse had paused before wrapping her in a pink blanket. _It_s good luck,_ she_d finally said, handing her over, _for a girl to look like her daddy._ She smiled a little after, offering reassurance to a woman she believed would need it. But Desiree stared into her baby_s face, enchanted. A different woman might have been disappointed by how little her own daughter resembled her, but she only felt grateful. The last thing she wanted was to love someone else who looked just like herself. _Would_ve fixed more if you told me you was comin,_ her mother said. _It was sort of last minute,_ Desiree said. She_d barely eaten on the train, nibbling on crackers and gulping black coffee until the caffeine made her jittery. She needed to plan. Mallard, and then what? Where to next? They couldn_t possibly stay here but she didn_t know where else to go. Now she stared around the aging kitchen, missing her own apartment in D.C. Her job, her friends, her life. Maybe she_d overreacted_the riots had set everyone on edge. A week ago, she_d watched Sam cry as Walter Cronkite delivered the news, holding him on the couch as he trembled in her arms. The shooter was a madman, maybe, or a military operative, or perhaps even an agent in the Bureau acting on behalf of the government. They were culpable, perhaps, complicit Negroes working for the wrong side. He was rambling and she clutched him until the broadcast ended. That night they_d made love desperately, a strange way to honor the Reverend, maybe, but she didn_t feel like herself that night, overwhelmed by grief over a man she didn_t know. In the morning, she passed ravaged storefronts with SOUL BROTHER scribbled on boarded shop windows, hasty claims of allegiance written in marker and pasted against glass. The Bureau dismissed early that day. On her walk home from the bus, a scared colored youth_scrawny as the baseball bat he was gripping_demanded her pocketbook. _Come on, you white bitch!_ he screamed, slamming the bat against the pavement, as if he could drill to the center of the earth. She fumbled with her leather strap, too afraid to correct him, recognizing herself in his terror and fury, when Sam leapt in front of her, arms raised, and said, _This my woman, brother._ The teen ran off into the din. Sam swept her inside the apartment, holding her against the safety of his chest. The city lit up four nights. And on the last night, Sam gripped her naked body and whispered, _Let_s make another._ It took her a moment to realize he meant a baby. She_d hesitated. She hadn_t meant to, but the thought of another baby anchoring her to him, another baby to worry about every time Sam was in a rage_she could never have another baby with him. Of course she didn_t tell him this, but her hesitation made it clear, and later, when he_d grabbed her throat, she knew exactly why. She_d wounded him while he was still grieving. No wonder he_d gotten angry. So he liked to throw his weight around a little. Who could blame him, living in a world that refused to respect him as a man? She didn_t have to be so mouthy. She could try harder to make a peaceful home. Wasn_t this the same man who_d stood between her and an angry boy_s bat? The same man who_d loved her after her sister abandoned her and her mother refused her phone calls? Maybe it wasn_t too late. They_d only been gone two days. She could always call Sam, tell him that she_d made a mistake. She_d needed a little time to clear her head, that_s all, of course she_d never seriously meant to leave. Her mother pushed the plate toward her again. _What type of trouble you in?_ she said. Desiree forced a laugh. _There_s no trouble, Mama._ _I ain_t stupid. You think I don_t know you runnin from that man of yours?_ Desiree stared down at the table, her eyes welling up. Her mother poured milk onto the cornbread and mushed it with a fork, the way Desiree had eaten it as a girl. _He gone now,_ her mother said. _Eat your cornbread._ _ LATE THAT NIGHT, over a hundred miles southeast of Mallard, Early Jones received a job offer that would alter the course of his life. He didn_t know this at the time. Any job was just that to him_a job_and when he stepped inside Ernesto_s, craning his neck for Big Ceel, he was only worried about whether he could afford a drink. He jangled the loose change in his pocket. Could never keep a dollar on him. Two weeks ago, he_d run a job for Ceel, and somehow, he_d burned through the money already on everything a young man alone in New Orleans required, card games and booze and women. Now he was desperate for another job. For the money, of course, but also because he hated being in one place for too long, and two weeks in the same place was, for him then, far too long. He wasn_t a settling man. He was only good at getting lost. He_d mastered that particular skill as a boy rooted nowhere. Spent his childhood_if you could call it that_sharecropping on farms in Janesville and Jena, down south to New Roads and Palmetto. He_d been given to his aunt and uncle when he was eight, because they had no children and his parents had too many. He did not know where his parents lived now, if they still lived, and he said that he never thought about them. _They gone,_ he said, when asked. _Gone folks is gone._ But the truth is that when he_d first started hunting hiding people, he_d tried to find his folks. His failure was swift and humiliating; he didn_t know enough about his parents to even guess where to begin. Probably for the best. They hadn_t wanted him as a boy_what on earth would they do with him as a grown man? Still, his defeat nagged at him. Since he_d started hunting, his parents were the only people he had never found. The key to staying lost was to never love anything. Time and time again, Early was amazed by what a running man came back for. Women, mostly. In Jackson, he_d caught a man wanted for attempted murder because he_d circled back for his wife. You could find a new woman anywhere, but then again, the most violent men were always the most sentimental. Pure emotion, any way you look at it. What really got him were the men who returned for belongings. Too many goddamn cars to count, always some junk a man had driven for years and couldn_t part with. In Toledo, he_d caught a man who_d returned to his childhood home for an old baseball. _I don_t know, man,_ he said, cuffed in the backseat of Early_s El Camino. _I just really love that thing._ Love had never dragged Early anywhere. As soon as he left a place, he forgot it. Names faded, faces blurred, buildings smudged into indistinguishable brick slabs. He forgot the names of teachers at all the schools he_d attended, the streets where he_d lived, even what his parents looked like. This was his gift, a short memory. A long memory could drive a man crazy. He_d been running jobs for Ceel, off and on, for seven years now. He never wanted anyone to think that he was working for the law. He caught criminals for one reason only_the money_and he didn_t give two shits about the white man_s justice. After he caught a man, he never wondered if the jury convicted him or if the man survived prison. He forgot him altogether. And though he_d been recognized in a bar once, and still wore the knife scars across his stomach as a souvenir, forgetting was the only way he could do his job. He liked hunting criminals. Each time Ceel approached him about a missing child or deadbeat father, Early shook his head. _Don_t know nothin bout none of those people,_ he said, tilting back his whiskey. In Ernesto_s, Ceel shrugged. He had a proper office in the Seventh Ward, but Early hated meeting him there, across the street from a church, all those sanctified folks staring at him as they trampled down the steps. This bar was Early_s kind of place, a little shadowy and safe. Ceel was a hefty man, cardboard-colored with silky black hair. He carried a silver cigarette lighter that he twirled between his fingers while he talked. He_d been twirling that lighter the first time he_d approached Early, in a bar like this one, years ago. Early had listened half-heartedly, watching the light glint off the silver and dance along the bar. _Son, how_d you like to make some money?_ Ceel asked. He didn_t look like a gangster or pimp but he carried the sleaziness of someone who did barely legal work. He was a bail bondsman, looking for a new bounty hunter, and he_d noticed Early. _You got a quiet way about you,_ he said. _That_s good. I need a man to look and listen._ Early was twenty-four then, fresh out of prison, alone in New Orleans because he_d figured it as good a place to start over as any. He took the job because he needed the work. He_d never expected to be good at it, so good, in fact, that Ceel kept approaching him with jobs that had nothing to do with bail bonds. _You know about _em what I tell you,_ Ceel said. _And I ain_t told you nothin yet._ _Well, I don_t like to be caught up in folks_ affairs. Don_t you have nothin else for me?_ Ceel laughed. _You _bout the only man I ever hear say that. Everybody else I talk to be glad not to hunt down some mean sonofabitch for a change._ But Early could, at least, understand how a wanted man thought. The exhaustion, the desperation, the sheer selfishness of survival. The otherwise disappeared baffled him. He certainly didn_t understand married folks and had no desire to get in between them. Then again, a job was a job. Why wouldn_t he take on something light? He_d just spent two weeks tracking a man halfway to Mexico; his car broke down in the desert and he_d wondered if he would die out there, hunting a man he didn_t even care to see punished. If the money was all the same, why not say yes to an easy job for once? _I_m not grabbin her,_ he said. _Nothin like that. You just call when you find her. Her old man_s lookin for her. She run off with his kid._ _What she run off for?_ Ceel shrugged. _None my concern. Man wants her found. She from some little town up north called Mallard. Ever heard of it?_ _Passed through as a boy,_ Early said. _Funny place. Highfalutin._ He remembered little about the town, except that everyone was light and uppity, and once, at Mass, a tall pale man had slapped him for dipping his finger into the holy water font before the man_s wife. He was sixteen then, shocked by the sudden sting on his neck, as his uncle grabbed his shoulder, staring at the cracked tile floor, and apologized. He_d spent a summer in that place, working a farm on the edge of town and delivering groceries to earn extra cash. He didn_t make a single friend, but he did nurse a futile crush on a girl he_d met carrying groceries up her porch steps. He didn_t know how she even entered his mind. He was so young when they_d met; he_d barely known her; by fall, he_d moved on to another farm in another town. Still, he saw her standing barefoot in her living room, washing the windows. When Ceel slid him the photograph, Early_s stomach lurched. He almost felt as if he_d willed it. For the first time in ten years, he was staring at Desiree Vignes_s face. Two T he Vignes twins left without saying good-bye, so like any sudden disappearance, their departure became loaded with meaning. Before they surfaced in New Orleans, before they were just bored girls hunting fun, it only made sense to lose them in such a tragic way. The twins had always seemed both blessed and cursed; they_d inherited, from their mother, the legacy of an entire town, and from their father, a lineage hollowed by loss. Four Vignes boys, all dead by thirty. The eldest collapsed in a chain gang from heatstroke; the second gassed in a Belgian trench; the third stabbed in a bar fight; and the youngest, Leon Vignes, lynched twice, the first time at home while his twin girls watched through a crack in the closet door, hands clamped over each other_s mouths until their palms misted with spit. That night, he was whittling a table leg when five white men kicked in the front door and hauled him outside. He landed hard on his face, his mouth filling with dirt and blood. The mob leader_a tall white man with red gold hair like a fall apple_waved a crumpled note in which, he claimed, Leon had written nasty things to a white woman. Leon couldn_t read or write_his customers knew that he made all of his marks with an X_but the white men stomped on his hands, broke every finger and joint, then shot him four times. He survived, and three days later, the white men burst into the hospital and stormed every room in the colored ward until they found him. This time, they shot him twice in the head, his cotton pillowcase blooming red. Desiree witnessed the first lynching but would forever imagine the second, how her father must have been sleeping, his head slumped, the way he nodded off in his chair after supper. How the thundering boots woke him. He screamed, or maybe had no time to, his swollen hands bandaged and useless at his sides. From the closet, she_d watched the white men drag her father out of the house, his long legs drumming against the floor. She suddenly felt that her sister would scream, so she squeezed her hand over Stella_s mouth and seconds later, felt Stella_s hand on her own. Something shifted between them in that moment. Before, Stella seemed as predictable as a reflection. But in the closet, for the first time ever, Desiree hadn_t known what her sister might do. At the wake, the twins wore matching black dresses with full slips that itched their legs. Days earlier, Bernice LeGros, the seamstress, had come by to pay her respects and found Adele Vignes trying to darn a pair of Leon_s church pants for his burial. Her hands were shaking, so Bernice took the needle and patched up the pants herself. She didn_t know how Adele would handle this on her own. Decuirs were used to soft things, to long, easy lives. The twins didn_t even have funeral dresses. The next morning, Bernice carried over a bolt of black fabric and knelt in the living room with her tape measure. She still couldn_t tell the twins apart and felt too embarrassed to ask, so she gave simple commands like _You, hand me them scissors_ or _Stand up straight, honey._ She told the fidgety twin, _Stop wigglin, girl, or you gonna get sticked,_ and the other twin grabbed her hand until she stilled. Unnerving, Bernice thought, glancing between the girls. Like sewing a dress for one person split into two bodies. After the burial, Bernice gathered in Adele_s crowded living room, admiring her handiwork as the twins scampered past. The fidgety twin, who she would later learn was Desiree, pulled her sister_s hand as they wove past the grown folks who huddled and whispered. Leon couldn_t have written that note_the white men must have been angered over something else and who could understand their rages? Willie Lee heard that the white men were angry that Leon stole their business by underbidding them. But how could you shoot a man for accepting less than what you asked for? _White folks kill you if you want too much, kill you if you want too little._ Willie Lee shook his head, packing tobacco into his pipe. _You gotta follow they rules but they change _em when they feel. Devilish, you ask me._ In the bedroom, the twins sat, legs swinging over the mattress edge, and pinched at a piece of pound cake. _But what did Daddy do?_ Stella kept asking. Desiree sighed, for the first time feeling the burden of having to supply answers. Oldest was oldest, even if by only seven minutes. _Like Willie Lee say. He do his job too good._ _But that don_t make sense._ _Don_t have to. It_s white folks._ As the years passed, their father would only come to her in flashes, like when she fingered a denim shirt and felt small again, pressed against the rough fabric spanning her father_s chest. You were supposed to be safe in Mallard_that strange, separate town_hidden amongst your own. But even here, where nobody married dark, you were still colored and that meant that white men could kill you for refusing to die. The Vignes twins were reminders of this, tiny girls in funeral dresses who grew up without a daddy because white men decided that it would be so. Then they grew older and just became girls, striking in both their sameness and differences. Soon it became laughable that there had ever been a time when no one could tell the twins apart. Desiree, always restless, as if her foot had been nailed to the ground and she couldn_t stop yanking it; Stella, so calm that even Sal Delafosse_s ornery horse never bucked around her. Desiree starring in the school play once, nearly twice if the Fontenots hadn_t bribed the principal; Stella, whip smart, who would go to college if her mother could afford it. Desiree and Stella, Mallard_s girls. As they grew, they no longer seemed like one body split in two, but two bodies poured into one, each pulling it her own way. _ THE MORNING AFTER one of her lost daughters returned, Adele Vignes woke early to make coffee. She_d barely slept the night before. Fourteen years living alone and anything besides silence sounded foreign. She_d jolted awake at every creaking floorboard, every rustled cover, every breath. Now she shuffled across the kitchen, tightening the belt of her housecoat. A breeze floated in through the front door_Desiree leaning on the porch rail, smoke trailing past her head. She always stood like that, one leg behind the other like an egret. Or was that Stella? In her memories, the girls had gotten mixed up, their details switching places until they overlapped into a single loss. A pair. She was supposed to have a pair. And now that one had returned, the loss of the other felt sharp and new. She slid the pot of water onto the stove and turned to find the dark child standing in the doorway. _Goodness!_ she said. _You about gave me a heart attack._ _I_m sorry,_ the girl whispered. She was quiet. Why was she so quiet? _Can I have some water?_ _May I have,_ Adele said, but she filled the cup anyway. She leaned against the counter, watching the girl drink, searching her face for anything that reminded her of her daughters. But she could only see the child_s evil daddy. Hadn_t she told Desiree that a dark man would be no good to her? Hadn_t she tried to warn her all her life? A dark man would trample her beauty. He_d love it at first but like anything he desired and could never attain, he would soon grow to resent it. Now he was punishing her for it. The child set her empty cup on the counter. She looked dazed, as if she_d woken up in a foreign country. Her granddaughter. Lord, she had a granddaughter. The word seemed funny even in her own head. _Why don_t you go on and play?_ Adele said. _I_ll fix us some breakfast._ _I didn_t bring nothin with me,_ the girl said, probably thinking of all the toys she_d left behind. City toys, like choo choo trains driven by real motors or plastic dolls with human hair. Still, Adele went into the twins_ room, freezing a second at the sight of the mussed bed_Desiree slept on her old side_before opening the musty closet. In a cardboard box near the back, she found a corncob doll that Stella had made Desiree. The girl hesitated_the doll must have looked monstrous compared to her store-bought ones_but she carried Stella_s doll carefully into the living room. A pair. Adele used to have a pair. Healthy twin girls, her first pregnancy at that. She_d given birth in her bedroom, the snow falling so suddenly, she wasn_t sure that the midwife would make it in time. When she arrived, Madame Theroux told her how fortunate she was. There hadn_t been twins in either family line for three generations. If you_d been blessed with twins, the midwife told her, you had to serve the Marassa, the sacred twins who united heaven and earth. They were powerful but jealous child gods. You had to worship both equally_leave two candies on your altar, two sodas, two dolls. Adele, catechized at St. Catherine_s, knew that she should have been scandalized, listening to Madame Theroux talking about her heathen religion at the birth of her children, but the stories distracted her from the pain. Then Desiree appeared, and seven minutes later Stella, and she held a girl in each arm, wrinkled and pink and needing nothing but her. After the twins were born, Adele never built an altar. But later, after her girls disappeared, she wondered if she_d been arrogant. Maybe she should have just built the altar, no matter how foolish it sounded. Maybe then her daughters would have stayed. Or maybe, she alone was to blame. Maybe she_d failed to love the twins equally and that chased them away. She_d always been hardest on Desiree, who was most like her father, confident that as long as she willed good things to happen, nothing could harm her. You had to curb a willful child. If she hadn_t loved Desiree, she would have abandoned her to her own stubbornness. But then Desiree felt hated and Stella felt ignored. That was the problem: you could never love two people the exact same way. Her blessing had been doomed from the beginning, her girls as impossible to please as jealous gods. Leon was easy to love. She should have known that he wouldn_t be with her long. All of her blessings had come so easily in the beginning of her life, and she_d spent the back half losing them all. But she wouldn_t lose Desiree again. She stepped onto the creaking porch, carrying two cups of coffee. Desiree quickly stubbed out her cigarette on the banister. Adele almost laughed_grown as she was, acting like a child stealing sweets. _I thought I_d fix some breakfast,_ Adele said. She handed her the mug and caught another glance at Desiree_s splotchy bruise, barely hidden behind that silly scarf. _I_m not too hungry,_ Desiree said. _You gonna fall out if you don_t eat somethin._ Desiree shrugged, taking a sip. Adele could already feel her fighting to break away, like a bird beating its wings against her palms. _I can take your girl by the school later,_ Adele said. Filtered her all signed up._ Desiree scoffed. _Now why in the world you wanna do that?_ _Well, she oughta keep on with her studies__ _Mama, we_re not stayin._ _Where you expect to go? And how you expect to get there? I bet you don_t have ten dollars in your pocket__ _I don_t know! Anywhere._ Adele pursed her lips. _You rather be anywhere than here with me._ _It_s not like that, Mama._ Desiree sighed. _I just don_t know where we oughta be right now__ _You oughta be with your family, cher,_ Adele said. _Stay. You safe here._ Desiree said nothing, staring out into the woods. Overhead, the sky was awakening, fading lavender and pink, and Adele wrapped an arm around her daughter_s waist. _What you think Stella_s doin right now?_ Desiree said. _I don_t,_ Adele said. _Ma_am?_ _I don_t think about Stella,_ she said. _ IN MALLARD, Desiree saw Stella everywhere. Lounging by the water pump in her lilac dress, slipping a finger down her sock to scratch her ankle. Dipping into the woods to play hide-and-seek behind the trees. Stepping out of the butcher_s shop carrying chicken livers wrapped in white paper, clutching the package so tightly, she might have been holding something as precious as a secret. Stella, curly hair pinned into a ponytail, tied with a ribbon, her dresses always starched, shoes shined. A girl still, since that was the only way Desiree had ever known her. But this Stella flitted in and out of her vision. Stella leaning against a fence or pushing a cart down a Fontenot_s aisle or perching on St. Catherine_s stone steps, blowing a dandelion. When Desiree walked her daughter to her first day of school, Stella appeared behind them, fussing about the dust kicking up on her socks. Desiree tried to ignore her, squeezing Jude_s hand. _You gotta talk to people today,_ she said. _I talk to people I like,_ Jude said. _But you don_t know yet, who you gonna like. So you gotta be friendly to everyone, just to see._ She straightened the ruffles on her daughter_s collar. She_d spent the night before kneeling in the yard, scrubbing Jude_s clothes in the washtub. She hadn_t packed enough for either of them, and plunging her hands into the filmy water, she imagined her daughter cycling through the same four dresses until she outgrew them. Why hadn_t she made a plan? Stella would have. She would have planned to run months before she actually did, squirreling away clothes slowly, one sock at a time. Set aside money, bought train tickets, prepared a place to go. Desiree knew because Stella had done it in New Orleans. Slipped out of one life into another as easily as stepping into the next room. Near the schoolyard, beige children pressed against the fence, gawking, and Desiree gripped her daughter_s hand again. She_d laid out Jude_s nicest outfit, a white dress with a pink pinafore, socks with lace trim, and Mary Janes. _Don_t you have something brown?_ her mother had asked, lingering in the doorway, but Desiree ignored her, tying pink ribbons around Jude_s braids. Bright colors looked vulgar against dark skin, everyone said, but she refused to hide her daughter in drab olive greens or grays. Now, as they paraded past the other children, she felt foolish. Maybe pink was too showy. Maybe she_d already ruined her daughter_s chances of fitting in by dressing her up like a department store doll. _Why they all lookin at me?_ Jude asked. _It_s just cause you new,_ Desiree said. _They just curious about you._ She smiled, trying to sound cheerful, but her daughter glanced warily toward the schoolyard. _How long we stayin out here?_ she asked. Desiree knelt in front of her. _I know it_s different,_ she said. _But it_s just for a little bit. Just until Mama figures some things out, okay?_ _How long_s a little bit?_ _I don_t know, baby,_ Desiree finally said. _I don_t know._ _ THE SURLY GOAT rose lazily on stilts, moss trees dripping onto the reddened roof. Desiree carefully picked around the muddy pathway just to find the first dilapidated step. A small town in the shadow of an oil refinery, with no picture show or nightclub or ballpark nearby meant one thing: an abundance of bored, rough men. Marie Vignes was the only person in Mallard who hadn_t seen a problem with this. Instead, she_d turned the farmhouse her parents left her into a bar, put her four sons to work cleaning glasses and hauling kegs, and on occasion breaking up fights. She_d planned to leave the bar someday to one of her sons, but by the time she died, they were all gone. The twins rarely saw her after their father_s funeral. Their mother had never wanted anything to do with that speakeasy or the unrefined woman it belonged to. The two women had been polite enough when Leon was there to smooth things over, but now that he was gone, there was no space for both of them and their grief. So the twins only heard stories about how Marie Vignes used to serve whiskey to the roughest men in Mallard, how she kept a shotgun under the bar that she named Nat King Cole, and when the roughnecks started shoving over a game of poker or fighting about a woman, she_d pull out ol_ Nat and those angry men, normally unmoved by a woman in a housedress, turned as docile as altar boys. But when Desiree stepped inside the Surly Goat for the first time, she felt almost disappointed. She_d always imagined the bar as a magical place that would, somehow, remind her more of her father. Instead, it was nothing but a country dive. She was at a bar in the middle of the afternoon because she couldn_t think of anywhere else to go. She_d spent the morning jostling in the front seat of Willie Lee_s truck all the way to Opelousas. She wanted to apply for a job, she told him when she_d spotted him outside his shop, loading his truck for deliveries. Could he give her a ride into town? As the meat truck pulled farther from Mallard, she was thinking still about her daughter, glancing back at her as she_d disappeared inside the schoolhouse. Those thin shoulders, hands clenched tight at her sides. _Where you need me to drop you off?_ Willie Lee had asked. _Just at the sheriff_s._ _The sheriff_s?_ He turned to look at her. _What business you got down there?_ _Told you. A job._ He grunted. _You can find cleanin work closer to Mallard._ _Not to clean._ _Then what you aim to do at the sheriff_s?_ _Apply to be a fingerprint examiner,_ she said. Willie Lee laughed. _So you just gonna walk in there and say what?_ _That I want a job application. I don_t know why you_re laughing, Willie Lee. I been examining fingerprints for over ten years now and if I can do it for the Bureau, I don_t know why I can_t do it here._ _I can think of a few reasons,_ Willie Lee told her. But hadn_t the world changed a little since she_d been gone? And hadn_t she walked into the St. Landry Parish Sheriff_s Department with all the confidence in the world? She had stepped right inside that grimy tan building, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and told the sheriff_s deputy, a portly man with sandy blond hair, that she wanted to apply for a job. _The Federal Bureau, did you say?_ he_d asked, raising an eyebrow, and she allowed herself to feel hopeful. She sat in the corner of the waiting room, racing through the latent print examiner test, grateful for a thinking activity for once, not the type of thinking she had done lately_logistics, like how long her money would last_but real analytical thinking. She_d finished quick, the deputy said, laughing a bit in amazement, might have been a record. He pulled out the answer guide from a manila folder to check her work. But first, he glanced at her full application, and when he saw her address listed in Mallard, his gaze frosted over. He slid the answer key back in the folder, returned to his chair. _Leave that there, gal,_ he said. _No use wasting my time._ Now she stepped inside the Surly Goat, passing under the welcome sign_COLD WOMEN! HOT BEER!_and pressed past a row of men in greasy coveralls to find an empty booth. _Well, look what the cat drug in,_ Lorna Hebert, the old barmaid, said. She dropped off a shot of whiskey that Desiree hadn_t even asked for. _You don_t look too surprised to see me,_ Desiree said. She_d been in town two days by now, of course everyone knew. _Got to come home sometime,_ Lorna said. _Now let me get a good look at you._ In the darkness of the bar, she was still wearing her blue scarf. If Lorna noticed anything, she didn_t say so. She disappeared back behind the bar and Desiree downed the shot, comforted by the burn. She felt pathetic, drinking alone in the middle of the day, but what else could she do? She needed a job. Money. A plan. But those children staring at her daughter. The deputy dismissing her. Sam gripping her throat. She waved over Lorna again, wanting to forget it all. One shot then another and she was already tipsy by the time she saw him. He was sitting at the end of the bar wearing a worn brown leather jacket, a dirty boot kicked up on the stool. The man beside him said something that made him smile into his whiskey. Those high cheekbones pierced her. Even after all those years, she would know Early Jones anywhere. _ HER LAST SUMMER in Mallard, Desiree Vignes met the wrong sort of boy. She_d spent her life, up until then, only meeting the right sort: Mallard boys, light and ambitious, boys tugging on her pigtails, boys sitting beside her in catechism, mumbling the Apostles_ Creed, boys begging her for kisses outside of school dances. She was supposed to marry one of these boys, and when Johnny Heroux left heart-shaped notes in her history book or Gil Dalcourt asked her to homecoming, she could practically feel her mother nudging her toward them. Pick one, pick one. It only made her want to dig her heels into the ground. Nothing made a boy less exciting than the fact that you were supposed to like him. Mallard boys seemed as familiar and safe as cousins, but there were no other boys around except when someone_s nephew visited or when tenant farmers moved to the edge of town. She_d never spoken to one of these tenant boys_she only saw them when they passed through town, tall and sinewy and caked brown. They looked like men, these boys, so what could you talk to them about? Besides, you weren_t supposed to speak to dark boys. Once, one had tipped his hat at her and her mother tutted, gripping her arm tighter. _Don_t even look his way,_ her mother said. _Boys like that don_t want nothin good._ Dark boys in Mallard only wanted to go girl hunting, her mother always said. They wanted to give it to a white girl but couldn_t, so they thought a light girl was the next best thing. But Desiree had never met a dark boy until one June evening when she was washing the living-room windows and spotted, through the hazy glass, a boy standing on the front porch. A tall boy, shirtless in overalls, his skin caramelized into a deep brown. He held a paper bag in one arm and took a bite from a purplish fruit, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. _You gonna let me in?_ he said. He was gazing at her so directly, she blushed. _No,_ she said. _Who_re you?_ _Who you think?_ he said. He turned the bag toward her so that she could see the Fontenot_s logo. _Open the door._ _I don_t know you,_ she said. _You could be an ax murderer._ _Look like I got an ax on me?_ _Maybe I can_t see it from here._ He could_ve left the bag on the porch. When he didn_t, she realized that they were flirting. She dropped her rag on the windowsill, watching him chew. _What you eatin anyway?_ she asked. _Come see._ She finally unlatched the screen door and stepped barefoot onto the porch. Early eased toward her. He smelled like sandalwood and sweat, and as he neared, she thought, for one breathless second, that he might kiss her. But he didn_t. He lifted his fig to her lips. She bit where his mouth had been. _ LATER, SHE LEARNED HIS NAME, which wasn_t even a name at all, although it made her smile when she rolled it around her mouth. Early, Early, like she was calling out the time. All month, he left fruit like flowers. Each evening when the twins came home from the Duponts, she found a plum on the porch banister, or a peach, or a napkin filled with blackberries. Nectarines and pears and rhubarb, more fruit than she could finish, fruit she hid in her apron to savor later or bake into pies. Sometimes he passed by in the evening on his way to deliver groceries, lingering on her porch steps. He told her that he made deliveries part time; the rest of his days were spent helping his aunt and uncle on a farm near the edge of town. But when the harvest ended, he planned to skip off and find himself in a real city like New Orleans. _Don_t you think your folks_ll miss you?_ Desiree said. _When you go?_ He scoffed. _The money,_ he said. _They gonna miss that. That_s all they thinkin about._ _Well, you got to think about money,_ Desiree said. _That_s how all grown folks are._ Who would her mother be if she wasn_t worried about money all the time? Like Mrs. Dupont, maybe, drifting around the house dreamily. But Early shook his head. _It_s not the same,_ he said. _Your mama got a house. All y_all got this whole dern town. We got nothin. That_s why I give this fruit away. Don_t belong to me nohow._ She reached for a blueberry in his napkin. By now, she_d already eaten so many, her fingertips were stained purple. _So if all this fruit belonged to you,_ she said, _you wouldn_t give me nothin?_ _If it belonged to me,_ he said, _I_d give you all of it._ Then he kissed the inside of her wrist, and her palm, and slipped her pinky inside his mouth, tasting the fruit on her skin. _ A DARK BOY stepping through the meadow behind the house to leave her fruit. She never knew when Early would come, if he would come at all, so she began waiting for him, sitting along the porch rail as the sun faded. Stella warned her to be careful. Stella was always careful. _I know you don_t wanna hear it,_ she said. _But you hardly know him and he sounds fresh._ But Desiree didn_t care. He was the first interesting boy she_d ever met, the only one who even imagined a life outside of Mallard. And maybe she liked that Stella distrusted him. She never wanted the two to meet. He would grin, glancing between the girls, searching for differences amongst their similarities. She hated that silent appraisal, watching someone compare her to a version that she might have been. A better version, even. What if he saw something in Stella that he liked more? It would have nothing to do with looks, and that, somehow, felt even worse. She could never date him. He knew this too even though they never talked about it. He only came by the porch while her mother was still at work, always leaving as soon as the sky grew dark. Still, one evening her mother came home from work and caught her talking to Early. He leapt off the railing, the blackberries in his lap scattering to the deck like buckshot. _Best be goin now,_ her mother said. _I don_t have no courtin girls here._ He raised his hands in surrender, as if he too felt that he had done something wrong. _I_m sorry, ma_am,_ he said. He shuffled off into the woods, not looking at Desiree. She miserably watched him disappear between the trees. _Why_d you have to do that, Mama?_ she said. But her mother ushered her inside. _You_ll thank me someday,_ she said. _You think you know everything? Girl, you don_t know how this world can be._ And maybe her mother was right about the world_s immeasurable cruelties. She had already been dealt her portion; she could see that Desiree_s was on its way and did not want a dark boy to hasten it. Or maybe her mother was just like everyone else who found dark skin ugly and strove to distance herself from it. Either way, Early Jones never visited again. Desiree wondered about him while she cleaned at the Duponts. She lingered in Fontenot_s on Saturday afternoons even though she had nothing to buy, hoping to catch a glimpse of him hauling groceries down the road. When she finally asked, Mr. Fontenot told her that the boy_s family had moved on to another farm. And what would she have told Early if she knew how to reach him? That she was sorry for what her mother said? Or for what she hadn_t said in his defense? That she wasn_t like the folks she_d come from, although she wasn_t sure that was even true anymore. You couldn_t separate the shame from being caught doing something from the shame of the act itself. If she hadn_t believed, even a bit, that spending time with Early was wrong, why hadn_t she ever asked him to meet her at Lou_s for a malt? Or take a walk or sit out by the riverbank? She was probably no different from her mother in Early_s eyes. That_s why he_d left town without saying good-bye. _ NOW EARLY JONES was back in Mallard, no longer a reedy boy carrying fruit in his tattered shirt but a grown man. Before she could think, she was pushing unsteadily to her feet and starting toward him. He glanced over his shoulder, his brown skin shining under the dull light. He didn_t seem surprised to see her, and for a second, he gave her a little smile. For a second, she felt like a girl again, unsure of what to say. _I thought it was you,_ she finally said. _Course it_s me,_ he said. _Who else would it be?_ He was, in a way, exactly how she_d remembered him, tall and leanly muscled like a wild cat. But even in the hazy bar, she could read hard years in his eyes, and his weariness startled her. He scratched the scruff on his chin, waving over Lorna and pointing lazily to Desiree_s glass. _What on earth you doin here?_ she said. Mallard was the last place she would ever have imagined seeing him again. _I_m just in town for a spell,_ he said. _Got a little business to tend to._ _What type of business?_ _You know. This and that._ He smiled again, but there was something unsettling about it. He glanced down at her left hand. _So which one is your husband?_ he said, nodding toward the roomful of men. She_d forgotten that she was still wearing her wedding ring and curled her hand closed. _He ain_t here right now,_ she said. _And he fine with you sittin up in a place like this all alone?_ _I can handle myself,_ she said. _I bet._ _I wanted to visit my mama, that_s all. He couldn_t make the trip._ _Well, he a brave man. Lettin you out his sight._ He was only flirting, she knew, for old time_s sake, but she still felt her skin flush. She fiddled absently with her blue scarf. _What about you?_ she said. _I don_t see no ring on your hand._ _You won_t,_ he said. _Don_t have the taste for none of that._ _And your woman don_t mind?_ _Who said I got a woman?_ _Maybe more than one,_ she said. _I don_t know what you been up to._ He laughed, tilting back the rest of his drink. She hadn_t flirted with a strange man in years, although Sam often accused her of it. She was making eyes with the elevator operator, she was smiling too friendly at the doorman, she laughed too hard at that taxi driver_s jokes. In public, he seemed flattered when other men noticed her. In private, he punished her for their attention. And what would Sam say now, finding her in a place like this, Early standing so close she could reach out and touch the buttons down his shirt? _So when you headin back home?_ he said. _I don_t know._ _You ain_t got a return ticket or nothin?_ _You sure askin a lot of questions,_ she said. _And you still ain_t told me what you do yet._ _I hunt,_ he said. _Hunt what?_ she said. He paused a long moment, staring down at her, and she felt his hand along the back of her neck. Tender, almost, the way you might soothe a crying child. It was so surprising, so different from his brusque flirting, that she didn_t know what to say. Then he tugged her scarf loose. It was beginning to fade, but still, even in the dim bar, he could see the bruise splotched across her neck. Nobody had warned her of this as a girl, when they carried on over her beautiful light complexion. How easily her skin would wear the mark of an angry man. Early was frowning and she felt as exposed as if he_d lifted up her skirt. She shoved him and he stumbled backward, surprised. Then she desperately wrapped her scarf around her neck before pushing her way out the door. _ MALLARD BENT. A place was not solid, Early had learned that already. A town was jelly, forever molding around your memories. The morning after Desiree Vignes shoved him in a bar, Early lay in bed at the boardinghouse, studying the photograph Ceel had given him. He_d stayed at the Surly Goat longer than he_d planned, but then again, he hadn_t planned to run into Desiree at all. He_d only wanted to kill time, maybe ask around a little. For two days, he_d poked around New Orleans, even though he knew Desiree wouldn_t be there. _She_s back there, I know it,_ her husband had told him over the phone. _That_s where all her friends are. Where else would she go? Sister gone. She and her mama don_t talk._ Early clutched the phone, working his bare toe over the wood. _Where her sister gone off to?_ he said. _Shit, I don_t know. Look, I wired you the first payment. You gonna find her or what?_ This was why Early stuck to hunting criminals: it was never personal between the criminal and the bondsman, only a simple disagreement over dollars and cents. But a man searching for his wife was different. Desperate. He_d almost felt Sam Winston pacing behind him. Maybe Desiree would return to her husband on her own. If Early had a dime for every time a woman had stormed out on him. But Sam was convinced she_d left for good. _She just lit out,_ he said. _Packed a bag and took my kid too, man. Just lit out in the middle of the night. What I_m supposed to do about that?_ _Why you think she run off like that?_ Early said. _I don_t know,_ Sam said. _We had a disagreement, but you know how married folks are._ Early didn_t, but he didn_t say this. He didn_t want Sam to know anything about him. So he didn_t tell Sam when he_d decided to head to Mallard instead. A hurt bird always returns to its nest, a hurting woman no different. She would go home, he felt sure of this, even though he knew nothing about her life. On the I-10, he kept fiddling with the photos that Ceel had given him. Studying them for clues, he told himself, although he knew he was just admiring her. A pretty girl flirting with him on her porch now a beautiful woman, smiling, kneeling in front of a Christmas tree, surrounded by glimmering lights. She looked happy. Not like the type who might pick up and run. So what had driven her to? Well, no use in wondering. None of his concern, either way. He_d find her, take a couple pictures as proof. The photos in the mail, his money on its way, and his business with Desiree Vignes would be through. He hadn_t expected to find her so quickly in a bar filled with refinery men. He certainly hadn_t expected that bruise on her neck. When he_d pulled her scarf, he hadn_t meant to offend her_he was just surprised, that_s all. But she_d recoiled as if he_d been the one to grab her throat, then shoved him so hard, he backed into the man behind him and spilled his drink. He should_ve followed after her, but he was shocked and a little embarrassed, to tell the truth, all the other men whooping and laughing. _What she do that for?_ the old barmaid asked. _I don_t know._ Early reached for a napkin, wiping down his jacket. _I ain_t seen her in years._ _Y_all used to go together?_ a thin man in a Stetson asked. _Used to!_ An old man laughed, clapping Early on the back. _Yeah, used to sounds right!_ _She ain_t used to be that angry,_ Early said. _Yeah, well I leave her alone if I was you,_ the Stetson man said. _That whole family got problems._ _What kind of problems?_ _You know her sister run off, get to thinkin she white now._ _Oh yeah,_ the old man said. _Out there livin real fine like a white lady._ _Then Desiree got that child of hers._ _What_s the matter with the child?_ Early asked. _Nothin the matter,_ the Stetson man said slowly. _She just black as can be. Desiree went out and married the darkest boy she could find and think nobody round here knows he be puttin his hands on her._ _Come back to town with a big ol_ bruise._ The old man laughed. _Guess he be trainin her. He turn her into Joe Frazier, that_s why she come after you!_ Early didn_t believe in beating on women_a man ought to fight fair, and until he met a woman who could match him blow for blow, he_d settle his disputes with them otherwise. At the same time, a job was a job. He wasn_t her minister or even her friend. He_d never really known her at all. Just a girl flirting with him on her porch. What happened between her and her husband was none of his business. In the morning, he gave a boy a nickel to point him to Adele Vignes_s house. He trampled over thick tree roots, slowly remembering the way, the camera bag bouncing at his side. Already, he felt seventeen again, wandering heartsick through these woods. How disgusted Adele Vignes looked, pointing him down the path. Desiree silent beside her, unable to even look at him. He_d stumbled home, humiliated, but when he told his uncle, the man only laughed. _What you expect, boy?_ he said. _Don_t you know what you is around here? You a nigger_s nigger._ He never spoke to Desiree after that. What was he supposed to say? A place, solid or not, had rules. Early mostly felt foolish for thinking that Desiree would ever ignore them for him. Now he waited, hidden behind trees, focusing on the white house through his lens. Ten minutes, maybe, although he lost track of time, listening to swallows swoop overhead. Finally, Desiree stepped onto the front porch and lit a cigarette. Yesterday she_d startled him in the dark bar. He_d barely registered the reality of her. In the daylight, she reminded him of the girl he_d once met. Willowy, her dark tangled hair hanging down her back. She was pacing barefoot, brimming with a nervous energy that seemed to glow through her body to the tip of her cigarette. He finally raised the camera and snapped. Desiree reaching the end of the porch_click_then turning on her heels_another click. Once he started, he couldn_t stop watching her through the tiny rectangle, how her blue dress shifted as she walked, drawing his eyes to her slender ankles. Then the screen door opened and a jet-black girl stepped onto the porch. Desiree turned, smiling, stooping to sweep the girl into her arms. Early lowered the camera, watching Desiree carry her daughter inside the house. _What_s the news?_ Sam said when he called that evening. _You found her?_ Early leaned against the closet, imagining Desiree on the porch, holding her daughter. When he_d pulled down her scarf, she_d reached for the bruise, her fingers trailing along her skin as if she were adjusting a necklace. He_d wanted to touch it too. _I need a little more time,_ he said. Three L eaving Mallard was Desiree_s idea but staying in New Orleans was Stella_s, and for years, Desiree would puzzle over why. When the twins first arrived in the city, they found work together in the mangle room at Dixie Laundry, folding sheets and pillowcases for two dollars a day. At first, the smell of clean laundry reminded Desiree so much of home, she nearly cried. The rest of the city was filthy_urine-splattered cobblestone, garbage cans overflowing onto streets, and even the drinking water tasting metallic. It was the Mississippi River, Mae, their shift supervisor, said. Who knew what they dumped in there? She was born and raised in Kenner, not far out of the city, so she was amused to witness the twins_ disorienting welcome. When they_d appeared at Dixie Laundry one morning_breathless and late after the annoyed streetcar driver left them fumbling for change on the curb_Mae pitied those poor country girls. She hired them on the spot, even though they were underage. _Your tail, not mine,_ she said. When the inspectors came, always by surprise, she rang the lunch bell four times and the other laundry girls laughed as the twins darted into the bathroom until the inspection was over. Later, when she remembered Dixie Laundry, Desiree only pictured herself balancing on the toilet lid, pressed hard against Stella_s back. She hated working like this, always looking over her shoulder, but what else could she do? _I don_t care how many toilets I got to jump in,_ she said. _I ain_t goin back to Mallard._ She was willful enough to make declarations like this. In truth, she wasn_t so sure. She still felt guilty about leaving their mother. Stella told Desiree that she couldn_t be mad at them forever_when they found better jobs, they_d start sending money home and Mama would see that leaving was the kindest thing they could have done. For a moment, the thought assuaged her guilt, and Desiree felt so relieved, she didn_t even find it strange that the Stella she_d dragged to New Orleans seemed intent on staying. Had Stella begun to change already? No, that came later. Back then, in the beginning anyway, she was the same Stella she had always been. Fastidious at work, stacking crisp pillowcases quietly, while Desiree always drifted toward the gossiping girls planning nights out. Stella tracking each penny they both earned, Stella sleeping beside her, still occasionally caught in nightmares until Desiree gently nudged her awake. As the weeks turned into months, their sudden jaunt into the city began to feel more permanent. The thought was thrilling and terrifying. They could do this foolish thing. And if so, then what? What could they not do? _The first year is the hardest,_ Farrah Thibodeaux told them. _You do a year, you can make it._ For the first month, the twins slept on a pile of blankets on Farrah_s floor. They_d looked her up in the phone book when they arrived in the city, bleary-eyed and bedraggled and hungry. Farrah leaned against the doorway, laughing at the sight of them. She laughed at them often, like when they gawked at burlesque dancers posing in club windows or jolted away from drunk bums lurching down the sidewalk, or seemed every bit like two country girls who_d never been anywhere. _These are my twins,_ she always said, introducing them to her friends, and Desiree only felt embarrassed. Her own awkwardness multiplied by her sister_s. Farrah waited tables at a little jazz club called the Grace Note. On nights she closed, she snuck the twins in through the alley and smuggled them food from the kitchen. Her Dominican boyfriend played the saxophone and wore a shiny silver shirt unbuttoned to his navel; in between songs, he hung over the stage, asking the twins what they wanted to hear. Then the twins spent the night on the dance floor, giddy, twirled by big-eared boys. They started to befriend the regulars: a shoeshine boy who danced with Desiree until her feet ached; a soldier who kept begging to buy Stella drinks; a bellhop at Hotel Monteleone who always let Desiree blow his whistle to hail cabs. _I bet you_re not thinkin about Mallard now,_ Farrah said one night as the twins skittered, laughing and tired, onto the backseat. Desiree laughed. _Never,_ she said. She was good at pretending to be brave. She would never admit to Farrah that she was homesick and worried always about money. Soon Farrah would tire of the twins sprawling out on her floor, taking up time in her bathroom, eating her food, always being around, an unwanted guest doubled. Then what? Where would they be? Maybe they were just silly country girls in over their heads. Maybe Desiree was foolish to ever believe she could be more than that. Maybe they should just go back home. _But you been talkin about comin out here forever,_ Stella said. _You wanna go back already? For what? So everyone can laugh at you?_ Only later, Desiree realized that each time she_d wavered, Stella had known exactly what to say to dissuade her from returning home. But if Stella herself wanted to stay, why hadn_t she just said so? Why hadn_t Desiree even asked? She was sixteen and self-centered, terrified that her impulsiveness would land her and her sister out on the streets. _I shouldn_t have brought you,_ she said. _I should_ve just left alone._ Stella looked as shocked as if Desiree had struck her. _You wouldn_t,_ she said, like it had suddenly become a possibility. _No,_ Desiree said. _But I should_ve. I shouldn_t have dragged you into this._ This was how Desiree thought of herself then: the single dynamic force in Stella_s life, a gust of wind strong enough to rip out her roots. This was the story Desiree needed to tell herself and Stella allowed her to. They both felt safe inside it. _ BY THE END OF Desiree Vignes_s first week back in Mallard, everyone had already heard about the shove, which by then had become a slap, punch, or even a full-out brawl. The Vignes girl dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the bar. Those not too holy to admit that they_d been at the Surly Goat that afternoon said that they_d seen her leave, of her own volition, right after she attacked a dark man. Who was he and what had he said to anger her? Some thought he might have been her husband, come to fetch her. Others argued that he was a stranger who_d gotten fresh_she was just defending herself. Desiree had always been the prideful one; of course she_d lash out when wounded, unlike Stella, who_d rather die than make a scene. At the barber shop, Percy Wilkins slowly scraped his razor against the leather strop, listening to the men debate which twin had been the prettiest. In hindsight, Stella became more exotic, all the more beautiful now that she disappeared. But Desiree_s stock rose since she_d come home. Still a firecracker, anyone could see that. At least three men joked that she could shove them around all she wanted. _They never been right,_ the barber said. _After they daddy._ Little girls weren_t supposed to witness what the Vignes twins had seen. At the funeral, he_d glanced at the twins, searching for some sign that they had been altered. But they just looked like girls to him, the same girls he_d seen skipping with Leon around town, each tugging on one of his arms. No way those girls could have turned out halfway normal. As far as he was concerned, both were a little crazy, Desiree perhaps the nuttiest of all. Playing white to get ahead was just good sense. But marrying a dark man? Carrying his blueblack child? Desiree Vignes had courted the type of trouble that would never leave. _ AT LOU_S EGG HOUSE, Desiree Vignes learned how to balance plates of scrambled eggs and bacon and toast. Grits swirled with butter, thick pancakes sopping with syrup. She learned how to navigate around tiny tables, turn a sharp corner without losing a coffee cup, memorize orders. She learned quickly because when she applied for the job, she told Lou that she_d waited tables for three years. _Three years, you say?_ he asked on her first morning, when she struggled to take down an order. _A long while ago, but yes,_ she said, smiling, _back in New Orleans._ Other times, she told him she_d waitressed in D.C. She lost track of her lies, and even though Lou noticed, he never confronted her about it. He didn_t believe in accusing ladies of lying, and besides, he knew that Desiree needed work, even if she was too proud to admit it herself. Imagine that_the founder_s great-great-great-granddaughter waiting tables, not for white folks either but right in Mallard. Whoever thought they_d live to see the day? The Decuirs had lived free for generations, then Adele married a Vignes boy; now her daughter was serving coffee to refinery men and bringing pecan pie to farm boys. Once you mixed with common blood, you were common forever. _She not much of a waitress,_ Lou told the line cook. _But she don_t hurt much._ If he were honest, he_d admit that hiring Desiree had, in fact, boosted business. Old schoolmates, seized by curiosity, sat at the counter sipping coffee they ordinarily may have gone without. Even those too young to remember her, teenagers now, crowded in the back booths, whispering behind her back with the fervor of those witnessing the casual appearance of a minor celebrity. She noticed, of course she did. Still, each morning, she took a deep breath, tied her apron, fixed her face into a smile. She thought of her daughter and swallowed her humiliation. She bit her tongue even during her first week, when she_d stepped out of the kitchen to find Early Jones sitting at the counter. For a moment, she faltered, fingering her apron. She would draw more attention to herself by not serving him. Head down then, and get on with it. He was wearing that leather jacket again, scratching at his beard as she slid over a coffee cup. A worn bag sat on an empty stool beside him. She reached over with the pot of coffee but he covered the cup with his hand. _That fella that done that to you,_ he said. _He know where your mama stay?_ Her bruise had faded to a sick yellow by then, but still, she gingerly touched it. _No,_ she said. _She ever sent you a letter or nothin?_ _We wasn_t in touch._ _Good._ He slid his finger inside the smooth handle of his empty cup. _What about your sister?_ _What about her?_ _When_s the last time you heard from her?_ She scoffed. _Thirteen years._ _Well, what happened to her?_ he said. _She took a job,_ she said. It all sounded so simple when she said it aloud, and of course, it had started that way. Stella needed to find a new job, so she_d responded to a listing in the newspaper for secretarial work in an office inside the Maison Blanche building. An office like that would never hire a colored girl, but they needed the money, living in the city and all, and why should the twins starve because Stella, perfectly capable of typing, became unfit as soon as anyone learned that she was colored? It wasn_t lying, she told Stella. How was it her fault if they thought she was white when they hired her? What sense did it make to correct them now? A good job for Stella, then a good job for her, that was the plan. So Stella would have to pretend a little but a little pretending to keep them off the streets seemed worth it. Then one evening, a year later, Desiree came home from Dixie Laundry to find an empty apartment. All of Stella_s clothes, all of her things, gone. Like she_d never been there at all. There was a note left behind in Stella_s careful hand: Sorry, honey, but I_ve got to go my own way. For weeks, Desiree carried it with her until one night, in a fit of fury, she ripped it up, scattered it outside the window. She regretted that now, wished she still had something as small as a scrap of paper with Stella_s handwriting on it. Early was quiet a moment, then he finally pushed his empty cup toward her. _What if I help you find her?_ he said. She frowned, pouring the coffee slowly. _What you mean?_ she said. _Got a new job out in Texas, then I_m headin back this way,_ he said. _We could drive into New Orleans. Ask around._ _Why you wanna help me anyway?_ she said. _Cause I_m good at it,_ he said. _Good at what?_ He slid a worn manila envelope onto the countertop. It was addressed to a man named Ceel Lewis, but she recognized Sam_s handwriting. _Huntin,_ he said. _ IN A LITTLE TOWN outside Abilene, Texas, Early dreamed about Desiree Vignes. Beneath the setting sun, he sprawled along the backseat of his El Camino, cradling a photograph of her. He_d given all of Ceel_s pictures back to her except for one, which he_d already slid into the inside pocket of his leather jacket, feeling its corners poke his chest. He wasn_t sure why he kept that picture. Wanted something to remember her by, maybe, if she decided to never speak to him again. She_d looked so shaken when she learned his true purpose in finding her, which he couldn_t blame; he didn_t stick around to find out if she could forgive him. Off to Texas, where he was hunting a mechanic charged with assault and attempted murder_his wife, her lover, a torque wrench. The blood-splattered garage made the front page in the Times-Picayune. On his drive west, Early imagined the mechanic swinging that wrench like Samson hurling a donkey jaw, blinded by his own righteousness and betrayal. Once, he might have been excited to hunt a man accused of such a sensational crime. But he was distracted now; when he closed his eyes, he imagined only Desiree. At the truck stop, he bought a Coke and stepped into the phone booth to tell Sam Winston that his wife wasn_t in New Orleans. _Probably lit out east,_ he said. _New York, New Jersey, somethin like that._ _Why on earth she go out there, man?_ Sam said. _No, I_m telling you, she_s back in New Orleans. You just ain_t looked hard enough._ _Ask Ceel how hard I look. If she was here, I woulda found her already._ _What if I send you more money?_ _Then I tell you the same thing,_ Early said. _She ain_t here. Try someplace else._ He hung up the phone, leaning against the booth. His mind started to unspool backward; he knew how to find a hiding man but how to hide a woman so that she would never be found? Plant misinformation, scatter the trail so that any other man Sam hired wouldn_t even know where to start. He fished in his pockets for a cigarette, his hands trembling. He_d never walked away from a job before. Exposed his camera film under the sunlight, the photographs of Desiree on her porch blackening. Money disappearing from his pockets. When he told Ceel that he_d come up empty and needed another job, quick, Ceel just shrugged, handing him the mechanic_s photograph. _Can_t believe that little lady got the best of you,_ he_d said, laughing, as he pushed away from the bar. She had, Early was starting to admit. He didn_t know what it was about her but she_d hooked into him like a burr. He couldn_t shake her. Didn_t want to. In the phone booth, he pulled out a crumpled receipt from his pocket and dialed Lou_s Egg House. When he heard her voice, he felt so nervous that he thought, for a second, about hanging up. Instead, he cleared his throat and asked how she was getting on. _Oh fine,_ she said. _You know how it is. Where you off to right now?_ _Eula, Texas,_ he said. _You ever been to Eula?_ _No,_ she said. _What_s it like?_ _Dry,_ he said. _Dusty. Lonesome. I feel like the only man alive out here. Like I fallen off the edge of the earth. You ever know that feeling?_ He imagined her on the other end, clutching the phone as she leaned against the kitchen door. The diner would be emptying now, near closing. Maybe she was all alone, willing the time to pass. Thinking about her sister, or maybe even thinking about him. _I know it exactly,_ she said. _ IF YOU_D ASKED BACK THEN, nobody believed that Desiree Vignes would stay in Mallard. The bet around town was that she wouldn_t last a month. She_d tire of the crude whispers about her daughter, whispers she must have sensed, even if she could not hear them, each time the two walked around town. Some hoped, watching Desiree hold the hand of the little dark girl, that the two wouldn_t even stay that long. They weren_t used to having a dark child amongst them and were surprised by how much it upset them. Each time that girl passed by, no hat or nothing, they were as galled as when Thomas Richard returned from the war, half a leg lighter, and walked around town with one pant leg pinned back so that everyone could see his loss. If nothing could be done about ugliness, you ought to at least look like you were trying to hide it. Still, a month passed, startling everyone. If Desiree didn_t leave because of her daughter, surely boredom alone would root her out. After all her city adventures, how could she endure small-town living? The endless carousel of church bake sales, bazaars, talent shows, birthday parties and weddings and funerals. She_d never cared much for participating even before she_d left_that was the other one, Stella, who_d baked pecan pies for St. Catherine_s bake sale, or sang dutifully in the school choir, or stayed two hours to celebrate Trinity Thierry_s seventieth birthday. Not Desiree, who only attended the party after Stella dragged her, then looked so bored you wished you hadn_t even invited her before she skipped out while you cut the cake. Somehow that same Desiree was back, kneeling between her mother and daughter during Sunday Mass. She was as surprised as anyone to realize, one morning, that she had been home for an entire month. By then, she_d fallen into a routine, walking Jude to school, cleaning the house, working the sedate dinner crowd at Lou_s as Jude read books at the counter. Each evening, she waited for Early Jones to call. She never knew where he would be calling from, or if he would call at all, but when Lou_s phone rang near closing, she always answered. The shrill bell jolted her from mindlessly refilling sugar canisters or wiping down tabletops. _Just checkin in on you,_ Early always said. How was her day? Her mama? Her daughter? Fine, fine, fine. Sometimes he asked about her shift and she told him that she_d had to send back three orders of eggs because the line cook, distracted as all get out, gave her scrambles instead of over easys. Or she asked about his drive and he told her that he_d been caught in a dust storm in Oklahoma, couldn_t see his own hand in front of him, and he_d had to inch slowly down the road, hoping he wouldn_t get hit. His stories excited her, even the dull ones. His life seemed so different from hers. Over time, he started to talk about the past, like how he_d been raised by his aunt and uncle after his parents dropped him off one night. She_d heard of children like this who had been given away. After her father died, her mother_s sister offered to take one of the twins. _It_s too much,_ Aunt Sophie had said, clasping their mother_s hands. _Let us lighten your load._ The twins pressed against their bedroom door, listening hard, each wondering if she would be the one to go. Would Aunt Sophie take her pick, like choosing a puppy out of a basket? Or would their mother decide which daughter she could live without? Eventually, their mother told Aunt Sophie that she could not separate her girls, but later, Desiree learned that her aunt had asked for her. Aunt Sophie lived in Houston, and Desiree used to imagine her life there, a city girl whisking around in starched dresses and shiny leather shoes, not the faded calico her mother salvaged from the church bin. After Mallard, Early said, he was sick of farming other people_s land, so he set off to Baton Rouge to try his luck. Well, the only luck he found was the hard kind. He spent a year there, stealing car parts in order to feed himself, until he got caught and shipped off to Angola State Prison. He was twenty then, already a man in the eyes of the law and truth telling, he_d felt like a man since the night his parents left him without saying good-bye. The world worked differently than he_d ever imagined. People you loved could leave and there was nothing you could do about it. Once he_d grasped that, the inevitability of leaving, he became a little older in his own eyes. He spent four years in prison, a time he leapt over and would never, in all his life, talk much about. _Does that change anything?_ he asked her. She imagined him in a phone booth somewhere, his boot kicked up on the glass. _What would it change?_ she said. He was quiet a minute, then said, _Oh, I don_t know._ But she knew what he meant: would she think about him differently now? She wasn_t sure what she thought about him at all. She_d had a crush on him once, long ago, but she didn_t know the man he_d grown up to be. She had no idea what he wanted from her. Weeks before, he_d offered to find Stella, and when she told him that she couldn_t pay him right away, he said, _That_s all right._ _What you mean that_s all right?_ she said. _I mean, I don_t need it right off. We can work somethin out._ She_d never met a working man who was so casual about his money, but then again, she_d never met a working man who did what Early did for a living. He hunted bail jumps who_d disappeared without a trace, hoping to start over somewhere new. But there was always a trail if you looked closely enough_no one disappeared completely. Again, she thought about the envelope of photographs he_d given her. In the diner, she_d held the package, her heart thudding. _Don_t worry,_ he_d said. _I_ll send that sonofabitch far away from here._ She must have looked unsure because he said, _Trust me. I won_t give you up._ But why wouldn_t he? He barely knew her and Sam had offered him good money. What reason did he have to be loyal to her? For weeks, she_d wondered if she and Jude should move on again. If Sam was looking, wouldn_t he eventually find her? Wouldn_t he just travel to Mallard himself? But maybe now, Mallard was the safest place to be. Sam_s hired man told him she wasn_t in Louisiana, and what reason would Sam have to doubt him? Maybe she could trust Early_if he_d wanted to hurt her, Sam would have found her already. But just because she could trust him didn_t mean that he didn_t want anything. _He just tellin you what you wanna hear,_ her mother said one night, handing her a wet plate. _That man don_t know where Stella is any more than you do._ Desiree sighed, reaching for the dish rag. _But he knows how to look,_ she said. _Why shouldn_t we try?_ _She don_t want to be found. You gotta let her go. Live her life._ _This ain_t her life!_ Desiree said. _None of it woulda happened if I didn_t tell her to take that job. Or drag her to New Orleans, period. That city wasn_t no good for Stella. You was right all along._ Her mother pursed her lips. _It wasn_t her first time,_ she said. _Ma_am?_ _Bein white,_ her mother said. _New Orleans was just her chance to do it for real._ _ HERE WAS THE STORY her mother had been keeping: A week after Stella disappeared into the city, Willie Lee came by the shotgun house, hangdog. He had something to tell Adele_something he should_ve told her weeks before Founder_s Day. One afternoon he_d driven Stella into Opelousas. She helped him around the butcher shop on weekends because she was quick at adding figures in her head. She could eyeball a pound of ground chuck more accurately than him, and whenever he weighed her measurements, she was never off. She was a smart, careful girl, but that last summer, he_d noticed something different about her. She seemed sadder, wrapped up in herself. Because she_d dropped out of school, he figured, although he didn_t quite understand it, having flunked out of ninth grade himself. A girl who could eyeball a pound of ground chuck would do fine in life, college or not. But not everybody was practical minded like him, so when Stella sullenly stood behind the cash register, he figured that she was still disappointed that she wouldn_t be off to Spelman someday like she_d hoped. So he_d invited her to Opelousas one afternoon. He had to make deliveries and figured, hell, she might want to get out of town for a bit. He_d given her a nickel to buy a Coke, and when he_d finished unloading, he found her standing beside his truck, breathless and flushed. She_d gone inside some shop called Darlene_s Charms, where the shopgirl mistook her for white. _Isn_t it funny?_ she_d said. _White folks, so easy to fool! Just like everyone says._ _It ain_t no game,_ he told her. _Passin over. It_s dangerous._ _But white folks can_t tell,_ she said. _Look at you_you just as redheaded as Father Cavanaugh. Why does he get to be white and you don_t?_ _Because he is white,_ he said. _And I don_t wanna be._ _Well, neither do I,_ she_d said. _I just wanted to look at that shop. You won_t tell my mama, will you?_ In Mallard, you grew up hearing stories about folks who_d pretended to be white. Warren Fontenot, riding a train in the white section, and when a suspicious porter questioned him, speaking enough French to convince him that he was a swarthy European; Marlena Goudeau becoming white to earn her teaching certificate; Luther Thibodeaux, whose foreman marked him white and gave him more pay. Passing like this, from moment to moment, was funny. Heroic, even. Who didn_t want to get over on white folks for a change? But the passe blanc were a mystery. You could never meet one who_d passed over undetected, the same way you_d never know someone who successfully faked her own death; the act could only be successful if no one ever discovered it was a ruse. Desiree only knew the failures: the ones who_d gotten homesick, or caught, or tired of pretending. But for all Desiree knew, Stella had lived white for half her life now, and maybe acting for that long ceased to be acting altogether. Maybe pretending to be white eventually made it so. _ _FINISHIN UP,_ Early said, two nights later, calling outside of Shreveport. _Headin back your way, if you still wanna look for your sister._ She had never imagined that Stella kept big secrets from her. Not Stella, who_d slept beside her, whose thoughts ran like a current between them, whose voice she heard in her own head. How could she have spent that whole summer not knowing that Stella had already decided to become someone else? She didn_t know who Stella was anymore, and maybe she_d never quite known her at all. She twirled her finger tighter around the phone cord. Inside the empty diner, Jude sat at the counter, reading a book. She was always reading, always alone. _Yes,_ Desiree said. _I suppose so._ _ THE MORNING EARLY JONES ARRIVED, the sky hung heavy and hot with rain. From the edge of the couch, Desiree listened to the spring storm as she braided Jude_s hair, remembering those first weeks in New Orleans, ducking with Stella under eaves when the showers caught them unaware. She eventually grew used to the capricious rain, but back then she_d shrieked at every sudden storm, laughing with Stella as they pressed against the side of a building, water splattering against their ankles. On the rug in front of her, Jude squirmed, pointing at the porch. _Mama, a man,_ she said, and there was Early standing on the front steps, jacket collar flipped up, his beard flecked with raindrops. Desiree scrambled to her feet, feeling strangely nervous, and she didn_t realize until she opened the door that they were standing exactly where they_d first met a lifetime ago. _You can come in,_ she said. _You sure?_ he said. _Don_t wanna make no mess._ He looked as nervous as she felt, which emboldened her. She beckoned him inside, and he kicked his boots against the porch, shucking off mud. Then he followed her, standing in the doorway, one hand balled up in his jacket pocket. _This is Jude,_ she said. _Jude, come say hi to Mr. Early. I_m goin on a little drive with him, remember?_ _It_s just Early,_ he said. _I ain_t nobody_s mister._ He smiled, holding out his hand. Jude slid hers into his for a second, then darted off into the bedroom to fetch her book bag. Later, on the interstate, Early asked if Jude was always so quiet. Desiree gazed out the window, watching the sunlight glint off Lake Pontchartrain. _Always,_ she said. _She ain_t like me at all._ _Like her daddy, then?_ She didn_t like talking about Sam to Early, didn_t even want to imagine both men existing within the same expanse of her life. Besides, Jude wasn_t like Sam either. She was, in a way, like Stella. Private, like if she told you anything about herself, she was giving away something she could never get back. _No,_ she said. _Not like anybody but herself._ _That_s good. For a girl to be herself._ _Not in Mallard,_ she said. _Not a girl like Jude._ Early touched her hand, surprising her, then remembering himself, he pulled away. _Won_t be easy,_ he said. _Wasn_t easy for me. You know a man smacked me once at church? Right on the back of my neck. All because I put my finger in the holy water before his wife. Like I ruined it somehow. I thought my uncle was gonna stick up for me. I don_t know why, I just thought. But he told the man sorry like I done somethin wrong._ He let out a bitter laugh. On the other side of the interstate, a freight train rumbled along, rainwater sloughing off the tracks. She turned back to him, eyes also wet. _I should_ve said somethin,_ she said. _When my mama run you off like that._ He shrugged. _Long time ago._ _So why you helping me then? Why really._ _Oh, I don_t know,_ he said. _Guess it make me sad, thinkin about you and your sister._ He stared ahead, refusing to look at her. _And I guess I just like talkin with you. Ain_t talked to no woman so much in all my life._ She laughed. _You ain_t said but two words at a time._ _It_s enough,_ he said. She laughed again, touching the back of his neck, and later, he would tell her that was the first time he knew. That gentle hand on the back of his neck as he steered the car across the bridge. _ THEY WERE CHASING THE PAST, searching for Stella down streets and stairwells and alleyways. Trampling up the steps of the twins_ three-story walk-up, where an elderly colored couple now lived. Desiree asked, as politely as she could, if they might have received any mail intended for a Desiree or Stella Vignes, but they_d only lived there for two years. The lives of the twin girls had already faded into the apartment walls long before they_d arrived. Sisters cooking together, listening to the little transistor radio that had been their first luxury purchase. Sisters staying up until dawn, feeling finally like the grown women they believed themselves to be. Sisters signing the lease to that first apartment, although maybe even then, Stella had known that the arrangement would be temporary. Maybe she had already started searching for a way out. All afternoon, they hunted Stella in the old spots. They asked after her in Dixie Laundry and the Grace Note. Desiree searched for old friends in the phone book but nobody had heard from Stella. Farrah Thibodeaux, married now to an alderman, laughed when Desiree called. _I can_t believe little Stella_s run off,_ she said. _Now you, I would_ve thought . . ._ _Thanks anyway,_ Desiree said, starting to hang up. _Wait a minute,_ Farrah said. _I don_t know what your hurry is. I was going to tell you I saw your sister._ Her heart quickened. _When?_ _Oh, a long time ago. Before you left. She was walkin down Royal Street, just as carefree as she could be. Arm in arm with a white man too. Looked right at me, then looked the other way. I swear she saw me._ _You sure it was her?_ _As sure that it wasn_t you,_ Farrah said. _It_s all in her eyes, honey. Her white man was handsome too. Must_ve been why she was smiling like that._ Stella leaving her to chase after some man. Stella secretly in love. Stella, who had never been boy crazy, who had rolled her eyes at Desiree mooning over Early, who had never even had a boyfriend before. The frigid twin, the boys called her. But Early told her that the simplest explanation is often the right one. _You be surprised by what emotion make people do,_ he said. _But I know her,_ she said, then stopped herself. She couldn_t assume anything about Stella anymore. Hadn_t she learned that already? She was exhausted by the time Early suggested she try the Maison Blanche building. She_d only ventured inside once before, days after Stella first disappeared. She_d told herself, riding the streetcar down Canal, that Stella couldn_t be gone for good. This was Stella, fallen into one of her bad moods. Stella playing hide-and-seek, ducking behind the drying sheets. She told herself lots of reassuring things she didn_t believe. Stella would pop back up. She would appear on their apartment stoop and explain herself. She wouldn_t walk away from the best job she_d ever had. She wouldn_t leave her sister behind. Inside the department store, Desiree had wandered, walking slowly down the perfume aisle. She knew that Stella worked in an office on one of the top floors but she didn_t know which one. In the lobby, she studied the directory so long, the brusque security guard asked what her business was. She_d faltered, afraid to expose Stella, and he finally shooed her away. _Too pushy,_ Early said. _You gotta have a soft touch. You come across too desperate, folks sense it. Clam up._ They were sitting in a caf? across the street from Maison Blanche. She_d barely touched her espresso. She was still thinking about the white man Farrah saw Stella with. How happy she_d looked. She didn_t want to be found. What was Desiree doing, trying to drag her back into a life she no longer wanted? _You gotta go in there like somebody they tell things to,_ he said. _Somebody that gets what she wants._ _Be white, you mean._ He nodded. _Easier that way,_ he said. _I can_t go in with you. Give you away. But you just go in, say you lookin for somebody. An old friend. Not your sister, that raise too many questions. Tell _em you lost touch, somethin like that. Just keep it light, breezy. Like a white lady with no worry on her mind._ So she imagined herself as Stella_not the Stella she once knew but Stella as she was now. Pushing past the giant brass MB door handles, stepping inside the department store. She passed through the perfume aisle with the confidence of a woman who could buy any bottle she wished. She stopped to smell a few, as if she were considering a purchase. Admired the jewelry in the display case, glanced at the fine handbags, demurred when salesgirls approached her. In the lobby, the colored elevator operator gazed at the floor when she stepped on. She ignored him, the way Stella might have. She felt queasy at how simple it was. All there was to being white was acting like you were. When she entered the first office level, a white security guard hurried over to help her. She played back Early_s words. Light, breezy, no worry on her mind. She told him that she was looking for an old friend who used to work in marketing. Of course he couldn_t find a Stella Vignes in the building directory, but he gave her directions to the department. She rode the elevator to the sixth floor, and when she stepped inside the office, she braced herself for someone to mistake her for Stella. But the redheaded secretary just smiled at her pleasantly. _I_m lookin for an old friend,_ Desiree said. _She used to be a secretary here._ _And what_s the name?_ _Stella Vignes._ She glanced around the quiet office, as if by speaking her name, she might have conjured her. _Stella Vignes,_ the secretary repeated, turning to a file cabinet behind her. She hummed to herself as she searched, the only other sounds the gentle clacking of typewriters. Desiree tried to imagine Stella in a place like this. Joining the ranks of other polite white girls sitting at their desks. The secretary returned to her seat holding a file folder. _No current address, I_m afraid,_ she said. _Our last few Christmas cards returned to sender._ She was so apologetic, so sorry that she could only give Desiree the most recent address she had on file, a card filled out in Stella_s careful handwriting with a forwarding address leading her to Boston, Massachusetts. _ _AIN_T NO SMOKIN GUN,_ Early said that night. _But it_s a start._ They were sitting together in a darkened booth at the Surly Goat, Early sipping his whiskey slowly. In the morning, he_d be gone again, a new job carrying him off to Durham. But after that, he would go to that address in Boston, see what he could dig up there. She couldn_t imagine how Stella found herself in that city of all places, but it didn_t matter. That scrap of paper held more new information about Stella than Desiree had ever learned. She felt, again, overwhelmed by Early_s help, unsure of how she could ever manage to thank him. After they finished their drinks, she walked him to the boardinghouse. He tucked her hand under his arm as they climbed up the muddy steps and she didn_t pull away, not even once they were inside his room. She wasn_t drunk but the room suddenly felt hot. She hadn_t undressed in front of a strange man in years. Slowly, then. He was leaning against the worn dresser, waiting, and she pressed against him, trailing her hand down his stomach. He stopped her at his belt. _It_s just a start,_ he said. _I ain_t no closer to findin her._ He held on to her hand, as if he understood that this was a condition for them to go any further. _All right,_ she said. _I might not. She might just be gone. You know that, right?_ She paused. _I know._ _I_ll look as long as you want me to,_ he said. _Tell me to stop and I_ll stop._ She wrested her hand free, slipping it under his black T-shirt. Her fingers brushed against a rough scar stretching across his stomach. He shivered. _Don_t stop,_ she said. Part II MAPS (1978) Four I n the autumn of 1978, a dark girl blew into Los Angeles from a town that existed on no maps. She rode a Greyhound all the way from this unmapped place, her two suitcases rattling in the undercarriage. A girl from nowhere and nothing, and if you_d asked any of the other passengers, they would have noticed nothing interesting about her except that she was so, well, black. Aside from that, quiet. Flipping through a worn detective novel that her mother_s boyfriend had given her for her seventeenth birthday, which she was reading for the second time to find all the clues she_d missed. At rest stops, she clamped that book under her arm, walking in slow circles to stretch her legs. Twitchy. She reminded the Italian bus driver of a cheetah pacing around a cage. He wouldn_t have been surprised at all to learn that she was a runner_that lean, boyish body, those long legs. He smoked his cigarette, watching her make another lap around the bus. Too bad, those legs with that face. That skin. Jesus, he_d never seen a woman that black before. She didn_t notice the bus driver watching her. She barely noticed anyone staring at her at all anymore, or if she did, she knew exactly why they were looking. She was impossible to miss. Dark, yes, but also tall and rangy, just like her father, whom she had not seen or heard from in ten years. She took another slow lap, trying to find her place in that dog-eared book with the cracked spine. She_d loved detective stories ever since she was little; she used to sit on the porch while her mother_s boyfriend cleaned his gun and told her about the men he hunted. Later, it_d seem like a strange bonding activity for a grown man and a little girl, but she_d already learned that Early Jones was a strange man. Not her father but the closest to it she would ever come. She liked watching him slowly disassemble the gun while she peppered him with questions. You could find just about anybody if you were good at lying, he told her. Half of hunting was pretending to be somebody else, an old friend searching for his buddy_s address, a long-lost nephew trying to find his uncle_s new phone number, a father inquiring about the whereabouts of his son. There was always someone close to the mark that you could manipulate. Always a window in if you couldn_t find a door. _Ain_t that exciting,_ he told her, chewing on a toothpick. _Most of it just sweet-talkin old ladies on the phone._ He made finding the lost sound so easy that once, she_d asked if he could search for her daddy. He didn_t look up at her, swabbing his brush inside the gun barrel. _You don_t want me to go lookin for him,_ he said. _Why not?_ _Because,_ he said. _He_s not a nice man._ He was right, of course, but she hated how certain he was. How could he possibly know? He_d never even met her daddy. She_d always imagined her father driving up in his shiny Buick to rescue her. She_d step out of school one day and find him waiting. Her father, tall and handsome, smiling at her, arms open. The other kids would gawk. Then he_d bring her back to D.C., and she_d go to school and make friends and date boys and run track and go off to college in a place so unlike Mallard that she would hardly believe that Mallard even existed, that she hadn_t just imagined it. But ten years passed, no phone calls or letters. In the end, she rescued herself. She won a gold medal in the 400 meters at the state championship meet, and miracle of miracles, college recruiters saw her. She_d run as hard as she could and now she was getting the hell out. At the bus station, she_d stood at the base of the metal steps while Early loaded her suitcases. Her grandmother slipped her rosary over her neck before her mother pulled her into a hug. _I still don_t know why you wanna go all the way out to California,_ she said. _There_s some perfectly good schools right here._ She laughed a little, as if she were kidding, as if she hadn_t been trying to convince Jude to stay. They both knew that she couldn_t. She_d already accepted the track scholarship from UCLA_as if she could even think about turning it down_and now she was standing in front of a bus, waiting to climb on. _I_ll call,_ she said. _And write._ _You better._ _It_ll be fine, Mama. I_ll come back and see you._ But they both knew that she_d never come back to Mallard. On the bus, she fiddled with the rosary beads, imagining her mother traveling away from Mallard on a bus like this. Except she hadn_t been alone, Stella beside her staring out into the dark. Jude held the worn paperback in her lap, pressing against the filmy window. She_d never seen a desert before_it seemed to stretch on forever. Another mile ticked by, carrying her further from her life. _ THEY CALLED HER TAR BABY. Midnight. Darky. Mudpie. Said, Smile, we can_t see you. Said, You so dark you blend into the chalkboard. Said, Bet you could show up naked to a funeral. Bet lightning bugs follow you in the daytime. Bet when you swim it look like oil. They made up lots of jokes, and once, well into her forties, she would recite a litany of them at a dinner party in San Francisco. Bet cockroaches call you cousin. Bet you can_t find your own shadow. She was amazed by how well she remembered. At that party, she forced herself to laugh, even though she_d found nothing funny at the time. The jokes were true. She was black. Blueblack. No, so black she looked purple. Black as coffee, asphalt, outer space, black as the beginning and the end of the world. At first, her grandmother tried to keep her out of the sun. Gave her a big gardening hat, tied the straps tight around her chin even though it choked her. She couldn_t run with the hat on, and she loved to run, which couldn_t be helped, although Adele begged her to wait, at least, until the sun went down. She_d spent her summers reading indoors, or when she felt like she was going crazy from being cooped up, she chased shade around the yard, wearing the big choking hat, long sleeves clinging to her sweaty arms. She would get no darker, although she seemed to the longer she lived in Mallard. A black dot in the school pictures, a dark speck on the pews at Sunday Mass, a shadow lingering on the riverbank while the other children swam. So black that you could see nothing but her. A fly in milk, contaminating everything. In homeroom, she sat in front of Lonnie Goudeau, the varsity pitcher, who threw paper balls at her back all period. He was gray-eyed with auburn hair licking up the back of his neck, his cheeks splashed with freckles. A beautiful boy. So she prickled when she imagined him staring at her, rolling up his sleeves, his forearms so light you could see the brown hair, and flexing, the paper pinched between his fingers. Then she felt the soft pat against her neck, the boys behind her snickering. She never turned around. Once, Mr. Yancy caught Lonnie and sentenced him to detention. On her way out, Jude passed him wiping down the chalkboard and he smirked at her, sliding the eraser through the dust. She replayed that moment her whole walk home. His lips, caught between a grimace and a smile. Lonnie Goudeau was the first person to call her Tar Baby. A month after she moved to Mallard, he found a copy of Brer Rabbit in the class bin and gleefully tapped the shiny black blob on the cover. _Look, it_s Jude,_ he said, and she was so startled that he knew her name, she didn_t realize that he was making fun of her until the whole class dissolved into laughter. He was chastened for disrupting silent reading, the book quickly removed by their blushing teacher, but that night after dinner, Jude asked her mother what a tar baby was. Her mother paused, dipping their dirty plates into the sink. _Just an old story,_ she said. _Why?_ _A boy called me that today._ Her mother slowly dried her hands on the towel, then knelt in front of her. _He just wants to get a rise out of you,_ she said. _Ignore him. He_ll get bored and cut all that out._ But he didn_t. Lonnie flecked mud at her socks and threw her books into the trash. Jostled her chair leg during exams, yanked the ribbons in her hair, sang _Tutti-frutti, dark Judy_ as soon as she was in earshot. On the last day of fifth grade, he tripped her down the school steps and she scraped her knee. At the kitchen table, her grandma pulled her leg onto her lap, gently swabbing the blood with a cotton ball. _Maybe he likes you,_ Maman said. _Little boys always act real mean to girls they like._ She tried to imagine Lonnie holding her hand, carrying her books home from school, kissing her, even, his long eyelashes tickling her cheeks. Sitting beside him in a movie theater, or on the top of the Ferris wheel at the carnival, Lonnie_s arm around her. But all she could picture was Lonnie splashing her in a mud puddle or sticking chewing gum in her hair or calling her a dumb bitch, Lonnie punching her until her lip burst open and her eye swelled shut. After, her father would always storm out while her mother sobbed on the floor, her face buried in the couch cushion. Once, he didn_t leave right away. Instead, he pulled her mother_s face into his stomach, petting her hair. Her mother whimpered but didn_t pull away, as if she were comforted by his touch. Better to picture Lonnie beating on her. That other thing_that soft part_terrified her even more. _ BEFORE THE INSULTS AND JOKES, before the taunting, the muddied socks, the kicked chairs, the empty lunch bench, before all of that, there were questions. What was her name? Where_d she come from and why was she here? On her first day of school, Louisa Rubidoux leaned across their shared desk and asked who was that lady walking with her earlier. _My mama,_ Jude said. Wasn_t it obvious? She_d walked her to school, held her hand. Who else would she be? _But not your real mama, right?_ Louisa said. _Y_all don_t look nothin alike._ Jude paused, then said, _I look like my daddy._ _Well, where_s he at?_ She shrugged, even though she knew. Back in D.C., where they_d left him. She missed him already even though she could still see that bruise on her mother_s neck, even though she could remember all the bruises she_d seen on her body over time, dark splotches on that strange topography. Once, at the swimming pool, she_d stared as her mother started to change in their stall before stopping, midway, when she discovered a fading bruise on her thigh. She quietly put her clothes back on, then told Jude she_d decided to just sit by the pool today and watch her. When they arrived home, her father greeted her mother with a kiss, and Jude realized that if she tried, she could pretend that the bruises came from someplace else. Her relationship with one parent magically untethered to the other. So when she thought of her daddy, he was sprawled beside her on the rug, flipping through the comics. Not dragging her mother by her hair into the bedroom_no, that was some other man. And after the broken glass was swept, the blood wiped off the tile, after her mother retreated into the bathroom, a bag of ice pressed against her face, her real daddy returned, smiling, stroking her cheek. _How come I don_t look like you?_ she asked her mother that night. She was sitting on the worn rug in front of the couch while her mother braided her hair so she couldn_t see her face but felt her hands still. _I don_t know,_ her mother finally said. _You look like Maman._ _It just work that way sometimes, baby._ _When are we going home?_ she asked. _What_d I tell you?_ her mother said. _We got to be here a little while. Now stop wigglin around and let me finish._ She was beginning to realize what she would soon know for sure: there was no plan to go back home or to go anywhere else, even, and her mother was lying each time she pretended that there was. The next day, she was sitting alone during lunch when Louisa cornered her, flanked by three beige girls. _We don_t believe you,_ Louisa said. _About that bein your mama. She too pretty to be your mama._ _She_s not,_ Jude said. _My real mama_s somewhere else._ _Where at?_ _I don_t know. Somewhere. I haven_t found her yet._ She was thinking, somehow, of Stella_a woman who resembled her just as little but would be a better version of her mother. Stella wouldn_t make Daddy so angry that he beat on her. She wouldn_t wake Jude in the middle of the night and force her onto a train to a little town where other children taunted her. She would keep her word. Stella wouldn_t promise that they would leave Mallard again and again, only to stay. _You gotta watch your mama,_ her father had warned her once. _She still like those folks._ _What folks?_ She was lying on the rug beside him, watching him catch jacks, his large hands blurring in front of her eyes. _The folks she come from,_ he said. _Your mama still got some of that in her. She still think she better than us._ She didn_t understand exactly what he meant, but she liked being part of an us. People thought that being one of a kind made you special. No, it just made you lonely. What was special was belonging with someone else. _ BY HIGH SCHOOL, the names no longer shocked her but the loneliness did. You could never quite get used to loneliness; every time she thought she had, she sank further into it. She sat by herself at lunch, flipping through cheap paperbacks. She never received visits on the weekends, or invitations to Lou_s for lunch, or phone calls just to see how she was doing. After school, she went running alone. She was the fastest girl on the track team, and on another team in another town, she might have been captain. But on this team in this town, she stretched alone before practice and sat by herself on the team bus, and after she won the gold medal at the state championship, no one congratulated her but Coach Weaver. Still, she ran. She ran because she loved it, because she wanted to be good at something, because her father had run himself at Ohio State, and when she laced up her cleats, she thought about him. Sometimes, when she circled behind the baseball dugout, she felt Lonnie Goudeau staring. She ran with a hitch in her gait_ungraceful and uneven, a bad habit Coach tried and failed to correct. Lonnie probably thought she ran funny or maybe he just liked laughing at her, that white top and white shorts against all that black skin. She never felt darker than when she was running, and at the same time, she never felt less black, less anything. She ran in a pair of gold running shoes she_d begged Early for one Christmas. Her mother had sighed. _Wouldn_t you like a nice dress?_ she asked. _Or new earrings?_ Each year, she shoved the box across the rug as if she could barely stand to touch it. _Gym shoes again,_ she said glumly, as Jude pulled out the tissue paper. _I swear I_ll never understand how one girl could want so many pairs of gym shoes._ When she was eleven, Early had bought her first pair of running shoes, white New Balance sneakers he_d found in Chicago. The next year, he was off working a job in Kansas, so he didn_t come for Christmas at all, then the next, he was back as if he_d never left, bearing a new pair, and by then she_d long gotten used to his coming and going, which felt as regular as the seasons. _That man sniffin around again,_ her grandmother always said. She never called Early by his name_always _that man_ or sometimes just _him._ She didn_t approve of her daughter shacking up with a man, even though Early was never around long enough for his visits to constitute shacking up, which either made it better or worse. Still, each Early season, as Jude began to think of it, her mother started to change. First, the house transformed, her mother balancing on chairs, ripping down the curtains, beating dust out of the rugs, washing the windows. Then her clothes: her mother springing for a new pair of nylons, finishing the dress she_d started sewing months ago, shining her shoes until they gleamed. The final, and most embarrassing part: her mother preening in the mirror like a vain schoolgirl, flipping her long hair onto one shoulder, then the other, trying a new shampoo that smelled like strawberries. Early loved her hair, so she always paid it special attention. Once, Jude had seen him ease up behind her mother and bury his face in a handful of her hair. She didn_t know who she wanted to be in that moment_Early or her mother, beautiful or beholding_and she_d felt so sick with longing that she turned away. Her mother never acknowledged the beginning of an Early season, but Maman knew. This, too, was a feature of Early season: she and her grandmother, tentative allies, forging clearer allegiance. _All those men,_ Maman said, _all those men around town and she_s still out here chasin after him._ In her grandmother_s bedroom, Jude maneuvered around the bed, reaching for the bottle of eye drops Dr. Brenner prescribed after her grandmother complained about dryness. Each night before bed, her grandmother rested her head in Jude_s lap, her graying hair spread out like a fan, while Jude carefully placed a drop in each eye. _You should have seen,_ her grandmother said. _All the boys who loved them._ She still did this sometimes, talked about Jude_s mother as them. Jude never corrected her. She slowly released the drop, her grandmother blinking up at her. _ WHEN DESIREE VIGNES waved at her daughter_s bus from the terminal, she waited until the Greyhound disappeared around the corner to wipe the tears from her eyes. She didn_t want the last thing for her daughter to see, if she had in fact been staring out the back window, to be her silly mother, crying as if she_d never see her again. Early handed her a handkerchief and she laughed, dabbing her eyes. _I_m fine, I_m fine,_ she said, although nobody had asked and she wasn_t. After he dropped her by Lou_s Egg House for her shift, she realized, tying her apron, that she was starting her day the same way she_d started it for the past ten years, except that this time, she did not know when she would see her daughter again. Ten years. She had been home ten years. Sometimes she glanced around the house, shaking her head, as if she still didn_t understand how she_d found herself back. As if she were in The Wizard of Oz, but instead of a house dropping on her, she_d fallen through the roof and awakened, years later, dazed to realize that she was still there. When she_d first decided to stay, she gave herself practical reasons. She didn_t earn enough at Lou_s to live anywhere else. She couldn_t abandon her mother again. She still hoped that Stella might return home on her own. And even if Stella didn_t, Desiree felt closer to her here, wandering around Stella_s old things. The chair where Stella sat at the table, a cornhusk doll Stella named Jane. Everywhere around the house, a door handle or blanket or couch cushion that Stella had once touched, bearing the invisible remnants of her fingerprints. She_d made a sort of life for herself here, hadn_t she? With her mother and her daughter and Early Jones, who left and continued to leave but also continued to return. When he visited, Desiree felt like a girl again, the years falling away like meat off the bone. His arrivals always seemed a little miraculous. Once, she was carrying a country-fried steak and eggs to a table and found Early sitting at the end of the counter, chewing on a toothpick. Another time, she locked up the diner and turned to see Early leaning against the phone booth across the road. She was exhausted but still laughed at the sight of him, as unexpected as the sudden coming of spring. One day there was frost, and the next, bloom. _I was just thinkin about you,_ he_d say, as if he had stopped by on his way home, not driven all the way from Charleston, pressing on through the night, bleary-eyed, to get to her sooner. _Wonderin what you was up to._ She was never up to anything, of course, her days blending together into a sameness that she later found comforting. No surprises, no sudden anger, no man holding her one moment, then hitting her the next. Now life was steady. She knew what each day would bring, except when Early appeared. He was the only thing in her life she wasn_t prepared for. He never stayed longer than a day or two before he was gone again. Once, he_d convinced her to call in sick to Lou_s so that he could take her fishing. They didn_t catch anything but halfway through the afternoon, he kissed her, slipping his fingers under her dress, stroking her as they floated on the glassy lake. It was the most thrilling thing that had happened to her in months. When Early came to town, her mother grew grim and tightlipped, glaring at the door when Desiree slipped out to meet him at the boardinghouse. _I don_t know why you foolin around with that man,_ she said. _Can_t stick around, find no decent work._ _He works,_ Desiree said. _Nothin decent!_ her mother said. _Probably got all type of women out there runnin after him__ _Well, that_s his business, not mine._ She didn_t ask who Early spent his nights with outside of Mallard. He didn_t ask her either. Each time he left, she missed him, but she wondered if his leaving was the only reason why they worked. He wasn_t a settling man, and maybe she wasn_t a settling woman either. When she thought about marriage, she felt trapped with Sam in an airless apartment, bracing herself, through each calm moment, for his inevitable rage. But Early was easy. He had no hidden sides. They didn_t argue, and if she ever grew annoyed with him, she was comforted by the fact that soon enough he would be gone again. He couldn_t trap her because he refused to trap himself. She_d had to convince him to stay at the house when he visited. _Aw, I don_t know, Desiree,_ he_d said, rubbing his jaw slowly. _I_m not askin for a ring,_ she said. _I_m not really askin for anything. It just don_t make sense, me runnin out to the boardinghouse all the time. And I think with Jude, it would be better if__ But she paused here. She never wanted Early to think that she expected him to be a father to her daughter. He didn_t owe the two of them anything. Owing was never part of their arrangement. _What about your mama?_ he said. _Don_t worry about her. I_ll take care of all that. I just think . . . well, it don_t make sense, that_s all. We two grown people. I_m tired of sneakin around._ _Well, all right,_ he said. The next time he came to town, he met her at her mother_s house. He stood on the porch, carefully unlacing his dirty boots, and moved inside the house as if it were a fancy store and he was afraid he_d break something. He_d brought, ridiculously, flowers for the table and she filled a vase with water, feeling like they were playing a married couple, Early carrying on like a television husband, honey-I_m-home-ing her from the doorway. He_d also brought gifts from his travels: a new purse for her, a bottle of perfume her mother refused to thank him for, and a book for Jude. She had explained to her daughter that Early would come to stay with them. _All the time?_ Jude asked. _No, not all the time,_ Desiree said. _Just sometimes. When he_s in town._ Her daughter paused, then said, _Well, maybe he shouldn_t come here. Maybe we should go with him._ _We can_t, baby. He don_t even have a real house. That_s why we gotta stay here. But he_ll come visit and bring you nice things. Wouldn_t you like that?_ She knew better, of course. Her daughter only wanted to leave. She_d wanted to leave Mallard since they_d arrived and Desiree, ashamed, kept promising that they would. She couldn_t promise Jude that the other children would be kind or eat lunch with her or invite her over to play, so when another birthday party arrived without Jude receiving an invitation, Desiree told her daughter that none of this would matter once they_d left town. Leaving was the only thing she could offer. But, she thought, watching Early and Jude read together on the carpet, maybe staying wasn_t the worst thing for Jude. She had family here, at least. She was loved. At night, Desiree held her daughter and told her stories about her own childhood. At first she said, I have a sister named Stella, then, you have an aunt, then, once upon a time, a girl named Stella lived here. _ FOR YEARS, Early tracked Stella Vignes until she was no longer Stella Vignes. She_d been Stella Vignes in New Orleans and Boston, then the trail ran cold_she_d married, he figured, but he couldn_t find a marriage license for a Stella Vignes in any place he knew she_d been. So she_d married someplace else. She was still, he assumed, Stella. A new first name was too difficult to get used to. Only a professional con man could assume a completely new identity and Stella was nobody_s professional. Why worry about carefulness if you didn_t expect anyone to come looking for you? She_d been sloppy enough that he found her apartment in Boston. _Oh, she was real nice,_ the landlady said when he called. _Quiet. Worked somewhere downtown. A department store, maybe. Then upped and left. But she was real nice. Never caused no trouble._ He imagined Stella behind a perfume counter, spraying pink bulbs toward ladies passing by, or gift wrapping dolls during Christmas. He_d had one or two dreams where he was chasing her through a Sears and Roebuck, Stella ducking behind dress carousels and shoe racks. _She have a boyfriend?_ he asked. The landlady grew silent after that, then said she had to go. A colored man asking after a white woman_she_d already said too much. But not enough for Early, who hadn_t even found a forwarding address. Stella sprinkled breadcrumbs, which was almost worse than nothing. Almost, because he didn_t want to find Stella at all. There_d been a time in the beginning_at least, he told himself this_when he_d wanted to find her in earnest. Now, looking back, he wasn_t so sure. Maybe it had always been Desiree_s will, tugging him along. He_d wanted to please her, that was why he_d offered to hunt for Stella in the first place. He wanted to find Stella because Desiree wished her found; those wishes overlapped into a single desire, one that kept him on the trail for years. But Stella did not want to be found, and that desire seemed even stronger. Desiree pulled, then Stella pulled harder. Early, somehow, had been caught between. Now time had fallen right out of his pockets when he wasn_t looking. One morning, he climbed out of Desiree Vignes_s bed and found a gray hair in his beard. He spent ten minutes in front of the bathroom mirror, rooting around for others, startled, for the first time, by his own face. He was, he suspected, beginning to look more and more like his own father, which was as unsettling as transforming into a stranger. Then he felt arms around his waist, Desiree pressing against his back. _You about done starin at yourself?_ she asked. _I found a gray hair,_ he said. _Look. Right here._ She laughed suddenly. After all those years, he still felt delighted by that laugh, stunned to be caught in its blast. _Well, I hope you didn_t think you_d be young and cute forever,_ she said, ushering him to the side so that she could brush her teeth. He leaned against the doorway, watching her. Most mornings, she opened Lou_s at four, so she was gone by the time he woke up. Then again, most mornings, he woke up someplace other than this bed. He would lie in the backseat of his car or sprawl across the stained mattress in some rundown motel, imagining Desiree_s room. The dark wooden walls, the dresser lined with photographs, the calico blue bedspread. Her childhood room, the bed she_d once shared with Stella. Early had learned to sleep on Stella_s side, and sometimes, when they made love, he felt shy, like Stella was perched on the dresser, watching. Desiree splashed water on her face. He wanted to pull her back into bed. There was never enough of her. He could never love her the way he wanted to. Full. A full love would scare her. Each time he returned to Mallard, he thought about bringing a ring. Her mother, at least, would finally respect him; she might even begin to think of him like a son. But Desiree never wanted to marry again. _I_ve been through all that already,_ she said, with the same weariness of a soldier talking about war. It had been a war, in a sense, one that she could never win and only hope to survive. She_d told him about all the ways Sam had hurt her: slamming her face into the door, dragging her by her hair across the bathroom floor, backhanding her mouth, his hand streaked with lipstick and blood. She touched Early_s mouth gently, and he kissed her fingertips, trying to reconcile that quiet voice he_d heard over the phone ten years ago with the man she described. She didn_t know where Sam lived now, but Early, of course, had traced him already. He lived in Norfolk with his new wife and three boys. Exactly what the world didn_t need, three boys growing up to be spiteful men. But he_d never told Desiree this. What good would it do? _Jude called last night,_ Desiree said. _Yeah?_ he said. _How she gettin on?_ _You know her. She never tell me much. But I think she good. She likes it out there. She said to tell you hi._ He grunted. Doubtful, thousands of miles away, that she was even thinking about him at all. He only reminded her of the father who wasn_t there. Desiree patted his stomach. _You take a look at that leaking sink, baby?_ At least she asked nice. Not like Adele, who barely looked at him across the table. Called out _chair_s wobbly_ when she passed him on her way to work. Treated him like a glorified handyman. And maybe he was. He was the man of a house he barely lived in. He was the father to a daughter who didn_t even like him. In the kitchen, he squeezed under the sink, his back aching. Everything was catching up with him now, nights spent sleeping in his car, hours hiding in some crawl space. He wasn_t young anymore, not the same young man who_d felt a jolt of energy each time he set out on a new job. Now it was only tiredness, boredom even. He_d hunted every type of man there was. He_d still never found the people he_d searched for the longest. On the best nights, he settled in Desiree Vignes_s bed, rubbing her feet. He watched her brush out her hair, listened to her hum. He shucked off his pants and she climbed in bed in her nightgown, and even then it felt like too many layers_a lie, really, that they were telling themselves_because as soon as she turned out the light, his boxer shorts were around his ankles, her nightgown pushed up to her waist. They tried to be quiet, but after a while, he didn_t care about anyone hearing, not when there were too few nights like this. On the road, he tried to remember how to fall asleep alone. Filtereds harder, you know,_ he told Desiree one night. _More time goes by. Sometimes folks slip up, but__ _I know,_ she said. Her skin looked silvery in the moonlight. He rolled toward her, touching her hip. She was so slender, he forgot sometimes, the longer he was away. _She might come back on her own,_ he said. _Homesick. Maybe she gets older, figures none of this is worth it._ He reached over, touching Desiree_s soft curls. He was so hungry and so full of her, he could hardly stand it. But she rolled away from him. _It_s too late,_ she said. _Even if she comes back. She_s already gone._ _ IN LOS ANGELES, no one had ever heard of Mallard. All freshman year, Jude delighted in telling people that her hometown was impossible to find on a map, even though few believed her at first, especially not Reese Carter, who insisted that every town had to be on a map somewhere. He was more skeptical than the Californians who easily believed that some Louisiana town might be too inconsequential to warrant a cartographer_s attention. But Reese was a southerner also. He grew up in El Dorado, Arkansas, a place that sounded even more fantastical than her hometown yet still existed on maps. So one April evening, she dragged him to the library and flipped through a giant atlas. They_d just stepped in from the rain, Reese_s wet hair looping across his forehead in loose curls. She wanted to push his drooping hair back, but instead, she pointed at a map of Louisiana, below where the Atchafalaya River and the Red River met. _See,_ she said. _No Mallard._ _Goddamn,_ he said. _You_re right._ He leaned over her shoulder, squinting. They_d met at a track-and-field party her roommate, Erika, had dragged her to last Halloween. Erika was a stout sprinter from Brooklyn who complained about Los Angeles endlessly, the smoggy air, the traffic, the lack of trains. Her grievances only made Jude realize how grateful she felt. Gratitude only emphasized the depth of your lack, so she tried to hide it. On move-in day, Erika had glanced at Jude_s two suitcases and asked, _Where_s the rest of your stuff?_ Her own desk was cluttered with records, photographs of friends taped to the walls, her closet stuffed with shimmery blouses. Jude, quietly unpacking everything she owned, said that her other things were still in storage. She knew that she liked Erika when she never brought it up again. On Halloween, Erika draped herself in a sparkly purple dress and tiara, Jude reaching for a lazy pair of cat ears. In the bathroom, she sat on the toilet lid while Erika hunched in front of her, powdering electric blue on her eyelids. _You know, you could look real pretty if you tried a little,_ she said. But the bright blue only made her look darker, so Jude dabbed at her eyes during the whole ride over. Later, Reese would tell her that the blue eyeshadow was the first thing he noticed about her. In the cramped apartment, she_d stumbled after Erika, squeezing past witches and ghosts and mummies. When Erika fished in the ice-filled bathtub for beers, Jude ducked into a doorway, overwhelmed by it all. She_d never been invited to a stranger_s party before, and she was so nervous, she didn_t even notice, at first, a cowboy sitting on the couch. He was golden brown and handsome, his jaw covered in stubble. He wore a rawhide vest over a blue plaid shirt and faded jeans, a red bandanna tied around his neck. She felt him watching her, and not knowing what else to do, said, _Hi, I_m Jude._ She tugged at the fringe of her skirt, already embarrassed. But the cowboy smiled. _Hi Jude,_ he said. _I_m Reese. Have a beer._ She liked how he said it, more of a command than an offer. But she shook her head. _I don_t drink beer,_ she said. _I mean, I don_t like the taste. And it makes me feel slow. I_m a runner._ She was rambling now, but he tilted his head a little. _Where you from?_ he said. _Louisiana._ _Whereabouts?_ _A little town. You haven_t heard of it._ _How you know what I_ve heard of?_ _Trust me,_ she said. _I know._ He laughed, then tilted his beer toward her. _You sure you don_t want a sip?_ Maybe it was his accent, southern like hers. Maybe his handsomeness. Maybe because, in a room full of people, he_d chosen to talk to her. She took a step toward him, then another and another, until she was standing inside his legs. Then a loud group of boys jostled into the room with a keg, and Reese reached out, pulling her into safety. His hand cupped the back of her knee, and for weeks after, when she thought about that party, she only remembered his fingers lingering at the edge of her skirt. Now, in the damp library, she flipped through the atlas, past Louisiana to the United States to the world. _When I was little,_ she said, _like four or five, I thought this was just a map of our side of the world. Like there was another side of the world on some different map. My daddy told me that was stupid._ He_d brought her to a public library, and when he spun the globe, she knew that he was right. But she watched Reese trace along the map, a part of her still hoping that her father was mistaken, somehow, that there was still more of the world waiting to be found. Five O n the road from El Dorado, Therese Anne Carter became Reese. He cut his hair in Plano, hacking off inches in a truck stop bathroom with a stolen hunting knife. Outside of Abilene, he bought a blue madras shirt and a leather belt with a silver stallion buckle; the shirt he still wore, the buckle he_d pawned in El Paso when he ran out of money but mentioned wistfully, still feeling its weight hanging at his waist. In Socorro, he began wrapping his chest in a white bandage, and by Las Cruces, he_d learned to walk again, legs wide, shoulders square. He told himself that it was safer to hitchhike this way, but the truth was that he_d always been Reese. By Tucson, it was Therese who felt like a costume. How real was a person if you could shed her in a thousand miles? In Los Angeles, he found a cleaning job at a gym near UCLA, where he met body builders who told him where to get the good stuff. At Muscle Beach, he lingered on the edge of the crowd as men bulging out of tank tops preened under the afternoon sun. Ask for Thad, someone said, and there he was, a giant of a man, hairless except for his scraggly beard. When Reese finally mustered the nerve, Thad brushed him aside with a big paw. _Boy, come back with fifty dollars,_ he said. _Then we got somethin to talk about._ All month he scrimped and saved until he raised the money and found Thad at a bar off the boardwalk. Thad steered him into the men_s room and pulled out a vial. _You ever shot up before?_ he asked. Reese shook his head, staring wide-eyed at the needle. Thad laughed. _Christ, kid, how old are you?_ _Old enough,_ Reese said. _This shit ain_t nothin to play with,_ Thad said. _Make you feel different. Make your baby makers slow. But I guess you ain_t worried about none of that yet._ _No sir,_ Reese said, and Thad showed him what to do. Since then, he_d bought plenty of steroids off plenty of Thads, each time the transaction feeling as grimy as when he_d first stood in that dirty bar bathroom. He met meatheads in dark alleys, felt vials pressed into his palm during handshakes, received nondescript paper bags in his gym locker. Now, seven years later, Therese Anne Carter was only a name on a birth certificate in the offices of Union County Public Records. No one could tell that he_d ever been her, and sometimes, he could hardly believe it either. He said this matter-of-factly, under the glowing red light of the darkroom, not looking at Jude as he lowered the blank photo into the developer. Weeks after the Halloween party, they_d started meeting here. She hadn_t expected to ever see him again, and might not have, if, on the ride home, Erika hadn_t mentioned that she_d seen that cute cowboy before, working at the gym nearby. Jude began to run there even though she hated running indoors_no sky, no air, just running in place, staring at her own reflection. She hated every part of it except for when Reese eased up beside her, wiping down a stationary bike. He leaned against the handlebars and said, _Where_s your ears?_ She glanced into the mirror, confused, until she realized he was referring to her dull costume. She laughed, surprised he even remembered her from that party. But of course he did. Who on this campus_who in all of Los Angeles_was as dark as her? _Must have forgot them,_ she said. _Too bad,_ he said. _I liked them._ He wore a slate gray T-shirt, a silver dumbbell emblazoned across his chest. Sometimes, during a shift, he grew bored, hoisting himself onto the bars to do a few pull-ups. He_d applied for the job because he could use the gym for free and the manager didn_t care that he had arrived from out of town with no identification. But his real dream was to be a professional photographer. He offered to show her his work sometime, so they started meeting on Saturdays in the campus darkroom. Now, as he watched the photo, she watched him, trying to picture Therese. But she couldn_t. She only saw Reese, scruffy face, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, that loop of hair always falling onto his forehead. So handsome that when he glanced up, she couldn_t look into his eyes. _What do you think of all this?_ he said. _I don_t know,_ she said. _I_ve never heard anything like it._ But that wasn_t exactly true. She_d always known that it was possible to be two different people in one lifetime, or maybe it was only possible for some. Maybe others were just stuck with who they were. She_d tried to lighten her skin once, during her first summer in Mallard. She was still young enough then to believe that such a thing was possible, yet old enough to understand that it would require a degree of alchemy that she didn_t quite understand. Magic. She wasn_t foolish enough to hope that someday she might be light, but a deep brown maybe, anything better than this endless black. You couldn_t force a magic like this but she tried her best to conjure it. She_d seen a Nadinola ad in Jet_a caramel woman, dark by Mallard_s standards but light by her own, smiling, red-lipped, as a brown man whispered into her ear. Life is more fun when your complexion is clear, bright, Nadinola-light! She ripped the ad out of the magazine and folded it into a tiny rectangle, carrying it with her for weeks, opening it so many times that white creases cut across the woman_s lips. A jar of cream. That was all she needed. She_d slather it on her skin, and by fall, she would return to school, lighter and new. But she didn_t have the two dollars for the cream and she couldn_t ask her mother, who would only scold her. Don_t let those kids get to you, she would say, but it was more than her classmates. Jude wanted to change and she didn_t see why it should be so hard or why she should have to explain it to anyone. Strangely, she felt that her grandmother might understand, so she handed her the worn ad. Maman stared at it a moment, then passed it back to her. _There are better ways,_ she said. All week, her grandmother created potions. She poured baths with lemon and milk and instructed Jude to soak. She pasted honey masks on her face, then slowly peeled them off. She juiced oranges, mixed them with spices, and applied the mixture to Jude_s face before she went to bed. Nothing worked. She never lightened. And at the end of the week, her mother asked why her face looked so greasy, so Jude rose from the dinner table, washed Maman_s cream off her face, and that was that. _I always wanted to be different,_ she told Reese. _I mean, I grew up in this town where everybody_s light and I thought_well, none of it worked._ _Good,_ he said. _You got beautiful skin._ He glanced at her, but she looked away, staring down at the photo paper as an abandoned building shimmered into view. She hated to be called beautiful. It was the type of thing people only said because they felt they ought to. She thought about Lonnie Goudeau kissing her under the moss trees or inside the stables or behind the Delafosse barn at night. In the dark, you could never be too black. In the dark, everyone was the same color. _ BY SPRINGTIME, she spent every weekend with Reese, so inseparable that you began to ask for one if you saw the other. Sometimes she met him downtown, wandering beside him while he shot pictures, his camera bag slung across her shoulder. He taught her the names of different lenses, showed how to hold the reflector to bounce the light. He_d been given his first camera by a man at his church_a local photographer_who_d let him borrow it once to take pictures at the picnic. The man had been so shocked by Reese_s raw talent, he gave him an old camera to play around with. Reese spent all of high school with a camera in front of his face, shooting football games and school plays and marching band practice for the yearbook. He snapped dead possums in the middle of the road, sunlight streaking through the clouds, toothless rodeo stars gripping bucking horses. He loved taking pictures of anything but himself. The camera never saw him the way he did. Now he spent his weekends shooting abandoned buildings shuttered behind wood boards, graffitied bus stops, paint chipping off stripped car husks. Only dead, decaying things. Beauty bored him. Sometimes he snapped pictures of her, always candids, Jude lingering in the background, staring off into space. She didn_t realize until she was developing them. She always felt vulnerable seeing herself through his lens. He gave her one photo of herself standing on a boardwalk, and she didn_t know what to do with it so she sent it home. On the telephone, her grandmother marveled. _Finally,_ she said. _One good picture of you._ In all of her school pictures, she_d either looked too black or overexposed, invisible except for the whites of her eyes and teeth. The camera, Reese told her once, worked like the human eye. Meaning, it was not created to notice her. _There you go again,_ Erika said sleepily, each time Jude slipped out early Saturday morning. _Off to see that fine man of yours._ _He_s not my man,_ Jude said, again and again. Which was technically true. He_d never asked her on a date, escorted her into a restaurant, pulled out her chair. He didn_t kiss her or hold her hand. But didn_t he shield her with his jacket when they were caught in a rainstorm, leaving himself dripping wet? Didn_t he attend all of her home track meets, cheering during her heat and, after, pulling her into a hug outside the girls_ locker room? Didn_t she talk to him about her mother and father, Early, even Stella? On the Manhattan Beach pier, she leaned against the turquoise rail while Reese aimed at three fishermen. Biting his lip, the way he always did when he was concentrating. _What do you think she_s like?_ he asked. She fiddled with the strap of his camera bag. _Oh, I don_t know,_ she said. _I used to wonder. Now I don_t think I wanna know. I mean, what kind of person just leaves her family behind?_ She realized, all too late, that this was, of course, exactly what Reese had done. He_d shed his family right along with his entire past and now he never talked about them at all. She knew not to ask, even as he wanted to know more about her life. Once, he asked about her first kiss and she told him that a boy named Lonnie had grabbed her outside a barn. She was sixteen then, sneaking out for a late-night run; he was tipsy from a stolen bottle of cherry wine that he_d passed, back and forth, amongst friends all night on the riverbank. She would always wonder if that empty bottle was the only reason he_d kissed her, why he_d even wandered over to her, climbing unsteadily over the fence, as she finished her lap behind the Delafosse barn. She stopped hard, her knee stinging. _W-what you doin out here?_ he_d asked. Stupidly, she glanced over her shoulder and he laughed. _You,_ he said. _Ain_t nobody here but us._ He_d never spoken to her before outside of school. She_d seen him, of course, goofing around with his friends in a back booth at Lou_s or hanging out the side of his father_s truck. He always ignored her, as if he knew that his teasing was out of place beyond the school halls, or maybe because he realized that ignoring her was even crueler, that she preferred his taunting to the absence of his attention. But she only felt irritated that he_d decided to speak to her now, when she was panting and dirty, her skin misted with sweat. He told her that he was on his way home, cutting through the Delafosse farm. He tended Miss Delafosse_s horses after school. Did she want to see them? They were old as dirt but still pretty. The horses were locked in the stable for the night but he could use his key to get in. She didn_t know why she followed him. Maybe because the whole night was unfolding so strangely_Lonnie catching her, Lonnie speaking to her decently_that she had to see where it would end. In the stables, she followed Lonnie blindly, overwhelmed by the smell of manure. Then he stopped, and through the streaming moonlight, she saw two horses, brown and gray, taller than she_d imagined, their powerful bodies sleek with muscles. Lonnie touched the gray one_s neck and she slowly touched him too, stroking his soft hair. _Pretty, huh?_ Lonnie said. _Yes,_ she said. _Pretty._ _You should see _em run. R-reminds me of you. You don_t run like no person I ever seen. Got a hitch in your gait like a pony._ She laughed. _How you know that?_ _I notice,_ he said. _I notice everything._ Then the brown horse stamped his hoof, spooking the gray horse, and Lonnie pulled her out of the stable before Miss Delafosse_s light flickered on. They skittered behind the barn, laughing at the nearness of getting caught, then Lonnie leaned in and kissed her. Around them, the night hung heavy and damp like soaked cotton. She tasted the sugar off his lips. _ _JUST LIKE THAT?_ Reese said. _Just like that._ _Well, goddamn._ They were standing on the rooftop of his friend Barry_s apartment. Earlier that night, Barry had performed as Bianca at a club in West Hollywood called Mirage. For seven electrifying minutes, Bianca strutted onstage, a purple boa wrapped around her broad shoulders, and belted out _Dim All the Lights._ She wore ruby red lipstick and a big blonde wig like Dolly Parton. _It_s not enough to be a woman,_ Reese had joked during the show. _He_s gotta be a white woman too._ Barry_s apartment was lined with wig heads covered in hair of every color, realistic and garish: a brown bob, a black pageboy, a straight Cher cut dyed pink, the bangs slicing across the forehead. At first, she_d thought that Barry might be like Reese, but then she arrived at his apartment to find him wearing a polo shirt and slacks, scratching his bearded cheek. During the week, he taught high school chemistry in Santa Monica; he only became Bianca two Saturdays a month in a tiny dark club off Sunset. Otherwise, he was a tall, bald man who looked nothing like a woman, which was part of the delight, she realized, watching the enraptured crowd. It was fun because everyone knew that it was not real. Downstairs, the apartment was loud and hot, a new Thelma Houston record radiating out the windows. The girls had come over. The girls, Barry always said, when he meant the other men who performed alongside him at his drag nights. By spring, Jude had been to enough of Barry_s parties to know what everyone looked like without makeup: Luis, who sang Celia Cruz in pink fur, was an accountant; Jamie, who wore a Supremes wig and go-go boots, worked for the power company; Harley transformed himself into Bette Midler_he was a costume designer for a minor theater company and helped the others find their wigs. The girls took Jude in until she felt, almost, like one of them. She_d never belonged to a group of friends before. And they_d only accepted her because of Reese. _What about you?_ she said. _Who was your first kiss?_ He leaned against the railing, lighting up a joint. _It_s not that interesting._ _So? It doesn_t have to be._ _Just this girl from church,_ he said. _She was friends with my sister. It was before._ Before he was Reese, he meant. He never talked about Before. She didn_t even know that he had a sister. _What was she like?_ she asked. His sister, the girl he_d kissed. Therese. It didn_t matter, she just wanted to understand his old life. She wanted him to trust her with it. _I don_t remember,_ he said. _So what happened to the horse boy?_ He smirked, offering her the joint. He sounded almost jealous, or maybe she just wanted him to. _Nothing,_ she said. _We kissed a few times but we didn_t talk after that._ She was too ashamed to tell him the truth: that she_d spent weeks meeting Lonnie in the stables at night. In the dark corner, he_d spread a blanket, prop up a flashlight, call it their secret hideaway. It was too dangerous, meeting in the middle of the day. What if someone saw them? At night, nobody would catch them. They could be truly alone. Didn_t she want that? He wasn_t her boyfriend. A boyfriend would hold her hand, ask about her day. But in the stables, he only touched her, palming her breasts, slipping his fingers up her shorts. In the stables, she swallowed him dripping into her mouth, breathing manure through her nose. But around town, he looked right past her. And yet, she would have kept meeting him each night if she hadn_t been caught by Early. Early hearing her creep out one night, tracking her through the woods, banging on the door until Lonnie, yanking frantically at his pants, shoved her outside. She was crying before she even stepped through the doorway. Early hooked a hand around her arm, unable to look at her. _What_s the matter with you?_ he said. _You want a boyfriend, you tell him to come by the house. You don_t go off meetin no boy in the middle of the night._ _He won_t talk to me nowhere else,_ she said. She started crying harder, her shoulders shaking, and Early pulled her into his chest. He hadn_t held her like that in years; she hadn_t wanted him to. He wasn_t her father and never would be, a man whose violence had not yet reached her, whose anger pointed everywhere but at her. Her father made her feel special, and she hadn_t felt that way until Lonnie kissed her behind the barn. He wasn_t her boyfriend. She_d never been foolish enough to think that he might be. But she couldn_t imagine any boy loving her; it was enough that Lonnie noticed her at all. A breeze drifted past and she shivered, hugging herself. Reese touched her elbow. _You cold, baby?_ he said. She nodded, hoping that he might wrap his arm around her. But he offered his jacket instead. _ _I DON_T UNDERSTAND IT,_ Barry said. _It_s like a sexless marriage._ Backstage at Mirage, he perched in front of the vanity mirror, swiping blush across his cheeks. It was an hour before the show, and soon, the dressing room would be crowded with queens jostling in front of the mirrors, swapping eyeshadow, the air clouded with hairspray. But now, Mirage was dark and quiet, and she sat on the floor watching Barry, a chemistry textbook balanced on her knees. They had an arrangement. He helped with her chemistry homework and she joined him at the Fox Hills Mall, where she pretended to buy the makeup he wanted. He guided her down the aisles, her arm looped through his; to strangers, they might have passed as lovers, a tall man in gray slacks, a young woman reaching for face powder. When he paid for everything at the counter, the clerks thought he was a gentleman. No one imagined his bathroom counter covered in tiny bottles of scented lotions, palettes of eye shadow, gold tubes of lipstick. Or that the girl at his side had no interest in any of this, despite his plea to teach her how to wear makeup. She doubted that she would find any shade to match her skin and besides, she knew what people called dark girls wearing red lipstick. Baboon ass. No, she had no interest in sorting through Barry_s bottles and tubes, which seemed as mysterious to her as the test tubes in her chemistry lab. Weeks into the semester and she was already falling behind. Barry had only agreed to tutor her because Reese asked him to, and he could never tell Reese no. When they_d first met seven years ago at a disco, he thought that Reese was gorgeous and, after too many drinks, finally worked up the nerve to tell him so. _What did you say?_ she asked. _What do you think?_ he said. _I invited him home! And you know what he told me? _No thank you.__ Barry laughed. _Can you believe it? He said no thank you, like I was offering him a cup of coffee. Oh, I always like those country boys. Country and sweet, that_s exactly how I like _em._ She tried to imagine being so bold, walking up to Reese and telling him what? That she thought about him relentlessly, even now, while she was staring at a textbook filled with confusing symbols and talking to a man applying lipstick? _We_re friends,_ she said. _What_s so wrong with that?_ _Nothing_s wrong with it._ He glanced at her through the mirror. He was trying a new look_classic Hollywood, Lana Turner_but the blush was too pink, tinting his skin orange. _I_ve just never seen Reese with no friend like you._ Once, carrying her groceries up the stairs, Reese had joked that he sometimes felt like her boyfriend, and she_d laughed, unsure of what was funny. That he wasn_t? That he would never be? That in spite of this, he had, somehow, found himself playing this role? What she didn_t say: she felt like his girlfriend sometimes too, and the feeling scared her. A big feeling. It took up all the space in her chest, choking her. _We_re friends,_ she said again. _I don_t know why you can_t see that._ _I don_t know why you can_t see that you_re not._ He sighed, turning to face her. One cheek was covered in full makeup, the other half of his face still clean. _I don_t know why you_re fighting it neither. What could be better than being eighteen and in love? Oh, you don_t even know. If I could go back, I_d do everything different._ _Like what?_ she said. _Oh, everything._ He turned back to the mirror. _This big ol_ world and we only get to go through it once. The saddest thing there is, you ask me._ _ THAT SUMMER, she moved out of the dormitories and into Reese_s apartment. She gave herself a list of logistical reasons why it made sense: she was working on campus, which was the obvious choice even though she hated how disappointed her mother had sounded when she told her she wasn_t coming home. She hadn_t found an apartment yet for next year and she could save money, splitting rent and groceries. She could make a foolish decision if she pretended it was based on thrift alone. So when Reese asked, she said yes, and soon, the two were carrying her boxes up the narrow stairwell. Reese told her that he would sleep on the couch. _Trust me, I_ve slept worse places,_ he said, and she thought of him hitchhiking from Arkansas. Sleeping at truck stops or squatting in abandoned buildings like the ones he_d photographed, over and over again. At first, she felt strange in Reese_s apartment, like a guest overstaying her welcome. Then she started to feel at home. Tiptoeing through the living room on her way out to her morning run, Reese curled under a blanket, hair falling in front of his closed eyes. Sharing a bathroom counter, running a finger along the handle of his razor. Returning in the evening to find him boiling hot dogs for dinner, or ironing his shirts along with her own, or listening to records with him on the couch, her foot pressed against his thigh. He taught her how to drive, surprisingly patient as she slowly guided his creaking Bobcat around an empty mall parking lot. _You know how to drive, you can go anywhere,_ he told her. _You get tired of this city, you just head off for another one._ He smiled over at her, an arm hanging out the window, as she made another slow lap. He made it sound so easy, leaving. _I_ll never get tired of this city,_ she said. During the week, she reported to her job at the music library, where she pushed a heavy cart down the aisles and slid thin scores onto the shelves until her fingers dried from touching their dusty covers. When she returned home, West Hollywood felt so different from that idyllic campus, the brick buildings she still felt cowed to enter, always lowering her voice as if stepping inside church, those endless green lawns, the bicycles constantly whisking past. In the dormitories, she_d been surrounded by the relentlessly ambitious, but in that West Hollywood apartment building, all of the neighbors she met were people whose dreams of fame had already been dashed. Cinematographers working at Kodak stores, screenwriters teaching English to immigrants, actors starring in burlesque shows in seedy bars. The people who did not make it were ingrained in the city; you walked on stars emblazoned with their names and never realized it. On the weekends, she and Reese wandered Santa Barbara beaches, or explored the Natural History Museum, and even once went whale watching in Long Beach. They_d only seen dolphins, but what she remembered was how she_d lost her balance on the deck and he stepped behind to steady her. She stood like that for the rest of the boat ride, leaning back against his chest. Some Saturday nights, they passed under the cascade of rainbow flags and ducked inside Mirage to catch Barry_s show. Other times, they saw a movie at the Cinerama Dome, where, in the darkness of the theater, she thought Reese might reach for her hand. But he never did. At Barry_s Fourth of July party, everyone crowded on his rooftop, watching fireworks crackle across the sky. All around them, boys drunk and kissing, and she thought Reese might even kiss her_a friendly kiss, right on her cheek. But instead, he stepped inside to get a drink, leaving her alone washed under red and blue light. What did he want from her? It was impossible to tell. Once after Barry_s show at Mirage, Reese asked her to dance. The night was nearly over; the DJ had already started playing slow songs to usher lovers out the door. He held out his hand and she allowed him to guide her onto the dance floor. She_d never been held so closely by anyone before. _I love this song,_ she said. _I know,_ he said. _I hear you singin it._ She wasn_t drunk but she felt lightheaded, swept up in Smokey Robinson_s voice, Reese_s arms around her. Then the lights flipped on rudely, all the couples groaning, and Reese let her go. She hadn_t realized until then how depressing Mirage looked with the lights on: the exposed pipes, peeling paint, wood floors sticky with beer. And Reese, laughing as their friends drifted toward the door, as if dancing with her had been as casual as helping her into a jacket. Somehow she felt closer to him and further away than ever. Then one evening in July, she came home early from work and found Reese shirtless through the open bathroom door. His chest was wrapped in a large bandage, but there were red bruises peeking out, and he was gingerly feeling his ribcage. Her first thought was her stupidest thought: someone had attacked him. When he glanced up, their eyes met in the mirror, and he quickly yanked on his shirt. _Don_t creep up on me like that,_ he said. _What happened?_ she said. _That bruise__ _Looks worse than it feels,_ he said. _I_m used to it._ She slowly realized what he was trying to tell her: that no one had attacked him, that it was the bandage he wore that was digging into his ribcage, bruising him. _You should take that thing off,_ she said. _If it hurts you. You don_t have to wear it here. I don_t care what you look like._ She thought he might be relieved, but instead, a dark and unfamiliar look passed across his face. _It_s not about you,_ he said, then he slammed the bathroom door shut. The whole apartment shook, and she trembled, dropping her keys. He had never yelled at her before. She left without thinking. She had never seen him so angry. He swore at bad drivers, he griped about his co-workers, he shoved a white man in a bar once who kept calling her darky. His anger flared and waned and then he was back to himself again. But this time he was angry at her. She shouldn_t have looked at him_she should have turned as soon as she saw him through the open door. But the bruises shocked her and then she_d said something so idiotic and now she couldn_t even apologize because he was angry. He_d slammed a door, not her face, but maybe that was out of convenience. Maybe, if she had been closer, he would have slammed her against the wall just as easily. She was crying by the time she reached Barry_s. He just pulled her into a hug. _He hates me,_ she said. _I did this stupid thing and now he hates me__ _He doesn_t hate you,_ Barry said. _Come sit down. It_s gonna be all right in the morning._ _ IT WAS NO BIG DEAL, Barry said. Just a little fight. But all her life, she would hate when people called arguments fights. Fights were bloody events, punctured skin, bruised eye sockets, broken bones. Not disagreements over where to go to dinner. Never words. A fight was not a man_s voice raised in anger, although it would always make her think of her father. She would wince a little when she heard raucous men leaving bars or boys screaming at televisions during football games. The sound of slamming doors. Broken plates. Her father had punched walls, he smashed dishes, and even once his own eyeglasses, hurling them across the living room at the door. To be so angry that you_d make yourself blind. Strange, and yet so normal to her then in a way she wouldn_t fully realize until she was older. She spent the night on Barry_s couch, staring up at the ceiling. At half past three, she heard a knock on the door. Through the peephole, she found Reese under the glowing porch light. He was breathing hard, his fists balled in the pockets of his jean jacket, and he started to knock again when she finally unlatched the deadbolt. _You_re gonna wake everyone up,_ she whispered. _I_m sorry,_ he said. His breath smelled sweet like beer. _You_re drunk,_ she said, more surprised than anything. She_d never known him to disappear into a bar when he was upset, but here he was now, swaying on his feet. _I shouldn_t have hollered at you like that,_ he said. _I didn_t mean to_goddamnit, you know I wouldn_t hurt you. You know that, don_t you, baby?_ You could never know who might hurt you until it was too late. But he sounded desperate, pleading with her from the step, and she cracked the door a little more. _There_s this doctor,_ he said. _Luis told me about him. You gotta pay him upfront for the surgery but I been savin up._ _What surgery?_ she said. _For my chest. Then I won_t have to wear this damn thing at all._ _But is it safe?_ _Safe enough,_ he said. She stared at the shallow rise and fall of his chest. _I_m sorry too,_ she said. _I just don_t want you to hurt. I didn_t mean_oh, I don_t even know. I wasn_t trying to act like I_m somebody special._ _Don_t say that,_ he said. _Say what?_ He was quiet a moment, then he leaned in and kissed her. By the time she realized it, he was already pulling away. _That you_re not special to me,_ he said. _ IN THE MORNING, she wandered through the bright campus, dazed. She hadn_t slept a second after Reese departed down the darkened sidewalk. Even now, thinking about him, her stomach twisted with dread. Maybe he_d been so drunk he wouldn_t even remember kissing her. He_d awakened at home, vaguely recalling that he had done something embarrassing. Or maybe he_d sobered up and regretted it. She was the type of girl that boys only kissed in secret and, after, pretended that they hadn_t. That night, the girls threw a party. In Harley_s crowded living room, she squeezed onto the windowsill, nursing a rum and Coke. She wasn_t in a partying mood but she still felt too embarrassed to go home and face Reese; of course, he then arrived at the party, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, his hair still wet from the shower. He_d waved to her when he first walked in but he didn_t come over to say hello. Maybe he pitied her. He_d only kissed her because he felt so bad about yelling at her. He knew that she hoped that kiss meant more so he was avoiding her, standing so far on the other side of the room that Harley asked what was wrong. _Nothing,_ she said, tilting more rum into her cup. _Then why_re you both acting so damn funny?_ he said. He had blond feathered bangs like Farrah Fawcett that he kept sweeping out of his eyes. She shrugged, staring out the window. She couldn_t continue like this, pretending that everything was normal. She needed air. But the room suddenly fell into complete darkness. The music cut off, the silence as jarring as the black. Then voices ringing out, Barry asking where to find a flashlight, Harley offering that there might be candles in the bathroom, and Luis, leaning over by the window, calling everyone over. All around the block, all the other buildings descended into darkness too. She said that she would look for candles and groped her way down the dark hallway toward the bathroom when Reese grabbed her hand. _It_s me,_ he said. _I know,_ she said. In the dark, you could be anybody, but she knew him before he even spoke. His cologne, his rough palms. She could find him in any darkened room. _I can_t see shit,_ he said, laughing a little. _Well, I_m trying to find the candles._ _Wait. Can we just talk?_ _We don_t have to talk,_ she said. _I know you don_t like me. Not like that. And it_s okay. We just don_t have to talk about it._ He dropped her hand. At least she didn_t have to look at him. Maybe she would never find the candles and she wouldn_t have to see his face. She inched farther down the hall, finally feeling the tile on the bathroom wall, but when she opened the medicine cabinet, Reese pressed it shut. Then he was kissing her against the bathroom sink. Down the hall, their friends were gamely calling each other_s names, laughing at their own blindness. But in the bathroom, they were kissing desperately, as if both knew that the moment couldn_t possibly last. The lights would flicker on, someone would come searching for them, they would wrench apart at the sound of footsteps, guilty, caught. But by the time Barry returned from the kitchen, triumphantly waving a flashlight, they_d already slipped out the door. They felt their way down the stairwell until they emerged on the sidewalk, still holding hands, fading into the blackened city. Overhead, traffic lights blinked uselessly. Cars crept along the street. The skyline above them disappeared, and for the first time in nearly a year, she saw stars. Somewhere, across the vast city, a grandmother listened to children tell ghost stories in front of the black television screen. A man sat on his porch, petting a dog_s graying muzzle. A dark-haired woman lit a candle in her kitchen, staring out at her swimming pool. A young man and young woman walked home, climbing the silent steps, shutting the door on the rest of the city. She held his lighter as he searched the cabinets for candles. He couldn_t find any and they both felt relieved. She wasn_t afraid of the dark; he felt safer inside it. In bed, he tugged off her shirt, kissing down her neck to her breasts. Only once he was kissing between her thighs did she realize that he hadn_t undressed at all. All over the city, couples doing what they were doing. Teenagers kissing on blankets at a beach, the ocean rolling in black. Newlyweds fumbling in a hotel room. A man whispering into his lover_s ear. A woman holding a match to a slender candle, her face glowing off the kitchen window. Across the city, darkness and light. Six T here_s something different about you,_ Desiree Vignes told her daughter over the phone. By late August, a heat wave had rolled through Los Angeles, and even with all the windows open, you couldn_t catch a breeze. Outside, the pavement shimmered like a pond. Big brown crickets searched the pipes for water, and every morning, Jude always found one or two in the shower; she grew so paranoid that they would blend into the beige carpet that she refused to walk around barefoot. The heat was maddening but life could be worse, she thought, watching Reese slide an ice cube between his lips. He was wearing blue swim trunks and a black T-shirt, his collarbone glistening with sweat. She twirled the phone cord around her finger. _Ma_am?_ she said. _Oh, don_t ma_am me. You heard what I said. There_s somethin different. I can hear it in your voice._ _Mama, there_s nothing wrong with my voice._ _Not wrong. Different. You think I can_t tell?_ They were meeting the girls at Venice Beach; she_d just started packing a picnic basket when the phone rang. She hadn_t called home in a month, so she felt too guilty to ask to talk later, but now she regretted answering. What did her mother mean, different? And how could she even tell? Jude hated the idea of being so transparent to anyone, even her own mother. Then again, hadn_t Barry noticed right away? Two days after the blackout, she_d met him by the fountain outside the May Company and before she_d even walked over, he was suspicious, squinting at her. _What happened?_ he demanded. _Why do you look like that?_ _Like what?_ she said, laughing. Then it dawned on him. _You didn_t,_ he whispered. _Oh, I can_t believe you! You sat right there on my couch and told me you had some big fight__ _We did! I mean, nothing had happened then, I swear__ _Why didn_t you tell me?_ he said. _I don_t know why neither of you called me._ But after the blackout, she hadn_t told anyone. She wasn_t even sure how to explain what had happened between her and Reese. One night they_d been friends, the next lovers. He_d left for work by the time she awoke in the morning. She_d reached across the wrinkled sheets, still warm from his body. In the light of day, the previous night seemed like a fever dream. But those still-warm sheets. Her panties on the floor. His cologne on the pillow. She rolled over, burying her face in the smell of him. All day, she imagined how he would tell her that the previous night had been a mistake, but he climbed into her bed that night and kissed the back of her neck. _What_re we doing?_ she said. _I_m kissing you,_ he said. _You know what I mean._ She rolled over to face him. He was smiling, playing with the fringe of her T-shirt. _Do you want me to go?_ he said. _Do you?_ _Hell no, baby._ He kissed her neck again. When he tugged off her pajamas, she reached for his belt and he squirmed away. _Don_t,_ he said softly, and she froze, not knowing what to do. Lonnie had never been shy about what he_d wanted. Shoving her hand down his boxers, pushing her face toward his lap. But there were rules to loving Reese and over time, she learned them. Lights off. No undressing him. She could touch his stomach or arms but never his chest, his thighs but not between them. She wanted to touch him as freely as he touched her but she never complained. How could she? Not now, not when she was so happy Barry noticed it radiating off her from across a shopping mall, so happy that her mother could even hear it through the phone. At the beach, she sat on her towel, watching Barry and Luis and Harley splash around in the water. They_d been stuck in traffic for an hour, slowly creeping toward the coast; when they finally arrived at Venice, the girls shucked their shirts, tossing them in a careless pile, and ran yelping toward the shore. Reese rested his head in her lap, watching as they dipped into the water, slick under the sunlight. She raked her fingers through his hair. _Don_t you want to swim?_ she said. He smiled, squinting up at her. _Maybe later,_ he said. _Aren_t you gonna get in?_ She told him that she didn_t like to swim. But she_d loved going to the city pool in D.C. In Mallard, she never dared to swim in the river_imagine showing so much of yourself. She wasn_t in Mallard anymore, but somehow, the town wouldn_t leave her. Even now at Venice Beach, she pictured sunbathers laughing as soon as she tugged off her shirt. Snickering at Reese, too, wondering what on earth is he doing with that black thing? That night, when they came home from the beach, Reese slid on top of her and she asked if she could flip on the light. He laughed a little, burrowing his face into her neck. _Why?_ he murmured. _Because,_ she said, _I want to see you._ He stilled for a moment, then he rolled off her. _Well, I don_t want you to,_ he said. For the first time in weeks, he slept on the couch. He came back to bed the next night but she still remembered the loneliness of sleeping without him, only a wall apart. Sometimes she felt as if that wall had never quite fallen. She never felt what she wanted to feel, his skin on hers. _I_m seeing someone,_ she told her mother the next time she called. Her mother laughed. _Of course you are,_ she said. _I don_t know why you think I don_t know anything._ _He_s . . ._ Jude paused. _He_s nice, Mama. He_s so sweet to me. But he_s not like other boys._ _What you mean?_ She thought, for a second, about telling her mother Reese_s story. Instead, she just said, _He keeps me out._ _Well,_ her mother said, _I_m sorry to tell you but he_s just like other boys. Exactly like all the rest of _em._ The door unlocked, and Reese shuffled inside, tossing his jacket on the back of the chair. He smiled as he walked past, reaching over to stroke her ankle. _Jude?_ her mother said. _You still there?_ _Yes ma_am,_ she said. _I_m here._ _ A JOB. She would find a new job. The answer seemed so simple once it arrived one night as she watched Reese climb out of bed in his sweaty T-shirt. He wanted a new chest. Carried in his wallet a worn business card from Dr. Jim Cloud, a plastic surgeon with an office on Wilshire. Dr. Cloud, a patron at Mirage, had worked on friends of friends, but his price was steep. Three thousand dollars cash up front. Fair, if you thought about the risks he was incurring even performing such procedures. The medical board could revoke his license, shutter his practice, call for his arrest. The shadiness unnerved Jude, although Reese insisted the doctor was legit. Still, she_d done the math, unfurling the faded gray sock in his drawer and dumping the crumpled bills onto the bedspread. Two hundred dollars. He would never save enough by himself. _I need a new job,_ she told Barry. Autumn had arrived, along with the Santa Ana winds. At night, angry hot gusts rattled their windowpanes. They were celebrating Barry_s thirtieth birthday, everyone crowded in his apartment. Barry shrugged, running a hand over his shaven head. _Well, don_t look at me,_ he said. He was on his third martini and already fresh. _I need a new job too. Those white people don_t hardly pay me as it is._ _You know what I mean,_ she said. _A real job. One that pays real money._ _I wish I could help, sweet thing, but I don_t know nobody who_s hiring. Well, my cousin Scooter drives a catering van but you don_t wanna do nothing like that, do you?_ Scooter picked her up the next afternoon in an old silver van that read, in peeling purple cursive, CARLA_S CATERING. Inside, the van was crumbling, a chunk of yellow foam gaping from the passenger_s seat, the roof cloth hanging like a canopy, a faded air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. Not much to look at, but the fridge worked, Scooter said, thumbing at the wall separating the cooled food. He was lanky like Barry but yellower, wearing a purple Lakers cap. _Let me tell you,_ he said, _don_t believe none of what you hear about the economy and all that. It don_t matter one bit. White folks always wanna throw a party._ He laughed, the van lurching onto Fairfax, and she quickly reached for her seat belt. He drove with an arm hanging out the window, chatting amiably the whole time, always starting midway into a conversation as if he were responding to a question she hadn_t actually asked. _Yeah, I had my own spot once,_ he said. _Nice little joint, off Crenshaw. But I couldn_t hang it. Never been all that good with money, you know. I get a penny, I spend a penny, you know how that go. I was good with the food but I ain_t no businessman, that_s for sure. But it turned out all right. Now I_m Carla_s right-hand man._ Carla Stewart, he explained, as they crawled along the Pacific Coast Highway toward Malibu, was tough but fair. You had to be both if you were a woman in the food world. She_d built the catering company after her husband died. A smart business in a city where there was never a shortage of people wanting to host events while exerting as little effort as possible. He tossed a black polo shirt onto her lap. _You gotta put this on,_ he said. When she hesitated, he laughed. _Not now, when we get inside! I ain_t no pervert. Don_t worry, Barry said you like a little sister to him and he better not hear I tried to flirt with you or nothin._ It was the nicest thing Barry had ever said about her, and of course, he never intended her to hear it. _Barry_s funny,_ she said. _He is,_ Scooter said. _He_s a funny boy, but I love him. I love him all the same._ Did Scooter know about Bianca? Barry prided himself on his ability to keep his lives separate. _It_s like the Good Book says,_ he told her once, _don_t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing._ He was Bianca on two Saturday nights a month, and otherwise, he pushed her out of sight, even though he thought about her, shopped for her, planned for her eventual return. Barry went to faculty meetings and family reunions and church, Bianca always lingering on the edge of his mind. She had her role to play and Barry had his. You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge. _ _WHERE YOU BEEN?_ Reese asked when she climbed into bed that night. He sounded worried; she never stayed out late without calling. But she_d catered a party for a real estate agent who_d sold homes to Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch. She_d wandered through the house, admiring the long white couches and marble countertops and the giant glass windows that faded into a view of the beach. She couldn_t imagine living like this_hanging on a cliff, exposed by glass. But maybe the rich didn_t feel a need to hide. Maybe wealth was the freedom to reveal yourself. The party had ended at one and she_d had to clean up after. By the time Scooter dropped her back off, the morning sky was tinting lavender. _Malibu,_ she said. _What you doin all the way out there?_ _I got a new job,_ she said. _With this catering company. Barry helped me find it._ _Why?_ he said. _I thought you said you were gonna focus on school._ She couldn_t tell him the real reason; he didn_t even like her to pay for dinner, always reaching for his wallet as soon as the check came. He would never agree to let her pay for an expensive surgery. And what if he misunderstood? What if he thought she wanted him to have the surgery because she wanted him to change? She could never tell him, not until she_d saved so much money that he would be foolish to refuse it. She slid into the crook of his arm, touching his face. _I just thought it_d be nice to have some extra cash,_ she said, _that_s all._ _ THAT SEMESTER, she thought of bodies. Once a week, she sat on the edge of the bathtub, holding a hypodermic needle while Reese rolled up his plaid boxers. On the counter, a glass vial filled with a liquid that was yellowy clear like chardonnay. He still hated needles; he never looked when she flicked the tip before squeezing the fat part of his thigh. Okay, she always whispered after, sorry that she_d hurt him. Each month, he paid out of pocket for a vial small enough to fit in his palm. She barely understood how hormones worked, so on a whim, she enrolled in an anatomy class that she enjoyed far more than she_d expected. The rote memorization that bored the rest of the class thrilled her. She left flash cards labeled with body parts strewn all over the apartment: phalanges by the bathroom sink, deltoids on the kitchen table, dorsal metacarpal veins squeezed between couch cushions. Her favorite organ was the heart. She was the first person in her class to properly dissect the sheep heart. It was the most difficult dissection, the professor said, because the heart isn_t perfectly symmetrical but so close to it that you cannot tell which side is which. You have to orient the heart correctly to find the vessels. _You really must experience the heart with your hands,_ he told the class. _I know it_s slippery but don_t be shy. You have to use your fingers to feel your way through the dissection._ At night, she placed her flash cards on Reese to quiz herself. He stretched out on the couch, reading a novel, trying to remain still while she propped a card against his arm. She traced a finger along his biceps, chanting the Latin terms to herself quietly until he tugged her into his lap. Skin tissue and muscles and nerves, bone and blood. A body could be labeled but a person couldn_t, and the difference between the two depended on that muscle in your chest. That beloved organ, not sentient, not aware, not feeling, just pumping along, keeping you alive. _ IN PACIFIC PALISADES, she carried platters of bacon-wrapped dates around a mixer for booking agents. In Studio City, she served cocktails at the birthday party of an aging game-show host. In Silver Lake, a guitarist hovered over her shoulder to ensure that the crab salad was made from real crab, not imitation. By the end of her first month, she could pour a martini without measuring. At the laundromat, she found crushed water crackers in her pockets. She could never wash the smell of olives off her hands. _Why don_t you see if the library_s hiring again?_ Reese said. _Why?_ _Because you_re always gone. I barely see you anymore._ _I_m not gone that much._ _Too much for me._ _It_s better money, baby,_ she said, wrapping her arms around him. _And I get to see the city. More fun than being stuck in some old library all day._ She worked jobs from Ventura to Huntington Beach, Pasadena to Bel Air. In Santa Monica, she carried a tray of oysters through the home of a record producer, pausing in the foyer to admire the pool that spilled endlessly toward the skyline. From here, Mallard felt farther away than ever. Maybe, in time, she would forget it. Push it away, bury it deep inside herself, until she only thought of it as a place she_d heard about, not a place where she_d once lived. _I just don_t like it,_ her mother told her. _You oughta be focusin on your studies, not servin white folks. I didn_t send you all the way to California to do that._ But it wasn_t the same, not really. She wasn_t her grandmother, cleaning after the same family for years. She didn_t wipe the snotty noses of children, she didn_t listen to wives complain about cheating husbands as she mopped the floor, she didn_t take in laundry until her home crowded with other people_s dirty underwear. There was no intimacy here. She swept through their parties, carrying trays of food, and never saw them again. Late one night, she lay in bed holding Reese, too hot to fall asleep so close to him but unable to let go. _What you thinkin about?_ he asked. _Oh, I don_t know,_ she said. _Just this house in Venice. You know they had centralized air? And didn_t even need it. So close to the beach, they could just crack open a window and cool down. But I guess that_s how rich folks are._ He laughed and then climbed out of bed to bring her a cup of ice. He slipped a cube through her lips and she swirled the ice around her mouth, surprised by how normal this all felt. Months ago, she couldn_t even admit that she had a crush on Reese, and now she was lying naked in his bed, chewing ice. She peeked through the blinds at a police helicopter whirring overhead and turned back to find him staring. _What?_ she said, laughing. _Stop that._ He was still wearing a T-shirt and boxers, and she suddenly felt self-conscious, tugging the sheet over her breasts. _Stop what?_ he said. _Looking at me like that._ _But I like looking at you._ _Why?_ _Because,_ he said, _you_re nice to look at._ She scoffed, turning back to the window. He didn_t mind that she was dark, maybe, but he couldn_t possibly like it. Nobody could. _I hate when you do that,_ he said. _What?_ _Act like I_m lying,_ he said. _I ain_t those people back home. Sometimes you act like you_re still back there. But you_re not, baby. We_re new people here._ He_d told her once that California got its name from a dark-skinned queen. He_d seen a mural of her in San Francisco. She hadn_t believed him until he showed her a photograph he_d taken and there the dark queen was, seated at the top of the ceiling. Flanked by a tribe of female warriors, looking so regal and imposing that Jude was heartbroken to discover that she wasn_t even real. She was a character from a popular Spanish novel, an art history book said, about a fictional island ruled by a black Amazon queen. Like all colonizers, the conquistadors wrote their fiction into reality, their myths transforming into history. What remained was California, a place that still felt like a mythical island. She was in the middle of the ocean, sealed away from everyone she_d once known, floating. _ PERHAPS THE STRANGEST part of that fall was that she started to dream about her father. Sometimes she was walking beside him along the street, holding his hand as they passed through a busy intersection; she jolted awake as the cars whizzed past. Other times, he was pushing her on a playground swing, her legs stretching in front of her. In one dream, he was walking in front of her on a track, and she ran to catch up but could never reach him. She awoke, gasping. _You_re shaking,_ Reese whispered, pulling her closer. _It was just a dream,_ she said. _About what?_ _My daddy._ She paused. _I don_t even know why. We haven_t talked in so long. I used to think he_d come looking for me. He_s not even a good man. But part of me still wants him to find me. Isn_t that stupid?_ _No._ He was staring up at the ceiling. _It_s not stupid at all. I ain_t talk to my folks in seven years but I still think about them. My mama used to like my pictures. She showed everybody in church. I took so many photos of her but I left them behind. I left everything._ _What happened?_ she said. _I mean, why_d you leave?_ _Oh, it_s a long story._ _Then tell me some of it. Please._ He was quiet a long moment, then he told her that his father had caught him fooling around with his sister_s friend. He_d been home alone, pretending to be sick while his family went to a tent revival, rifling instead through his father_s closet. He tried on crisp dress shirts, practiced Windsor knots, walked around in slick leather wingtips. He had just splashed himself with cologne when Tina Jenkins appeared on the lawn and tapped on the windowpane. What was he doing? Was he in some type of play? His costume wasn_t bad, he just needed to do something with his hair. She_d pinned his ponytail to the back of his neck. _There,_ she said. _Now you look more mannish, see? What_s the play? And do you have anything to drink?_ He ignored the first question and tended to the second. Later, Tina would tell her parents that the gin made her do it. The gin that he_d poured in two big glasses, replacing his mother_s Seagram with water. She did not tell her parents that she_d kissed him first, or that they_d only stopped because his family had come home early. _My daddy had one of those belts with the big silver buckle,_ he said. _He told me if I wanted to be a man, he_d treat me like one._ She clenched her eyes. _I_m so sorry,_ she said. _Long time ago._ _I don_t care,_ she said. _It wasn_t right. He had no right to do that to you__ _I used to think about drivin down to El Dorado,_ he said. _Tell him to try me now. It ain_t right to feel that way about your own daddy. Chokes me, like I can_t even breathe through it. Then other times, I think about just walkin around town. No one recognizin me. It_d be like showin up to your own funeral. Just watchin life go on without you. Maybe I knock on the door. Say, Hi Mama, but she_d know already. Even though I look different, she_d still know me._ _You could do it,_ she said. _You could go back._ _Would you go with me?_ _I_d go anywhere with you,_ she said. He kissed her, pushing up her shirt, and she reached unthinkingly for his. He stiffened, and she shrank when he pulled away. But he disappeared into the bathroom, and when he came back out, he was shirtless, bending over her in the bandage wrapped around his chest. _I need it,_ he said. _Okay,_ she said. _Okay._ She pulled him on top of her, her fingers trailing up his smooth back, touching skin and skin and cotton. _ FROM THE BEGINNING, Reese Carter had thought about the end. Like when he_d first arrived in Los Angeles_homeless, shorn like a baby lamb, already imagining himself leaving a city that would certainly destroy him. Or when he first saw Jude Winston at a Halloween party, a party that he_d only attended because a boy he spotted for at the gym invited him and he thought, hell, why not. She was standing alone, fidgeting with her skirt, dark as anything he_d ever seen and pretty enough that he felt like a heavy hand was pinning him to that couch. Leave it alone, Reese. Easy now. He already knew how that would end, how she would leave him once she reached for his lap and only felt him pushing away. In the beginning, he never thought about staying in Los Angeles. He_d only wanted to put as many miles between himself and El Dorado as possible. He would_ve kept going into the ocean, if he could. For weeks, he_d spent his nights touching men in dark alleys, sometimes using his mouth, which he hated, although those men were kinder after, more grateful. They pet his head and called him a pretty boy. He carried his father_s hunting knife as protection, and sometimes, glancing up at those heads thrown back against the wall, he imagined slicing their bobbing throats. Instead, he pocketed their crumpled bills and searched for shelter, sleeping on park benches or beneath freeway overpasses, which reminded him, strangely, of camping with his father. Sitting on a hollowed log, watching his daddy slice open a rabbit with a knife he told Reese to never touch. A knife handed down from his own father, a knife he would have passed on to his son, if he_d had one, which was why, when Reese left, he took it. He met men to touch at nightclubs and bars, men who grabbed his hand as he passed through the crowds, men who foisted drinks toward him and begged him to dance. He never went to the same club twice, always terrified that someone might notice his smooth neck or small hands or the rolled-up sock in his underpants. Once, an angry white man in Westwood discovered his secret and gave him a black eye. He quickly learned the rules. To be honest about the past meant that he would be considered a liar. The only safety was in hiding. The night he met Barry, he was dizzy with hunger, sipping on a whiskey soda and almost desperate enough to follow him home. But he_d never been with a man outside of the alleys; he felt safer there in the darkness. So he told Barry no, which was why he was surprised when, later that night, Barry grabbed his arm and asked if he wanted dinner. Reese shook himself free, startled. _I fucking said no__ _I know what you said,_ Barry told him. _I_m asking if you want food. You look hungry. There_s a spot right there._ He was pointing to a late-night diner a block away. The neon sign washed the concrete in purple and blue light. Barry ordered pecan pie, and Reese ate two cheeseburgers and a basket of fries so quickly that he almost choked. He would have to pay for the meal somehow, or maybe not, he thought, feeling the knife in his pocket. Barry watched him, trailing his fork through the whipped cream. _How old are you?_ he said. Reese wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then, feeling uncivilized, reached for the napkin dispenser. _Eighteen,_ he said, although he wouldn_t be for two more months. _Lord._ Barry laughed. _You a baby, you know that? I got students as old as you._ He was a teacher, he said, which was maybe why he_d decided to be kind. In another life, Reese might have been one of his students, not some boy he picked up in a nightclub. But Reese never finished high school, which he didn_t regret at first, not until he fell in love with a smart girl. School seemed like just another way she would eventually leave him behind. _So where_d you come from?_ Barry said. _Seems like everybody in this city_s from somewhere else._ _Arkansas._ _Long way, cowboy. What you doin all the way out here?_ He shrugged, dipping his fries into a puddle of ketchup. _Startin over._ _You got people out here?_ Reese shook his head. Barry lit a cigarette. His fingers were lovely and long. _You need people,_ he said. _Too big a city to be out here by yourself. You need a place to stay? Oh, don_t look at me like that. I don_t want nobody who don_t want me. I_m asking if you need a place to sleep. What, you too good for my couch?_ Reese didn_t know why he said yes. Maybe he was just sick of sleeping in abandoned buildings, stamping his feet to keep away the rats. Maybe he saw something in Barry that he trusted, or maybe he felt the knife banging against his thigh and knew that, if he had to, he could. Either way, he followed Barry home. When they stepped inside, he paused, glancing around at the wigs lining the countertops. Barry stiffened. _It_s just a thing I do sometimes,_ he said, but he touched a wig gingerly, looking so vulnerable that Reese turned away. _I_m not what you think I am,_ Reese said. _You_re a transsexual,_ Barry said. _I know exactly what you are._ Reese had never heard the word before_he hadn_t even known that there was a word to describe him. He must have looked surprised because Barry laughed. _I know plenty boys like you,_ he said. He took a step closer, eyeing him. _Of course, they all got better haircuts. You do this yourself?_ In the bathroom, he wrapped a towel around Reese_s neck and reached for his clippers. He gently pushed Reese_s head forward, and Reese closed his eyes, trying to remember the last time another man had touched him so tenderly. _ BY DECEMBER, the city had finally cooled but the sun still hung high and unnaturally bright; it felt wrong to even call it wintertime. In the catering van, Jude stuck her arm out the window, enjoying the breeze. She_d picked up a last-minute shift to work a retirement party in Beverly Hills, and the money was too good to turn down even though Reese had sulked watching her slip out the door. _I wanted to take you to dinner,_ he said. _Tomorrow, baby,_ she said. _I promise._ She_d kissed him, already imagining the tips she would pocket once the night was over. A company party was always good money. Big wigs, Scooter told her, as they coasted into Beverly Hills. The van glided up winding roads that grew more secluded until they finally reached a black iron gate. Scooter snorted. _Big money they pay to live like this,_ he said, the gate slowly creaking open. _Can you imagine?_ The next century would be like this, he told her. The rich moving away from cities, locked behind giant gates like medieval lords building moats. They drove slowly down the quiet tree-lined streets until they reached the house_a white two-story hidden behind Roman columns. Carla let them in. She rarely appeared during their jobs but the party was important and she was short-handed. _The Hardison Group is a very loyal client,_ she said, _so on our best behavior tonight, yes?_ Her mere presence made Jude jittery. She could feel Carla appraising her as she chopped celery and pureed tomatoes, as she swept through the party balancing trays of rolled prosciutto or mixed cocktails at the bar. The retiring man was Mr. Hardison_he was stocky and silver-haired, wearing a gray suit that looked expensive, his young blonde wife hanging on to his arm. The crowd, all white and middle-aged and moneyed, toasted his career and raised a glass afterward to his successor, a handsome blond man in a navy suit. A girl lingered by his side. She looked eighteen maybe, leggy with wavy blonde hair, and she wore a shimmery silver dress cut scandalously above her knees. Halfway through the party, she stepped away from the man and sauntered over to the bar, tilting her empty martini glass. _I_m not supposed to serve anyone under twenty-one,_ Jude said. The girl laughed, pressing a hand against her collar. _Well, I_m twenty-one then,_ she said. Her eyes were so blue, they looked violet. She tipped her glass again. _This party_s a drag anyway. Of course I need a drink._ _Your dad doesn_t care?_ The girl glanced over her shoulder, back to the handsome man. _Of course not,_ she said. _He_s too busy trying to distract himself from the fact that Mother isn_t here. Isn_t that something? I came all the way in from school because he got some big promotion, and she couldn_t even bother to show up. Now isn_t that a bitch?_ She wiggled the glass again. She clearly didn_t plan on leaving until she got her way, so Jude poured her a fresh drink. The girl turned toward the party, slipping the olive through her pink lips. _So do you like being a bartender?_ she asked. _I bet you get to meet all sorts of fascinating people._ _I_m not a bartender. Not all the time. I_m a student mostly._ Then Jude added, a little too proudly, _At UCLA._ The girl raised an eyebrow. _How funny,_ she said. _I go to Southern California. Guess we_re rivals._ It wasn_t hard to tell which part seemed funny to her: that a stranger happened to attend her crosstown rival or that the black girl serving drinks had, somehow, managed to attend a school like UCLA. A white man in a tweed jacket asked for wine and Jude uncorked the bottle of merlot, hoping the girl might leave. But as she began to pour, she heard exclamations filtering in from the foyer. The girl turned to her glumly. _Fun_s over,_ she said, and drained her martini in a gulp. Then she set her empty glass on the bar and started toward the entrance, where a woman had just walked in. Mr. Hardison was helping her out of her fur coat, and when she turned, passing a hand through her dark hair, the bottle of wine shattered on the floor. Part III HEARTLINES (1968) Seven T he night one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, a notice was pinned to the front door of every house in the Palace Estates, calling for an emergency Homeowners Association meeting. The Estates, the newest subdivision in Brentwood, had only called one emergency meeting before, when the treasurer was accused of embezzling dues, so that night, the neighbors gathered in the clubhouse, whispering hotly, expecting the hint of a scandal. What they did not expect was this: current president Percy White standing in front of the room, his face beet red as he delivered regretful news. The Lawsons on Sycamore Way were selling their house and a colored man had just placed an offer to buy it. The room sputtered to life, and Percy threw up his hands, suddenly finding himself in front of a firing squad. _Just the messenger,_ he kept saying, although no one could hear him. Dale Johansen asked what the hell was the point of having a Homeowners Association if not to prevent such a thing from happening. Tom Pearson, determined to outbluster him, threatened to withhold his dues if the association did not start doing their jobs. Even the women were upset, or perhaps, especially the women were upset. They did not shout like the men but each had made a certain sacrifice in marrying a man who could afford a home in the most expensive new subdivision in Los Angeles County and she expected a return on that investment. Cath Johansen asked how they ever expected to keep the neighborhood safe now, and Betsy Roberts, an economics major at Bryn Mawr before she_d married, complained that their property values would plummet. But years later, the neighbors would only remember one person speaking up in the meeting, a single voice that had, somehow, risen above the noise. She hadn_t yelled_maybe that_s why they_d listened. Or perhaps because she was ordinarily so soft-spoken, everyone knew that if she was standing to her feet in the middle of a raucous meeting, she must have had something urgent to say. Or maybe it was because her family currently lived on Sycamore Way, in a cul-de-sac across from the Lawsons, so the new neighbors would affect her most directly. Whatever the reason, the room quieted when Stella Sanders climbed to her feet. _You must stop them, Percy,_ she said. _If you don_t, there_ll be more and then what? Enough is enough!_ She was trembling, her light brown eyes flashing, and the neighbors, moved by her spontaneous passion, applauded. She never spoke up in their meetings and hadn_t even known that she would until she_d already clambered to her feet. For a second, she_d almost said nothing_she hated feeling everyone watch her, had wanted to run shrinking at her own wedding. But her shy, faltering voice only gripped the room more. After the meeting, she couldn_t even make it out the door without neighbors wanting to shake her hand. Weeks later, yellow flyers flapping on trees and light posts read in big block letters: PROTECT OUR NEIGHBORHOOD. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. When she found one stuck in the windshield of her car, she was startled to see her own words reflected back to her, as foreign as if they_d come from a stranger. _ FOR WHAT IT_S WORTH, Blake Sanders had been as surprised as anyone that his wife had spoken in that meeting. She wasn_t one for demonstrating. He_d never seen her riled up enough about any issue to do more than sign a petition, and even then it was usually because she was too polite to shove a clipboard back into some college kid_s face like he would_ve done. Sure, he wanted to keep the planet clean. He thought the war was rotten. But that didn_t mean that screaming in the faces of decent, hardworking people was the right way to go about any of it. But Stella indulged these idealists, listened to their speeches, signed their petitions, all because she was too sweet to tell them to bug off. Yet here she was now, somehow, as fervent as any of those young protesters in the middle of the association meeting. He could have laughed. His shy Stella making a scene! Although maybe he shouldn_t have been surprised. A woman protecting her home came from a place more primal than politics. Besides, in all the time he_d known her, she_d never spoken kindly of a Negro. It embarrassed him a little, to tell the truth. He respected the natural order of things but you didn_t have to be cruel about it. As a boy, he_d had a colored nanny named Wilma who was practically family. He still sent her a Christmas card each year. But Stella wouldn_t even hire colored help for the house_she claimed Mexicans worked harder. He never understood why she averted her gaze when an old Negro woman shuffled past on the sidewalk, why she was always so curt with the elevator operators. She was jumpy around Negroes, like a child who_d been bit by a dog. That night, as they slipped out of the clubhouse, he smiled, offering his arm to her cheekily. It was a brisk April night. They passed slowly under the jacaranda trees beginning to bloom lavender over their heads. _I didn_t know I_d married such a rabble-rouser,_ he said. He was a banker_s son who_d left Boston to attend college, he_d told her when they first met, although he didn_t mention then that the bank at which his father was an executive was Chase National, and the college he_d left to attend, Yale. She would later realize that these were signs that he truly came from wealth: how rarely he wore expensive clothes even though he could afford to, how little he talked about his father or his inheritance. He_d studied finance and marketing, and instead of heading to Madison Avenue, he_d followed his fianc?e back to her hometown of New Orleans. The relationship fizzled, but by then he_d fallen in love with the city. That_s how he_d ended up working in the marketing department at Maison Blanche, and that was why he was hiring her, Stella Vignes, as his new secretary. Even after eight years of marriage, Stella still felt a little squeamish when people asked how they_d met. A boss, his secretary, a tale as old as time. It made you picture a greasy-haired potbelly in suspenders chasing a young girl around his desk. _I wasn_t some old lech,_ Blake had said once, laughing, at a dinner party, and it was true. He was twenty-eight then, hard-jawed with ruffled blond hair and blueish-gray eyes like Paul Newman. And maybe that was what made his attention different. Back then, she_d withered when a white man noticed her. Under Blake_s gaze, she_d blossomed. _Did I make a fool out of myself?_ she asked later. She was sitting in front of her vanity, brushing out her hair. Blake eased behind her, unbuttoning his white shirt. _Of course not,_ he said. _But it_ll never happen, Stel. I don_t know why everyone_s getting all worked up._ _But you saw Percy up there. He looked plumb scared._ Blake laughed. _I love when you say things like that._ _Like what?_ _Your country talk._ _Oh, don_t make fun. Not right now._ _I_m not! I think it_s cute._ He stooped to kiss her cheek, and in the mirror, she watched his fair head bend over her dark one. Did she look as nervous as she felt? Would anybody be able to tell? A colored family in the neighborhood. Blake was right, it would never happen. The association would put a stop to it. They had lawyers on hand for such a thing, didn_t they? What was the purpose of having an association if not to stop undesirables from moving in, if not to ensure the neighborhood exists precisely as the neighbors wished? She tried to steady that flutter in her stomach but she couldn_t. She_d been caught before. Only once, the second time she_d ever pretended to be white. During her last summer in Mallard, weeks after venturing into the charm shop, she_d gone to the South Louisiana Museum of Art on an ordinary Saturday morning, not Negro Day, and walked right up to the main entrance, not the side door where Negroes lined up in the alley. Nobody stopped her, and again, she_d felt stupid for not trying this sooner. There was nothing to being white except boldness. You could convince anyone you belonged somewhere if you acted like you did. In the museum, she_d glided slowly through the rooms, studying the fuzzy Impressionists. She was listening distractedly as an elderly docent intoned to a circle of listless children, when she noticed a Negro security guard in the corner of the room staring. Then he_d winked, and, horrified, she rushed past him, head down, barely breathing until she stepped back into the bright morning. She rode the bus back to Mallard, her face burning. Of course passing wasn_t that easy. Of course that colored guard recognized her. We always know our own, her mother said. And now a colored family moving across the street. Would they see her for what she was? Or rather, what she wasn_t? Blake kissed the back of her neck, slipping his hand inside her robe. _Don_t worry about it, honey,_ he said. _The association will never allow it._ _ IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, her daughter woke up screaming, and Stella stumbled into the girl_s room to find her in the throes of another nightmare. She crawled into the tiny bed, gently shaking her awake. _I know, I know,_ she said, dabbing at her tears. Her own heart was still pounding, although by now, she should have been used to scrambling out of bed, following her daughter_s screams, always fearing the worst, only to find Kennedy twisted in her covers, clenching the sheets. The pediatrician said that nothing was physically wrong; the sleep specialist said that children with overactive imaginations were prone to vivid dreams. It probably just meant that she was an artist, he_d said with a chuckle. The child psychologist examined her drawings and asked what she dreamt about. But Kennedy, only seven, never remembered, and Blake dismissed the doctors as a waste of money. _She must get it from your side,_ he told Stella. _A good Sanders girl would be out like a light._ She told him that she used to have nightmares when she was young, too, and she never remembered them either. But that last part wasn_t true. Her nightmares were always the same, white men grabbing her ankles and dragging her screaming out of the bed. She_d never told Desiree. Each time she_d snapped awake, Desiree snoring beside her, she felt stupid for being afraid. Hadn_t Desiree watched from that closet too? Hadn_t she seen what those white men had done? Then why wasn_t she waking up in the middle of the night, her heart pounding? They never talked about their father. Whenever Stella tried, Desiree_s eyes glazed over. _What you want me to say?_ she said. _I know just as much as you do._ _I just wish I knew why,_ Stella said. _Nobody knows why,_ Desiree said. _Bad things happen. They just do._ Now Stella gently brushed back the silken blonde hair from her daughter_s forehead. _It_s all right, darling,_ she whispered. _Go back to sleep._ She held her daughter closer, pulling the covers over the both of them. She hadn_t wanted to be a mother at first. The idea of pregnancy terrified her; she imagined pushing out a baby that grew darker and darker, Blake recoiling in horror. She almost preferred him thinking that she_d had an affair with a Negro. That lie seemed kinder than the truth, momentary unfaithfulness a gentler deception than her ongoing fraud. But after she_d given birth, she felt overwhelmed with relief. The newborn in her arms was perfect: milky skin, wavy blonde hair, and eyes so blue they looked violet. Still, sometimes, Kennedy felt like a daughter who belonged to someone else, a child Stella was borrowing while she loaned a life that never should have been hers. _Where are you from, Mommy?_ Kennedy asked her once during bath time. She was nearly four then and inquisitive. Stella, kneeling beside the tub, gently wiped her daughter_s shoulders with a washcloth and glanced into those violet eyes, unsettling and beautiful, so unlike the eyes of anyone else she_d ever known. _A little town down south,_ Stella said. _You won_t have heard of it._ She always spoke to Kennedy like this, as if she were another adult. All the baby books recommended it, said it helped with developing language skills. But really, she just felt silly babbling like Blake. _But where?_ Kennedy asked. Stella poured warm water over her, the bubbles dissolving. _It_s just a little place called Mallard, darling,_ she said. _It_s nothing like Los Angeles._ She_d been, for the first and final time, completely honest with her daughter, only because she knew the girl was too young to remember. Later, Stella would lie. She_d tell Kennedy, as she_d told everyone, that she was from Opelousas, and beyond that, she would barely talk about her childhood at all. But Kennedy still asked. Her questions always felt like a surprise attack, as if she were pressing her finger into a bruise. What was it like when you were growing up? Did you have brothers and sisters? What did your house look like? Once, during bedtime, she asked Stella what her mother was like and Stella nearly dropped the storybook. _She_s not here anymore,_ she finally said. _But where is she?_ _Gone,_ she said. _My family is gone._ She_d told Blake the same lie years ago in New Orleans: that she was an only child who_d moved to New Orleans after her parents died in an accident. He_d touched her hand and she saw herself, suddenly, through his eyes. A lowly orphan, alone in the city. If he pitied her, he wouldn_t be able to see her clearly. He would refract all of her lies through her mourning, mistake her reticence about her past for grief. Now what began as a lie felt closer to the truth. She hadn_t spoken to her sister in thirteen years. Where was Desiree now? How was their mother? She_d slid the book back on the shelf before she even reached the end, and later that night, brushing her teeth, she heard Blake speaking to Kennedy. _Mommy doesn_t like talking about her family,_ he murmured. _It makes her sad._ _But why?_ _Because. They aren_t here anymore. So don_t ask her anything else, okay?_ In Blake_s mind, her life before him had been tragic, her whole family swallowed up. She preferred him to think of her that way. Blank. A curtain hung between her past and present and she could never peek behind it. Who knows what might scuttle through? _ A COLORED FAMILY in the neighborhood. It would never happen. And yet, the morning after the association meeting, Stella floated for hours in her swimming pool, still thinking about it. Clouds drifted overhead, rain, maybe, on the way. She wore a red bathing suit that matched her plastic raft, and she was sipping on a gin and soda that she_d poured secretly as soon as she_d seen her daughter off to school and hoped, sipping again, that it looked like water to Yolanda, bustling around in the kitchen. Obviously it was too early for gin, but she was trying to steady that uneasiness creeping inside her since last night. Blake said that there was no chance the bid for the Lawson house would be approved, but why would Percy have even called the meeting unless it was possible? Why had he looked so shaken, standing in the front of the room, as if he_d already known that there was nothing he could do? The country was changing every day, she read all about the marches in the newspapers. Restrooms and universities and public pools desegregating, which was why when they_d first moved to Brentwood, Blake insisted on building one in the backyard. A private pool seemed too lavish to her, but Blake said, _You don_t want Ken in the city pool, do you? Swimming around with whoever they let in there now._ He_d grown up in Boston, swimming in whites-only pools. She_d swum in the river or, occasionally, at the Gulf beach where the white lifeguards instructed them to keep to the colored side of the red flag. Of course the water mixed from one side to another, and if you peed on the colored side_which Desiree, giggling, always threatened to do_it would eventually make its way to the white side. But Stella agreed that Blake was right, they couldn_t send their daughter to a city pool. The only solution was to build their own. Over the years, she_d come to appreciate the pool and everything else Blake insisted they needed in Los Angeles: her red Thunderbird, her maid, Yolanda, and all the other little creature comforts he provided. She loved that phrase, loved imagining comfort as a plush Pomeranian curling around her ankles. Before Blake, she_d never felt comfortable. She didn_t realize this until after she_d met him, marveling as he ordered an entire steak for himself, remembering the nights she_d fallen asleep, her stomach hollowed. Or watching Blake try to decide between two neckties and, in the end, purchasing both, when she used to walk to school, toes cramped against her shoes. Or stepping into the kitchen to see Yolanda polishing the silverware, when, years earlier, she_d been staring at her own reflection in the Duponts_ forks. Back then, she was responsible for cleaning a home filled with expensive things that she would never be able to afford. Picking up after those bratty boys and dodging Mr. Dupont, who followed her into the pantry, shut the door, and stuck his hand up her dress. Three times he_d touched her and himself too, panting, his breath thick with brandy, while she tried to get away, but the pantry was too small and he was too strong, pressing her against the shelves. Then it was over, as quick as it started. Soon her fear of him became worse than the touching. All the days she worried that he might creep up behind her ruined the ones when he didn_t. After the first time, she_d asked Desiree, that night in bed, what she thought of him. _What_s there to think about him?_ Desiree said. _He_s just a skinny ol_ white man. Why? What you think about him?_ Even in their darkened bedroom, even to Desiree, Stella couldn_t bring herself to say. She always wanted to believe that there was something special about her but she knew that Mr. Dupont only picked her because he sensed her weakness. She was the twin who wouldn_t tell. And she didn_t. Her whole life, she would never tell anyone. But when Desiree came up with the plan to leave after Founder_s Day, Stella felt Mr. Dupont shoving her against the pantry shelf and knew she had to go too. In New Orleans, when Desiree began to waver, Stella felt his fingers worming inside her underwear and found the strength to stay for the both of them. But that was a lifetime ago. She slipped a toe over the edge of her raft, skimming her foot along the water. Now this was comfort_a languid morning spent floating across a swimming pool, a two-story house with cabinets always filled with food, a chestful of toys for her daughter, a bookshelf that held an entire encyclopedia set. This was comfort, no longer wanting anything. She was growing sleepy in the midmorning haze, lulled by gin, so she forced herself out of the water. When she padded, still dripping, onto the kitchen tile, Yolanda glanced up from dusting the dining-room furniture. Her feet were still damp, and she realized, a moment too late, that Yolanda had already mopped. _I_m sorry,_ she said. _Look at me, dirtying your floor._ She still spoke to Yolanda like this sometimes, as if Stella were the visitor in her home instead of the other way around. Yolanda only smiled. _It_s okay, miss,_ she said. _Your tea._ Stella sipped her sweet tea, the towel draping lazily across her shoulders, as she headed to the shower. At least the pool would be good exercise, she_d told herself at first. But most mornings, she didn_t swim at all, only floated on the raft. On the best mornings, she floated with a cocktail, sipping slowly as she drifted beneath the sunrise. It felt deliciously wrong, enjoying a drink so early, but at the same time, it was pitiful that this passed as excitement. Her days blended together, refracting each other, as if she were trapped in a hall of mirrors like the one Desiree once led her to at a fair. As soon as they_d entered, she_d skittered off, Stella calling hopelessly after her. At one point, she_d seen Desiree behind her, but when she turned, no one was there. She was only staring at her own face reflected strangely back to her. Life felt like this now, her days duplicating one another, but how could she complain? Not to Blake, who_d worked so hard in New Orleans and Boston, until he_d earned the attention of a firm in Los Angeles, of all places, a major international market. He worked endless hours, traveled constantly, fell asleep in bed studying colorful charts. Her days probably seemed like a dream to him, especially if he knew how little she actually did. How often the cakes she iced when he arrived home came from a box, how the sheets he climbed into at night were washed by Yolanda, how even her daughter_s life sometimes seemed like another area of the household she_d delegated to someone else. That afternoon, she sat in the multipurpose room at Brentwood Academy, slowly trailing her celery sticks through ranch. At the head of the room, Betsy Roberts was scribbling down volunteers for the spring dance. Stella knew she should raise her hand_when_s the last time she_d volunteered to do more than bring a punch bowl?_but instead, she stared out the window at the perfectly manicured lawn. She always grew listless during these meetings, listening to debates about which color streamers to hang. Which flavor brownies to bake, which end-of-the-year gift to give to Principal Stanley. God, if she had to listen to another conversation about some kid she didn_t know_how Tina J. stole the stage at the talent show or Bobby R. won the tee ball game or any other number of inane accomplishments. Her daughter never managed to accomplish anything special, but even if she did, Stella, at least, had the decency not to force everyone to hear about it. She knew what the other mothers thought of her_there goes that Stella Sanders, a snooty you-know-what. Well, fine, let them think that. She needed to keep her distance. Even after all these years, she still felt nervous around white women, running out of small talk as soon as she opened her mouth. When the meeting wrapped up, Cath Johansen scooted over and thanked Stella for speaking up last night. _It_s high time someone stood up for what_s right,_ Cath said. The Johansens were native Angelenos. Dale_s family owned acres of orange groves in Pasadena, and once, he_d invited her and Blake to tour the farm, as he called it, as if it were a humble little homestead, not a million-dollar estate. Stella suffered his pretentiousness only by breaking off from the group and wandering alone between the rows of trees. On the drive home, Blake suggested that she and Cath might make good friends. He was always doing that, trying to coax her further outside herself. But she felt safe like this, locked away. _ A WEEK AFTER the association meeting, Stella started to see the signs that her worst fear had come true. First, the literal one: a red SOLD sign on the Lawsons_ lawn. She didn_t know the Lawsons well; she rarely spoke to them, beyond the expected pleasantries at the neighborhood potluck, but she still forced herself to wave down Deborah Lawson in her driveway one morning. Deborah glanced back at her, harried, as she ushered her two tow-headed boys into the backseat of her sedan. _The new family,_ Stella said. _Are they nice people?_ _Oh, I don_t know,_ Deborah said. _I haven_t met them. The broker handles all that._ But she wouldn_t look directly at Stella the whole time, brushing past her to climb into the car, so Stella knew that she was lying. Later, she would learn the full story about Hector Lawson_s gambling problem, which submerged his family in debt. Half the neighbors would pity him, the other half blaming his irresponsibility for their current predicament. You might feel sorry for a man who_d lost so much, but not when his bad luck hurt the entire neighborhood. Still, Stella held out hope that her suspicions were wrong, until Blake came home from racquetball, wiping his sweaty face with his T-shirt, and told her that the association had rolled over. _The colored fellow threatened to sue if he wasn_t let in,_ Blake said. _Hired a big lawyer too. Got old Percy running scared._ He noticed her fallen face and squeezed her hip. _Aw, don_t look like that, Stel. It_ll be fine. I bet they won_t last a month here. They_ll see they_re not wanted._ _But there_ll be more after them__ _Not if they can_t afford it. Fred told me the man paid for that house in cash. He_s a different breed._ He almost sounded as if he admired the man. But what type of person threatened to sue his way into a neighborhood where he would not be welcomed? Why would anyone insist on doing such a thing? To make a point? To make himself miserable? To end up on the nightly news like all those protesters, beaten or martyred in hopes of convincing white people to change their minds? Two weeks ago, she_d watched from the arm of Blake_s chair as cities across the country lit up in flames. A single bullet, the newscaster said, the force of the gunshot ripping off King_s necktie. Blake stared mystified at devastated Negroes running past flaming buildings. _I_ll never understand why they do that,_ he said. _Destroy their own neighborhoods._ On the local news, police officials urged calm, the city still roiling from the Watts riots three years ago. She_d stepped into the powder room, a hand clasped over her mouth to muffle her crying. Was Desiree feeling hopeless on a night like this? Had she ever felt hopeful at all? The country was unrecognizable now, Cath Johansen said, but it looked the same as it ever had to Stella. Tom Pearson and Dale Johansen and Percy White wouldn_t storm a colored man_s porch and yank him out of his kitchen, wouldn_t stomp his hands, wouldn_t shoot him five times. These were fine people, good people, who donated to charities and winced at newsreels of southern sheriffs swinging billy clubs at colored college students. They thought King was an impressive speaker, maybe even agreed with some of his ideas. They wouldn_t have sent a bullet into his head_they might have even cried watching his funeral, that poor young family_but they still wouldn_t have allowed the man to move into their neighborhood. _We could threaten to move out,_ Dale said at dinner. He was rolling a cigarette between his fingers, peering out the window like a sentry on lookout. _How_d the association like that, huh? All of us, just up and leave._ _Why should we be the ones to leave?_ Cath said. _We_ve worked hard, paid our dues._ _It_s just a tactic,_ Dale said. _A negotiating tactic. We leverage our collective power__ _You sound like a Bolshevik,_ Blake said, smirking. Stella hugged herself. She had barely touched her wine. She wanted to think about anything other than the colored family moving in, which was, of course, the only thing that anyone could talk about. _I_m glad you_re having a big laugh about all of this,_ Dale said. _Just wait until the whole neighborhood looks like Watts._ _I_m telling you it_ll never happen,_ Blake said, leaning over to light Stella_s cigarette. _I don_t know why you all are getting so worked up._ _It better not,_ Dale said. _I_ll see to that._ She couldn_t tell what unnerved her more, picturing a colored family moving in or imagining what might be done to stop them. _ DAYS LATER, a yellow moving van crept slowly up the winding streets of the Palace Estates, halting at each intersection, in search of Sycamore Way. From her bedroom window, Stella peered through the blinds as the van parked in front of the Lawsons_ house. Three lanky colored men climbed out the back in matching purple shirts. One by one, they unloaded a leather couch; a marble vase; a long, furled rug; a giant stone elephant with a flared trunk; a slender floor lamp. An endless parade of furniture and no family in sight. Stella watched as long as she could until her daughter sidled up behind her and whispered, _What_s happening?_ As if they were playing some spy game. Stella jolted away from the blinds, suddenly embarrassed. _Nothing,_ she said. _Want to help Mommy set the table?_ After weeks of worrying, her first encounter with the new neighbors was both accidental and unremarkable. She ran into the wife early the next morning while ushering her daughter out the door for school. She was distracted, trying to balance a diorama as she locked the door, and she almost didn_t notice, at first, the pretty colored woman standing across the street. She was neat and slender, pecan-colored, her hair bobbed like one of the Supremes. She wore a goldenrod dress with a scooping neckline, and she held the hand of a little girl in a pink dress. Stella paused, clutching the shoebox diorama against her stomach. Then the woman smiled and waved, and Stella hesitated before finally lifting her hand. _Nice mornin,_ the woman called. She had a slight accent_midwestern, maybe. _Yes, it is,_ Stella said. She should introduce herself. None of the other neighbors had, but her house was right across the street_she could practically see into the woman_s living room. Instead, she nudged Kennedy toward the car. She gripped the wheel tightly during the whole drive to school, rewinding the conversation in her head. That woman_s easy smile. Why did she feel so comfortable speaking to Stella in the first place? Did she see something in her, even across the street, that she felt like she could trust? _I met the neighbor,_ she told Blake that night. _The wife._ _Mmm,_ he said, climbing into bed beside her. _Nice, at least?_ _Yes, I suppose._ _It_ll be fine, Stel,_ he said. _They_ll keep to themselves, if they know what_s best._ The room fell dark, the mattress creaking as Blake rolled over to kiss her. Sometimes when he touched her, she saw the man who_d dragged her father onto the porch, the one with the red-gold hair. Tall, gray shirt partially unbuttoned, a scab on his cheek as if he_d nicked himself while shaving. Blake pressed open her thighs and the man with the red-gold hair was on top of her_she could almost smell his sweat, see the freckles on his back. Then it was Blake_s clean Ivory soap again, his voice whispering her name. It was ridiculous_the men looked nothing alike and Blake had never hurt her. But he could, which made her grip him even tighter as she felt him sink inside. Eight T he new neighbors were Reginald and Loretta Walker, and when the news spread that Sergeant Tommy Taylor himself was moving onto Sycamore Way, even the most belligerent faltered in their protest. Sergeant Taylor was, of course, a beloved character on Frisk, the hottest police drama on television. He played the straitlaced partner of the rowdy hero, always nagging him about paperwork and protocol. _File that form!_ was his signature phrase, and for months, when Blake spied him across the cul-de-sac, he called it out to him in greeting. Reg Walker, mowing his lawn or plucking a newspaper from the driveway, always started before flashing his trademark smile, shrugging a little, as if he figured it the least offensive thing a white man might holler at him from across the street. Blake loved it, like they were in on a joke together. He couldn_t see how patiently Reg Walker tolerated him. But it always embarrassed Stella, who hurried him inside. She barely watched television at all beyond the news, and she certainly had no interest in cop shows, so when she_d learned about the Walkers, she didn_t care at all that Reg was on some program that Blake liked. Maybe the husbands would be won over by this; if they had to live next to a Negro, he might as well be a famous one. A trusted one, even, a character they never saw onscreen out of his uniform. Imagine their surprise when they first saw Reg Walker: tall, lean, his hair picked out in a short natural. He wore green plaid pants with silk shirts that hugged his broad chest. A gold watch glinted on his wrist, bouncing the sunlight as he climbed into his shiny black Cadillac. _Flashy,_ Marge Hawthorne called him, in the same dramatic way she might have said, _Dangerous._ On Friday nights, Stella watched the Walkers climb into their car, Reg wearing a black suit, Loretta draped in a royal blue dress. On their way to a party, maybe. Crowding with movie stars in a Hollywood Hills mansion, piling into a nightclub on Sunset with ballplayers. For a moment, Stella felt stupid for distrusting them. Bob Hawthorne was a dentist. Tom Pearson owned a Lincoln dealership. Perhaps, to the Walkers, the rest of them seemed like the undeserving neighbors. Glancing down at herself, already in her pajamas, she couldn_t disagree. _Well?_ Cath asked breathlessly, plopping beside her at the next PTA meeting. _What_re they like?_ Stella shrugged. _I don_t know,_ she said. _I_ve only seen them once or twice._ _I heard the husband is all right. But that wife of his is something else._ _What do you mean?_ _Well, she_s uppity as I don_t know what. Barb told me that she wants to put her daughter at our school next year. It_s crazy, if you ask me! I mean, there_s perfectly good schools all over the city with plenty of colored children. They have buses and everything._ Loretta Walker didn_t look like the type to start trouble, but what did Stella know about her at all? She kept her distance, only peeked out at her through the blinds. Reg Walker leaving for early-morning shoots in his Cadillac, Loretta wrapped in a silky green robe and waving at him from the porch. Loretta returning from the grocery store on Mondays, always Mondays, unloading her trunk. Once a tan Buick pulled into the driveway and three colored ladies piled out, carrying wine and cake. Loretta came down the driveway to greet them, laughing, her head thrown back. A big smile that made Stella smile too. When was the last time she_d seen anyone smile like that? Through her blinds, she watched the Walkers as if their lives were another program on her television set. But she never saw anything alarming until the morning when she spotted her daughter playing dolls in the cul-de-sac with the Walker girl. There was no time to think. Before she knew it, she_d stormed across the street and grabbed her daughter_s arm, both girls gaping as she dragged Kennedy back into the house. She was shaking, fumbling to lock the door behind her as her daughter whined about the doll she_d left in the street. She already knew she_d overreacted_hadn_t she played with white girls when she was Kennedy_s age? Nobody cared when you were young enough. The twins used to follow their mother to work, playing with the white girl who lived there, until one afternoon the girl_s mother had suddenly yanked her out of their circle. Stella told her daughter the same thing she_d heard that mother say. _Because we don_t play with niggers,_ she said, and maybe it was her harsh tone, or the fact that she_d never said that word to her daughter before, but that was the end of it. Or at least, she_d thought, until after dinner, when the doorbell rang and she found Loretta Walker on her welcome mat, holding Kennedy_s doll. For a moment, under the soft glow of the porch lights, hugging that blonde doll against her stomach, Loretta almost looked like a girl herself. Then she thrust the doll into Stella_s hands and walked back across the street. _ FOR THREE WEEKS, Stella avoided Loretta Walker. Forget spying out of her own curiosity_now she glanced through the blinds before fetching the mail, just to ensure that she wouldn_t run into Loretta. She went to the grocery store on Tuesdays, never Mondays, terrified that they might bump into each other down the milk aisle. So far there_d been only one accidental pileup on Sunday morning, when both couples left for their churches at the same time. The husbands had been pleasant but the wives didn_t even speak, each helping her girl into the car. _She_s not too friendly,_ Blake grumbled, backing out of the driveway, and Stella said nothing, plucking at her gloves. She had nothing to be embarrassed about, really. She_d behaved exactly as Cath Johansen or Marge Hawthorne might have. Still, she didn_t tell Blake. What if he wondered why she_d overreacted? Or thought she was behaving like the Louisiana swamp trash his mother had always said she was? He believed in a moderate country. What he wanted most, he always said, watching policemen club protesters on the news, was for everyone to get along. So he would be embarrassed, as if she weren_t enough already. Because even though she knew she hadn_t done anything wrong, she still felt sick each time she pictured Loretta standing on her porch, hugging that doll. It would_ve been better if Loretta had sworn at her. Called her a backward, small-minded bigot. But she wouldn_t. She was decent because she had to be, which only made Stella feel more ashamed. _Did you know that Walker woman sent a letter to the school?_ Cath asked her one Sunday, squeezing next to her on the pew. _A letter?_ Stella said. She felt too exhausted to keep up with Cath_s breathless innuendo. Even here, at church, she couldn_t avoid Loretta Walker. _A legal letter,_ Cath said. _From some big lawyer, saying that if they don_t let her girl come here in the fall, she_ll sue. Can you imagine that? A whole lawsuit over that one little girl? I swear, some people just love the attention__ _She doesn_t seem that way to me,_ Stella said. _And how would you know?_ Cath said. She folded her arms across her chest. Stella raised her hands, surrendering. _You_re right,_ she said. _I don_t know._ _ IN JUNE, she baked her guilt into a lemon cake with vanilla frosting. The idea arrived suddenly_before she could second-guess, she was tugging a bag of flour out of the cupboard, hunting through the refrigerator for eggs. She would go crazy skulking around her own home, glancing out the window each time she wanted to venture outside. She was tired of her stomach clenching when she imagined the Walker girl abandoned on the sidewalk by the strewn dolls, staring back at her with those big eyes. She had to apologize. She wouldn_t feel better until she did. She_d bake a cake to bring over as a housewarming gift. At least then she could be cordial to the woman. Decent. Hospitality wasn_t the same as friendliness, and if anyone asked, she would say that she_d been raised to be hospitable. Nothing more, nothing less. One lemon cake for her peace of mind felt like an easy trade. In the afternoon, she let out a deep breath before starting across the street, the cake balanced on a glass platter. The tan Buick was parked in the Walkers_ driveway. Good, Loretta was entertaining. All the easier to bring the cake, apologize, and go. Loretta answered the door in a shimmery green dress, a golden scarf draped around her neck. Already, Stella felt embarrassed in her ordinary blue dress, holding her slumping cake. _Hi there, Mrs. Sanders,_ Loretta said. She was leaning against the doorway, holding a glass of white wine. _Hello,_ Stella said. _I just wanted to__ _Why don_t you come in?_ Stella paused, not expecting this. A peal of laughter escaped the living room, and she felt a sharp pang. When was the last time she_d sat around, laughing with girlfriends? _Oh no, I couldn_t,_ she said. _You have company__ _Nonsense,_ Loretta said. _No reason for us to be talkin out here on the porch._ Stella paused in the entrance, startled by the palatial decor: the living room floor adorned with a white fur rug, a floor lamp topped by a gilded shade, the tiled vase on the mantel. Her own home was simple, a marker of good taste. Only the low class lived like this, furniture covered in gold, knickknacks crowded everywhere. On the long leather couch, three colored women sat drinking wine and listening to Aretha Franklin. _Ladies, this is Mrs. Sanders,_ Loretta said. _She lives across the street._ _Mrs. Sanders,_ one of the women said. _We_ve heard so much about you._ Stella flushed, knowing, from the women_s smiles exactly what they_d heard. Why had she agreed to come inside? No, why had she brought the cake over in the first place? Why couldn_t she just be like the rest of the neighbors and keep her distance? But it was too late now. Loretta steered her toward the kitchen, where Stella set the cake on the counter. _Would you like a drink, Mrs. Sanders?_ Loretta asked. _It_s Stella,_ she said. _And I couldn_t, I just wanted to stop by and_well, welcome you all to the neighborhood. And also, about what happened__ She hoped that Loretta might meet her halfway, spare her the shame of repeating the incident. Instead, the woman raised an eyebrow, reaching for an empty wineglass. _You sure you don_t want a drink?_ she said. _I just wanted to apologize,_ Stella said. _I don_t know what came over me. I_m not normally like that._ _Like what?_ Loretta knew exactly what she meant, but she was having too much fun toying with her. Stella blushed again. _I mean, I don_t normally__ She paused. _This is all new to me, you see._ Loretta eyed her for a second, then took a sip of wine. _You think I wanted to move here?_ she said. _But Reg got his mind set on it and by then . . ._ She trailed off, but Stella could fill in the rest. When she_d first passed over, it seemed so easy that she couldn_t believe she_d never done it before. She felt almost angry at her parents for denying it to her. If they_d passed over, if they_d raised her white, everything would have been different. No white men dragging her daddy from the porch. No laundry baskets filling the living room. She could have finished school, graduated top of her class. Maybe she would have ended up at a school like Yale, met Blake there proper. Maybe she could have been the type of girl his mother wanted him to marry. She could have had everything in her life now, but her father and mother and Desiree too. At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn_t understand why her parents hadn_t done it. But she was young then. She hadn_t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you. _Maybe the girls can play some time,_ Stella said. _There_s a nice little park one street over._ _Yes, maybe._ Loretta_s smile lingered a second too long, as if there were more she wanted to say. For a second, Stella wondered if she_d realized her secret. She almost wished Loretta had. It scared her, how badly she wanted to belong to somebody. _It_s funny,_ Loretta finally said. _What is?_ _I didn_t know what to expect when we moved here,_ Loretta said. _But I never imagined no white woman showing up in my kitchen with the most lopsided cake I ever seen._ _ LORETTA WALKER DID NOT KNOW how she_d ended up in Los Angeles. That_s how she said it, too, with an exhausted sigh, taking another drag of her cigarette. She sat on the park bench, watching the girls play on the swings. Early summer still, but the morning was already so warm, Stella dabbed at her damp forehead with a handkerchief. She_d been pushing Kennedy on the swings when the little colored girl came running into the park, Loretta trailing behind. The girl eyed Stella warily, reaching for her mother_s hand, and for a moment, Stella thought about leaving. Instead, she took a deep breath and stayed. Now Loretta gazed up moodily at the cloudless sky. _All this sun,_ she said. _Unnatural. Like being in a picture show all the time._ She was born in St. Louis, but she_d met Reg at Howard. He was a theater major, obsessed with August Wilson and Tennessee Williams; she studied history, hoped to become a professor someday. Neither had imagined that Reg would become famous for playing a boring police officer. When he_d practiced long soliloquies, impressing Loretta with his elocution, he hadn_t expected that years later, his most well-known line would be _File that form!_ _How_d you like it?_ Stella asked. _Howard. It_s a colored school, isn_t it?_ As if she hadn_t saved all the college pamphlets Mrs. Belton had given her, cracking the Howard one open so often it fell apart down the center. All those colored students lounging on the lawn, flipping through books. It seemed like a dream to her then. _Yes,_ Loretta said. _I liked it fine._ _I always wanted to go to college,_ Stella said. _You still could._ Stella laughed, gesturing around the neighborhood. _Why would I?_ _I don_t know. Because you want to?_ Loretta made it sound so simple, but Blake would laugh. A waste of time and money, he_d tell her. Besides, she_d never even finished high school. _It_s too late for all that,_ she finally said. _Well, what_s it you like to study?_ _I used to like math._ Now Loretta laughed. _Well, you must be some big brain,_ she said. _Don_t nobody just like math for fun._ But she loved the simplicity of math, a number growing or shrinking depending on which function you performed. No surprises, just one logical step leading to another. Loretta leaned forward, watching the girls play. She didn_t seem at all like the uppity wife everyone gossiped about, the one who wanted to force her way into the Brentwood Academy. She didn_t even seem like she wanted to live in Los Angeles at all. After college, she_d planned to return to Missouri, maybe earn her master_s. Then she_d fallen for Reg and gotten swept up in his dreams. _So why did you move here?_ Stella asked. _The Estates, I mean._ Loretta raised an eyebrow. _Why did you?_ _Well, the schools. It_s a nice neighborhood, don_t you think? Clean. Safe._ She gave the answers she ought to, although she wasn_t so sure. She_d moved to Los Angeles for Blake_s job and sometimes she felt like she_d had no say in the matter. Other times, she remembered how thrilling the possibility of Los Angeles had seemed, all those miles between there and her old life. Foolish to pretend that she hadn_t chosen this city. She wasn_t some little tugboat, drifting along with the tide. She had created herself. Since the morning she_d walked out of the Maison Blanche building a white girl, she had decided everything. _Then don_t you think I_d want those same things too?_ Loretta said. _Yes, but don_t you_I mean, it_s got to be easier, isn_t it, if you__ _Stuck to my own kind?_ Loretta lit another cigarette, her face shining like bronze. _Why, yes,_ Stella said. _I just don_t know why anyone would want to do it. I mean, there are plenty of fine colored neighborhoods and folks can be so hateful._ _They_re gonna hate me anyway,_ Loretta said. _Might as well hate me in my big house with all of my nice things._ She smiled, taking another drag of her cigarette, and that sly smile reminded Stella of Desiree. She felt like a girl again, sneaking a smoke on the porch while their mother slept. She reached for Loretta_s cigarette, leaning into the glow. _ YOU HAD THE JOHANSENS, of course, on Magnolia Way_Dale worked downtown in finance, Cath served as secretary of the Brentwood Academy PTA, even though she hardly took minutes at all during the meetings, you couldn_t guess how many times Stella had glanced at her notepad and found it blank. Then the Whites over on Juniper_Percy worked in accounting at one of the studios, she couldn_t remember which, Blake would know. He was also association president, but he_d only run because his wife kept pushing him to be more ambitious. Lynn was from Oklahoma, an oil family, and God only knew how she_d found herself saddled with Percy White. You_d understand if you took a look at him, but let_s just say he wasn_t what she had in mind when she_d dreamt of marrying a man who worked in Hollywood. Then the Hawthornes on Maple_Bob had about the whitest teeth she_d ever seen in her life. _I think I_ve seen him,_ Loretta said. _Big ones too? Kind of like Mister Ed?_ Stella laughed, nearly dropping the ball of blue yarn. Across the leather couch, Loretta smirked the way she always did when she knew she_d said something funny. Which was often, now that they were on their second glass of wine. _You_ll see them all soon,_ Stella said. _They_re all nice enough people._ _To you,_ Loretta said. _You know you_re the only one who_s darkened my door._ Stella did know, but she tried not to dwell on that fact. She watched the yarn slip out in front of her, Loretta_s crochet hook winding through the air. When she_d called Loretta earlier and asked if the girls might want to play again, she figured they would meet up at the park. She did not expect Loretta to invite her over or for herself to accept. Now the girls were playing in the Walkers_ backyard_you could hear their yelps through the screen door_and she was tipsy from the wine, listening to Loretta talk about witnessing Reg_s acting career finally take off. How even though he found Frisk stultifying, he was grateful to play a cop for once, not another street hood snatching some lady_s purse in the opening credits. Loretta went to set with him from time to time, but found the whole business so dreadfully boring, she usually ended up in a corner somewhere, crocheting. It amazed Stella, how deeply unimpressed Loretta seemed by every fantastic aspect of her life. Whenever Loretta asked her a question, Stella grew embarrassed, aware of how little she had to offer. _I told you,_ she said. _I_m really not that interesting._ _Oh, I don_t believe that for a second,_ Loretta said. _I bet there_s all sorts of fascinating things swirling around inside that head of yours._ _I assure you, there isn_t,_ she said. _I_m as plain as they come._ She_d done one interesting thing in her whole life, but she would spend the rest of her days hiding it. When Loretta asked about her childhood, she always hedged. She couldn_t share any memory of her youth without also conjuring Desiree; all of her memories were cleaved in half, her sister excised right out of them, and how lonely they seemed now, Stella swimming by herself at the river, wandering through sugarcane fields, running breathlessly from a goose chasing her down the road. A lonely past, a lonely present. Until now. Somehow, Loretta Walker had become the only person she could talk to. All summer, she waited for Loretta_s phone calls. She might be watching her daughter paint watercolors in the backyard when the kitchen phone rang, and just like that, she_d pack up the paint set, glancing carefully down the street before ushering Kennedy across. Or she might be on her way to the public library for storytime when Loretta phoned, and suddenly the overdue books were no longer as important as venturing across the cul-de-sac. When they returned home, she told her daughter not to mention the playdate to Blake. _Why?_ Kennedy asked. Stella knelt in front of her, untying her shoes. _Because,_ she said, _Daddy likes us to be at home. But if you don_t say anything, we can keep going across the street. You_d like that, wouldn_t you?_ Her daughter put her hands on her shoulders, as if she were giving her a stern talking-to, but she was only balancing herself as she stepped out of her tennis shoes. _Okay,_ she said, so simply it stung. Like anything, lying to her daughter became easier over time. She was raising Kennedy to lie too, although the girl would never know it. She was white; she would never think of herself as anything else. If she ever learned the truth, she would hate her mother for deceiving her. The thought flashed through her head each time Loretta called. But each time, she steeled her nerve, took her daughter by the hand, and stepped across the street. _ ON WEDNESDAY AFTERNOONS, the tan Buick pulled into the Walkers_ driveway just past lunchtime, and Cath Johansen called Stella to gossip. _I knew there wouldn_t be just one,_ she said. She was convinced the colored women were there to scout out the neighborhood to plan their own eventual arrival. Stella clamped the phone against her cheek, peering through the kitchen blinds as Loretta_s girlfriends climbed out. The tall one was Belinda Cooper_her husband composed movie scores for Warner Bros. Mary Butler in the cat-eyed glasses was married to a pediatrician. She was sorority sisters with Eunice Woods, whose husband had just sold a screenplay to MGM. Stella knew basic things about the ladies that Loretta had told her, but she_d never expected to meet any of the women until one Wednesday when Loretta called to tell her that Mary was sick. Would she like to be their fourth hand? _I_m not much of a bid whist player,_ Stella said. She was terrible at cards, at any game that relied on chance. _Honey, that_s all right,_ Loretta said. _Sometimes we don_t even take out the cards._ Playing bid whist, she learned, was mostly a guise for what the women really wanted to do, which was drink wine and gossip. Belinda Cooper, halfway through her second glass of Riesling, kept going on about a movie actor having a sloppy affair with one of the secretaries at Warner, a pretty young thing but bold as you know what, taking messages from his wife, then slipping down to his trailer to deliver much more than a missed call. _These girls are gettin bolder today,_ Loretta said. She took another drag of her cigarette, not even touching her cards. _You know me and Reg went out to Carl_s the other day and ran into Mary-Anne__ _How is she?_ _Pregnant. Again._ _Lawd!_ _And you know what she had to say? Euny, it_s your hand, baby._ _Mary-Anne never liked me,_ Eunice said. _You remember that time at Thelma_s wedding?_ All of their conversations went like this, around and around in loops that Stella couldn_t follow. She wasn_t meant to understand their shorthand or glean complicated backstories from the cast of characters they introduced. To be there at all, really. But she was happy to sit quietly, fiddling with her cards, listening. If Belinda and Eunice had a problem with her being there, they didn_t say. But they spoke around her, never directly to her, as if to tell Loretta, this is your responsibility. Still, the afternoon passed pleasantly enough, until the girls rushed in for snacks. It always struck Stella how natural Loretta seemed around Cindy. The girl clambered to her side, rubbing against her like a cat, and Loretta, without even breaking the conversation, reached for her. She seemed to know what Cindy wanted before she even asked for it. When the girls ran back upstairs, Eunice took a drag of her cigarette and said, _I still don_t know why you so set on doin it._ _Doin what?_ Loretta said. _You know what. I know this is your new life now__ _Oh please__ _But your girl_s gonna be miserable and we all know it. It_s not worth it, just to make a point._ _It_s not about making a point,_ Loretta said. _The school_s right down the street and Cindy_s just as smart as all those other kids__ _We know, honey,_ Belinda said. _It_s not about being right. You can be right til the cows come home. But this is your one child and this is her one life._ _You think I don_t know that?_ Loretta said. Her eyes flashed, and then, remembering herself, she laughed a little, stubbing out her cigarette. _Thank God all of us don_t think like you two._ _Let_s ask your new friend,_ Eunice said. _What do you make of all of this, Mrs. Sanders?_ Stella stared down at the card table, her neck already hot. _Oh, I don_t know,_ she said. _Surely you have some opinion._ Eunice was giving Stella a smile that reminded her of a hunting dog with a rabbit in his teeth. The more you twitched away, the tighter those jaws fastened around you. _I wouldn_t do it,_ she finally said. _Those other parents will make her life hell, they_ll want to make an example out of her. You don_t know how they talk when you_re not around__ _And I bet you jump right to her defense too,_ Eunice said. _That_s enough,_ Loretta said softly, but she didn_t have to. By then, the mood had soured. Belinda and Eunice left before the game even finished. Stella washed the wineglasses while the girls cleaned up their toys upstairs. It was getting late, nearly four. Blake would almost be home. Beside her, Loretta silently dried the glasses with a plaid dishtowel. _I_m sorry,_ Stella said. For what exactly, she didn_t know. Sorry for coming over, for ruining the card game, for being exactly who Eunice Woods accused her of being. She didn_t defend Loretta, not even to silly Cath Johansen. She conscripted her own daughter to lie, afraid her husband would find out she socialized with the woman. Loretta gave her a strange smile. _You think I want your guilt?_ she said. _Your guilt can_t do nothin for me, honey. You want to go feel good about feelin bad, you can go on and do it right across the street._ Stella set the wet glass on the countertop, dried her hands on the towel. So this is what Loretta really thought about her_a white woman swarming around to assuage her guilt. And wasn_t it true? She did feel guilty, but if anything, spending time with Loretta only made her feel even worse. Her real life seemed even more fake by comparison. And yet, she didn_t want to stay away, not even now, not when Loretta was angry at her. Loretta reached for the wet glass and knocked it off the counter, the glass shattering at their feet. She stared up at the ceiling, suddenly exhausted. She was too young to look this tired, but she must be, fighting all the time. Stella never fought. She always gave in. She was a coward that way. Loretta bent to pick up the glass, but not thinking, Stella jutted her arm out and said, _Don_t, baby, you_ll cut yourself._ Then she was kneeling on the tile, cleaning up the mess she_d made. _ FIRST MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. in Memphis, then Bobby Kennedy in downtown Los Angeles. Soon it felt like you couldn_t open a paper without seeing the bleeding body of an important man. Stella started switching off the news when her daughter came bounding into the kitchen for breakfast. Loretta said that, a couple months ago, Cindy asked her what assassination meant. She told her the truth, of course_that an assassination is when someone kills you to make a point. Which was correct enough, Stella supposed, but only if you were an important man. Important men became martyrs, unimportant ones victims. The important men were given televised funerals, public days of mourning. Their deaths inspired the creation of art and the destruction of cities. But unimportant men were killed to make the point that they were unimportant_that they were not even men_and the world continued on. Sometimes she still had dreams that someone was breaking into her house. More than once, she_d prodded Blake out of bed to check. _I told you it_s a safe neighborhood,_ he grumbled, climbing back under the covers. But hadn_t she felt safe once, years ago, hidden in a little white house surrounded by trees? Now she slept with a baseball bat behind the headboard. _What_re you gonna do with that, Slugger?_ Blake said, squeezing her tiny bicep. But when he traveled for business, she could never fall asleep without touching the worn handle, just to remind herself that it was there. _ _YOU NEVER TALK ABOUT your family,_ Loretta said. In her backyard, she stretched out on a lawn chair, her face half hidden behind sunglasses. She wore a purple bathing suit, her legs still speckled with water from the pool. Stella craned her neck, watching the girls splash around. In two weeks, school was starting again, Kennedy back at the Brentwood Academy, Cindy off to St. Francis in Santa Monica. A good school, only half an hour away, Loretta said, and Stella felt relieved. She wanted to tell Loretta that it was for the best_there was nothing wrong with putting your head down and trying to survive_but she would only have made Loretta feel even more like she_d given in. Now Loretta was complaining about her in-laws flying in from Chicago_they planned to stay ten whole days, and Reg, of course, said yes, because he could never tell them no, and because, of course, she would have to do most of the entertaining while he was off to set. _What about you?_ Loretta said. _Does your husband get along with your parents?_ The pointed question caught Stella off guard; she was distracted, already wondering what she would do with the ten days when she wouldn_t see Loretta at all. _My folks are long gone,_ she said. _They_re . . ._ She trailed off, unable to finish. Loretta_s face fell. _Oh honey, I_m sorry,_ she said. _Look at me, bringin up bad memories__ _It_s all right,_ Stella said. _It happened so long ago._ _You were young, were you?_ _Young enough,_ she said. _It was an accident. Nobody_s fault._ Bad things happen, they just do. _What about brothers or sisters?_ Loretta said. _No brothers._ Stella paused, then said, _I had a twin sister. You remind me of her a little._ She hadn_t planned to say this, and as soon as she did, she regretted it. But Loretta only laughed. _How so?_ she said. _Oh, I don_t know. Little ways. She was funny. Bold. Nothing like me, really._ She felt herself tearing up, hurried to dab her eyes. _I_m sorry, I don_t know why I_m going on like this__ _Don_t be sorry,_ Loretta said. _You lost your whole family! If anything_s worth boo-hooing about, it_s that. And a sister too. Have mercy._ _I still think about her,_ Stella said. _I didn_t know I would still think about her like this__ _Of course you do,_ Loretta said. _Losing a twin. Must be like losing half of yourself._ Sometimes she imagined picking up the phone and calling Desiree, just to hear her voice. But she didn_t know how to reach her and besides, what would she even say? Too many years had passed. What good would looking back do? She was tired of justifying a choice she_d already made. She didn_t want to be pulled back into a life that was no longer hers. _Twins,_ Loretta said, as if the word itself contained magic. _You know what my mama used to say? She could always tell if a woman will have twins, right from her palm._ Now Stella laughed. _What?_ _Oh yeah, you never had your palm read? Look, I_ll show you._ Loretta reached, suddenly, for Stella_s hand. _See this line right here? That_s your child line. If it forks out, it means you_ll have twins. But you got just the one. And this here, this is your love line. See how it goes deep and straight? That means you_ll be married a long time. And this one_s your life line. Look how it splits._ _And what_s that mean?_ _It means your life_s been interrupted._ Loretta smiled, and again, Stella wondered if she knew. Maybe the whole time, Loretta had just been playing along. The thought was humiliating but strangely liberating. Maybe Stella could tell her the whole story now and maybe Loretta would understand. That she hadn_t meant to betray anyone but she_d just needed to be new. It was her life, why couldn_t she decide if she wanted a new one? But Loretta laughed. She was only joking. You couldn_t read a person_s life off her hand, let alone a life as complicated as Stella_s. Still, she liked sitting here, Loretta tracing a fingernail along her palm. _Okay,_ Stella said. _What else does it say?_

  • The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw /  .   (by Jeff Kinney, 2009) -   The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules /  .   (by Jeff Kinney, 2009) -   Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick
  • WALL-E / - (Disney, 2012)    WALL-E / - (Disney,
  • Pollyanna /  (Porter, 2014)    Pollyanna /

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