Stupid Girl

This short story first appeared in Story magazine and the Pushcart Prize Anthology.

No one ever dies at Disneyland, at least that's what she'd heard, so even though it was obvious the old dude's heart was history – when the ride ended he was sagging in his safety harness like he weighed a thousand pounds, his eyes rolled back to the milky whites – paramedics loaded his body onto a stretcher, clipped an oxygen mask to his face, and whisked him safely off park property. Where, she supposed, Disney authorities would finally release his soul and allow the emergency room attendant at Anaheim Memorial to check him out.

Snow White, who'd been strapped in with the dead man, clawed her way out of the bobsled, ripping one of her pleated, mutton-leg sleeves in the process. She stumbled to the nearest trash can. Even on the best of days? The swoops and dips of the Matterhorn always made her feel like pitching. And today was most definitely not the best of days. The old dude they'd paired her with for an in-action publicity shot was some high-roller insurance tycoon from Houston. Pot belly, pink piggy eyes, cigar smoke, and Old Spice. When she first gave him her hand to shake, he held it a little longer, got it a little moister, than was really necessary.

No way, she'd thought, am I getting on that bobsled with you.

But then she'd felt sad, like somebody had jabbed her heart with a fork. Here she was, only eighteen years and three months old, and always she looked at life as something about to sneak up on her and pounce. Maybe this old dude was a nice old man, a dad and granddad who gave the kids dollar bills and root beer barrels whenever they stopped by. Maybe?

Smiling at the insurance tycoon smiling back at her, Snow White (Suzanne Elizabeth Bailey when she was off the clock) had made up her mind, as she did periodically, to screw past experience and try thinking the best of people. To be less jaded in the hope that the world, somehow – she tried not to think too much about this logic – might therefore turn out nicer.

That, and she really really needed the extra money she'd get for the job, you betcha.

Hunched over a trash can trimmed with glitter-paint fairy dust, Suzanne wondered now if it was possible for a girl to die of chronic dumb judgment. Right before he kicked, right after the bobsled shot into the last fast curve, the insurance tycoon had hooked a fat pimply arm around her shoulder and – smack! – grabbed a handful of her boob.

She'd seen too many people dead or dying (her dad, her first stepmother, a grandmother, a boyfriend sheared from his Yamaha by the kingpin of a jack-knifed semi) to feel anything but sympathy for the man; she wasn't pissed off, only tired. And glad to be off the Matterhorn, somewhere she could puke in peace.

When she finished doing that, she felt better, though not by much. She had three hours left on her shift, and nights in August were almost as hot as the days; her scalp smoldered inside the black, bow-topped wig.

Her own hair was dirty blonde. Brown eyes, a gap between her two front teeth. Very embarrassing, those claw-hammer teeth of hers, but when she scored the T.V. series they'd been part of her so-called charm; the producers had even written a clause into her contract. After that, well – the fact of the matter was that stepfathers, and the boyfriends of ex-wives of former stepfathers, didn't invest hundreds of orthodonto-dollars in little girls to whom they were barely connected.

With the back of her hand she swiped at the black mascara sweating spider legs down her cheeks. Worse than the heat or the heaves was the thought that they'd never use 8x10s of a corpse. They'd probably still pay her, she considered, but then again what if they didn't?

She kicked the side of the trash can. That money she'd already promised to her stepsister, who'd been waiting two months for her May rent. The stepsister, really just the ex-wife of one of Suzanne's half-brothers, wouldn't believe what had happened on the Matterhorn. She'd conclude that Suzanne had snorted away the cash, even though Suzanne had been moderately clean for almost a year and absolutely so since the Fourth of July...since the day after the Fourth of July. A fight would erupt, Tita would call her an ungrateful coke-head tramp – this from a woman who considered crystal meth one of the four basic food groups – and then Suzanne would end up sleeping in her friend Robert's van, if she was lucky.

The thought of all that was too much to bear on an emptied stomach. She dodged a pair of eight-year-old autograph piranhas and slipped into the Skyway to Tomorrowland, a timber and cake-frosting facade that was supposed to look like a Swiss chalet. Taped yodeling. A skinny blonde kid in lederhosen passed her through and a heartbeat later she was in one of the buckets that coasted on cables, forty feet above the asphalt surface of the park.

It was cooler up there, and quieter. No shrieking kids, no hydraulic spitting of the rides, no dink-dink-tinkle of "It's a small world, after all," piped through speakers hidden in the bushes. From inside her bodice, from the elastic edge of her jog-bra, she plucked a match and a joint. She slouched in her seat so that, from the ground, the only thing you could see above the wall of the gondola was her polka-dot bow. Not that she gave a shit if she got fired. But if she was caught getting baked on the Skyway, the jar-heads from security might search her locker and find the rest of the Chocolate Tide pot she had stashed there. And that would mean another three months of court-ordered treatment, another ninety-day twelve-step recovery drill.

"God grant me the serenity to blah blah blah."

Please. But she was golden up here, as long as she slouched. No worries. Hakuna fucking matata.

She lit the joint and blew out the match with a smudge of gray breath. She took a good, deep rip, pulled the smoke up and over her heart like a goose-down quilt, pulled and pulled until her brain was tucked in as well.

Every time was like the first sweet time. She'd been nine. Her TV dad, now a born-again bass player for a Christian rock group, had turned her on to bong hits between takes of an episode about cheating. Should little Cathy (that was the character Suzanne had played, little Cathy raised in the station house by a band of kooky firemen), should she copy her best friend's test answers? She had, of course, and they'd been nabbed by the teacher, of course, and there'd been some important lessons, of course, to be learned right after the commercial break.

The lessons? Little Cathy learned the importance of personal integrity, etc.; little Suzanne learned that weed was good and good weed turned your lips to liquid rubber. They'd had to tape the last scene three times, because she'd sounded like she was speaking Chinese or something.

Suzanne closed her eyes, smiled her first sincere one of the day, and enjoyed the slosh of blood in her veins as the gondola rocked along above the canals of Storybook Land.

Her series hadn't set the world on fire, but for two seasons and a half, at least, she'd had a manager, a theatrical agent, a commercial agent, a tutor, an acting coach. She had a woman who was in charge, as far as she could tell, of nothing else but slathering her up with SPF-two millions every time she even thought about going outside.

After the show was cancelled, when she was eleven, Stephen Spielberg didn't exactly come knocking. So she did the school thing for a few years, then worked a delightful array of bad jobs and worse jobs – Starbuck's, Old Navy, a cocktail place on Hollywood. About a year ago she landed this part-time Disney gig, where the money wasn't much, but steady.

"I beg your pardon!" someone shouted, loud. "Pardon me!"

She sighed. Was that too much to ask, she wondered, four minutes of peace without some asshole father, down below, throwing a hissy fit because all the princesses hadn't signed his kid's book yet?

"I BEG YOUR PARDON!"

Something stung her on the arm and she swatted at it. Another something, hard and small, pinged off the metal wall of the gondola; she heard it fall to the floor.

Startled, she sat up, leaned forward, patted the floor with the palms of her hands. After a minute she found it, pinched it, sniffed it: a chocolate-covered raisinette.

A chocolate-covered raisinette?

She peeked over the lip of her gondola. In the gondola directly behind her stood a big black man.

Seriously big. Three hundred and fifty pounds if he was an ounce, his butt as broad as a love seat. He wore a short-sleeve dress shirt, striped tie, and a glasses with dark plastic frames.

"PARDON ME!" he roared. He stamped his foot and whipped another raisinette at her. Another one. "Snow White does not smoke!" he roared. "PLEASE EXTINGUISH THAT AT ONCE!"

Oh, she thought, my fucking God. She flicked her roach away and bonked her head on the plastic seat when she ducked back behind the wall of the gondola. She sat there for a minute, stunned, wondering what in the fuck her Chocolate Tide had been dusted with. Because she was tripping, wasn't she? What other explanation could there possibly be?

Very cautiously she took another peek at the gondola behind her, but it was still there, HE was still there. He'd stopped roaring and stomping and winging raisinettes, but he kept glaring at her. There was another guy in the gondola, a white guy about half his size. She could hear the crackle of cussing as he tried to yank the monster dude back down to his seat.

Her own bucket swung into the wheelhouse. Suzanne hitched her skirt over her knees, crouched next to the hatch, tried to think, think, think. If the big guy called security on her, she was screwed. That stupid weed: she swore to herself she'd never do another drug for as long as she lived. And what if he decided not to bother with security at all and came tearing after her himself? He could probably twist her head off like you'd twist the cap off a two-liter bottle of Sprite bottle. She thought she was going to have a heart attack.

"Welcome to Tomorrowland," the attendant said. When he popped her door open, she jumped to the ground and didn't look back. The cast member locker room was behind Aladdin's Oasis, so she blew across the Central Plaza and made for Adventureland. She started to relax, a little, when she hit the bridge, but then she was blindsided by a Dopey, who must have spotted her from the Castle Forecourt. He grabbed her around the waist and tried to waltz her back to a group of giggling Japanese tourists.

"Get your shit off me," she hissed. She shoved him away and he went reeling backward. His big, molded-plastic dwarf head hit the bridge railing like a bomb, with a colossal hollow boom that scattered the birds from the trees. Everyone turned to see what had happened, and in that instant she shimmied through the crowd, over the bridge, shimmied safe and sound through the bamboo portcullis hung with bunches of plastic bananas

* * * * *

He'd had this game, her dad, that he liked to play with her when he was drunk or stoned or whatever. Which, in other words, was most of the time. He'd come home and open the front door and pretend she was invisible.

"Suzanne, girl, where are you?" he'd cry. "I can't see you!"

"Daddy!" she'd holler. "Right here!" She'd pound her fists against his legs.

"Suzanne!"

"Daddy!"

He'd trip over her, stumble, knock her gently down to the shag with him, tickle her until she could barely breathe, until her laughter was just weak, wet, happy squeaks.

"Suzanne! Where are you darlin?"

Well, when he wasn't drunk or stoned, lifting her over his head like a surfboard and tickling her down to the grass and threatening to surf her hiney all the way to Australia, then she really was invisible to him. Sobriety, she would have to conclude, was as a general concept highly overrated.

She always seemed to think about her dad late at night, when it was time to go home. She'd been only five years old when he died, and yet her memories of him were sharper than yesterday's. Particles of dust churning in a shaft of July light. The texture and taste of American cheese slices, the crinkle of the cellophane wrapper. American cheese was his favorite snack, and sometimes he'd flip squares to her like fish to a seal.

Marvin punched her card – 1:03 a.m. – and motioned her through the gate with a flick of his MAXIM. She slid her time card up under the sun visor. It was 1:03 a.m. and her day from hell was officially over.

She turned off the a.c., which was worthless anyway. Her hand, she noticed, was trembling, and no wonder. One dead man on the Matterhorn; one giant psycho; forty bucks worth of perfectly good pot flushed down the toilet. A cool, fishy breeze had managed to work its way inland, and there wasn't much smog; what smog there was even seemed kind of romantic, made the stars down along the horizon look fuzzy and soft.

Not another car in sight, either direction, but the light stayed red. She wasn't in any particular hurry, come to think of it. Right turn, left turn, straight? The apartment in West Hollywood was out of the question, of course, because of the wicked stepsister and the rent money Suzanne didn't have; Robert's van was a possibility, if it hadn't been impounded since she last talked to him, but it was a VAN for God's sake, decorated with yellow tennis balls he'd cut in half and glued to the walls. The thought of a night alone in there (Robert worked the dog shift till dawn) was just too lonely, too depressing, for words.

That old song from the Nineties was on the radio, "Stupid Girl," her own personal anthem. The light changed and Suzanne eased off the clutch, whispered a short prayer of the please-God-please variety. The engine fluttered for a second, but her Rabbit rolled out of the employee lot and onto the street without conking again.

"Thank you, God," she murmured, just in case. You never know, right?

She turned...left. Why not? Ahead of her were the guest lots, empty now, three motels, every window dark and curtain drawn, the Pick-N-Pay, another motel, and an abandoned Church of the Holy Pentecost. On the wall of the church there was a faded picture of a child riding an escalator up to heaven, up out of a tangle of pale yellow flames. Suzanne wondered if there was a down escalator too, if there was a food court in heaven, a Nordstrom's, and (drowsy, floating in that weird in-between, that trippy frappe of asleep and awake and old music on the radio) she almost didn't see the car with its hood up and engine smoking; she almost didn't see the man who stepped out to flag her down.

Reflex, she tapped the brakes, gave the wheel a jerk. That was a mistake, she realized, even before she'd done it. Her little Rabbit was pretty single-minded, when it came to following instructions; you could turn, or stop, but not really both at the same time. The car stalled, blew a big sweet breath of gasoline at her, and rolled into the parking lot of the Holy Pentecost.

Fuck, Suzanne mused. She cranked the ignition, just for the fun of it. Nothing.

The guy tapped on her window. She glanced up at him — he was unshaven, about forty years old, with blue bloodshot eyes and a stringy ponytail. Perfect: just the sort of drifter you'd want to encounter late at night, in an abandoned Orange County parking lot. She tried the ignition again.

"Hey," he said through the glass, "could you give us a lift to a gas station?"

Us? she wondered, just as (Did she need this shit? Did she really need this shit?) rumbling up into the puddle of yellow streetlight came the big black maniac from the Skyway.

"Billy," he said, "you didn't let me finish explaining my theory about Critter Country." He saw her. "Snow White!"

Suzanne made sure her doors were locked and held up her cellphone. "Leave me alone!" she screamed. "I'm calling the police!"

This was somewhat of a bluff since she hadn't paid her cellphone bill in recent memory. She thought she remembered something about being able to call 911 even if you service had been suspended, but her cellphone wasn't charged, because why charge it when your service had been suspended?

"I'm calling them right now!"

"Wait!" the drifter said. He edged away, palms up. "Shit! What is your problem?"

"What is MY problem? MY problem?"

"I know YOU!" the big maniac said suddenly, excited. He rumbled closer.

"Leave me ALONE!" Suzanne screamed. She stared up, up, up the slope of the big guy. It was impossible, how huge he was. "Get BACK!"

He studied her face intently, one long, surprisingly slender finger pressed against the bridge of his glasses. He lifted his chin and lowered it very slowly.

"Come on down and meet some friends of mine," he began to sing – SING! — in a frail little wisp of a voice that couldn't possibly come out of a monster bod like that, "meet some friends of mine, down at engine house, engine house number nine."

Suzanne couldn't help but snort. "You actually remember that?"

"You lived with your dad who was a fireman," the big guy said, "and a dalmation named Lazy."

"Nobody remembers that," Suzanne said. "It was only on two seasons and a half."

"Sunday nights on the Disney Channel. The plotting was somewhat derivative, but the acting was superb. You reminded me of a young Hayley Mills. Suzanne Bailey."

Somewhere, not far away, a dog barked, paused to hack something up, then started barking again; across the street, razor wire coiled down off the dead Best Western sign like a strand of Christmas tree tinsel.

"Listen," Suzanne said, "if you guys are star-stalkers? I'm guessing you could do better. I know a girl who played a girl in the second HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, if you want her number. One of the minor cheerleaders. My career is currently on hiatus."

"Don't lose heart," the big guy said. "Look at Walt Disney, for example. PINOCCHIO when it was first released, was a financial disaster. My name is Walter. This is my friend Billy. I'm sorry we acted so impetuously on the Skyway, but you shouldn't smoke cigarettes when you're in costume. You really shouldn't smoke at all, you know."

"Could you put that phone down?" the drifter said. "I have a thing about cops."

Suzanne shrugged, tossed the phone onto the passenger's seat. "You and me both," she said.

"It must be very exciting," the big black guy said, "to be a cast member at Disneyland. "Would you like to know what I think is the only negative aspect of Disneyland?"

"The stupid shows?" his friend asked. "The right-wing patriotism and corporate butt-licking? The colorful audio-animatronic Third World peasants?"

The only negative aspect," he continued cheerfully, "is that eventually you have to leave. Not so at Walt Disney World in Florida. When you go home for the night, you can take the monorail to the Polynesian Resort and wake up in the morning to a stunning view of the castle." He straightened his glasses. "Suzanne," he said, "what would you consider the ten most indelible moments in Disney animated history?"

"Here we go," the drifter muttered.

"Indelible?"

"Memorable," the big guy said. He bounced on his toes and Suzanne wouldn't have been surprised if he'd soared off suddenly like a helium-filled cartoon parade balloon.

"No offense?" she said. "But are you like some sort of fanatical Disney freak?"

"The proper appellation," the drifter said, in what she had to admit was a pretty dead-on imitation of his buddy, "is Disney enthusiast."

"Of course one must include the final scenes of both Snow White and Pinocchio," the big buddy went on, "but I'd argue the final sequence of Cinderella is just as rich with possibilities."

She shrugged. "Never seen it," she said, and you'd have thought from the horrified look on his face that she'd suggested he go in for a rectal swab. "I liked MONSTERS, INC."

"MONSTERS, INC.?" The big black guy chuckled.

The drifter guy sat up, rubbed his thumb along his bottom lip, contemplated the torn toe of his Chuck Taylor high-top. He wore rings on all the fingers of his right hand, even the thumb. "What show did you say you were in?" he asked.

"ENGINE HOUSE NUMBER NINE," his buddy said. "Oh, she was superb, Billy. Suzanne had the sort of elusive Disney star quality one doesn't see much of anymore. A young Hayley Mills."

"You know," the drifter guy said, rubbing rubbing his bottom lip, hooking a lank of hair behind his ear, "I might have an idea. I might have just stumbled across the opportunity of a lifetime."

Suzanne leaned back against her Rabbit. She took off her Dodgers cap and raked fingers through her hair. For a moment she pretended there was someone, out there, who was tracking her progress across the wide, white face of a clock, in a cheerful kitchen, someone who was sipping coffee and watching a FRIENDS re-run and expecting her home at such and such a time, on the dot, and would be worried if she was a minute late.
"What?" she asked, before she could stop herself.

* * * * *

"Picture this," Billy said. He set his coffee cup down on the counter and gazed up at the ceiling, at the fluorescent tubes lisping and fluttering there. He was telling her how famous and rich it was going to make her, his opportunity of a lifetime, how she'd get soap operas and sit-coms and all the parts Miley Cyrus turned down, how she'd have a condo in Malibu with room for as many dogs as she wanted.

They were at the IHOP a couple of miles from the park and across the street from the gas station where she'd driven them. Two a.m. They'd offered to buy her breakfast, and she'd agreed. Why not? She hadn’t had anything to eat since her shift break at four, and then only a bagel with hummus. She knew she shouldn't trust the two of them, but she had to keep reminding herself. Not once had either one of them brushed against her boob or tried to slide an arm around her shoulders. She hadn't caught them, not once, looking at her with the subtle, acquisitive, half-lidded lizard stare she was used to. They might be dangerous — she wasn't that naive — but at least, she reasoned, they would be dangerous in original ways.

Billy made a fist and pressed it against his ear. She realized the rings on his fingers weren't rings at all, but tattoos. A black-ink circle of vines and tiny thorns tooled around each finger, just beneath the second knuckle.

"Hello?" he said, fist still pressed to his ear.

"What?" she asked.

He shushed her. "I've got a call. Hello? This is Pepsi. Who was that blonde girl I saw on the tube last night? Suzanne Bailey? Get her in here. We want her for our Super Bowl spot."

"Please," she told him. "National commercials are impossible. There are a million girls for the smallest part."

"You're not a million girls," he said. "It's all about exposure. Once they see you, they'll have to have you."

She finished her eggs and noticed that Walter, perched on a stool that had disappeared beneath him, was leafing very slowly, very seriously, through a coffee-table book on the art of PINOCCHIO. He was humming softly to himself, a tune she recognized after a second – "Hi-diddle-de-dee, an actor's life for me." She propped her elbows on the counter, lit a cigarette, and smoked through a faint smile. For a minute it seemed the most normal thing in the world, to be sitting here at the IHOP, two o'clock in the morning, with a long-haired drifter and a giant black Disney enthusiast, considering a proposal for your own abduction. She tapped ash into her coffee saucer and turned to Billy.

"And what makes you think you're the best possible applicants for this position?" she asked. "Do you have references? What would you say are your three greatest strengths as a kidnapper?"

He stared at her very intently. His eyes were blue, with shifting shadows inside, like light at the bottom of a swimming pool.She wanted to ask him about the significance of the thorn tattoos, but figured it was none of her business. "Just keep an open mind," he said. "It's very simple. It's so simple that absolutely nothing can even possibly go wrong. We fake a kidnapping, we send a ransom note, we collect the money."

"The money?" she laughed. "From who? I hate to rain on your parade, but there's no one in the continental United States who would pay to get me back. There's no one in the continental United States, actually, who'd even notice I'd been kidnapped, which let me tell you is a really pleasant thought to consider." The roof of her mouth itched and she wished she had some snow, some good old snow, just a taste.

"Disney will," Billy said. He had a narrow angular shape to his face, like a wedge, and a way of leaning a little bit forward all the time, as if he was always in the middle of squeezing through a tight place. "They don't give a shit about you now, I know. But once the word gets out that Snow White has been kidnapped do you know what kind of media coverage that will get? What's Disney going to do then, when every afternoon Oprah's eyes are tearing up because you're still missing? Picture it: Day 17 – the Snow White Crisis. They'll pay a million dollars. Two million. That's ashtray change for a company like that. And you'll be famous Suzanne Bailey. Ten minutes after it's all over you'll be curled up on a sofa across from Katie Couric, telling the tale of how you survived your terrifying ordeal."

"In Florida, you see, Walt learned from his mistakes and anticipated urban development," Walter said. He reached across Billy and touched her wrist. "He bought up forty square miles of virgin orange grove. At Walt Disney World in Florida, you can avoid the real world altogether."

Billy snorted, but Suzanne had to admit that she wasn't particularly pro-reality herself. There was something to be said for clean streets and plenty of toilet paper and no cockroaches sifting through the Grape Nuts and no neighbors above who, seriously, once dragged a goat up the stairs for some sort of Santeria thing. Once in a while, riding in the Electrical Parade, she'd stare so hard at some girl's smiling face that she'd fall into it; she'd daydream herself down into a life that seemed so happy (she wasn't dumb enough to think it actually was) she'd stop pelting the crowd with posies.

"Forget it," she told Billy. "You've got to be kidding. Do I look that stupid and pathetic that I'd go for something like that? Tell me, OK, because if I do? I might as well kill myself right now."

"We'll be the ones who rescue you," he said. "Picture this. An old abandoned warehouse. A couple of guys driving along and a flat tire, or a belt goes flapping, and then through the flap of the fan belt they hear a muffled cry for help."

"Forget it," she said.

"We'll make the place look like some real sickos been living there. Empty water jugs, cookie wrappers, duct tape with your blonde hairs stuck to it. Our two heroes creep inside and there she is, Suzanne Bailey. The nation rejoices."

"You're whacked," she said. She watched the line cook scrap grease off the grill with a plastic spatula. "No way. Don't you think they're going to know it's a scam?"

"How?" he demanded. Those spooky blue eyes – it was a good thing, she supposed, her head wasn't made of flammable materials. "Who's going to call Snow White a liar, after her ordeal, this sweet weepy-eyed Disney Channel blonde girl? It's foolproof."

"No," she said. "Forget it."

No.

No.

And then, finally:

"OK."

She sighed a smoky sigh that could have been the last long sigh on earth, winding out to the outer eternal reaches of the universe. OK.

"Hey, Suzanne," Billy said, "I know it's a crazy thing I'm asking you to do, but —"

"I've done crazier," she said with a shrug, which shut him up, a miracle. "Believe it or not."

Believe it or not. The fact of that matter made her want to giggle and cry at the same time, so she just lit another cigarette and watched the shreds of tobacco redden, crumble.

"MONSTERS, INC.," Walter said, out of the blue, shaking his head and chuckling again, "was animated by people with computers."

* * * * *

She lay with her head tilted back, so that when she opened her eyes she stared up at the torn cloth ceiling and the tuft of stripped wires where the overhead light should have been. She'd always meant to get it fixed. Billy was driving, just his fingertips on the wheel because the plastic was so hot; Walter was in the backseat, humming "Whistle While You Work" and flipping through the pages of his PINOCCHIO book. Every time he shifted on his monster haunches she thought they'd had a blow-out.

She'd been dozing. The sun had finally rolled over the horizon behind them, like an egg off a table, but it was still hot. A hundred and twenty degrees, Billy said, and he was probably exaggerating only a little. She thought her nostrils were going to melt every time she tried to inhale.

"I hate the fucking desert," she said. The heat made the macadam squiggle. "Hate it, hate it, hate it."

Billy concentrated on the road ahead, didn't answer. He was convinced the desert was the place to go. He'd already figured out a place to hole up – the abandoned silver mines high in the hills above the Colorado River, just across the border into Arizona. He'd been there years ago, though she wasn't exactly clear why. It was critical they get off the beaten track, he said, and those old, high-desert silver mines were as far off the beaten track as you could get.

"It'll be like hiding on the moon," he'd said. "The whole world could be looking for you, the whole world could be holding hands and looking for you, and they'd never find you out here."

She counted the cigar-stub stumps of organ-pipe cactus, watched the telephone lines, barbed with desert birds, go spinning past. Billy was prepared – she'd give him that much. He had details worked out that she wouldn't have thought of in a million years. The photos, for example; he was going to take pictures of her to go with the ransom note, once they got to the hideout. He was high if he really thought the scam was foolproof, but there was a chance they could pull it off. Stranger shit had happened. When the police questioned her afterwards? She'd be the fucking ice queen; she wouldn't give an inch. "Three Mexicans...bound and gagged...frightened for her life." Et cetera. She'd stick to her story and they could hammer at her morning and night, for all the good it would do them.

She reached over and touched one of Billy's tattoos, traced the curve of thorns with the tip of her finger. "Are they religious?" she asked him.

He glanced at her, blinked. "What?"

"Are they supposed to be religious?" She was thinking of the crucifix her grandmother had hung on the wall above her bed, the summer Suzanne had stayed there, the foot-long Jesus carved from dark, oily wood, the crown of thorns. He was one ripped Jesus, she remembered, all knotted muscles and tendons and just the skimpiest scrap of loin cloth, which she'd actually peeked under once.

Billy thought about the question. "Yeah," he said finally.

"Hey," she said. "How did you and Mr. Disney back there end up together?"

Billy was staring hard at the road again, looking for the turn-off. "Shit," he said. "Don't ask."

Greasewood spurs, a few clumps of prickly pear, dry shallow washes scored east to west across the desert floor. Along the highway shoulder there were occasional smears of blood, pin-feathers, single scattered reptile scales that caught the light and blinked like sequins.

Maybe it was the dusk, the soft toasted orange of it, or maybe it was the half a lude Billy had scored for her back at a gas station in Twenty-Nine Palms, to show his good faith, but for the moment she felt rosy as hell; she was so hopeful her heart felt pinched, like a green olive squeezed until out comes shooting an exclamation-point pimento. This was the absolute last time, she promised herself, she'd do something this nutty.

They were off the state highway now and onto a dirt road that branched out from it. After a few minutes Billy turned off and angled across the desert floor.

"I thought we were going to cross the river first," she said.

He checked the gas gauge, gave it a thump with his knuckle. She turned to watch their dust, drifting off toward the empty road, and noticed that Walter, in the backseat, was weeping. Very quietly, with just the slightest pucker of his lips, the slightest shiver to his shoulders. There was a spot of wet shine on each dark cheek.

Billy glanced into the rear-view mirror. "Shut up," he told Walter softly. "Shut up, goddamnit."

Suzanne turned back around, stretched our her legs and kicked her feet up onto the dashboard. "What's wrong with HIM?" she asked Billy.

He flipped on the headlights, gave her a wink.

"Almost there," he said.