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Authors: Tananarive Due

The Between (22 page)

BOOK: The Between
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Then his senses were rushed with Charlie’s hysteria, joining the chorus of alarmed dogs up and down the street. He heard one of his children crying and Dede screaming his name. He was still frozen with the gun raised as he watched his neighbors’ bedroom lights flick on with nearly synchronized swiftness.

Hilton was startled by a sudden lick of warm water against his leg. Who— He whirled around, and his foot plunged into the deep end of his pool before his mind even registered that he’d backed against its concrete edge. He cried out, flinging the shotgun away as he toppled, arms flailing, into the water.

you come back here, boy you hear me?

He was submerged. Everything was silent, dark, and peaceful. Hilton felt the water gathering at his nose, but he remembered to keep his mouth closed. His eyes were also squeezed shut to keep out the chlorine. He didn’t move. Don’t panic, he thought. Hold your breath. Float to the top. Just climb out.

look, hilton

In the din of water rushing his ears, Hilton thought he heard a whisper of a voice calling him. He opened his eyes and realized he was close enough to the bottom to see the black tile letters splayed in front of him, larger than life. The letters seemed to be glowing, waving. He stared hard to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating; instead of the loving tribute to the previous owners wife, the oversized letters now spelled
D-I-E.

That instant, Hilton choked on the water fighting for possession of his mouth. To his amazement, the water tasted bitterly of salt.

Now he was panicked, swimming furiously. His chest and lungs hurt as the water seemed to crush him. He craned his neck and stroked toward the faint light from the solar lamp shining across the surface, but something was wrong. His clothes felt like pure lead pulling him to the pool’s bottom. His swimming strokes seemed useless, and the depth had grown to far more than eight feet. The harder he stroked, the farther the surface yawned up away from him, a canyon of water growing, growing until he could barely make out the light or the rounded corner of concrete above where he should have been able to hoist himself out easily.

This couldn’t be happening. This was worse than his dreams. Drowning. Lord Jesus, he was drowning.

The water was growing colder, making him shiver uncontrollably and swallow more of the salt that was stinging tears from his eyes. No, he wasn’t on his patio. He could plainly see the specks of plankton and algae floating all around him, could feel the sand particles brushing against his face. He believed he heard a man laughing somewhere below, from the depths drawing him further and further. Charles Ray’s laugh.

He gasped, drawing more of the water into his lungs. The tightness in his chest was going away. Instead of burning the way he remembered when he was a boy, the water was soothing him now. He felt an urge to suck it in like a drunkard in need of wine. He remained motionless, floating downward in a lazy spiral as the light above grew to a faraway glimmer, like a star.

Then, as before, a solid, massive arm wrapped around his middle. He felt himself being pulled upward, swept past the floating algae in a beating rush that left him dizzy. In an instant, his head popped above the surface and the thick air wrapped around him, feeding his starving lungs. He began to cough violently, thrashing to reach the edge of the pool.

“Thank you,” he tried to gasp but couldn’t because he could barely breathe. Oh, Jesus, thank you.
thank you

nana

Dede ran to the pool’s edge and kneeled, screaming. He’d never seen such a wild look in her eyes. “Are you shot?” she asked inexplicably, reaching to grab his soaked, clinging shirt. “Are you shot?”

When his coughing fit subsided, he saw the shotgun he’d thrown against the patio tile and heard the barking and commotion all around him. For the first time, he remembered Charles Ray in the bushes.

He’d missed. Charles Ray had been there, right there, but now he was gone. It would be a waste of time to search his neighbors hedges with a flashlight for what might be left of him. Hilton knew this, just as he’d known Charles Ray was there at all. The knowing was the hardest part.

PART THREE
CHAPTER 24

“Hil, come here. Let’s talk,” Curt said, beckoning.

Flaggingly, Hilton pulled himself from beneath Dede’s arm on the living room sofa and followed his uniformed friend into the hallway. He hated to leave her warmth; he was wearing dry clothes but still felt soaked and chilly. The sky was dipped in 5:00
A.M.
velvet, and Hilton’s household was bustling. Kaya and Jamil were watching a
Terminator
video at a soft volume, too giddy to sleep, and the front door was open so the Miami police officers still gathered outside could walk in and out with ease.

Dede had served coffee earlier, and now she sat on the sofa with a dazed face, her eyes red. Occasionally, their neighbor’s hoarse voice rose to a near-shout as he spoke to the officers outside. “. . . and he’s going to pay for it, goddammit, that’s all I know. I don’t care if he’s Jesse Jackson.”

Hilton heard the man’s voice floating inside the house just before Curt closed the door to the master bedroom. Hilton had never been introduced to his gruff neighbor whose son had called Jamil a nigger, but now he knew his name all too well. He’d been hearing it all night.

Curt paced before Hilton with a sigh, his hands clenched behind his neck as he stared up at the ceiling.

“He was out there, Curt,” Hilton said.

Curt stopped, staring at Hilton straight in the face, and Hilton could see the anger tugging at his jowls. “Man, stop it. You act like you don’t know what the hell’s going on here. Don’t you get it? You’ve got to wake up.”

“I know it looks bad . . .”

“Looks bad?” Curt repeated, laughing ruefully. “Do you understand you almost took a ride tonight? Huh? We just spent an hour talking that redneck son of a bitch out of pressing charges against you. Illegal discharge of a firearm. Reckless endangerment. Hell, he thinks you did it on purpose. Are you starting to get the picture now? Or didn’t you go back there and take a look at the hole you blew in his bedroom window, two feet above his head?”

“I know. The shot went wild.” His eyes were low.

Curt was shouting by now. “Man, you can’t fire a weapon like that! If I’d known you were that crazy, I never would have let you get a gun. And I thought for damn sure you knew you can’t fire at somebody you thinks in the bushes, and he ain’t even on your property. It’s supposed to be self-defense, not big-game hunting.”

“It’s him or us, Curt.”

Curt paused, stepping closer to Hilton to probe his eyes. He looked as though he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “You’re really gone, aren’t you?”

“What the fuck is so crazy about shooting at a terrorist sneaking behind your yard?”

“Because he wasn’t even here, goddammit!” Curt shouted back. “No way in hell you can shoot three shotgun slugs within thirty feet and you won’t blow somebody apart. No way. There ain’t no such thing as missing with a shotgun like that.”

Hilton exhaled, struggling to reason with his friend. “Curt . . . He’s ex-military. The first shot goes wild, he hits the ground. The next two don’t get near him. Then he books.”

“And he drives all the way the hell back up to North Dade in time for his FBI tail to wake him up from dead sleep?”

“It was forty minutes before anybody from the FBI even scratched their ass, and you know it. At least.”

Annoyed, Curt waved his hand in dismissal and turned away from him. “Hilton, you’re scaring the hell out of me. You told me yourself you never even saw a face clearly. Didn’t even
see
him.”

“It was him. Charlie knew. He was barking like—”

“Oh, man, shut up,” Curt cut him off. “I can’t listen to this. If you’d hit somebody, maybe Charlie could testify at your goddamn murder trial to corroborate your story. ’Cause that’s where your ass would have been, in a goddamn jail cell.”

Hilton didn’t answer, sitting on the edge of the unmade bed where Dede had been roused from sleep in a fit when she heard the gunfire. She’d hugged Hilton, clinging to him, when she finally found him on the patio, but her own questions would come later when the shock finally gave way. Slowly, Curt’s words began to sink into Hilton’s consciousness. It was all spinning out of control.

“We both know it doesn’t make sense,” Hilton said dully, unable to meet Curt’s eyes, “but I know what really happened.”

Curt shook his head, looking at Hilton askance, then walked toward the door. “You need to rap with God tonight and thank sweet Jesus all you hit was that dude’s window and walls,” Curt said.

“All right, man. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry don’t cut it,” Curt said, more gently, opening the door. “Just get yourself together, Hil. Get yourself straight.”

Hilton heard the echo of Dede’s voice through the open doorway as Curt walked back out to the living room. “Is everything going to be okay with him?”

“Yeah. Don’t sweat it, Dede. It’s all taken care of.”

“I’m sorry, Curt.”

He shushed her. “I don’t want to hear that now. He did what he thought he had to do, that’s all.”

It would all be so different, Hilton thought, if only his first shot had been sure. Then what was left of Goode would be a harmless, bloody heap on the grass. He might have spent some time in jail, like Curt said, but at least his waking nightmare would be over. Would he have another chance?

Still sitting on the bed, Hilton heard Curt and a couple of the other officers say good-bye, then the front door closed and someone latched the locks into place. Dede told Kaya and Jamil to try to go back to sleep. Hilton leaped up, feeling the need to say a proper good night.

“There’s Daddy,” Jamil said, wide awake and grinning. He ran to Hilton’s side, his beating apparently finally forgotten.

Though Hilton was rejoicing inside, he couldn’t alter his face to match. He rested his hand on Jamil’s shoulder, risking a glance at Dede’s eyes; they were confused and helpless. Kaya’s eyes were less confused, but she still regarded Hilton as though he were a new specimen in strange lighting.

“Your mom’s right. Get back in bed. I’ll try to be quiet if I want to take another swim. Or get more target practice.”

“Ha, ha,” Kaya said, smiling a little. She stood up and walked to Hilton, tiptoeing to kiss his cheek. “Later, Dad.”

“You’ll get him next time, Daddy,” Jamil said, jabbing Hilton’s kidneys the way he used to during their Great Tickle-Offs, vicious tickling battles from long ago. Hilton didn’t jab back. He could only blink and nod, noticing how his own children were being so patronizing and cautious with him. And God only knew what was going through Dede’s mind.

He would have to wait to find out. Dede hugged him, squeezing hard. “You scared the life out of me,” she whispered, brushing her fingertip along his hairline. He felt grainy particles rain against his face. “Your hair is full of sand or something.”

“I know,” Hilton said, clasping her hand. “Thank you for pulling me out of the pool.”

Dede gazed at him with questions but didn’t speak. Hilton knew she hadn’t been the one whose arm carried him from death. Did she know what he’d meant? Did she understand, too?

“You need some sleep,” Dede said instead, walking toward the master bedroom. She left the door ajar, but only slightly.

Hilton didn’t know whether or not he was welcome to follow her, but he didn’t. Instead, he crept back out to the patio.

Very carefully, while his family slept and a pink daylight began to dawn, he watched the swimming pool drain until it was empty.

CHAPTER 25

MIAMI—Gunfire roared through a quiet street skirting Coral Gables Friday morning from an unlikely gunman: Hilton James, director of the Miami New Day Recovery Center.

His alleged target: a suspect in the mysterious racial threats mailed to his wife, circuit court judge Dede James.

James, 38, was questioned but not charged after the 3:30
A.M.
shooting incident. Police say James fired three shotgun rounds into the backyard of his neighbor Martin Leary.

One of the rounds flew through Leary s bedroom window and lodged two feet above his bed, where he and his wife were sleeping. Two other rounds blasted holes in his wall outside, police say.

James, who did not return repeated phone calls, told police he’d sighted a man he believed was responsible for the spate of death threats against Dede James since last fall.

But police say there was no sign of any intruder. No one was injured in the shooting.

“He could have killed somebody,” said Leary, 35, a Miami diving instructor. “Just because somebody’s threatening you doesn’t give you the right to randomly shoot up the neighborhood. If you ask me, the guy’s a nut.”

CHAPTER 26

GO AHEAD . . . MAKE MY DAY!!!

The bold banner, printed across several sheets of green-striped office computer paper, was taped to Hilton’s doorway Monday morning. Hilton felt his secretary’s eyes following him as he walked up to it, but then Wanda busied herself on the telephone. Hilton reached up, pulled the banner down, and crumpled it with both hands. His anger was leaden against his temples, giving him a headache twice as bad as the one he’d woken up with.

He slammed his fist on Wanda’s desk and left the large ball of paper next to her coffee mug. “Staff meeting—now,” he said, not looking at her as he walked past.

So they thought it was funny. He’d show them fucking funny.

Within ten minutes the staff was assembled in the conference room. When the dozen seats around the table were filled, stragglers found chairs in the back or remained standing. The room was conspicuously free of conversation as the counselors and administrators gazed at Hilton. Their arms were crossed, their eyes hard to read.

“Someone in here is a Clint Eastwood fan,” Hilton began, “and decided to abuse the center’s office equipment and resources to try to make a joke. I don’t happen to think it’s goddamn funny.”

Hilton saw people whispering amongst themselves, asking what he meant. Those who knew wouldn’t answer in front of Hilton, shushing their coworkers with promises to fill them in later. Hilton went on. “None of you is going to think it’s funny in a minute, you hear? It’s nine-thirty now, and no one is leaving this room until I know who did it. Just like in elementary school. When you act like goddamn children, that’s how you’ll be treated.”

BOOK: The Between
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