19. The Burning House

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Music stirred me.

I lay in bed riding the coattails of a dream as the sad voice of Lana Del Rey carried through the house. The hospital. I had been in the hospital, and I had been stirred there too, though not by a song. By moaning. From down the hall there had come moaning and then marching and then, finally, stretchers. Blood in white sheets wrapped around two bodies, squirming bodies, and none of the men moving their mouths, not one of them making a sound as they walked past my room.

Mike Richards, his eyes smashed and his teeth shattered.

Gabriel Vasquez, crushed beneath a safe, breathing blood.

Dying.

Not dead.

Dying.

To slow drumbeats and mournful violins, I climbed into my wheelchair and rolled down the hall. A shadow swayed in the living room. My aunt was dancing, the whiskey bottle loose in her fingers. Her head hung from a limp neck. Her eyes were closed. She rocked back and forth beside the end table, where her stereo rested.

"Listen to me, Ruth."

My mother's name froze me. I sat at the end of the hall, my hands on the wheels, as Aunt Sandy called out to her sister.

"Ruth, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Ruth, listen to me. Why didn't you listen to me? I said I couldn't, I told you. I'm no good, I've never been any good. Ruth, Ruth, little baby Ruth, answer me, talk to me, Ruth, I'm sorry."

The scene pieced itself together:

Aunt Sandy wakes up. She finds herself alone and Ash's car keys gone. She puts on music to match her broken heart. She continues to drink.

I should have told her I was there. I should have shut off the stereo and taken her to bed. But I didn't. I was worried about Ash and Nip, and ashamed that I was safe at home while they were putting themselves in danger, and part of me took comfort in Aunt Sandy's misery. It was nice to know she was hurting, too. So I let her go on thinking I had left. I backed down the hall to my room and all the while the song that had drawn me from sleep, the title song of Lana Del Rey's second album, Born to Die, called out to the night through the dripping screen door.

I rolled down the hall when I heard the crash, and I stopped in the exact same place as last time. Dreaming.

I had to be dreaming.

I wasn't.

The bear was enormous. The bear was brown and matted with blood. The bear was on top of my aunt. Its mouth stretched open, and a vision of Billy's father flashed into my head, his jaws locked wide, dislocated by the scream that had torn out of him. Then the bear howled, shaking the jagged splinters stuck between its teeth, and I remembered the sound I had heard in the woods, the sound of bark being peeled . . .

Or chewed.

The bear began to dig. My aunt's tank top peeled apart, and with it the skin beneath, breasts and abdomen tearing into ribbons, blood gushing out until there was too much blood to make out anything but those long hooked claws and the juices splashing around them. The bear dug faster, like its paws were hot, like it was trying to cool them off inside her. Its breath was ragged. Its eyes were wide, pleading.

My aunt's cheek rolled down to the carpet. Her gaze found me. For the span of one breath there was relief on her face. Then fear colored it over. She lifted her head. She raised her hands. That was when I saw the long pale stripe running down the bear's skull . . . a crack, looking through the bone. Its massive head had gotten split during the earthquake, and now Aunt Sandy took advantage of that, working her fingers into the wound up to the first knuckle. The bear stopped pawing and flailed its neck, but she held on. She held on, and she pulled, like someone trying to pry open a steel clamp.

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