Unlucky Annie

It could not be that Annamarie Tibbs, having been gone for three years, would return home the day that Marty McLuhan won one hundred and forty-seven dollars in the Virginia Lottery. It could not be that Annamarie would return home the day that Braxton Tibbs, who was her brother, made the most beautiful love to his wife beside the open window, when everything smelled like sweat and pecans, and two lonely sex cells became one, in a righteous union blessed and praised by God. It could not be that Annamarie would return home the day that a new stoplight was installed on the corner of Main Street and Natanhala Parkway and Mayor Bull cut the big yellow ribbon that stretched over five empty lanes.

It could not be that Annamarie would return home on any of these days, which everyone agreed, in retrospect, were good days. She was bound by nature, by the same forces that bind the trees to growing upward and the moss to growing outward, to return home on a bad day—and true to form, it was a balmy evening in August when Marty McLuhan was robbed of one hundred and thirty-six dollars outside of the pornographic video shop on Alexander Stephens Street, when the bluejay that sang to the Sherman widow every morning to wake her up died of a miniscule heart attack in the gloom of an overgrown oak, when Juice Harp, mouth was full of foam and chicken feathers, took two shots to the lung from the gun of Braxton Tibbs, who was Annamarie's uncle, and when Annamarie herself, slender like a shadow, appeared noiselessly behind him. This was why she was called Unlucky Annie—it could not be any other way.

These things could not be in the same way that Juice Harp, who was a dog, could not be a real brother to Unlucky Annie, because he was a dog. This could not be meant that there was no possibility of being. In the same sense the Sherman widow's husband could not be alive, and oak trees could not be acorns again. There was another sense, which applied only to the very special things of this world—like Georgia Tibbs, who was Unlucky Annie's mother. After thirty-nine years of living and after bearing three children, Georgia, who was Unlucky Annie's grandmother, realized that she could not be—that there was a possibility of not being. Less than two hours after giving birth to the last of these children, unceremoniously named Annamarie after her own mother, Georgia Tibbs slit her wrists with the sharp circumference of the ring-top from a small can of peaches, which was the only item she ate that day from the hospital tray.

Like most people, Unlucky Annie was full of the first kind of could not be's. Unlucky Annie could not be a pretty girl—her eyes drooped down like her temples were melting down her forehead, and the sharp gash of a cleft palate ran from one side of her lips to the nostril opposite. Unlucky Annie could not be a smart girl—that evening in August with the dogwood leaves in freefall, what she did first was run to Juice Harp and kneel down by his side where he had collapsed, still breathing. She ran a hand through the golden fur of his neck, looked into his open eyes. Braxton Tibbs, who was Unlucky Annie's brotheruncle, was so taken aback that he had not yet reached the state of mind in which it is a reasonable and expected thing to warn a young girl not to play with the corpse of a rabid dog, Too many questions filled his mind—what was happening? And then, who is that? And then, is it really who I think it is?

Although it was impossible for Braxton to know this (and more impossible for Annie, and impossiblest for Juice Harp, whose final breaths were escaping him), at the very same instant that the bullets from the still-smoking deer rifle of Braxton Tibbs entered the lungs of his favorite dog, lightning from a cloudless sky struck a lamppost on the corner of Richmond and Old Quarry Streets, falling like a dogwood petal onto the car of Tunisia Applewhite, who was going to be married in three days but now would be buried. In the valley there was a smudge of red in the usually green recess where the Perlex Plastics Plant had erupted like a bitter blossom, destroying in the ensuing fire six percent of Perlex Corporation's tangible assets, three janitors, seventy-eight spiders, and six hundred and twenty-four livelihoods. Through all this, people dying, dogwoods shedding, all Unlucky Annie really wanted to do was play with her dog.

This was the cruelest feature with which Annie had been bestowed; crueler than the ugly eyes, the fractured lip. It could not be that good things came in Annie's wake, only destruction. The mountain shook with fear. Annie shook with joy at being home and seeing Juice Harp, and Juice Harp didn't shake at all. He was dead.

"Quit looking at me." These were the first words that Hillary Tibbs ever said to Unlucky Annie, and they were spoken one week, two days, and sixteen hours after they had been introduced.

"She's not looking at you," said Braxton, splitting his syllables in the Appalachian style, between the unintelligibly short and the interminably long. Shesnot loookinat yooou. "She's looking at Juice Harp. She's just got a little lazy eye, 'asall. Christ, Hill'ry, you know that."

Hillary rested a hand on the floral print of her distended belly, as if to say this child may have your name but he's in my stomach and if you are rude to me I will take him where you will never find him, ever. "I know, I'm sorry, but—Jesus, Braxton, she's creeping me out. Are you sure we have to take care of her?"

Braxton Tibbs was a man with the mountain built into him, tucked under his armpits and hidden away. He had knuckles that rose and fell like plate tectonics when he gripped an axe. He could play the dulcimer and the spoons and the banjo. These were old mountain things, antebellum things that lingered around the Appalachians like a dormant virus in the circulatory system of the South. The new mountain things—the wide intersections sliced through by SUV's and trailer trucks migrating from Memphis to Charlotte, the billboards for gem mining, black marker signs advertising farm-grown "punkins"—these things did not interest him. The most important thing he could think of was God, followed by his family, and then his dog, and Annie was part of the middle category, twice over. His response was, as naturally as the Sherman widow's bluejay sang and as naturally as he died, "Of course we have to take care of her. It's what Eddie would have wanted."

Eddie was a past tense thing now because Unlucky Annie said so, and she was not a liar. "Where is Eddie?" Braxton had asked that August evening after clearing out the freezer to keep Juice Harp's body fresh, and she had stared back blankly. It was like trying to guess the password to some hiding place abandoned years ago. "Where is Daddy?" he asked. Brother? No.

"Daddy is dead," said Annie, and that was that. No amount of prying would retrieve any more information from her, and so that was the last they spoke of it. Braxton toyed briefly with the notion of holding a funeral for his older brother, but Eddie was a man not spoken of favorably in the town. He had committed an awful sin, worse than murder, at least in the absurdity of its invention.

And what would they say? What would the preacher say, and what would Braxton say, who would naturally be expected to eulogize on the passing of his own kin? The only memories he could conjure were the ones he had tried so earnestly to expunge. They hung like bats from the roof of a cave. He remembered how he himself would say "Mamma," or, as he grew older, "Mother," but Eddie would always say "Georgia," with three syllables: Jo-ajuh. He remembered how, like when you touch an infant on the cheek he would begin to search for his mother's fatigued nipple with his tiny lips, Eddie would always have his mouth parted, eager and salivating. He remembered his father dying in an industrial accident at the Perlex Plastics Plant, and how the unmistakable utterance Jo-ajuh from the master bedroom deepened the coldness of every winter night thereafter. And now they were all dead: Papa by plastics, Georgia by peaches, Eddie by hearsay. Eddie by divine justice.

Family, friends, loved ones—we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of an awful man. A man who touched us all in a reprehensible way, some of us literally, most of us metaphorically. Eddie was a man who wanted so badly to love and be loved in return—Missez Wibberly, do you remember the night you found him crouching outside your window watching you apply aloe vera to the sunburn your husband contracted on your vacation to Key West? Oh, that's all he ever wanted.

Those three words—Daddy is dead—were all Braxton needed to cap the question of what had happened to his brother in his mind. In truth, he had never believed that Eddie would die in a regular way, no stroke, no heart failure, certainly not old age. What had happened was exactly what Braxton expected: Eddie disappeared and simply did not return.

The question he entertained now was, "Where did you go, Annie?" Here Annie was somewhat more verbose—she, since being stolen away in her nightgown from underneath Juice Harp's blanket-like body, had been on a bus and on a boat, to a carnival, in a police station, a hospital, and New York City.

"New York?" said Hillary, incredulously. "Your brother took her to New York?" Braxton only shrugged. "Well, I guess that makes sense—I'm sure they got clubs for all sorts of fornication and whatnot in New York."

Braxton told her politely to hush up. Annie still had the ears of a six-year old, that reflected all necessary information and absorbed everything crude and embarrassing. "Fornication" was not a word he wanted her to experience. And yet, who knew what kind of things she had experienced on Eddie's grand adventure? How many lives had she ruined—tornadoes in Kansas City, hurricanes in Galveston? Did forest fires follow Annie and her fatherbrother through Southern California? Eddie spent much of his life fleeing the flames of Hell, and so one day he and the Lord Almighty happened upon each other on the interstate near San Diego, and so God picked up the flames of Hell and let them loose on his tracks.

They watched as she threw a red rubber ball at Juice Harp. The game followed this pattern: the ball would be released from her hand and sail through the air, striking Juice Harp on the nose. It would ricochet off at an incredible arc and fall rolling across the floor, whereupon Annie would run after it, pick it up, and throw it again. This was a difficult thing for Braxton to watch. It was somehow indicative of the inevitability of the world—but most of all, it was just awfully sad.

Juice Harp had been a Christmas gift to Braxton and Eddie when they were children. They were to share him, which was a problem as children, not a problem as teenagers, and a problem again once Eddie moved away. Braxton gave him up permanently when Annie was born—a child needs a dog like it needs milk—and returned him gladly to his home when Eddie and Annie committed their exodus. He had lived a long time and deserved to die peacefully by a crackling fire.

Annie and Juice Harp were inseparable. For the first few years of her life, she had suspected that she was a dog, until her kindergarten teacher explained the difference and subsequently recommended special school for her.

"Annie, honey," Braxton said, bending down while his pregnant wife watched on in her constant perplexity, "no matter how many times you throw that ball at Juice Harp, he's never going to catch it or run after it or anything."

"Why?" said Unlucky Annie.

"Because he's dead." This was inherently true. It was a seed of truth that was packed in a rich wet soil that contained everything that Annie's brotheruncle meant but didn't say, and the implications already began to grow up toward the sky, down toward water like roots. Juice Harp was dead, but the thing that wouldn't catch the ball in its teeth was less of a dog and more a piece of furniture; only a little bit Juice Harp, very much coffee table. It was a husk of Juice Harp filled with polyurethane foam. It had eyes of blue glass and eyelids of candlewax, the curvature of its lips was black epoxy. This was a home in which Juice Harp no longer lived.

Friends and family, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life of a great dog, who, had he only been given the chance by God, could have been a great man. Only the springtime drove him to sin, when he would bury the corpses of bluebirds in the backyard. His life ended with his jaws in the chicken coop. Let this be a lesson to us all.

Juice Harp had only spent one night in the freezer. The morning after Juice Harp died, after the Perlex Plant exploded, and after due to inexplicable reasons almost half of Jim Cane's apple orchard soured up and withered away, Braxton awoke and discovered that he could not live with the fact that Juice Harp was in a freezer like a Sunday ham, or that soon he would be in the ground like a turnip bulb. Juice Harp's place was by the hearth, and so the very next day (after spending an ample time with his newfound sisterniece, so that she would feel welcome) he put Juice Harp in a cooler and took him to Asheville to be taxidermied. He would ultimately rethink this decision in light of the castigations of his wife, but it would be too late. After the taxidermy, burying Juice Harp would be like burying a stool. It didn't make sense.

But for Annie, thinks were beginning to make sense for the first time. Until this point, her life had been a confluence of maybe ten or fifteen concrete memories that she kept with her like lockets on a chain or ashes in a jar. Dogwood petals streaming down like rain every Autumn, Juice Harp licking her face—it felt like wet sandpaper, but this is a ridiculous thing to say, because the first time she felt sandpaper she believed it to be like dry Juice Harp, not the other way around. The scratch of Braxton's beard as he hugged her from brotherly/avuncular duty, the way the buildings in New York stretched as high above her as the streets did before her, while Eddie, who was the kind of person who only felt comfort in leaving and not arriving, scrounged for quarters—first to buy a hot dog for Annie, who was wasting away without knowing she was wasting, and then to buy a cigarette, and then maybe save up to buy a bus ticket. The varicose veins in the nurse's feet that rose like mighty rivers from the mouths of her high heels.

They drew straws in the hospice center. The Nurse with the mighty rivers was the unlucky one (it is easier to see in the smallest groups that there is always an unlucky one, this is basic mathematics).

"Honey," she said, "I've got some bad news." Lights flickered. New York screamed outside the caged windows. "Your father," this assumption arrived at a half-truth, "died this afternoon." Empty hospital room, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of John Doe. He was stabbed twice, once in each eye, and bled to death. His wallet was stolen Let this be a lesson to us all.

"What does that mean?" asked Unlucky Annie. Overhead, a pigeon's tender stomach burst from ingesting wedding rice. Two cabs collided and Leah Rosenberg died on impact when a wheel well replaced her chest in its desired position in the space-time continuum. The Nurse gave Annie too much credit for her age, and assumed that this was not an inquiry upon the basic nature of death, and even if it had been, she could not have explained, because she had seen so many people die and she thought of them all the same way. Pnuemonia—that's like turning off the lights to the hospice center. They are on, and then they must come off. Lou Gehrig's—that's like turning off the lights to the hospice center. AIDs, muggings, industrial accidents—flip. Darkness.

"Well, he'll be cremated." The borough of Manhattan could not spare burial plots or morgue space for John Does that would likely never be identified. "That means he'll be put into a big furnace—a fire—and turned into ashes so they he can…" she was skidding and needed a positive spin, "return to the earth. You know, from dust thou art to dust returneth." This was an immensely stupid thing to say, but it was Unlucky Annie's own fault as her own ill presence had caused the Nurse with the mighty rivers to draw the short straw. Ultimately, it was all Eddie's fault, first for fornicating in an especially unrighteous manner, then for dying.

Friends and family, we are gathered here today to mourn one selfish bastard.

And so everything was coming together. Like Daddy was dead, Juice Harp was dead. And she felt overjoyed in finally knowing what something meant.

It is impossible to understand any set of events without an understanding of the time in which they occurred. Juice Harp was a newborn when he was placed in a cage under the Tibbs Christmas tree. Braxton and Eddie's father, Georgia's husband (the last Tibbs man who ever knew exactly where he fit into the family tree) died nine years later, give or take a few months, and then Annie was born two years after that. Twelve years later Eddie left home with his sisterdaughter, and three years later Annie returned home alone, mysteriously. At some point in those mysterious three years, Braxton married a young hairdresser named Hillary, made the sweetest, most beautiful love to her and authored a child in her womb. Also, Eddie died.

So, add all these numbers up on your fingers and you will arrive at this: at the time of Juice Harp's taxidermy, Juice Harp was twenty-six, enough to make him a very ancient dog, and Annie was fifteen, enough to make her a very pubescent girl. Annie had spent a month with her brotheruncle and his wife before Juice Harp returned home, reincarnated as furniture, and in that month—approximately .5% of the life she had heretofore lived—more unlucky things happened than the previous fifteen years of her life combined.

Tunisia Applewhite's fiancee threw himself off the overpass onto a black Honda CR-V on the Natanhala Parkway en route to Kansas City. Six workers from the Perlex plant were diagnosed with a rare lung disease because their insides were coated with plastic, like they were being wrapped for shipping to the afterlife. Colleen Grass developed a cyst on her right hand. Jimmy McRae's Cessna crashed into the side of the Old Quarry Bed 'n' Breakfast shortly after taking off, pinning Jimmy's arm under the steering column and killing a vacationing couple and their three young children. Two of the firetrucks owned by the fire department broke down. Henny Jackman filed for divorced from her husband Lem of fifty years. The Sherman widow fell out of her bed and broke both of her legs. Fires broke out in churches on opposite sides of town, and the Fire Chief wondered idly if God was testing him—a coin toss decided which church would be saved, and Hand of God Church of Deliverance drew the unlucky tails. (In the smallest groups it is easy to see that there is always an unlucky one.) It was the most miserable November on record.

In particular, the record was a letter-size spiral-bound notebook owned by Mayor Joshua Bull. In it he wrote down, in laborious longhand, everything that happened in the town that was worth mentioning. Whenever he had an appointment he would first scour over the books from the last year to find out what the person with whom he was meeting had done and what had happened to them—all the names were highlighted in yellow. Deaths were marked in the margin by a black cross, births by a blue or pink star. Marriages a golden oval. Usually a notebook would be full in three months—the one he held in his hands was for November alone.

He opened it to a random page. The margins looked like the cemetery at Verdun.

Nov. 15

Leonora Wibberly takes to bed from food poisoning. Husband Joseph sprains his ankle trying to wash dishes.

Marty McLuhan arrested for panhandling outside Aphrodite Adult Books and Film. Bail set at $100. Next of kin (older sister Martha) cannot be contacted. Marty still in jail.

Connor Lee Gacy dies. Perlex refuses to pay for funeral on account of financial issues. Son Jason, son's girlfriend Lessie leave town for Asheville.

Birds are heading south. This is normal (I believe).

Garbage strike. City hall smells like the walls are rotting.

Liza Sterling struck by lightning. Fought real hard to live. Died anyway.

Nov. 16

Sherman Widow won't stop calling. Wants to know why the birds are leaving. Can't remember where her husband is.

Martha McLuhan identified as victim of Hand of God Church of Deliverance fire. Marty McLuhan still in jail.

Old Quarry B&B closes down. Not enough money for reconstruction—is being sued by family of vacationers for safety violations—suit stands at $2.4 million.

Mrs. Bull still won't get out of bed. Mayor Bull buys six more notebooks for the upcoming quarter.

Freemason Lodge burns down. Among the dead: Cotton Stiller, George F. Matthews, Simon Groves, Woodrow Crane. Injured: Tobias Lee, Daniel Ray Petersen. Condition critical, stable, respectively. Fire Chief Robbins cries—doesn't know I saw him.

"Braxton," said Mayor Bull. The way his copper beard parted reminded Braxton Tibbs of the Red Sea. "In the past month, forty-four people have died in this town. thirty-eight of those were taxpaying residents. Only two children were born." Chirren.

Braxton wrung his ragged hands. "Is that unusual?"

"At this rate," said the Mayor, "it will take less than two and a half years for the entire town to disappear."

Oceans of acids collided inside Braxton's stomach. He knew precisely where the conversation was headed, and it gnawed on him from inside his ribs. "You know how the holidays are, Joshua. Real depressin'." A placeholder sentence to avoid an awkward pause. Braxton hoped that Mayor Bull would ignore it, and he did.

"People are startin' to talk, Braxton. People, myself excluded," he put up his palms to show his innocence (a gesture of no real meaning—they presented Christ with palms when he entered Jerusalem, and then they crucified him a week later), "are starting to think that the town is," a guffaw on cue, "cursed. And the same people," innocent palms, "have noticed that there is a third mouth bein' fed at the Tibbs household."

"Yes, Mayor Bull," said Braxton Tibbs, "we are very proud to say that my lovely niece has returned home to stay with us. Hill'ry couldn't be crazier about her." For the past four weeks, Hillary had been protecting her stomach like a receiver with a football—Braxton, she had said, the baby is kicking—come feel—and he did. Annie wanted to feel, too, and she extended her hand toward her auntsister-in-law, who shrieked audibly and pulled back. I'm sorry, Braxton, I just got—nervous. This whole thing is very new to me. All I've heard is the stories, you know?

"Do you remember what this city was like three years ago, Braxton?" The stories. "I was Deputy Mayor when Mayor Logan died of a heart attack. It was just like that." He snapped his fingers. It was like the sound of banging kindling together. "That was just the first—there was a flu epidemic, two children died. That young boy was stabbed eight times in the chest by drug dealers by the convenience store on Alexander Stephens—" Awkward silence. Not Braxton's turn to speak, not yet. "And then, when Eddie left—all gone. Now, you and me, we're on the same wavelength." Joshua Bull had the unique ability of making himself seem like your brother. You couldn't cast a vote against him; you'd be like Cain swinging a rock. "I know that this is all hoopla, that there's no such thing as curses; believe me, Braxton, I understand."

"So what is this about?"

"It's a psychological thing, Braxton. People expect misfortune—and so they create it for themselves. So I'm asking a favor from you, Braxton. As a friend." As a brother.

"What?" Braxton asked. "To leave town?"

The Mayor leaned over, resting the bulk of his great weight on a cherry wood desk. "It pains me to say it, Braxton—pains my right down to my heart. Look at it this way—there's a lot of talk goin' on. Everyone in town likes you Braxton, and what's more, they respect you." Respeck. "But they are afraid for their lives—who knows what they'll do if they decide they only got one recourse of action. There's only two ways to solve this problem: to change everybody's mind—or change your address." Again came the blank silence, waiting for something to be said, and Braxton wasn't sure whether it was his turn or not. His stomach tightened. His ears roared. Mayor Bull turned a page in his book and traced a finger along the margin. "By the way," he said, "my condolences on the passing of your dog."

Hillary was very receptive to the idea of moving. Things were obviously becoming very dangerous in town—there was at least one fire every day, sometimes commercial, sometimes residential—and she had long desired to move somewhere where the schools would be better for the God-blessed baby inside her. Her parents still had a house that they would rent to them in Asheville.

"But Hill'ry," Braxton said through the crackle of the fireplace, "That house only has one bedroom."

She nodded, hands folded neatly over the great mountain of her body. "We'll only need to stay there for a while, until we can find a place of our own—the baby'll have to sleep in a crib in our room for the first few months anyhow."

Braxton shook his head. "You know that's not what I mean. What about Annie?"

Annie did not look up when her name was mentioned. Her glassy eyes were lost in the fire, which had consumed most of a pair of dry logs and was slowly dying. Braxton noticed her profound interest and accredited it to youthful inquisitiveness, Hillary noticed also but suspected it to be something more akin to a Satanic ritual. Both were wrong—Annie was actually thinking very hard, planning. She was also not staring at the fire; she was looking at the wrought-iron gate that protected it. She took Juice Harp in her hands and looked him over, felt his weight in her hands. Then she smashed his nose into the gate—

"Annie!" Braxton cried.

—but it wouldn't budge.

"There must be some sort of organization who takes care of girls like that," Hillary replied.

Girls like that, it was once explained to a circle of near-drunken men at the John Henry Bar, are the product of sinful circumstances. Everywhere the Devil is waiting, in bedrooms, on streetcorners, even in the John Henry Bar, waiting for a doorway opened by someone making some form of evil. The bigger the sin, the bigger the doorway, and so it stood to reason that the very large sin that had occurred in the Tibbs family had made a very large doorway through which the Devil had wrought a very large amount of mischief. They made a resolution then and there that if they saw the girl on the street they would take the problem into their own hands.

Girls like that, the Sherman Widow told her knitting circle for three years, are the things of legend. We've all heard the stories—her little green eyes blazing like brimstone in the night while cars crash and men are driven to kill their brothers—and sure, some of us can even remember her, her glassy stared and curled lips, but can we really be sure she ever existed? I mean, Lord Almighty, she seems like a character from a bad book now, doesn't she? Girls like that are mostly mythical.

Girls like that should be sent to prison, the Sherman Widow told the birds outside her hospital bed, where they couldn't cause any more trouble. And then she would say it again, and again, because the birds couldn't tell her that she was forgetting things again.

Girls like that should be held responsible for their actions, said Fire Chief Micah Robbins. If the police knew what they were doing, they would arrest her for arson. Six fires in five days—where did they come from? It couldn't be coincidence.

It is possible that every fire had started because the grand design of destiny was ahead of Unlucky Annie, and eager to get on with things. While Annie fumbled with the lock on the fireplace gate, fires sprang up all across town, in churches, in mini marts, in houses and they begged for her. Just as Annie had miraculously arrived in her brotheruncle's backyard in time to see the final minutes of the existence of Juice Harp's soul, she would inextricably find her way to the final minutes of Juice Harp's body. Death, someone had once explained to her, means cremation. Cremation means fire.

Or maybe not. Annie didn't see fit to draw a clear line between luck and fate, and the fires could not speak for themselves. It might have been the mere convergence of circumstances that caused Annie to leave her house early in the morning, still grey with dawn and her family still in bed, Juice Harp in her arms wrapped in a swaddling windbreaker, at the same time that a spark traced the electrical cord of the Fire Department Mr. Coffee machine and set ablaze a stack of coffee filters. The fire climbed the walls and hung desperately to the rafters. Those waiting upstairs felt the warmth before the alarm ever went off.

Fire Chief Micah Robbins turned onto Rose Street just as Unlucky Annie left the winding back street on which she lived and turned randomly down Alexander Stephens. She reached Old Quarry before he did, but he was in a car and would arrive sooner. He would be followed by the Mayor, and she would be followed by Braxton in his Buick, who was searching for her desperately. Like a raging fire.

It is impossible to understand any set of events without an understanding of the time in which they occurred. When Fire Chief Robbins arrived, the fire had engulfed the entire first floor of the fire house, swallowing the garage. Ten minutes later, when Annie and Juice Harp arrived, it had spread to the upstairs and left the base of the building emaciated, like a grisly skeleton or a row of black crosses in the margins of the Mayor's book. When the Mayor arrived, looking inappropriately comedic in his pajamas and slippers, the fire had spread to the next door town hall, and the firefighters were having little success with the garden hose they were using. People began to come out of their houses, and a crowd began to form. The firefighters were weeping, every single one. The Mayor was scribbling furiously in a notebook. No one knew what to do.

No one, that is, except Unlucky Annie, who surveyed the scene for a few minutes and then decided that she had found what she was looking for. She walked proud—with her hairlip turned toward the sky for God to see, and Juice Harp unwrapped in her hands, carried above her head like a trophy. Everyone watching knew who she was—most of them had lost brothers, mothers, fortunes in the past month.

She stepped up to the building until she could no longer bear the heat bearing down on her face. Juice Harp's epoxy lips had begun to glisten and run down his jaw. She petted him tenderly, stroking his hair back and then forward. Then, in a great overhead lunge, she threw him into the burning fire department.

"Oh my God!" someone screamed. "She just threw that dog into the fire!"

"See!" cried Fire Chief Robbins. "I told you she was setting these fires! She's an arsonist! A killer!" A chorus of agreement erupted and Annie no longer walked proud. She knew that something was amiss—the world was all of a sudden very hostile, like when she and Eddie had been approached in Manhattan by the young boy in the hooded sweatshirt who had wanted Eddie's watch so much. "She's a curse!" And then the Fire Chief tried to grab her.

His hands, slicked with sweat, slipped off of her overalls. She only ran a few feet before bumping into the chest of another man, and then bouncing off into another. They were closing in around her. She began to understand hostility and violence as natural consequences of death, and it would be years before she realized that the causal relationship usually ran in the opposite direction.

One of God's angels came to save her dressed as a nutbrown Buick. While the family packed no words passed between them—Braxton wanted to tell Annie that she was incredibly lucky. Lucky that she hadn't been kidnapped or killed. Lucky that the Mayor had given them 24 hours to leave the town and then would remove the police cars from their front yard. Lucky that she had made it all the way home from New York without so much as a scratch. But he wasn't sure it was true.

February came to a cramped cottage in Asheville. So did Braxton Edwin Tibbs, Jr. He was a silent child, a still child, empty and lifeless like a stool, like Juice Harp after the homecoming and before the exodus. He was a little blue star and a little black cross. Hillary cried and Braxton cried and Annie didn't. This was perhaps the most insulting event of all.

The Buick, one of Annamarie Tibbs' guardian angels, traced the lines of the Blue Ridge Mountains and rolled noiselessly over the remnants of a snowstorm. They had been driving for two hours, and Braxton knew that no distance would be enough. He turned off onto an exit onto which he had never turned off before. He found a back road where the snow was still untouched by the gristle of cars. Overhead, the arching skeletons of trees cast a net in which the midday sun was caught, leaving the Buick to travel in shadow.

"How did you get home, Annie?" Braxton said.

"I'm not home." She smiled. Maybe she was making a joke.

"No," he said. "When Daddy died, how did you get home? Did you walk? Did someone drive you?"

She paused quietly, conjuring up her memories, creating a time frame. Analyzing the when, and then the how, and then arrived at this conclusion: "I rode on a bus."

"A bus? Where did you get the money for a bus?"

She pried a faux letter wallet from her overalls and stuck it out so Braxton could see. He took it from her and opened it up—three dollars, a quarter and two dimes, his brother's driver's license. "Daddy gave it to me for safety-keeping."

"Safekeeping," he said. It made sense—to any bus driver she would seem old enough to ride a bus, all she would have to do is walk back to the bus terminal in which she and her father had arrived in New York and tell the attendant at the ticket counter where she wanted to go. There was a bus station in town, on the Natanhala Parkway. From there she would know how to walk—Eddie took her on her bike up that way every Sunday.

"Lucky Annie," he called her.

They came to a dead end in the conversation, and minutes later, a dead end in the road. There were no people and no houses. The mass of branches obscured the sky so that God could not see. He felt guilty—like he was trying to escape divine retribution, though he was almost certain he had done nothing wrong.

He got out, and so did she. He locked the doors and looked her in the eye from across the wide hood of the Buick. He slipped Eddie's wallet in his pocket.

"When is Juice Harp coming back?"

Braxton was startled. "Annie, honey, you threw Juice Harp into a burning building. He burned up."

"Up where?"

He shook his head. "Do you remember what happens to the logs when you put them in the fire? They disappeared—they were gone. Turned to ash. Not coming back." This was a truth she was not ready for, and she began to cry. For Juice Harp, for Eddie, maybe even for Braxton Edwin Tibbs, Jr.

Brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, et cetera, et cetera, we are here today to mourn a boy who could not be. Most of us live before we die but he died before he lived and that is either the most tragic or least tragic death of all. There is no lesson here for us—the poor boy was just plain unlucky.

She didn't even reach out for the door handle when her brotheruncle unlocked the driver's seat door and climbed in. He did a three-point turn so that he wouldn't have to watch her as he backed out of the dead end, and drove very carefully home.