Sample text for The mercy of thin air : a novel / Ronlyn Domingue.


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From Part One

The day I die, I glance at Daddy's newspaper before I leave the house. I notice the date, July 10, 1929, and realize it's been almost a month since my graduation from Tulane. No matter what I've done to make these weeks drag wide and full as clouds, they've disappeared in a gust.

I walk the tree-shaded blocks in my favorite green sleeveless dress. The heat makes me dewy. I hope my extra swimsuit is at his house because I terribly want a dip. If not, perhaps I should go bare. Andrew's parents are in the Swiss Alps, avoiding mosquitoes and tropical heat, and Emmaline will be away shopping until it's time to cook lunch.

My pace quickens. Along St. Charles Avenue, I grin at a college boy who offers a ride in his coupe. His F. Scott hair weeps into his neck from the humidity. He looks familiar, someone who's cut in on me at a dance or two.

"Thanks," I reply, "but I'm limbering up for a swim."

"Mind if I join you?" he asks.

"Not today, sport."

As he drives away, I stop in my tracks. Andrew's surprise. The items are still on my dressing table. A sliver of grapefruit curls at the tip of my tongue. Go back home, brush my teeth -- forgot to do that, too -- sneak it out in a little bag. No one will notice, no one will know. No. Maybe.

It can wait.

I unlock the back gate with a key hidden behind the purple bougainvillea. The back door near the pool is unlocked. I find my swimsuit in one of the bottom drawers of Andrew's bookcase, where he keeps the things I've left behind.

The water sips me into the deep where I twirl against its pull. Inside the house, the grandfather clock chimes ten times; then, after several languid laps, once more. It is ten thirty. He is late returning from his tennis match with Warren. I scissor myself to the pool's bottom and watch the ribbons of light knit me among them. When I surface, I crawl out to take a dive. With a shimmy, I wriggle the leg openings and bodice of my suit into place. I am tempted to shed the wool --

Imagine his face if he found me with more than my naked toes pointed at the sky. Wouldn't he --

The words fall with my body. A second, then two, of darkness. The light around me becomes gauzy and bright. Did I dive through my thoughts and into the water? What peace, these first moments under the surface when my swimmer lungs haven't started to burn and I have forgotten that time is moving above.

An airy-fairy rush fills my limbs and lifts me like incense. I am dissipating, consumed by the weightlessness of a dream -- no, I am being pulled up, out, away --

Stop.

My eyesight blurs through a veil of faint sparks. I am above the water.

Andrew approaches the pool, stifling a quiet laugh. He's not going to let me scare him this time. He's seen this before. With each slow step, he removes the layers -- shoes, socks, tennis shirt, belt. Andrew unbuttons his white pants but keeps them on. He kneels on the pool's edge, pulls me up, and stretches me at his side. His smooth face goes straight to my neck, but this time I don't respond. He shakes me.

He puts his ear to my mouth. He forces his right hand into my suit, under my left breast. He withdraws, holds his palm against my diaphragm. My head bobs as his fingers, frantic in a way they've never been, search the back of my head. He feels the lump that swelled after I clumsily slipped at the edge of the pool, slammed backward on the concrete, and fell into the water. My flesh is still warm. He draws me onto his lap. He wraps around my body as if he'll never let me go.

I have never heard a man's heart break.

Emmaline, smiling, walks through the back door, a grocery bag on her hip. She hears his keen -- suffocated, delirious. Her eyes shine with panic. She drops everything, rushes to us. Her shadow covers our heads. When Emmaline touches the thick black waves on his crown, Andrew lifts his face from my neck and looks up. Her hand moves to his cheek. Her palm fills with his tears. Pewter lines streak down her dark face.

Over and over, he rocks me, the lullaby, sotto voce, no no no no no. He will not release me. Emmaline kneels in front of him and strokes my damp tendrils. Finally, when she touches his head again, he lays me flat, kisses my lips, and takes the silver locket from my neck. He walks into the house without looking back. She traces a cross on my forehead.

I linger for a week of dawns and dusks near the pool. Each day, the haze and disorientation weakens. My body is gone, but whatever I am -- the sum of my final thoughts, my last breath -- has begun to take shape, vague as it is.

I slip through the back door behind Simon, who has watered the plants his grandmother, Emmaline, has neglected for days. I wander into Andrew's room. He isn't there. In the reflection of the bookcase doors, I see a short man move into view. He has the grainy look of a silent film, and he wears a baggy shirt draped over tight pants. Around his neck is a faded scapular.

"I am Noble. I have come to welcome you," he says to me. His English undulates with the rhythm of French. His giant, heavy-lidded eyes overwhelm his otherwise large nose and long, thin mouth. I know that his hair should be blond -- I can sense that -- but it has an inexplicable lack of color. "What is your name?"

"Raziela Nolan. Call me Razi." I watch him glance at me, tip to toe, and I look down. I am nothing but a blur. "I'm missing. Where am I?"

"You're new. It will come soon." Noble peers around Andrew's room. This man, I think, has seen castles.

"Do you know what has happened?" Noble asks.

"I drowned."

"Do you have questions?"

"Where are we?"

"Between."

"Between what?"

"I do not know."

"What are we?"

"That, too, I do not know."

"So we go about our business as if we weren't -- aren't -- dead?"

"That will not be possible. You will soon come into hearing, sight, and smell beyond any experience you can imagine. Your form will change, and you will be able to move fluidly through this world. There will be tricks you can do, tricks that ones who are between can observe, some that the breathing can see. Be careful of your audience."

I remain silent. I am within the sound of his voice, not near it.

"There are rules, about which we all have an understanding," Noble says. "First, do not remain with your loved ones. You can go anywhere you please, anywhere at all, but leave them alone. Second, do not linger at your grave. One brief visit will suffice. Do that when you are able, perhaps in another seven days. And finally, do not touch. You have no need for it any longer."

"Why not?"

His small hand brushes the place where my cheek should have been. I know that he touches me, but all I feel is a strange raw vibration. No texture. Nothing familiar. The gesture is hollow. "I will come to see about you again soon. Bonne chance."

Noble disappears into the wall. From the window, I see him drift over the surface of the pool and through the narrow bars of the wrought-iron fence.

Copyright ©2005 by Ronlyn Domingue




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