On the first of July, while Ariel sat on their blanket, gazing out at the sun-spangled water, Chyna tried to read a newspaper, but every story distressed her. War, rape, murder, robbery, politicians spewing hatred from all ends of the political spectrum. She read a movie review full of vicious ipse dixit criticism of the director and screenwriter, questioning their very right to create, and then turned to a woman columnist’s equally vitriolic attack on a novelist, none of it genuine criticism, merely venom, and she threw the paper in a trash can. Any more, such little hatreds and indirect assaults seemed to her uncomfortably clear reflections of stronger homicidal impulses that infected the human spirit; symbolic killings were different only in degree, not in kind, from genuine murder, and the sickness in the assailants’ hearts was the same.
There are no explanations for human evil. Only excuses.
Also in early July, she noticed a man of about thirty who came to the beach a few mornings a week with his eight-year-old son and a laptop computer on which he worked in the deep shade of an umbrella. Eventually, they struck up a conversation. The father’s name was Ned Barnes, and his boy was Jamie. Ned was a widower and, of all things, a freelance writer with several modestly successful novels to his credit. Jamie developed a crush on Ariel and brought her things that he found special — a handful of wildflowers, an interesting seashell, a picture of a comical-looking dog torn from a magazine — and put them beside her on the blanket without asking that she be mindful of them.
On August twelfth, Chyna cooked a spaghetti-and-meatball dinner for the four of them, at the apartment. Later she and Ned played Go Fish and other games with Jamie while Ariel sat staring placidly at her hands. Since the night in the motor home, that terrible anguished expression and silent scream had not crossed the girl’s face. She had also stopped hugging herself and rocking anxiously.
Later in August, the four of them went to a movie together, and they continued to see one another at the beach, where they took up tenancy side by side. Their relationship was very relaxed, with no pressure or expectations. None of them wanted anything more than to be less alone.
In September, just after Labor Day, when there would not be many more days warm enough to recommend the beach, Ned looked up from his laptop next door and said, “Chyna.”
She was reading a novel and only replied, “Hmmm,” without taking her eyes off the page.
He insisted, “Look. Look at Ariel.”
The girl wore cut-off blue jeans and a long-sleeve blouse, because the day was already a touch cool for sunbathing. She was barefoot at the edge of the water, surf breaking around her ankles, but she was not standing zombie-like and staring bayward, as usual. Instead, her arms were stretched over her head, and she was waving her hands in the air while quietly dancing in place.
“She loves the bay so,” Ned said.
Chyna was unable to speak.
“She loves life,” he said.
Choking on emotion, Chyna prayed that it was true.
The girl didn’t dance long, and when later she returned to the blanket, her gaze was as faraway as ever.
By December of that year, more than twenty months after fleeing the house of Edgler Vess, Ariel was eighteen years old, no longer a girl but a lovely young woman. Frequently, however, she called for her mother and father in her sleep, for her brother, and her voice — the only time it was heard — was young, frail, and lost.
Then, on Christmas morning, among the gifts for Ariel, Ned, and Jamie that were stacked under the tree in the apartment living room, Chyna was surprised to find a small package for herself. It had been wrapped with great care, though as if by a child with more enthusiasm than skill. Her name was printed in uneven block letters on a snowman gift tag. When she opened the box, a slip of blue paper lay within. On the paper were four words that appeared to have been set down with considerable effort, much hesitation, and lots of stops and starts: I want to live.
Heart pounding, tongue thick, she took both of the girl’s hands. For a while she didn’t know what to say, and she couldn’t have said it if she had known.
Finally words came haltingly: “This…this is the best…the best gift I’ve ever had, honey. This is the best there could ever be. This is all I want…for you to try.”
She read the four words again, through tears.
I want to live.
Chyna said, “But you don’t know how to get back, do you?”
The girl was very still. Then she blinked. Both of her hands tightened on Chyna’s hands.
“There’s a way,” Chyna assured her.
The girl’s hands gripped Chyna’s even tighter.
“There’s hope, baby. There’s always hope. There’s a way, and no one can ever find it alone, but we can find it together. We can find it together. You just have to believe.”
The girl could not make eye contact, but her hands continued to grip Chyna’s.
“I want to tell you a story about a redwood forest and something I saw there one night, and something I saw later, too, when I needed to see it. Maybe it won’t mean as much to you, and maybe it wouldn’t mean anything at all to other people, but it means the world to me, even if I don’t fully understand it.”
I want to live.
Over the next few years, the road back from the Wild Wood to the beauties and wonders of this world was not an easy one for Ariel. There were times of despair when she seemed to make no progress at all, or even slid backward.
Eventually, however, a day came when they traveled with Ned and Jamie to that redwood grove.
They walked through the ferns and the rhododendrons in the solemn shadows under the massive trees, and Ariel said, “Show me where.”
Chyna led her by the hand to the very place, and said, “Here.”
How scared Chyna had been that night, risking so much for a girl she had never seen. Scared less of Vess than of this new thing that she had found in herself. This reckless caring. And now she knows it is nothing that should have frightened her. It is the purpose for which we exist. This reckless caring.