Micky couldn't remember the last time that she'd been rendered speechless by anyone, but with this girl, she was nearly befuddled into silence. "How would you know?"
"I can tell," Leilani assured her. "You don't run, you don't power walk "
"I work out."
"Oh? When was your last workout?"
"Yesterday," Micky lied.
"Yeah," said Leilani, "and I was out waltzing all night." She stamped her left foot again, rattling her leg brace. "Having a great metabolism is nothing to be ashamed about. It's not like laziness or anything."
"Thanks for your approval."
"Your boobs are real, aren't they?"
"Girl, you are an amazing piece of work."
"Thanks. They must be real. Even the best implants don't look that natural. Unless there's major improvement in implant technology, my best hope is to develop good boobs. You can be a mutant and still attract men if you've got great boobs. That's been my observation, anyway. Men can be lovely creatures, but in some ways, they're pathetically predictable."
"You're nine, huh?"
"My birthday was February twenty-eighth. That was Ash Wednesday this year. Do you believe in fasting and penitence?"
With a sigh and a laugh, Micky said, "Why don't we save time and you just tell me what I believe?"
"Probably not much of anything," Leilani said, without a pause. "Except in having fun and getting through the day."
Micky was left speechless not by the child's acute perception but by hearing the truth put so bluntly, especially as this was a truth that she had long avoided contemplating.
"Nothing wrong with having fun," said Leilani. "One of the things I believe, if you want to know, is that we're here to enjoy life." She shook her head. "Amazing. Men must be all over you."
"Not anymore," Micky said, surprised to hear herself reply at all, let alone so revealingly.
A lopsided smile tugged at the right corner of the girl's mouth, and unmistakable merriment enlivened her blue eyes. "Now don't you wish you could see me as a mutant?"
"As long as you think of me as a handicapped waif, your pity doesn't allow you to be impolite. On the other hand, if you could see me as a weird and possibly dangerous mutant, you'd tell me none of this is my business, and you'd hustle me back to my own yard."
"You're looking more like a mutant all the time."
Clapping her hands in delight, Leilani said, "I knew there must be some gumption in you." She rose from her chair with a hitch and pointed across the backyard. "What's that thing?"
"Really. It's a rosebush."
"The potential's there."
"Hardly any leaves."
"Lots of thorns, though," Micky noted.
Squinching her face, Leilani said, "I bet it pulls up its roots late at night and creeps around the neighborhood, eating stray cats."
"Lock your doors."
"We don't have cats." Leilani blinked. "Oh." She grinned. "Good one." She hooked her right hand into an imitation of a claw, raked the air, and hissed.
"What did you mean when you said all bets are off'?"
"When did I say that?" Leilani asked disingenuously.
"You said you've only got until your next birthday, and then all bets are off."
"Oh, the alien-contact thing."
Although that wasn't an answer, she turned away from Micky and crossed the lawn in a steel-stiffened gait.
Micky leaned forward from the angled back of the lounge chair. "Leilani?"
"I say a lot of stuff. Not all of it means anything." At the gap in the broken fence, the girl stopped and turned. "Say, Michelina Bellsong, did I ask whether you believe in life after death?"
Excerpted from One Door Away from Heaven by Dean Koontz Copyright 2001 by Dean Koontz. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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