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Excerpt: 'Strange Piece of Paradise'

Cover of 'Strange Piece of Paradise'

I LIE ON my back in a strangely euphoric solitude -- eyes wide open, fully a part of this outer world and aware that I have come up against a most unthinkable thing, and have crossed over.

Above me the branches of a tree frame the sky. The world rushes in with intensity. The sharp desert air is pungent with juniper and heavy with the scent of blood. The river rushes and crickets chirp, and I think: this would be any ordinary cool summer night if it weren't for the fact that I am lying here, cut open, with a raw sensation deep inside, in places I have never known. I feel wind blowing through my veins.

I feel wet like I've never felt wet before. Wet with my own blood, viscous and sticky. I'm cold, and it's my blood that chills me. The chill of blood feels different from the chill of water.

Until now I've had thoughts only for myself, but now he's gone. My friend is somewhere near me. I hear sounds I have never heard before. Not human sounds, not quite animal sounds. I know they come from deep suffering, that they are the very essence of suffering. Something like keening, wailing, moaning.

I turn my attention to where those awful sounds come from. Somewhere behind me, near the river. My geography is all off. We are not where we went to sleep, but several feet from that spot. I'm still in my mummy sleeping bag.

I crawl out of the slippery nylon, grope over to where I find her, close to the river's edge, curled on her side in her T-shirt, her sleeping bag draped over her legs.

Her face is pale and unblemished in the moonlight. She looks untouched. Her skin calls to mind the white porcelain of a doll's cheek. But what of the many blows I'd heard? My hand reaches to the back of her head, my fingers trace a hole, a piece of skull punched in. I run my fingers over the jagged edge, touch the soft tissue of her brain. The wound feels mortal. My mind stretches to the unimaginable: she is dying. Emotion, with its explosive power, wells up to fill my mind with only one thought coalesced into will: I won't let her.

I become aware of time passing, aware that time is life, and I spring to action, now a pure force dedicated to her living. Nothing can happen until I see clearly. I fumble through the torn and deflated tent and with uncanny precision locate my contact lens case. I try to maneuver the tiny hard lens from the case, but lifting my right arm isn't working. I wedge my right elbow on the ground for support, scoop the little disc onto the sticky tip of my right index finger, and, using the lubrication that drips from my hair, maneuver a lens into first one eye and then the next.

I blink away the blood, and now the scattered campsite is sharp under a dim moon.

I paw through the tent fabric for my small yellow flashlight and find it quickly, as my racing, logical mind formulates a plan to ride my bicycle four miles to the next town. My legs surprise me -- they still carry my weight, catapult me over to the two bicycles leaning against the picnic table, chained together as we'd left them.

I set out to spin the barrels of the lock, but cannot lift either of my arms to the task. I ask my body to act, command my arms to move, but both dangle helplessly at my side. It dawns on me that all the bones in my upper body are broken. I cannot ride my bike. So I scan my mind for another plan.

Are we all alone in this place? I look to the right. No cars left in the parking lot. The kissing couples have gone.

But from the left, a pair of wide-set headlights moves toward me along the curve of the park road. Alertness ratchets up another notch. It's a moment of pure attention: The cowboy coming back to finish us off? Or someone who will take us out of here?

My fingers have sent a picture to my mind -- a piece of skull punched in, the soft tissue of Shayna's brain -- and I wager that there's no time for caution.

My legs power me after the truck, my dangling right arm swinging the flashlight in bizarre arcs, my voice making noises about help.

The headlights sweep across me, illuminating my left hand, and I glimpse a muscle, bright red, spilling from a deep gash in the fleshy part of my palm. It occurs to me how very odd it is to see my insides pouring out of my skin.

The truck pulls past me, rounds the bend in the road, lurches to a stop, and I can see in the window of the cab the face of a teenage girl.

Her huge eyes stare at me from under a bandanna wrapped around her forehead. A long-haired teenage boy peers around the girl from the driver's side, his mouth dropped open.

Excerpted from Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz. Copyright (c) 2006 by Terri Jentz. Published in May 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Terri Jentz