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“Does she want me to call her back?”

He sipped his coffee, grimaced, then blew on it. “I believe she just called to tell me you’d lose your scholarship if you don’t go back to school.”

“Well, she’s wrong.” She felt her face flush and turned back to the dishes.

He tried his coffee again, then set it back down. “My sister might come for a visit.”

She shut the water off and stood drying her hands. “Really?”

“McEban found an article about her on his computer. Then he found her phone number.”

“And you called her?”

He nodded. “Last week.”

She watched him turn toward the living room, perhaps imagining he’d heard someone there, and thought she might get a dog again, if only for the noise a dog would make. “Do you think she’ll come?”

He was still looking into the other room. “You mean Marin?”

“Yes.”

“I couldn’t say.” He pushed back from the table, squinting at her. “I’m ready for bed now.”

She helped him take his boots off, leaving the room so he could get out of his clothes. When she returned he was under the bedcovers, propped up against a drift of pillows. He’d swung a foot-wide magnifying glass between his face and the book he held open at his waist, the lens attached to a hinged metal arm mounted to the wall above his nightstand.

“I could get you large-print books from the library,” she said.

“That doesn’t have to happen just yet.”

He lowered the book to his lap and she pulled a chair close to the bed, thinking about all the hard conditions under which old men can die, but mostly of Mitch, lying for two years in his cabin just thirty-seven steps out the mudroom door. Reading his John D. MacDonald novels, reading them over again, enjoying his Lucky Strikes and the coffee and chocolates she brought him each morning. Their regimen of small pleasures to provide some relief from the constant speculation about which organ might fail enough to cause them all to cave in.

Einar folded the magnifying glass against the wall and a coyote started up with a series of high-pitched skirlings. They both stared at the window until the animal was done, then he closed the book and held it against his thighs. “I’ll sell this goddamn place and move into the county home before I’ll see you drop out of college to nurse me.”

She placed a hand on the blue-and-red dragon wrapping his forearm from wrist to elbow, but it felt too intimate a gesture and she brought her hand back to her lap. “Is that why you called your sister? Because you don’t think I can take care of you?”

“Marin’s had some trouble. That’s all there was to it.”

He stared at her, unblinking, and she’d always wondered what he saw when he looked so long, searching her face. “I was frightened,” she said.

“Of what?”

She walked to the window, leaning against the wall to the side of the frame. She hooked her hair behind her ears. “The noise.” Her reflection in the glass made her uneasy, so she stepped away. “It was like what Paul told me about the summer he worked on an oil rig. All clank and strain. That’s what Rhode Island sounded like.”

She raised the bottom sash higher and the room swamped with cooler air and she came back to the bed, bending over him. She pushed a fist into the mattress on either side of his hips. “I’m sorry if you think I wasted the money you gave me.”

When that was all she said he expected her to kiss him good night, but she just held her face close, taking shallow, steady breaths.

His eyes stung and he closed them, the memories of when he was her age and gone from home for the first time coming up clearly. The weeks at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, the loud, drunken nights in Columbia or Charlotte, the constant soul-grating wail of his thousands of new neighbors, like a dental drill in his sleep, but he’d had Mitch and a red-haired boy named Ferguson from Colorado Springs to share the dislocation when the panic set in. When the press of the overly treed horizons and the too-wet air made it hard to breathe, he had friends who could help conjure the wind and distance and silence of the Rockies, and then they were shipped on to Inchon.

“Have we got any ice cream?” he asked.

She smiled, shaking her head, and when her hair came loose and fell against his cheeks she straightened up and scooped the hair away from her face. “I’ll get some tomorrow.”

He opened his eyes. “I don’t want you to worry about what I think. About you not going back to school.”

“I’m not worried.”

“I believe you are, just a little. And I don’t want you to worry about Marin, either.”

She looked down to where her hands were clasped at her waist, letting them swing free, for a moment imagining he might guess how often she’s prayed he’ll die all at once, like a young person does, without expecting it. She doesn’t want him to suffer like Mitch had, slipping away with no last statement of regret or summation, no parting smile or gasp, just a single weak exhalation. She’d been sitting with him in his little cabin, and when it was clear that he was gone she’d walked outside, staring into the vaulted sky, turning slowly under the silent witness of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, every point of light where she expected it to be in its seasonal progression, Orion with his shield tilted against the earth as though to safeguard the heavens from our accrual of grief. She’d expected some sort of revelation, but there was none. The night sky remained free of circumstance.

“You need a glass of water?”

“I’m better off if I go to bed thirsty.”

“All right.” She moved the chair back against the wall. “My mom said that if I wouldn’t go to school, she would.”

“When did all this happen?”

“She said she’s going to take classes this summer over in Sheridan. She’ll be a nurse’s assistant.”

“That’s not something I’d want to do, but good for her.” He switched off the nightstand lamp and they waited for their eyes to adjust. “We both know I haven’t paid for squat,” he said. “Your airline tickets were the only thing I even helped with.”

“I’m going to call Paul now.” She moved to the doorway and stopped, standing silently, and when he reached to turn the light back on she added, “I should’ve told you I wanted to come home, but I didn’t want you to think I was a quitter. I didn’t want to think of myself like that.”

He brought his hand back from the lamp switch, staring into the darkness. But he couldn’t distinguish her silhouette, and then he heard her walking evenly in the hall and the front door open and close. He tried to remember if she’d wished him a good night.

“Don’t think I believe it was only the noise,” he whispered. “Not for one single minute.”

Three

CRANE STEPPED OUT of the county cruiser and eased the door shut, holding the handle up to avoid the metallic click of the latch. He’d turned off the radio and headlights at the highway, idling in under a moon three-quarters full, and now stood hesitantly in that just sufficient light and when it occurred to him tipped his silver-belly stockman’s hat off, reaching in through the open window to place it on the seat. The hat attracts moonlight like cumulus, and he wondered what else he hadn’t considered that might get him killed. He studied the timber at the edge of the clearing for threat but saw only a dove-colored border of shadow, pendulate and hypnotic, and had to lean unexpectedly into the windowframe to keep his balance, focusing on the shotgun in its bracket between the seats, until his sudden rise of vertigo quieted.

He raked a hand back through his dark hair, wondering if blond or white-headed sheriffs made better targets in nighttime shootings, promising himself to look on the Department of Justice website when he got back to the office.

He unsnapped the leather strap over the hammer of his pistol and lifted it out of the holster, holding it at his side. It seemed heavier than it should, pulling on his shoulder, and he switched it to his right hand. Sweat ran down his ribs and he plucked his shirt away so it wouldn’t stick.