“Well, shit. I don’t see why you couldn’t have managed this by yourself.”
“I was lonely.” She winked at Kenneth.
“Me too,” Kenneth said.
“You were?” McEban knelt in front of the boy, rewrapping his hand. “Well, then, that’s another matter altogether.”
They led their horses to a shaded spring set high in a depression grown thick with wildflowers, holding the reins away from the animals’ front feet while they drank, pulling the bridles off so they could fan through the tall grass, trailing their halter ropes as they grazed.
They ate their lunches spread out around the spring, and when they were done McEban lay back with his hat tipped over his eyes, his hands laced behind his head, and Kenneth, lying back against him, pretended to sleep, watching Griff and Paul where they sat together in the sun against the sidehill across from him.
Paul leaned back on his elbows. “Did you hear about the guy Crane found dead in the trailer house?”
“My mom said Crane knows who he is but wouldn’t tell her. She said it was a meth lab.”
“I always thought that could’ve been me,” he said.
She shaded her eyes. “You’ve never done drugs in your life.” She watched him turn the stem of a weed in his fingers, tying it in a knot.
“I mean I expect something like that. I don’t know. Something sudden.”
She hooked a finger in one of his belt loops as though she was afraid he might fade and then vanish entirely, lying back against him, resting her head in the curve of his hip. “From now on I want you to call me Divine Tiger Woman.”
“You want what?”
“Divine Tiger Woman.”
He chuckled, genuinely surprised. “You think that sounds Indian?”
“I think it sounds more Indian than Lightning Whatever. Anyway, she was East Indian.”
“And here I was thinking you pulled the name out of your butt.”
She was watching the clouds scud to the east, and their movement made her feel as though she were rolling slowly away from him. She put a hand down to steady herself. “Every man who ever made love to her never had to come back to a lower life.”
“You mean like a prairie dog? Or a worm?”
“You’ve got it.”
He laughed again, enjoying himself, easing out from under her, getting up on his knees.
She squinted against the sun. “You don’t always have to say the whole thing. When we’re around other people you could shorten it to DTW. Everybody wouldn’t have to know how lucky you are.”
He leaned over her, casting her face in shadow. “What do you think, Kenneth? You think I ought to kiss her?”
When the boy nodded without lifting his head from McEban, Paul kissed her and sat back on his heels.
“I can’t leave him,” she said. “Not the way he is now.”
He pulled a notepad and pen from his shirt pocket. “You understand he could live a lot longer.”
“I hope he does.” She cocked an arm under her head. “You writing me a poem?”
“I’m writing down what we did today.” He waved a bee away from his face, watching it dip and sputter toward the creek. “Something about where the fence was down. When we got thirsty and how our mouths tasted like wood. How the horses made out.” He looked across at McEban and the boy. “Maybe something about when Kenneth cut his hand.”
“Like a diary?”
He held the notebook against his thigh, writing. “For Einar. So I won’t forget to tell him. It’s not like he can get out here with us.”
She lay back in the warm, sweet grass, after a bit throwing an arm across her face, over her eyes, in case the tears started. Because sometimes they did when she was filled with the certainty that he was here mostly just for her, to get her started out right, and she’s never once felt it would last her whole life. She rolled her arm just slightly, so she could see his outline against the sun.
CRANE SHIFTED his weight against the chairseat, working his knuckles down the tops of his thighs and back along the outsides, and when that didn’t help he stood and paced along the east wall of the waiting room. This new cramping seemed to twist at the muscles deep inside his legs, usually when he was tired or uneasy. He sat down again and leafed through a three-month-old Smithsonian. Pictures of a South American rain forest, melting icepacks, the statuary at Angkor Wat. Then the discomfort started tapering off and he tossed the magazine on top of the low table beside the chair.
Two young mothers sat across from him. When he caught their eyes they nodded, smiling earnestly, as people always do with cops, then leaned back together in conversation, lowering their voices, glancing now and then to where their children played in a carpeted corner of the room. Two boys and a girl, all under six, crawling in and out of a high-impact-plastic playhouse, rising up out of the scatter of high-impact-plastic toys, the distraction provided to keep them occupied and forgetful about what was going to come next. Old man Houle was curled forward on an orange plastic chair by the row of windows overlooking the street.
Under the Muzak and the constant squabbling of the children he could hear the hum of fluorescent lighting and closed his eyes, trying to remember how the old Heyneman Building looked just a year and a half ago, before Sheridan Memorial had it gutted and renovated into this satellite clinic. He could still smell the paint, or something like it, maybe just something antiseptic.
When he’d told Jim and Nancy Tylerson their son was dead, that his body had been terribly burned, that he’d been shot as well and possibly hadn’t suffered too much, not as much as he would’ve if the fire had been what killed him, Nancy slumped against the doorframe of their home and vomited over the front of her sweatshirt. Then she collapsed on the concrete stoop beside the worn brown welcome mat. Jim knelt next to her, holding her until there was nothing left in her stomach. He held her even when it was apparent she had no intention of getting off her hands and knees, or out of the soiled clothing, or of wiping her face. She was wagging her head back and forth, with streams of spittle hanging from her mouth and tangling in her long hair, and Jim said, “I’m going to need some help here.”
It took both of them to get her up and into the house, finally onto the couch in the front room. She flailed and moaned, seeming to weigh twice what he might have guessed, as though her grief had somehow intensified the pull of gravity, drawing her away from them and into the earth.
He sat with her while Jim went into the kitchen to find a damp cloth to clean his wife’s face. For a short while she sobbed quietly, then stiffened and began clawing at him, and he was forced to grip her wrists, pinning them crosswise in her lap, and still she twisted and shrieked that she hoped he’d die just like her son had. Then she spat in his face.
Jim got her to swallow a sleeping pill, and when they felt they could briefly leave her lying on the couch with her eyes wide but unfocused, they went back outside and walked to the curb. They stood by the cruiser, staring into the sky, and he told Jim again how sorry he was. He said there’d been drugs involved and that he didn’t want him to read about it in the paper without already knowing. Jim nodded, once, then he sat down on the curb. He didn’t weep or curse, just sat there with his head bowed, and after a while he got to his feet and looked back at the house. “I don’t know what I ought to do now,” he said. “I haven’t a clue.”
When Crane heard his name called he got out of the chair. A thick, mannish-looking woman stood in the doorway beside the receptionist’s cubicle, lifting her chin to indicate that he was next, and he followed her down the single hallway and into a windowless white room. She had him step on a scale, then he sat on a stool so she could take his blood pressure and temperature. She asked him to roll up his sleeve.
She thumped at the blood vessel on the inside of his arm and inserted the needle, loosening the rubber tubing she’d cinched around his biceps. They both watched as she filled three vials with his blood, then she had him fold his arm back against a cotton ball.