DON’T THINK ABOUT THAT.
“I guess you’ve learned the first rule of fighting. It hurts. The second rule is: It doesn’t change anything. Who started it?”
Dad looked surprised. “That doesn’t sound like you.”
“I was mad.” Bret braced himself for the horrible words: I’m disappointed in you, son.
He felt like crying already, and Dad hadn’t said anything.
And he didn’t say anything. Instead, he put his arm around Bret’s shoulder and pulled him close. Bret climbed onto his dad’s big, comfortable lap. For once, he didn’t care if he looked like a baby.
Dad brushed the hair away from Bret’s face. “That’s going to be quite a shiner. Worse than the one Ian Allen got last Fourth of July. Why did you punch Billy?”
“He’s a bully.”
“But you’re not.”
Bret knew his dad would find out. Sharie’s aunt Georgia was best friends with Ida Mae at the diner, who served lunch every day to Carol, who worked in Dad’s office. In a town like Last Bend, it would be big news that Bret Campbell punched out Billy McAllister and broke his front tooth. The only question would be why. “Billy said Mom was a vegetable.”
It seemed to take Daddy a long time to answer. “We’ve talked and talked about this, Bret. Your mom is in a coma. She’s sleeping. If you’d come down and see her—”
“I don’t wanna see her!”
“I know.” Dad sighed. “Well, come on, sport, let’s go. They might need this bench for kids with serious injuries.” He helped Bret into his puffy winter coat, then lifted him up. Bret hung on, burying his face in the warm crook of his dad’s neck, as they headed out of the school and into the softly falling snow. At the car, Dad let Bret slide down to the icy sidewalk.
He stood next to the car, waiting for his daddy to get the car unlocked. His hands were cold, so he reached into his pockets for his gloves—but they weren’t there.
It was Mommy who used to tuck mittens in Bret’s pockets Just In Case, and now they were empty.
Dad got in his side of the car, then shoved the passenger door open, and Bret got inside. When the engine turned over, the radio came on. It was playing the first Christmas song of the season, “Silent Night.”
Dad clicked the radio off, fast.
Snow pattered against the windshield, blurring the outside world. The windshield wipers came on and made two big humps through the snow. Bret stared at them—anything was better than looking at his dad right now. Ka-thump. Ka-thump. Ka-thump. The wipers moved right and left, right and left, making exactly the same sound as a heart beating.
Dad put the car in gear and drove slowly out of the school parking lot. He turned on Glacier Way, then again on Main Street, then again on Cascade Avenue. In silence they drove past the empty parking lot of the Bean There, Done That coffee shop, past the empty front window of the Sunny & Shear Beauty Salon, and past the crowded entrance to Zeke’s Feed and Seed.
“I’ll bet old Zeke is busier than a one-armed paper hanger right now,” Dad said.
It was one of his dad’s favorite expressions. No one could ever just be busy. They had to be busier than a one-armed paper hanger. Whatever that was. “Yep,” Bret said.
“Lots of folks’ll be caught by surprise with this weather. It’s early for snow.”
For the next few miles, Dad didn’t say a thing. As they edged out of town, the paved road turned into snow-covered gravel, and there weren’t any other tracks at all. Dad put the Explorer in four-wheel drive and lowered his speed.
Bret wished Daddy hadn’t mentioned visiting Mommy. Just the thought made Bret feel sick. Usually he pretended that she was out of town, at a horse show in Canada.
He hated it when he was reminded that she was in the hospital. It was bad enough that he remembered THE DAY. He squeezed his eyes shut, but the memories came anyway, the ones he hated, the ones that lived curled in the wheels of his Corvette bed and came at him every night as soon as Daddy turned off the lights and shut the door.
Wait, Mommy. The jump is in the wrong place. Someone musta moved it …
Bret turned to look at Dad. “Do you swear Mom’s gonna wake up?”
Dad didn’t answer right away. When he finally did, it was in a quiet voice. “I can’t swear she’ll be fine, son. I can’t even swear that she’ll wake up. But I believe it with all my heart and soul, and she needs you to believe it, too.”
“I believe it.”
He said it too fast; his daddy knew he was lying.
After that, Bret leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see his mom lying in that hospital bed. He liked it better when he pretended she was still alive. Sometimes he could close his eyes and imagine her standing beside his bed, with her hair short and spiky around her face and her arms crossed. She’d be smiling at him, and she looked like she used to—no bruises or cuts at all. And she always said the same thing: How’s my favorite boy in the whole world?
But it was just a silly old dream, and it didn’t mean a thing. Bret might be little, and maybe sometimes he didn’t know what to do with the remainder at the end of a long-division problem, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that fairy tales and cartoons weren’t real. Everybody knew that Wile E. Coyote couldn’t really fall from an airplane and live or that princesses who ate poisoned apples and slept in glass cases for years couldn’t wake up.
And mommies who fell off horses and cracked their heads against the wooden post at the end of the arena were really dead.
Liam stared at the mail in his lap. Almost all of it was addressed to Mikaela. Bills from the Country Corner General Store and the feed store, stabling and lessons checks from the twelve families who paid to board their horses at the barn, postcards and leaflets and flyers. A postcard announcing Nordstrom’s latest sale.
In ordinary times, he would have gone into the kitchen and tossed the postcard on the kitchen table and said, “Oh, no, the Christmas sale is starting….” She would have laughed easily, turning away from the stove or the refrigerator or the washing machine as she said, “We’ll just sell a few shares of Microsoft to get me through….”
“Daddy, why are we sitting at the mailbox?”
“Oh. Sorry about that, Bretster. I was just thinking about something.” Tossing the pile of mail into the well between them, he eased his foot off the brake pedal and pressed cautiously on the gas. The Explorer’s tires spun on the mushy rim of the road, then grabbed on to the gravel and lurched forward. Ahead of them, the deserted road was a twisted river of fallen snow. Towering Douglas firs and cedar trees, their downslung branches dusted white, hemmed the thin strip of road that Ian Campbell had carved from the forest almost fifty years ago. There were a few other farmhouses along the way, their slanted, rock-dented mailboxes stuck at haphazard angles on spindly wooden legs.
“Maybe we could build a snowman after dinner,” Liam said awkwardly, wondering where Mikaela kept the mittens and the extra woolen socks. He knew there was a box somewhere, probably marked Winter clothes, but he couldn’t remember where they’d stashed it last year. Maybe behind the stack of Christmas decorations in the attic.
“Or maybe we could drive down to Turnagain Hill and go sledding. Mr. Robbin told us to come on down anytime for dinner.”
Liam couldn’t think of anything else to say. They both knew there would be no sledding, no ice-skating, no snowmen, and no hot cocoa. Not now. They would think of such things, perhaps even talk about doing them, but in the end, as they’d done for the past four weeks, they would come together in that big house in the middle of the snowy field and go their separate ways.
They would eat dinner together, each one in turn tossing out some inane, pointless bit of conversation. After dinner they would do the dishes, the four of them. Then they would try to watch television together, Wild Discovery or maybe a sitcom, but gradually they would drift apart. Jacey would burrow into her room and talk on the phone. Bret would settle in front of his computer and play loud, fast-paced games that required his full attention, and Rosa would knit.
Liam would float from room to room, doing nothing, trying to keep his mind blank. More often than not, he ended up in front of the grand piano in the living room, staring down at the keyboard, wishing the music was still in his heart and in his fingers, but knowing that it was gone.
He downshifted and turned left, passing beneath the rough-hewn arch his dad had constructed years ago, onto the driveway that was lined with snow-dusted four-rail fencing. In some distant part of his mind, he heard the gentle clanking of the iron sign that hung suspended from the cross-beam of the cedar arch, the one that read ANGEL FALLS RANCH. Or maybe it was his imagination, that sound, and all he really heard was the tinny silence between himself and his son.
He pulled into the garage and turned off the engine. Bret immediately unbuckled his seat belt, grabbed his backpack, and hurried into the house.
Liam sat there, hands planted on the wheel. He didn’t look at the album and present he’d tossed in the backseat, but he knew they were there.
Finally he got out of the car and headed into the house, passing through the cluttered mudroom. At the end of the hallway, a light glowed faintly orange.
Thank God for Rosa.
He was still a little awkward around her, uncomfortable. She was so damned quiet, like one of those Cold War spies who’d learned to walk without making a sound. Sometimes he caught her staring at him, and in her dark eyes he saw a sadness that went clear to the bone. Sometimes he wished he were the kind of man who could go to her, smiling, and say, So, Rosa, what happened to you? But that’s not how they were with each other. If Liam had asked the personal question, Rosa wouldn’t have answered. And so, they moved around each other, close but not too close.
Now, as he moved through the house, he flicked on the lights. No matter how often he told Rosa that electricity was cheap, she turned on only the lights she needed.
Not like Mike, who hated a dark house.
When he reached the great room, he stood in the shadows, watching Rosa and Bret set up for Yahtzee. Within minutes they had a game going. He wished he didn’t notice how quietly Bret played. There was none of the clapping or whistling or “All rights!” that used to be his son’s natural soundtrack.
They were quite a pair, the silent little boy with the blackening eye and his equally solemn grandmother.
She was such a small woman, Rosa, only a hand’s width taller than her grandson, and the way she moved—head down, shoulders hunched—made her appear even smaller. Tonight, as usual, she was dressed all in black. The somber fabric emphasized the snowy whiteness of her hair and skin. She was a woman of sharp contrasts. Black and white, cold and warm, spiritual and down-to-earth.
Rosa looked up and saw him. “Hola, Dr. Liam.”
He’d told her a dozen times to please, please call him Liam, but she wouldn’t do it. Smiling, he moved toward them. “Who’s winning?”