The phone rang again. This time it was Marion from the local 4-H chapter. He tossed out a jumbled explanation, thanked her for her prayers, and hung up.
He didn’t make it five feet before the phone rang again. This time he ignored it and went into the living room, where he knelt beside his son. “What do you say we order pizza?”
Bret popped the thumb out of his mouth. “Jerry doesn’t deliver on Halloween. Not after the Monroes tee-peed his truck last year.”
“It’s stir-fry night, anyway. Mommy and me put the chicken in its sauce last night. It’s marinatin’.”
“Stir-fry.” Chicken and veggies. How hard could it be? “You want to help me cook it?”
“You don’t know how.”
“I can slice open a man’s abdomen, remove his appendix, and sew him back up. I’m sure I can cook one little boy’s dinner.”
Bret frowned. “I don’t think you need to know all that for stir-fry.”
“Why don’t you climb up onto one of the kitchen stools? We’ll do it together.”
“But I don’t know how, either.”
“We’ll figure it out. It’ll be fun. Come on.” He helped Bret off the sofa and followed him into the kitchen. When Bret was settled on the stool, Liam went to the fridge and got out the plastic bags full of veggies and the marinated chicken. After some searching, he found the cutting board and a big knife.
He started with the mushrooms.
“Mommy doesn’t put ’shrooms in it. I don’t like ’em.”
“Oh.” Liam put the mushrooms back in the bag and reached for the cauliflower.
“Nope.” Bret was starting to look scared. “I tole you you don’t know how to do it …”
Liam grabbed the broccoli. “This okay?”
“Uh-huh. Lots of trees.”
He started to chop it up.
“Littler!” Bret shouted.
Liam didn’t look up. He sliced the broccoli in small pieces, but the contours made it difficult.
“You gotta put oil in the wok.”
The phone rang. Liam reluctantly picked it up. It was Mike’s friend Shaela, from the Saddle Club, wondering if there was anything she could do.
Liam found the electric wok. “Thanks, Shaela,” he said in the middle of her sentence—God, I can’t believe it—or something close, and hung up. Then he plugged in the wok and poured a cup of oil into it.
“That’s a lot of oil,” Bret said with a frown as the phone started ringing again.
“I like it crispy.” Liam answered the phone—Mabel from the horse rescue program—and repeated what he’d told everyone else. By the time Mabel said “I’m sorry” for the fourth time, Liam almost screamed. He appreciated the calls—truly—but they made it all too real. And now the damn oil was popping and smoking.
He hung up on Mabel in the middle of a word. “Sorry, Bretster. Sorry.” He tossed the chicken and marinade into the oil. It splattered everywhere. Tiny drops of scalding oil hit his cheeks and stung.
Swearing, he went back to the broccoli.
The phone rang again, and he cut his finger. Blood squirted across the vegetables and dotted the countertop.
Bret screamed, “Daddy, you’re bleeding!”
Riiiiing … riiiiing …
The smoke detector went off, buzzzzzz. Liam reached for the phone and knocked the wok with his hip. Greasy chicken and burning oil and smoke flew everywhere.
It was Myrna from Lou’s Bowl-O-Rama, wondering if there was anything she could do.
When Liam hung up, he was breathing so hard he felt dizzy. He saw Bret, backed against the cold fridge, his whole body shaking, his thumb in his mouth.
Liam didn’t know if he wanted to scream or cry or run. Instead, he knelt in front of Bret. The smoke alarm was still bleating, blood was still dripping from Liam’s forefinger. “I’m sorry, Bretster. But it’s okay.”
“That’s not how Mommy cooks.”
He put his hands behind Bret’s head and stared into his son’s eyes, as if by pure will he could make Bret feel safe. “We won’t starve. Now, how about we go to town for dinner?”
Bret looked up at him. “I’m gonna go change my clothes, okay?”
Liam hugged him again. It was the only thing he could think of to do.
Bret was crying, softly now, silently, and Liam felt as if his own heart would break at the pathetic silence of those tears.
Jacey came home earlier than Liam expected, looking wan and tired. She hardly said a word; instead, she kissed his cheek and headed up to her room.
When he was pretty sure that both kids were asleep, Liam went into Mikaela’s office. He opened the door and flicked on the light.
The first thing he noticed was her fragrance, soft and sweet as newfallen rain. Her desk was scattered with piles of haphazardly stacked papers. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine her sitting at that desk, a cup of steaming French Roast coffee in her hand, her gaze glued to the computer screen as she wrote letter after letter on behalf of animals that were being neglected.
On an ordinary day, she would have looked up at him, her mouth turned downward, her beautiful eyes filled with compassion. There’s a mare in Skykomish so starved she can’t stand up … Can we take in one more?
He went to her desk and pushed a pile of newspapers off the chair. They hit the wooden floor with a thwack. He turned on the computer and maneuvered himself onto the Internet, where he ran a search for “Head injury.”
For the next hour, he read about other people’s pain. He filled up almost an entire yellow legal pad with scribbled bits of information—books, specialists, medications. Anything and everything that might make a difference. But in the end, he knew only what he’d known at the beginning. There was nothing to do but wait …
He clicked the machine off without even bothering to close out of the program and left the room.
Downstairs, he poured himself a double shot of tequila—something he hadn’t done since the Tex-Mex hoedown at the Legion Hall two summers ago. He drank it in one swallow. Disappointed that the world still seemed remarkably stable, he poured and drank another. This, at last, lent his mind a soft dullness, and finally the knot in his throat eased.
He went to the big picture window that framed the darkened pastures below. The horses couldn’t be seen now on this black night, but they were out there. A dozen horses that Mikaela had saved; they’d come from all over the western half of the state, from groups and individuals and bankrupt farms. They arrived, broken and starved and untended, but Mike healed them, one by one, then gave them away to good homes. She had such a tender heart. It was one of the things he loved most about her.
But when was the last time he’d told her that? He couldn’t remember, that was the hell of it.
He’d never been good with words. He showed his love, over and over again, but he knew that words mattered, too.
He wished to hell he could remember the last time he’d told her that she was his sun and his moon, his whole world.
He poured another shot and slumped on the overstuffed down sofa.
She could die …
No. He wouldn’t let his mind wander down that road. Mike would wake up soon, any minute now, and they would laugh together about how afraid he’d been.
But the road beckoned him anyway; he could smell despair burned into the asphalt, hear the fear rustling treelike along the shoulders.
He closed his eyes, remembering everything about her, and when he opened his eyes, she was there, beside him on the couch. She was wearing the ratty, torn old Levi’s that he was always threatening to throw away, and a black chenille boat-neck sweater that could have fit a woman twice her size. She leaned back and looked at him.
He wished he could reach for her, touch the softness of her favorite sweater, kiss the fullness of her lower lip, but he knew she wasn’t really there. She was inside him, filling him so full that she’d spilled out. “You would have laughed if you’d seen me in the kitchen tonight, babe.”
He couldn’t hold the grief inside him anymore; he couldn’t be strong. At last, he leaned back on the sofa, and he cried.
“Daddy?” The small, hesitant voice floated down the stairs. “Who are you talking to?”
“I’m not talking to anyone.” He wiped his eyes and rose unsteadily to his feet. He crossed the room and climbed the stairs.
Bret stood at the top in his makeshift pj’s—a purple glow-in-the-dark triceratops T-shirt and flannel boxers. Somewhere in his jumbled chest of drawers were several sets of real pajamas, but only Mike could find anything in that mess.
“I couldn’t sleep, Daddy.”
Liam scooped Bret into his arms and carried him up to the master bedroom, tucking him into the bed that was too big without Mike in it. He curled against his son.
“She was lookin’ at me, Dad.”
Liam tightened his hold on Bret. It was funny, but only last week, Liam had thought that Bret was growing up too fast. Now the boy in his arms seemed impossibly young, and since this morning, he had been regressing. It was something that would have to be dealt with … later.
“When you saw Mommy, her eyes were open. Is that what you mean?”
“She was lookin’ right at me, but … she wasn’t there. It wasn’t Mommy.”
“She was just too hurt to close her eyes and now she’s too hurt to open them.”
“Can I see her tomorrow?”
Liam thought about how she looked—her face battered and swollen and discolored, a nasogastric tube snaking up one nostril, all those needles tucked into her veins, the machines … It would terrify a child. Liam knew what those memories were like—he had them of his father. Some things, once seen, could never be forgotten, and they could taint an image forever.
“No, kiddo, I don’t think so. It’s against hospital policy to let a child into Intensive Care. You can see her … as soon as she gets moved to the regular ward.”
Bret said quietly, “That’s how dead looks in the movies.”
“She’s not dead. She’s just … resting for a little while. Like Sleeping Beauty.”
“Did you try kissin’ her?”
It took Liam a long time to answer. He knew he would remember this moment forever, and that’s how long it would hurt. “Yeah, Bretster. I tried that.”
Liam stayed in bed until Bret fell asleep, then he cautiously extricated himself and went downstairs. This time he made himself a cup of tea. God knew the tequila hadn’t worked.
Did you try kissing her?
Liam glanced up at the slanted wooden ceiling. “Did you hear that, babe? He wanted to know if I’d tried kissing you.”
The phone rang.
He ignored it. On the fourth ring, the answering machine clicked on. He wasn’t ready to hear Mike’s soft, throaty voice. He squeezed his eyes shut. You have reached the Campbell residence, and the winter office of Whatcom County’s horse rescue program. No one is available right now …