"No," was all he said, but in that simple, single word, she knew he understood, knew he’d faced a loved one’s death befare. He curled his arm around her, held her close. "I’m here."
Mariah heard the words as clearly, as loudly, as if they’d been spoken aloud.
He was here with her for now. But soon he would be gone, Rass would be gone, Jake would be gone, and she would be alone.
Utterly, desperately alone.
She hung her head and wished she could cry.
Mad Dog stood in the bedroom’s open doorway. The room was bathed in light—Mariah had ripped down every curtain and lit every lamp. But the golden glow couldn’t chase away the chill of death or warm the cold, sunken cheeks of the man who lay still and silent in the huge, four-postered bed.
Sadness crept through Mad Dog’s chest, tightening it until every breath hurt. Tears burned his eyes, turned the sunlit room into a golden blur. He blinked, unashamed of his grief. Gradually the chamber came back into focus. And what he saw—and heard—broke his heart all over again.
Mariah sat beside the bed, the settee scooted close. She leaned slightly forward, one slim hand curled around her father’s blue-veined, big-knuckled one, the other holding a book of poetry. The halting, quiet strains of her voice filtered across the room.
"All my past life is mine no more; the flying hours are gone like transitory dreams given o’er, whose images are kept in store by memory alone. …"
She set the book down and bowed her head.
The sight of her, so sad-looking and defeated, twisted something old and forgotten in Mad Dog’s heart. He was seeing a rare moment of weakness, he knew. He’d watched her often in the past two days, stood here in the doorway in silence, wishing—Christ, wishing—he could do something for her.
But she wouldn’t let him help. She just sat there by the bed, holding her father’s hand and reading poetry. Sometimes—not often—she stopped reading and simply talked to him. Not about anything important, not about her fear or loneliness or despair, but about the weather, the farm, or the coming of winter.
It was a rare moment when she put down her book; rarer still when she allowed herself to bend as she was doing now.
For the past few days, she hadn’t left his side. She didn’t eat, hardly slept, never moved. Her sorrow was like a heavy gray shroud over her shoulders, weighing her down, pulling the color from her cheeks and the spirit from her soul.
And never once had Mad Dog heard her pray.
Now, looking at her, he could see the effects of her vigil. She was wan and strained-looking. Her skin had lost its creamy sheen; the healthy glow had given way to a lackluster ashen hue. Her eyes, once so sparkling with life, were dull and vacant.
Her sadness touched him more than he would have thought possible. It was crazy; but he hurt because she hurt. He wanted suddenly to go to her, to put his arms around her and hold her close.
But she wouldn’t let him comfort her. He let out his breath in a frustrated sigh and knocked on the wall. , I’ve brought you something to eat."
She didn’t look up. "I’m not hungry." Her voice was as flat and lifeless as the hair that hung in a snarled mass down her back.
"You have to eat something," he said tiredly, knowing it was a battle he’d lose.
She placed her book, facedown, on the settee’s cushion and reached for the washbasin beside her. Plunging her hands into the lukewarm water, she pulled out the rag and twisted it hard. Water streamed down from her fists. Then, carefully, she dabbed her father’s slack mouth with the damp cloth. Mad Dog had been dismissed.
Frustrated, he studied her downcast face. She was trying pathetically hard to remain in control, to appear invincible. But she couldn’t quite manage it. He saw the quiver in her lower lip when she looked at her father, the trembling in her hands when she gently washed his face:
Her pitiful attempt at strength tore at his heart. He knew how she felt, knew how hard it was to appear strong when your spirit was gone. He’d sat in that same chair, helpless and alone, watching his mother wither and die.
He wanted to tell Mariah he understood, that shel wasn’t alone. But she wouldn’t listen to him, wouldn’t even look at him.
He knew why; knew and understood. When the pair was that sharp and the defenses so weak, a kindness—^ any kindness-—was almost unbearable. She was terrified to let anyone be kind to her right now, afraid that if she gave in—even for a second—she’d fall into a pit of grief from which she’d never emerge.
He rubbed the bridge of his nose. There had to be something he could do to help.
"Oh, my God."
He opened his eyes. "What is it?" v "He moved."
Mad Dog lurched into the room and came up beside her.
She squeezed her father’s hand with both of hers. "Rass? Rass?"
Rass groaned. It was a quiet, rustling sound. His eyelids fluttered.
"I’m right here, Rass. It’s Mariah and Mad Dog. We’re right here."
He groaned again, ran his tongue across his teeth. Slowly, incredibly, his eyes began to open. "Mariah?" His voice was a scratchy shadow of itself.
"I’m right here, Rass. Right here." She squeezed his hand.
He frowned, tried to focus. "Mad Dog—that you?"
For a moment, Mad Dog couldn’t speak past the lump of emotion in his throat. "I’m here, Rass."
A tired smile pulled at one side of Rass!s blue-tinged lips. "Well, I’ll be damned …"
"Rass, I want you to eat something… ." Mariah began.
Rass stopped her with a slow wave of his good hand. "No point in eating."
She gasped softly. "Rass, don’t—"
"I want to sit on the porch swing," he said in a thick, slurred voice. "See the night sky one last time."
Mariah drew in an unsteady breath. "Don’t say that!"
Rass turned sad, rheumy blue eyes on Mad Dog. ‘Carry me out to the swing, will you?"
Mad Dog felt the sting of tears. Rass looked so old and tired … so unlike himself.
His once vibrant smile was lopsided and slack. "Sure."
He bent down and scooped Rass into his arms, then gently lifted him. He weighed less than nothing.
"HI be right there," Mariah said.
Mad Dog nodded. Cradling the old man carefully, he carried him down the stairs.
Mariah appeared on the porch a minute later, carrying pillows and blankets. She quickly made up a bed of sorts, pulling up a padded stool for Rass’s feet.
Mad Dog eased Rass onto the swing.
"Sit with me, Mariah," Rass said in a wheezing, tired voice.
Mariah sat beside her father. He leaned against her, and she curled her arms around his frail body. Together, they half sat, half lay in the porch swing. It creaked slowly back and forth, filling the quiet night with sound.
Rass glanced up at Mad Dog through sad, knowing eyes. That look hit Mad Dog hard, stealing his ability to breathe for a second. He’d seen that look before, in his mother’s eyes, just moments before she died.
"Get Jake . . ."
Mad Dog swallowed hard. Sadness clogged in a thick lump in his chest. "Sure," he rasped. He waited a minute, afraid to leave, then slowly he turned and walked away.
He knew where he’d find Jake; the boy hadn’t left the barn since Rass had been brought home two days ago. He just sat up there in the darkness, rocking silently back and forth.
Mariah watched Mad Dog walk away. When he disappeared, she tightened her hold on her father. "I knew you’d come back to me. I knew .. ."
"You’re going to have to be strong." Her father’s breathy voice cut through her sentence.
She stiffened. "You’re not going anywhere—"
He coughed. "I’m dying, Boo.. . ."
Tears welled in her eyes, moist and hot. She shook her head. "No, Rass. No."
He sighed tiredly and looked at her. In his watery blue eyes was a sadness that made her physically ill. "You’ve got to accept this, Mariah. You can’t hide from it or run away."
She shook her head. "I … I don’t . . . w-want you to say these things. Please."
"I was wrong to shield you for so long, Mariah. Your mother and I … we just loved you so much. We couldn’t stand to see you cry." He squeezed his eyes shut. Tears squeezed past his lashes and streaked down his gray wrinkled cheeks. "So we didn’t let you cry. I’m so sorry."
"Please don’t be sorry." Her voice dropped to a pleading whisper. "Please …"
He opened his eyes and looked at her. In that instant she saw it all: the pain, the sorrow, the regret. She remembered all the times he’d looked at her, gazed at her with a father’s quiet caring, and her heart broke.
He’d always been there for her, always, even when she’d been too stupid to reach for him. She couldn’t imagine a life without him___
"I love you, Boo."
It was as close to crying as she’d ever been. "I love you, too … Daddy. Please don’t leave me."
He gave her a slow, watery smile. "You haven’t called me that in years." "I should have."
"Ah, Boo," he said quietly. Slowly he brought his shaking right hand up and touched her face. His palm felt papery and dry against her flushed cheek. "How does the hurting start?"
She shook her head, unable to answer. They stared at each other for a long, long time. The muted sounds of the night faded away, leaving only the mingled duet of their strained breathing and the regular creak of the porch swing. Moonlight spilled across the farm and twined through the dead wisteria vines in shades of pearl and blue.
Mariah had the sudden, sickening thought that her daddy wouldn’t be here when the wisteria blossomed. The crunching thud of footsteps serrated the silence and pulled Mariah from her thoughts. She looked up and saw Jake and Mad Dog standing on the bottom step.
"Rass." Jake’s voice was an awed whisper. Rass smiled sadly. "Jake." Then he glanced down at Mad Dog. "Will you carry me back upstairs? I’m feeling tired again.
Jake, come with me."
Mad Dog climbed the porch steps slowly and drew Rass into his arms, then carried him back to bed.
Wordlessly, trying to be brave, Mariah and Jake followed them to the bedroom.
"Jake, come," Rass said, waving his right hand tiredly. He turned to Mariah and Mad Dog. "Give us a moment."
Mariah gave her father a pleading look. / have more to say. What if we don’t have any more time?l "We do," he said, reading her mind. "Now, go."
Rass settled into the comforting mound of pillows with a relieved sigh. It took a monumental effort to appear strong. His whole body ached, his mouth was ash-dry, even breathing hurt. And the paralyzed left side of his body was like a steady, dragging weight downward.
He closed his eyes, resting for a moment.
He might have dozed; he wasn’t sure. Tiredly he forced his eyes open, and found Jake standing at his bedside, staring down at him through moist, red-rimmed eyes.
"Jake." Rass said the boy’s name quietly, with love. "I wanted to say good-bye."
Tears welled in Jake’s eyes, shimmering. One by one, they fell past his lashes and streaked down his face. "I don’t want you to go."
Rass’s heart gave a hard squeeze. Tears filled his eyes and slid down his temples in warm, wet streaks. "We don’t have long, Jake. I’m really tired." He waved him over.