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Two emotionally wounded people cross paths in a small town. His scars come from combat, hers from personal tragedy. Will a chance encounter change their lives?
Light The Hidden Things
by Don McQuinn
4.6 stars – 53 Reviews
Kindle Price: $2.99
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
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Here’s the set-up:
Carter Crow has been wandering the country for years, denying and fleeing from the terrors of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He doesn’t expect Lupine to be any different from the hundreds of little towns he’s passed through in the years since he retired from the Marines. But when he meets the strong and beautiful Lila Milam, he knows there must be something special about the quiet mountain town.
As the people of Lupine start to force their way into Crow’s solitary life, he will soon be faced with a choice: accept the help and support being offered or let the trauma of his past finally destroy him.
5-star praise for Light The Hidden Things:
Don McQuinn is the king of mind control!
“…From the beginning, you feel like you are right there in the story, feeling their emotions, reading their thoughts…a heartfelt, beautiful, and engaging story…”
It Feels True to Life
“As a psychiatrist…who worked with a number of PTSD patients…this book about a veteran with PTSD rings true to life. Not only that, it is movingly and beautifully written…amazingly evocative…”
Superb and worth buying!
“…Wonderfully crafted and researched, this novel should be read by everyone, not just those in or around the military families. Highly recommended. ”
an excerpt from
Light The Hidden Things
by Don McQuinn
Copyright © 2013 by Don McQuinn and published here with his permission
Carter Crow eased his pickup and the attached Airstream mobile home off the narrow road onto the potholed remains of an asphalt parking lot. He stopped and stepped to the ground with an almost swaggering economy of motion that suggested in a different time he’d have traveled on horseback and probably still could. Rangy, in levis and a short-sleeved blue work shirt, he broke the image by wearing laced field boots instead of a cowboy’s heeled ropers. Crisp features seemed almost aggressive, nothing like handsome. A bristle of close-cropped black hair glinted silver at the temples.
Reaching inside the cab, he brought out an off-white straw Stetson. Before putting it on he glanced at the barely legible message inked on the sweatband: Semper Fi, old buddy. Ride easy. Fine creases of a smile touched the corners of his mouth for the moment it took to put it on and tilt it just so.
Several yards to his left stood a dilapidated clapboard building that clearly was once a store-and-house combination. To his right the land eased down to Lake Connolly. Early morning sun turned wavelets into silver filigree on jade. Beyond that a tumbled blanket of forest green so dark it appeared to vibrate sprawled up mountain slopes. Above the tree line austere peaks of bare stone raked the sky. Last winter’s snow still patched them on this cloudless late summer day. Crow inhaled to the depths of his lungs, savored firs, the tang of frigid lake water, sun-drenched earth and plants.
When he returned his gaze to his immediate surroundings, however, he spoke aloud, a deep voice touched by a softening drawl that heightened the sadness of the words. “I’m glad you never saw what’s happened here, Smitty. Good memories ought never be broken.” He hesitated, then huskily, “No more bad memories for you, my friend. No more good ones taken away, either.”
Reasserting the present, Crow frowned at the opportunistic weeds claiming every break in the shattered parking surface. Three knee-high, scrawny Douglas firs strained for growth. The boarded-up windows of the old building stared back at him. A cement slab in front once held gas pumps; now it suggested a grave marker.
Still apparently talking to himself, he was gruff. “We made a mistake. We’ll just walk around a bit, then shove off.” He gave a quiet but unmistakable command. “Major, come.”
A mass of dog tumbled out to stand beside him. It grinned excitement. Muscles bulged under a brown coat relieved by white forepaws and a white blaze on its chest. A wagging tail slapped Crow’s leg. Concentrating once again on the distant scenery, Crow lowered a hand that settled unerringly on the animal’s head, a move of long companionship.
Frenzied yapping from the building spun them that way. They watched in disbelief as something like a white lint bunny shot out the building’s front door and vaulted off the porch in headlong charge.
A disheveled woman flew out in pursuit, her yells as strident as the yaps. Bare legs under cutoff jeans flashed in sunshine that emphasized the dirt smudges on her face. Despite the blue bandanna binding her hair, stray skeins rich as strong coffee flared out the right side and in back. A paint-stained black sweatshirt with sleeves cut off at the elbows fluttered and flapped.
Quickly, the small dog realized the unmoving targets of its wrath were not frozen into immobility by fear. Showing commendable wisdom, it skidded to a stop several yards away. After looking to assure the woman was coming fast, it commenced up-and-down hops that demonstrated unrelenting ferocity without actually moving it the least bit closer.
Tail wagging happily, Major advanced to investigate. Crow made a sharp sound, then said, “Major, sit.” The dog obeyed instantly, cocking his head from side to side, fascinated by this wondrous entertainment. He voiced approval in a thunderous woof. The white dog shrieked. Crow would have sworn it backed up in mid-leap like a dandelion puff hit by a stiff breeze.
The woman arrived just in time to whisk her pet out of the air. The move was so quick, the grip so sure, a final yap was squashed down to a muffled yeep. Clutching the animal to her breast, breathless, she demanded, “Call off that beast.”
Crow regarded her with the same detached amusement Major afforded her dog. He guessed her age as not that much younger than himself, which made her mature enough to consider rational dismissal of a puppy-grade confrontation.
Further evaluation of her expression knocked the props out from under that hope.
Too bad, he thought, and allowed himself a hidden sigh. She was attractive, despite all the signs of low-order grunt work. A bad sign; a woman brimming with the righteousness of hard labor was a fertile ground for trouble. And this one looked ready for war.
There were stains under her eyes. Crow was embarrassed by the conviction she’d been crying. He told himself he couldn’t possibly be a factor in her distress because the tears were long dry. He nevertheless felt completely in the wrong, clumsy, and generally outgunned.
Crow’s tip of the hat was slow. The antique courtesy didn’t do much for the woman, but oddly her pet seemed to calm a bit. With a deliberate look down at Major then back to the woman, Crow said, “That’s not right, ma’am.”
Confusion deepened her frown. “What do you mean, not right? That thing tried to kill Zasu.” Calling down the force of law, she added, “You’re trespassing.”
Major liked being the center of interest. Unfortunately, as dogs will, he yawned to relieve his excitement. The effect was like looking into a wet, red, suitcase full of teeth.
The woman’s arm around Zasu visibly tightened. Zasu squeaked. The woman said, “See? She’s terrified.”
Crow said, “Don’t blame my dog, ma’am. I made all the trouble. He’s just a mutt, doesn’t know about trespass. It’s me that’s out of line. I apologize.” He pointed to the cab and said, “Ride.” The dog jumped in. Crow pushed the door almost closed before adding, “He’s a good dog, ma’am. He’s big and he’s ugly enough to scare off a small storm, but he’s gentle. It’s not kind to call him ‘that thing’ or ‘that beast.’ He’s got feelings.”
The woman blinked without any loss of suspicious vigilance. “He seems to mind well. He’s just so big.”
Leaning back against the door of the cab, Crow said, “He’s a big old boy, that’s a fact. Packed tight. Go about one-fifteen, one-and-a-quarter. Called an American Bulldog. Not many around.”
Zasu squirmed and the woman’s frown dug in again. She said, “Very interesting. I want you to leave anyhow. He looks dangerous.”
Crow’s grin was open, crackling blue eyes and strong teeth. The weathered features warmed with it. “Dangerous is the furthest thing from his mind. He’s a gentleman.”
Tired of being left out of the conversation, the subject gentleman pushed his head out the open window and nosed Crow’s hat down over his eyes. While Crow straightened it, the dog’s tail striking the back of the seat was a metronome of friendliness. The woman forced a small smile and said, “Zasu and I will have to take your word for his character. You said he had a name? I didn’t catch it.”
For a moment Crow was completely taken by the changes her smile wrought. Hastily recovering, he said, “Major.”
Her hard look was back instantly. Turquoise eyes drilled Crow and he recalled that turquoise is a rock. She whipped out a cell phone. “That’s it, mister. Go. In five seconds I call 911.”
Wide-eyed, Crow pushed Major away from the driver’s seat. “What brought that on?”
“I don’t like being made fun of.”
“I wasn’t making fun.”
“Ha! Major? Who’d name a dog Major?”
“Well, me, for one.”
Thumb on keypad, she hesitated. “You’re not… you know, being smart? I mean it’s like me naming Zasu Ripper. Major’s a funny name.”
“I’m a funny man.”
The eyes practically flamed. “I never noticed. Naming a dog something like that’s cruel.”
“You obviously don’t know many majors, ma’am.” Crow fiddled with his hat, sincere as granite. “They’re a lot like other people, for the most part. And anyhow, people don’t always measure up to what they’re called. Like, my first name’s Carter, which is rightfully a last name, but my last name’s Crow. I’m not often mistaken for a bird. Just so for Major. It’s who he is. We talked it out when he was a pup. It doesn’t trouble him.”
She smiled again. This time it shimmered, like water waiting to boil, and suddenly laughter spilled through. Crow thought the sound almost overruled the tear stains. Too soon, it was over. It left him with the unsettling notion that it had escaped a bad place.
Crow decided to do something he rarely did. He made conversation. “You own this outfit?”
Half-turning toward the building, she said, “Somewhat.” There was no inflection and Crow could only see part of her face, but he was sure there was a grimace.
It brought Crow up short. It also reminded him to stay out of other people’s lives. Particularly their sorrows. He climbed into the pickup. “Sorry about the commotion.”
Petting the squirming Zasu, the woman waved off the apology. “No harm, no foul.” She paused, before continuing, “You come here for the fishing?”
“I did. Fellow that told me about it used to come here. Long time ago.”
“My uncle built all this. They—my aunt and uncle—lived in the back half. I’m bringing it back.” Challenge buzzed in the last. When Crow didn’t react, apology tinted what followed. “Maybe your friend knew Bake.” She tilted her head toward a wooden sign dangling at roadside from a metal pole. It hung endwise from its remaining chain and someone had punctuated the wood with a rifle so now it read BAKE’S: BAIT. The pole had suffered, as well. A large blotch of paint marked where a car had knocked it into an eastward list. The woman added, “There’s a county-maintained RV site on the lakeshore road, about a mile on.”
“My friend never mentioned knowing anyone here.” Crow started the engine. “Much obliged for the campsite tip. Is there a good place to eat back in town?”
“The Silver Dollar’s got okay pub grub. For a real dinner, try Martha’s.”
“I noticed Martha’s. Sign said home cooking.”
“Used to be. She’s got a cook now. Good as Martha, but no one’s got the guts to say that.”
Crow put the truck in gear as the woman walked away. Backing and filling, he took time to mark more details of the location. Beyond the broken parking sites and toward the lake were fire pits, squatting under leafy shade trees like an archeological find. Further down the slope a few firs towered, giants that knew the seasons of centuries. Rhododendrons grew at their bases. Unkempt and leggy, their vigor was careless splendor.
He watched the woman up the steps of the porch. She strode inside past a lopsided screen door hanging by one hinge. A breeze made it sway, uncertain as a drunken wink. The building itself apparently started life painted green. Then it was blue. The last time anyone bothered to spruce it up, they chose brown. Weathering had peeled off haphazard slabs of all three, giving the walls a mottled appearance that made Crow think of a very dead reptile. A few spots showed the original wood, gray with exposure but still sound, as if the old relic knew disrepair was temporary but pride was forever.
Turning away, Crow pictured a different time. People on the porch laughed, swapped stories, enjoyed. “Must have been special then,” he said toward the uncaring mountains.
Later, at the turnoff to the county campsite, he couldn’t decide to stay there or press on. Major dozed on his end of the bench seat. When the truck slowed he sat up to face Crow.
Crow said, “I know what you’re thinking. No way in the world that lady will ever fix up that wreck. You see she’d been crying? A woman like that, crying.” He shook his head. “You hear her laugh?” His words fell to a whisper that had the rasp of dry rope. “Nice. Not as nice as Patricia, though. You never heard her. Not sad underneath, like that lady. Except later, when…” He stopped abruptly.
Fool. She didn’t sound like Patricia. No one ever laughed like her. No one ever will.
He shrugged, twisted neck muscles gone stiff. He ended up looking at Major. His smile for the dog was crooked. “See how people crowd into your life? You have to be on your toes: Keep them out. Even the nice ones.” He made a noise in his chest. Not a laugh, not a snarl—a thing that wanted to be both. “Especially the nice ones.”
Crow drove into the campsite. When he spoke, forced cheer mocked a voice still struggling to pull free of dark reminiscence. “And what’s it mean when you ask someone if they own something and they tell you ‘Somewhat?’ What kind of answer is that?”
Major lay back down and curled in a tight ball.
Crow pressed on. “That’s your problem, you know? You’re a fine listener. Gifted, you might say. Conversation-wise, though, you don’t hold up your end worth doodly. Frankly, if it wasn’t for stodgy, you wouldn’t have any personality at all.”
Major’s wet snuffle had all the earmarks of a rude canine retort.
* * *
It was just coming dusk when Crow came out of the Airstream and settled to the ground facing the lake. The water was a flat black infinity stretching away toward hulking, slowly disappearing mountains. Rough, runneled bark of a fir pressed against his Pendleton wool shirt.
He liked the night. In the past it had been the place of stalking, of being stalked. Fear waited for darkness, ticking off the seconds of the sun, licking its chops. Daylight had fear; no question about that. It was different, though. Night time fear slipped into a man like a knife, slick and chill, turning organs into grease.
Until a man learned to use the night and its fear. A man became darkness. Became fear.
Crow knew this like few others.
The time of such things was gone, dead as the dust of the places where he’d learned. He exulted in their going. He never spoke of his pride in his skills. He tried not to think of those who discovered their skills couldn’t match his.
Some things refuse to leave the mind.
Still, for Crow, the night was true sanctuary. As he’d turned it to his benefit in a time of violence, so now he embraced it—and it him—when he needed peace. There was privacy. There was obscurity and, when things were best, invisibility. In the darkness he thought more clearly, sorted through the good and bad, threw out what he didn’t want in his head.
Night was when he closed his eyes, making the darkness perfect. Intimate. Solitary. When he talked to Patricia.
She made me think of you. Not because she’s alone. I like to think you never thought of yourself as alone. I want to believe you always knew I’d be back.
I’m not going to talk about that. I’ve said as much about all that as I’m able.
Remember how you always picked on me to tell you about my day when I came home from work? Graveled me at first, you asking about this, about that. Took a while for me to learn you really cared about what I did. Took even longer to learn I really cared what you did while I was gone, too. Even before Joe. When it was just us. You never believed I cared that much. You talked about doing the floors like it was a penalty. Can’t really argue. But they were our floors, my Patricia taking care of our home.
I still remember your face when I told you I’d show you the right way to make a bed. Never knew until that moment such a soft-spoken lady could have such a rough side to her tongue. Very strong lesson.
Then you tore me up again next day when I came home with the truffles and flowers. Said I shouldn’t ever try to bribe you. I did, though, didn’t I? I liked doing it. I don’t know why I never said how beautiful you were when I brought home something like that. You always sounded off, real sharp, but I never listened. I just watched what your face said, what your eyes told me. Did you ever know I’d buy one of those silly fancy candy boxes and just grin like a monkey all the way home because I couldn’t wait to see how you’d smile and put your hands together under your chin?
No. I never said. I’m sorry, babe.
So many sorries.
There I go again, coloring outside the lines. I said I’d tell you about today.
There’s a calamity up the road. I’m camped next to Lake Connelly. Old clown Major’s just behind me in the Airstream, out cold. Anyhow, lady’s trying to bring back an old store. Smitty told me about it. You remember Gunny Smith? His wife, Millie? Five boys? Yeah, them. The family that invented noise. He’s gone. Falujah. Anyhow, he knew the place long ago. Great little store to take care of fishermen, hunters, campers, vacationers. Place is a wreck. She means to make it work again.
Not a chance. A dreamer. I see them all the time. Think hard work and good intentions is all you need.
We believed it, didn’t we?
Anyhow, she told me about a place to eat tonight. I’m going. I don’t feel much like cooking. Or anything else, truth be told. I don’t know…
Aw, why don’t I just say it? She made me think of you. I hope you don’t mind. I mean, she’s not really anything like you—you know that could never be—but you know how things went, there at the end? I never understood how you felt. I remember the things you said, though. You were so good to me. The words were always right. I just never heard the music. I swear I never knew what you were feeling. I’d give my soul to hear you tell me so.
If I still have one.
The thing is, that lady’s got the same thing in her voice. I know that sound now.
Well, listen to Mr. Cheer. I don’t know what’s wrong with me this evening. Seems I can’t break free of things you and I really don’t want to talk about. Remember how you used to change a subject on me? I do. You ruined a lot of fine rants, woman. First thing I’d know, we were talking about something I never brought up or even thought about.
You still do it, thank God. Like when I sort of stumble and almost forget about who I am and all that. Or when the dreams come. You know you’re all I’ve got to hold onto when that happens.
I really hate to bother you with that, Patricia. After everything else… I’m getting better, though. I am.
Sorry to be so dull tonight. The day wasn’t that bad. Just me, missing you. I’ll be better by morning, for sure. After I get me some dinner and a good night’s sleep.
‘Cause you’re always there.
There was little difference between high noon and dusk inside the store section of Bake’s Bait. Windows that once admitted grand scenery were blocked by plywood panels that shut out the day as well as the weather. For Lila, scrubbing walls, work lights provided garish illumination that magnified dirt and stains. Fumes from the bucket of cleaner made her eyes smart. For perhaps the hundredth time she promised herself she’d put in new, bigger windows. When she got another loan.
A quick squint at her watch was an unnecessary move. Zasu’s fidgets made it clear it was time to quit and, most important, time to get dinner inside woman’s best friend. Her anxious whine rose like a human question.
With Zasu frisking beside her, Lila stepped through an open door from the store section into the living area. It was still under repair, but the improvement was obvious. For one thing, the western windows were glass. Fading sunshine buttered the opposite beige wall, heightening the sharper colors of the shelved books flanking a dark blue sofa. Between the windows loomed a ponderous fireplace of rounded river rocks. A pair of chocolate-brown leather chairs faced the hearth. The richness of their color and scent coaxed with promise of enfolding comfort, a warm fire, a good read. To that end, each chair had its own table and light.
Lila loved the chairs. She saw them as aging friends, easy in their present, content with their past.
She stopped abruptly. Suddenly she couldn’t face cooking the usual solitary meal. She thought of Martha’s restaurant longingly and, by association, the man who’d driven onto her property earlier. He had calm eyes but she had a feeling they missed nothing. Dismay tightened her throat; he must have noticed she’d been crying. Chagrin conjured up a most unwanted and wildly inappropriate mental image of Edward Lawson. Aloud, she mimicked pomposity. “Banking’s a business. Loans are based on cold, hard facts.” Bitterly, the voice her own, she went on. “Creep. I’ll show him. Everyone.”
Zasu continued to lead into the next room. It was clearly waiting its turn for improvement. Only the chandelier identified a former dining room. Lila’s disapproval swept across the chest of drawers, a truly ugly standing wardrobe, a cot with a sleeping bag, and a small dog bed.
Two doors in the far wall led out, the one on the left to two bedrooms and the bathroom.
The latter had been Lila’s first project. She shuddered, remembering.
The pair proceeded through the second door and into the kitchen. That was another work in progress, but operable, with its own dining nook.
Mixing a bit of canned food with some kibble in Zasu’s dish, Lila continued talking aloud. Defensiveness clanked in the words. “I’ll bet it’s been a month since I went into town except to buy groceries or hardware. Hardware. Could there be any greater curse than an actual requirement to go shopping—not an urge, mind, but a genuine requirement—and the goal is hardware?” She put the dish on the floor. Zasu practically dove in. Lila addressed the refrigerator. “I’m entitled to some time away. Fixing up this place is a goal, sure, but not the meaning of life.” Seeking affirmation, she told the stove, “I’m taking a bath and putting on something pretty and someone else is cooking tonight.” She looked at Zasu, whose attention remained firmly fixed on her own task at hand. Nevertheless, Lila said, “I’m having a glass of wine, too. Maybe even a couple. How d’you like them apples?”
Zasu finally raised her head. She wagged a fluffy tail and put an indicative paw on her dish. It was a nightly plea which Lila ignored with equal consistency, but this time she missed it entirely. She was on her way to the tub.
An hour later Lila, hair in order but still a bit damp, certainly felt better. Hot water didn’t just make her clean, it freed her of the insidious weariness that sometimes crept into her muscles and morale like a virus. Nice clothes and a dab of makeup didn’t hurt either. Especially for woman whose life had somehow reached a place where it had more to do with driving nails than polishing them.
She wondered if the bright yellow sweater over the dark green blouse might be too much.
She decided she liked it and if the fashionistas of Lupine wanted to take offense, the stimulation would do them good. The sweater went well with the brown tweedy skirt and way too expensive shoes and both brought out her own natural color. Anyhow, dinner in Lupine was no occasion for the little black dress and pearls.
There was the practical aspect of the thing, too; a sweater would be a near necessity later. It was only a few days until September and at Lupine’s altitude, winter was already claiming the night.
“I will not freeze because someone thinks I ought to dress fancier. That’s nuts.” In the near-empty space the words had a touch of echo.
She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “I’m rationalizing out loud at unpainted walls. I do impressions of people I don’t like for an audience of one dog. I explain myself to major appliances. Damned right I’m going out.”
Her smile was wry as she turned away, but her shoulders were back.
Lila started down the porch stairs just in time to see headlights swing off the road. She recognized Van’s sleek sports car. It stopped between her and the defunct gas pump island.
Charles Vanderkirk unfolded from behind the wheel. In the glare at the front of the car, he loomed. Considerably over six feet tall and hugely broad-shouldered. The picture wasn’t lost on Lila. She reminded herself to keep her voice firm. Definitely noncommittal. “Evening, Van. What brings you out this way this late?”
He came closer. He had good features and a generous smile. “The construction business doesn’t have working hours, just deadlines,” he said. “I’m trying to make a deal with old man Tolbert for that property down the lake. Thought I’d stop and say hello. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, I’m just on my way to town.”
He bantered with her. “Town? You? What’s the occasion?”
“No occasion. I don’t feel like cooking, that’s all.”
“Too bad. You’re good at it. I wish you’d do more of it for me.”
“Thanks. Part of the image. You know, cook, sweep, have babies—the regular.”
“I never said anything like that. Yeah, I still think you ought to sell.” His gesture and expression said more about the building behind Lila than any words. “Someone like you killing yourself so you can sell beer and worms to a bunch of slobs who can’t remember their last bath isn’t a good thing. Is that sexist?”
Lila smiled, aware she’d been sharper than she meant. “Not entirely. And you forgot to mention you’d like to tear this place down and build something—What did you call it?—decent.”
“It was the wrong word. All I meant was…”
“I know, I know. We’ve had this conversation. Anyhow, you said you’d talk to Lawson about my loan.”
Van was slow to answer. “He asked if I agreed with your business projection numbers. I didn’t tell him I don’t. I didn’t tell him a small resort here won’t have a chance when someone builds a fancier place—and that day’s coming. What I said was, if anyone can reconstruct this heap into what it used to be, it’s you.”
Lila took the last step to the ground. In spite of herself, she reacted to him, felt surrounded by—included in—an aura of power, whether she exactly wanted that or not. Something primal going on there, she told herself, and tried to shove aside the attraction-aversion combination that disturbed her so. It didn’t entirely work: The truth was, he was attractive in all regards. He was likable, even if occasionally his blunt honesty felt a touch domineering. He was attracted to her and she appreciated his willingness to indicate it without pushing too hard. Now she smiled up at him and said, “Thanks. It was good of you to step up for me. But I’m not doing reconstruction. What it is, it’s overdue maintenance.”
Shrugging, Van ignored her small joke to speak almost sadly. “I didn’t like my conversation with him, Lila. Edward Lawson’s not just my banker, he’s an old friend. Holding back the truth’s the worst kind of lie.”
“I’m sorry.” She put a hand on his sleeve. “I never meant to put you in a rough spot. It’s just that when you offered…”
His interruption was brusque. “I hate watching you waste your time. Look, sell this place to me. You know I’ll make you a generous deal. I’ll build something big and modern. You’ll manage it. Good salary, living quarters, the whole nine yards. Who better than a beautiful woman who loves the place? My friend.”
“Uncle Bake and Aunt Lila left their home and business to me to be mine the way it was theirs. That’s what I want. What I’ll have.”
“You didn’t even know you owned this until a year ago, and they’d both been dead for years before that. How do you know what they wanted?” He was almost angry. “You’re letting sentiment dictate the answer to a business situation.”
In the face of his rising temper, she felt strangely reinforced. She told him, “I like sentiment. I like happy endings.”
Van opened and closed his mouth, clearly measuring his response. Finally, he said, “Happy endings don’t just come from soft music and wishing. They come from taking advantage of situations.”
Lila took her hand back. “I’ve seen a couple of situations.” It came out edgier than she meant, and she immediately softened her voice. “You’re a great guy. I’m glad I know you. You’re a tremendous help.”
“We could be better friends.” Again, he gestured at the building, acknowledging his rival. His smile was rueful. “I can’t seem to get past the competition.”
She said, “I’ve got to get my life in order before I think about anything else.”
“Right. Look, if you’re going into town, let me take you to dinner.”
“No, please. I need some time alone.” Her quick answer surprised her. She enjoyed his company. She didn’t really want to be alone.
“You’re here by yourself all the time. I worry about it.”
She fought past confusion, explaining to herself as much as to him, “And I appreciate it. I can take care of myself. It’s just that tonight I need to… I don’t know. Introspection, I guess. Okay?”
Van stepped back. “I’ll follow you as far as Front Street. Make sure you don’t get lost in the big city.”
They shared friendly laughter.
Front Street was old-town Lupine’s main street, a fitting introduction to a very individualist community. Only the western side had buildings. The sidewalk on the eastern side was merely a border for the park on the bank of the Fortymile River. Years ago the citizens watched thousands of logs rumble past in that current, headed for the Lake Connolly sawmill.
No one then gave much thought to the day when the timber companies would have scalped all the mountains within economic reach. The day came. The companies moved on to more accessible trees. The loggers who had survived the incredibly dangerous work packed up their families and chased after them, pursuing the only jobs they knew.
Lupine fell like one of its lumbered firs. Not with a similar awesome crash; more like an exhausted groan. The school closed a full year before the last saloon parched out. A local wit lamented that it was bad enough the few remaining kids would grow up uneducated; worse, they were doomed to sobriety until they were big enough to run away.
Nevertheless, the town clung to its narrow valley with the brazen tenacity of a weed. When the new highway bypassed them it was almost the finish. The locals barely mustered the clout for an exit/entrance ramp for their two-lane macadam umbilical cord. Those who stayed scratched for a living. They called themselves Lupinions, it being a source of great pride that each had a strong position on everything and a lofty disregard for any other. They arranged to bus children to school in the next town and kept their church alive so they could meet at least once a week in mutual commiseration and pray for something better.
Still, for every old timer who passed away or pilgrim who set out for the larger world, someone straggled in. After decades of relative balance, the old-timers were startled to realize that, while they weren’t looking, the population had actually grown. The hippies found the place, fumbled around for a while, and most drifted off. A second church appeared. Soon, craftsmen and a spattering of artists found the rustic environment tickled their muse. Others, as anxious to avoid the outer world as the original settlers, raised berries or goats or cattle or whatever they could eat or sell. A few commuted to city jobs in the greater Seattle area. The advent of electronics and instant communications created a spurt of immigrants with exotic talents and a taste for clean air; they worked at home. A daycare popped up. The town taxed itself for a K-to-six school, a library, and three-man police department and chief. Outsiders came to hike, fish, hunt, and shop. Those practices sat well with Lupinions because the outsiders eventually went home but savory chunks of money remained.
Two who’d watched Lupine’s growth and change were in conversation when Crow stepped into Martha Short’s restaurant. Martha nudged her companion, Pastor Andy Richards. In a muttered aside she said, “Another fisherman. Want to bet?”
An elderly man of average height and build, Pastor Richards wasn’t one who’d draw attention to himself. His gray hair was short, conventional. He wore plain clothes and inexpensive hiking boots. His most obvious feature was a manner of inner peace and steady confidence. He laughed at Martha as easily as one would expect. He said, “My trade’s risky enough without betting money on people. Anyhow, I suspect you already know the man and you’re sandbagging me.”
Martha sneered and swept off. She greeted Crow with a professionally quick smile that didn’t detract from its genuine warmth. She asked, “By yourself this evening?”
At first Crow merely saw an older woman, small, with the assured air of one who’s accepted her years with pride in herself and her works. Behind her glasses lively dark eyes pierced like pins. One look into them and Crow knew he’d been measured, weighed, and evaluated. Probably far too accurately.
He smiled at her. “Yes, ma’am. Just passing through.”
Leading the way, talking over her shoulder, Martha said, “By yourself’s not good. We’ll have to spoil you a bit.” She gestured him to a seat at a candlelit table and put a menu in front of him. “My name’s Martha and this is my restaurant. We don’t serve strangers. Once you come through my door, you’re among friends. Something from the bar before you order?”
“Maker’s Mark and water side,” Crow said.
Eyebrows up, Martha turned just in time to speak to a passing waitress. “Estelle, this gentleman knows whiskey. Maker’s Mark, water side. He’s never been here before, and you know I’m partial to bourbon men, so be nice to him. Don’t water his drink. Not this time.”
Estelle grinned and left. Crow asked Martha, “What if I said I ate here three years ago?”
“You’d be fibbing.” Martha put her hands on her hips. “My hobby is knowing everything. I’m Lupine’s official nosy old biddy.”
Martha winked at the sarcasm. “World class. If I was younger and prettier, I’d be a spy.”
“And if I was younger and prettier, I’d be all over you to join me for dinner.”
She made a face at the flattery and suddenly, Crow heard himself say, “My name’s Crow. Carter Crow.” Not entirely believing what was happening, he saw himself shaking her hand. He barely understood her to say something about “Pleased to meet you.” By then his hand was lying on the table and he was looking at it like it just flew in a window and attached itself to his wrist.
He stumbled into a lame-joke explanation. “If I’m going to be recognized every time I come here, I might as well have a name. I already know yours.”
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d told someone his name as a ploy to keep a conversation alive. Except—to be honest—at that rundown Bake’s. That made twice. In one day. He wondered if he was getting old.
As soon as Martha rejoined Pastor Richards at the hostess station, he said, “Interesting action between you two.” She continued to focus on Crow. Finally, the pastor said, “Well?”
With a glare and a voice that snapped like a storm flag, Martha said, “Well what?”
“You spoke with him at least fifteen seconds… That means you pried out his life story.”
“You calling me a gossip?”
The pastor looked unconvincingly repentant. “’Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.’ Not that you’re an elder, of course. Nor would I ever call you a gossip. I think of you as our expediter of Lupine-centered information.”
Martha hid her giggle behind her hand and confessed. “You know, you’re right. I was bragging about how I poke into everyone’s business.”
“You keep important things secret and help anyone who needs it. We love you.”
“Oh, stop it. Go sing a hymn or something.” She brushed at him as she would a pesky fly.
Pastor Richards moved toward the door. “It’s a nice evening. I think I’ll just walk about a bit.”
“Come back soon.” She linked her arm with his, headed for the door. “I don’t get to spend enough time with you.”
He patted her hand. “It’s mutual, my friend. But why spend time with me? You already know everything about me.”
Fortunately for Martha there’s nothing in theology that forbids a lady burying her elbow in a pastor’s ribs. Nor any prohibition against said pastor yelping in respectable imitation of a small dog like Zasu.
* * *
While he waited for Estelle to return, Crow recovered enough to admire his surroundings. Martha’s place was an old home turned into a restaurant with tables and chairs from a long-gone era. Electric lighting was muted, candles graced the tables. Paintings and photographs on the wall added nostalgia. He was the only lone diner in a restaurant at capacity.
That wasn’t an unusual event for a man who prided himself on his distance from others. This time was different, however. He heard things in the forest-wind sigh of people speaking softly, intimately. He didn’t hear the words. He heard feelings that crossed between speakers as softly as moths chasing light, confirmations of togetherness.
As much as he determined to be separate, he resented being reminded of his loss. Patricia loved evenings out. To her, those other people were part of her experience. Because of her, it had been part of Crow’s.
That was then.
Their dinner evenings weren’t exactly frugal, but on his income, they were carefully monitored. They never ordered wine. Patricia insisted he have a drink before dinner. She knew how much he enjoyed it, and the look in her eye when he savored it made the cheapest bar whiskey go down like American Eagle Rare. Not that she’d let him order cheap stuff. She knew her man. When he ordered whiskey and water, she’d stop the waiter and name a brand. Then she’d send Crow one of those smiles that tells a man he’s being spoiled. Tells him he deserves it.
Crow basked in that smile like an old dog sprawled on sunbaked macadam.
How many times had that smile energized his hand, driven it across the table to touch her? How many times had he caressed her cheek and watched her tilt her head to it, her soft flesh pressing his toughened hide?
Did she ever think of that hand so covered in blood that it drew flies?
The thought pulled his head back as sharply as if he’d been hit in the mouth.
The thing in my head, trying to break free.
It’s not going to happen now.
He forced himself to picture other times.
The first time they took little Joe with them to an expensive restaurant. What Patricia called a splurge shop. Crow always felt a bit uncomfortable in them. In his eyes, people went there to work hard at eating. Patricia loved those evenings. She delighted in the fine food, the colors, the decor, the aura. It was a rare treat. She made the most of it.
That first time with little Joe she was the image of patience and reassurance. She made it clear she expected his very best behavior. She also held him close and told him the important thing was that he enjoy it as much as his dad and mom enjoyed having him along. She tickled him until he squealed, telling him they were taking him to show him off because he was such a handsome devil.
And he carried it off like a tiny duke. He called the waitress ma’am in a clear, honest voice. He ordered from the children’s menu as if he were dining at Mario Battali’s table. He only looked to Patricia after the waitress had taken all the orders and left. When she told him she was proud of him, he nodded and said, “That’s what I wanted.” Then, when dinner was over, the waitress brought Joe a huge slab of apple pie with ice cream and caramel sauce. She winked at him when she put it down and told him, “This is from me and the hostess. Call us in fifteen years or so, okay? But call me first.” Joe squirmed, but he held on to his dignity. He said, “I would, but I don’t have your number,” and she laughed and said, “We’ll give you the number when it’s time.” Crow thought Patricia would explode with suppressed laughter.
Crow remembered thinking he’d seen a boy’s mind straining to find the right path. He didn’t know how to tell him that. After the dessert was eaten, however, what he did say was, “You know, you’re a really great kid. Just so you know, I love you.” Joe, sober as any general, looked his father in the eye and just said, “Thank you, sir. I love you, too. I tried to do like you do.”
Crow’s eyes burned. The thing inside his head was chained again, forgotten.
That was the world.
It’s not that way anymore. No one has any right to ask me to be part of any world now. Not after how things turned out.
The only thing that matters is using up today.
When a man lost so much and seen so much, he deserves all the distance he wants. He’s earned separation.
Estelle brought his drink. She recommended the roast beef. He agreed. He was adding a smidgen of water to his whiskey to open the aroma when Martha reappeared at his table. She looked uncomfortable. She said, “Mr. Crow, would you mind sharing your table? I’m full, and a lady just came in that I don’t want to turn away or she’ll have to go down the street to the Silver Dollar. I mean, I’m not saying Jerry’s food’s greasy or unhealthy, but…” She rolled her eyes in powerful indictment.
Crow didn’t care if the unknown Jerry’s food was toxic. Inwardly, he winced at the prospect of small talk with some female full of household hints and oblique references to her delicate digestion. He pulled himself together, forced himself into social mode and put the best face on it he could. “Sure,” he said, “But only because you didn’t cheat me on my whiskey. This time.”
Martha grinned and hurried away. From the corner of his eye, Crow caught her return. He rose. A familiar voice said, “Oh, don’t get up,” and the silence that followed hummed with surprise.
Crow recognized Lila instantly. The ravages of her day’s labor were washed away. The eyes were the same intense blue, but her mouth lacked the earlier grimness. Actually, it was a nice mouth, tentatively working at a shy smile. He thought back to the pleasure of hearing her unexpected laughter that morning. Despite the peculiar sadness lurking in it.
Sleeves of a lemon yellow sweater were knotted around her neck so it hung across her back like a shawl. Crow thought it was very effective, made more so by the green blouse and especially her candlelight-burnished hair.
“A pleasure, ma’am.” Crow looked to Martha. “This lady recommended your restaurant.”
Beaming, Martha said, “Well, isn’t that sweet?” She patted Lila’s arm. “I should tell you dinner’s on the house, but I won’t because I need the money.” Suddenly shrewd, her gaze flicked between Crow and Lila. “How long have you two known each other?”
Lila stammered. Crow stepped into the awkward moment. “I turned into her place earlier today. She gave me directions to the county park where I could put my mobile home.”
Martha’s inspection turned a bit speculative, but she spoke casually. “Well, you have a nice chat. You’ll love the food.”
Sitting across from Crow, the woman’s shyness seemed to deepen, but she held his gaze. She said, “You told me your name earlier. I should’ve done the same. I’m Lila Milam.”
“Lila Milam and Zasu. Could be a nightclub act.”
In her quiet laughter Crow thought he heard more of the troublesome sad undercurrent. Curiosity snagged his mind, but he shut it out and asked, “Would you mind if I call you Lila? Ms. Milam sounds like I’m talking to my sixth grade teacher.”
“Please do. I didn’t like my sixth grade teacher.”
“I did. Mrs. Murphy. Little bitty thing. Temper like a cutting torch.”
Entering into the improving atmosphere, she said, “I think I know how you found that out.”
He rocked back in fake surprise. “You went to our school?”
She sobered a little. “Look, I want to say I was too sharp today. I’m sorry about that. You see, it’s the store. Not just that. It’s…” She stopped and Crow saw all their budding enjoyment of each other’s company evaporate. Before he could react, she was rising. Politeness required he do the same. Surprised, she glanced around in embarrassment and hurriedly sat back down. Again, Crow followed her lead. Flickering candle flame accentuated her agitation.
Gently, Crow said, “Can I ask what’s wrong?” and a mean voice in his mind snapped at him to shut up and back off.
Looking away, she sighed. “I shouldn’t have interrupted your dinner. I’d never have intruded on you, but Martha can be so insistent and the Silver Dollar…” After a pause, she added, “When Estelle comes around, I’ll tell her I’m waiting for a table to open.”
Crow knew he should let it go right there and guarantee his solitude. Nevertheless, this felt more like walking away from someone injured. He said, “Did I say something out of line?”
“Oh, don’t be silly.” She brushed the air with both hands. The candle flame fluttered and she glared at it. “It’s just me. Ignore me.”
“Too late. Maybe before, when you were in dirty-faced urchin mode.”
Appreciation soft as smoke touched her features. She said, “It’s not only wanting to be alone. I was sure you’d be—you know, irritable—the thing with the dogs, and all. You’re being pleasant.” She looked away.
The inner voice shouted at Crow that explanations always led to complications. To compromise with it, he kept things light. “You’re saying you’re upset because I’m not upset?”
“Now you really are making fun of me.”
There was that look again, the one that said a decision had been made and forget the consequences. She went on, “Look, when Martha talked me into sitting here, I thought being alone tonight might not be my best move. I hoped maybe you’d be kind of grouchy and distant and I’d blab my troubles and you’d sit there like a lump and pretend to listen and then you’d be gone and I’d have gotten a lot of stuff out of my system, stuff you’d forget before you left the restaurant. Am I talking too fast? Never mind. Anyhow, that’s not how you are. If I talked to you like that, you’d try to understand, but then you’d decide I’m just another silly woman looking for sympathy. Did any of that make sense?” Before he could answer, she leaned forward in accusation. “I don’t need anyone’s sympathy.”
Crow took a good hit on his drink and sat straighter. “You always do other people’s thinking for them? Or do I seem so dumb you feel obliged to make a special effort for me?”
“I didn’t mean that. I just thought…”
“Let me tell you something. You got me right. I’m willing to pass the time with most people, but I never get involved. Never. Say anything you want. Tomorrow I’ll be gone for good. Like you said, you’ll feel better, and I won’t be bothered.”
She looked into his eyes briefly before studying the candle flame.
He silently cheered her uncertainty. He’d done the right thing and offered companionship. She’d never take him up on it. After all, only fools confided anything.
Why wasn’t that fact as satisfying right now as it had always been before?
Words tumbled out of him again. “I’ve been told airing a problem gives you better perception. I wouldn’t know. I do know to avoid making judgments. I get judged all the time. Mostly, it’s people saying that living outside regular society’s a refusal to accept responsibility. Who cares? I get along fine. Believe me, anything you tell me, that’s as far as it goes. I’m neutral ground.” Even as he heard himself speak he wished he could grab each syllable out of the air and crush it.
Her answer came slowly. “I have a feeling you earned the way you live.”
Estelle swooped down on them, order pad in hand, and he was saved from himself. Estelle said, “Good roast beef tonight, Ms. Milam. We’ve also got a chicken Marsala that’ll make you want to kiss the cook.” She poured their coffee without wasting time asking if they wanted it. She knew. This was Lupine.
Lila chose the chicken and Estelle left as fast as she came.
Crow said, “She called you Ms. Milam. That suggests you’re not one of the natives.”
“I’m not.” Lila looked puzzled for a moment, then, “Oh, you’re thinking about Bake’s place. That’s a long story.”
“We’ve got time. Will you have a drink?”
She hesitated for a long moment. “A glass of wine. Not until dinner comes, please. No story, though. It’s too messed up.” She ducked her head and peered up at him. Her eyes danced with surprising mischief. She said, “You don’t get involved, remember? And one of us has decided she doesn’t want to be involved either. Are we even?”
Crow’s jaw tightened. He never allowed himself to develop an interest in someone. Now he’d let it happen and she was closing him out. Turnabout. He laughed loud enough to draw attention from several diners. “More than even. More like ‘Take that.’”
She leaned back in her chair. “Okay, we’re good to go. Dinner, pointless small talk, and two strangers get on with our lives. Deal?”
“Deal.” He pushed the aside the candle in the middle of the table, reached, and they shook on it. He barely stifled a reflex that wanted to widen his eyes: How did a woman do so much manual labor with hands so small, or keep them so soft?
Their bargain lasted through dinner.
Estelle was refilling the coffee cups one last time when a voice behind Crow said, “Evening, Lila.” She looked up, smiling. The voice continued, “Saw your car down the street and guessed you were here. I apologize for interrupting, but I didn’t want to go home without asking how things are.”
Pastor Richards positioned himself between them. Lila caught his frank interest in her dinner companion. It warmed her even as it amused her. Crow rose slowly.
Sudden awareness of their similarity intrigued her. Crow might be many things, but he was no preacher. Nor should there have been any hint of Crow in Pastor Richards. There was, though. She sensed each had touched flame and come away seared, yet affirmed in self.
A shiver pinpricked her spine. There was another impression from Crow. His quiet control whispered that he knew his own capability for violence. When Crow suggested the pastor join them, it barely penetrated her internalization. Fortunately, they started talking like old friends, unaware she remained practically withdrawn.
Male, Lila thought. That was quintessentially Crow. At least he didn’t wear his maleness like a feather in his hat. Pastor Richards was male, too, of course. A father figure, caring and open. Crow was approachable and determinedly unreachable.
Huge differences. Small similarities. Yet some invisible thread bonded them instantly.
She supposed there were women who’d find Crow attractive. If you could get interested in someone who looked like he’d been hammered out on an anvil. A nice sense of humor, though. Interesting eyes; icy blue. She wondered if he had any idea how his changing expressions sometimes revealed his thoughts before he spoke.
It was when he did speak of himself that he turned impenetrable. The way he described his lifestyle came without apology or boast. She realized with a small start that that was quite irritating: Everything about him just was. Not that she cared.
When she twisted her head her hair rippled across her shoulder. She almost reached to assure it wasn’t in disarray. She checked the move, not wanting them to notice.
That irritated her further. Why should she care? Especially about Crow. Stubborn loner. His problem. Everybody had at least one. She concentrated on the pastor. Crinkled smile lines at the corners of the eyes and mouth and the thinning hair made her think of time passing. His hands on the table showed the slightly enlarged knuckles of oncoming arthritis and the skin had a fragile-leather look. His eyes, though—that’s where you saw him best. Their calm green, like spring’s earliest welcome, were rich with the knowledge of certain renewal.
Pastor Richards interrupted Lila’s observations with a question. “So how’s your project going?”
“I’m dealing with it.”
For a moment it appeared Richards might pursue it. Instead he rose, saying, “You know I’ll help any way and any time I can,” and to Crow, “Sorry to interrupt.”
Crow said, “No trouble at all, Padre.”
As soon as Pastor Richards was gone, Lila said, “What’d you think of him?”
“He’s pleasant. His line of work, it’s kind of necessary. He likes you.”
Lila ignored the last. “That’s it? Aren’t you curious to know how long he’s lived here? If he’s got family? His denomination?”
“How can you live like that? I mean, I’m not all that close to everyone, but I want to know something about them. I like to feel they’re interested in me.” She paused, eyes widening, and continued as if surprised and musing about it. “That’s why I’m here. In Lupine. I want to be where I belong. I have a dream, so that’s who I am. You, you’re just a prickly old cocklebur.” A sly smile took her back to her original manner.
“Character assassination. What happened to pointless small talk? What’s your pastor say about broken deals?”
She made a face of mock exasperation. Crow almost laughed aloud. Lila went on, “He’s the reason I’m living here, working on the store.”
Crow raised his eyebrows and waited. She said, “The day after I graduated high school I left home. I got a job keeping records for a company that supplied supermarkets. You’ve heard of left-brain