Bag of Bones CHAPTER SEVEN

Bag of Bones CHAPTER SEVEN

The little girl ?? actually she wasn’t much more than a baby-came walking up the middle of Route 68, dressed in a red bathing suit, yellow plastic flip-flops, and a Boston Red Sox baseball cap turned around backward. I had just driven past the Lakeview General Store and Dickie Brooks’s All-Purpose Garage, and the speed limit there drops from fifty-five to thirty-five. Thank God I was obeying it that day, otherwise I might have killed her.

It was my first day back. I’d gotten up late and spent most of the morning walking in the woods which run along the lakeshore, seeing what was the same and what had changed. The water looked a little lower and there were fewer boats than I would have expected, especially on summer’s biggest holiday, but otherwise I might never have been away. I even seemed to be slapping at the same bugs.

Around eleven my stomach alerted me to the fact that I’d skipped breakfast. I decided a trip to the Village Cafe was in order. The restaurant at Warrington’s was trendier by far, but I’d be stared at there. The Village Cafe would be better ?? if it was still doing business. Buddy Jellison was an ill-tempered fuck, but he had always been the best fry-cook in western Maine and what my stomach wanted was a big greasy Villageburger.

Now this little girl, walking straight up the white line and looking like a majorette leading an invisible parade.

At thirty-five miles per hour I saw her in plenty of time, but this road was busy in the summer, and very few people bothered creeping through the reduced-speed zone. There were only a dozen Castle County police cruisers, after all, and not many of them bothered with the TR unless they were specifically called there.

I pulled over to the shoulder, put the Chevy in PARK, and was out before the dust had even begun to settle. The day was muggy and close and still, the clouds seeming low enough to touch. The kid ?? a little blondie with a snub nose and scabbed knees ?? stood on the white line as if it were a tightrope and watched me approach with no more fear than a fawn.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘I go beach. Mummy ‘on’t take me and I’m mad as hell.’ She stamped her foot to show she knew as well as anybody what mad as hell was all about. Three or four was my guess. Well-spoken in her fashion and cute as hell, but still no more than three or four. ‘Well, the beach is a good place to go on the Fourth, all right,’ I said, ‘but ?? ‘

‘Fourth of July and fireworks too,’ she agreed, making ‘too’ sound exotic and sweet, like a word in Vietnamese.

‘ ?? but if you try to walk there on the highway, you’re more apt to wind up in Castle Rock Hospital.’

I decided I wasn’t going to stand there playing Mister Rogers with her in the middle of Route 68, not with a curve only fifty yards to the south and a car apt to come wheeling around it at sixty miles an hour at any time. I could hear a motor, actually, and it was revving hard.

I picked the kid up and carried her over to where my car was idling, and although she seemed perfectly content to be carried and not frightened a bit, I felt like Chester the Molester the second I had my arm locked under her bottom. I was very aware that anyone sitting around in the combined office and waiting room of Brooksie’s Garage could look out and see me. This is one of the strange midlife realities of my generation: we can’t touch a child who isn’t our own without fearing others will see something lecherous in our touching . . . or without thinking, way down deep in the sewers of our psyches, that there probably is something lecherous in it. I got her out of the road, though. I did that much. Let the Marching Mothers of Western Maine come after me and do their worst.

‘You take me beach?’ the little girl asked.

She was bright-eyed, smiling. I figured that she’d probably be pregnant by the time she was twelve, especially given the cool way she was wearing her baseball cap. ‘Got your suitie?’

‘Actually I think I left my suitie at home. Don’t you hate that? Honey, where’s your mom?’

As if in direct answer to my question, the car I’d heard came busting out of a road on the near side of the curve. It was a Jeep Scout with mud splashed high up on both sides. The motor was growling like something up a tree and pissed off about it. A woman’s head was poked out the side window. Little curie’s mom must have been too scared to sit down; she was driving in a mad crouch, and if a car had been coming around that particular curve in Route 68 when she pulled out, my friend in the red bathing suit would likely have become an orphan on the spot.

The Scout fishtailed, the head dropped back down inside the cab, and there was a grinding as the driver upshifted, trying to take her old heap from zero to sixty in maybe nine seconds. If pure terror could have done the job, I’m sure she would have succeeded.

‘That’s Mattie,’ the girl in the bathing suit said. ‘I’m mad at her. I’m running away to have a Fourth at the beach. If she’s mad I go to my white nana.’

I had no idea what she was talking about, but it did cross my mind that Miss Bosox of 1998 could have her Fourth at the beach; I would settle for a fifth of something whole-grain at home. Meanwhile, I was waving the arm not under the kid’s butt back and forth over my head, and hard enough to blow around wisps of the girl’s fine blonde hair.

‘Hey!’ I shouted. ‘Hey, lady! I got her!’

The Scout sped by, still accelerating and still sounding pissed off about it. The exhaust was blowing clouds of blue smoke. There was a further hideous grinding from the Scout’s old transmission. It was like some crazy version of Let’s Make a Deal.’ ‘Mattie, you’ve succeeded in getting into second gear ?? would you like to quit and take the Maytag washer, or do you want to try for third?’

I did the only thing I could think of, which was to step out onto the road, turn toward the Jeep, which was now speeding away from me (the smell of the oil was thick and acrid), and hold the kid up high over my head, hoping Mattie would see us in her rearview mirror. I no longer felt like Chester the Molester; now I felt like a cruel auctioneer in a Disney cartoon, offering the cutest li’l piglet in the litter to the highest bidder. It worked, though. The Scout’s mudcaked taillights came on and there was a demonic howling as the badly used brakes locked. Right in front of Brooksie’s, this was. If there were any old-timers in for a good Fourth of July gossip, they would now have plenty to gossip about. I thought they would especially enjoy the part where Mom screamed at me to unhand her baby. When you return to your summer home after a long absence, it’s always nice to get off on the right foot.

The backup lights flared and the Jeep began reversing down the road at a good twenty miles an hour. Now the transmission sounded not pissed off but panicky ?? please, it was saying, please stop, you’re killing me. The Scout’s rear end wagged from side to side like the tail of a happy dog. I watched it coming at me, hypnotized ?? now in the northbound lane, now across the white line and into the southbound lane, now overcorrecting so that the left-hand tires spumed dust off the shoulder.

‘Mattie go fast,’ my new girlfriend said in a conversational, isn’t-this-interesting voice. She had one arm slung around my neck; we were chums, by God.

But what the kid said woke me up. Mattie go fast, all right, too fast. Mattie would, more likely than not, clean out the rear end of my Chevrolet. And if I just stood here, Baby Snooks and I were apt to end up as toothpaste between the two vehicles.

I backed the length of my car, keeping my eyes fixed on the Jeep and yelling, ‘Slow down, Mattie! Slow down!’

Cutie-pie liked that. ‘S’yo down!’ she yelled, starting to laugh. ‘S’yo down, you old Mattie, s’yo down!’

The brakes screamed in fresh agony. The Jeep took one last walloping, unhappy jerk backward as Mattie stopped without benefit of the clutch. That final lunge took the Scout’s rear bumper so close to the rear bumper of my Chevy that you could have bridged the gap with a cigarette. The smell of oil in the air was huge and furry. The kid was waving a hand in front of her face and coughing theatrically.

The driver’s door flew open; Mattie Devore flew out like a circus acrobat shot from a cannon, if you can imagine a circus acrobat dressed in old paisley shorts and a cotton smock top. My first thought was that the little girl’s big sister had been babysitting her, that Mattie and Mummy were two different people. I knew that little kids often spend a period of their development calling their parents by their first names, but this pale-cheeked blonde girl looked all of twelve, fourteen at the outside. I decided her mad handling of the Scout hadn’t been terror for her child (or not just terror) but total automotive inexperience.

There was something else, too, okay? Another assumption that I made. The muddy four-wheel-drive, the baggy paisley shorts, the smock that all but screamed Kmart, the long yellow hair held back with those little red elastics, and most of all the inattention that allows the three-year-old in your care to go wandering off in the first place . . . all those things said trailer-trash to me. I know how that sounds, but I had some basis for it. Also, I’m Irish, goddammit. My ancestors were trailer-trash when the trailers were still horse-drawn caravans.

‘Stinky-phew!’ the little girl said, still waving a pudgy hand at the air in front of her face. ‘Scoutie stink!’

Where Scoutie’s bathing suitie? I thought, and then my new girlfriend was snatched out of my arms. Now that she was closer, my idea that Mattie was the bathing beauty’s sister took a hit. Mattie wouldn’t be middle-aged until well into the next century, but she wasn’t twelve or fourteen, either. I now guessed twenty, maybe a year younger. When she snatched the baby away, I saw the wedding ring on her left hand. I also saw the dark circles under her eyes, gray skin dusting to purple. She was young, but I thought it was a mother’s terror and exhaustion I was looking at.

I expected her to swat the tot, because that’s how trailer-trash moms react to being tired and scared. When she did, I would stop her, one way or another distract her into turning her anger on me, if that was what it took. There was nothing very noble in this, I should add; all I really wanted to do was to postpone the fanny-whacking, shoulder-shaking, and in-your-face shouting to a time and place where I wouldn’t have to watch it. It was my first day back in town; I didn’t want to spend any of it watching an inattentive slut abuse her child.

Instead of shaking her and shouting ‘Where did you think you were going, you little bitch?’ Mattie first hugged the child (who hugged back enthusiastically, showing absolutely no sign of fear) and then covered her face with kisses.

‘Why did you do that?’ she cried. ‘What was in your head? When I couldn’t find you, I died.’

Mattie burst into tears. The child in the bathing suit looked at her with an expression of surprise so big and complete it would have been comical under other circumstances. Then her own face crumpled up. I stood back, watched them crying and hugging, and felt ashamed of my preconceptions.

A car went by and slowed down. An elderly couple ?? Ma and Pa Kettle on their way to the store for that holiday box of Grape-Nuts ?? gawked out. I gave them an impatient wave with both hands, the kind that says what are you staring at, go on, put an egg in your shoe and beat it. They sped up, but I didn’t see an out-of-state license plate, as I’d hoped I might. This version of Ma and Pa were locals, and the story would be fleeting its rounds soon enough: Mattie the teenage bride and her little bundle of joy (said bundle undoubtedly conceived in the back seat of a car or the bed of a pickup truck some months before the legitimizing ceremony), bawling their eyes out at the side of the road. With a stranger. No, not exactly a stranger. Mike Noonan, the writer fella from upstate.

‘I wanted to go to the beach and suh-suh-swim!’ the little girl wept, and now it was ‘swim’ that sounded exotic ?? the Vietnamese word for ‘ecstasy,’ perhaps.

‘I said I’d take you this afternoon.’ Mattie was still sniffing, but getting herself under control. ‘Don’t do that again, little guy, please don’t you ever do that again, Mommy was so scared.’

‘I won’t,’ the kid said ‘I really won’t.’ Still crying, she hugged the older girl tight, laying her head against the side of Mattie’s neck. Her baseball cap fell off. I picked it up, beginning to feel very much like an outsider here. I poked the blue-and-red cap at Mattie’s hand until her fingers closed on it.

I decided I also felt pretty good about the way things had turned out, and maybe I had a right to. I’ve presented the incident as if it was amusing, and it was, but it was the sort of amusing you never see until later. When it was happening, it was terrifying. Suppose there had been a truck coming from the other direction? Coming around that curve, and coming too fast?

A vehicle did come around it, a pickup of the type no tourist ever drives. Two more locals gawked their way by.

‘Ma’am?’ I said. ‘Mattie? I think I’d better get going. Glad your little girl is all right.’ The minute it was out, I felt an almost irresistible urge to laugh. I could picture me drawling this speech to Mattie (a name that belonged in a movie like Unforgiven or True Grit if any name ever did) with my thumbs hooked into the belt of my chaps and my Stetson pushed back to reveal my noble brow. I felt an insane urge to add, ‘You’re right purty, ma’am, ain’t you the new schoolteacher?’

She turned to me and I saw that she was right purty. Even with circles under her eyes and her blonde hair sticking off in gobs to either side of her head. And I thought she was doing okay for a girl probably not yet old enough to buy a drink in a bar. At least she hadn’t belted the baby.

‘Thank you so much,’ she said. ‘Was she right in the road?’ Say she wasn’t, her eyes begged. At least say she was walking along the shoulder.

‘Well ?? ‘

‘I walked on the line,’ the girl said, pointing. ‘It’s like the cross-mock.’ Her voice took on a faintly righteous tone. ‘Crossmock is safe.’

Mattie’s cheeks, already white, turned whiter. I didn’t like seeing her that way, and didn’t like to think of her driving home that way, especially with a kid.

‘Where do you live, Mrs. ?? ?’

‘Devore,’ she said. ‘I’m Mattie Devore.’ She shifted the child and put out her hand. I shook it. The morning was warm, and it was going to be hot by mid-afternoon ?? beach weather for sure ?? but the fingers I touched were icy. ‘We live just there.’

She pointed to the intersection the Scout had shot out of, and I could see ?? surprise, surprise ?? a doublewide trailer set off in a grove of pines about two hundred feet up the little feeder road. Wasp Hill Road, I recalled. It ran about half a mile from Route 68 to the water ?? what was known as the Middle Bay. Ah yes, doc, it’s all coming back to me now. I’m once more riding the Dark Score range. Saving little kids is my specialty.

Still, I was relieved to see that she lived close by ?? less than a quarter of a mile from the place where our respective vehicles were parked with their tails almost touching ?? and when I thought about it, it stood to reason. A child as young as the bathing beauty couldn’t have walked far . . . although this one had already demonstrated a fair degree of determination. I thought Mother’s haggard look was even more suggestive of the daughter’s will. I was glad I was too old to be one of her future boyfriends; she would have them jumping through hoops all through high school and college. Hoops of fire, likely.

Well, the high-school part, anyway. Girls from the doublewide side of town did not, as a general rule, go to college unless there was a juco or a voke-tech handy. And she would only have them jumping until the right boy (or more likely the wrong one) came sweeping around the Great Curve of Life and ran her down in the highway, her all the while unaware that the white line and the crossmock were two different things. Then the whole cycle would repeat itself.

Christ almighty, Noonan, quit it, I told myself. She’s three years old and you’ve already got her with three kids of her own, two with ringworm and one retarded.

‘Thank you so much,’ Mattie repeated.

‘That’s okay,’ I said, and snubbed the little girl’s nose. Although her cheeks were still wet with tears, she grinned at me sunnily enough in response. ‘This is a very verbal little girl.’

‘Very verbal, and very willful.’ Now Mattie did give her child a little shake, but the kid showed no fear, no sign that shaking or hitting was the order of most days. On the contrary, her smile widened. Her mother smiled back. And yes ?? once you got past the slopped-together look of her, she was most extraordinarily pretty. Put her in a tennis dress at the Castle Rock Country Club (where she’d likely never go in her life, except maybe as a maid or a waitress), and she would maybe be more than pretty. A young Grace Kelly, perhaps.

Then she looked back at me, her eyes very wide and grave.

‘Mr. Noonan, I’m not a bad mother,’ she said.

I felt a start at my name coming from her mouth, but it was only momentary. She was the right age, after all, and my books were probably better for her than spending her afternoons in front of General Hospital and One Life to Live. A little, anyway.

‘We had an argument about when we were going to the beach. I wanted to hang out the clothes, have lunch, and go this afternoon. Kyra wanted ?? ‘ She broke off. ‘What? What did I say?’

‘Her name is Kia? Did ?? ‘ Before I could say anything else, the most extraordinary thing happened: my mouth was full of water. So full I felt a moment’s panic, like someone who is swimming in the ocean and swallows a wave-wash. Only this wasn’t a salt taste; it was cold and fresh, with a faint metal tang like blood.

I turned my head aside and spat. I expected a gush of liquid to pour out of my mouth ?? the sort of gush you sometimes get when commencing artificial respiration on a near-drowning victim. What came out instead was what usually comes out when you spit on a hot day: a little white pellet. And that sensation was gone even before the little white pellet struck the dirt of the shoulder. In an instant, as if it had never been there.

‘That man spirted,’ the girl said matter-of-factly.

‘Sorry,’ I said. I was also bewildered. What in God’s name had that been about? ‘I guess I had a little delayed reaction.’

Mattie looked concerned, as though I were eighty instead of forty. I thought that maybe to a girl her age, forty is eighty. ‘Do you want to come up to the house? I’ll give you a glass of water.’

‘No, I’m fine now.’

‘All right. Mr. Noonan . . . all I mean is that nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I was hanging sheets . . . she was inside watching a Mighty Mouse cartoon on the VCR . . . then, when I went in to get more pins . . . ‘ She looked at the girl, who was no longer smiling. It was starting to get through to her now. Her eyes were big, and ready to fill with tears. ‘She was gone. I thought for a minute I’d die of fear.’

Now the kid’s mouth began to tremble, and her eyes filled up right on schedule. She began to weep. Mattie stroked her hair, soothing the small head until it lay against the Kmart smock top.

‘That’s all right, Ki,’ she said. ‘It turned out okay this time, but you can’t go out in the road. It’s dangerous. Little things get run over in the road, and you’re a little thing. The most precious little thing in the world.’

She cried harder. It was the exhausted sound of a child who needed a nap before any more adventures, to the beach or anywhere else.

‘Kia bad, Kia bad,’ she sobbed against her mother’s neck.

‘No, honey, only three,’ Mattie said, and if I had harbored any further thoughts about her being a bad mother, they melted away then. Or perhaps they’d already gone ?? after all, the kid was round, comely, well-kept, and unbruised.

On one level, those things registered. On another I was trying to cope with the strange thing that had just happened, and the equally strange thing I thought I was hearing ?? that the little girl I had carried off the white line had the name we had planned to give our child, if our child turned out to be a girl.

‘Kia,’ I said. Marvelled, really. As if my touch might break her, I tentatively stroked the back of her head. Her hair was sun-warm and fine.

‘No,’ Mattie said. ‘That’s the best she can say it now. Kyra, not Kia. It’s from the Greek. It means ladylike.’ She shifted, a little self-conscious. ‘I picked it out of a baby-name book. While I was pregnant, I kind of went Oprah. Better than going postal, I guess.’

‘It’s a lovely name,’ I said. ‘And I don’t think you’re a bad mom.’

What went through my mind right then was a story Frank Arlen had told over a meal at Christmas ?? it had been about Petie, the youngest brother, and Frank had had the whole table in stitches. Even Petie, who claimed not to remember a bit of the incident, laughed until tears streamed down his cheeks.

One Easter, Frank said, when Petie was about five, their folks had gotten them up for an Easter-egg hunt. The two parents had hidden over a hundred colored hard-boiled eggs around the house the evening before, after getting the kids over to their grandparents’. A high old Easter morning was had by all, at least until Johanna looked up from the patio, where she was counting her share of the spoils, and shrieked. There was Petie, crawling gaily around on the second-floor overhang at the back of the house, not six feet from the drop to the concrete patio.

Mr. Arlen had rescued Petie while the rest of the family stood below, holding hands, frozen with horror and fascination. Mrs. Arlen had repeated the Hail Mary over and over (‘so fast she sounded like one of the Chipmunks on that old ‘Witch Doctor’ record,’ Frank had said, laughing harder than ever) until her husband had disappeared back into the open bedroom window with Petie in his arms. Then she had swooned to the pavement, breaking her nose. When asked for an explanation, Petie had told them he’d wanted to check the rain-gutter for eggs.

I suppose every family has at least one story like that; the survival of the world’s Peties and Kyras is a convincing argument ?? in the minds of parents, anyway for the existence of God.

‘I was so scared,’ Mattie said, now looking fourteen again. Fifteen at most.

‘But it’s over,’ I said. ‘And Kyra’s not going to go walking in the road anymore. Are you, Kyra?’

She shook her head against her mother’s shoulder without raising it. I had an idea she’d probably be asleep before Mattie got her back to the good old doublewide.

‘You don’t know how bizarre this is for me,’ Mattie said. ‘One of my favorite writers comes out of nowhere and saves my kid. I knew you had a place on the TR, that big old log house everyone calls Sara Laughs, but folks say you don’t come here anymore since your wife died.’

‘For a long time I didn’t,’ I said. ‘If Sara was a marriage instead of a house, you’d call this a trial reconciliation.’

She smiled fleetingly, then looked grave again. ‘I want to ask you for something. A favor.’

‘Ask away.’

‘Don’t talk about this. It’s not a good time for Ki and me.’

‘Why not?’

She bit her lip and seemed to consider answering the question ?? -one I might not have asked, given an extra moment to consider ?? and then shook her head. ‘It’s just not. And I’d be so grateful if you didn’t talk about what just happened in town. More grateful than you’ll ever know.’

‘No problem.’

‘You mean it?’

‘Sure. I’m basically a summer person who hasn’t been around for awhile . . . which means I don’t have many folks to talk to, anyway.’ There was Bill Dean, of course, but I could keep quiet around him. Not that he wouldn’t know. If this little lady thought the locals weren’t going to find out about her daughter’s attempt to get to the beach by shank’s mare, she was fooling herself. ‘I think we’ve been noticed already, though. Take a look up at Brooksie’s Garage. Peek, don’t stare.’

She did, and sighed. Two old men were standing on the tarmac where there had been gas pumps once upon a time. One was very likely Brooksie himself; I thought I could see the remnants of the flyaway red hair which had always made him look like a downeast version of Bozo the Clown. The other, old enough to make Brooksie look like a wee slip of a lad, was leaning on a gold-headed cane in a way that was queerly vulpine.

‘I can’t do anything about them,’ she said, sounding depressed. ‘Nobody can do anything about them. I guess I should count myself lucky it’s a holiday and there’s only two of them.’

‘Besides,’ I added, ‘they probably didn’t see much.’ Which ignored two things: first, that half a dozen cars and pick-em-ups had gone by while we had been standing here, and second, that whatever Brooksie and his elderly friend hadn’t seen, they would be more than happy to make up.

On Mattie’s shoulder, Kyra gave a ladylike snore. Mattie glanced at her and gave her a smile full of rue and love. ‘I’m sorry we had to meet under circumstances that make me look like such a dope, because I really am a big fan. They say at the bookstore in Castle Rock that you’ve got a new one coming out this summer.’

I nodded. ‘It’s called Helen’s Promise.’

She grinned. ‘Good title.’

‘Thanks. You better get your buddy back home before she breaks your arm.’

‘Yeah.’

There are people in this world who have a knack for asking embarrassing, awkward questions without meaning to ?? it’s like a talent for walking into doors. I am one of that tribe, and as I walked with her toward the passenger side of the Scout, I found a good one. And yet it was hard to blame myself too enthusiastically. I had seen the wedding ring on her hand, after all.

‘Will you tell your husband?’

Her smile stayed on, but it paled somehow. And tightened. If it were possible to delete a spoken question the way you can delete a line of type when you’re writing a story, I would have done it.

‘He died last August.’

‘Mattie, I’m sorry. Open mouth, insert foot.’

‘You couldn’t know. A girl my age isn’t even supposed to be married, is she? And if she is, her husband’s supposed to be in the army, or something.’

There was a pink baby-seat ?? also Kmart, I guessed ?? on the passenger side of the Scout. Mattie tried to boost Kyra in, but I could see she was struggling. I stepped forward to help her, and for just a moment, as I reached past her to grab a plump leg, the back of my hand brushed her breast. She couldn’t step back unless she wanted to risk Kyra’s slithering out of the seat and onto the floor, but I could feel her recording the touch. My husband’s dead, not a threat, so the big-deal writer thinks it’s okay to cop a little feel on a hot summer morning. And what can I say? Mr. Big Deal came along and hauled my kid out of the road, maybe saved her life.

No, Mattie, I may be forty going on a hundred, but I was not copping a feel. Except I couldn’t say that; it would only make things worse. I felt my cheeks flush a little.

‘How old are you?’ I asked, when we had the baby squared away and were back at a safe distance.

She gave me a look. Tired or not, she had it together again. ‘Old enough to know the situation I’m in.’ She held out her hand. ‘Thanks again, Mr. Noonan. God sent you along at the right time.’

‘Nah, God just told me I needed a hamburger at the Village Cafe,’ I said. ‘Or maybe it was His opposite number. Please say Buddy’s still doing business at the same old stand.’

She smiled. It warmed her face back up again, and I was happy to see it. ‘He’ll still be there when Ki’s kids are old enough to try buying beer with fake IDS. Unless someone wanders in off the road and asks for something like shrimp tetrazzini. If that happened he’d probably drop dead of a heart attack.’

‘Yeah. Well, when I get copies of the new book, I’ll drop one off.’

The smile continued to hang in there, but now it shaded toward caution. ‘You don’t need to do that, Mr. Noonan.’

‘No, but I will. My agent gets me fifty comps. I find that as I get older, they go further.’

Perhaps she heard more in my voice than I had meant to put there ?? people do sometimes, I guess.

‘All right. I’ll look forward to it.’

I took another look at the baby, sleeping in that queerly casual way they have ?? her head tilted over on her shoulder, her lovely little lips pursed and blowing a bubble. Their skin is what kills me ?? so fine and perfect there seem to be no pores at all. Her Sox hat was askew. Mattie watched me reach in and readjust it so the visor’s shade fell across her closed eyes.

‘Kyra,’ I said.

Mattie nodded. ‘Ladylike.’

‘Kia is an African name,’ I said. ‘It means ‘season’s beginning.” I left her then, giving her a little wave as I headed back to the driver’s side of the Chevy. I could feel her curious eyes on me, and I had the oddest feeling that I was going to cry.

That feeling stayed with me long after the two of them were out of sight; was still with me when I got to the Village Cafe. I pulled into the dirt parking lot to the left of the off-brand gas pumps and just sat there for a little while, thinking about Jo and about a home pregnancy-testing kit which had cost twenty-two-fifty. A little secret she’d wanted to keep until she was absolutely sure. That must have been it; what else could it have been?

‘Kia,’ I said. ‘Season’s beginning.’ But that made me feel like crying again, so I got out of the car and slammed the door hard behind me, as if I could keep the sadness inside that way.