“No,” she whispered, nearly gone.
“Why won’t you talk to me?”
“Cause I’m so tired I can’t even think, Max. Stop it.”
Max sat on the edge of the bed and stroked her hair while she fell asleep.
When Vi awoke it was dark again. Her eyes focused on the wooden cross hanging on the wall beside the doorway. It was the only adornment they’d put up since moving into the house last week. Her father had carved it from an oak branch and presented it to her three Christmases ago.
She heard Max in the kitchen. Pots clanged and the sweet warmth of baking bread flowed into the bedroom from the hallway.
Vi climbed out of bed and walked into the tiny adjoining bathroom. She stripped her shirt and panties and started the shower. She sat down in the bathtub, letting the water rain down upon her head and diverge into hot rivulets that descended the contours of her body.
Mindlessly she watched the water swirl into the drain and she did not rise until the shower had begun to cool.
Max was lying in bed when she emerged from the bathroom, towel-wrapped, her skin still steaming. Normally she’d have asked him to leave the room while she changed. The week before their wedding, Vi’s mother had advised her never to dress in front of her husband. Too many free peeks and Max would take for granted the beauty of his bride.
Vi dropped her towel and donned a pair of royal blue sweatpants and an undershirt she’d owned since high school.
“I made dinner,” Max said while Vi towel-dried her hair. “I made the Irish soda bread you like.”
That was a first.
Vi threw the towel into the bathroom and climbed onto the bed. She lay flat on her back beside Max without touching him. He still wore his navy sweat suit from cross-country practice and smelled of running outdoors in the cold, his plentiful curlyblack hair in a sweaty tangle.
Max sat up and said, “I’ll bring your dinner back here.”
“Just lay with me.”
Max laid back down. They didn’t move or speak for awhile.
“I talked to this little girl,” Vi said finally, staring into the ceiling. She spoke at hardly more than a whisper. “Thirteen years old. Name’s Jenna. Wants to be an Olympic swimmer. Four days ago, in the middle of the night, Jenna watched a man with long black hair beat her mother unconscious. That man had just come from the next door neighbors where he’d broken the necks of two little boys and murdered their parents.
“While her mother lay unconscious in the hall, this thing broke into Jenna’s bedroom. She was hiding in her closet. He threw open the doors, told her to get on the bed. She said he spoke very softly. Said he was covered in blood. Thought it was her Mama’s.
“Jenna got on the bed thinking she was going to be raped and killed. You know what he did? Tucked her in. Pulled the covers up around her neck, his face just inches from hers. She said he smelled like lemons. He told her, ‘I have to take your mommy with me.’ Said it very softly. Then this monster told Jenna he’d drown her in the bathtub if she got out of bed before sunrise.
“He left her room and went and talked to her brother. Jenna stayed in bed until the sun came up. When she walked out into the hallway, her mother was gone.
“She told me all this, sitting in the Cherokee. Never cried. But she’s very worried about her brother. He won’t talk to anyone. Their father was killed by Andrew Thomas. Now the mother’s probably dead. And we may not catch this guy, Max.”
“But you know it’s Andrew Thomas. I mean, who else would’ve pushed his old girlfriend off that lighthouse?”
“Of course we think it’s him, but the evidence isn’t there yet. The physical description of the perp from that terrified little girl doesn’t really fit Andrew Thomas. We got faint boot prints in the Worthingtons’ backyard. Reports of a gray Impala in the neighborhood on Sunday afternoon. The only promising piece of evidence is a laser pointer we pried out of Ben Worthington’s right hand. CSI lifted a partial and latent prints is checking it out. It’s the only hope we’ve got at this point. And even if it turns out it belongs to Andrew Thomas, we still have to find him, and he’s managed to hide for seven years.”
“You gonna be able to detach from this? I mean, how long till I have my wife back? I can’t go for a week without you—”
“He murdered an entire family, Max. Children, you know? Tore up the parents something fierce. Since before we got married, my period has started every twenty-eight days between two and five o’clock in the afternoon. My body’s an atomic clock, and right now, I’m two days late. This didn’t even happen when Papaw died.”
Max rolled over on top of Vi, held her face between his palms.
“I know what would take your mind off this,” he whispered, planting delicate kisses along her eyebrows. “Wanna play?”
He had the long lean body of a runner and it fit perfectly between her legs. She sensed him swelling against her through his nylon pants, felt lewd for wanting him while the slaughter of the Worthingtons consumed her.
“I still have the smell of that family in my nose,” she said. “How can you even—”
Max slid her sweatpants below her knees, kissed her inner thigh, and moved up slowly with his tongue.
“You just tell me when to stop,” he said, “and I’ll go get your dinner.”
He went back to work. She did not tell him to stop.
ON Halloween I flew into Rock Springs, Wyoming, rented a car, and by sunset was cruising north up Highway 191 into the unending bleakness of the high desert plain.
At dusk I pulled over at an abandoned gas station in Farson where 28 crosses 191 and runs northeast around the southern terminus of the Wind River Mountains for seventy miles to the city of Lander, my destination. Stepping out of the car, I walked across broken faded pavement into the middle of 191 and gazed north and west into the evening redness.
I wondered if my brother’s cabin still stood in this wasted country. Just thirty miles north I imagined I could feel it, a dark presence on the horizon exhuming memories I would not acknowledge. The wind was calm, the highway empty. The silence and loneliness of the desert bore down on me, matching my spirit.
At an elevation of 7,550 feet I crested South Pass. Through the driver side window I could see the lavender foothills of the Winds. When I swallowed my ears popped.
The highway descended at a gentle grade. A brown sign informed me that I was now in grizzly bear country.
The moon came up, lit the hills.