Home Fire Burning
… in which all is revealed, to most.
Kelly and Elmore left Lafayette in the rear-view mirror.
The rat-a-tat of snare drums and the rebel yells and fairground hollers of downtown crowds slowly faded. In a few miles, the solstice was dead silent.
The silence screamed with anxiety.
Kelly’s heart: Will. Elmore’s heart: Mary. Kelly’s heart: Mary. Elmore’s heart: Will.
To find the missing twins, Kelly and Elmore had nothing in the universe — not one clue — to go on. Nothing but a single portentous name:
They tore through the abandoned streets of Lafayette to confront him at the Castle.
The hijacked police car ran stop signs, flew heedlessly through intersections. Only a single bread-delivery truck meandered the streets, and Kelly blew past it before the red-haired driver could even lift his finger from the wheel to wave. It appeared that every human being in Lafayette had packed into the eight square blocks of downtown for The Jolly Holiday extravaganza.
The full moon shone so brilliantly it took nearly a mile … and a ruby-eyed opossum scuttling across the road ahead … for Kelly to realize she hadn’t yet switched on the police cruiser’s headlights.
She hit the switch, then realized it hardly mattered. Strangely, the world on the outskirts of town seemed to glow with an eerie twilight.
“What the devil is that, Kelly? A fire?”
Elmore, frustrated, hadn’t been able to make the defroster work in the old police car, or the heater, for that matter. Again and again, he leaned forward on the front seat, using paper napkins from the glove compartment or just his fingers to rub viewing holes in the fogged-over windows.
“What in the world, Kelly?”
Kelly and Elmore drew closer and closer to the brightening sky. Its weird glow reminded Elmore of a nuclear blast on a far horizon in some apocalypse movie.
“Whoa! Watch out, baby!”
Kelly somehow kept the tires on the road during a skidding turn. Black ice covered the right lane.
It was so very cold. Elmore knew in his bones that two kids, even resourceful kids, out there tonight faced real danger.
He hoped weather was the worst danger they faced.
At slower speed, Kelly and Elmore witnessed a night becoming surreal — orange streamers of fire, glowing ashes and bright embers, drifted down from the heavens all around the police cruiser. The falling pieces looked like enormous lightning bugs or bioluminescent jellyfish deep in a black ocean.
Elmore ducked reflexively as a big ember exploded against the windshield.
“Good God, Kelly! What’s on fire? Are the woods burning?”
Elmore thought of calling the fire department. Then an image flashed to mind — Dick Wragg, the murderous fire chief, lying dead on Main Street.
So much for Lafayette’s finest scrambling into action.
Now the police cruiser raced its moon-cast shadow along an endless stone fence that surrounded Sweet Comb. The wall rose high, overgrown by kudzu in places. That vine’s accidental summer topiary — bears and birds, snakes and angels — lay winter dead and brown. Hot sparks glowered in the dry vines.
Kelly got a fresh grip on the steering wheel.
“Hold on, El. We’re getting past that gate.”
Ahead, Sweet Comb’s stone wall rose into a formidable two-story guard house modeled on a medieval turret. It held a towering black gate.
That much-photographed wrought-iron entrance bore a Wood Enterprises corporate logo in twisted black — a massive sculpted oak tree, roots covering … and squeezing … an entire globe.
Kelly accelerated. Elmore buckled his seat belt, put both arms around his head.
A black-iron oak tree hurtled toward the windshield.
The impact stunned both passengers. The car stopped cold.
For a moment, Kelly and Elmore heard crickets, bird calls — impossible sounds on this icy first night of winter. Every summer cricket had turned to dried brown tobacco, and every bird now roosted, hoping simply to live until morning.
Elmore and Kelly had no way of knowing that Mr. Wood’s heavy gate was designed to stop a siege machine. Yet somehow, breaking immutable laws of physics, the sturdy police car banged the metal barrier off its hinge on one side.
The police cruiser sat halfway through the cockeyed opening. A plume of white steam rose from the hood. The official police department vehicle of the city of Lafayette resembled a black-and-white accordion.
One taillight still worked.
“Ouch,” said Kelly.
She felt a trickle of moisture over her left eye. She flipped the rear-view mirror, took a look, flipped it back up to avoid seeing more. The mirror fell off into her lap. Kelly saw again her fresh cut and the rising welt on her forehead. She had a nice match for the florid bullet wound down her right cheek.
Elmore straightened, his arms unwrapping his head.
He seemed OK, except for small cuts on the backs of his palms. Glass crumbs from the cruiser’s shattered windshield covered his lap. He looked like a bleeding diamond thief.
Kelly turned the key again.
“Come on, baby, come on!”
She rocked forward and backward in her seat, urging the vehicle back to life, to resurrection.
“Car, come ON!”
The engine fired, wheezing, belts screeching. The police cruiser lurched forward, dragging its front bumper along one side.
Kelly clanked forward down Mr. Wood’s long drive. The pavement rounded a blind turn behind mossy live oaks.
“Oh my God!” she whispered.
The Rogers just stared.
It was Disneyland, burning.
The towers of Mr. Wood’s castle blazed. The wings blazed. The mansion’s brick facade and its black steel skeleton blazed, melting down toward an inner blast furnace.
Amazement overtook Elmore and Kelly.
That emotion quickly gave way to another.
Please, dear God, please, Kelly prayed, biting the back of her hand. Please don’t let Will and Mary be in that hell…
The inferno stretched the length of the mansion, a spectacular view across the police cruiser’s entire windshield — or the shattered place where its windshield had been. Kelly shielded her face even at this great distance from the painful heat.
Scores of castle windows glowed absurdly, white-orange rectangles in raging walls. Greedy fingers of fire grabbed for the moon, reached, grabbed again, higher. A hole like a dark mouth gaped where the big wooden double front doors of the mansion once stood, and dragon tongues of fire flickered in the opening.
Elmore and Kelly watched a high gable of the roof — the same one Elmore fell from a year past — as it caved in with a splintering crunch and hiss. It sounded to Elmore like a crashing ocean wave. A solar flare of heat sent both passengers ducking behind the police car doors.
Meltwater dripped onto Elmore through the broken windshield. The winter ice on the police car roof didn’t stand a chance here.
“What now, El?” Kelly’s shoulders slumped. “How do we find them? Where?”
Elmore pointed an answer.
“Look! Is that a plane, Kelly? Right in there? Isn’t that an airplane?”
Elmore shouldered opened his door — it groaned loudly — and squinted, half in the car, half out. He raised one hand to shield the firelit side of his face.
In the distance beyond the burning castle, moving in and out of shadows, Kelly saw what Elmore had spotted — a sleek, streamlined beauty of a small jet. It silently glided, like a dream, along a flat course at taxi speed.
The aircraft passed briefly out of sight behind a stand of pines, then reappeared, spectral, a strange dark color for a small jet. It looked like a stinging insect camouflaged for night attacks. Absent illumination from a burning mansion, the ultimate bonfire, the jet might have escaped notice.
“It’s flying off, with the world burning down? Someone must be trying to get away!” Elmore’s speculation sounded true to both of them.
“C’mon! Get in!”
Before Elmore even slammed the door, Kelly had the police car clanking toward the apparition on the distant runway.
At that moment, the entire south end of Mr. Wood’s castle collapsed. Another heat wave billowed toward Kelly and Elmore — they watched the fire-white grass ripple ahead of it like ocean seaweed.
That scorching blast hit the car sideways. Elmore and Kelly actually felt their vehicle rock on its axles.
Anything or anybody caught in such a fire would be destroyed. No living thing, germ to giant, could survive such a hell.
Where were Will and Mary? Where?
Kelly stamped the gas pedal.
She gave up on Mr. Wood’s paved road, artistically designed to wind through his property and deliver visitors in the most scenic way right to the front steps of Sweet Comb. (No visitors — not one — had ever stepped out of a vehicle there.)
Instead, Kelly now cut directly across the estate grounds. Safari-style. She coaxed out what sounded more and more like the last breaths of the police car and wrestled its steering wheel over old field furrows and limestone chunks.
“Go, Kelly! Hurry!”
Elmore raised forward in his shotgun seat to keep the aircraft in sight.
“Look! It’s turning in front of the woods!”
Kelly might have pressed the accelerator completely through the floorboard had her foot been able. A broken limb dragged beneath the cruiser, and she heard the ripping noise of deep grasses.
Then Kelly saw them.
Like a miracle.
Two young children lay under a pale blanket, a hurricane of wild fire in the sky beyond them.
The two small bodies rested in deep grass not 30 feet to the left of the passing police car. Red rags of fire fell down from the sky and landed all around the little shapes under the blanket.
Kelly didn’t need to see the faces.
She knew it would be Will and Mary.
Dear God, please let them be alive. Please let them not be burned up...
Kelly slammed the brake. Elmore braced both arms against the glassy dashboard.
The police cruiser slid, wrenched, twisted to a stop. It coughed once, a death rattle, and the engine died.
Twin smoking ruts stretched over the vast lawn for 50 yards behind the vehicle, and the smell of torn, scorched grass joined other powerful odors.
Elmore, the baseball star, outraced Kelly to the twins.
He fell over them, covering their bodies, as if his wracked physique could somehow protect them, forever, from falling walls, collapsing beams, chunks of fire from the sky. The wickedness of the world.
Kelly tumbled on top of Elmore, weeping like her heart would break. Weeping as if her tears could drown every flame in a world made of fire.
* * *
Snug and warm in the cockpit of Don Sacco’s jet, Mr. Wood saw how Elmore and Kelly raced to the twins and fell. He watched their arms desperately embrace the small bundles.
He brusquely switched off the video monitor feed on his state-of-the-art smart phone.
Mr. Wood had seen enough of this whole Hollywood chase scene.
Of course, he’d watched remotely as the City of Lafayette’s police car crashed his gate. He looked on from yet another camera as the damaged black-and-white rattletrap clunked through his estate and came face-to-face with the great fire. He switched to still another view as the smoking police vehicle bounced off-road toward his airstrip.
At first, in some distant, unworried, unimportant part of his mind, he wondered who the hell was driving Lafayette’s police car.
Not Police Chief Neeley. That was for damn sure. Not unless the headless dead now had license to drive.
Was it Fire Chief Wragg? No, sir. Mr. Wood now knew by surveillance that Dick Wragg had fallen down on the job, too.
The mystery was solved when Mr. Wood saw lanky Elmore Rogers bound from the car and dead-sprint toward the sleeping twins in the tall grass. He knew with certainty when Kelly Rogers climbed out of the driver’s-side window and chased her loser of a husband to those delectable children.
Mr. Wood touched a button on his phone, and the video image from Sweet Comb went away. He pressed a second command. It turned off and erased the memory of every surveillance camera in every location of Mr. Wood’s estate and throughout his business empire. Little red camera lights extinguished all around the globe at the same instant.
Now, Mr. Wood could simply fly a plane for a while.
He considered briefly what he left behind.
Lafayette would have neither fire chief nor police chief. No official would be left to investigate the mansion fire … and even if that happened, not one morsel of bone would remain from Epicurean bodies consumed … yes, completely eaten … by flames so hot, burning for so many days.
Oh, Mr. Wood thought, that fat slob, Turnipseed, might try something valiant.
The deputy would never find a clue. Not one.
Mr. Wood’s plan had worked perfectly.
He wondered how long a man as fat as Jess Turnipseed would burn before he melted down to nothing?
* * *
“Are they alive? Elmore, tell me they’re alive…”
Kelly’s voice broke.
He lifted his ear from Will’s chest.
“Alive,” Elmore confirmed. “Our strong boy.”
A moment later, he raised his head from Mary and looked straight into Kelly’s remarkable, tear-stained face.
“Mary. Alive, too. Just sound asleep.”
Fresh tears burst from Kelly at that, and Elmore reached out strong arms to pull her body close and tight to him.
Then tears overcame him, too.
In freezing cold, Kelly prayed her thankfulness, prayed to be the mother Will and Mary always deserved.
Elmore hoped for amnesia. Whatever the twins had seen this night, he hoped with all his might they would not remember.
Sparks fell in the grass, on their blanket. One landed in Kelly’s black hair.
Elmore swatted the ember, and they laughed like crazy.
They laughed so loud, a father and mother embracing beside their sleeping bundles. Then, they wept again. Loudly. Unashamedly.
For relief. For sheer joy.
* * *
Mr. Wood checked gauges and dials one last time. He eased the throttle forward and sped Don Sacco’s fancy jet smoothly down the grass runway in the full moonlight.
The G forces pushed him deeper in his elegant seat.
The plane’s nose lifted. It rose up, up, and away. It quickly left burning Sweet Comb behind — a pyre, a fantastic signal fire, a vast burning dream for all the world to see.
Mr. Wood’s new life took wing.
He would return, soon enough. He would be back. Those Rogers twins would be just what the doctor ordered in a few short years.
Meanwhile, Mr. Wood had plans.
He would hunt.
A special kind of hunting. He’d learned to love the most dangerous game as that young soldier in southeast Asia. He’d never found anything to match the thrill. Not in business. Not in travel. Not in bed.
Certainly not in eating clubs.
The last Epicurean leveled the jet off at 200 feet, far too low to be tracked by conventional radar.
A sudden thought struck Mr. Wood.
He was not an impulsive man, but this once, this memorable night, he acted on an impulse.
Mr. Wood veered the jet over Alabama countryside, returning for one last look. He reckoned a course not by onboard navigation or bright stars, but by a distant tower of fire that used to be Sweet Comb.
Mr. Wood looped back to the burning spectacle, flying a half-circle, banking, banking still more. He made out the toy figurines of the Rogers family down below, lit by the firelight, embracing, all of them standing now.
“See you,” he said aloud, with no feeling.
The airplane dropped to 100 feet, and Mr. Wood guided it straight toward the blazing mansion that he’d painstakingly designed from day one as a perfect monstrous mouse trap for The Epicureans.
The jet entered a soaring borealis of flames over the north side of the castle. Mr. Wood could see directly down into glowing rooms and charred walls and the scorched furniture and paintings and fixtures and bodies … yes, bodies. Those crisp, blackened Epicurean corpses wouldn’t even be corpses tomorrow, simply mere flakes of cremation, gases wafting through pine needles and Spanish moss. Yes, the hickory logs in his hearth would burn for days … and so would everything else, everything in that place, until the good fire reduced every bit of it to black carbon atoms.
Who, in their wildest dreams, would want to find the missing Epicureans?
Go to Milan. Knock on the door of a troubled family and ask if they’d gotten word from Don Sacco.
Go to Moscow. Stand in the boardroom of the state-run oil conglomerate and ask its baffled directors for any word on Ivan.
Go to Nagasaki. In the bubble-tea shop, ask the black-haired kids with smartphones and ear plugs what on earth happened to The Golden Ones.
The Epicureans held pieces of the world together. Their passing would leave holes.
But they kept their secrets, The Epicureans. The solstice feast would be their deepest, darkest one. So who would ever trace them? How? Where?
Tomorrow morning in Lafayette, a boy on a bicycle or a city worker on a loud truck or a girl with a ponytail out jogging the high school track would take a deep breath. The air would smell like smoke.
That’s where you could find black flakes of The Epicureans.
Mr. Wood’s plane ripped through a last soaring curtain of orange flame then streaked straight south. A horizontal meteor.
He stayed the altitude at two hundred feet on a course he’d charted for months, a vector clear of any tall power lines and cell towers and even remarkable trees.
In one hour, he’d leave Alabama and pass over the Gulf of Mexico, silently spearing low winter clouds, fighting turbulence. A shrimp trawler under his wings would literally tremble with his passing. The men on brightly lit oil rigs he owned off Fort Morgan Peninsula would glance up from their labors on the night shift, wondering what in the world could be noisier than their own work.
Mr. Wood would fly three hours beyond there. He would first see land again over Cuba, next over Santa Marta, in Colombia. Flying on, the spreading lights of Barranquilla and Cartagena would pass beneath his east wing.
Finally, over the remote Pacific coast of that country where mad Spaniards once searched for El Dorado, a city of gold, Mr. Wood would briefly climb to seven hundred feet.
He would wrestle into a reserve parachute and a carefully provisioned jungle pack. He would program the jet’s sophisticated auto-pilot to fly three more minutes at this altitude, then fall back again to two hundred feet and follow a beeline out over the dark Pacific.
The plane would fly west under the solstice moon until it ran out of fuel and plunged into tropical black waves.
Mr. Wood would walk calmly in his Special Forces parachute and pack to the rear of the plane.
Don Sacco had designed the jet hatch there for sport jumping. The Epicureans loved their pleasures. Their thrills.
Mr. Wood recalled how Don Sacco had madly convulsed as the torches shot out arcs of blue death in the banquet room.
Ultimate power, Mr. Wood thought to himself, is making men dance and die.
Mr. Wood would stand in the jump door for a moment, exhilarated by the whipping wind, savoring the smell of a world outside the jet.
These next years would be just like old times, back when big green-bellied birds dropped him into the Vietnamese highlands behind enemy lines.
This trip, down to Colombia in the dark, he’d hunt again.
He’d mapped eight or 10 villages, isolated pueblos. The world knew them only from accidental communication once or twice a year when a lost boat captain or a crazy scientist blundered into contact.
Soon, those villages would lose communication. Forever.
That would come soon.
For now, in the cockpit and already many miles south of Lafayette, Mr. Wood settled back into the buttery leather of Don Sacco’s pilot seat.
He felt happy.
His Sweet Comb plan had worked like a charm.
After his hunting trip, he still had a billion dollars in Switzerland.
And a date with Will and Mary Rogers.
Eight Years After
Improvidently, a freezing downpour struck Lafayette Lies Asleep Memorial Gardens just as mourners left their cars. At graveside, about 20 friends and family huddled miserably under a green tent. Many on the fringes of the group scrunched their necks under umbrellas or sopping newspapers and did their best to ignore falling pellets of ice.
It rained so hard, the day Elmore left.
The graveside service fell on his birthday, January 28. Elmore would have made it 40 years if he’d lived two more days.
Kelly, in black, and two red-haired teens stood reverently by the coffin. The widow held a folded American flag, a triangle of red, white, and blue.
Elmore didn’t want a military funeral, but his National Guard buddies all turned out. Mule Connor brought a flag flown somewhere in Iraq over the Rock ‘n’ Roll Regiment. Elmore’s transport driver friends, Deacon and Johnny, black guys, showed in dress uniform. Elmore didn’t know a preacher, but his old construction foreman, Plum — Colonel Plum on weekends and deployments — said a few words.
With Kelly’s approval, Plum opened a Bible and read from Corinthians.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love, Kelly thought. Oh, that boy could love. Elmore won’t be forgotten.
Mark Baker and Tom Junod, local boys who worked with Elmore on a Rankin crew the year he got sick, sang “Amazing Grace.” Elmore used to join their caterwauling in the panel truck on the way home from installations.
Two young Hispanic men who worked for Mr. Reece, owner of the funeral home, swung Elmore slowly down.
Mimicking hard rain, red clay clods spilled off one side of the grave and pattered the coffin lid.
Will Rogers, already a head taller than his mother, reached long arms around Kelly and Mary. Both women dropped their heads, unable to hide their sorrow.
“I love you, Mama,” whispered the striking young man, just turned 16. “Daddy loves you.”
And now daddy doesn’t hurt any more, Will thought. He made it to that place with the lights.
Elmore lived six happy years after the Wood kidnappings, the fire at Sweet Comb, the misfortune with Dick Wragg. After a bad flu two years back, Elmore’s compromised liver, the old war wound, stopped functioning normally. He got on a long VA Hospital waiting list for a transplant that never came. The last months, Elmore watched reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” and old episodes of “Gunsmoke” from a gurney.
Elmore spoke his last words at home. Kelly and the twins held his work-roughened hands.
I’m gonna get some sleep now. See y’all in a minute.
* * *
Those who braved the cold rain stepped forward to be received by Kelly and the twins. A line of doleful faces, male and female, offered sympathies.
Mr. Rankin, now hobbled by age, passed down the line. Elmore’s old high school ball coach, Mr. Butler, showed up with a cassette tape, a homemade recording of Elmore and Dan Neeley singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in the locker room after a practice. Kelly’s classmate and rival for school beauty, Mona Lisa Vinson, couldn’t stop crying long enough to even speak. She always had a thing for Elmore.
For dear friends, Kelly pulled back the veil for kisses on a cheek. The most beautiful face in Lafayette, rivaled more and more by young Mary’s, nodded through pretty tears at one condolence after the next.
“I love you,” Mary whispered, squeezing her mom’s gloved hand. “And I’m freezing my butt off.”
A young man, stick-thin and ascetic, approached. A feeble moustache somehow clung to his top lip. He was about the same age as the twins.
With the exception of the questionable facial hair, Timmy Wragg looked almost nothing like his burly dad. Skinny Timmy stooped, as if his head might be too heavy. He gave the impression that a kitchen fan might send him flying.
“Hey, Timmy,” greeted Will and Mary at the same time. Will added, “Hey, thanks for coming.”
It had been a while.
After all the ruckus, Elmore and Kelly and the twins moved from next door to the Wraggs on farther out in the country, down the road to Tuscaloosa. Mrs. Wragg remained the same recluse after her husband’s death. She died from cirrhosis about the time Elmore got sick with his liver. An aunt moved in to care for Timmy, and he kept the house.
Timmy carried his own Bible, red leather, bristling with bookmarks. Forgiveness was a mountain he would always have to climb in life.
“I’m really sorry, Mrs. Rogers.” Timmy spoke in a rehearsed voice. “I admired your husband. Your dad.”
Will felt a lump in his throat. It was some confession, considering the family histories.
Timmy offered a chilly, soft hand. Will shook it.
Kelly lifted her veil, leaned forward, kissed Timmy on the cheek. He blushed pink and turned to Mary.
The beautiful teenage girl firmly shook Timmy’s hand, and he turned even deeper pink and stumbled off.
Elmore’s buddies from the Guard moved briskly, officially.
“A good man,” Dee Langness announced.
“Brave and a patriot.”
Will and Mary and Kelly smiled politely at that one. They knew Elmore’s true feelings about his military service. He often cautioned the twins about what happened to brave, patriotic country boys.
I’m exhibit A, he told them more than once.
Police Chief Jess Turnipseed lumbered up. The funeral tent shrank.
“I’m so sorry, Miz Rogers,” Turnip mumbled. He wasn’t much for talking.
“You’re so sweet,” Kelly said.
“These young’uns look mighty grown up these days. I know their daddy was … is, I mean, up there in heaven … he is mighty proud of ’em both.”
Everybody liked Chief Turnipseed. He wore a gold badge. He had a heart of gold.
“Daddy was proud of you, Chief Turnip,” Will offered. “He always talked about how much you deserved to be police chief.”
Lafayette thought the same. The town cruised along under Turnipseed’s watch. The slow-moving, slow-drawling cop had a knack for keeping things calm.
After the Castle fire, Turnip spent days, then weeks, then months with state and national law-enforcement officials, media, business associates of Mr. Wood, and curiosity seekers. Many arrived aggressive, seeking answers, prying into corners. Newly minted Police Chief Turnipseed gave them access to everything and anything they wanted to see. They poked through the ashes of Sweet Comb. They prowled Mr. Wood’s estate and office at the idle wood yard. They combed through phone records and hospital files and interviewed dozens of Lafayette citizens. The FBI paid a visit, and then, soberingly, the CIA. The sign-in log at Lafayette Motor Lodge carried the signatures of foreign agents, investigators, government bureaucrats. They all descended on Lafayette to ask the same question.
What happened to Mr. Wood?
His empire had no direction, no head. He left no clue to his company strategies, his succession plans. His existence.
Visitors departed Lafayette with just about the same information they had when they first got out of their rental cars and climbed off their buses.
Nada. Niente. Nothing.
Not a clue on planet Earth existed about what happened to Mr. Wood.
When the files finally closed, the police report officially listed him a fatality in an accidental fire at his home.
“Turnip,” Kelly whispered. “I’ll always be grateful to you. You know that, don’t you? Forever.”
She stood on her tiptoes in her black shoes to kiss his enormous cold cheek.
An old teammate from Elmore’s high school baseball team, Ricky Kirkland, stepped forward.
“Elmore could hit a curveball,” Ricky said, and that was all.
Will smiled, raised from grief. Will could hit a curveball, too.
At the very end, among the last mourners, an elderly man hobbled up on a black cane. A hand or two in the dwindling crowd reached to steady Dr. Thomson as he deliberately picked his way around the red mound of dirt exhumed from Elmore’s resting place.
“I’m so very sorry,” Dr. Thomson told Kelly. “I’m sorry Mr. Rogers is gone.”
His quiet voice held a distinguished, formal tone. Dr. Thomson took great pride in being proper, always. His dignity had been a calming presence to patients nearly 70 years.
“Thank you so much, Dr. Thomson.”
Kelly remembered the physician had shown Mary tremendous kindness on that terrible solstice when the snake struck her ankle. The same day Kelly lay strapped to a gurney three floors below and couldn’t see her own daughter.
“You didn’t have to come out in this awful weather, you know. We would understand.”
“We dang sure wouldn’t be here,” Will said, irreverently, “if we weren’t burying daddy.”
Mary swatted Will’s arm, but she couldn’t suppress a thin smile.
Dr. Thomson smiled, too.
“Elmore was a better man than anybody knows,” he said gently. “We have lost the kind of man I wish I’d been all my life.”
* * *
The Rogers family lingered after the last car doors closed and the cemetery emptied.
It wasn’t like Kelly to hang around. She despised funerals. She often told Will and Mary she didn’t even want to go to her own.
They silently said goodbye to Elmore. The wind whipped. The twins stood close to their mom with their arms around her.
She kept them warm. They kept her warm.
At last, shivering, Mary broke the spell.
“Wouldn’t a big cup of hot chocolate from the Milky Way be good?”
Mary had restrained her tangle of red curls beneath a black scarf, but they looked ready to burst free at any moment.
“Extra marshmallows for Mama,” Will insisted.
“Extra for your daddy, too,” Kelly said. “He’s the one who loved marshmallows.”
Lafayette’s newest widow managed to say the words without sobbing.
Now the rain, if anything, poured even harder. A cold front had pushed through, and white vapor marked their breathing.
“Mama,” Will said, “maybe we ought to tell Mr. Neeley that his old buddy Elmore is gone?”
Kelly smiled. That boy of hers. Just 16, but he had a heart like Elmore’s.
“Let’s do that,” Kelly said. “But Danny already knows, I imagine. Those two are up in heaven throwing a ball by now.”
Will pushed open a huge black umbrella that unfolded with the noise of a giant crow taking off. The twins flanked Kelly, and they said a short, silent graveside prayer, eyes closed. One last tear slipped from the corner of Kelly’s eye and passed over her fine cheekbone and down the old scar from the sniper rifle.
“Bye, sweet Elmore,” Kelly said, and that was that.
They moved among the headstones. The wind did its best to heist their umbrella, but Will maneuvered it just so and kept the trio sheltered, more or less, from stinging needles of rain.
Dan Neeley’s grave bore a simple headstone with his name, birth date, the day of his death — the winter solstice — and a few inspirational words chiseled in stone. The City of Lafayette had posthumously honored Police Chief Daniel Parker Neeley with a plaque that permanently displayed his silver police chief’s badge. Encased in glass and surrounded by slightly sun-bleached plastic flowers, the memorabilia made his grave look important.
The Rogers family didn’t talk much. They simply stood. Will and Mary … and Kelly most of all … knew how Elmore had loved Dan Neeley. How Dan Neeley saved his life overseas. What Dan Neeley meant to them all.
Will and Mary couldn’t say why, but Dan Neeley’s grave somehow reminded both of a vivid, identical dream.
For years, the twins woke nights sweating, scared. In the same dream, they saw burning people, burning houses.
Somehow, in that way dreams have, the dream changed into a view out the window of a sweltering car.
For eight years, they’d kept their nightmares secret. They talked about them to one another, but to no one else in the world. Neither twin understood the shocking dreams, but over time, the terrible visions had come in the night less often.
Neeley’s grave reminded Kelly of something very different. Warm. Easy. Comfortable. A friend. And just two weeks before she met Elmore — before Elmore swept her away — more than a friend.
Kelly felt a surge of … something. A standing stone between shame and fierce pride. A memory inappropriate for a funeral day, especially the day one buried a beloved husband.
Kelly remembered, unbidden, her fond farewell with Dan Neeley. His kind blue eyes. His freckled hands. His red hair cut in a new bristle to be like the policemen he admired.
Then Kelly helplessly remembered Elmore again. The passion of her life.
She turned to the twins.
They had come, oh, so soon in her life. Oh, so difficult. At first, beautiful curses. Now, beautiful gifts.
Kelly felt hot tears well up again. She pressed a black lace handkerchief to her eyes.
What happened to a life? Where did it go? How fast it passed, and what a blur the days, the nights, the strobe, the carousel world…
Danny. Elmore. Everybody. Everything.
A gust of wind, arctic cold, suddenly bulled into the mourners. The weather finally had its way and turned the umbrella inside out.
The Rogers family felt the pain of the rain.
Do grieving people ever run at a funeral? Through a graveyard?
The Rogers family did. Will and Mary even raced.
They all laughed hysterically by the time they reached the car, emotions of every kind so near the surface.
Will claimed the wheel. He had grown into a man now, or almost. He’d gotten his license less than six weeks ago.
Mary put her arms around her mom and maternally pulled Kelly’s beautiful conflicted face to her breast.
“Hot chocolate,” Mary whispered, like a secret.
Will kicked the car into gear. He drove a red Camry that Elmore had bought Kelly about a month before he got sick. It had a lot of hospital miles, but it could still go.
The Rogers family eased down a grass lane among headstones and plots, turned onto a paved cemetery road. It curved past a woodland, bare tree branches dripping onto the car.
From the corner of her eye, Mary saw something move in the trees.
A flash of white. A hat. A shape.
She turned, saw nothing. One branch oddly twitching, up and down.
Mary’s mind flashed back.
Something twitched in her memory. Up, down. A winter, long ago. A rare snowfall. A snowman. Shotguns. Timmy Wragg’s scared terrier.
A figure in the woods. White. Big. Watching. Then, vanished.
A shiver surged up Mary’s back.
It could have been just the wind.
* * *
One car remained at Lafayette Lies Asleep.
Minutes after the Rogers family departed, a door swung open on that black Oldsmobile. An umbrella popped out, also black, proper for the occasion. A black cane followed.
Dr. Thomson slowly climbed from the vehicle. Old doctors, he’d decided, could take their time doing everything.
The physician moved very deliberately for a second time that day toward Elmore Rogers’s grave.
Most funeral services in these times, Dr. Thomson lamented, a burial crew rushed to the graveside with a front-end loader — a machine, for god’s sake — before the bereaved family even got out of hearing range. It always shocked him. It seemed so callous, so indifferent to those mourning lost loved ones.
But the bad weather today had forced the gravediggers to wait a decent interval before pushing dirt over Elmore Rogers.
Dr. Thomson stepped under the green tent awning, wind ruffling it, and he closed his umbrella. He stood at graveside looking down on the bare casket of Elmore Rogers.
He wrestled once again, for the millionth time, over one of the most difficult decisions of his life.
Dr. Thomson had a secret.
It might be a terrible secret. Or it might be a life-changing wonder of a secret. Who in the world could predict it?
The doctor took a snow-white handkerchief from his pocket. He noticed the liver spots on the backs of his wrinkled hands as he rubbed rain from the lenses of his bifocals. He often used this mannerism when he thought, when he pondered.
No one else in the world knew what he knew. And no one else in the world had been forced to wrestle, over and over, with doing this thing.
Dr. Thomson held the past and the future in his heart. His hands.
Years ago, a construction worker named Elmore Rogers fell off a roof. He showed up at Lafayette General in the back of a truck. The ER patched him up. The doctors took requisite blood samples.
Dr. Thomson had seen Elmore’s charts, and he remembered the blood type: B. Type B, for baseball. For whatever reason, Elmore’s chart stayed in Dr. Thomson’s memory.
The summer after Elmore’s accident, Mary Rogers got bit on the ankle by a cottonmouth. She showed up at Lafayette General in the backseat of a car. In recovery, Dr. Thomson himself took requisite blood samples.
Mary Rogers had type A blood. Dr. Thomson knew her sample’s integrity could not be in question.
At exactly that same time, by unfortunate, bewildering coincidence, Kelly Rogers tumbled off a trestle and nearly drowned. She showed up at Lafayette General in the back of Deputy Turnipseed’s personal car. Intensive care doctors took requisite blood samples.
Dr. Thomson saw Kelly’s chart, too.
And so … his secret.
Mary Rogers had type A blood. Kelly Rogers had type O blood.
Elmore Rogers had type B blood. B for baseball.
Dr. Thomson had examined the science, the genetics. He had reexamined the science, for years now, and he’d closely followed breaking studies in the field.
He’d been left with absolutely no doubt.
It was biologically impossible for Elmore Rogers to be Will and Mary’s father.
But Dr. Thomson had a hunch who might be.
He had lived a lot of years. He had heard a lot of stories. He had made a lot of diagnoses based on little signs.
* * *
Dr. Thomson reached beneath his dark funeral overcoat.
He took out a manila folder of documents, and slowly withdrew its paperwork. He considered for a long moment the name typed across the first blank space on the first page:
Dr. Thomson took a short breath and said something like a prayer. Like Elmore, he wasn’t really a praying man.
He dropped the medical records into the open grave. In a mass, they fluttered down like a shot quail and landed limply in the space between Elmore’s coffin and the red clay wall.
Dr. Thomson ruined the perfect shine on his black shoes by kicking in enough red dirt to completely cover the medical charts. For all eternity.
Dr. Thomson felt relieved. His decision had taken a long time. Years. Now that it was made, a burden lifted from his mind.
He raised his British umbrella, an expensive model impervious even to gale-force winds, and edged out from under the dripline of the green awning.
The doctor slowly followed the exact route taken by the red-headed twins and Kelly Belisle Rogers through the cemetery just 20 minutes earlier.
Dr. Thomson stood for a long time over the grave of Police Chief Dan Neeley. Its headstone bore name, birth date, day of death — the winter solstice — and a few words.
Killed in the line of duty. Officer and gentleman. Rest in peace.
Dr. Thomson would rest in peace tonight, too.