The Darkest Evening of the Year / Page 5

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“One day when he was gone, I took Nickie for her shots. He was furious about the cost.”


“The foster parents evaluate the dog and make a report on the extent of its training-is it housebroken, leash friendly…”


“Nickie’s housebroken. She’s the sweetest girl.”


“If the dog has no serious behavioral problems, we find what we hope will be its forever home. Some of our fostering volunteers have room for more than visiting dogs. One of them will take in you and the kids for a few weeks, till you get on your feet.”


“Why would they do that?”


“Most golden-rescue people are a class apart. You’ll see.”


In Janet’s lap, her hands worried at each other. “What a mess.”


“It would have been worse to stay with him.”


“Just me, I might’ve stayed. But not with the kids. Not anymore. I’m…ashamed, how I let him treat them.”


“You’d need to be ashamed if you stayed. But not now. Not unless you let him sweet-talk you back.”


“Won’t happen.”


“Glad to hear it. There’s always a way forward. But there’s no way back.”


Janet nodded. Perhaps she understood. Most likely not.


To many people, free will is a license to rebel not against what is unjust or hard in life but against what is best for them and true.


Amy said, “It might be too late to help the swelling, but you ought to try putting some ice on that split lip.”


Rising from the arm of the chair, moving toward the bedroom door, Janet said, “All right. But I heal fast. I’ve had to.”


Putting one hand on the woman’s shoulder, staying her for a moment, Amy said, “Your daughter, is she autistic?”


“One doctor said so. Others don’t agree.”


“What do the others say?”


“Different things. Various developmental disabilities with long names and no hope.”


“Has she had any kind of treatment?”


“None that’s brought her out of herself. But Reesa-she’s some kind of prodigy, too. She hears a song once, she can sing it or play it note-perfect on a child’s flute I bought her.”


“Earlier, was she singing in Celtic?”


“Back at the house. Yes.”


“She knows the language?”


“No. But Maev Gallagher, our neighbor, loves Celtic music, plays it all the time. She sometimes baby-sits Reesa.”


“So once she’s heard a song, she can also sing it word-perfect in a language she doesn’t know.”


“It’s a little eerie sometimes,” Janet said. “That high sweet voice in a foreign tongue.”


Amy removed her hand from Janet’s shoulder. “Has she ever…”


“Ever what?”


“Has she ever done anything else that strikes you as eerie?”


Janet frowned. “Like what?”


To explain, Amy would have to open door after door into herself, into places in the heart that she did not want to visit. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I meant by that.”


“In spite of her problems, Reesa’s a good girl.”


“I’m sure she is. And she’s lovely, too. Such beautiful eyes.”


Chapter 7


Harrow drives, and the silver Mercedes conforms to curves with the sinuous grace of free-flowing mercury, and Moongirl simmers in the passenger seat.


No matter how good the sex has been for her, Moongirl always rises in anger from the bed.


Harrow is never the cause of her rage. She is furious because she can only have carnal satisfaction in a lightless room.


She has put this condition of darkness upon herself, but she does not blame herself for it. She imagines herself to be a victim and instead blames another, and not just another but also the world.


Drained of desire by the act, she remains empty only until the last shudder of pleasure has passed through her, whereupon she fills at once with bitterness and resentment.


Because she has the capacity for ruthless discipline of the body and the intellect, her undisciplined emotion can be concealed. Her face remains placid, her voice soft. Always she is lithe, graceful, with no telltale twitch of tension in her stride or gestures.


Occasionally Harrow swears that he can smell her fury: the faintest scent of iron, like that rising from ferrous rock scorched by relentless desert sun.


Only light can vaporize this particular anger.


If they lie together in the windowless room in the daytime, she wants afterward to be in the light. Sometimes she goes outside half clothed or even naked.


On those days, she stands with her face turned to the sky, her mouth open, as if inviting the light to fill her.


Although a natural blonde, she takes the sun well. Her skin is bronze even into the creases of her knuckles, and the fine hairs on her arms are bleached white.


By contrast to her skin, the whites of her eyes are as brilliant as pure arctic snow, and the bottle-green irises dazzle.


Most often she and Harrow make loveless love at night. Afterward, neither the stars nor the moon is bright enough to steam away her distilled fury, and though she sometimes refers to herself as a Valkyrie, she does not have wings to fly into the higher light.


Usually a bonfire on the beach will reduce her anger to embers, but not always. Occasionally she needs to burn more than pine logs and dried seaweed and driftwood.


As though Moongirl can will the world to meet her needs, someone ideal for burning may come to her at the opportune moment. This has happened more than once.


On a night when a bonfire is not enough and when fate does not send her an offering, she must go out into the world and find the fire she needs.


Harrow has driven her as far as 120 miles before she has located what requires burning. Sometimes she does not find it before dawn, and then the sun is sufficient to boil off her rage.


This night, he drives thirty-six miles on winding roads through rural territory before she says, “There. Let’s do it.”


An old one-story clapboard house, the only residence in sight, sits behind a well-tended lawn. No lamps brighten any window.


The headlights reveal two birdbaths in the yard, three garden gnomes, and a miniature windmill. On the front porch are a pair of bentwood rocking chairs.


Harrow proceeds almost a quarter of a mile past the place until, prior to a bridge, he comes to a narrow dirt lane that slants off the blacktop. He follows this dusty track down to the base of the bridge and parks near the river, where sluggish black water purls in the moonlight.


Perhaps this short path serves fishermen who cast for bass from the bank. If so, none is currently present. This is an hour made more for arsonists than for anglers.


From the two-lane county road above, the Mercedes cannot be seen here at the river. Although few motorists, if any, are likely to be abroad at this hour, precautions must be taken.


Harrow retrieves the two-gallon utility can from the luggage space behind the seats.


He does not ask her if she has remembered to bring matches. She always carries them.


Cicadas serenade one another, and toads croak with satisfaction each time they devour a cicada.


Harrow considers going overland to the house, across meadows and through a copse of oaks. But they will gain no advantage by taking the arduous route.


The target house is only a quarter-mile away. Along the county road are tall grasses, gnarls of brush, and a few trees, always one kind of cover or another to which they can retreat the moment they glimpse distant headlights or hear the faraway growl of an engine.


They ascend from the riverbank to the paved road.


The gasoline chuckles in the can, and his nylon jacket produces soft whistling noises when one part of it rubs against another.


Moongirl makes no sound whatsoever. She walks without a single footfall that he can hear.


Then she says, “Do you wonder why?”


“Why what?”


“The burning.”


“No.”


“You never wonder,” she presses.


“No. It’s what you want.”


“That’s good enough for you.”


“Yes.”


The early-autumn stars are as icy as those of winter, and it seems to him that now, as in all seasons, the sky is not deep but dead, flat, and frozen.


She says, “You know what’s the worst thing?”


“Tell me.”


“Boredom.”


“Yes.”


“It turns you outward.”


“Yes.”


“But toward what?”


“Tell me,” he says.


“Nothing’s out there.”


“Nothing you want.”


“Just nothing,” she corrects.


Her madness fascinates Harrow, and he is never bored in her company. Originally, he had thought they would be done with each other in a month or two; but they have been seven months together.


“It’s terrifying,” she says.


“What?”


“Boredom.”


“Yes,” he says sincerely.


“Terrifying.”


“Gotta stay busy.”


He shifts the heavy gasoline can from his right hand to his left.


“Pisses me off,” she says.


“What does?”


“Being terrified.”


“Stay busy,” he repeats.


“All I’ve got is me.”


“And me,” he reminds her.


She does not confirm that he is essential to her defenses against boredom.


They have covered half the distance to the clapboard house.


A winking light moves across the frozen stars, but it is nothing more than an airliner, too high to be heard, bound for an exotic port that at least some perceptive passengers will discover is identical to the place from which they departed.


Chapter 8


Having moved the Expedition from Lottie’s driveway to her own carport next door, Amy opened the tailgate, and Nickie leaped out into the night.


Amy remembered coming out of the Brockman house and finding the tailgate open, Jimmy trying to run away and the diligent dog herding him toward home.


He must have freed Nickie with the expectation that they would escape together. Having endured four months with Carl Brockman as its master, any other dog might have led the boy in flight.


As Nickie landed on the driveway, Amy snatched up the red leash, but the dog had no intention of running off. She led Amy around the vehicle, into the backyard. Without any of the usual canine ritual, Nickie squatted to pee.


Because Amy had two golden retrievers of her own-Fred and Ethel-and because often she kept rescue dogs for at least a night or two before transporting them to foster homes, she assumed that Nickie would want to spend some time sniffing around the yard-reading the local newspaper, so to speak.


Instead, upon completion of her business, the dog went directly to the back porch, up the steps, and to the door.


Amy unlocked the door, unclipped the leash from the collar, stepped into the house, and switched on the lights.


Neither Fred nor Ethel was in the kitchen. They must have been asleep in the bedroom.


From the farther end of the bungalow arose the thump of paws rushing across carpet and then hardwood, swiftly approaching.


Fred and Ethel did not bark, because they were trained not to speak without an important reason-such as a stranger at the door-and they were good dogs.


She most often took them with her. When she left them at home, they always greeted her return with an enthusiasm that lifted her heart.


Usually Ethel would appear first, ebullient and grinning, head raised, tail dusting the doorjamb as she came into the room.


She was a darker red-gold than Nickie, although well within the desirable color range for the breed. She had a thicker undercoat than usual for a retriever and looked gloriously furry.


Fred would probably follow Ethel. Not dominant, often bashful, he would be so thrilled to see Amy that he’d not only wag his tail furiously but also wiggle his hindquarters with irrepressible delight.


Sweet Fred had a broad handsome face and as perfectly black a nose as Amy had ever seen, not a speckle of brown to mar it.


At Amy’s side, Nickie stood alert, ears lifted, gaze fixed on the open hall door from which issued the muffled thunder of paws.


A sudden drop in the velocity of approach suggested that Fred and Ethel detected the presence of a newcomer. She checked her speed first, and Fred blundered into her as they came through the doorway.


Instead of the usual meet-and-greet, including nose to nose and tongue to nose and a courteously quick sniff of butts all around, the Redwing kids halted a few feet short of Nickie. They stood panting, plumed tails swishing, with cocked-head curiosity, eyes bright with what seemed like surprise.


Keeping her own tail in motion, Nickie raised her head, assuming a friendly but regal posture.


“Ethel sweetie, babycakes Fred,” Amy said in her sweet-talk voice, “come meet your new sister.”


Until she said “new sister,” she hadn’t known that she’d decided beyond doubt to keep Nickie rather than placing her with an approved family on the Golden Heart adoption list.


Previously, both kids had reliably been suckers for their master’s squeaky sweet-talk voice, but this time they ignored Amy.


Now Ethel did something she always did with a visiting dog but never until the meet-and-greet was concluded. She went to the open box of squeeze toys and pull toys and tennis balls inside the always-open pantry door, judiciously selected a prize, returned with it, and dropped it in front of the newcomer.


She had chosen a plush yellow Booda duck.


The message that Ethel usually managed to deliver with the loan of a toy to a visitor was this: Here’s one that’s exclusively yours for the length of your visit, but the rest belong to me and Fred unless we include you in a group game.


Nickie studied the duck for a moment, then regarded Ethel.


All the protocols were being revised: Ethel made a second trip to the box in the pantry and returned with a plush-toy gorilla. She dropped it beside the duck.


Meanwhile, Fred had circled the room to put the breakfast table between him and the two females. He lay on his belly, watching them through a chromework of chair legs, tail sweeping the oak floor.


If you are a dog lover, a true dog lover, and not just one who sees them as pets or animals, but are instead one who sees them as one’s dear companions, and more than companions-sees them as perhaps being but a step or two down the species ladder from humankind, not sharing human exceptionalism but not an abyss below it, either-you watch them differently from the way other people watch them, with a respect for their born dignity, with a recognition of their capacity to know joy and to suffer melancholy, with the certainty that they suspect the tyranny of time even if they don’t fully understand the cruelty of it, that they are not, as self-blinded experts contend, unaware of their own mortality.


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