By T. Jefferson Parker
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 T. Jefferson Parker
All rights reserved.
Sit down and I'll tell you a story.
I shot my husband, Richard, twenty-five years ago, right here in Mammoth Lakes, California. It was the first homicide in twelve years in this peaceful little town, and the only one for thirteen years after that. A justifiable killing, in my opinion, but not in the judge's. I shot five times. The prosecutor argued that I didn't fire the sixth cartridge because I'd planned to use it on myself, which by some loopy legal reasoning meant that I was sane and knew what I was doing. That lawyer badly wanted me sane because he was out for my blood, and they can't spill crazy blood. Only the healthy stuff. But he couldn't prove a "plan." I never considered using that sixth shot on myself. Not once. I told them so.
That's all behind me now, as much as anything is ever behind anybody, the past's not being even past and all that. Especially if you have children, which I do. Life's three great labors are to see what you've done, face the consequences, and adjust. People get stuck on those.
They will not look their acts straight in the eye.
They will not accept what they have coming.
They will not change direction.
I publish a weekly newspaper here in town, The Woolly. Woolly is our town mascot — a woolly mammoth, of course. I was a part-time winter-sports stringer when I was young. Even after all these years I still get a little thrill every time I see my byline: "Story by Cynthia Carson." This current work doesn't pay much, but the investigations and interviews, writing and photography, editing and layout (mostly electronic now, done right here on my red laptop) put me exactly where I want to be: in the real world. Which — being in the real world — is another thing that people have trouble with. They spend their whole lives trapped inside their own heads.
I've finished writing this week's edition of The Woolly. I've got the coffee poured and waiting. It's two degrees outside, but there's a strong fire in the stove and I'm going to sit close by that fire and edit my articles, then proofread and make them perfect before I put the paper to bed. That's what we used to say years ago at the Mammoth Times — "put it to bed." Which meant get it to the print shop. Always on Wednesday, so we could circulate early Thursday mornings. Now I just push a key or two and the printer starts to whir. This is my favorite time of the week, when I get my last look at what I'm about to publish. When I can change things to make my stories right. When I can think about what's been going on in town lately.
This week, my lead story is about the wave of ski and snowboard thefts — already up 300 percent this winter season over the last one, and it's only January. The thief/thieves are hitting all three Mammoth Mountain lodges, blending with the crowds, walking off with the rarely locked and often unattended items as if they owned them. He/she/they have a keen eye for quality. They do not take cheap gear or beat-up rentals. Last week's stolen skis and boards had a combined retail value of nearly eleven thousand dollars. The fact that six stolen pairs of skis and eight stolen snowboards are my lead story gives you some idea of what this town is usually like — a quiet village most days, a bit of Eden hanging on to a dome of volcanic rock ten thousand feet in the air.
I actually had to go to the Mammoth Lakes Police Department to get those stolen property stats for The Woolly — not easy for me to do after the unhappy hours I spent there, as you might imagine. They were courteous. I taught one of the sergeants to ski forty years ago, when I was fifteen, the year I was number one on the Mammoth girl's junior downhill ski team. I advised a detective to keep an eye on the Internet to find those skis and boards. Arrange a buy and you've got the criminals. He seemed to like the idea.
Like when he was a boy, Wylie Welborn crunched across his backyard through the snow and started up the steps of the deck. Climbing, he counted backward from his twenty-five years, five for each step, so when he got to the top he was five years old again, bellowing and red-faced with hurt and cold, having just skied a blistering run down the hill behind his house, a little heavy on the throttle, and crashed into the toolshed. Now he turned and looked at that hill, shrunk by time, white and luminous in the moonlight. The toolshed was long gone.
The deck light glowed faintly, and through a jawbone of icicles Wylie saw movement behind the kitchen window. Then he heard his mother's yelp, followed by distant sounds that could have been war whoops or shouts of joy.
Kathleen threw open the mudroom door, flew into Wylie's arms, and braced him as if she were wrestling a bear. She dug her fingers in his shaggy dark hair and kissed his bearded cheeks, knocking his beanie to the deck. Wylie hugged back, assaulted on either side by two teenage girls, who pulled at him as if he was divisible. They pushed him toward the door.
"Come inside, Wylie," said Beatrice. "It's freezing."
"My boy is back!"
"He's not yours, Mom," said Belle, handing her brother his beanie.
"He certainly is."
In the better light of the mudroom, they separated and faced one another, each trying in the sudden silence to comprehend what was what. Five years, communication but no notice of return, then this whiplash. Wylie saw the worry lines on his mother's face, more and deeper than before, and the new gray in her black hair. He saw that Beatrice, now seventeen and tall, still held her arms close to her sides, uncertainly. Belle, fifteen, had become pretty and now stood hip-shot, with both hands resting on her low-slung jeans.
"You all ... look great," he said.
"Oh, so do you, Wylie."
"He looks okay," said Beatrice.
"Okay plus," said Belle.
"Where's Steen?" Wylie asked.
"Delivering a cake," said Kathleen. "He'll be back any minute. You could have at least hinted that you were in the country, you know."
He nodded and looked at them in turn but said nothing. Belle put on her flinty expression, backpedaled partway into the dining room, then ran at Wylie and launched herself into the air, feetfirst, like a high-jumper. He caught her under the knees and shoulders, twirled her fast around twice, and set her down. "Still makes me dizzy, Wyles."
"You have five years to catch us up on," said Beatrice. "Skypes and texting don't count."
"I told you everything I was doing."
"Oh, right," said Belle.
Each with a hand on Wylie, the women guided him through the kitchen and into the living room. The house seemed small and flimsy in a way he didn't remember. And dark. His mother helped him off with his jacket and hung it on an overloaded coatrack.
"You're just in time to see Robert race the Mammoth Cup," said Kathleen.
"Yeah, to watch him kick Sky Carson's sorry ass again," said Belle.
"Mammoth Cup sucks without you in it, Wylie," said Beatrice.
Wylie felt the extra chill in the house. It had always been a cold one. "Robert's not the only reason I came. I'm here to see all of you. I missed you. That's the truth." His smile was mostly lost in his beard.
"Are you staying, like, forever?" asked Beatrice.
"I haven't figured out forever yet."
"We could chain you up," said Belle.
"Five years all over the world and no stuff?" asked Beatrice.
"I've got a few things out in my truck. Maybe something for you."
"Afghani opium?" asked Belle.
"Enough of that, daughter. Wylie? Your room's full of file cabinets, outdated electronics, skis, and books. But the bed's still there, under all those boxes."
"Perfect. You guys? I apologize for just showing up out of nowhere. I've been loose in the world awhile. So I'm not used to being responsible."
"I'll bet the United States Marines loved that," said Kathleen.
"They taught me different for three years."
"I'm so glad you're not a marine anymore," said Beatrice.
"Right," said Belle. "Now you belong to us again. I just heard Dad's truck pull up. It's like the old days! Let's belly up and chow down."
* * *
After dinner, Wylie gave Bea a necklace from Italy, and Belle a necklace from Peru, both gold. He gave his mother a gold bracelet in the shape of an elongated tiger, ruby-eyed, from Nepal, and Steen, his stepfather, an elaborately wrought gold shot glass from his native Denmark, made specifically for aquavit.
Kathleen let the girls skip homework and stay up until ten, rather than the usual nine, missing sleep they would regret missing when their alarms blasted on at 4:00 A.M. Before bed, Wylie hugged them and told them to hang in there, remembering how quickly four o'clock came, especially in winter, how black was the town of Mammoth Lakes at that hour, how bitterly cold was Let It Bean when he and Steen would let themselves in at 4:45 to prep the coffeemakers and steamers, grind the beans, form the dough, ready the counters, and bake the pastries that made the family its living.
With the girls in bed, the three grown-ups sat in the small, cold living room. Steen refilled their glasses with Aalborg and set another branch on the idling fire in the woodstove. The branch was pine, Wylie saw, surely scavenged from the forest behind the house. It would be punky and wet and burn poorly.
"So then, how many countries was it, Wylie?" asked Steen. Steen Mikkelsen was a trim man with an open face, white eyelashes, and smooth, almost whiskerless skin. He was a baker by trade and considered himself a pastry artist.
"Twelve, I think."
"All with mountains to ski."
"Most of them."
"And the war?"
"I did my tour."
"All of those lives. I am glad that you found a way to be both a healer and a marine."
Wylie gave his stepfather a look.
"Of course I understand. Robert Carson came to the bakery every week if there was news from you in Kandahar. You can tell us about the war when you're ready."
Kathleen went to the canvas log carrier, which lay open on the floor near the stove. She knelt and held up another twisted pine branch. "Steen?"
"We have the cut wood, honey. But the splitter is still broken, and the professionals want one hundred dollars per cord. I am sorry that I haven't had the time to split wood. But we made sixty dollars on the birthday cake tonight. You should have seen it. And our application for the vending license is near approval. Wylie, you will like my idea — to sell pastries outdoors in the parking lots of Mammoth Sports and elsewhere. From our own stand. It will bring income and promote Let It Bean. I am talking with the Mammoth Sports owners regarding placement. I have designed the stand. It will have bright paint, and handles and car tires for rolling."
Kathleen stood and rubbed her hands together histrionically. "We're trying to keep down the heating costs. It's scary how expensive everything is. Gas over four bucks again, and we still have to drive all the way to Reno for the Walmart. The girls hate to be seen in those clothes. But? It's that or the thrift stores. Life'll kill ya."
"We must always avoid that," said Steen.
"It's really good to see you, Wylie. You were a boy when you left. Now ... look at you."
"You look good, too, Mom." Wylie noticed wear he'd never seen on his mother, a hint of hardness in her face, though she was only in her mid-forties and still trim and pretty.
"We work hard but we're poorer," she said. "Gargantua Coffee came to town last year, and they're trying to run us out of business. It's working — our numbers are way down. The girls know it and they're scared. They take some pride in Let It Bean, you know? Even though it's hard work. Now a billion-dollar-a-month national coffee monster is after us. Imagine that. Next fall, we'll have a new landlord and lease to negotiate. Rent will rise, certainly."
"Don't be pessimistic, honey."
Kathleen sat back down on the nearly formless old couch. "Beatrice is unhappy a lot, and anxious. I found a hunk of hash in Belle's jeans when I was washing them. Her crack about opium did not amuse me. Both of them have been sneaking up to the old Burnside mansion at Eagle. Some Silicon Valley hotshot bought it so he could throw parties. He likes the racing and freestyle crowd. The youngsters in town call it 'Mountain High.' Cute. It's full of people like Sky Carson. So, I'm not pessimistic, Steen. I'm realistic, if that's all right with you."
"Yes, of course it is. But these are things all families must endure."
Kathleen swigged the last of her aquavit. "Let's give the mountain a rip, Wylie. Soon."
"I feel the need for speed."
"Still got it, do you?"
"You bet I do."
"Call of the wild, Mom. Me, too."
She smiled softly. "It meant the world to me that you called me every birthday. That couldn't have been easy."
"There was one from Kandahar that took a little doing."
"You're my prince."
Steen poured another drink and followed Wylie's mother down the hallway. Wylie put another soft branch and a few shards of kindling into the fire box. He left the door ajar to carburet the thing, turned, and let the faint heat warm the backs of his calves.
He looked around the old house. Same as ever. His mother had been renting it when he was born. She was a single mom then, and widowed in a sense — Wylie's father had been shot dead by his wife, Cynthia Carson, just minutes after Wylie's illicit conception. Back then, it was just Kathleen and her baby. Kathleen, getting minimum wage and tips at Bruno's Donuts, would never have survived without friends and family pitching in to help. Three years later, she married Steen, and they were able to buy Bruno's and make it their own. Then the girls came along. Kathleen and Steen had continued renting this house until they could make a down payment and get a mortgage.
Yes, they own it now, thought Wylie, his gaze roaming the water-stained ceiling, the cramped, dark kitchen, the knotty pine walls, the thinning carpet, the living room windows lined with old blankets behind the curtains against the winter cold, the drafts easing through anyhow. An orange plastic bucket in one corner caught drops of snowmelt coming through the roof.
He texted Robert Carson and Robert texted back.
Wylie steered his truck up ice-slick Minaret toward Eagle Lodge and the former Burnside manse, now, apparently, "Mountain High." Before him, Mammoth Mountain towered, emanating its usual eerie, seemingly internal light. It was over eleven thousand vertical feet of volcano-spewed rhyodacite that would remain cloaked in snow until June, even into July in good years. The mountain brought Wylie the words of Rexroth: There are rocks/ On the earth more durable/Than the configurations of heaven. The sky around the mountain was black, the stars fixed in shimmering clarity, their long-vanished light just now hitting Wylie's earthly eyes. His four-wheel drive was sure-footed enough to keep him in his lane if he went slowly and braked early into slow-motion turns.
All three floors of the old Burnside home were lit. Wylie saw maybe a dozen parked cars under the spacious, snow-crowned porte cochere — a fifty-fifty blend of swank SUVs, then the beaters affordable for young skiers and boarders. He heard music and voices and knocked on the front door, and a moment later it opened. A man towered over tall Wylie, who came to about the bottom of the guy's beard. "Wylie, man."
"Croft. You look bigger."
"I only stopped growing a year ago."
"It was a gland thing. But I can still fit in my truck."
"Robert's here, right?"
"Come on in. You gotta meet Helixon. And, you know, get his permission to be here."
From the dark entryway, Wylie was led into a great room, moodily lit, that was open all the way to the ceiling of the second floor. The vast interior looked to be hardwoods, warmly finished. Above, the second-story rooms sat behind the railed quadrangle of the atrium, like those of an old hotel. A wide stairway led to the second story, then swept up and over and out of Wylie's sight. Suspended from above was a behemoth chandelier of elk antlers and small flickering lights, graceful and complex. A faint veil of smoke hung within, cannabis and tobacco. Wylie heard music and saw movement in the second-floor shadows. Three young women came pounding down the burnished plank stairs, laughing and trying to balance drinks. A fourth, scantily clad but wearing a red elf's cap, slid down the banister on her butt. From somewhere above came a shriek, delighted and somewhat wicked. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Crazy Blood by T. Jefferson Parker. Copyright © 2016 T. Jefferson Parker. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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