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Finally, after driving all night, Evie arrived.
Close to town, bells and candy canes made of faded tinsel decorated the telephone poles. The same decorations had hung on the poles every year for as long as Evie could remember; they had no sparkle left. Or maybe she was too tired to notice. In the last two days, she'd only had a nap outside Albuquerque.
Hopes Fort, Colorado, was one of those small towns that dotted the Great Plains, where Main Street turned into the state highway and the post office was attached to the feed store. Hopes Fort had been dying, one boarded- up building at a time, for the last fifty years. Still, somehow the town held on, like the aged relative whose chronic illness never seemed to worsen despite all predictions to the contrary. The holiday decorations, no matter how tattered, still went up every year.
Her phone beeped, and she hooked the hands- free over her ear.
Bruce scratched at her on the other end of the connection. "Evie?"
"Bruce, speak up. The connection's funky."
"Have you seen the news?" Panic edged his voice. She'd been out of L.A. for only two days- what dire crisis could possibly have struck?
"No, I've been driving all day."
"You haven't even listened to the radio?"
"No." Rather than try to find radio reception while driving through the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico, she'd depended on her digital player.
He made a noise like a deflating balloon. "The Kremlin's been bombed. Obliterated. A Cessna filled with drums of kerosene rammed it. They're thinking it's Mongolian rebels."
She took a moment to register that he was talking about current events and not a plot point in their comic book. "Then our May storyline is out the window."
The Eagle Eye Commandos couldn't raid the building complex if it wasn't there. She should have seen this one coming.
"Yeah. Unless we can put some kind of 'how things might have been' spin on it."
"We did that when India and Pakistan dropped nukes on each other. Why don't we do Westerns like everyone else?"
"Because we got a letter from the President thanking us for our patriotic creativity."
"I didn't even vote for him."
"Then maybe it's because we sold half a million copies last year."
"Oh yeah." She pressed her head back on the headrest, stretching her arms against the steering wheel. She had to drive all the way through town to get to the farmland on the other side, where the family's house was. The town looked desolate; she hadn't seen anyone even walking around. "At least the issue hasn't gone to press yet. So. The Kremlin's been bombed. The Eagle Eyes can still raid it. They just have to search the rubble. We'll look really up to date."
It sounded silly, but then all Eagle Eye Commandos storylines started out silly. Working them through to the end with some degree of earnestness transformed them somehow, from adolescent military fantasies to- well, sophisticated military fantasies. They could search the rubble for . . . for hidden evidence on the whereabouts of captured American spies, which was what the original storyline had them looking for. They wouldn't have to change a thing. Except all those gorgeous panels Bruce had drawn of Red Square would have to go.
"I'm going to have to redraw the entire book, aren't I?"
"I'll e-mail you a new script in a day or two."
"Yeah. How's your dad?"
She let out a sigh. "I haven't seen him yet."
"Well, good luck."
She clicked off her phone and rubbed her eyes.
The Tastee- Freez where she'd spent so much time in high school was gone, the ice cream cone sign on its pole dismantled. Nothing had moved in to replace it. The hokey ice cream stand had been the only place to hang out, unless one of your friends had a car to drive into Pueblo, an hour away. More kids must have had cars these days. Or Hopes Fort had fewer kids.
Since high school, she'd only been back here for holidays, when the town was at its bleakest. No wonder it always depressed her. But maybe she wasn't being fair.
Halfway down Main Street, a cop had set up a roadblock: a single hazard barricade pulled into the middle of the pavement. The one officer manning the checkpoint climbed out of
the car, which was parked on the curb, and held up his hand, directing her to slow down.
Smiling, she stopped and rolled down her window. "Well, Officer. You got me."
"Evie Walker? Hell, it's been years!"
He wore a starched blue uniform, but the blond crew cut and bulky shoulders were the same. Johnny Brewster had been a linebacker in high school. He'd gotten a little rounder in the middle since then.
"Who thought giving you a badge was a good idea?"
"Me and some of the guys had a little too much to drink and drew straws. I got the short one."
"Can I get you to pop your trunk while we talk?"
Checkpoint searches. In Hopes Fort.
Amused, she popped the trunk lever, then climbed out of the car. She put her hands in the pockets of her green canvas army surplus jacket and leaned against the door while Johnny opened the trunk door and made a survey of the contents: two filled gas cans, blankets, a roadside emergency kit, and odd bits of travel detritus. Her suitcase and a few gallon jugs of water were in the backseat.
"Thanks," he said. "A lot of folks aren't this understanding."
"I'm the last person to complain about security."
He looked away and muttered, "I guess so."
With better checkpoints, her mother might still be alive. "You have a permit for the extra gas?"
She'd brought the gas because she hadn't wanted to face fuel rationing or closed gas stations on the drive across the desert. The slip of paper was in her glove box. "I didn't think security restrictions would be in effect out here."
"Rules are rules. We have to keep track of people coming in and out of town."
"So shouldn't you have roadblocks at either end of Main Street?"
He shrugged, unconcerned. "We only have enough people for one checkpoint."
"They have real checkpoints in L.A.," she said. And lots of them, at every major exit and interchange. It sometimes took all day to get from Pomona to Hollywood.
"I bet. They also have a reason for 'em. I don't know how you stand it." He slammed closed the trunk. "How's your dad?"
This was Hopes Fort: everybody must have known abouthim. "I haven't seen him yet. You probably know better than I do."
"He says he's fine."
That sounded like her father- always cheerful. "I should probably get out there."
Johnny pulled the barrier out of the way (L.A. had automated titanium barriers) while she got back in the car.
For three generations, the Walker family had lived in a brick ranch house on a few acres of prairie. Evie's grandfather had grown up on the farm the land used to be part of. The farm had long since been broken up and sold, except for the token parcel and the house to which her grandparents had retired. They'd died when Evie was in college. Evie's father had lived in town and worked as a mail carrier until five years ago, when he took his own place in rural retirement.
Evie still thought of it as her grandparents' house, a place she went to for holidays and backyard adventures. Her father hadn't changed it much when he moved in- he took over the furniture, the heirlooms, the pictures on the wall, the shelves full of books. At first, Evie had had trouble thinking of her father as anything more than a house sitter there. But over the last couple years, when she noticed that his hair was gray and that he had started wearing bifocals, he reminded her more and more of her grandparents. He had stopped being a visitor and metamorphosed into the house's proper resident.
She was his only child, and the house would come to her someday. By the time she retired, there'd be nothing left of Hopes Fort and no reason to be here. Except it had been the place where her grandfather and father had grown up. She supposed that meant something.
Later in the afternoon than she'd planned, she pulled into the long driveway behind her father's twenty- year- old rusting blue pickup. Out of habit, she locked her car, even though this was possibly the one place in the universe she could comfortably leave it unlocked. The house itself was well cared for, neat if unremarkable. It had a carport at the end of the driveway rather than a garage, screened windows, a small front porch, and fan expansive front yard with a lawn of dried prairie grasses. She'd driven by a dozen places just like it to get here.
A dog, a huge bristling wolfhound- looking thing, sprang from the front porch, barking loud and deep like a growling bear.
Evie almost turned and ran. Her father didn't have a dog. The front door opened and Frank Walker appeared, looking out over the driveway. "Mab! Come, Mab, it's all right."
The dog stopped barking and trotted back to him, throwing suspicious glances over its shoulder.
He scratched the dog's ears and took hold of the ruff of fur at its neck. "Come on up, Evie. Mab just gets a little excited." Cautiously, Evie continued to the porch. She had to lift her arm to show the animal the back of her hand- the thing's head came up to her waist. The dog sniffed her hand, then started wagging its tail. Evie hoped it didn't try jumping on her- it would be a body- slam.
"Meet Queen Mab," her father said.
"When did you get a dog?"
"She was a stray. Showed up on the porch a while back. Since I caught a couple of prowlers last month, I thought having Mab around might be a good thing."
"Prowlers? Out here?"
"Oh, prowlers, salesmen- you'd be surprised how many visitors I get."
In fact, someone was standing in the doorway behind him.
He wore a black leather duster and carried a large paper-wrapped package in both arms. Edging around Evie's father, he looked suspiciously at Evie.
Frank said to him, "If you won't be needing anything else, you'll probably want to get going before nightfall."
"Right. Thanks for your help." He nodded at Evie as he passed. "Ma'am."
He had an unplaceable accent, almost New En gland, almost West Texas. Wire- rimmed spectacles rode low on a long nose. He might have dressed himself out of a studio costume shop rummage sale. Playing the part of the doomed hero in a historical horror film.
The stranger walked down the gravel driveway, the light breeze licking the hem of his duster. There wasn't another car. No buses ran this way. Where did he think he was going? "Who was that?" Evie said.
"He came for something in the storeroom."
"You're selling Grandma and Grandpa's stuff?" As far as she knew, the basement storeroom hadn't been disturbed since her grandparents' time. The place was dusty and sacred, like a museum vault. She'd never even been in it. As a kid, she hadn't been allowed in there; then she'd moved away.
"Oh, no," he said. "He just showed up and asked if I had what he needed. I did, so I gave it to him."
"What was it?"
Evie looked at her father, really looked at him. She searched for any sign of illness, any hint that gave credence to his announcement of two days ago. His phone call had sent her roaring out of Los Angeles the next morning. She didn't know what to expect, if she would find him changed beyond recognition, withered and defeated, or if he would be- like this.
Like normal, like she had always seen him: a little over average height, filled out through the middle but not overweight, straight gray hair cut short, his soft face creased with age, but not ancient. He wore slacks and a button- up shirt, and went stocking- footed.
"Come in out of the cold." He held the door open for her. A lonely wicker wreath decorated it, a solitary concession to the holiday.
He might have been paler. Were his hands shaking? Was his back stooped? She couldn't tell. She went inside. "Dad. Are you okay?"
He shrugged. That told her. If he'd been fine, or even just okay, he'd have said so.
"Should . . . should you be in the hospital or something?"
"No. I have to stay here and keep an eye on things."
"What is there to keep an eye on? No farm, no animals-"
Except the dog, which was new. Her voice was beseeching. "Are you okay?"
"It's metastasized. I've decided not to undergo treatment."
He said it like he might have said it was going to snow.
Simple fact, a little anticipation, but nothing to get excited about. Evie thought her rib cage might burst, the way her heart pounded. Her father stood before her; he hadn't changed. Everything had changed. It's prostate cancer. It's serious, he'd said when he called her. She wanted to grab his collar and shake him. But you didn't do that to your father.
So she stood there like a child and whined.
"You've given up," she said.
"I've accepted fate."
"But-" She gestured aimlessly, arguments failing in her throat. He wasn't going to argue. He was stone, not willing to be persuaded. "But you can't do that. You can't-"
"I can't what?" he said, and he had the gall to smile. "I can't die?"
She didn't believe him then. For a moment, she let herself believe that he'd been lying about the whole thing. This was a trick to get her to come early for her Christmas visit. He didn't look sick, he didn't act sick, except for a horrible calm that made his features still as ice.
Evie turned away, her eyes stinging, her face contorting with the effort not to cry.
"Shh, Evie, come here." While she didn't move toward him, she didn't resist when he pulled her into an embrace.
"You can't die without trying," she said, her voice breaking, muffled as she spoke into his shoulder.
"I'll hold on as long as I can."
He made supper for her- macaroni and cheese. He'd never been a creative cook. Comfort food, my ass, she thought. She didn't eat much. Her stomach clenched every time she looked at him.
They stayed up late talking. He asked her about her work, and she rambled on about the comics business, the stress of deadlines, and the frustrations of markets and distribution.
When she talked, she wasn't thinking about him. She settled into the guest room with the wood- frame twin bed that she'd slept in when she visited her grandparents, the bed that had been her father's when he was young. She didn't sleep right away, but lay curled up, hugging the goose- down pillow, feeling small- ten years old again.
He hadn't asked her to come home. He'd called to tell her he was sick, and she'd just come. That was what you did. He didn't argue or try to tell her she didn't have to. Which, when she thought about it, was another sign that he really was sick. He hadn't yet said, I'm fine, don't worry about me. Nothing to worry about.
What neither of them hadn't explicitly said, what she hadn't understood until she was lying there in the dark, nested in the bed that made her feel like a child, in the room next to the room where her father lay dying by increments, was that she was here to help him die. She would stay until he was gone, whether it took weeks or months or- maybe?-years, and then she would be alone with the house and the dark.
She missed her mother at that moment. She missed her mother all the time, really, but the longing was the phantom ache of an amputated limb. It was part of her, and most of the time she didn't notice. But certain moments were like reaching for something with a hand that wasn't there. Evie wanted to run to her mother and cry, make her talk sense into Dad, make her stay with him and watch him die. But it was left to Evie to do by herself.
She wasn't ready to lose her father, too. She'd be crippled all over again.
Excerpted from Discord's Apple by Carrie Vaughn
Copyright © 2010 by Carrie Vaughn, LLC
All rights reserved.