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As she gazed out the bay window in her bedroom, Mary McAllister knew this night would be her last.
Outside, the February darkness was suffused with light from the town. Thick snowflakes floated past the window. Only the Mill River itself, for which the small Vermont village was named, escaped the snow covering. Its center flowed, black and snakelike, along the edge of the sleeping town.
With her left hand, Mary stroked a large Siamese cat curled next to her on the adjustable bed. With her right, she tucked a few strands of fine white hair behind her ear. Mary’s eyes, one clear and blue, the other gray and cloudy, were fixed on the storm outside.
She wondered what they would think of her when they discovered what she had done.
The bedroom was dark, but the few lights from the town shone upward, enough to support a faint reflection of her face on the window glass. Mary looked at the reflection through her good eye. Pale and thin, she was the face of death superimposed on the darkness.
She drifted in and out of sleep, awakened every few minutes by the excruciating pain in her abdomen. Finally, her hand shaking, she reached for the bottle of pills and the cup of water at her bedside.
Mary poured the pills into her hand and then swallowed them all, a few at a time, with the water. She would leave this world in peaceful solitude. She would do so before her pain was so great—before her mental faculties were so diminished—that she couldn’t leave on her own terms.
She thought of Michael. The priest had left, as he had promised, but she wondered if he was still awake in the parish house. He would find her tomorrow. She knew it would be difficult for him, but he was prepared for the inevitable. They both were.
Still, she feared what death might bring.
Would she see her husband again? In her dim bedroom, Mary’s gaze focused on the outline of a figurine that stood on her bureau. It was a horse, carved elegantly from black marble. She thought of Patrick, of the first time she had seen him when he had come to her father’s farm, of the horror that followed.
Mary shuddered and forced her mind to focus on memories of her father instead. She remembered him standing in the round ring, his hat pushed back off his forehead, teaching young horses to be gentle. His belly laugh still rang in her ears.
Even now, having been a widow for more than seventy years, she still feared Patrick, but she longed to see her father again, and Grandpop, too. Perhaps soon she would.
Mary touched Sham’s furry head beside her, and the cat mewed and curled his paws in his sleep. Michael had promised to find a good home for him. She had no doubt that he would, and that fact comforted her. Tears ran down her cheeks as she whispered a loving goodbye to her faithful feline companion. Silently, she wished him the happiest of lives, however many he had left, and waited for the final, heavy sleepiness to surround her.
In Mill River, a handful of others were also awake. Officers Kyle Hansen and Leroy Underwood had been on patrol for more than an hour. The police department’s old Jeep Cherokee churned through the new snow as they made their way along the country roads surrounding the town. They had been looking for stranded motorists, but the roads were deserted. Most folks had been sensible enough to stay at home during the storm. Even with the snowfall, the evening, like most evenings in Mill River, had been uneventful.
Leroy was bored. He fidgeted in the passenger seat, squinting out the window. His hair was sandy brown and straight—and a little too long for a man in uniform, in Kyle’s opinion. His default expression was one of openmouthed confusion, and his shoulders were rounded forward. Hell, anyone unfortunate enough to see Leroy peering out the Jeep’s window might easily mistake him for an orangutan, Kyle thought.
Leroy turned from the window and held up an almost empty box of chocolate doughnuts.
“You care if I eat the last one?”
“Nah,” Kyle replied. “They’re stale, you know.”
This fact was lost on Leroy. “You think we should drive through town again?” he asked, with his mouth full.
Kyle glanced at Leroy and shrugged.
Leroy crammed the last of the doughnut into his mouth and struggled to open the thermos. As they started down the hill back into town, Leroy tried to pour the remaining coffee into the thermos cup, but most of it sloshed into his lap.
“Aw, shit. Take it easy with the potholes, would you?” he complained.
Kyle rolled his eyes. What Leroy lacked in intelligence and compassion, he made up for in appetite.
Their route took them over the covered bridge spanning the river and onto Main Street. Through the snow, Kyle could just make out the faint white glow of the McAllister mansion high on a hill past the other end of town.
“You ever seen her?” Leroy asked, following Kyle’s gaze.
“The Widow McAllister,” Leroy half whispered, as if he were speaking of a ghost.
“No,” Kyle said.
“I have,” Leroy said. “Once. Back when I was in high school, outside the bakery. She was all wrinkled and hunched over, with a patch over one eye, like a pirate.”
Kyle stared straight ahead, trying to focus on driving through the storm.
“I heard that some folks in town’s convinced she’s a witch or something,” Leroy said. “Creeps me out, thinking of her up there watching everybody.” Leroy flashed a taunting grin at Kyle. “Maybe someone should make her walk the plank.”
Kyle clenched his jaw. Leroy was trying to irritate him, he knew, and he wasn’t going to give him any satisfaction.
It was easier for Kyle to tolerate Leroy’s crudeness when he thought of how difficult it must have been for the junior officer growing up. According to the police chief, who knew almost everyone in town, Leroy was the son of an absentee father and an alcoholic mother. He had an older sister who lived in Rutland. That sister, apparently, was unique in the Underwood family, having finished college and taken a job as an accountant with the city government.
Then there was Leroy. Nearly a high school dropout, he had somehow received his diploma and bungled his way through training at the police academy. He had an ego the size of Texas, and Kyle had yet to see him show real kindness toward anyone. Why Leroy had been hired, Kyle didn’t know. Maybe the town had been desperate for another officer, but by Kyle’s standards, Leroy was hardly good officer material.
The old Jeep churned through the snow as they drove back into Mill River. Small, older houses and assorted trailer homes lined this end of Main Street. Most of the residences were dark. One mobile home, though, was brightly lit. In contrast to most of the other trailers, this one was shiny and new. The front yard was filled with ceramic ornaments protruding from the snow—a pair of deer, several rabbits, some gnomes, and a large birdbath.
“I guess Crazy Daisy’s still awake,” Leroy said. “Probably up fixing a new potion.”
At that moment, the front door of the trailer opened and a dumpling of a woman skipped out into the yard. Kyle slowed the Jeep. Daisy was spinning around, face upturned and tongue stuck out.
Leroy hooted with laughter. “Lookit that fat cow!” he shouted, oblivious to Kyle’s frown. “She keeps that up, and she’ll trip over one of them rabbits an’ bite off her tongue!”
“Shut up, Leroy,” Kyle said. He rolled down the driver’s side window.
“Ms. Delaine, you know it’s late, almost one in the morning, and you shouldn’t be outside in this storm,” he called to her.
Flushed and breathless, Daisy stopped her twirling and looked at them. A dark port-wine birthmark curled up from her jaw to her cheek, and her gray curls fell over her eyes. She teetered dizzily and brushed her hair from her face. “You should try the snow, Officer! I’ve been working on a spell for it all evening, and it’s delicious!” she shouted. “It’ll be perfect in my potions too, but I’m in an awful hurry. I’m cooking up a new one tonight!” Smiling, she scooped up a handful of snow, flung it into the air, waved at Officers Hansen and Underwood, and went inside.
Kyle sat shaking his head, but Leroy roared even louder.
“Aw, c’mon, Kyle. You know she’s nuts. What’s the harm in enjoying the entertainment?”
“She can’t help it, Leroy, and you don’t have the good sense to keep your mouth shut when you should,” Kyle snapped. He was watching the door of the trailer, making sure Daisy stayed inside.
“Ooh, touch-y,” Leroy replied. “Hell,” he said, chuckling again, “that show alone makes me sorta happy that she survived that fire. When I heard her trailer’d burned, I thought we’d finally be rid of the old bat.”
Kyle said nothing, despite his disgust, because it would have been useless. He had eight years on Leroy, but given Leroy’s level of maturity, it seemed more like eighty. During his time on the force in Boston, he’d seen more than a few young officers like Leroy. They were all arrogant and stupid and attracted to the position because they liked the power the uniform and the gun gave them. Most of those guys ended up dead or behind bars themselves, victims of their own bad intentions.
In Mill River, there were four police officers—himself, Leroy, Ron Wykowski, and Joe Fitzgerald, the chief. The problem was that in a town where nothing ever happened, three decent cops were more than enough. Leroy, lacking opportunities to jeopardize his career in a town that had trouble finding officers willing to work for what it could offer in salary, had great job security.
They continued down Main Street, through the quaint business district, past the white town hall building, and followed the bend in the road past St. John’s Catholic Church. One window was lit in the parish house.
“Preachie’s up,” Leroy chirped. This was nothing unusual, though, as Father O’Brien’s light was often on late into the night.
At the next house, there was another bright window.
“Teachie’s up, too,” Leroy said in a different tone. “Maybe we should stop by and read her a bedtime story.” He raised his eyebrows and slowly ran his tongue across his upper lip.
“Teachie” was Claudia Simon, the pretty new fourth-grade teacher at Mill River Elementary.
“You can read? That’s news to me,” Kyle said.
Leroy scowled but kept quiet until Kyle pulled up to the police station. As they got out, Leroy stared back down Main Street.
“Damn,” he said. “Snow like this makes even those shitty trailers look good.”
Again, Kyle didn’t respond. All he wanted was a hot shower and a warm bed. It had been a long night.
Claudia Simon was reading bedtime stories of a sort. Each of her students had written a short composition titled, “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.” Of the twenty-three fourth-graders, ten wanted to be President of the United States. Six wanted to be movie stars or singers. Four wanted to be doctors or nurses. One a policeman. One a fireman. And one a counselor.
Rowen Hansen was the little girl who wanted to be a counselor. Her father, Kyle Hansen, was a police officer in town. Claudia had learned from the principal that he was a widower. His little girl had written that she wanted to be a counselor, as her mother had been, because she liked to “listen to people and help fix their problems.” That simple. From a fourth-grader. But, Claudia thought, Rowen is an exceptional kid.
Claudia stood up and stretched. It was after one. But this was Saturday night—no, now Sunday morning—and if she lost herself grading papers, she could sleep late. Dressed in a jogging suit and socks, she padded down the hall to the bathroom to brush her teeth. She examined her reflection in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. Only a few months ago, her reflection wouldn’t have fit in the mirror.
Single, obese, and lonely, Claudia had resolved, on her thirtieth birthday, to get herself into shape. She had made that resolution many times before. She had been overweight all her life, or as much of it as she could remember. She had never had a boyfriend, a prom date, or even so much as a man with a romantic interest in her. After that long, most people would have resigned themselves to a lifetime of solitary cheesecake. Instead, Claudia threw out the cheesecake, chips, ice cream, and pizza. She purchased a treadmill and Reeboks. Then, over the next year and a half, Claudia literally ran her ass off.
Now, ninety-two pounds lighter, Claudia examined her reflection with approval and headed to bed. She had a new wardrobe in a size ten. She had a teaching job in a school in a new town where people didn’t know her former fat self. She was alive. A single ready to mingle. She would get over her social awkwardness. She wouldn’t get flustered when she saw an attractive man. She wouldn’t avert her eyes. She was no longer ashamed of herself.
That night, Claudia fell asleep smiling.
It was well after midnight, but Jean Wykowski couldn’t sleep. Her husband, Ron, lay snoring beside her. His shift at the police station would begin at seven, and he was oblivious to her tossing and turning. But Ron’s snoring rarely bothered her, and it was not the reason that she experienced insomnia. Finally, she slipped from under the covers and tiptoed out of the bedroom.
On her way to the kitchen, she paused at her sons’ room. Jimmy and Johnny, ages nine and eleven, took after their father where sleep was concerned. Both were out cold, their breathing slow and rhythmic. Jimmy looked just as she had left him at bedtime. He lay on his back with the covers pulled up to his chin. Johnny, though, was turned around with his feet on his pillow and his head very close to falling off one side. How he had managed that Jean didn’t know, but she was able to coax him back under the covers in the proper direction without fully waking him.
Jean continued to the darkened kitchen, wincing every time the floor creaked. She poured a cup of milk and put it in the microwave. While the microwave hummed, she smiled to herself as she remembered how the boys had done the dishes that night, Johnny washing and Jimmy rinsing, each using the pull-out spray nozzle as a microphone to impersonate his favorite singer.
The microwave, too, was special, having been Ron’s Christmas present to her. It wasn’t the most romantic gift, of course, but it was functional and something the whole family could enjoy. She stopped the microwave, before its final loud beep, and removed her cup of milk.
She was lucky to have such great kids. They were stout little buggers and full of life, not like most of the unfortunate people she saw each day. Her husband of thirteen years was loving and loyal. He and the boys were the reasons she continued her emotionally draining work as a home health nurse for Rutland County.
Her patients were paraplegics, people recovering from surgery or major accidents, and the terminally ill. She watched them struggle and suffer, day after day. With her help, and that of doctors and therapists, some got better or at least learned to live with their impairments. But many didn’t, and it was the face of Mary McAllister, the patient to whom she was currently assigned, that kept sleep from her tonight.
She spent most of each shift with the old woman. Mrs. McAllister had only days left, maybe a week. Yesterday, Jean had hardly been able to look at her. The cancer had left Mrs. McAllister withered and jaundiced, and pain medication ensured that she slept most of the time. Jean had given her a sponge bath, changed her garments, and tried her best to make her comfortable. It wasn’t much, but it was all she could do. Today, Sunday, there would be no visit because she had the day off, but she knew the relief nurse who would cover her shift was gentle and caring. Attempting to console herself with those thoughts, Jean set her empty cup in the sink and walked back down the dark hallway to her bedroom.
In the parish house next to his church, Father Michael O’Brien was in his office, packing. Not books or files, only spoons. Father O’Brien was obsessed with spoons. He had accumulated close to seven hundred spoons during his lifetime. No two were alike. Tenderly, he lifted each one from a tattered cardboard box, examining it before placing it in a sturdy shipping box on his desk.
He collected the spoons in violation of his vow of poverty, and for this he felt guilty. When he thought about how he had obtained the spoons, he felt even worse. Still, there was something about a spoon—silver or stainless, elegant, frilly, or plain—that comforted him. He needed them. He had never been able to part with them.
From his top desk drawer, he retrieved one final spoon. He placed it, a shiny silver teaspoon, in the shipping box. For a moment, he looked at it resting on top of its box-mates, and then retrieved it. He would not part with this one. On the back of the spoon an inscription read, “To my dear friend, love, MEHM.”
The one person who knew of his collection, who had been his closest friend for more than seventy years, had given this spoon to him. It would not be a sin to keep just this one.
He eased himself into the chair at his desk. It was late, and his arthritis was acting up. He set the spoon on the desk and put on his reading glasses. There was a small package wrapped in brown paper on his desk, accompanied by a sealed envelope. He didn’t know what was in the package. As for the envelope, he knew that there was a letter inside, written on fine linen stationery. He longed to read the letter, but it was not for him to read . . . yet. With a sigh, he picked up the envelope and pressed it to his chest.
He looked out the window toward Mary’s mansion on the hill. The darkness and the whirling snow prevented him from seeing the big marble home, but he knew it was there, overlooking Mill River as it had for decades. He closed his eyes. He knew the history of that house, the joy and the suffering, especially the suffering, that had taken place—and still took place—within it. He knew Mary was there, and wondered if she was sleeping, as he had left her, or awake looking down upon him. Maybe her soul had already departed.
“Dear girl, may you finally be at peace,” he whispered, and looked once more into the storm covering the mansion on the hill.