Claire Watkins sat on the steps of her new home watching the bluff line as the sky filled with light. A little over a month ago, right before school started, she and Meg had moved in with Rich Haggard in his family homestead, an old farmhouse along Highway 35 about half a mile from the center of Fort St. Antoine. The farm was the last house in the village to the south.
Since moving to the Wisconsin countryside, Claire had grown familiar with the movements of the sun and the moon. She knew when each celestial sphere came up, and where, and she knew how their orbits changed with the seasons. The sun would crest the top of the bluffs around seven-thirty on this cool September morning.
The hot cup of coffee in her hands sent up a warm cloud of steam. She breathed in the aroma of freshly ground beans. Rich knew how to make good coffee. He had spoiled her for the rotgut stuff that was brewed at the sheriff’s department.
Although most of the summer flowers were done, she could still see drifts of purple asters blooming in the sandy fields along the highway. Their color was startling and alive in the early morning air. The last flowers of the season. Soon the leaves would start to turn.
She felt awfully happy, and it scared her.
Claire knew the fragility of such happiness, knew it could be lost with the next breath. She scarcely dared breathe. She could hear Rich out in the barn, feeding his small flock of pheasants. Meg was upstairs sleeping in on this Saturday morning. They were coming together as a new sort of family.
She went over a mental list of what she had to do today. She needed to put an ad in the shopper to rent out her house. Rich had told her not to worry about it until she was settled. She was starting to feel settled. She should take a walk down along the railroad tracks and pick a bouquet of asters. Her uniforms needed cleaning this weekend. She still found it odd to think of herself as back in uniform.
Four years ago, she had left her job with the Minneapolis Police Department, taken a job as deputy sheriff for Pepin County, and moved down to the small town of Fort St. Antoine. The latest census had said there were 142 residents, which didn’t include the weekenders. Half the town’s homes were owned by part-timers who lived in the Twin Cities.
The first two years working in Pepin County had been hard: Claire had missed the Cities, missed the police department, missed working with other women officers. But she was starting to feel comfortable in this small community, an hour and a half from the Twin Cities, on the banks of the Mississippi River.
She had left the Cities because her husband had been killed. At that time, she’d had little thought of finding another man to take his place. Then Rich Haggard had walked into her life. She still remembered the first time he had come over to her house and brought her some morels. She was such a city slicker she hadn’t even known what to do with the freshly gathered mushrooms. Now that didn’t really matter, because Rich was a much better cook than she was.
They were very officially a couple. Marriage had been talked about, but she wanted to see how they worked as partners first. So far the only thing about Rich that really bugged her was that he often felt the need to tell her how to do things.
Last night while she was loading the dishwasher, he reached in and rearranged the plates. She set down the glass she was holding and left the room.
He came after her. “Aren’t you going to finish loading the dishes?” he asked. “I thought I’d run it.”
“I don’t seem to be able to do it correctly.”
“It’s better if you put the large dishes at the edges. That way the sprayer works better.”
Claire just looked at him.
“Only a suggestion.”
“No,” she corrected him. “It wasn’t a suggestion. You were in there moving the dishes around. If you want me to load the dishwasher, you need to let me do it.”
Claire had finished loading the dishwasher and then started it herself, even though she knew that Rich liked to check it and then start it before he went to bed. Claire had a feeling that they would be fighting about how to load the dishwasher for many years to come. She looked forward to it.
She sipped her coffee. Rich walked out of the barn, and her heart filled with love. Life could be so good.
The phone rang, and she ran into the house to get it.
Ruth, a friend who lived in Fort St. Antoine, asked, “Are you guys going to the Pain Perdu for coffee?”
“Good. I’ll talk to you there. A friend of mine needs some help.”
Something pinched her foot. Meg gasped and grabbed at the sheets.
“Meggy, didn’t mean to startle you. It’s time to wake up.” Her mother’s voice spoke firmly.
Meg turned to see her mother standing in the doorway on the wrong side of the bed. She still wasn’t used to this small room tucked under the eaves of Rich’s house—a room that didn’t get the morning sun like her old room had in her mom’s house.
“We’re leaving. Time for you to get up.”
Meg snuggled down in her bed. Luxurious. Sleep seemed to weigh on her eyelids and her arms, urging her deeper into the bed, but then her stomach grumbled.
Under her mother’s watchful eye, Meg sat up. She was not one of those people who could jump out of bed. She needed to ease herself into the daylight world the same way she walked into a lake—slowly and carefully, letting the water slide up her body as she got used to it.
She put her feet on the floor. Her mom continued to watch her.
“I’m up,” Meg told her.
“Mom, I’m up.”
“Claire,” Rich’s voice shouted up the stairs.
“I’m coming,” her mom hollered back. Then to Meg: “I’ll be downstairs.”
Meg shook her head. Sometimes her mom bugged her. She hovered. Part of the problem was that her mom was a deputy sheriff, and it made her more cautious about everything. But she didn’t seem to get that Meg was a sixth grader who had moved on to middle school and had different classes for each of her subjects. If Meg could handle all that, she could certainly get herself up in the morning. Or not. Why couldn’t she sleep in?
She heard her mom and Rich talking downstairs as she pulled on her bathrobe and slippers. After taking a couple of running steps, she slid down the hallway. Her mom hated when she did that. Rich didn’t seem to care, and it was his house. Then Meg trotted down the stairs, pretending she was on a horse. She had been bugging her mom for a horse. Aunt Bridget said she would give her riding lessons.
Rich looked up and smiled at her. “There she is.”
Meg walked over and burrowed into his flannel shirt. He smelled like wood smoke and cold air. A brisk, good smell.
“How about some coffee?” Rich asked her.
Without looking at her mom, Meg nodded. Her mom didn’t approve of Rich letting her drink coffee, but it was hardly any coffee at all, just mostly heated milk that he foamed and topped with sugar and cinnamon. She loved her special coffee. Besides, he only made it for her on the weekends.
As Rich set the coffee in front of her, her mother pulled on her coat. “We’re off, Meg. You’re going to be all right?”
“Of course, Mom.”
“Try to be out of your pajamas by the time we get home.”
Her mom came over and took her face in her hands, wiped the sleep out of her eyes, and kissed her on the forehead. “See you later. We’ll be at the Pain Perdu.”
They left. Meg couldn’t believe it. She had the whole house to herself. She put on her new CD—the Dixie Chicks—and turned the volume up loud. Just the way she liked it. As the first song came on, she danced back into the kitchen and put a piece of bread into the toaster.
Meg lifted her cup of coffee to her lips and toasted her newfound freedom.
The next hour was heaven. She thought about school and how it felt to be in her new grade. She thought about the boy who sat in front of her in two of her classes. Ted Thompson was his name. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she might be in major like with him. All day long she dreamed about the cowlick on the back of his head and wanted to touch it.
She knew his telephone number by heart. Without thinking, she walked to the phone and dialed it. It rang three times, then a woman’s voice answered. As soon as the woman said hello, Meg hung up. She was covered with goose bumps. She wondered if Ted had heard the phone ring. She wondered what he was doing today.
After putting her dishes in the sink, she went and stood by the kitchen window. The sun fell down through the trees, making the ground look like the dappled coat of an animal. It would be a good day to go for a walk in the woods, she thought, and ran upstairs to dress.
As Meg sat on the edge of her bed putting on her shoes, she heard an odd sound out in the driveway—like a car tire squealing, or maybe one of the pheasants stuck in the fence. The sound pulled deep in her stomach and worried her. She looked out her bedroom window.
Standing in the middle of the driveway facing the house was the largest animal she had ever seen.
Whatever it was, it was bigger than she was. Gargantuan. It looked as big as a small elephant. It must be either a deer, a moose, an elk, or a reindeer. Its legs were set wide and its head drooped down.
What she had heard was its breathing, the sound a bellows might make, rasping and shrill.
Where had it come from? Escaped from a circus, come down from the far north, a hybrid of a horse and an elephant? Meg wanted to know what its story was.
She ran downstairs and opened the back door to get a better look. The animal heard the door open and picked its head up a bit. Huge antlers balanced on top of its head like a candelabra. It made Meg’s neck ache just to think of the weight of it.
Meg tried to read its deep brown eyes but could not see their bottoms. She felt as though it had something to tell her. Then she saw something dripping off its neck. Meg stared at the ground. At first she thought she was seeing oil from one of the cars, then realized the creature was bleeding from a gash on its neck.
She wanted to comfort it but knew it could be dangerous. As the wind picked up for a moment, a rich, dank smell wafted toward her from the animal. It had carried the scent of the forest with it. She took a step toward it, and the side door closed behind her.
Meg stopped herself. She knew if she got too close, the animal might run away, and that would be bad. It needed help. Rich would know what to do.
Meg turned slowly back toward the house to call Rich, but when she tried the door she found she was locked out. She walked as calmly as she could around the side of the house. When she got out of sight, she peeked back at the animal. It was still standing there and didn’t look like it was going to move. She started to run.
Patty Jo stared out the front window.
The farmhouse stood right in the middle of the fields with only a paltry row of shade trees to the south along the driveway and another row of pines to the north for a windbreak. Nothing imaginative about the plantings, but then this was a working farm. Patty Jo couldn’t wait to be rid of it.
From the front window of the house, she could see the soybean field Walter had planted. Soy was all the rage these days. Just a stroll through the supermarket told you soy was in everything. Read any health column—they claimed it was a cure-all. Walter had even suggested she cook up a plate of beans for them one night. Told her it might help her arthritis. She told him regular canned beans were good enough for her.
Walter had been pleased with the market price for soybeans and had been counting his money in advance this summer. He had the other fields planted in alfalfa and cover crops, but he was tickled about his soybeans. She saw the plant as a runty, weedy crop, looking like vetch run amok over the countryside. Patty Jo didn’t have much time for soybeans.
She was going to be out of this godforsaken place as soon as she could. She had a fantastic offer for the land, and she’d sell off everything in the house for what she could get. Other than a few of her own family pieces, she wasn’t taking a stick of furniture with her.
When she had married him, she’d hoped Walter would be her ticket out of Pepin County. Walter had survived his stroke, but just barely. Now it wouldn’t be long. Just so long as Walter or his whiny daughter didn’t get in her way. But she knew she could take care of Walter if she had to. Then nothing could stop her.
Patty Jo wanted to move to the Cities. It wasn’t too late for her to start a new life. Someplace in St. Paul, a small condo. Minneapolis scared her. Just too darn big. But St. Paul wasn’t bad. Maybe near the fairgrounds, because she knew how to get there.
Looking out the front picture window, she scanned a soybean field that stretched all the way to the road, a twisted sea of stalks and leaves. Edwin Sandstrom had called last week and said he’d harvest them for a percentage of the yield. Patty Jo had figured how much she’d clear from the deal, and it came out to about $2,000. She could use the cash. She was on a roll at the casino, but it was a bad roll—Lady Luck was taking a break. She’d told Edwin she’d let him know.
Patty Jo walked to the phone.
Edwin picked up on the second ring.
Something turned in Patty Jo, and she changed her mind—maybe it was Edwin’s sober voice on the phone, maybe the thought of watching those blasted soybeans rot, maybe just plain orneriness—but instead of telling him to go ahead she found herself saying, “Edwin, I thought about your offer for my soybean crop, and I’ve decided that I’ll pass.”
He was a slow talker and didn’t say anything for a moment. “Someone give you a better offer?”
“No. I don’t think I’ll harvest those beans.”
She thought he’d argue, but he just said, “Suit yourself.” Then he hung up without another word. Edwin wasn’t one for talking, period.
Patty Jo stood staring out the window with the silent phone receiver in her hand. She would watch, day by day, as the crop overripened, then frosted to black, then sank into the ground. Someone else would plow them under. As far as she was concerned, it was all those soybeans were good for. Walter wasn’t in a position to stop her.