Rescue: A Novelby Anita Shreve
A rookie paramedic pulls a young woman alive from her totaled car, a first rescue that begins a lifelong tangle of love and wreckage. Sheila Arsenault is a gorgeous enigmastreetwise and tough-talking, with haunted eyes, fierce desires, and a never-look-back determination. Peter Webster, as straight an arrow as they come, falls for her instantly and entirely.… See more details below
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A rookie paramedic pulls a young woman alive from her totaled car, a first rescue that begins a lifelong tangle of love and wreckage. Sheila Arsenault is a gorgeous enigmastreetwise and tough-talking, with haunted eyes, fierce desires, and a never-look-back determination. Peter Webster, as straight an arrow as they come, falls for her instantly and entirely. Soon Sheila and Peter are embroiled in an intense love affair, married, and parents to a baby daughter. Like the crash that brought them together, it all happened so fast.
Can you ever really save another person? Eighteen years later, Sheila is long gone and Peter is raising their daughter, Rowan, alone. But Rowan is veering dangerously off track, and for the first time in their ordered existence together, Webster fears for her future. His work shows him daily every danger the world contains, how wrong everything can go in a second. All the love a father can give a daughter is suddenly not enough.
Sheila's sudden return may be a godsendor it may be exactly the wrong moment for a lifetime of questions and anger and longing to surface anew. What tore a young family apart? Is there even worse damage ahead? The questions lifted up in Anita Shreve's utterly enthralling new novel are deep and lasting, and this is a novel that could only have been written by a master of the human heart.
A paramedic and the troubled young beauty he saves propel Shreve's engrossing latest...With the insistent thrum of life-and-death EMT calls as background, Shreve's vividly told tale captures the deep-seated fears of mortality and loneliness that can drive us to test the bounds of family and forgiveness."Joanna Powell, People"
Rescue is Shreve at her best....Shreve knows love may be intense, life-changing and passionate, but it is never enough. Her characters bruise each other as much as they comfort each other...."Rescue" is full of themes Shreve loves: How a moment can change a life; loss and love; forgiveness and pain."Mary Foster, Associated Press"
Compelling.... Fans of Anita Shreve will likely devour this new novel."Sara Vilkomerson, Entertainment Weekly"
A thoroughly absorbing, perfectly paced domestic drama. Alternating between life-and-death scenarios Pete encounters on the job and the fraught family tension between father and daughter, Shreve pulls readers right into her story."Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist
In Shreve's latest (A Change in Altitude, 2009, etc.), an EMT medic falls in love with a woman he saves and ends up raising their child alone.
At 21, (Peter) Webster has just begun a career as an EMT in Hartstone, Vt., where he still lives with his parents, when he's called to the scene of a one car smashup. Despite himself, Webster is drawn to the victim, Sheila, and breaks protocol to seek her out. Drunk when she crashed, Sheila is a lovely 24-year-old from Chelsea, Mass., running away from her abusive cop lover. She is also a pool hustler who has lived by her wits all her life. Webster's not sure she genuinely loves him the way he loves her, but ultimately he doesn't care. When she becomes pregnant, he puts aside his plans to buy the land he's dreamed of owning and marries her. Despite misgivings, his parents are supportive, and their baby daughter Rowan is a delight. At first life seems to be perfect for the young couple. But Webster begins to see signs that Sheila is drinking again as he confides in both his parents and his partner at work. The marriage turns rocky as Sheila spirals down. The crisis occurs when she drives drunk, with Rowan in town, and causes an accident with injuries to both Rowan and the other driver. To avoid jail, she agrees to leave Rowan with Webster and disappear. Every woman's ideal of the nurturing male, Webster devotes his life to Rowan. Eighteen years later, Rowan is a high-school senior, and the joy of Webster's life. Then her life goes off the rails, in part because she thinks she's inherited Sheila's alcoholism. Webster selflessly tracks down Sheila, who has stopped drinking and become a painter, because he realizes Rowan needs her.
A pale novel, heavy on uplift and padded with episodes of Webster responding as an EMT to various crises, but it's hard not to root for such a WASP mensch.
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By Shreve, Anita
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Shreve, Anita
All right reserved.
Webster jogs down the narrow stairs in stocking feet and says, “French toast,” as he rounds the corner.
Rowan blushes over the pan, the one that has more scratches on it than Teflon.
Webster loves his daughter’s face. Even when she was an infant, she had that extra, what, quarter inch above the eyebrows. As though someone took a pair of pliers, stretched her head a little. It makes her blue eyes open up. It makes her look a bit startled by life. Webster likes that. Rowan has the same widow’s peak as Webster’s, her hair brown, almost black. Rowan covers hers with bangs. Webster covers his, more pronounced, with a baseball cap. The widow’s peak is a problem, always will be.
Webster, on automatic, opens the fridge for the juice.
“I already did that,” Rowan says.
Webster turns and sees that the kitchen table is set with plates, silverware, napkins, and butter in the old butter dish instead of just a saucer, the juice in proper juice glasses. Rowan has on a pale blue sweater from J. Crew that he bought her for Christmas. Something is ending, and they want to mark it. Webster has been thinking this for months now.
The birthday has to be celebrated in the morning. Webster has the night shift.
Rowan slips the French toast onto the plates.
“You should have applied to culinary school,” Webster says as he sits down and pulls the chair closer to the table.
Mistake. He sees the tiny wince at Rowan’s mouth. It’s there, and then it’s gone.
Rowan has been rejected by three schools, one of them Middlebury, her top choice. Webster remembers his daughter waiting at the computer in the kitchen for five o’clock on March 15, the day and hour at which some of the schools sent out acceptances and rejections. Webster was messing around with the dishes, washing the same glass twice, pretending he wasn’t there. He knew to the minute when five o’clock arrived. The minute came and went. More minutes came and went. Not a sound from Rowan. No joyous yelp, no happy shout. Maybe the schools were late with the results, Webster thought, though he knew that whenever you hoped for divine intervention, it never worked out.
That day, he gazed at her back. The girl was still, studying her hands, fiddling with a silver ring on her middle finger. Webster wanted to say something, to touch her, but he couldn’t. It would embarrass her, make it worse. Better if Webster left Rowan her dignity. After twenty minutes in the same position, Rowan stood and left the kitchen. She went up to her room and didn’t come down, even for supper. Webster was angry with the schools, and then sad. By morning, he had worked himself around to encouraging. He talked up the University of Vermont, which had been her safety school and to which she had been accepted in the fall. She didn’t want to go there, though. She had hoped for a smaller college. What Webster minded most was the loss of the joyous yelp, that happy shout.
Rowan deserved it.
Webster deserved it.
“Delicious,” Webster now says.
The bread is thick, drenched with egg and milk and perfectly toasted. Rowan loads her plate with syrup. Webster eats his toast plain, the way he’s always done, though sometimes he covers the last piece with jelly. Webster doesn’t recall buying the eggs, and he’s pretty sure the syrup can had only crust at the bottom.
“I’ve got the four-to-midnight,” Webster says. “Covering for Koenig. His daughter’s getting married. Rehearsal dinner tonight.”
Rowan nods. Maybe Webster has already told her. “I’ve got practice till six anyway,” she says.
What to do about Rowan’s supper? He’s been asking himself that question for fifteen years. He lifts his head and notices a wrapped plate of extra French toast on the stove.
“Open your present now,” Rowan says, the first time either of them has acknowledged the birthday, the father forty today. Rowan, five nine and seventeen, stands and glides into the dining room. She returns and sets the present to one side of her father’s plate. The box is wrapped in gold paper with red Christmas trees. It’s almost June. “It’s all I could find,” she says.
Webster leans back and takes a sip of coffee. He has the present in his lap. He sees that Rowan has been generous with the tape. With his Swiss Army knife, a present from Sheila a hundred years ago, Webster gets the package open and puts the silver cube on the table. He begins to fool with it. He discovers that if he lays it on one side, it tells the time and date. If he sets it on another, it shows the weather for the next four days: two suns; a cloud with rain coming out; and then a sun.
“It’s hooked up to a weather channel somewhere,” Rowan explains as she moves her chair closer to her father’s. “It’s better if you keep it near a window. This side is an alarm clock. I tried it. It’s not too bad. The sound, I mean.”
Webster guesses the silver cube cost Rowan at least three days’ pay from her job at the Giant Mart over the state line. She commutes from Vermont to New York and back again two afternoons a week and every Saturday if there isn’t a game. Webster puts his hand on Rowan’s back and lightly rubs it just below her long neck. “I can really use the outside temperature thing,” he says. “And what does this side do?”
Rowan takes the silver cube from her father and demonstrates. “You rock it from side to side and then set it down. It tells your future inside the black square.”
Webster remembers the black balls of his youth, the ones with sayings floating in who knew what liquid. Probably something toxic.
“Yours, I guess. It’s yours now.”
Rowan returns the cube, setting it on her father’s lap. They wait. Abruptly, Webster flips the cube over, but not before he’s seen the ghost of his future struggling to the surface. Prepare for a surprise. He refuses to own the prediction.
“Why did you do that?” Rowan asks.
“Surprises, in my business, are nearly always bad.”
“You’re too cynical,” she says.
“I’m not cynical. Just careful.”
“Too careful for your own good,” she adds as she glances at the clock. “I have to go.”
She slips from her chair and kisses his cheek. He watches her graceful movements, performed a thousand times. She holds up her hair, twists it, and lets it fall over her right shoulder. He’s never seen this particular gesture from his daughter, and it hits him in the gut.
“Thanks for the breakfast and the present,” he says.
Webster swivels back to his French toast.
He registers an odd silence in the hallway, not the rattle of the knob, the usual friction of the warped door in its frame. After a few seconds, Webster turns his head around.
His daughter is still in the back hallway, gazing out the window of the door.
“What’s up?” he asks.
“Don’t bite my head off.”
Webster notices what might be the outline of a hard pack of cigarettes in the pocket of her light jacket. He suspects his daughter is drinking. Is she smoking, too? Is she experimenting? Is this normal for a girl her age?
Webster can’t remember the last time he’s felt relaxed with Rowan. For a few moments earlier this morning, his heart lifted: Rowan remembered the birthday, Rowan cooked for him, she was excited about his present.
“What?” Rowan asks, grabbing her backpack from a hook.
“I just… I just want you to be happy.”
Rowan sighs and rolls her eyes.
Webster struggles for the high note of the birthday breakfast. “Love my present,” he says again.
Webster can feel his daughter’s impatience. Eager to be away.
He turns back to the table. He hears the tug and pull of the door, the necessary slam.
He walks to the window and looks out. As he watches his daughter get into her car, an ache moves through his chest, sucking him empty.
Rowan is leaving him.
She’s been leaving him for months.
Eighteen years earlier
Webster got the call at 1:10 in the morning. “Unresponsive female half-ejected one-car ten-fifty.” He made it from his parents’ house in to Rescue in two and a half flat. He parked the secondhand cruiser near the building and climbed into the passenger seat of the Bullet as Burrows put his foot to the floor, turned down the lights and the siren, and swooped into the left lane. Webster had his uniform over his pajamas; his stethoscope around his neck; his gloves, trauma shears, flashlight, tourniquet, oxygen key, and window punch on his utility belt; his radio in its holster. In his head, he ran through the protocol for a 10-50. Assess scene safety, including potential for fire, explosion. Wires down, leaking gas tank, turn-out gear and visor if extrication indicated. Open the airway. Jaw thrust, if necessary. Assess breathing and circulation. Stabilize spine. Check the pulse, get a blood pressure check, and look for lacerations. Webster was twenty-one and a rookie.
“Where?” he asked.
“Near the garden store where 42 takes a bend.”
Four minutes out. Max. Maybe less.
“Victim wrapped herself around a tree,” Burrows said.
Burrows was a beefy guy with cropped blond hair where he still had it. His uniform shirt was missing two buttons, which he tried to hide with a zippered vest. The guy had a bad scar on his right cheek from a melanoma he’d had removed a year ago. He fingered it all the time.
Because he was a probie, Webster was the packhorse. Burrows, his superior, carried only the med box and his own protective clothing. Webster dealt with the oxygen, the trauma box, the c-collar, and the backboard.
“Fucking freezing,” Burrows said.
“Whatever happened to the January thaw?”
In the distance, a cop with a Maglite directed nonexistent traffic. Burrows made a fast and expert U-turn, pulling to a stop on a flat piece of shoulder thirty feet from a Cadillac that had rolled and come to rest upside down.
“Just kissed the tree,” said Nye, a weasel with a chip the size of Burlington on his shoulder. “And what I want to know is what’s a fucking girl doing with a two-ton Cadillac?”
Not a girl, Burrows and Webster discovered. A woman, twenty-four, twenty-five. No seat belt. The Cadillac was at least a decade old with rust in the wheel wells.
“Unresponsive,” Nye’s younger partner, McGill, said as he moved to make way for Burrows and Webster. The medic and the EMT knelt to either side of the partially ejected patient. The shock of glossy brown hair in the artificial light registered with Webster, replaced immediately by acronyms: Airway. Breathing. Circulation. ABC. He maintained spine stabilization and took the vitals. Burrows handled the airway.
“A hundred twenty-two over seventy,” Webster read out. “Pulse sixty-six.” Even in the cold Vermont air, he could smell the alcohol. “ETOH,” Webster reported. “Lips are blue.”
“She’s in trouble.”
Still, Webster knew, they couldn’t assume.
A star pattern on the windshield had produced facial lacerations on her forehead. A crushed window had loosened a shower of sparkles. Webster gently brushed the glass from her eyes and mouth.
“Anyone know her name?” Burrows asked.
Webster watched the Weasel reach for the woman’s purse, which had lodged under the car.
Nye opened a wallet. “Sheila Arsenault.”
“Sheila!” Burrows said in a loud voice. “Sheila, wake up!”
Burrows administered a sternal rub to wake the dead.
The woman lifted her head in the direction of the pain. “Fuck,” she said.
“Nice girl,” Nye said.
“Responsive to painful stimuli only,” Burrows stated for the record as he fastened the c-collar onto the woman’s neck.
“Can we do a clothes drag onto the board?” Webster asked.
“Go around,” Burrows said as he removed the rest of the glass from the woman’s face and slapped on a non-rebreather mask. He made a slit with his trauma shears down the length of the denim sleeve of her jacket. He started a line in her arm.
From where Webster knelt on the other side of the car, he could see a piece of metal he couldn’t identify, its sharp edge pushing into the woman’s belly, making the front tails of a light blue shirt bloody. A sheared-off piece of the dashboard? Something that had come up from the floor? Through a slit in the metal, he saw Burrows working on the woman.
“Belly cut,” he called out to Burrows. “Looks superficial. If Nye and McGill can bend this piece of metal a half inch toward you, you might be able to slide her out. I’ll put a pressure bandage on her as soon as the metal is clear. You have yours ready when she comes through.”
“Yes, but not a lot. Wait for my count.”
With his flashlight in his teeth, Webster pulled a pressure bandage from his pack. He reached forward to the metal barrier and wedged the bandage as best he could against it and thought that if the maneuver went wrong, he’d get a hand sliced open for his reward. He felt an obstruction at the place where the metal reached her skin. A set of keys and something furry. He unbuckled the woman’s belt, eased the free end through a loop, and got the keys, the rabbit’s foot, and the belt. He tossed them over his shoulder. He held the pressure bandage at the ready. He saw that the fastening of her jeans wouldn’t get past the opening either. “I’m cutting her pants off,” Webster said.
Nye, the cop, whistled.
With practiced moves, Webster slit the legs to the waist. He gently slid the pants down to her knees, removed her boots, and took the jeans off. He could see her white bikini underpants, her slim, pale legs. He put a warming blanket over her and tossed her clothes behind him.
“My count,” he repeated. “One… two… three.”
The cops pried up the metal a quarter inch. As they pulled from the shoulders, there was another spill of blood before Burrows could get his pressure bandage on. A spill but not a gush. A laceration but not deep. The slice looked clean. Another inch, she’d have split her intestines open. Webster folded the woman’s feet flat to get her through.
The cops moved away as Webster brought the bundle of clothes around and joined Burrows. He and McGill had gotten her onto the backboard, strapped her on, and put a blanket over her. Burrows administered another sternal rub. Instead of an obscenity, they got only a weak moan.
“Move,” Burrows said, and Webster heard the alarm.
They took the backboard to the rig and slid her onto the stretcher, Burrows climbing in with her. “Step on it,” he said before Webster shut the door.
Webster pushed the Bullet to seventy, the most he dared on 42. Sometimes, he was able to take note of a rising sun on a hayfield or the reflection of the moon on the creek that flirted with the route, but that night his thoughts were at the back of his head, listening hard to Burrows, who was trying to get a response from the woman.
At Mercy, Burrows went with the patient to give a report to the ER. Webster wanted to follow the stretcher with the glossy brown hair falling over the metal edge, but his job was to clean up the Bullet and put all the gear away. Inside the ambulance, he found a dozen stained bandages, indicating more bleeding than Webster had previously reported. Burrows returned with the stretcher before Webster was done. Webster peeled off his gloves and stepped up to the driver’s seat. Normally, as the rookie, Webster would have driven both ways, but, in the interest of time, Burrows had been at the wheel when Webster had pulled into Rescue earlier.
“Fine-looking woman,” Burrows said as they headed back to Rescue, a squad that serviced five towns besides Hartstone.
“Not a local.”
“Blood alcohol point two-four.”
“Shit,” Webster said.
“I tossed the keys that were on her belt onto the grass.”
“Find them on your own time.”
“There was a rabbit’s foot.”
Burrows laughed. “Lucky girl.”
After Webster had cleaned the equipment in the basins at Rescue, restocked the Bullet, and hosed off the outside of the rig, he got into his car and drove back to the scene. This time he noticed the quiet road, the .2 moon, the farmhouse just beyond the place where the Caddy had rolled. A tow truck was pulling onto the road. Nye put out a flare he’d lit behind the tow truck. “Why are you back?” the cop asked.
Never a How’s she doing? with the Weasel.
“I tossed her keys onto the grass,” Webster said.
“If it was her car keys, don’t bother looking.”
“No, it was something else.”
“She oughta go to jail. She could have killed someone. Herself even.”
“Then jail wouldn’t do her much good, would it?” Webster said as he began to search the depressed grass where the car had come to rest. As Nye and his partner got into their blue and white Hartstone Police car, Webster thought he heard a faint snigger.
Webster had his flashlight for the search. He began to crawl around the frosty perimeter. Maybe the rabbit’s foot did work, he thought. The woman didn’t kill anyone. She didn’t kill herself. She hadn’t broken her neck. She hadn’t severed an artery. She hadn’t suffered a traumatic amputation.
The image of the shiny brown hair came and went. Webster wanted to find the rabbit’s foot. He pictured himself returning it to the woman named Sheila. In his mind, she still had sparkles on her face.
An owl called out, and Webster could hear in the distance the whine and downshift of a semi. He turned off the flashlight, stayed on his knees, and turned his face away. After he felt the whoosh, he switched his light back on.
It took him twenty-five minutes to find the keys. With them, he stuffed the rabbit’s foot and the coiled belt into his jacket pockets, got back into his cruiser, and let himself shiver until the heat came on. Fuck, it was cold.
Two hours later, Webster, showered and dressed, said hello to his father at the breakfast table. He lived with his parents, trying to save money for a piece of land he coveted. He was pretty sure he could convince the guy who owned it to sell it to him when the time came because Webster had helped to save the man’s wife from dying of cardiac arrest a couple of months earlier. Normally, Webster didn’t think like that. He and Burrows were a team, and it was usually his partner who shocked the patient and pushed the meds. But only Webster had known instantly where the farm was located, having driven past it a dozen, two dozen times, just to see the hillside with the view of the Green Mountains. He’d told Burrows over the radio where to go and had taken the cruiser. When Webster got to the farmhouse, the woman was barely responsive and sweating profusely. After she lost consciousness, he cleared her airway. He started CPR. He worked on her for over two minutes before Burrows arrived. They had her on a demand valve, an oral airway in place, and on the cardiac monitor inside the Bullet, pushed the meds seconds after that. With that kind of a call, a minute could make a difference.
Webster’s father, Ernest, ran a hardware store in town and was up at six every morning. A man who believed in routine, he ate Raisin Bran and bananas for breakfast, four cookies with lunch every day, and had a nighttime ritual that seldom varied: two Rolling Rocks when he got home, the only time he and Webster’s mother, Norah, kept to themselves; then dinner; then a half hour with the paper. Another half hour with the catalogs. One television show. Then bed at nine. Webster couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his father with a book, but the man knew everything there was to know about hardware and what to do with it. On the place mats at Keezer’s Diner was an ad for his father’s store: Webster’s Hardware, depicted with a likeness of Webster’s grandfather, a banner, and the tagline “Quotes Cheerfully Given.”
Webster’s mother taught fifth grade at Hartstone Elementary and, at sixty-one, was thinking of retiring soon. Webster had been a late baby, his parents unable to conceive until his mother was thirty-nine. Once a blond, but now gray, she had wide hazel eyes and a widow’s peak she’d bequeathed to her son. Every night, she’d take an armful of papers out of her briefcase and sit down to grade them. She was the peacemaker in the family but could be stern when the occasion called for it. Webster had sometimes wondered what she was like with the more unruly students in her classes.
“Can I make you some eggs?” she asked as she stood by the counter.
“No, toast is OK,” Webster said. “I have to get back to Rescue.”
He didn’t. He intended to return to the hospital.
“You were just there, weren’t you?” she asked. “I heard you come in.”
“Just some follow-up,” Webster said. “I’ll be back home soon.”
“Well, I think you’d better,” she said. “You need to get your sleep.”
Webster was a part-time EMT, hoping to work his way into a full-time position, one that would require that he be at Rescue while in service. For now he got the calls at home, and his parents were used to the tones and to watching their son stand up from the dinner table without a word and take the stairs three at a time, or to hearing a car door close in the middle of the night.
Just before Webster’s senior year in high school, when his father suffered his own mini-recession at the hardware store, Webster began to look at junior colleges he could commute to, convinced that by the time he graduated there would be money for the University of Vermont in Burlington. But when Webster graduated with a certificate in business—about as useful as an old Christmas card, he’d decided—he chose not to take over his father’s hardware store, which had always been the family plan.
The idea of it filled him with dread. He wasn’t for the open road like a lot of guys he knew, but he wanted to do something more exciting in life than stand behind a register six days a week. He remembered the evening he told his parents at the kitchen table, his father stoic and nodding, his mother stunned. They assumed he had something better in mind. He didn’t, but he’d seen an ad that had triggered his curiosity.
“An EMT,” he said.
“An EMT?” his father asked, incredulous. “You’re kidding.”
“How long have you wanted to do this?” His mother’s voice was higher pitched than normal.
Webster lied. “A year or so.”
“It doesn’t pay very well,” his father, ever the pragmatist, said.
“Eventually the pay’s OK.”
“You’ll see horrible things, Peter.” This from his mother, her eyes distant.
“Where do you train?” his father asked.
“I’m looking into that right now,” Webster said, and with that his future seemed destined.
He took an EMT course at Rutland Hospital, went on observation tours, and passed the exams. His interest in emergency medicine grew steadily the more he learned about it, and it seemed to him that he had accidentally made the right choice for himself. He was twenty-one when he got certified.
For his graduation present, his parents gave him a sum of money that he used to buy a secondhand police cruiser, all the markings gone but still as fast as the day it had rolled out of the factory. Speed was everything for a medic, though in winter, when he had to put the studded tires on, he lost some of that.
Webster studied the woodwork around the window over the sink and guessed there probably wasn’t a right angle in the entire house. He doubted the farm had ever been prosperous. When his parents had bought the place—Webster had been seven—the kitchen floor was linoleum, the walls made of lath and goat’s hair, and the dining area was white with plaster dust. Up a flight of stairs was a sitting room with a blocked-up fireplace, a porch that had been finished off to make a sewing nook, and a decent-sized bedroom that his parents took over. In the attic were two small rooms that his cousins and aunts and uncles used when they visited.
Until Webster was twelve, he’d slept on a loft bed that his father had built in the sewing nook. When Webster turned thirteen and his body grew too long for the bed, his father knocked down the wall between the two attic rooms and made one big one. It had a sloped ceiling and a window at either end. The back window overlooked Webster’s mother’s vegetable garden, a large hydrangea bush, and a tall mimosa tree that produced puffy salmon-colored balls each August. Two Adirondack chairs were set underneath that tree, and it was there that his parents often sat in summer, trying not to pay too much attention to the vast tract of land they’d sold off to finance improvements in the hardware store.
Webster said good-bye to his parents and drove into the Vermont morning, the sun just rising, steam coming out the backs of the vehicles in front of him.
They couldn’t have sent the woman home yet, Webster reasoned, not with that level of alcohol in her blood, three and a half times the legal limit. Webster wanted to see her face and hear her voice. He’d done an “after” call only once before, with a ten-year-old who’d nearly drowned in a marble quarry. Webster had needed to see the boy alive. Needed to feel the reward of what he’d done. Needed to hear the parents thank him. At the time, three months into the job, he’d had a two-week run of lousy calls that had caused him to want to quit before he’d barely begun. Two children burned to death in a trailer fire. A cardiac call they might have been able to do something about had they been summoned sooner. A three-car collision on the ice on 42, an entire family of French Canadians wiped out: mother at the scene, father in the Bullet, baby daughter at the hospital.
Webster parked and walked into the ER. The staff knew him, and they didn’t. He cornered a nurse he thought he recognized.
“I brought a woman in last night,” Webster said. “DUI, stomach laceration.”
“They’re giving her fluids. She’s still got a Foley catheter. They’re going to discontinue her IV in half an hour.”
Webster checked his watch. “Half an hour? She could get the d.t.’s.”
“Doesn’t matter what I think. Towle’s orders. Signs of old bruises on her body, by the way.”
“I found something at the site that belongs to the woman,” he said.
“I’ll take it,” the nurse offered.
Ordinarily, Webster would have left it at that. “I’d like to see her if you don’t mind. Just to see how she’s doing.”
The nurse narrowed her eyes. “Visit away,” she said. “Bed number eight.”
Webster pulled the curtain aside. The woman’s face was pale, with bruises ripening beneath her eyes. She had a mouth that might be French like her name. Her hair was still glossy. He moved closer to the bed. The alcohol was depressing her system. When they took the fluids away, she’d get a headache and the heaves.
Under the thin coverlet, the bandages made a runway across the woman’s stomach. He noticed the narrow outline of her body, her nipples under the cloth. Her johnny was open at the neck, and Webster could see the place where Burrows had rubbed her sternum. Hell of a bruise, but you had to make it work. He remembered her long legs, the bikini underpants.
Webster said her name.
An eye fluttered.
He touched her arm and raised his voice a little. “Sheila?”
She opened her eyes. He watched as she tried to focus. She said nothing.
“My name is Peter Webster,” he said. “I’m with Hartstone Rescue, and I worked on you last night.” He paused. He hadn’t meant to say it that way. “You had a close call. You nearly died.”
“No, I didn’t,” she said, already defensive, the eyes sharpening up. In better shape than she looked.
He thought of walking out of the cubicle right then and there. Later, he would often wonder why he hadn’t.
Webster let a week pass before he tried to find out Sheila’s whereabouts. He assumed the wallet had been returned to her, but there might be a record of her address at the police station. Possibly at the hospital, too, though they were tight with information. That left Webster no choice but to call the station. He prayed it would be McGill at the other end of the line.
Webster wasn’t surprised when he heard Nye’s voice. The Weasel was everywhere: the left eye with its squint and the mouth in a permanent sneer—not necessarily the result of Nye’s disposition, but because the man’s right eyetooth stuck out a quarter inch. Webster wondered whether instead of developing a face that showed his character, Nye had grown into his face, viewing the sneer in the mirror every morning when he shaved.
Nye might not know that Webster had already visited the hospital. He decided to take a chance.
“The rabbit’s foot?” Nye asked.
“What’s the point?”
“She might need the keys.”
“The car was totaled, her license was suspended for two months. Massachusetts license, by the way.”
“Any local address?” Webster asked, and waited.
“You know I can’t give out that kind of information.”
“Jesus, Nye. I might have saved her life.”
“That means exactly zero over here.”
Fucking Nye was going to make him beg.
“I suppose as a probie, you’re not familiar with proper procedure,” Nye added.
Webster took a chance that guff would win out over pleading. “Cut the crap.”
Nye made Webster wait so long, he was sure the Weasel had hung up. Then he heard the tapping of a pencil point on a desk.
Nye gave Webster the address. “Don’t do anything stupid, probie.”
Webster knew where the house was. Just inside the northern town line stood a pale blue Cape with a front porch not fifteen feet from the edge of 42, the porch encased in jalousie windows. Webster pulled into what might have been a driveway in an unkempt yard. Before he opened the door of the old cruiser, he thought about what he’d say: he was just following up, wanted to know how she was. She would see right through that, might even call him on it. He remembered her defensiveness in the hospital. But Webster’s curiosity outweighed his judgment, had been outweighing it all week. When he knocked on the door, it was Sheila who answered.
“Who are you?” she asked at once, both hands on the door, ready to slam it fast.
She had on a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows, a pair of jeans. Her hair was longer than he’d thought, curling at the ends, as glossy as he’d remembered. He found it hard to take his eyes off her mouth. Did she really not remember his visit to the hospital?
“I’m Peter Webster. I was at the scene when you had your accident.”
“Are you a cop?”
“No, I was one of the EMTs.”
“OK,” she said.
“I just wanted to follow up, see how you were doing.”
She wasn’t buying it. In her stocking feet, Webster put her at five nine, five ten.
“How do I know you’re who you say you are? And, more important, why the fuck should you care how I am?”
Not as tough as she wanted him to believe. Something wary in her eyes. Webster took out his ID. She studied it and stepped to one side. “Come in,” she said. “I’m freezing.”
Coke cans, empty cigarette packs, a mess of Devil Dogs wrappers, and a Stouffer’s box on the counter. A tin pail overflowing with trash and tissues. The rectangular table had a soiled green and white oilcloth tacked to the edges. A spoonful of purple jelly lay on the cloth inside a dozen coffee rings and toast crumbs and a smear of what might be butter. Clots of illegal wiring on the kitchen counter.
“This isn’t exactly all mine. The mess, I mean. The Devil Dogs are theirs,” she said, pointing to the ceiling.
“How long have you been here?” Webster asked, looking around.
“Couple of days.”
He unzipped his jacket in the overheated room. “Renting?”
“Not right now. I will be when I get a job.”
“How’d you end up here?”
“So you’ve seen me,” she said. “I’m fine. You can go now.”
Webster didn’t move.
“The old folks live upstairs,” she said. “They hardly ever come down except to make a meal. He never comes down at all.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “He’s sick with something. I can hear him coughing at night. I think I’m supposed to do their dishes, but no one’s ever said. The old woman is the nurse’s aunt. Why the fuck am I telling you all this?”
He didn’t answer, but the question didn’t stop her.
“The nurse came once and took the old lady out to do some shopping. The old lady’s a mouse, hardly speaks at all. I think she’s afraid of me, though I can’t imagine why.” She smiled as if she knew precisely why. “I have the ‘front room’ here,” she added, putting her fingers in quotes, “and I can use the kitchen and the bathroom. I sit in the living room and watch TV. I steal their booze.”
She raised her chin slightly, daring Webster to reprimand her.
“You drink too much,” he said. “You were drinking too much the night you rolled your car.”
“And that’s your business how?”
“You might have injured someone else, and that is my business.”
“What’s next?” she asked. “The physical exam?”
She walked out of the kitchen and into the jalousie porch. Because it was frigid outside and overheated inside, the windows had steamed up, leaving a small ellipsis in the center of each pane.
“They keep the heat up to God-knows-what, and I can’t touch it.”
No curtains at the windows. A bed pushed against the shingles of what had once been the outside of the house. The bed was neatly made. A few clothes hung from a portable rod on wheels. A suitcase had been tucked behind the portable closet. In the corner were a round wooden table and two chairs.
Sheila sat on the bed.
Webster pulled out a chair. “I wanted to see if you have any remaining injuries or difficulties from the accident.”
“Are you a social worker?” she asked.
“OK. I don’t have a driver’s license anymore. I’m in this lousy shit hole. The nurse gave me a hundred bucks. I have to find a job. Other than that, I’m fine.”
She reached over to a leather jacket at the end of the bed and removed a pack of cigarettes. “I’m here because the old lady needed someone in case of emergency.” She took a drag on her cigarette. “Where do you live?” she asked.
“In Hartstone,” he said, not mentioning his parents.
She gestured with her lit cigarette to her jacket. “The cops gave me the wallet back, but guess what? No license and no money.”
“How much was in it?”
“Hundred and twenty.”
“Did you ask for it back?”
She gazed at the frosty glass. “They said it was never there. Was I surprised? No.”
“Do you mind if I ask you what you were doing in Vermont the night of your accident? The police said you had a Massachusetts license.”
“Is this in your manual? Question number thirty-eight?”
“I live in Chelsea. Lived. Near Boston. I had a boyfriend who drank so much he started pissing the bed. I threw him out, told him to get lost. He came back. Stuck to me like a booger you can’t get off your finger.” She glanced quickly in Webster’s direction to see how he was taking the booger. “Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. I packed a bag, got in the car, and drove. Didn’t stop till I rolled the car.”
“You could have called the police, got the guy arrested,” Webster said.
“He was the police,” she said with no emotion.
Webster noticed a half-empty bottle of Bacardi under the bed. The glass beside it still had liquor in it.
“Sometimes I walk to the hardware store down the road and buy bagels and coffee and cigarettes.”
The hardware store. His dad’s.
She didn’t have rounded shoulders like most tall women he knew. She wore her hair tucked behind her ears. Her jeans were tight and slim and didn’t come from L. L. Bean. He thought that when the bruises were gone her face would be pretty.
“I’m going to drive you to the Giant Mart just over the state line,” he said, “so you can get some food. And then I’ll drive you back.”
“I think that’s illegal. I’m not supposed to leave the state.”
“You’ll be fine with me.”
“No,” she said.
“You have to buy food,” he argued. “And you need a paper so you can get a job. What did you do in Chelsea?”
“I waited tables.”
“How old are you?”
“Is that the truth?”
“I like your accent,” he said.
“You mean the Ahss-n-all?” she asked, exaggerating the Boston pronunciation of her name.
He stood up. “You’ll starve if you don’t come with me.”
“I’ll get by,” she said.
“Put your jacket on.”
In the car, Sheila stared out the side window, as if they were a married couple, not speaking. She reached into her pocket and took out the cigarette pack. She glanced at him and put the pack away.
“You can smoke,” he said.
“Wouldn’t want to stink up your precious car. Where’d you get this anyway? It’s a cop car, right?”
“Was. Got demobbed.”
“Stripped. After four years, the police buy new cruisers, and then they strip the old ones of any markings or gear and sell them. I needed a car that was fast. For my job. Hell of an engine.”
“Rev it up,” she said. “Go fast.”
He held his speed.
She reached up, twisted her hair into a knot, and then let it fall over one shoulder. He drove another mile to the supermarket across the border.
“We’re in New York now?” she asked.
“Liked it better in Vermont.”
No one could attribute safety to an invisible line, but Webster had always thought there was a difference between Vermont and New York. In New York, the roads immediately deteriorated; the houses had less charm and looked to be in poorer condition; and villages gave way to street grids with stores on them. There was age in some of the New York border towns, but it was an unappealing redbrick age. When he crossed the state line, Webster always felt he was one step closer to a life he didn’t want to live.
Still, the town had a supermarket, two gas stations, and a pharmacy. He turned into the lot of the Giant Mart and parked.
“So what’s the deal?” she asked. “You pick out the food and pay for it? You give me an allowance?”
“Let’s just go in. I have stuff to get.”
They headed for the door, but she wouldn’t walk next to him, as if she didn’t want any part of the awkward enterprise.
Webster grabbed a cart. “Find what you want and put it in. We’ll sort it out later.”
He bought more food than he actually needed so as to have the larger share when they reached the register. His parents would be surprised. He hardly ever grocery-shopped.
He put oranges, lettuce, white bread, lasagna noodles, and coffee into the cart, all the time trying to sense what aisle she was in. He added two pounds of hamburger meat and a plastic package of swordfish. The Giant Mart didn’t sell booze, so she couldn’t be doing that. He added detergent and napkins, having no idea whether these items were needed at home. He picked out an angel food cake and a pint of vanilla ice cream and found her in the canned goods aisle buying soups. She had saltines, peanut butter, and English muffins in her arms. She placed her items in the cart.
“How about some milk or juice?” he asked. “A steak or hamburger meat? A tomato?”
“You my daddy now?”
“You’re older than me.” He left the cart and returned with a chicken for roasting. “You know how to cook this?”
“What do you think?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“I can do a bird.”
He put the chicken into the cart. He went down another aisle and came back with a bag of potatoes, a plastic bag of string beans, and a carton of orange juice.
“OK, enough,” she said.
“You don’t want anything sweet? Cookies or something?”
“The old people have enough Devil Dogs in their cupboards to turn us all into diabetics. Besides, I don’t like the stuff.”
Sheila didn’t join him at the checkout counter. She was standing by the automatic doors when he went through with the cart.
“Thanks,” she said. And then immediately ruined it. “Am I going to have to put out for you?”
Webster stopped the cart. “Your view of human nature is warped.”
“And you have such a happy view of human nature?” she asked.
“I usually see people in distress. They’re pretty happy if they live.”
They returned in silence to the blue Cape. When Webster parked the cruiser, he got out and handed Sheila her bag of groceries.
“You wanna come in?” she asked. Almost shy, but not quite.
“No,” he said.
Though he did.
He handed her a ten-dollar bill. “I didn’t buy you cigarettes. I figured I’d let you walk for them.”
She snatched the ten and headed for the house. He liked the way she walked—taking her time, as if she weren’t freezing in her leather jacket. She opened the door and went in without so much as a glance in his direction.
She was sexy and beautiful, and Webster wondered if he could smooth out the rough edges. Though maybe it was the rough edges that he liked.
Webster didn’t want to go home yet, even with the melting ice cream in the trunk. Instead, he drove up a steep dirt road to the ridge where he hoped one day to buy a piece of land and build a house. Fast-moving clouds made slashes of bright light on the hills below. In the distance, the Green Mountains had turned purple. Someday he would build a house with a large window pointed at those mountains. When he wasn’t at work, he’d sit behind that window and look out. The earth and the mountains were fluid, changing every second.
In that house, Webster thought, he would feel free.
For the first time since he’d been driving to the spot, Webster pictured a woman in the house with him. Not Sheila necessarily, but someone.
He drove by her place every night for a week, each time slowing to see if he could spot her through the windows of the glassed-in porch. Once he saw a moving shape and thought about pulling over, but he knew he wasn’t ready yet. Besides, he often had his uniform on, which might spook her.
On Saturday, he stopped. He expected lights to blaze. He guessed that neither she nor the old people had many visitors. The house remained dark apart from a dim light upstairs and a flickering blue from a television downstairs. He walked to the back door and knocked.
The overhead went on, and she opened the door. She wore a navy sweater over a pair of jeans. Her socks were bright red, and her hair was wet. The bruises on her face had all but faded.
“I came by to do the dishes,” he said.
She flipped on the kitchen light and gestured with her arm. “Be my guest,” she said.
Webster walked into a kitchen that if not spotless was at least tidied. No clutter on the counter, no overflowing trash.
“Guess I’m too late,” he said, relieved that he didn’t have to make his way to the bottom of the neglected sink.
“Couldn’t stand it,” she said.
She pulled a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her leather jacket, which lay over the back of a kitchen chair. Webster noted her brown leather boots standing upright near the oven.
“You married?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
She took a long drag on the cigarette, as if she hadn’t had one in days. Maybe she was trying to cut down. She backed up to the counter and leaned against it, crossing her arms.
“You desperate for company?” she asked.
“Maybe.” He liked the way her navy sweater fell over her hips. “Got a job yet?”
“No, but I have an interview tomorrow.”
Webster stood by the door. She hadn’t invited him to sit down. “Who with?”
“A place called Keener’s.”
“Keezer’s,” he said. “They’re going to love you over there.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.”
“Want to take me to the interview tomorrow?” she asked.
Webster pictured showing up at the diner in his instantly recognizable cruiser and waiting for her. The rumor would be all over town before she was back out the door.
“What time?” he asked.
“Any time in the afternoon.”
“I get off at two forty-five,” he said, lying. Three o’clock was the least busy hour of the day at the diner. After lunch and before the four o’clock beers and shots on the way home.
“Just so you know, Keezer’s a son of a bitch,” Webster warned. “He’ll have you up against the wall for a feel before the week is out.”
She smiled. “Looking forward to it,” she said.
“You going to invite me to sit down?”
“No,” she said, dropping her cigarette into the sink and picking up her jacket. “I’m broke. I need a hot meal.”
By the time Sheila had walked to the cruiser, gone back to lock the door, and returned, the tips of her wet hair had frozen. She played with the frost and broke the ends. “Christ, it’s cold. I hope your car doesn’t break down.”
“You need a better jacket.”
“You want to buy it for me?”
He did. That was the problem. He made a U and pulled out onto 42.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“A place that serves good chili.”
Webster drove north, past the town line, and then past the one after that. For a while, they didn’t talk in the car. She spent the time looking out the window at the lights in the houses. “They still have their Christmas trees up,” she mused.
“They’ll be lit until the needles fall off. The wreaths will be up until Easter.”
“Long winter in Vermont.”
“Think we’ve gone far enough?” she asked after a time, a note of sarcasm in her voice.
“It’s the best place around.” A lie, and she knew it. “We can turn back if you want,” he offered.
“What?” she asked, as if she hadn’t heard him.
The parking lot was full. Webster let Sheila off at the door. He watched as she left the car and straightened her shoulders.
Webster searched for a spot, his frustration growing every second. He didn’t want to leave her alone. By the time he got inside, some guy would be hitting on her. He parked at the edge of an adjacent cornfield. Illegal, but so what? A farmer was going to come out and slash his tires? He jogged back to the restaurant.
At first, he couldn’t spot her as he glanced from room to room.
“She’s in a booth,” the guy behind the bar said. Webster gave a quick nod and headed for the red leatherette. The tables were highly varnished and slick to the touch, as if they weren’t entirely clean. The whole place smelled of cooked onions and cigarette smoke. Sheila had her jacket off. She was sitting sideways, a beer in front of her.
She’s comfortable here, he thought.
Three beers apiece and two half-empty chili bowls. Sheila was a delicate eater, and Webster had lost his appetite. Her skin was flushed, and the heat inside the restaurant had curled her hair at the ends. It softened her face.
“It’s not that I’m trying to settle here or anything—fuck, no—it just seems like a good place to lie low for a while.”
She said it as if she were used to lying low. As if she were an outlaw.
“You know you’re in the police records,” Webster said. “Your boyfriend being a cop, he can easily find you.”
She shrugged, but he could feel the vibration of the tip of her boot against the center pole of the table. Her eyes slid off his face.
“What did he do to you?” Webster asked.
“What do you think?”
The ER nurse had said evidence of old bruises. Webster felt anger toward a cop he’d never met.
“So what about you?” she asked. “You been here all your life? In Hartstone, I mean?”
“Ever lived in a city?”
“Rutland. Didn’t live there exactly, but I did my training there.”
“That’s a city?”
“How can you stand it?” she asked, turning and stretching out again in the booth. Dinner over. She blew the smoke away from him. It didn’t much matter. Webster could hardly see the pool tables against the back wall for all the fog.
“The… I don’t know… the nothing.”
“People lead full, rich lives all over the planet,” he said with a half smile.
“A philosopher now.”
He liked watching her in profile, especially as she smoked. She had long fingers, a sophisticated drag, a lovely purse to her mouth as she exhaled. He hated smoking, but he knew the look was the reason girls took up the habit.
“And you would know this how?” she asked.
“I read,” he said.
He was surprised when she let that go.
“You have family?” he asked.
“I’ve got a sister in Manhattan.”
“You could have gone there.”
“First place he’d look. Besides, she lives in a one-bedroom with her boyfriend and a baby on the way.”
“You like her?”
“My sister? What’s it to you?” She was facing him now, restless, but blew the smoke sideways this time. A mouth poised to play the flute.
“Just want to know if you like anyone.”
“I like her,” she said. “We’re different, and she doesn’t approve of me, but I like her.”
“Older or younger?”
Webster nodded, took another sip of beer. He’d been glancing around from time to time to see if he recognized anyone. His being there—fraternizing with a patient he’d recently worked on—was questionable at best, unethical at worst.
“What about you, Mr. EMT? You have any sisters or brothers hanging around?”
“Only child,” she said, mulling it over. “And where’s your house?”
“I’m… ah… I’m living with my parents,” he said. “I’m saving up for a piece of land I want to buy.”
“Your parents. Wow.”
“You want to go?” he asked, looking around for a waiter to give him a check. He thought he’d had enough.
“No,” she said. “I want to shoot some pool.”
“You any good?”
“Next you’ll be telling me you’re a hustler.”
“You give me seventy-five, I can double it.”
He didn’t believe her. If he gave her seventy-five with those sharks, she’d go home empty-handed.
“Those guys back there?” he said, pointing his finger. “They’re good. They’ll take your money in five minutes.”
“Watch me,” she said.
He gave her the seventy-five.
She chalked the end of the cue as if she were coloring it. She sidled up to a skinny guy with a blond mullet and asked if she could get into a game. Webster could tell that she’d already blown Mullet’s concentration, but he wasn’t the guy with the clout. Mullet looked to a large man with a black zippered vest over a blue and gray flannel shirt. The man’s head was shaved, as if he’d just gotten out of the military.
“Luker, she OK?”
Luker took a long look at Sheila and nodded at Mullet. Webster could see that they both liked the way her jeans fit. A good-looking woman could always get a game. Sheila pretended to be more drunk than she was in a way that made Webster nervous. He could see that Mullet and Luker each thought he was going home with her. Two other men in their early twenties were at the table, too, but Luker was the boss. “Lower the pot to twenty-five,” he said. “Five bucks a piece. Race to three.”
Sheila held the cue like a novice. It was clear she was watching Mullet and imitating his every move, as if she were new to the game. Webster was surprised they didn’t throw her out then and there.
“Any house rules I should know about?” she asked in a voice Webster hadn’t heard before.
“Yeah, Sweetheart, it’s nine-ball.”
The Mullet guffawed as if Luker had made a terrific joke. Sheila was all concentration as the balls were racked. “I go first?” she asked.
“The table’s all yours,” Mullet said.
Sheila bent, took her time, made her shot, and knocked the cue ball off the table. She put a hand over her mouth.
“Scratched it,” Mullet said as he put the cue ball exactly where he wanted.
By the time the table was Sheila’s again, the game was hers for the taking. One of the other players hadn’t been able to sink the eight, but the setup made for easy shots. Sheila sank the eight but jawed the nine. If she were hustling, Webster thought, she was good.
“Nice one, Sweetheart,” Luker said. “Beginner’s bad luck.”
Sheila lost the first race and begged to be allowed to continue. “Look, I almost got it in,” she said, raising her left shoulder and then lowering the right in a sinuous move. She put a five on the table. “Let me win it back,” she begged.
She laughed with Mullet, but it was Luker she had her eye on. If Webster hadn’t known her better—and it occurred to him that he didn’t know her at all—he would have sworn she was after him.
“Race to three,” Luker said. “Ten bucks.”
“Dickhead’s shooting air balls,” Mullet complained, pointing to one of the other players. “He hasn’t got a dime left.”
“That true?” Luker asked.
The man shrugged, put his cue in the wall rack, and walked away.
“The pot is forty. We’ll spot Sweetheart the eight ball,” Luker announced.
On her first shot, Sheila hung the eight and relinquished her turn. On her second, she caromed the nine off the eight and sank the eight, jumping up into the air and clapping her hands. On her third, she ran the table to seven and appeared to be unable to sink the eight.
Careful, Webster thought, a good ten feet behind her.
“You making lemonade, Sugar?” Luker asked, pretending indifference.
Sheila turned to Mullet. “What’s he talking about?”
He shrugged. “He wants to know if you’re hustling him.”
Sheila gave a good laugh. “Oh, boy,” she said.
But Luker had had enough. “Get lost, Sweetheart. This game’s gonna get too rich for you.” He turned to the other three players. “Pot is three hundred. Seventy-five apiece. Race to seven.”
She put the ten she owed on the table and began to chalk her tip again, wiping the residue of yellow onto the thighs of her jeans, a move not lost on either Mullet or Luker. Still in the stance she began with (she was brilliant at this), she peeled the other bills from her jeans and laid down Webster’s additional sixty, which made him take a deep breath.
“Honey, it’s seventy-five,” Mullet said, looking nervous now. “Go buy yourself a coupla beers.”
Behind Sheila, the man with the best view of her ass reached forward and put fifteen on top of her sixty.
Luker stood to his full height and took his time cracking his back. “Not spotting you no eight ball,” he said as he examined Sheila hard. When it was her turn, she bent forward and made a terrible shot that ratted in the nine. The man standing behind her whistled.
“Pure luck, Baby,” Luker said. Mullet had gone silent.
Sheila lit a cigarette. Webster wondered if he should get her out. He didn’t like the looks of Luker. On Sheila’s second try, she ran the table up to eight and didn’t sink the nine. The man behind her groaned. He didn’t get it.
On her third try, she made a move a dancer might, bending to the table. The ash of her cigarette was nearly an inch long, the center of attention. A girl with frizzy blond hair who’d been hanging near Luker knocked on the back of his black vest. She let her arms slide around him, claiming him. Her hands almost met in the middle.
The ash was mesmerizing. Even Webster was certain she couldn’t make a shot without leaving it on the table, an offense Luker would use to throw her out. Sheila ran the first six, caromed the seven off the eight, sinking the seven, and then sank the eight and nine. No one said a word. It seemed the whole back half of the restaurant was silent and waiting.
As she rose from the table, she elegantly caught the ash in the palm of her hand. As she bent to put the cigarette out in an ashtray, she mouthed the word car to Webster.
He took his jacket from a hook, went for the door, and heard her laugh at the back of the room. A sexy laugh he didn’t like. He was worried for her. No man wanted to be hustled in front of a girlfriend hanging off his vest.
Webster braced for the cold. He’d be bracing until May, a good two weeks after the warmer weather had finally come. He brought his watch cap down over his ears and raised his collar. He jogged between rows of cars to his own, wanting to be exactly where he was supposed to be.
When he parked by the front door, the engine running, he took his hat off and tried to flatten his hair. He turned on the defroster to melt the ice from the windshield. He checked the gas gauge: he had maybe fifteen miles’ worth left. He turned the engine off. After ten minutes of waiting, Webster grew worried. He thought of going back in, but if she had a good hustle going, he’d ruin it. After twenty minutes, he was picturing a back-alley rape, even though there wasn’t a true back alley for fifty miles.
She was laughing as she opened the door of the restaurant. She lost the laugh as soon as it was closed.
She got into the car.
“Go,” she said.
They were almost to the Hartstone town line before she spoke. “Smashed the rack and ran the table. Twice. The guy beside me was holding the pot and couldn’t give me the money fast enough.”
“That big guy looked like he wanted to kill you.”
“Don’t think so,” she said, counting out Webster’s seventy-five. “I’m pretty sure he wanted to fuck me.”
“I wanted to get you the hell out of there,” Webster said.
“You have rescue fantasies.”
“Believe me, the last thing I fantasize about is rescue.”
“That’s why you do it, though. Your job.”
“You’re full of it,” he said.
“You ever drive into New York at night?”
“No,” he said, knowing she wanted to find another pool table.
“Don’t even think about it.”
He had no authority over her. On the other hand, she didn’t have a car.
It wasn’t until they were a mile from her place that she asked to see the land.
Webster was taken aback. “It’s dark out,” he said.
“There’s a moon.”
He peered up through the windshield. Point nine. He stopped the cruiser and made a U on 42.
“You liked it,” she said.
“Watching me hustle.”
“How long have you been playing pool?”
“Since I could stand on a chair.”
“You’re very good.”
“I’m better than you think,” she said.
Webster wondered if he could beat her.
“Can I ride with you sometime?” she asked. “In the ambulance?”
“It’s against the law.”
“I’ll bet it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve broken the law.”
“It’s not happening,” he said.
As he drove up the hill toward what he thought of as his piece of land, the gas-hungry cruiser sucked the needle down to empty. Webster hoped it would pop up again when they reached the summit of the ridge. If not, he could always coast to Sheila’s with a push or two.
Nearly every light in every house was out. No need for a light in the kitchen or living room to convince a potential burglar that someone was home. Everyone was home, everybody was asleep, and Webster knew all the doors were unlocked. Though he routinely locked the cruiser because the novelty of the vehicle and the equipment inside attracted teens, his parents had never locked either their cars or the doors of their house. Most police calls involved vehicular accidents or domestic disturbances fueled by alcohol, with the occasional after-hours attempted break-in at a store or warehouse. McGill and Nye had plenty of time, on their shifts, to play poker.
When Sheila and Webster reached the ridge and the best vantage point, he stopped the car.
“This is it?” she asked.
“This is it.”
She rolled down the steamed window to get a better look. The cold bit their necks. The moon and the frost lit the shape of the land and the dark mass of mountains in the distance. He seldom drove to the spot at night, preferring the color and clarity of the day; but he could see that from a cabin, the panorama outside a picture window would be worth staying awake for.
“You’re going to build a house here?” she asked.
“Kind of isolated.”
“That’s the point.”
She walked out onto the frozen grass and wrapped her leather jacket around her. Webster opened the trunk and took out his uniform jacket, which he had folded next to his personal emergency kit. He shook it out and walked to where she stood. He’d left his hat in the car, and his ears burned. He set the long jacket over her shoulders, and she slid her arms through the sleeves. They hid her hands. She hugged the jacket close, like a bathrobe.
“Where’s the snow?”
“We had some in December. We’ll get socked any minute now.”
“You cold?” she asked.
“You just like being here.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said from deep inside the jacket.
He was happy on the frozen grass, his toes going numb, his collar up to protect the back of his neck. It seemed that already the land was delivering on a promise.
“How long before you’ve saved enough?” she asked.
“I’m going to speak to the guy who owns it and tell him my plans. I won’t have enough for a down payment for a few years, but I want him to say he won’t sell it until then. For all I know, he might have promised it to a nephew.”
All Webster could see were Sheila’s eyes over the yellow and black collar.
“You know, Webster. This is the first time I’ve gotten a real vibe off you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, aren’t you?”
Surprising himself, Webster made the first move. He opened the high collar of the jacket and kissed her. Her lips were frozen into a half smile, but he didn’t want to stop.
He felt the moment when she kicked in. As he took her to the ground, she began fumbling with his belt. He saw in his mind her slim legs and the white bikini underpants, though in fact he couldn’t see anything except her face. He prayed that when she got him free, his dick wouldn’t shrivel from the frigid air.
She kept him warm and hard.
“You on the pill?” he whispered.
He felt her nod graze his cheek.
It was a contest of wills to see who could hold out the longest. Mostly against the cold. He thought the icy ground must be painful for her, even through the jacket, which just about covered her butt. He never felt her breasts, felt hardly any skin at all. He wanted the act to mean something on this piece of land he coveted, but all he could feel was the contest of it.
When they were done, he pulled up her jeans for her, then did his own. In a minute, they would stand and run for the car. She leaned back and looked at him.
“Honest to God, Mr. Webster, that was the coldest fuck of my entire life.”
Attention, Hartstone Rescue. We need a crew on Hawk Ridge. Female, fifteen, reporting injuries from domestic assault.”
Webster reached for the radio. “You got any more on that?”
“Caller hung up. Attempts to call back, negative.”
“ETA on the PD?”
“They’re on another call.”
Burrows and Webster arrived at a converted barn in the only tony part of Hartstone. There they discovered a slim woman in her forties standing by the door and a sullen fifteen-year-old girl in jeans and a black T-shirt, sitting on the sofa.
“You get over here and apologize to these men,” the mother barked to the girl. “You tell them what you did.”
The girl was silent, which seemed to infuriate the mother even more. The mother, dressed in a suit as if she were on her way to work, stomped her foot. She walked to the sofa and physically tried to get the girl to stand up by pulling at her arm.
“That won’t be necessary,” Burrows interjected as he wedged his body between the two females and broke the armlock. “You go stand over there next to my partner,” he said to the mother.
When the mother was gone, Burrows stared down at the girl.
“What?” the girl finally said.
“You hurt?” he asked.
She had short cropped blond hair, a cheek piercing, and heavy purple eye makeup. She rolled her eyes with disdain, but shook her head no.
“Well, if she won’t tell you, then I will,” the mother, by Webster’s side, blurted. “She called nine-one-one and said that my fiancé, her future stepfather, had beaten and raped her. My God! Does she look beaten up to you? When she saw the ambulance pull in, she confessed to what she’d done. I’m beside myself.”
“Is there any truth to these allegations?” Webster asked the mother.
“Hell, no. She’s out of her mind. My fiancé, Vince, hasn’t been here since last night at supper, during which my daughter was so insulting and rude that Vince had to leave.”
Burrows said nothing to the mother, but again addressed the girl. “Did this man harm you in any way at all?”
“In any way? Yeah, doc. He’s ruined my life.”
“I’m not a doctor.”
“Did he touch you or hit you with something?”
“He might as well have.”
“Miss, I have to do a brief exam to determine if there are any injuries.”
“Thought you weren’t a doctor.”
“I’m a medic.”
Burrows got down on his haunches and tried to take her wrist to check her pulse.
“Don’t you fucking touch me!” she snarled, her face contorted into one of the uglier expressions in the teenage repertoire.
Webster joined Burrows, and they stood aside for a moment. Webster noted the open floor plan, the loft with the balcony, the kitchen with an outsized refrigerator. “What do you think?” he asked.
“I can’t examine her without her permission.”
“Obviously she called nine-one-one to piss her mother off,” Webster said.
Burrows turned. “Ma’am, what’s your name?”
“And your daughter’s name?”
Webster resisted the impulse to raise an eyebrow. What mother in her right mind would call her daughter Charity in this day and age?
“Actually,” said the girl on the sofa, “it’s Pure Scum, which is what her boyfriend called me last night.”
“Ms. Krueger, where is Vince now?”
“He’s in Massachusetts, where he lives,” she said with smug satisfaction. “In Williamstown.”
“When did he leave?”
“I already told you. Last night. I’m sorry you had to get dragged into this. I’d have stopped it had I known sooner.”
Burrows tried to explain. “We can’t do anything right now unless your daughter gives her consent.”
“Which will be never,” Pure Scum said from the sofa.
“The police will arrive soon,” Burrows said to the girl. “You should be prepared for that. They’re going to have a lot more questions than we do.”
“What the hell did you think was going to happen?” the mother cried.
Burrows leaned into Webster. “We could call the cops off. Kids do stupid stuff to drive their parents crazy all the time.”
“She’s accused a guy of assault and rape.”
“What’s your gut tell you?” Burrows asked.
“Hoax. To drive the mother out of her mind.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“I gotta call it in,” Burrows said. He took his radio off his belt. He called Dispatch. “Scene appears to be safe,” he reported.
“Any weapons involved?”
“No. Can you give me a better ETA for the PD?”
“They’re just finishing up now. Should be another fifteen to eighteen minutes.”
“We going to wait until the cops get here?” Webster asked Burrows when he was off the radio.
“I guess,” he said. And then he shrugged. “We’ll wait in the rig till they come.”
Had Burrows and Webster not been twenty minutes into overtime, Webster later thought, they might have shown better judgment.
Webster walked over to the sullen teenager on the couch. She lay back against the pillows with her legs wide open, as if she were either the most relaxed person in western Vermont, or the most seductive. “It’s a serious offense to lie to a nine-one-one operator,” he said. “Don’t do it again.”
As he walked away, Webster was sure he heard a mincing echo. Don’t do it again. He wanted to turn around and give her a harsh lecture. He didn’t.
They climbed up into the rig. Webster drove to the end of the long driveway and they waited fifteen minutes before they saw the cops approaching. Nye rolled down his window. “What’s up?”
“A hoax,” Webster, in the driver’s seat, said. “A girl trying to piss off her mother.”
“Just what we need.”
“It’s up to you,” said Webster. “Maybe the girl needs a talking-to, I don’t know, but she’s breaking her mother’s balls.”
Nye rolled his eyes.
Webster and Burrows took off for Rescue. They weren’t a mile from the house when Dispatch signaled again. “Report of serious injuries at your previous scene.”
“It’s a hoax,” Burrows radioed in. “A daughter trying to drive her mother nuts. Prank call.”
“I don’t think so,” the dispatcher calmly disagreed. “Cop called it in. There’s someone screaming in the background.”
Webster reversed the rig and pushed it hard. He sprinted when they got to the house, thinking if this were still a hoax, Burrows would have the girl arrested. He pushed through the front door. There was no sign of the girl, but the mother was screaming. There were burns and blisters down the right side of her face and along her throat. Her scalp showed where her hair had burned.
“Fuck,” Webster said softly.
Nye was trying to get the woman to lie on the sofa.
“We’ll take care of that,” Burrows said. “You find the girl? She’s probably upstairs.”
“McGill’s got her. Also found an empty bottle of toilet bowl cleaner on the floor.” Nye pointed to where the bottle had rolled.
Burrows took over the airway. The vapor from the acid could burn the woman’s throat. He intubated and then started an IV for the pain. He tried to calm the woman.
“Hydrochloric acid,” Burrows said to Webster. “We have to flush it out. Get me a large pitcher of cool water. Jesus, it’s in her eye. It’s full thickness on the cheek.”
Burrows cut her clothing off and removed all of her jewelry. There might still be acid on her clothing. He covered her with a blanket.
He gave the woman fentanyl for the pain.
When Webster returned with the pitcher, Burrows began the flushing, making sure he wasn’t causing any acid to spill onto healthy tissue.
“You guys were just here, right?” Nye asked.
“Yes,” Webster said, “but everything was fine.”
“Everything seemed fine,” Webster amended. “No injuries.”
“Why did you leave?”
Burrows spoke. “It looked like a hoax. The girl saying the mother’s boyfriend had raped and beaten her. The girl struck me as lying about the injuries.”
“Did you examine her?”
“No. She wouldn’t let me touch her.”
“You take the mother to Mercy. We’ll deal with the daughter. I’d say you and the probie here just stepped in a big one.”
It was worse than either Burrows or Webster had predicted. Evidence of sexual assault was collected from the daughter at the hospital. At least two crimes had been committed: a fifteen-year-old girl had been raped; the same girl had thrown acid at her mother. The mother had serious burns, including to her cornea.
“I’m gonna get my ass hauled,” Burrows said to Webster on the way back from the scene.
“I was with you every step of the way,” Webster said.
“Noble, but it doesn’t fly. I was the crew chief. I was in charge.”
“I’ll back you up.”
“You’ll stay out of it. You hear me, probie? You followed my orders. That’s it. Me, I’ll keep my job. You? You’ll be outta Rescue before you finish washing down the Bullet. They question you, you say you followed orders. Is that understood?”
“What was that?” Burrows asked again, this time in a loud voice.
“I got it,” Webster said.
“All we had to do was fucking stay put,” Burrows muttered, shaking his head.
Webster had had patients die on him, and that was hard enough. But to have harmed a patient by not remaining at the scene was brutal.
They drove past the town hall, a brick ranch turned into the seat of government. The library had two stories and a stone facade, but it, too, looked fake, as though it might once have been a feed and grain store. Webster had never been a scholar, but he read at night for pleasure.
The rig passed by Keezer’s Diner, nearly full now at 11:30, every vehicle outside a pickup truck with tools and blue tarps in the back. He wondered if Sheila was working. Mother’s Country Kitchen had gone out of business, but the Quilt Shop was still hanging in there. Webster was familiar with every shop and service in town. Sometimes he liked to cross the border into New York and drive to a place he’d never been before. Explore a town in which he knew no one.
They passed the Maple Leaf Gift Shop, Armand’s Pizzeria, and Roberts Funeral Home. On a lane behind the funeral home was the American Legion Hall, the place where just four years ago his class had held its senior prom. Webster took the next left into Fire Rescue. He parked the Bullet in its spot: facing out, ready to go again. Burrows headed for the building.
Webster walked to the front of the Bullet and stared out into the morning. The snow was still on the trees from the night before, and the sun turned it all into crystals. He had a hankering to go skiing. He wondered if Sheila skied and thought not. He’d looked up Chelsea on a map, and it was a long way from anything with a chairlift.
He moved just outside the garage door opening. He would go to see her as soon as he got out of work.
He longed to get Sheila out of that porch room with the creepy landlords who ate Devil Dogs. He couldn’t imagine what they looked like, and he hoped he’d never have to meet them. But get her out where? He couldn’t bring her to his parents’ house. Out of the question. She didn’t have anything but the earnings from her hustle and maybe a week’s paycheck. He’d like to get on a plane with her and go someplace warm. It would take him months to earn enough money for two plane tickets, without dipping into his savings. Where would they go? Florida? Mexico? The two of them on the beach, he in bathing trunks, she in a bikini, a pair of piña coladas between them.
Webster turned to the door of the squad room.
“What the hell are you doing, probie?” Burrows asked. “Making snowmen?”
“No, sir,” Webster said.
“You’re still on duty, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
It was a small cassette, not much bigger than the palm of his hand, and when Mike thought about the terrible license and risk exhibited on the tape, as well as its resultant destructive power, it was as though the two-by-three plastic package had been radioactive. Which it may as well have been, since it had produced something very like radiation sickness throughout the school, reducing the value of an Avery education, destroying at least two marriages that he knew of, ruining the futures of three students, and, most horrifying of all, resulting in a death. After Kasia brought Mike the tape in a white letter envelope (as if he might be going to mail it to someone!), Mike walked home with it and watched it on his television—an enormously complicated and frustrating task since he first had to find his own movie camera that used similar tapes and figure out how to connect its various cables to the television so that the tape could play through the camera. Sometimes Mike wished he had just slipped the offensive tape into a pot of boiling water, or sent it out with the trash in a white plastic drawstring bag, or spooled it out with a pencil and wadded it into a big mess. Although he doubted he could have controlled the potential scandal, he might have been able to choreograph it differently, possibly limiting some of the damage.
Much appeared to have happened before the camera in the unseen hand focused on the quartet. One saw the girl (always the girl in Mike’s eyes) turning (twirling, it seemed to be) away from a tall, slender boy who still had his jeans on, and toward a somewhat shorter, more solidly built naked young man, who caught the young girl and bent to suck on her right nipple. At that point in the tape, no faces were visible, doubtless a deliberate edit on the part of the person behind the camera. Also, at that moment in time, Mike, who was then headmaster of Avery Academy, did not recognize the setting as a dorm room, though he would soon do so. The shorter boy then turned her to face the first boy, who by then was unbuckling his belt, his jeans sliding off in one go, as if they were cartoon pants, too big for the boy’s slender hips. The camera panned jerkily, instantly causing in Mike the beginnings of motion sickness, to a narrow dorm bed on which a third boy, entirely naked and appearing to be slightly older than the other two boys, lay stroking himself. And Mike remembered, among other images he wished he could excise from his brain, the truly impressive length of the young man’s empurpled penis and the concentrated tautness of the muscles of the boy’s chest and arms. The camera slid back to the center of the room, producing a second dip and rise in Mike’s stomach, to the two standing boys and the now kneeling girl.
It was at this point in the tape that Mike realized there was sound attached, for he heard a kind of exaggerated groaning from the side of the room where the bed was, as well as hard-pounding music (though the latter seemed to be, for some reason, muted). Meanwhile, the tall boy with the slender shoulders was holding the blond head of the girl to his crotch. She appeared to know what to do—even to have, at some point prior to the event, practiced what to do—for Mike couldn’t help but notice a certain expertise, a way of drawing the standing boy’s engorged penis toward her so that it seemed she might painfully stretch it before gently swooping forward and seeming to swallow it whole. The slender boy came with an explosive adolescent sound, as if taken by surprise. The cameraman or -woman (it was difficult to picture a girl behind the camera) swung the lens up to capture the boy’s face, which, with a start, Mike Bordwin recognized. He had assumed, when Kasia had solemnly handed him the tape just an hour earlier, saying to him in an extremely sober tone, I think you should take a look at this, that the tape was simply confiscated pornography (not that the tape wasn’t pornographic)—something a dorm parent might have dealt with. The idea that there would be recognizable people attached to the action—students he had seen in hallways, in the cafeteria, and on the basketball court—did not really occur to him until he saw the face of the boy, contorted as it was in a paroxysm of pleasure and therefore somewhat grotesque to the outside observer. He thought, Rob, and, It can’t be. The Rob he had known was a polite, hardworking student who also happened to be an outstanding forward on the basketball team. And was that how Mike had seen his students, he wondered then, even as he was observing the moment of coming on Rob’s face, as excellent student or promising actor or pretentious brownnoser or good arm? Because it was perfectly apparent that such descriptive tags were entirely inadequate. The Rob whom Mike had known seemed to be but an embryo of the full-fledged sexual being on the tape. There was a kind of seizure then in Mike’s chest as he suddenly, from different parts of his brain, received alarming and unwanted bits of information, not unlike an air traffic controller watching several blips on his radar screen inexplicably about to collide. The girl hardly seemed to come up for air when she turned to the other standing boy, whose face had not been visible during the first pan but which now clearly was, jolting the headmaster and causing him to cry out the name of the boy—Silas—and to emit a groan of his own, entirely unsexual. Silas and the girl lay down on the floor with Silas on top and went at it in an old-fashioned though frenetic way, the girl’s body thudding lightly onto what was clearly now a dormitory floor, dotted with a half-dozen beer cans. Mike closed his eyes, not wanting to watch this particular boy have his own paroxysmal seizure. When he opened them again, the camera was on the face of the girl, who was either experiencing the heights of pleasure or giving an excellent imitation of same. It was then that he saw the girl was very young—very, very young: the number fourteen floated through his brain—though he didn’t at that time know her name. It was not unusual for the headmaster not to know all of the students by name, particularly the underclassmen who hadn’t yet distinguished themselves, which Mike was pretty certain she had not. He suddenly wondered how many other persons—faculty or students—had watched this performance on the tape, this particular worry marking perhaps the worst moment of his life to date (though far worse was yet to come).
Groping for the camera, he found and pressed the pause button. He was on his knees in his empty house, his breath tight, causing him to put his hand to his chest as if an angina attack might be coming. That any number of people might already have seen the tape was creating in Mike what felt like a temporary heart stoppage but what was really a temporary brain stoppage, his neurons refusing to fire, or whatever they did—connect—because he couldn’t process another thought, the last having been too awful to contemplate, with its attendant images segueing into the words police and rape and alcohol and press, none of which any headmaster wanted in any sequence in any sentence. It seemed important then to focus on the girl to determine how willing a participant she had been in this… this thing that he was witnessing. Since he didn’t have the heart to rewind and review what had gone before, he poked play, wishing he could slow down the action, not so that he could enjoy it more—Lord, no—but so that his whole being could catch up to what was inevitably going to be a difficult future. To ease into it, so to speak.
The tape started again with what felt like a snap, once more zooming in on the girl’s face. Mike saw, to his dismay, that no matter how experienced she had seemed earlier (and also seemed now, in her fairly convincing expression of ecstasy), she was, in fact, as he had suspected, very young indeed. A freshman, there could be no doubt about it. He thought he could almost retrieve the face and body in a uniform—field hockey? soccer? JV? thirds?—and he was certain that she was a boarder, not a day student like Silas, who seemed to have collapsed upon the girl, who was smiling now, actually smiling. Is this good or bad? Mike wondered.
There seemed to be a great deal of chaos. Perhaps the unseen hand had lowered the camera for a moment. Mike narrowed his eyes to keep the nausea at bay while the lens momentarily came to rest on the perfectly innocent corner of a desk leg, with a boy’s dirty white sneaker, its laces untied, leaning against it. Mike felt an ache in his throat at the sheer innocence of that image, since it seemed to represent, at that moment, a universe of loss. In the background, there were sounds—none of them very articulate. Mike was fairly certain he heard Hey and Go for it and Your turn (and not necessarily in that order), and then the lens, with a sudden, wild swoop, settled upon the body of the third boy. (Boy, Mike thought, isn’t at all accurate in this case. There was a subtle moment in time when boys turned into men, and it had nothing to do with age or facial hair or voice timbre. It had to do, he had decided—and he had seen this happen hundreds of times over the course of nearly twenty years in a secondary-school setting—with musculature, the set of the jaw, the way the male held himself.) The young man was quite literally holding himself, masturbating over the supine body of the (Mike had to admit) heartbreakingly lovely girl, who appeared to be urging the young man on with rhythmic movements and even various contortions, doubtless learned from watching movies. The unseen person behind the camera had moved his or her vantage point, and one saw now, saw all too clearly in fact, the utter determination on the face of the young man, who was, Mike instantly recognized, a PG (postgraduate) brought to the school to take the basketball team to the play-offs. It was then that Mike quickly calculated and arrived at the number nineteen just before the PG, whom the other students called J. Dot (as in J.Robles@Avery.edu), came all over the chest and neck and chin of the girl who was at least four years younger, causing Mike to reach forward and push stop, the way he wished he could push a stop button on the future long enough to figure out what to do with this very unwanted piece of celluloid now poised to explode inside his camera.
He sat back against the sofa in the TV room. Mike had tried, in the early years of their residence in the impressive Georgian, to refer to the room as a library, as befitted his position in life, but in fact Meg and he had spent more time there watching television and DVDs than they had reading, and so they had started calling it what it really was. Mike was panting slightly, his mouth dry. That there was probably more to the tape seemed unthinkable. (And, after all, hadn’t all three boys come within minutes of one another? But then again, these were teenage boys.) He doubted that he could watch any more. He was both glad and sorry that Meg was not in the house, glad because he needed to think about what to do, and sorry because it was just conceivable she might have comforted him, though probably not. Would Meg have been as shocked as he? Was she closer to the kids? Did she understand them better?
Mike immediately wondered when the event had taken place and in what dorm. It seemed likely that the incident had followed a drinking binge, to judge from the number of beer cans on the floor. Perhaps there was a clue on a desk or a date marked on a calendar. It almost certainly had to have been on a Saturday night, because students had to be present for study hall in their dorms at eight p.m. weekday evenings as well as on the Friday night before a Class Saturday. There had been a school dance the previous weekend. Geoff Coggeshall, the dean of students, had mentioned that there had been the usual number of kids who had been caught drinking or who were suspected of it. The abuse of alcohol was impossible to stop and was at the top of the list of worries for nearly every headmaster or principal of every secondary school in the country. Though there had been many assemblies and seminars on the subject, it was Mike’s opinion that the problem was more severe than it had been in previous years. He sometimes wondered if all the focus on alcoholism, meant to promote awareness of the dangers of drinking, had not, in fact, subtly brought it to the fore in a way it had not been so blatantly important before. Every generation of students had done its share of binge drinking, but it was pretty clear, from all the data he had seen, that the drinking was starting at an earlier age and was both more habitual and more intense than it had been just a decade earlier.
He lay his head back against the sofa and closed his eyes. The house was empty and quiet. He could hear the wind skidding against the windows and, from the kitchen, the sound of ice cubes tumbling in the Viking, recently installed. Tasks now needed to be accomplished, students queried, the Disciplinary Committee convened, and all of this conducted beneath the radar of the press, which would, if they got wind of the story, revel in a private-school scandal. In this, Mike thought that private schools had been unfairly singled out. He doubted that such a tape would have been of any interest to the press had it surfaced at the local regional high school, for example. The tape might have circulated underground, students might have been expelled, and meetings might have been held, yet it was likely that the incident would have been greeted with indifference not only by the local newspaper, the Avery Crier (its editor, Walter Myers, could be talked down from just about any story that might cause embarrassment to local kids and parents), but also by the regional and national press. Mike thought the national media would scoff at the idea that sex and alcohol, even sex and alcohol involving a fourteen-year-old girl in a public-high-school setting, was news of any sort; whereas if the same set of facts, but in a private-school setting, were to pass across the computer screen of a reporter at the Rutland Herald or the Boston Globe, it was entirely possible that the reporter would be dispatched to Avery to find out what was going on. In such a story, there was juice, there was heat, there was blood. There was also, if this tape had been copied in any way, footage. Was it because private schools were held to higher standards, according to which such an incident ought to be nearly unthinkable? Or was it because everyone loved to see the elite (even if that elite involved a local farmer’s son on scholarship) brought down and ridiculed? A little of both, Mike guessed, with emphasis on the latter.
More troubling, however, was the thought of police involvement. Though Mike felt nothing but revulsion when he thought of the Silas and Rob he’d just seen on the tape (boys whom he had previously much respected and even, in Silas’s case, been quite fond of), the idea of them being led away from the administration building in handcuffs was appalling. (Did police routinely handcuff boys suspected of sexual assault, which was what this particular crime, in the state of Vermont, was deemed?) Police in this case meant either Gary Quinney or Bernie Herrmann, neither of whom would find any satisfaction in the arrest; Gary was, after all, Silas’s uncle. Would the boys then appear some months later in the dowager courthouse across the street from the gates of Avery, the building itself smug in its self-righteousness? Mike’s job would be at risk, and any number of teachers who were supposed to be supervising either the dance or the dorm that evening might be fired, for one could not expect the trustees to view the incident and its attendant legal fuss lightly. Would the boys then go to jail, to the Vermont State Prison at Windsor, where almost certainly they would be raped in turn?
Mike reined in his thoughts. He was getting carried away. No, he had to get a grip and act quickly. Three boys were in trouble, and a girl… well, presumably, if it did turn out to be a case of sexual assault, the trouble had already occurred to the girl, though the fallout for her might be endless.
Mike got up off the floor and sat on the sofa while he loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, as if increasing blood flow to the brain might help solve his problem. And it was then that the word containment entered his mind. And with that word, moral, ethical, and political choices were made, though Mike would realize the implications of these only later, when it occurred to him that he might have chosen at that moment another word, such as revelation, say, or help.
Excerpted from Rescue by Shreve, Anita Copyright © 2010 by Shreve, Anita. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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