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Hallie Michaels had been up since six, running big round bales of hay out to the cattle and her father’s small herd of bison in the far southwest pasture. She was heading back in, thinking about breakfast—toast and scrambled eggs and half a dozen slices of bacon—when a shadow so dark, it felt as if a curtain had been drawn, passed by on her right. She looked up—but there was nothing, not a cloud in the sky—looked back down, and she could see the shadow still, like a black patch on the ground, heading due south.
She stopped the tractor, a brand-new Kubota her father had bought after the old one burned with the equipment shed and everything else in September. Where the shadow—or whatever it was—had passed, the grass looked flat, like it had lain for a month under heavy winter snow. But it was early November and unseasonably warm—there hadn’t been a killing frost. She was a quarter mile from the house; the field she was in stretched long toward the horizon. She could see flattened grass all the way out, like something huge had just passed by.
Hallie set the brake on the tractor and hopped down. She looked at the grass, looked at the rest of the field. It was different—wasn’t it? She crouched and put her hand out. Her fingers brushed the flattened grass and she was hit by a stab of pain through her skull so fierce, it knocked her over.
She said it several more times, only louder and more annoyed. Shit. Shit. Shit.
She hadn’t seen a ghost in two months, hadn’t had a blinding headache in a week and a half. All that was gone.
She sat for a long moment on the cold, hard ground, sat until the world didn’t look like it was rainbow-tinted, until her head felt less likely to split in two.
She imagined herself ignoring it, imagined herself pretending it had never happened. Which, yeah, never actually worked.
As she struggled to her feet, her phone beeped.
Voice mail from her father.
“Hey, you on your way back?” Like this was a regular conversation and she was going to answer him. “Don Pabahar called. Says he hasn’t heard from his mom in a couple of days. Asked if one of us could stop over there and check on her. I’m heading into Rapid City. Be gone all morning, looks like. Figured you could do it. Okay? Yeah, talk to you later.”
She checked for other messages as she climbed back on the tractor and started toward the ranch house again. Nothing. Boyd had been back three weeks. They’d been to dinner once, to breakfast twice. This was his first week back in a patrol car since he’d been shot in September. She didn’t have any reason to think he would call. She’d picked a fight with him Friday night when he asked her to go to Rapid City with him for dinner, with the idea that maybe they’d stay the night. And she wanted that, she did. But what she wanted was a night, and what Boyd wanted, she was pretty sure, was more.
Right now she didn’t have more.
She’d applied for a job running dispatch for a trucking firm in Rapid City, something she could probably do in her sleep after the army, and another job as an apprentice line worker in eastern Minnesota. Neither one of them were quite “it,” what she was looking for, but they’d be something. Most days she missed the army so much, it felt like she could taste it. Soldiers griped about the food and the days on watch and the boredom and stupid orders that made no sense, but Hallie’d known who she was when she’d been a soldier. Now she had to figure that out all over again.
She pulled the tractor into the lee of the horse barn, where it sat next to the second tractor, a grain wagon, two ATVs, and an auger, all of which would normally be housed in the big equipment shed, if they had a big equipment shed instead of a concrete slab and stacked lumber for the framing. There was still a slight smell of burnt wood and metal in the air, even though the old shed had burned more than two months ago, burnt to the ground in what her father insisted must have been a freak lightning storm—came out of nowhere, he’d tell anyone who asked. Hallie’d tried to explain about Martin Weber, about the things he’d done. Not that it did any good. Hallie’s father was pretty much a master at not hearing what he didn’t want to hear.
It started to snow as she walked up to the house, light dry flakes that scattered across the ground like dust from an old ghost town—first snow of the season, even though it was already mid-November, grass still green, which Hallie couldn’t help but think was fallout from Martin Weber messing with the weather.
She knocked her boots on the doorjamb before she walked into the kitchen, where she was greeted by the smell of fresh coffee and a note that said, Stuff in the oven. Which, when she looked, proved to be scrambled eggs and bacon.
Before she sat down to eat, she called Boyd, then hung up without leaving a message. She wanted to talk to him about the shadow she’d seen, wanted to talk to him, just … wanted him. And all that was good, was fine, really. The problem was, she didn’t want it to hold her here, didn’t want him to expect that it would. And it wasn’t fair—to him or her—to be calling him every five minutes.
She dialed Brett Fowker, her oldest friend from high school. “Want to come into town tonight?” she said when Brett answered. “We could meet at Cleary’s for dinner, head out to the Bob for a drink after.”
“I—well—” Brett fumbled for words. Hallie frowned because that wasn’t like her. “I’ve got a date. In the City. Tonight. I’ve got a date tonight is what I mean.”
“Okay,” Hallie said, half a question. “Another time.”
She hadn’t seen a lot of Brett since September. Hallie liked to think it was because she’d been busy, though she hadn’t. Maybe it was Brett who’d been busy, because she was getting a master’s in psychology somewhere in Rapid City and, though Hallie didn’t really pay attention, she figured there were classes and exams and other things involved. Brett talked about going to the University of Chicago next year for a PhD, but Hallie couldn’t picture Brett anywhere but in the West River, training cutting horses with her father and, well, being there.
Things changed, though. That’s what she told herself. Hell, Hallie’d never expected to die in Afghanistan, never expected to come back, never expected ghosts. Life was mostly what you didn’t expect; that’s what Hallie’d been learning lately.
She finished her breakfast and an hour later had washed and changed and was in her pickup headed down the long drive from the ranch house to the county blacktop. Delores Pabahar, known to all and sundry as Pabby, was her father’s closest neighbor to the south. Pabby was … well, Pabby. Hallie hadn’t seen her in years, except briefly—the way you did see people—at Dell’s funeral.
At the end of the long driveway, her cell phone rang. Hallie looked at the number before she answered. Not Boyd.
“Hallie? Well, goddamn! Don’t you ever answer your email?”
It was Kate Matousek, whom Hallie’d first met at Fort Leonard Wood at the end of basic training and then again at a forward base outside Kabul. Kate had been a medic. She was also a hiker and a mountain climber who would take her leave anywhere there were hills to climb, who’d wanted the war in Afghanistan to end so she could hike the Hindu Kush.
“There’ll be land mines and bandits and probably rebel soldiers,” Hallie’d told her.
“I don’t know,” Kate had said. “It might be worth it.”
She was supposed to have been with Hallie’s platoon on that trail the day Hallie had died, but she switched at the last minute with another medic, the one who’d brought Hallie back from the dead, and she rotated out before Hallie’d been released from the hospital.
“What’s up?” Hallie asked. She was never one for wasting time on small talk.
“Heard you were out,” Kate said. “Thought you might be looking for work.”
“I might be,” Hallie said cautiously, because if Kate wanted her to climb mountains in the Hindu Kush, she could look for someone else. She didn’t mind heights, kind of liked them, actually, but she could think of easier ways of getting killed than going back to Afghanistan.
“Look,” Kate said, “I’m starting a business with my brother. Well, he’s been doing this for a while, but he’s finally going out on his own and I’m going in with him. Painting water towers. He’s got all the equipment, got a bunch of references—the guy he worked for is retiring—but we need a job estimator. Figured you might be looking for something.”
“You’re not afraid of heights, right?”
“No.” Because she might not be as crazy as Kate, but she wasn’t afraid to climb a water tower.
“We need someone who can get up to speed quick,” Kate said. “There’s a lot of travel, a little danger, plenty of variety, and better pay than you ever saw in the army. What do you say?”
Hallie’d thought she’d leap right in, both feet, when an offer came, but she didn’t. “Think about it,” Kate said when the silence stretched a half second too long. She hung up without saying good-bye.
Hallie called Boyd again, like her first thought was to tell him, which pissed her off a little, but not enough to disconnect. “Hey,” she said when his voice mail picked up. “I’ll be in town later. Can you get free? Call me.”
She put the truck in gear again and turned right onto the highway.
Just past the drive, Jake Javinovich’s big old Buick sat by the side of the road with the hood up. Hallie slowed, but she didn’t see Jake, who was a mechanic over at Big Dog’s Auto. She figured he must have gotten a ride from someone or he’d walked up to the house before she got back, and her father had taken him into town.
Ten minutes later, she turned onto the rough lane up to Pabby’s ranch house. Halfway up the lane, there was a low spot that washed out every spring. Hallie dropped into second, and the tail end of her pickup slid sideways along old ruts and morning-frosted grass. Then the tires caught, the engine revved up half a note, and she moved on.
She drove around the final shallow curve and stopped with the front of her pickup pointing toward the main ranch house. A skinny black dog slunk across the drive in front of her. It stopped when it reached the far side just short of a trio of scrub trees. A second dog, as skinny and lank as the first, settled next to it, tongue lolling and sharp teeth gleaming.
Hallie studied them, the truck idling almost silently. As far as she knew, Pabby didn’t have a dog, hadn’t had one since her old collie died ten years ago. “They just die in the end,” she’d told a thirteen-year-old Hallie. “What’s the point?” Which was a weird thing to tell a kid who’d lost her mother two years before. Not that Pabby worried about things like that. Which had always been the part of her Hallie liked.
But maybe things had changed—Hallie’d been gone, after all. Maybe these were Pabby’s new dogs. Maybe these dogs were why Don didn’t come out and check on his mother himself. The thought of that, of Don sitting in his car while dogs loped around it in a large circle and barked at him, made Hallie grin. She put the truck back in gear, pulled past the dogs, and on up into the yard.
She was barely out of the truck when Pabby appeared on the front porch with a rifle in her hands. “Do you see ’em?” she demanded. No, How the hell are you? Or, Been a long time, there. Or even, Who are you and what are you doing here? But then, Hallie wasn’t much for that herself.
“What?” she asked.
“Those damn dogs,” Pabby said, stepping off the porch. Pabby was about seventy-five by Hallie’s reckoning, though she looked younger. Her hair, originally a glorious red gold, hadn’t so much grayed as faded. She wore a denim shirt starched and ironed within an inch of its life over a red T-shirt, blue jeans, and a broken-down pair of boots. “There’s a couple more of ’em around back,” Pabby said as she approached Hallie.
“They’re not yours?” Hallie asked, walking half-backwards to keep an eye on the dogs as she crossed the yard. The two dogs from the drive were now at the edge of the yard, one of them standing with its head dropped, like a border collie watching a flock of sheep, the other flopped on the ground, its tongue hanging out, as if it had just run a hard race.
Pabby leaned in close. “You can see ’em?”
“Well … yeah.”
“Pfft!” Pabby blew breath out her nose and lowered her rifle. “Don says he can’t see ’em. I can’t tell anymore if he’s trying to drive me crazy or he’s the one who’s nuts.”
Hallie looked at the dogs again. “He can’t see them? How long have they been here?”
“Come on up to the house,” Pabby said by way of an answer. “We should talk.” She didn’t say more until they were sitting on the porch on rusting patio chairs with steaming mugs of coffee set on an incongruous white iron and glass table. Despite the early-morning frost on the ground, it was warm for November. The wind had a penetrating bite, though, and Hallie was grateful for the warmth of her barn coat. It was a little cold to be sitting outside on the front porch, but Hallie was okay with it. She wanted to keep an eye on those dogs; she figured Pabby was thinking the same.
“I saw the first one three weeks ago,” Pabby said. “I thought it was after the chickens. Slinking around like it was looking for something. I fired over its head and it just sat down and looked at me. Like it couldn’t care less. I knew something was up right then. Because that ain’t normal.” Pabby glared across the yard where the two dogs remained, watching them. “The next week there were two more of them.”
“Have they attacked you?” Hallie asked.
“Damn things,” Pabby said. Hallie wasn’t sure if that meant yes or no.
“And Don can’t see them?”
“So he says.” She paused, squinted like she was staring into the sun. “I expect he’s talking to doctors all over the City. Maybe even Chicago. Who the hell knows with Don. Thinks I’m senile. He’s wanted me off the ranch for years.”
“To sell it?”
“Hell, there’s no market for this place. It’s too damn small and it’s got water problems. Maybe your daddy would buy it, but not unless he got a damn good deal. No, he wants me to come live in Rapid City with him and Gloria and the kids. Drive me crazy. I’ve lived on this ranch nearly my whole life.”
Hallie’d always thought Don Pabahar was a bore and more than a little self-righteous. It didn’t surprise her at all that he wanted to order Pabby’s life the same way he ordered everything else. It did surprise her that he thought it would work.
“He send you out here to check on me, did he?”
Hallie grinned. “You think he’s waiting for me to come back and tell him you’re crazy?”
“You know, he would hate it if I actually lived with him. He never thinks ahead about things like that.”
Hallie took a long swallow of the scalding hot coffee. It was bitter and strong, like it had been brewing for days. A muscle twitched along her jawline when she swallowed. She stood and stepped off the porch.
“You want the rifle?” Pabby asked.
Hallie shook her head. They didn’t act like feral dogs, out to grab a few chickens. They didn’t crowd the house and hadn’t come toward Hallie when she stepped out of the pickup. They acted like they were waiting for something.
The dogs didn’t move as she approached, though she spotted a third one slinking around the corner of the old horse barn. Grass rustled in its wake. That meant it was solid, right? That it wasn’t a ghost. But if it were a real dog—a feral dog, say—why couldn’t Don see them? Why could she and Pabby?
Copyright © 2013 by Deborah Coates