Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues today with an extended excerpt from The Hum and the Shiver, an enchanting tale of music and magic older than the hills. This delightful urban fantasy is the first book in the Tufa series. The next book in this series, Gather Her Round, will become available March 7th.
No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Enigmatic and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be a mystery, there are hints of their true nature buried in the songs they have passed down for generations.
Bronwyn Hyatt, a pure-blood Tufa, has always insisting on doing things her own way, regardless of the consequences. Even though Tufa rarely leave Cloud County, she enlisted in the Army to escape the pressures of Tufa life—her family, her obligations as a First Daughter, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But after barely surviving a devastating ambush that killed most of her fellow soldiers, Private Hyatt returns to Cloud County wounded in body and in spirit. But danger lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless “haint” lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn’s darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.
Now Bronwyn finds the greatest battle to be right here at home, where her obligations struggle with her need for freedom, and if she makes the wrong choice, the consequences could be deadly for all the Tufa. . . .
A screech owl stood on the porch rail, its tiny talons scratching against the wood. The dawn light made the tufts of its wind-ruffled feathers look jagged and bloody. The bird had a voice far out of proportion to its size, and was intimately acquainted with the night winds that guided the Tufa destiny. It was also, when seen during the day, an omen of death.
So when Chloe Hyatt, a pureblood Tufa, saw it through the little window over the kitchen sink, she froze.
Water from the faucet ran heedlessly down the drain. She began to hum a secret tune for both calm and protection. The day’s events were going to be difficult enough without adding this to it.
The owl’s head turned almost 180 degrees to stare at her. The movement was so sudden, she jumped. For a moment the bird held her gaze; then it flew off into the trees.
She followed its flight and caught the haint’s outline as it faded into the dawn. As it had done for the last week, the apparition remained silent and watchful all night. When it first appeared, they’d all approached it, but it ignored entreaties from Chloe; her husband, Deacon; and their younger son, Aiden. Kell, her older son, would have sensed it and come home from Knoxville had it been meant for him. That left only one Hyatt ordained to receive its message: her wayward middle child and only daughter.
But though the haint wanted someone else, Chloe knew the owl was intended just for her. It wasn’t the first death omen the night winds had recently blown her way.
The sun crested the side of the mountain, turning the ominous red dawn to gold. Midges and pollen hung sparkling in the air. Everything brought by the night wind vanished.
Deacon came up behind her and kissed her on the shoulder. He smelled of aftershave and that generic dandruff shampoo he liked. “Morning,” he said quietly, not wanting to wake Aiden. The boy had been so excited about his big sister’s impending return that he hadn’t fallen asleep until midnight, after both Chloe and Deacon sang him their usually foolproof lullabies. Even Tufa children, it seemed, could hear the hum but resist the shiver.
“You haven’t made the coffee,” Deacon observed.
“Sorry,” Chloe murmured. She put the carafe under the faucet.
Deacon peered out the window. “Was the haint still out there this morning?”
Chloe nodded as she filled the coffeemaker. She did not mention the death owl. Deacon had been upset enough by the unseasonable blooms on her acacias.
“You’d think it’d know she ain’t here yet,” Deacon continued.
Chloe dried her hands, hoping Deacon didn’t notice the trembling. “Just ’cause they’re from the other side don’t mean they’re any smarter than they were before. When it was alive, it might’ve been one of those people who were always early for things.”
He nodded. “True enough. You sure it ain’t for you or me? Maybe we should call in Bliss, see if she can talk to it.”
“It won’t speak to her, you know that. Aiden can’t see it, and Kell would’ve been home from college by now if it was for him, sensitive as he is. That only leaves one of us.”
Deacon nodded. He spoke the name with all the weight it carried: the name of his middle child, the one who caused him more sleepless nights and grief than the other two put together. It was a name the whole world now knew, the name of his only daughter.
The Black Hawk military helicopter blew wispy fog from the treetops as it circled over Needsville, Tennessee. The rotors’ throb bounced off the Smoky Mountains, echoing as if a herd of gigantic, apocalyptic horsemen were charging over Redford’s Ridge.
The pilot dropped as low as he dared, twenty feet above the power lines, as he approached the town. He recalled his father’s description of a similar approach to an Asian village, only instead of power lines, it had been palm trees, and the villagers had pointed guns and artillery instead of fingers and American flags.
“Your folks are sure glad to see you,” he yelled over his shoulder to the young woman in the passenger seat behind him. She did not respond.
Needsville’s main street—its only street—swarmed with people watching the helicopter as it passed overhead. But Bronwyn Hyatt, a private in the United States Army for at least the next thirty days, knew that the pilot’s observation was wrong; these weren’t “her” people packing the street below. Hell, the entire population of Needsville couldn’t block its own traffic. Most of the crowd consisted of reporters and well-wishing strangers drawn to the circus her return home had become; the vehicles she saw were TV news vans and shiny SUVs, not the rustedout pickups and old sedans of the natives. As she scanned the crowd, she saw very few heads with the same distinctive straight, jet-black Tufa hair that she wore neatly pulled back and tucked under her uniform’s cap.
Her official minder, public relations liaison Major Dan Maitland, peered out the other window. “Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, look at all that,” he said. “Where the hell are they all going to stay? Didn’t you say there’s only one hotel in town?”
Bronwyn shifted her weight slightly to take the pressure off her leg. The metal rings and struts of the monstrous Ilizarov apparatus wrapped around her thigh and calf, sending boneholding screws and pins through her pasty, tortured skin. She would’ve been more comfortable on a stretcher, but she’d been on her back quite enough these last nine weeks. And not, she reflected wryly, in the way her Needsville reputation always implied.
Maitland leaned close and shouted above the engine, “Can you see okay?”
Bronwyn shrugged. The engine’s vibrations jingled the new medals on her chest. “Seen it all before,” she said.
“Yeah, but from the air?”
Again she shrugged. Tufa flight was something she could never explain to someone like him.
Maitland patted her on the shoulder. He was a career officer, frighteningly good at his job, and exuded false sincerity with such skill that dozens of flash-in-the-pan media figures still counted him as a friend when he likely couldn’t remember their names. Luckily Bronwyn had seen right through him at their first meeting and maintained a cool cordiality that ultimately perplexed him. He seemed unable to imagine anyone, male or female, immune to his charm. Watching him hide this confusion was one of the few things that still brought Bronwyn any pleasure.
Maitland said something to the pilot, and the helicopter passed back over the town, banking sharply so Bronwyn could be seen at the window. The harness that held her in the seat dug into her shoulder. When she placed her left palm against the glass to maintain her balance, she saw many of the hands below wave in response. The sun glinted off a thousand camera lenses. None of this was a surprise, but it disheartened her just the same. A hero’s homecoming, and she couldn’t even remember what she’d done to earn it. Or even if she’d done anything at all.
As the helicopter rose to continue on to the small county airport, she caught a glimpse of an old man seated in a rocking chair outside the post office. Rockhouse Hicks did not deign even to acknowledge the circus around him, or her passage overhead. It wasn’t in his nature to admit, even for a moment, that someone else might be more significant than himself. That made her smile; some things in Needsville truly never changed.
But the smile faded almost at once. That was both Needsville’s charm and its curse. Nothing of significance ever did change, or ever would. She herself was living proof of that. And she was too numb to feel either anger or sorrow at the realization, just the weight of its reality.
“We’ll be landing in five minutes,” the pilot told Bronwyn. “I just got the message that the motorcade’s already there waiting for you.”
Craig Chess watched the helicopter circle overhead as he lifted the box of plastic disposable silverware. He stood on the porch of the Catamount Corner, Needsville’s only motel, and the cacophony in the street made him wince at its shrill, unnatural loudness. Needsville was a quiet town, both by disposition and logistics: Three hundred taciturn, mysterious people spread out over an entire valley simply didn’t make much noise.
Now, thousands of people from all over the country brought the entire hamlet to a dead stop. And all, he reflected ironically, for the return of one local girl who, he’d been told, couldn’t wait to leave.
“Makin’ it okay, there, Reverend?” Marshall Goins asked from the storeroom.
Craig shifted the weight of the box in his hands. “Sorry, got distracted by all the commotion.”
“Yeah, it’s a sight, ain’t it? I always figured Bronwyn Hyatt would cause a major ruckus one day, but I never thought it’d make the national news.”
“It’s international,” Craig corrected. “I saw a German TV crew setting up.”
Marshall emerged from the storeroom with another box. The label said NAPKINS, 3,000 COUNT. “Do you really need that many napkins?” Craig asked.
“Yankees are sloppy. Better to have too many than not enough.” He also paused to look over the crowd. “You ever figure a town this little could hold this many people?”
“Never,” Craig said. “Did you?”
Marshall shrugged. “Good for business, if nothing else. I’m selling parking places in the side yard, and we’re booked to the gills. Hell, we even have some folks paying to camp out in the lobby.” He paused. “I mean, ‘heck.’ Sorry, Reverend.”
“I use the word myself sometimes,” Craig said. “Does the fire code allow you to put people in the lobby, though?”
Marshall chuckled. “Not much worry about codes and such here in Needsville, Reverend.”
Craig was eleven months shy of thirty, and had received his appointment as minister for the nearby Triple Springs Methodist Church just after graduating from Lambuth College in Jackson. He’d never met Bronwyn Hyatt, but had heard so many stories about her since he arrived six weeks earlier that he felt as if he knew her. “Ten feet tall and bulletproof,” as the Travis Tritt song said, only she apparently never needed alcohol to feel that way. A full Tufa at a time when most families had diluted their heritage through intermarriage, she was as well known for her exploits as for her famously profane language. Needsville’s extended Tufa “community”—essentially everyone—had more than its share of iconoclasts, but Bronwyn, though she was only twenty years old, was extreme even for them. He wondered how her horrific wartime experiences, now chronicled all over the world, had changed her. He hoped not much, because he secretly hated to think he’d never get to meet the girl once known as the “Bronwynator.”
Marshall brought him back to the moment when he said, “I think these two boxes’ll do us, Reverend. Just put yours inside the dining room entrance, and Peggy can sort ’em out. Thanks for the hand.”
“Glad to help out, Marshall. You and Peggy have made me feel awfully welcome.”
The older man went inside the motel, and Craig was about to follow when something caught his eye: a man with the distinctive black Tufa hair struggling to get his camera in position for a shot. That struck Craig as odd, and it took a moment to realize why: None of the other Tufa were taking pictures.
Craig watched more closely. The man also wore a lanyard with an ID tag that said PRESS. He managed to get his camera up above the heads of the crowd just in time for the helicopter’s final pass. When he pulled it down and scanned back through the pictures, though, he frowned and muttered to himself.
Craig decided that, although this man had the general look of a Tufa, it must be a coincidence. His conduct was so different from the quiet, suspicious natives that he had to be simply a Yankee reporter who happened to have dark hair. After all, there wasn’t a single newspaper in all of Cloud County, so no real Tufa journalist would have anywhere to work.
Craig went inside, threaded through the out-of-towners texting, talking on cell phones, and begging for accommodations, and deposited the last box by the dining room entrance. Normally the Catamount Corner used cloth napkins that matched the tablecloths in the dining room, but that wasn’t practical, or appropriate, for this crowd. They treated the town like it existed solely for their benefit, and deserved no more than they got.
As he turned, he was knocked into the wall by a man with slick hair and a pin-striped suit talking into his Bluetooth as he muscled his suitcase across the lobby. “Come on, baby, you know I didn’t mean it. Just score me some, and I’ll pay you back when I get back to town. I’ll even take you out to dinner somewhere nice, what do you say?”
Craig sighed and pushed himself upright. God loves everyone, he reminded himself, even Yankee jackasses. He worked his way to the door and out into the street, hoping he still had time to get close enough to witness the main event.
Three burly MPs helped Bronwyn out of the helicopter and into her wheelchair. One of them accidentally brushed the curve of her breast with his hand and flushed bright red, although he said nothing: apologizing, after all, was for fags. She held on to her cap and the hem of her skirt, both of which threatened to fly askew under the idling rotors. She carefully arranged her injured leg on the upright footplate, the metal rings gleaming in the sun.
The one-hangar airport, with its lone runway and faded orange wind sock, served mainly crop dusters and charter sporting flights and was overwhelmed by the sudden military occupation. In addition to the huge Black Hawk delivering its human cargo, the local National Guard motor pool provided two staff cars and a jeep. Beyond them waited some sort of huge vehicle that did not, from the little bits Bronwyn could see around her escorts, appear to be military.
Maitland stepped behind her and took the chair’s handles. “Are you comfortable?” Before she could answer, he continued, “We added a special seat to the motorcade to accommodate your leg.”
“Don’t forget the crutches,” Bronwyn said. “I’m not making a speech sitting down.” It was her only real demand, but she intended to stick to it. The people of Needsville were not about to see her unable to stand and face them after everything that had happened.
“All arranged,” Maitland replied. And then Bronwyn saw the vehicle intended for her return home.
She grabbed the rubber wheel runner and brought the chair to a sudden halt. Maitland’s stomach bumped into the back of her head. She stared for a long moment, then slowly turned as much as her injuries allowed. “Major Maitland, I know you outrank me, and I apologize in advance for my language, but there is no . . . fucking . . . way I am getting into, or onto, that.”
Maitland crouched beside the chair as if he’d expected this response all along. In his Teflon voice, he said, “I understand, Bronwyn, really. I thought it was tacky, too. But it was donated by the Ford dealership in Johnson City, and it might sow ill will in the community if we don’t graciously accept it.”
“I don’t care if it sows black-eyed peas,” she snapped. “I’ll do this show, but not if I have to ride in that.”
Maitland’s voice grew softer, and he leaned so close, she could smell his aftershave. “Private Hyatt, this is not a ‘show.’ It’s a hero’s welcome. Perhaps you should be a bit more . . . gracious?”
Bronwyn turned her dark eyes on him. “Major, I’m as gracious as a possum at the Brickyard, but there’s no way I’m going to ride through my hometown like some sort of trailer park beauty queen.”
“I agree,” Maitland said. “The thing is, it would make it much easier for all those people to see you. So it’s really not for you, it’s for them.”
There was no arguing with that. Left to her own preferences, Bronwyn would’ve returned home in the middle of the night wearing sunglasses and a blond wig. This carnival was for everyone but her.
The platform for her return consisted of an enormous Ford pickup truck jacked up on gigantic tires, towing a small yacht. The masts had been removed, and a sort of throne had been mounted high on the foredeck. The bow sported the nowubiquitous high school moniker known far and wide since her rescue: THE BRONWYNATOR.
When she saw the name, she muttered, “Oh, God,” and shook her head. “Do I get to keep it when we’re done?” she asked sarcastically.
“Ah . . . no, I’m afraid not.”
Bronwyn managed a knowing smile. “You’re very good at your job, sir.”
“I’m just grease for the gears of necessity,” he said with absolutely no irony.
Craig threaded through the crowd lining the street until he reached the incongruously new post office building. Rockhouse Hicks sat in a rocking chair on the porch. Something about the old man stopped strangers from approaching him, and even other locals gave him plenty of space, inside an invisible circle that kept everyone else away. The effect was almost tribal, as if Hicks were a chief or medicine man. Craig’s research on the Tufa, though, insisted they were all fervent individualists with no hierarchy, so he couldn’t be any sort of leader. Unless Hicks’s peculiar birth defect—six working fingers on each hand—fulfilled some unknown community superstition, Craig could only work with the idea that people avoided the old man because, simply, he was a shit-head.
But with the Tufa, you could never be sure. Dark haired and dark skinned, yet not white, black, or Native American (although often content to be mistaken for any of the above if it meant they’d be left alone), the Tufa kept their secrets so close that, to Craig’s knowledge, no one even knew how they’d turned up deep in Appalachia. Yet when the first official Europeans had reached this valley three centuries earlier, the Tufa were already here, living quietly in the hills and minding their own business.
Craig, however, was determined to reach out to everyone, even (or especially) the ones no one else would accept. One of the first things he learned was that no one in Cloud County really liked Rockhouse, and he sympathized with the mean old man’s isolation. So he leaned against the wall beside him and asked, “Ever seen a helicopter over Needsville before, Mr. Hicks?”
Hicks slowly turned. He had sun-narrowed eyes that made his expression impossible to read, but the hint of malevolence shone through. Craig imagined that as a younger man, Hicks had been serious trouble.
“Reverend Checkers,” he said.
“Chess,” Craig corrected with a smile.
Hicks continued to glare at him. Then just as slowly, he returned his gaze to whatever he’d been contemplating before. Craig knew this counted as a dismissal, but he wasn’t giving up that easily. “She’s getting quite a welcome. Can you see okay from here? I bet they’d let you sit up on the podium if you asked.”
“Seen that girl since she was knee-high to a wet fart. Don’t reckon she looks that different now.”
“Now she’s a hero, though.”
Hicks said nothing, but spit out onto the tiny lawn at the base of the post office flagpole.
“You don’t think so?” Craig persisted. “She killed ten enemy soldiers single-handed.”
“You don’t believe it?”
Hicks spit again and shrugged. “Wasn’t there. Don’t trust stories about killings unless I see the corpse myself. Been burned that way.”
The hint of mystery piqued Craig’s interest, and the annoyance in Hicks’s voice felt like as big a triumph as a whole congregation answering the call to salvation at the end of a service. Anyreaction Craig got from the old man was a step forward, a break in the isolation. “Well, I’m going to see if I can find a better spot to watch from. Y’all have a good day, Mr. Hicks.”
As he worked his way back along the road, he bumped into the man he’d seen earlier, the Tufa reporter. He said, “Excuse me,” and tried to catch a glimpse of the name on the press pass. It read SWAYBACK.
The yellow ribbons tied to trees, fence posts, and telephone poles, clichéd as they were, made Bronwyn feel surprisingly warm inside. She recalled tearing ribbons from some of the same trees when she was a kid, convinced they were too hokey to have any meaning. But now that they were displayed for her, she understood them in a new light, even if she still thought they were inane.
Like Cleopatra on her barge, she was towed slowly down into the valley toward Needsville. She sat in the ludicrous chair and gritted her teeth against the vibrations going through her shattered leg bones. Somehow they’d mounted a leather recliner to the foredeck, with a modified footrest to support her injured leg. It seemed solid enough, but did nothing to make her feel less ridiculous. She thought about waving with the back of her hand turned out, like Queen Elizabeth, or mouthing “This is so lame,” as Nancy Kerrigan had at Disneyland. But at least for a little while longer, she was still a soldier; she’d do neither.
She wanted to stare straight ahead, at the fresh lines painted on the highway after the state repaved it earlier in the spring, but there was no resisting the pull of the mountains. At first she looked only with her eyes, cutting them enough to see the lush trees and rolling slopes visible past the MPs standing at the deck rails beside her. But like that first taste of liquor to an abstaining drunk, it only made it worse. The leaves sang to her, tunes blew through the breeze, and for a moment something that had been silent and still since she’d left this place vibrated deep in her chest. But it was only a moment; like everything else, it faded to numbness and left her aware of its presence but unable to actually feel it.
Except somehow, she sensed danger. Not the immediate kind as she’d known in Iraq, but real nonetheless. It was like a shadowy animal glimpsed over the tall grass that ducked out of sight the instant before she turned to look directly at it.
It took twenty minutes to drive the half mile from the city limits to the bandstand and podium set up outside City Hall. The crowd’s response was every bit as loud as the helicopter’s engine. Bronwyn saw few heads of straight black hair or dark sullen eyes among the throng; and, as she expected, Rockhouse Hicks had not moved from the post office porch. It was okay, though; she’d have plenty of time to see the locals. These strangers weren’t here to see her, anyway; they wanted the Bronwynator.
Two MPs carefully carried her to the stage, where Maitland provided the promised crutches. Her injured arm could barely do its job, but it was a matter of pride that she stand before these people. She reached the podium and waited patiently while the applause continued and the cameras fired away.
As the cheering died down, Major Maitland eased up to the microphone. “Private Hyatt will make a statement, but as you can see, she’s not up to any questions. We ask that you respect her courage, and her injuries.”
Bronwyn unfolded the two pages of typing with the word APPROVED stamped in red near one corner. She blew into the microphone to check her distance from it. Then she cleared her throat and said, “Thank y’all for being here. It’s great to be back in Needsville.” She stopped for renewed applause. Her voice sounded thin and weak in the loudspeakers, certainly not strong enough to belong to a First Daughter of the Tufa.
“I’d like to thank everyone who hoped and prayed for my rescue and recovery,” she continued. “For a long time, I had no idea anyone even knew or cared about what had happened to me. Now, believe me, I know that to be false. I feel blessed, honored, and grateful beyond words for the love my home community has given me so freely.”
She felt herself turn red. Intellectually she understood, and even agreed with, the need for these words to be spoken aloud. But having to say them still incited those old rebellious feelings. They weren’t as strong as they’d once been, though; it was like the shadow of something that used to be gigantic.
“I’d like to thank the staff of the VA hospital for the excellent care they gave me. I’m also grateful to several Iraqi medical personnel who helped save my life while I was in their care. And of course, to the brave Marines who rescued me.
“I’m proud to be a soldier in the United States Army. I’m relieved that some of the soldiers I served with made it home alive, and it hurts that some did not. I’ll miss them. And now . . . I’m going home.”
She quickly folded the speech, turned, and this time did not resist when the MPs moved in to aid her. As they carried her down the steps, she made eye contact with a woman in the crowd who had straight black hair and soft, tender eyes. The woman held out her right hand in a fist, wrapped her thumb over the back of her index finger and then turned her wrist and spread all her fingers wide.
Bronwyn said nothing. It wasn’t normal sign language, although it was a sign and she knew the language. But she couldn’t find the strength to respond, and her hands were busy making sure she wasn’t accidentally dropped onto the sidewalk. She was placed in the passenger seat of a shiny Town & Country for her trip to her family’s home, and as the door closed she looked for the woman in the crowd. But, not surprisingly, she’d vanished.
The sense of danger momentarily returned. Certainly it didn’t come from the woman in the crowd, whom Bronwyn would trust with her life and song. But the woman knew about it, Bronwyn was certain. And it explained her serious, even grim expression when everyone around her was cheering.
By the time Bronwyn finished her speech, Craig had maneuvered close enough to get a good look at her face. He’d seen photographs, but he was surprised by how beautiful she was in real life. Mountain girls’ faces tended to have hard edges, sharp planes, and leathery skin; Bronwyn had the high cheekbones and strong chin, but her complexion was smooth and unlined, and still had the softness of youth. Her dark eyes were large and hinted at self-aware intelligence.
Craig scolded himself. He tried to avoid thinking about people, especially women, that way. It was unprofessional for a minister, and unkind for a human being. What mattered was what was inside, not the surface they presented to the world.
Someone jostled him from behind, and when he turned, a camera’s flash blinded him. “Whoa!” he cried, putting up his hand to shield his eyes.
“Sorry,” the photographer said without looking up from his camera’s screen.
As his eyes recovered, Craig realized the photographer was Swayback, the reporter who looked like a Tufa. “Hey, who do you work for?” Craig asked before he could stop himself.
Swayback looked up, alarmed. “Wait a minute, you’re not gonna complain to my editor just because a flash went off in your face, are you? Good grief, there’s a million photographers here, it could’ve happened to anybody. I said I was sorry.”
“No, I just—”
“Tell you what: I work for the Daily Planet. My editor’s Perry White. You tell him all about it.” Then Swayback turned and disappeared into the crowd.
By the time Craig turned back toward the podium, Bronwyn Hyatt was gone and everyone began to disperse.
The trip in the Town & Country was as bone jangling as Bronwyn expected. She sat with her broken leg across the folded-down middle passenger seat, padded with pillows that kept it elevated and immobile. Cloud County’s secondary roads were not maintained by the state, and once you left the main highway, they quickly became little more than paired gravel ruts with a grass strip between them. Most Tufas drove vehicles suited to these conditions; perhaps the army should’ve delivered her home in a tank.
Behind them—far behind them, since the last military vehicle was instructed to go very slowly—came the press. Nothing could stop them completely, and a news-channel helicopter even shadowed Bronwyn’s progress. But as Maitland said, it was part of America now to want to know everything about a celebrity, especially a fifteen-minute one. Better to give them something than to stonewall and have them start digging.
The scenery was so familiar that for a moment Bronwyn forgot everything around her and believed she was riding home in Dwayne’s pickup; the slight haze from her pain medication could easily be the low buzz of homegrown pot. It lasted only an instant, but it was disconcerting all the same. She took a deep breath and forced herself to concentrate on the fence posts and barbed wire passing in undulating waves.
As they neared her home, people stood along the fence, scowling into the dust raised by the cars. She could not discern particular faces, but their dark hair and presence here identified them. They would never be caught dead in the madness currently possessing Needsville, yet neither would they allow Bronwyn to return home without acknowledging it. It had nothing to do with the war or patriotism; or, rather, it sprang from a kind of loyalty tied to no physical location. It was a concept of “family” unique to this place and to these people, those with the truest Tufa blood in their veins.
“I don’t see any cars or trucks,” Maitland observed. “How’d all these people get here?”
Bronwyn smiled. “Not much is far away from anything else in these hills, if you’re willing to climb up and down a lot.”
“Are these friends of yours? Do you need crowd control?”
“No, Major, these are my people. It’s okay.”
Bronwyn’s family lived in a long single-story home set into the slope leading up to Hyatt’s Ridge behind it. The yard slanted down to a flat area, where the family parked its vehicles in the shade of a huge pecan tree. Other trees hung over the house, hiding it from the scalding Tennessee sun. A wooden fence blocked off the front yard from the surrounding woods, and a metal gate could be closed at the end of the driveway. It was open now, though, and decorated with an enormous yellow ribbon.
Chloe Hyatt sat in a straight-backed chair on the wooden deck porch, her hands in her lap. She watched the approaching dust cloud over the tops of the trees. “Here they come,” she said.
Chloe wore a simple summer dress with a muted flower pattern, colorful but not gaudy. The spaghetti straps emphasized the strong, straight shoulders she had passed on to her only daughter. Her black hair hung to the middle of her back, held in place with a white ribbon. She had deep smile lines and a hint of crow’s-feet, but otherwise looked like she might be Bronwyn’s older sister rather than her mother. Despite her air of reserve, she radiated health and energy the way all true Tufa women did. It was part of what made them so desirable—and so dangerous.
Deacon stood beside Chloe, dressed in his funeral suit. It was the only one he owned, and it seemed silly to purchase a new one for something as simple as his daughter coming home. Deacon was a tall, hard-bodied man with a set to his jaw that spoke of the determination of Orpheus, while the twinkle in his eye was more Dionysian. Like Chloe, there was something about him that was both immensely attractive and subtly dangerous, although in his case it was mixed with humor so dry, it blew over most people like dust from the road.
Both Chloe and Deacon were full-blooded Tufas. That meant they looked as much like brother and sister as they did husband and wife, even though they were related only tangentially, as people tended to be in small communities. Outsiders often jumped to conclusions that embraced old clichés of mountainfamily inbreeding; Needsville, though, paid the Hyatts the respect their bloodlines inspired, and that their conduct reinforced.
Eight-year-old Aiden watched the trucks approach up the narrow road. He was lanky, his black hair long and unkempt, and he squirmed uncomfortably in his button-down shirt and khakis. He stood at the bottom of the porch steps, practically vibrating with excitement as the first vehicle made the turn into their driveway. Two more pulled in on either side. “Holy shit,” he said.
“You want me to wash that tongue with lye soap, boy, keep up that language,” Deacon said without looking at him. But he agreed with the assessment. They’d watched the parade and speech on television, glad they decided not to meet Bronwyn in town. “You knew it was going to be a big deal.”
“Yessir,” he said, and pointed at the TV news trucks traveling in bumper-touching eagerness behind the final vehicle. “And I also told you we’d need the shotgun.”
Deacon smiled. “Go get it, then. Shut the gate once the army gets through, then keep them TV peckerheads out.”
“Yessir,” Aiden said eagerly, and rushed into the house.
“You sure it’s a good idea to let him use a real gun?” Chloe said.
Deacon shrugged. “He’ll only be shooting reporters. No real loss, far as I can tell. Besides, for every one you shoot, I bet two more pop up.”
“You’re thinking of lawyers,” Chloe deadpanned. Deacon grinned.
Aiden returned with a 16-gauge side-by-side double barrel slung breech-open over his shoulder. His shirttail was already untucked. He rushed down the hill into the dust. Vague shapes moved through it, but none of them seemed to be Bronwyn. Finally four big men emerged onto the yard, pushing something between them.
Chloe stood. “My baby girl,” she said very softly, and hummed a tune only Tufa mothers knew.
Bronwyn gazed around at the familiar yard, with its old swing set and basketball goal off to the side. Eighteen years of her life had been spent here, yet it seemed far less substantial than the events of the past two. She had to struggle to connect the memories with actual emotions. She remembered using the rented Bobcat to level enough ground so she and her friends could actually play ball; then she’d taken off down the road, intending to clear a new path across the hill to her favorite swimming hole. She’d been eleven then, and it must’ve been exciting. Her father had used his belt on her behind seventeen times that day. Had she been angry about that? Or hurt? She couldn’t recall.
“Bronwyn!” Aiden cried as he bounced down the yard toward her. One of the MPs went for his pistol when he saw Aiden’s shotgun, but Bronwyn said quickly, “It’s all right, he’s my little brother.”
Ignoring the big men around her, Aiden was about to jump in her lap and give her a hug when he saw the metal rings and pins on her leg. He skidded to a stop, eyes wide. “Wow,” he gasped. “Does that hurt?”
“It sure don’t feel good,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s better than it was. Come here, you little muskrat.” They hugged as much as the chair allowed.
“Dad wants me to keep out the reporters,” he said breathlessly. “Gave me a shell for each barrel.”
“What a big, strong boy,” Major Maitland said. “You must be Aiden. You can just run on back up to the house, we have men assigned to guard the gate while your sister’s getting settled.”
“And now you have one more,” Bronwyn said when she saw Aiden’s disappointment. “He can help. The squirrels around here tremble at his name. Right?”
Aiden grinned. Maitland bit back his protest and simply nodded.
“See ya,” Aiden said, and dashed past her toward the gate. Reporters, seeing the end of the line, leaped from their vehicles while they were still moving. They were torn between the certainty of speaking to the people along the road, or the chance of possibly catching a glimpse of their quarry. Many opted to dash for the now-closed gate at the end of the drive. Some looked ready to jump the fence, but the stern Tufa faces looking back at them quickly changed their minds.
Bronwyn turned her attention to the house. It looked exactly as she remembered it, as it probably always would. Along the porch awning hung wind chimes that looked like the tacky ones found in a Pigeon Forge tourist gift shop. When the wind touched them and played their tunes, though, any Tufa instantly knew better.
“Bronwyn!” a reporter screamed behind her.
“Private Hyatt!” another demanded. The voices quickly became a cacophony.
“Take me to the gate,” Bronwyn said suddenly, and tried to turn the chair herself.
Maitland used his foot to block the wheel, knelt, and said, “I think you’d be better off ignoring them.”
“I plan to, but I want to say something to them first.” She met Maitland’s gaze with her own resolute one. “Five minutes, sir, to suck up to the press. You surely can’t object to that.”
He sighed and nodded. The MPs pushed her across the grass, onto the gravel, and up to the gate.
Aiden sat astride the barrier, the gun across his knees. He tried to mimic the stoic stare of the soldiers. A dozen reporters, TV cameramen, and regular photographers battled to get close to Bronwyn. The gate rattled as they surged against it.
Bronwyn smiled into the flashes and held up her hands. “Hey! Hey! Y’all want me to talk, you have to shut up a minute!”
Gradually the media grew quiet except for the fake electronic shutter clicks of the digital cameras. When she had them as silent as they were likely to get, she said, “Y’all, please. I’ve been as nice as I could be to you, talking to you and answering your questions, but this—” She gestured behind her. “—is my family’s home. Y’all wouldn’t want me coming to your place and behaving like this, would you? So please, I’m asking nicely. And you, Tom Karpow, you know exactly what I mean. I talked to you for a solid hour on Nightwatch, you can’t say I wasn’t cooperative. Why are you acting like this?”
The anchorman she designated would not meet her eyes, and the other reporters began to look sheepish as well. It was not her brilliant oratory, she knew, but the combined presence of so many Tufas united in one cause.
In the silence a camera clicked, and some turned to glare at the offending photographer.
“Thank y’all for understanding,” Bronwyn said. “As soon as I’m able, I’m sure the army will have me out stumping for the war. In the meantime, the more you let me rest, the faster I’ll be available again.” She turned to Maitland, who was speechless; even he couldn’t handle the press with such ease. She said, “That’s all, sir. The men can take me to the house now.”
The slope up to the house was harder than it looked, and the soldiers pushing her began to breathe hard with the effort. They stopped below the porch steps, and Major Maitland said, “Hello. I bet you’re Bronwyn’s father, Deke. You must be very proud of your daughter, she’s a real American hero.”
Deacon nodded. No one called him Deke. “If I must be, good thing I am. And I’m proud of all my children.”
If Maitland sensed the mockery, he didn’t let it show. He turned to Chloe just as she raised her left hand, palm out, and touched her pinkie and middle finger with her thumb. The gesture was meant for Bronwyn, who felt a shiver of something stir in her numb heart. She raised her own left hand and responded, palm down, index finger curled.
Maitland said, “And this must be her mother. Ma’am, you two could be sisters.”
“Flirt,” Chloe said with no change of expression.
Bronwyn smiled a little more. Maitland was so far out of his depth, he didn’t even realize he was in the swimming pool. “Well, she’s certainly been an inspiration to all of us. Right, gentlemen?”
The MPs voiced a tight chorus of, “Yes sir.” One of them, in fact, had spent five uncomfortable minutes trying to articulate how honored he was to accompany Bronwyn. She had finally thanked him with a kiss on the cheek just to end the awkwardness.
Maitland looked around the porch. “I, ah . . . thought you’d have made arrangements by now for her wheelchair.”
“We have,” Deacon said. “We moved the couch back so she can get around it, and put a runner down so it wouldn’t track up the floor.”
“Well, that’s all important, of course, but I thought there might be a ramp out here to help her get in and out . . . ?”
Deacon nodded at the MPs. “Reckon them boys are strong enough to tote one girl up four steps. We’ll manage after that.”
Maitland continued to smile, but his confusion grew too great to hide. “I’m sure they can, but the government sent you money to—”
“Sent it back,” Deacon said.
“We. Sent. It. Back. You can check. We’ll take care of Bronwyn in our own way. In six months, you won’t recognize her.”
“I’m certain that’s true, but—”
“Major,” Bronwyn broke in. Deacon could string Maitland along for an hour without ever cracking a smile. “I’ll be okay, really. If the fellas can just get me up onto the porch?”
Maitland sighed and motioned to the MPs. They easily lifted the wheelchair and placed it on the porch. Chloe stepped behind it and took the handles. “I appreciate y’all bringing my daughter home,” she said. The gravity in her voice kept the others silent. “And for patching her up. You’re welcome at our table anytime.”
“Why, thank you, ma’am,” Maitland said. A bystander would have thought his graciousness fully genuine.
From the porch Bronwyn could see to the end of the driveway, where the media waved and shouted to get her attention. Her nose itched, but she didn’t want to scratch in case a photograph was taken at that exact instant. WAR HERO PICKS NOSE wouldn’t do much for her dignity. The Tufas along the road moved toward the house, talking softly among themselves. Many of them carried musical instruments.
Chloe found Bronwyn’s hand and threaded its fingers through her own. Bronwyn hadn’t held her mother’s hand in years, and it felt simultaneously alien and comforting. She looked up into the face, so similar to her own, and felt that same tingle in her chest again. It was stronger this time, but still didn’t catch fire.
“When you boys get down to the fence, ask Aiden for permission to open the gate,” Deacon said. “It’ll make him feel big. Besides, if I know him, he’s got them reporters eating out of his hand.”
“Ain’t heard the gun go off,” Chloe said. “That’s a good sign.”
An MP handed over Bronwyn’s crutches, and another deposited two bags of clothes and personal belongings on the porch. “This is all your gear, Private,” he said with a wink.
At least she didn’t intimidate every man she met. “Thanks,” Bronwyn said. To Maitland she added, “And thank you for looking out for me, Major. Doubt we’ll meet again, but I’ll always appreciate what you’ve done.”
He smiled. “I imagine that when the book deals and TV shows come along, you’ll see me again.”
Bronwyn bit back her snide comment; she’d already had innumerable offers for the rights to her life story, for absurd amounts of money. Turning them down had been easy, but of course, everyone around her, including Maitland, thought she was just holding out for more. She let them think so. The truth, her truth, would just confuse them.
She turned to the door. “You do know the wheelchair won’t fit through there with me in it,” she said to Deacon.
He handed her the crutches. “Your arms broke, too?”
“Mr. Hyatt!” Maitland exclaimed. “Look, I know she’s your daughter, and I don’t mean to be rude, but really, is that any way to treat her after all she’s been through?”
Deacon remained impassive. “The bullet went right through her arm, missed the artery and the bone, and it’s healing up fine. Or so the army doctors said.”
“Dad doesn’t believe in coddling, Major,” Bronwyn said with a grin. She slipped the crutches beneath her arms and, with Deacon’s help, pulled herself upright. The pin brace weighed a ton, and maneuvering it was exhausting, but just like the speech, she intended to walk through the door to her home under her own power.
As she crossed the threshold, Chloe hummed a melody older than the mountain they stood on. Like all the Tufa tunes, it was part prayer, part story, and part statement of intent. It signaled to the universe that Bronwyn was once again home, under the protection of the night wind and its riders.
Maitland came down the steps with the MPs behind him. He stopped, looked back at the house, and shook his head.
“Problem, Major?” one of the MPs asked.
“Yeah, there’s a problem. That girl’s wasted fourteen of her fifteen minutes of fame, and doesn’t seem to care.”
“I got family from Kentucky, Major. These mountain folks, they don’t have the same priorities as the rest of the world. I mean, look at ’em—they’d just as soon shoot us as go fishing.”
“Is that what they say in Kentucky?” Maitland asked wryly. He shrugged. “The sentiment’s pretty universal in these parts.” Maitland shook his head. “Well, another thirty days and she’s no longer my problem, or Uncle Sam’s. After that, she’ll get her wish. The world will forget all about her. Then we’ll see how she likes it.”
The men in uniform made their way back to their vehicles and departed.
Inside, Deacon helped Bronwyn settle onto the couch. The living room, with its open-beam ceiling decorated with abstract designs, loomed like a protective hand cupping her. “Thanks, Daddy,” she said. “That major is a real piece of work. You should’ve seen what they made me ride on in town.”
“We did. Watched it on TV. They let you keep the boat?”
She smiled. “I asked them that very same thing.”
Deacon went to the refrigerator and pulled out three bottles of beer. He handed one to Chloe and another to Bronwyn. Her doctors repeatedly instructed her not to mix alcohol with the Vicodin, but they didn’t understand the effect simply being back home would have. No painkillers would be necessary from now on. “I also saw Bliss Overbay in town. She looked awful grim.”
“We’ll talk about that later,” Chloe said.
Bronwyn clinked the neck of her bottle against her father’s. “And ol’ Rockhouse was still sitting on the porch at the post office.”
“Suits me,” Deacon said. “As long as he’s there, everyone can keep an eye on him. It’s when he’s gone that I get antsy.”
Bronwyn nodded and took a drink. One time Rockhouse caught her going down on his nephew Ripple, who was only slightly less handsome than his other nephew Stoney, the unanimously crowned love god of all the Tufa girls. Unlike Stoney, though, Ripple was smart enough to let her know when he was about to finish, which happened to be the exact moment Rockhouse slapped the car top and demanded to know what those goddamned kids were doing. The next few moments had been messy, and terrifying, and exciting, like most of her favorite experiences. But she never forgot the way Rockhouse looked at her as she scrambled to get her shirt back on. Something in that old man left her, and every other Tufa girl, vaguely queasy.
She was about to ask for more gossip when she heard a faint, regular tapping. She glanced at the front window and saw a sparrow perched on the outside sill, pecking against the glass.
Brownyn looked at her father; he’d seen it, too. They both knew what it meant: a family death in the near future.
“You think that’s for me?” she asked softly. She should have been terrified, but she was too numb even for that. “Is that what Bliss was worried about?”
“Just a bird confused by all the ruckus, honey,” Deacon said with all the laid-back certainty he could muster. “Sometimes it don’t mean a thing.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Sometimes.”
Aiden burst through the front door. He propped the shotgun against the wall just as Deacon said, “That gun best be unloaded, son.”
The boy patted the pocket where he carried the shells. “Didn’t have to shoot nobody, dang it.” He saw Bronwyn, and his face lit up. “Hey, can I show her now?”
“Show me what?” Bronwyn asked.
Deacon nodded. “But make it fast. Bunch of people are here to see her.”
“Show me what?” Bronwyn repeated.
Aiden grabbed her crutches. “Come on, you won’t believe it.”
“He’s right,” Deacon said. “You surely won’t.”
Bronwyn’s bedroom door still squeaked at the halfway point. It had squeaked all her life, and betrayed her many times when she’d sneaked out, or in, late at night. She could’ve oiled it, but it had become a point of honor to face this devious hinge, to open and close it so slowly, the squeak did not give her away. And now it renewed its old challenge as she opened the door.
The immediate sight cut short any reverie, though. She balanced on her crutches, shoulder against the doorjamb, and stared.
“I fixed it up for you,” Aiden said breathlessly behind her. “What do you think?”
American flags hung everywhere. The two windows sported flag-patterned curtains, small arrangements of flags and flowers rested on her desk and dresser, and flag banners crossed at the center of the ceiling. A pair of pillows, one with stars and the other stripes, rested on her bed. “Wow, Aiden,” she said at last. “It looks real . . . patriotic.”
He squeezed past her and stood in the center of the room, bouncing proudly. “Had to order them curtains off the Internet. Took all my ’lowance for a month. Was afraid they wouldn’t get here in time. You really like it?”
“I am genuinely surprised,” she assured him. She was also appalled, since that symbol now meant a whole lot of new things to her, most of them ambiguous, a few downright unpleasant. But Aiden didn’t need to know that. If he’d convinced their parents to let him do this, he must’ve really had his heart set on it.
She put the crutches against the wall and carefully eased the two steps to her bed. The weight of the pin brace tried to pull her off balance. She sat heavily, and Aiden plopped down beside her. The bounce sent little needles of pain through her leg, but she held back the gasp.
“Shawn and Bruce say you’re a hero,” Aiden said. “I said you’re a heroine, because that’s what they call a girl hero, isn’t it?”
“Heroin’s what you shoot in your arm in the big city,” she said.
“That’s spelled different. I know, I came in third at the spelling bee.”
“Yeah, well, I’m no hero or heroine. Just a soldier.” The word felt odd in her mouth, and sounded alien now. What exactly did it mean anymore?
“Didn’t you kill ten Iraqis before they captured you?”
She smiled and tousled his hair. “You think I could kill ten people, Aiden? That’s sweet.”
“Well, did you?”
She thought carefully about her words. Aiden had not visited her in the hospital in Virginia, so he hadn’t seen her at her worst, hooked up to more machines than Anakin Skywalker. He still thought of her as his daredevil big sister, and while she no longer wanted the role, she also didn’t want to hurt him. “That’s what they say I did. I got whacked upside the head real good. It makes a lot of things fuzzy. I don’t remember it right now.”
“But you will?”
“Don’t know. Not sure I want to. Killing people for real ain’t like it looks on TV. All that blood has a smell, did you know that? And them bullets, they’re hot; makes the skin where they hit smell a little like cooking bacon.” Her voice had grown soft and quiet. She was describing things she recalled as sensations rather than full-blown memories. She took a deep breath and continued. “Plus sometimes you have to kill someone sitting as close to you as I am. Think you could do that?”
Aiden shrugged. “If he was trying to kill me.”
“So you could kill someone if he’s trying to kill you because you’re trying to kill him because . . .” She trailed off and waited.
His face scrunched up the way it had when he was a puzzled toddler. Affection for him swelled in her; then like every emotion, it found no real purchase and faded back to the numbness. “It sounds complicated,” he said after a minute.
“It is. And it’s supposed to be. It shouldn’t be easy.”
“But you did it.”
She nodded. “If I did it, it was because I was trained to do it, and I gave my word I would.”
He leaned against her, his own arms pressed tight to his side to keep from hurting her. “Glad you’re back,” he said simply.
“Me, too,” she said, and kissed the top of his head.
“Your leg going to be okay?”
“It’s all hairy.”
“Yeah, well, shaving around all this stuff is like mowing around the garden statues in Uncle Hamilton’s yard. Hey, you see where these metal pins go into my skin? I have to put antibiotic cream on them or they’ll get infected, but I can’t reach all of ’em. Reckon you can help me out later?”
His eyes lit up the way a boy’s do when presented with the chance to do something icky. “Heck yeah. How about your arm?”
“Oh, that was nothing. Bullet went right through. Want to see?”
He nodded eagerly. She undid her uniform blouse and pulled it off her shoulder. The gunshot wound was now a puckered, scabbed hole that would shortly fade to a scar. His eyes widened as he leaned around to see the back of her arm with its matching exit wound.
“Wow,” he whispered. “Does it hurt?”
“Compared to my leg? No way. Now, can you do me a favor?”
“Get Magda out from under the bed for me.”
He jumped up, which bounced the mattress again and sent a lightning bolt of pain through her leg, up her spine, and into her skull. She bit back the cry, but sweat broke out all over her. She grabbed the bedspread tight and clenched her teeth.
Oblivious, Aiden pulled the tattered case from beneath the bed. It had once been expensive, and even now only the outside showed signs of age and wear. The buckles were shiny, and when she placed it across her lap and unsnapped them, the green velvet lining was as rich and deep as it had been the day it was made.
But the mandolin inside held her attention. Magda had been built in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1914, according to the history Brownyn had been told when Granny Esme gave her the instrument. She was a Gibson A-5 model, with two sound holes that looked like calligraphied letter f’s parallel to the strings. She was polished to burnished perfection except in places where the finish was worn down to the wood grain, evidence of her nearly century-long use. This was no priceless heirloom to be locked away; Magda had been passed to Bronwyn so she could be used, so the songs embedded in her might grow and be shared.
Granny Esme first played Magda in one of the mandolin orchestras popular at the time the instrument was originally built. It had been something of a scam at first: traveling music peddlers put together small community groups, encouraging the purchase of their wares as a way to participate in the latest fad. But in Cloud County, among the Tufa, the mandolin’s antecedents were already well known, and the merchant was surprised to find families who actually owned Italian mandores. He’d put together a brief tour, sold his entire traveling stock, and moved on. Among old-timers, talk of the Glittering Strings Mandolin Orchestra still passed in whispers, lest the fragile majesty be smirched.
An envelope had been tucked under the strings near the bridge. She opened it and pulled out the card. A generic get-well-soon message was printed on the front; when she opened it, a little speaker played a tinny version of “Another One Bites the Dust.”
“That’s from Kell,” Aiden said.
“I figured,” she said with a wry smile.
The handwritten message inside it read
I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to meet you, but I’m sure everything went well. You’ve always been the toughest person I know; now you’re the toughest person anyone knows. I’m so proud of you, not for joining the army, or for getting shot up, or for killing ten people single-handed; I’m proud of you for coming back to Magda after everything that’s happened. She’s been waiting patiently, just like the night wind.
Love you, baby sister. Now, stop chasing boys, put on some shoes, and act like you’ve been to town before.
She put the card back in its envelope and placed it aside on the bed. Then she returned her attention to Magda.
She lifted the instrument carefully from its case. She felt its weight in her fingertips. It was not fragile, but she hadn’t touched it, touched her, in two years. She no longer trusted herself.
“Mama tuned her for you, restrung her and everything,” Aiden said.
Bronwyn took the mandolin in her arms. She strummed her thumb along the eight steel strings. The sound was pinched and flat.
“Well, that ain’t right,” Aiden said.
“No,” Bronwyn sighed. She stared at the neck, trying to recall the fingering, any fingering, for any song. Nothing came to her.
“What’s wrong?” Aiden asked.
“Maybe I don’t feel like playing,” she snapped.
His eyes opened wide. “For real?” As always, she was unable to sustain any passion, even anger.
“I lost a lot of blood, Aiden. Between that and my skull getting cracked, they said I might have some brain damage that could affect my memory.”
“You have . . .” And he whispered the last two words in amazement. “Brain damage?”
She no longer had the patience to deal with him. “You will, too, if you don’t stop being a shit. Now, get out of here and leave me alone.”
Aiden made a face at her, then jumped up and ran out the door. He collided with her wheelchair, still blocking the hall, and tumbled over it. He lay still for a moment, then hollered, “I’m okay!”
Bronwyn burst out laughing, which sent jolts of pain through her whole body. Aiden stood up, put the chair upright, then scampered away.
Bronwyn shook her head. Aiden had always been impulsive, more like her than he was like their even-tempered older brother, Kell. But he never seemed to have her drive to tweak authority, to crush barriers, and seek out anything forbidden. He’d apparently gotten the best of both his siblings, without their bad qualities. Too bad it took her folks three tries to get it right.
She looked back down at Magda. The instrument felt awkward in her hands, and she couldn’t recall at what angle she used to hold it, or the particular way she liked to place her fingers on the neck prior to playing. The images and feelings were there, but tantalizingly out of reach behind the same fog that mercifully hid the events of her ambush.
She carefully placed the instrument back in its case and closed the lid. Then she looked out the window. Down the hill, reporters still gathered at the gate, no doubt probing the family home with telephoto lenses and special microphones. She smiled; technology was all well and good, but nothing could penetrate a Tufa home without permission. And few homes in Needsville were as thoroughly Tufa as the Hyatts’.
Deacon appeared in the door. “Folks are starting to bring in the food. Hope being famous makes you hungry.” His eyes narrowed. “Why is your uniform open?”
“I was showing Aiden my bullet hole,” she said as she rebuttoned it.
“What did he think?”
“That it was cool.”
“Well, he’s just a boy.”
“And he thinks I’m a hero.”
“You’re not,” Deacon said definitively. “He’ll figure that out. Come on when you’re ready.”
Bronwyn sat with her fingers on the top button of her uniform blouse, staring after her father. She agreed with her father’s assessment, so why did his words sting so painfully? Hadn’t she just told Aiden herself that she wasn’t a hero?
Again something rose in her and faded. She got back on her crutches, hobbled to the wheelchair, and backed it clumsily down the hall.
The kitchen and living room were filled with people, all with identical jet-black hair. The buzz of conversation was offset by the idle plucking of stringed instruments, although no songs announced themselves. The little chips of music flitted through the words like butterflies among trees, with the same semimagical effect. Delicious odors of thick, home-cooked foods filled the air, a striking change from the hospital and military slop she’d grown accustomed to eating.
“Excuse me,” Bronwyn said to the big man blocking the hall. When he stepped aside, a cheer went up, and Bronwyn immediately put on what she called her Meet the Press smile. It wasn’t insincere, but neither was it fully genuine; rather, it did the job the moment required, and she could only hope that it would grow more real with time.
She shook many hands and received many kisses on her cheeks and forehead as she worked her way to the kitchen. At last, exhausted and flanked by her parents, she listened blankly to the well-wishing and thankfulness. The one question she had, though, concerned her older brother, and when there was a break in the festivities, she asked Chloe, “So where is Kell, anyway?”
“He had finals this week,” Chloe said. “He’ll be here come the weekend. Said he might call tonight if he gets a study break.”
Bronwyn smiled. Kell was the master of weighing alternatives, and had no doubt carefully considered all the angles before announcing his intent. Certainly at UT–Knoxville, he’d find it easier to avoid the media carnival in the driveway.
The festivities went on until past nightfall. People began to leave then, and again Bronwyn received many handshakes and kisses. At last Deacon closed the front door, leaving only the Hyatts in their home. “Whew,” he said.
“Nice to be liked,” Bronwyn said, “but it’ll flat wear you out.”
“It’s important they see you,” Chloe said. “You know that.”
She nodded. “I’m a soldier, I’m used to doing what’s good for the group.”
“You’re not a soldier anymore,” her father said.
Bronwyn knew what he meant. The Tufa left Cloud County at their peril. Depending on how much true Tufa blood they had, all their protection, and all their strength, could be stripped away by distance and time. She knew her father believed that was why she’d been hurt, and for all she knew, he was right. But on this point he was also wrong. “I’m still in the army, Dad, I’m just on leave. My enlistment’s not up for another month, and with all the stop-loss policies in effect, they may not let me out.”
“You’ll be let out,” Chloe said. “If you want to be.” She dropped an armload of beer bottles into the garbage and looked evenly at her daughter. “Do you?”
Bronwyn couldn’t hold the gaze. Chloe, in that elliptical Tufa way, was asking about a lot more than her career plans. “I don’t know, Mom.”
“Will they let you fight again?” Aiden asked eagerly, then yawned.
At that moment the wind nudged one of the porch chimes. Its notes should have been random, but instead they were the first notes of a song every Tufa knew:
The moon shines bright
And the winds alight
On the rocky pinnacle of home
Nowhere but here
Is the wind so near
To the song deep in my bones
“I don’t know,” Bronwyn repeated.
In the twilight, Deacon and Aiden walked down the hill toward the gate. Three vans and a dozen people were still there, their huge lights drawing clouds of eager insects. All the camera lenses swung toward them as they approached, and questions flew at them.
“Is Bronwyn planning to return to the army?”
“Does she remember being shot?”
“Can she tell us how many people she remembers killing?”
Deacon calmly put up his hands. His left one curled his pinkie and ring finger into his palm, making a variation of a peace sign. When the reporters paused to hear his answers, he said, “Y’all just calm down, we brought you some leftover brownies and we’d like to ask you to be a little quieter so Bronwyn can rest. It’s been a heck of a day.”
The bombardment began again instantly, and he simply stood there, hands up, smiling benignly. It took a moment, but one by one, the most persistent of the reporters fell silent, and looked away in something very much like shame. The big lights were switched off, and they were plunged into darkness while their eyes adjusted. The insects attracted to the glow flitted away into the night.
“Thank you,” Deacon said. “Aiden, hand out them goodies, will you?”
Aiden took the pan of brownies to the fence and handed them across the aluminum gate to the reporters. As he did so, he hummed a tune his mother taught him, so softly, none of the reporters had any idea they were even hearing it. The first to sample the brownies responded with an enthusiastic “Mmmm!” and the others quickly followed suit. Once they’d all tasted them, Deacon dropped his left hand and held out his right with the thumb across the palm, as if indicating the number four.
“Hope y’all enjoy those,” he said. “And please, let my daughter get some rest for the next few days. She won’t be hard to find once she gets back on her feet, and if she remembers anything, I’m sure she’ll want to tell about it.”
The reporters all left within fifteen minutes. Many of them felt a combination of sudden, inexplicable guilt at their scavengerlike scrambling after the story; those without the moral capacity for such feelings, and because of that unprotected by the magic in the Tufa song, dealt with more prosaic digestive issues brought on by Chloe’s brownies. Nothing so crude as poison had been used, merely the kind of intent a true Tufa could sing into anything, even cooking.
Chloe helped Bronwyn undress and use the bathroom, then bathed her with a sponge. Finally she helped her into a clean T-shirt with the Tennessee Titans logo across the front. “You’ve put on some weight,” was her mother’s only observation about her daughter’s shattered, stitched, and scarred body.
“Yeah, well, hard to jog when you’ve got this cell phone tower wrapped around your leg,” Bronwyn said as she leaned on Chloe’s shoulder and maneuvered to the bed. She sat heavily, then reclined as her mother carefully positioned her leg. The ceiling above her was comforting and familiar, even with the flag banners dangling from it.
“You’ll be out of that thing in a week, you know,” Chloe said as she adjusted the pillows.
Bronwyn nodded. “I won’t mind, believe me.” She certainly looked forward to seeing the look on the doctors’ faces when they saw how quickly she healed now that she was home.
“Aiden asked if you needed him to sleep on the floor in here. In case you had nightmares.”
Bronwyn smiled. “Yeah, he’s suddenly my bodyguard. Good thing you didn’t bring him up to the hospital.”
Chloe lit a candle on the bedside table. It was homemade, and laced with something that quickly filled the room with a softly pungent aroma. It took Bronwyn a moment to recognize it.
“That’s heather,” she said, frowning. “What’s it for?”
“You’ll have company later,” Chloe said. “A haint.”
Bronwyn sat up straight. She remembered Bliss in town, and the bird tapping at the window. “Now, wait a minute—”
“It is what it is,” Chloe snapped. “Talking to me about it won’t make any difference. Talk to it.”
“Does it have anything to do with the death omen I saw today?”
“What death omen?” Chloe asked almost mockingly.
Bronwyn knew when her mother was hiding something behind sarcasm, and said, “Bird pecking at the window trying to get in.”
“Birds can get confused just like anything else.”
“Yeah, that’s what Daddy said.”
“He’s a smart man.” The two women looked into each other’s
eyes; finally Bronwyn sighed and turned away. Chloe placed the candle on the windowsill. “The candle should draw the haint here shortly.”
Bronwyn flopped back on the pillow. “Not tonight. Hell, Mom, I’m exhausted.”
Chloe chewed her lip thoughtfully. “Reckon you have a point. But you can’t put it off too long. It’s been coming around for a week already.” She blew out the candle and took it with her as she turned off the light and went out the door.
Bronwyn lay in the dark, staring at the ceiling. The flag banners rippled slightly in the breeze through the open window. She glanced over and saw the ragged piece of blue glass on the sill, protection against the uninvited. No haint could pass that, even one summoned by the smell of heather. But haints, she knew, had all the time in the world.
Death omens didn’t, though. They appeared only when the end of someone’s life was in the near future. Chloe’s harsh reaction told Bronwyn that this wasn’t the first one, either. The question was always, whom were they meant for?
There was a song, a short little ditty that Tufa children used to make wishes on the night wind, hovering just beyond Bronwyn’s consciousness. If she could’ve called it forth, she would ask the wind for clarity, and for an explanation. She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to bring it forward.
She was asleep within moments.
Craig Chess watched some of the TV vans pull into the Catamount Corner parking lot while the rest continued on out of town. All the motel’s rooms were booked, and Peggy Goins was making a small fortune with her special “media rates.” As Craig sipped his coffee, the reporters rushed up the stairs to their rooms as if their feet were on fire. Some held their stomachs as if they might not make it to the bathroom.
The Fast Grab convenience store was new in town, built on a lot catty-corner across from the motel. Two picnic tables were set into the concrete patio outside. At the moment only Craig sat there, although earlier he’d had the pleasure of hearing two different men on cell phones explain to their wives how nothing was going on with their pretty young interns. He could’ve gone home hours ago, but he just couldn’t tear himself away from the chance to encounter more examples of the worst humanity could offer. A minister, he reasoned, had to know the enemy in order to combat it.
That was the other reason he’d stayed in Needsville long after the parade. He needed to know these people by sight and name if they were ever to trust him. For the last two Saturdays, he’d hung out at the Fast Grab, speaking with the clerks and any willing customers. There had not been many.
He’d known coming into this assignment that he’d been given an almost impossible task: ministering to a people with no interest at all in his faith. It wasn’t missionary work, because missionaries brought other things, food or medicine or money, to use as tangible spiritual bait. Craig could offer the Tufa nothing but his own sincerity.
The last person out of the news vans, a young man with a ponytail and a small bar through his septum, walked over to the store. He was clearly not an on-camera personality, but one of the myriad support staff who made sure the reporters looked their best. He sat down across the table from Craig and said without preliminaries, “Can I ask you something?”
“You just did,” Craig said.
The man laughed and pointed at him. “Hey, good one. No, seriously, though. You live here, right?”
“What the fuck is up with this place? I mean, I spent some time in Europe when I was in college, and the people in this town are like freakin’ Gypsies or something. Gypsies with great teeth, that is. Is that why they call them the Tootha?”
“Tufa,” Craig corrected. “And it’s a real mystery, all right. Nobody knows how they got here, but they’ve been in this area, mainly in this very valley, as long as anyone can remember. In fact, when the first white settlers came over the mountains headed west, the Tufa were already here.”
“And they never left, is that it?”
Craig shrugged. Before accepting this position, he’d done lots of research, but the gaps and questions far outweighed the facts. The contemporary Tufa claimed no knowledge of their origins, and some of the stories other people told about them were too absurd to accept. Depending on whom you believed, they were a lost tribe of Israel, a relic population from Atlantis, or descendants of mutinous Portuguese sailors marooned off the Carolina coast by Columbus. These wilder theories kept away any serious researchers, and that seemed to suit the Tufa just fine. “Not too many leave, no. And from what I hear, most everyone who leaves eventually comes back.”
“Like Bronwyn Hyatt?”
“Don’t know her, so I can’t say.”
The man blatantly looked Craig over, noting his sandy brown hair. “Are you . . . one of them?”
“No, I’m from Arkansas. Just moved here about six weeks ago with my job.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a minister.”
The man immediately looked down and away like a guilty child. Craig knew this reaction, had seen it often among Yankees or other people who spent little time in church. He couldn’t imagine that a TV news technician knew much about religion except for what he saw on television, and that was enough to give anyone pause. The man said, “Really? Wow, that must be some job. I mean, with the souls and all. . . .”
Craig smiled. “Relax. I left my brimstone in my working pants.”
“No, I mean, it’s . . . well. Thanks for the info, padre.” He offered his hand. “See ya around.”
“And the Lord will see you,” Craig said in a mock-ominous voice. The man hurried back to the motel without looking over his shoulder to see Craig’s grin.
Alone again, Craig drank the last of his coffee and considered heading home. The street was littered with debris from the parade; there were no real civic institutions, and each person was responsible for keeping up his or her own property. Since half the buildings along the highway were abandoned, the wrappers, plastic bottles, and cigarette butts might stay indefinitely. It made the place look especially pathetic, and even the mountains silhouetted against the fading sunset couldn’t erase the sense that all the life had been leeched from the town.
Craig crumpled his cup and tossed it into the garbage can, then went inside. The girl behind the counter, Lassa Gwinn, was heavyset, dark eyed, and very clearly smitten with the handsome young minister. Just out of high school, with both the distinctive Tufa look and the heritage of her particularly nasty clan (sympathetic locals had warned Craig to avoid the Gwinns whenever they came to town), she seemed to Craig like a buttercup blooming from a manure pile. Because her crush on him was so obvious, he tried to walk the line between being a supportive clergyman and leading the poor girl on.
She hummed a tune and plucked on a crude, homemade autoharp. Since selling him the coffee, she’d pulled back her hair and applied eyeliner. When she saw him she immediately turned red. “Hey, preacher,” she mumbled.
“I told you, Lassa, you can call me Craig.” The melody was a minor-key ditty with one of those inevitable progressions that, even though he’d never heard it before, made it sound instantly familiar. “What song is that?”
She almost answered. Her mouth opened, she took a breath to speak, but then her lips clamped shut and she looked up at him with a mixture of shame and aching regret. Her blush intensified. “No song,” she said. “Just me picking on strings.”
“It sure was pretty.”
“Well, I ain’t no musician,” Lassa said.
“You could’ve fooled me. Can you read music?”
Before she could reply, the front door slammed open, making Craig jump. A tall, lanky young man with a white cowboy hat strode through. He had the belligerent swagger of someone used to provoking fights, and the grin of someone who usually won them. He announced, “The night’s got my name on it, baby.”
“Hey, Dwayne,” Lassa muttered without looking at him.
“How’s things in Needsville tonight, Miss Lassa?” he called as he went to the beer cooler.
“Same as always,” she replied.
The man pushed past Craig with neither apology nor acknowledgment. He was so broad-shouldered, Craig could’ve hidden behind him. He put a boxed twelve-pack on the counter. “And a pack of Marlboros, too,” he said.
Lassa put the autoharp down and nudged a stepstool with her foot so she could reach the cigarettes. “Were you at the parade for your old girlfriend today?”
“Naw, I ain’t into that shit. Bunch of fuckin’ rubberneckers thinkin’ they’re seeing a goddamned hero.” He tore open the cigarette pack, pulled one out, and lit it at once. “She ain’t no hero. ’Scept when she’s on her back,” he added with an abrasive laugh.
Lassa blushed anew at his crudeness. She took his money, gave him his change, and watched him leave. He never even glanced at Craig. He climbed into a jacked-up ten-year-old Ford pickup and roared off, deliberately spinning tires so that loose gravel sprayed onto the store’s concrete patio.
Craig breathed through his nose long enough to get his temper under control, then said casually, “And just who was that?”
“That was Dwayne Gitterman,” Lassa said. “Bronwyn Hyatt’s old boyfriend.”
“No kidding. Didn’t sound like they parted on good terms.”
“She went off to the army without telling him.” Then Lassa seemed to self-censor and added, “Or so I heard. Probably wrong, though.”
“Why wouldn’t she tell him? Was she afraid of him?”
Lassa laughed. “Not hardly. I guess she just didn’t want the damn drama.”
“Seems like an unpleasant young man.”
“He’s an asshole. And he knows it. But he’s too tough for most anyone to do anything about it.”
“Except Bronwyn Hyatt?”
“Yeah, ’scept her, that’s for certain.”
Craig smiled. “That’s the thing about guys who think they’re tough: Eventually they always meet someone tougher. If he didn’t learn his lesson from Bronwyn, there’ll be another on down the line.”
As Dwayne’s taillights dwindled in the night, a Tennessee State Police cruiser pulled up to the store. The trooper got out and gazed after Dwayne as if contemplating pursuit. Then he sauntered, in that distinctive lawman way, into the store.
He was a big square-headed man with short hair and a mustache shot through with gray. His eyes were cold, like an attack dog waiting for someone to cross some unseen line. He gave Craig an appraising look. “Evening.”
Craig nodded. The trooper’s little metal name tag said PAFFORD. “Evening.”
“Don’t believe I’ve seen you in town before. You with them reporters?”
“No, sir,” Craig said, deliberately deferential. He’d met plenty of state troopers, and knew better than to get on their bad side. One minister in Cookeville got a ticket every Sunday for six weeks because he asked a trooper to stop cursing at his children in Walmart. “I’m Reverend Chess, of the Triple Springs Methodist Church.”
Pafford’s expression changed from intimidation to respect. He offered one huge hand. “Pleased to meet you, Reverend. My family and I attend the Methodist Church in Unicorn under Reverend Landers.”
“I know him well,” Craig said. “He’s been a big help to me in getting started.”
“Excuse me,” Pafford said, and turned to Lassa. “Did Dwayne Gitterman seem drunk to you?”
She shook her head. “No, sir, he bought some beer, but I didn’t smell any on him.”
He nodded, although his frustration was evident. “That’s still violating his parole, but I’d never catch him now. Dwayne never should’ve got out of the pen. He’s just marking time until he goes back. Same thing for his girlfriend, that damn Hyatt girl.”
“The war hero?” Craig asked, feigning ignorance.
“War hero.” Pafford snorted. “Wouldn’t surprise me if it turns out that her giving somebody a hand job was the real reason for that crash in Iraq in the first place. She’s from a good family, but not all black sheep are boys. Do you know what they used to call her around here?”
Again Craig innocently shook his head.
“The Bronwynator. Because she tore up everything good and decent anywhere around her. I used to think ol’ Dwayne led her into it, but he’s been pretty good since she’s been gone. Now I reckon it was her prodding him.”
“Well, she doesn’t seem in any condition to be causing any trouble now, judging from what I saw on TV.”
“Ah, them Tufas heal up faster than mud gets on new dress pants. No offense, Lassa, you know what I mean.”
Lassa shrugged. “That’s not really an insult.”
“But mark my words, with Dwayne out of jail and Bronwyn home, it’s just a matter of time before they get together again and start making trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?” Craig asked.
“Dwayne deals pot and drives that damn truck like a maniac. He got sent up for robbing a convenience store a lot like this one. And before she went in the army, that Bronwyn spent more time on her knees than a preacher.” He suddenly turned red along his neck and ears. “I mean, er . . . no offense, Reverend.”
“None taken,” Craig said, keeping his casual smile.
Pafford leaned close. “These Tufas, though . . . they’re like some goddamn cult or something, if you ask me. Always shutting up just when they’re about to let something slip. If they start coming to your church, you better watch that your collection plate doesn’t come back lighter than it left.”
“I’ll do that.” His smile was harder than ever to hold.
Pafford excused himself, went back to his car, and drove away. Lassa said, “There are days I wish somebody would just shoot him.”
“Why is that?”
“He pulled over my cousin’s family two years ago. They had a little pointer puppy with them that got out. He shot it. Claimed it was attacking him. With its milk teeth, I guess. Came in here laughing about how my cousins were all crying.”
“Man like that must have a lot of pain inside.”
“No, a man like that puts all his pain on the outside where people can see it. Like he’s singing a song for everyone to hear, even though he knows he can’t carry the tune, and dares someone to tell him to shut up.” Then she began changing the paper in the credit card machine.
“Hey, Don, you’re part Tufa, ain’t you?”
Don Swayback looked up from his computer, quickly minimizing the Internet browser window he had open. He started each day with the blogs of a group of UT coeds; it was his own private sorority, and if he ever paused to think about it, he’d realize how pathetic it was for a man his age. But these days he wasn’t much into thinking. “Beg your pardon?”
Sam Howell, owner and editor of the Unicorn, Tennessee, newspaper The Weekly Horn, stood up rather than repeat the question. The office, such as it was, was located in a small Main Street storefront between the antique mall and State Farm Insurance. It was cramped, hot, and surprisingly noisy, with the smell of thousands of cigarettes soaked into the ancient wood and carpet. A job at a paper like this meant you were just starting out in journalism, or your career was essentially over. Since Don was thirty-four, a little overweight, and a lot apathetic, his trajectory was obvious. Especially to Don.
“You’re kin to those Cloud County Tufas in some way, aren’t you?” Sam said as he walked around his desk. “Fifth cousin twice removed by marriage or something?”
Sam was a big man, a native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with a slate gray crew cut and faded navy tattoos on his arms. He’d served in Viet Nam, and while there had freelanced for Stars and Stripes. This led him to journalism after his tour, and now he owned the paper he’d first started with back in the seventies. Not that there was much left to own, since circulation dropped regularly. Still, every week, Sam managed to squeeze out a new edition, often with all the copy written by him and Don.
“There’s a Tufa in the woodpile of just about everyone between the Tennessee River and the Carolina border, Sam,” Don said. “What about it?”
“Yeah, but you look like ’em. You got the hair and the teeth.”
“Sam, it’s seven o’clock in the morning and I haven’t finished my first cup of coffee yet. Say what you mean.”
Sam rolled one of the office chairs over to Don’s desk and sat down. He leaned close in that paternal way that always set Don’s teeth on edge. “I was just looking at your photographs from the parade over in Needsville yesterday. They weren’t very good.”
Don sighed and shrugged. “The national media had all the good spots, Sam. There were a lot of people there.”
“I know, Don, that’s why it was news. It looks to me like you were there for ten minutes, shot so many pictures you hoped one would turn out, then left.”
Don said nothing; that was exactly what he had done.
“That’s not really acceptable professional behavior, Don. This was a big deal, and now I have to pay to use a newswire photo. That doesn’t make me happy.”
“I’m really sorry,” Don said, hoping it sounded genuine.
“I know you are, and that’s why I’m giving you a chance to make up for it. I want an exclusive interview with Bronwyn Hyatt, and I want you to get it.”
Don frowned. “Because I have black hair and good teeth.”
“That’s oversimplifying it, Don. You’re a good reporter when you’re interested in what you’re covering, which ain’t very often these days, let’s face it. I’d like to think that a cute little war hero might be enough to get your attention.”
“I don’t know what’s most insulting in that statement, Sam.”
“Truth is truth, Donny-Boy. You’re slacking, and you know it. We both know you didn’t go to that softball game last week, you wrote the story from the postgame stats the coach gave you. Now this is something to get your teeth into. You want it or not?”
“If you’re trying to charm my pants off, Sam, you better buy me dinner first. You’re the veteran here; it makes more sense for you to go talk to her.”
Sam shook his head. “Different world, different war. I was drafted and did my time; this girl signed up on her own. Now, I know you don’t approve of the war, but I hope you can put that aside enough to see that there’s a good story here.”
“It’s a story everyone in creation already knows. For a week she was on every channel at least once an hour. What could I possibly ask her that no one else has thought of?”
Sam spread his hands. “See? That’s the challenge. Are you up to it?”
Don sighed. Once he’d been eager, and hungry, for a story like this. Then, over time, he’d understood that every story, even the good ones, was as transitory as a breath. But he was in debt up to his eyeballs, and needed insurance to cover his cholesterol medicine. “Sure, I’ll give it a shot. You got any contact information?”
“None at all.”
“So you haven’t talked to her or her family, or anything?”
“Nothing.” Sam put one big hand on Don’s shoulder and shook him in what was meant to be brotherly camaraderie. “Show me what you got, Don. Seriously. Knoxville’s got a big ol’ school of journalism, and everyone that comes through it ends up looking for a job.”
He gave him one last shake for emphasis, then went back to his desk.
Don sighed and opened a new browser window. He entered Bronwyn Hyatt into the search engine and began accumulating background information.
“Who wants to see me?” Bronwyn said, her mouth still full of half-chewed biscuit.
“The Right Reverend Craig Chess,” Deacon repeated. He’d finished his own breakfast and was enjoying both his coffee, and his daughter’s dismay. He wore overalls and a UT Volunteers baseball cap. “He’s waiting on the porch.”
“And who the hell is the Right Reverend Craig Chess?”
“He’s the preacher at the new Methodist church.”
Bronwyn’s eyes opened wide. “There’s a Methodist church in Cloud County?”
“Near as. Right over the county line on Highway 70 going toward Morristown.”
She knew the location. It was the closest spot to Needsville where a church might be built, since no Christian churches would ever succeed in Cloud County. Still, who did this lunatic think would attend his church? Even across the border in Mackenzie County there were few people who weren’t Baptist, certainly not enough to maintain a whole church.
And why on earth was he coming to see her? Did he want her autograph? Did he want her to speak to his congregation? “It’s seven o’clock in the morning, Dad.”
“Reckon he knows farmers get up early,” Deacon said.
“That reminds me,” Chloe said, then called out, “Aiden! School bus stop, now!”
“This is crazy,” Bronwyn said to no one in particular.
“I can invite him in,” Chloe said. She wore her hair loose, and it made her look particularly vital. She was clad in old jeans with the knees worn through and a gray army tank top Bronwyn had given her the previous Christmas. “Or I can send him on home. But you should make up your mind before the dirt daubers start building nests on him.”
“Fucking hell,” Bronwyn muttered. She laboriously hauled herself upright on her crutches, then hobbled to the front door. She emerged onto the porch and squinted into the morning sunlight. She saw no one to the left beneath the awning, then turned to the right.
She would’ve gasped out loud had her teeth not been clenched against the pain of movement.
The man standing there was just shy of six feet, with short brown hair and scholarly glasses. He had broad shoulders and a narrow waist that his jeans and polo shirt showed off to great effect. When he saw her he smiled, and she flashed back to Lyle Waggoner’s teeth twinkling in the credits of the old Wonder Woman TV show. The morning sun outlined him like a saint in an icon painting.
“Ms. Hyatt,” he said, and even his voice was a turn-on, smooth and just deep enough. “I’m Craig Chess.” He offered his hand. “It’s an honor to meet you. Hope it’s not too early to come visiting.”
“Hi,” she managed to squeak out. Her legs wobbled in a way that had nothing to do with her injuries. Suddenly she felt hugely self-conscious, with her unwashed hair pulled haphazardly back and a baggy T-shirt that hung to her knees. She awkwardly tugged the bottom hem down, tearing it free from where it had snagged on the leg pins, to hide the fact that she hadn’t put on any shorts. And when was the last time she’d shaved her good leg?
“Thank you for seeing me. I know after yesterday you must be tired of all the attention.”
She could only nod. Parts of her that had not responded to anything in months were waking up and announcing themselves.
“Do you need to sit down?” he asked, concerned.
She shook her head. Her mouth was too dry for words.
“I won’t keep you, but I wanted to tell you, I’m available if you ever need anything before you get back on your feet. Or after, of course. I can drive you into town, pick things up for you, whatever.”
This broke through her sex-deprived stupor. “Wait, you’re offering to be my chauffeur?”
“Or run any errands you need.”
“I’m not a Methodist, Reverend.”
“No, but you’re a person in my parish who might need some help. I’m not trying to convert you, I promise. It’s just part of my job.”
“How noble of you,” she said dryly. Her physical responses couldn’t entirely overwhelm her cynicism.
“Bronwyn,” Deacon said softly, warningly. She hadn’t realized he stood just inside the screen door watching them.
“Okay, I’m sorry, I’ll take you at face value, then. Thank you. But really, I don’t need anything. Mom and Dad can do my errands, and I’m getting more and more self-sufficient all the time. I’ll have this getup off my leg so fast, you won’t believe it.”
Craig nodded. “That’s fine. You’re lucky to have such a supportive family around you. But may I ask you something a bit . . . esoteric?”
“What about your spirit?”
She blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“You’ve been through a lot, to put it mildly. Things like that often make people reevaluate their relationship with God.” He said this with no irony, and no trace of sarcasm. Perversely, this made him even hotter. “If you want to talk, I’ll listen. And I won’t offer advice unless you ask.”
“We take care of our own,” Deacon said to save Bronwyn the embarrassment. He spoke with no hostility, yet firmly enough to discourage any disagreement. “What we believe is private, and we worship in our own way.”
Craig nodded. “I certainly respect that, Mr. Hyatt.” He turned to Bronwyn. “But my offer to help, in any way, stands. I left my phone number with your father.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Really.” The cynical side of her nature reflected that, once you’ve been on TV, everyone was your friend. Even smoking-hot young ministers. And the help she wanted from him at that precise moment was luckily made impossible, or at least prohibitively awkward, by her injured leg.
He smiled. “I figure you’ve been buried under enough platitudes, so I won’t add to the pile. But it really is an honor and a pleasure to meet you. And—” There was just the slightest hesitation, as if he were debating adding the next comment. “—it would be a pleasure even without everything that’s happened to you.”
He nodded to Deacon and walked down the porch steps toward his car, an older-model Altima. It was, of course, white.
“Seems like a nice boy,” Deacon said.
“Yeah,” Bronwyn agreed, wondering if there was a special circle of the Christian hell for women who admired a preacher’s ass.
She needed more coffee.
Craig turned onto the highway and headed toward Needsville, but his thoughts were nowhere near the road. They remained back at the old house built into the side of the hill, where he’d just met a girl who affected him more quickly and intensely than any he’d ever encountered. Even Lucy, his first love, had not struck him straight through the heart with the urgency of this black-haired young woman.
And yet he couldn’t identify what about her had done it. She was almost ten years younger, from a completely different background, and entirely uninterested in the things that defined his life. She was world famous, for heaven’s sake, and for the rest of her life would be “that girl rescued in Iraq.” No doubt there was some young soldier out there just waiting for leave to come visit her, probably another Tufa or at least someone familiar with their ways and approved of by her family. If he didn’t get himself under control, Craig might be fated for a backwoods beating by a bunch of angry Tufa cousins in the near future.
And yet . . .
Those eyes. That dark hair falling from its tie in wild, loose strands around her face. Those lips, unadorned yet still full and delicious. And that voice . . .
He sighed. There was a time and place for everything, and this was neither. Craig was not a virgin; he’d been called to the ministry as a young adult, so he’d sowed his share of wild oats, and knew any future sex would have to wait until he found a woman he truly wanted to be his wife. He’d dated several women since deciding to be a minister, and almost married one of them. He could acknowledge the attraction, accept it, and yet not let it control his life.
But he could not understand why it had to be a battered, barely grown war hero from an obscure ethnic group. What, he thought half-seriously, was the Good Lord smoking?
Copyright © 2011 Alex Bledsoe
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