"I thought you were staying in town until six," Kate said, crossing to the porch.
"'Caught a ride early," Alec mumbled, shifting his body uneasily.
At the top of the steps, Kate hesitated. "What's happened?"
Even Timble could tell that something had gone wrong. Some cue in Alec's posture and appearance spoke to him, the way he held himself at right angles to them on the porch swing, his rumpled clothing. Then, when the boy turned towards them, Timble saw it clearly: a blue shadow fell across the left side of Alec's face, the imprint of a hand that had managed to put out all the light of the past few weeks. In its place was something else, something beaten and cold.
When Kate drew in her breath, Alec moved quickly to cut her off.
"Just keep away--both of you," he blurted, darting behind the swing. "It doesn't hurt. I'm fine."
Timble caught the raw edge in his son's voice, the quick dismissal in the way Alec jerked his head towards the spot where he was standing. Apparently Kate had, too, for she stopped still in her tracks.
"Besides, there's nothing you can do," Alec said, quietly.
Kate dug methodically in the lumpy soil along the garden fence. In a basket beside her lay the broken remains of her work, bulbs that would never bloom. The earth had concealed far more of them than she'd imagined --so many that she wondered if it was worth going on. Nothing she did could stop their spreading, take her mind off what had happened: Alec's face before he turned away, his shoulders stooped with the heaviness of adolescence as he shuffled across the back yard.
It had been just a kid thing--boys jostling each other in front of a female audience, jockeying for position, pushing for all the prestige they could score. That much she and Timble had been able to gather. And then, one moment, one terrible moment of violence had taken away all the fun, all the joy. "He must have fallen hard," she'd said, struggling to make her voice sound normal when she finally turned to Timble.
"I guess that would do it," was
all he said.
For a while afterwards, they'd stood there on the porch watching Alec in the backyard, kicking stones, stabbing sticks into the earth along the edge of the garden. Finally he'd bolted down the hill and across the meadow.
"What happens now?" Timble said when the boy vanished into the forest.
It seemed strange to her, strange that he'd had to ask given the fact that she'd seen Timble take the same path dozens of times.
"He'll stay away until he doesn't
feel so bad, until all this blows over in his mind." And
then, more for herself than in response to his question, she
added something else. "I've heard it helps to keep moving."
Now, crouched on her hands and knees in her garden, she knew it was a lie. A lie as big as any she'd ever tried to believe. Nothing could help. Nothing could stem the parade of memories that came to her: Joannie and Timble at New Years, the way they'd looked dancing at the club, the way heads had turned to follow them as they crossed the floor. And her father. She remembered him now, as he'd really been on that afternoon so many years earlier. The way he'd only had eyes for the boys--never for her. The way his approval at the end, a thing she'd worked for, had come down to a function of biology.
"You've borne beautiful sons . . . nothing can compare to watching them like this . . . the pride I feel," he'd said. And she'd believed him, believed the smile her father tossed in her direction. She'd let the look in his eyes fool her as they watched the boys racing behind Timble, racing to keep up with the shadow their kites sent sliding across the meadow. Her beautiful boys, she thought, hacking at the earth with her trowel. The cruelest trick of all. Alec, whom she'd once been able to hold, now untouchable--changed in one terrible afternoon, the one she'd tried to banish from her thoughts for three years. Today it had come home to laugh at her. She couldn't blot it out anymore, couldn't forget what she'd seen at the edge of the meadow when Alec brought them running--the way the kite still fluttered at the top of the tallest aspen, the wild flowers reduced to a carpet of crushed blossoms and broken stems where Peter lay. And his face when she turned him over. They'd both seen, she and Timble: the stain already blooming across his brow; the awful smile that, in an instant, had aged him far beyond his eleven years. There had been no need to open his mouth, no point in trying to push the breath back into him. No need in all the world, she thought, clawing the stubborn bulbs from the ground, that could make a difference.
Suddenly she felt spent, too beaten to go on. Everything such a waste, such a dream to think she could come back to this place and feel whole again. The taste of salt made her ill. Her eyes, brimming over from sweat, were on fire; her head, swimming. Kate caught herself on outstretched arms, on fists that dug into dirt. Not at all like Peter's fall.
"He never felt a thing," they'd been told afterwards. There was nothing anyone could've done, nothing she could do. Nothing now, except wait for the moment to pass; except wait for her lungs to open again--and the first cool breeze that would bring relief.
Timble started up the Prospect trailhead. What he'd seen made standing still impossible.
Rounding the corner of the house, he'd come upon her in the garden, seen Kate fall over her arms, and the sight had been too much for him. Only when the breeze from the approaching storm reached her had she been able to recover. He'd watched her do it, watched from a distance as her shoulders moved back again, as she took up the trowel and went back to work, slower for what it cost her. Shaken, he'd backtracked away from her, and now, as he headed up the trail, he recognized the implications of the pattern.
Sheltered by the outcroppings just above the old mine site he would be able to look down across the valley and watch as the thunderstorm, drawn by invisible currents, rolled by like an angry pageant. He'd done it dozens of times. Once a forest ranger had tried to explain the phenomenon to him, the trick of nature that usually swept the storms down and away from the summit. Something to do with prevailing wind patterns in the upper atmosphere during summer months.
Instead of trying to remember, he increased his pace. Thunder had already begun rumbling across the mountains on the other side of the valley. Always before the distant spectacle had been enough to calm him, to stop his mind from probing into corners better left undisturbed. But today was different.