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My brother’s bomb explodes at 10:16 on a late April Sunday morning.
I don’t know. I’m a hundred and fifty miles northwest, in the house he and I share. I’ve just taped together the first cardboard moving box, and it sits on the hardwood before me, yawning empty.
Later, I’ll imagine the explosion with such regularity and intensity the details become etched in my mind alongside my own memories, sharp-edged and indelible. I’ll be hounded by those details, haunted. The shattering glass, thousands of jagged pieces slicing the air, capturing and fracturing the light. The enormity of the sound, the brute physicality of it, and then its numbing absence. The clouding dust, the crumbling rubble. The blood.
But at 10:16, I know nothing. Packing my biggest problem.
Twelve injured, one critically. A child, the daughter of the pastor of the church across the street from the bomb. Services barely begun, only the first hymn sung, the first reading spoken. The child’s father prays over her for the three minutes it takes her to lose consciousness, for the four minutes more it takes the paramedics to arrive. He cradles her as he prays, and he’ll find flecks of red on his skin and under his nails for days afterward. So much blood, he will say. So fast.
I don’t know any of this. There’s no tingle at the back of my neck, no sudden catch of breath at the moment of detonation. I have no idea. None, until the radio cuts off the newest country star in the midst of his climb up the weekly countdown, replaces his easy twang with the clipped voice of a reporter. If my gut contracts when I hear the word courthouse, it is only because we got bad news there not long ago. If I try calling Samuel’s cell phone, and then try again, and again, it is simply because a person wants to talk to family after a disaster like this, and he is the only family I have. And if what I feel when the knock comes and I open the door to the sheriff is not exactly surprise … well, that’s just the shock.
* * *
Jo, what can I say to you?
* * *
“You heard about what happened down in Elk Fork?”
I’ve known Sheriff Cody Hawkins all my life. His son was Samuel’s best friend when they were young, and for that reason Hawkins has always seemed as much a family friend as an agent of the law. When I was a girl, he was the first to confirm my mother’s death, to say aloud what I already knew.
“The radio said there was an explosion.” The final word a whisper, the syllables reluctant to leave my lips. I swallow. “A bomb.”
Hawkins nods. He’s still on the porch; past him, a young deputy stands near the truck, a hand on the butt of his gun. Hawkins looks more casual in jeans and a threadbare Prospect High Miners T-shirt, an ugly windbreaker thrown on top. Sunday, off-duty, at least until this. But his weapon is there at his hip, beside the star on his belt. “Samuel here?” Hawkins takes a single step forward. I don’t move from the doorway.
“He left for Wyoming this morning.” Still sounds like a fact. “To see about work. Sheridan and then Gillette.”
I remember breakfast. The eggs I made, the way I pushed Samuel’s bread into the toaster a second time because he likes it black. He’d cleaned his plate. Helped with the dishes before he left. Smiled from the door. That’s all. I think about it again, study each recalled minute and second, but there’s nothing else. Breakfast. Dishes. Smile. He’s somewhere beyond Bozeman by now, I tell myself.
“Wyoming,” Hawkins says. Like he can taste the truth of it.
The deputy starts toward the barn. “Nothing out there but some hay and an old mule,” I call. The deputy stops midstride, looks at me, Hawkins. Seems to consider going back to the truck, settles on standing awkwardly in the middle of the drive.
Hawkins turns back to me. “He ain’t in there, is he?”
“Hay and an old mule,” I repeat, clinging to this bit of certainty.
Hawkins squints a little the way he does when forcing himself not to look away. I want to slam the door, clap my hands over my ears, but I make myself wait for the words. “See, Jo, we’ve got, uh, reason to believe Samuel might’ve been involved in this business down in Elk Fork.”
“He’s gone to Wyoming.” I hear the desperation in the repetition, the effort to build truth from speech.
Hawkins’s features close; he’s heard it, too. He maintains that resolved eye contact, and I try to silence the echoes of his last statement—reason to believe, might’ve been involved—so I can brace for whatever comes next. “There’s a smoke shop kind of kitty-corner behind the courthouse,” he tells me slowly. “Been having some trouble with vandalism in the alley, apparently. They installed a security camera just yesterday; Samuel wouldn’t have known about it.”
After my mother was killed, Hawkins drove to the hospital and then the rehabilitation center every Sunday afternoon. He’d bring me an orange soda, maybe an Archie comic or a copy of Western Horseman. Afterward, he’d walk around the grounds with Samuel, who always came back to my side with his jaw a little more relaxed, his smile a little easier to coax forth.
“Can I come in, Jo?”
Didn’t expect that. I see it in the stunned blink, the twitch at one corner of his mouth. An apology rises in my throat, and I swallow it. I want to tell him it’s not personal. I want to tell him no is the only word I can form right now, the only sentiment I recognize. No, this is not happening. No, you’re wrong about Samuel. No, this sick dread squeezing my chest doesn’t mean I believe you. No.
“I got a warrant.” The words apologetic, but with an edge behind them.
I stay in the living room with the deputy while Hawkins searches. Down the hall to my bedroom and studio—hardly a moment there, a cursory, courteous glance—then to the bathroom, the hall closet, the kitchen. Then upstairs.
I pick up the tape gun and start assembling a second box, though the first is still empty. The deputy watches, looks away when I meet his eyes. He’s my age, early twenties, but the patch on his uniform says Split Creek, not Prospect, and I don’t know him. Bits of hay cling to his boots; he checked the barn after all.
I listen to Hawkins’s footfalls above. He steps more heavily than Samuel, his strides longer. He stops at the doorway to my childhood bedroom, at the end of the upstairs hall. I hear the groan of the floorboard swell and fade as he leans into the room and back out. Hasn’t changed since I last regularly occupied it at ten: lavender walls, lace curtains, plastic ponies standing at attention on the bookshelves.
Next Hawkins inspects the bathroom—I hear a second’s pause—and then he is in Samuel’s room. What does he find there? I rarely go upstairs, and when I do, Samuel’s door is shut. His bed is there, of course, probably with the same bear paw quilt he had as a teenager, meant to look like an heirloom but purchased on clearance at Kmart. Clean clothes in the closet, laundry on the floor. Bookshelves filled with veterinary texts, survival manuals, law books, maybe a novel or two. I wonder if he ever replaced his Bible.
What else? There was a Nazi flag on the wall, back when I was in high school. It was an identity Samuel tried on and almost immediately discarded, his racist phase brief but committed. (He still disparagingly mentions “the Jews” now and then, and says things like “our kind” and “those people” more than I wish he did, but that’s nothing like the old tirades.) He burned the flag in a barrel in the yard a couple months after I spotted it, but the swastika tattoo on his biceps wasn’t so easily disposed of; he wears long sleeves year-round now.
So the flag is gone, but what has replaced it, I don’t know. Until today I have been content not to know.
Hawkins comes downstairs. “Where do you keep your guns?”
“Haven’t got any.”
“Samuel does.” It’s not a question. Twice he caught Samuel poaching, back when there wasn’t much money for food. Twice he let him go with a warning. Twice I opened the back door to find a bag of groceries on the stoop.
“He’ll have taken the rifle with him,” I say, and immediately regret it.
Hawkins nods. “The FBI is sending some people out,” he says. “I’d guess they’ll be here in a few hours. News folks will be, too.” He looks at the empty boxes behind me, and a wince crosses his face. “You still have the number of that lawyer?”
“The one who lost our house?” Not fair, maybe. The lawyer warned us it was unlikely we’d be able to keep the house; he was right. When the eminent domain notice came, Samuel wanted to handle it sovereign-citizen-style, by filing dozens of lengthy documents, cluttering up the court with pages upon pages of pseudo-legalese. He went to a few of their meetings a couple years back and ultimately dismissed them as overly focused on tax protest to the exclusion of what he called “broader concerns”—by then I knew better than to ask what he meant—but he admired their ability to use the government’s judicial system against itself. I talked him out of it—it was one thing to appreciate a tactic like that, another to actually try it—and convinced him to hire the lawyer. We did it my way, the ordinary way. And we lost.
“Call him,” Hawkins says. “You’ll need a statement and someone to read it for you. And you maybe ought to talk to him about … anything else you think you ought to talk to him about.”
I don’t know whether to be insulted or flattered that Hawkins seems to think Samuel has let me in on something, offered me hint or warning. Of course I’d have stopped him if I’d known. If there was anything to know. If it was him. Hawkins mentioned a security camera, but I’ve seen the grainy images they produce; they’re never very clear. So my brother holds some fringe beliefs. He talks, that’s all. Talks and talks until he loses interest in whatever he’s been talking about and goes in search of something else. It doesn’t mean anything. Hawkins should know that, shouldn’t have accepted Samuel’s guilt so readily. It’s too early for certainty.
Hawkins starts toward the door. I want to challenge him somehow, prove I don’t share his certitude, but I’m afraid to ask about the bombing itself, so instead I say, “You’re so sure Samuel had a part in this, how come you bothered to knock?”
There’s something like admonishment in the downturn of his mouth. “Jo, you know there ain’t no way I’d bust through the door of this house with a gun in my hand. Not ever.” He hesitates at the threshold, gestures toward the young deputy. “Carson’s gonna stay till the FBI folks get here.” Takes me a moment to realize it’s so I don’t destroy evidence.
I wonder whether there’s any evidence to find, if I would recognize it if I saw it. What I’d do with it if I did.
Copyright © 2020 by Sarah M. Hulse