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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.
* * *
So many things I should do. Call the lawyer, like Hawkins said. Call my boss at Fuel Stop. Make sure Hawkins closed the gate across the drive, check that its NO TRESPASSING placard is still legible after weathering so many winters. Maybe try to surreptitiously search the house, see if there is anything here, anything that might prove Samuel went where he said he’s gone. Anything he left me to explain this.
Instead, I go to my studio. The deputy follows, glances around the room, then positions himself outside in the hall. Still just a step away, only the illusion of privacy. I do my best to ignore him, stare at the half-finished painting on my easel beside the window. I started it two days ago after a brief but substantial rainstorm, energized by the brightening green of the late April meadows, the clouds fading from gray to white as they scattered high into the warming sky. Mountains. Meadows. Trees and streams, slopes and sky. My materials, as surely as brush and acrylic.
I am not an artist. Not the way people mean. I’ve never been to art school, never had a teacher, never hung my canvases in a gallery. I have talent enough to know what talent I lack. But I am good at painting what people want to see, good at rendering this corner of the West the way visitors and residents alike often expect or wish it to be. My brushstrokes are sweeping, my hues vibrant. The elk and deer who populate my paintings are never mangy or scarred, the cabins always sturdy and lit warmly from within, the mountains unscathed by mines, and on the rare occasions winter descends upon my scenes, there’s always a fire crackling in a corner of the canvas.
These are largely practical decisions. I don’t paint as a hobby, or not only as a hobby. My canvases are meant to be sold, and the folks buying paintings in Prospect are mostly tourists on their way to or from more spectacular parts of the state; no tourist wants a painting that includes mine tailings or aging trailer parks. So there’s some calculation in it, yes, but it’s not purely mercenary. I enjoy casting the world in its best light. I take satisfaction in creating the most beautiful version of this landscape I have known all my life. Each idyllic portrait of this valley feels like a gift to the place that is my home. If I overlook the flaws of that which I love, I’m no different than anyone else.
“Don’t you ever get tired of painting the Disneyland version of Montana?” Samuel asked once. I shrugged, knowing he’d take that as acquiescence, but really I don’t. Didn’t.
But I’ve been thinking about Samuel’s question more in the weeks since the court’s decision. I’ve painted the view from my studio window countless times. Always the idealized version: a willow instead of the wind-whipped juniper, a barn paneled in classic red wood instead of practical gray steel. Most of those canvases I sold, and I was glad to trade each for the few dollars it brought, but suddenly they seem precious, and I a fool to part with them. It seems impossible I might someday forget this land, the rise and fall of the hard line between earth and sky, the easy spread of grass and trees, but I feel a new urgency to record them, and, for the first time, to do it honestly. To paint the juniper, not the willow, the gray barn, not the red. To prove that they are real, and mine.
I paint, and try to forget the radio, the knock on the door, the deputy in the hall. I try to imagine Samuel in his truck, approaching Billings now, humming along to a country CD and tapping one hand against the wheel. I paint and try to lose myself in the colors, to appreciate the way cerulean eases to dove gray at the height of the canvas, the yellow-white dance of sunlight on the arcing green of the grass. I mix the paints precisely, apply them meticulously. Build another beautiful world. But it isn’t right, because I’ve done it again: painted the version I create for others, the version I’ve always been content to pretend is real.
And have I done the same thinking of my brother? Have I painted him into his truck in my mind, into the story he told me this morning?
I carefully dip my brush in bone black and cross it over the canvas again and again.
* * *
The first time my cell phone rings, I answer, then hang up before the reporter finishes telling me his name. Answer again the second time. Another reporter. I answer—and hang up—the third, fourth, and fifth times, too, and only after the sixth ring in half an hour do I mute the thing, though I keep it in my palm, watching new calls light up the old flip phone’s tiny screen. The numbers are never ones I recognize, never Samuel’s. I let it ring until the battery gives out and don’t plug it in to charge.
The gate across the driveway isn’t visible from the house, and I doubt anyone is out there yet—it’s a two-hour drive from Elk Fork even if you take the curves too fast—but I use the back door anyway. The sun is bright overhead, the day younger than seems possible.
The barn and house are separated by eighty yards and a small stream that runs strong this time of year; the water rushes just below the wooden planks of the footbridge when I cross it. The creek looks clear, but the mines have laden it with lead, zinc, and arsenic, and we have to fence part of it off so the mule can’t drink the poisoned water. Lockjaw, grazing in the pasture, sees me coming and brays loudly before sauntering into a stall. There’s a radio in the barn aisle—Samuel says the music soothes the mule—and I let my hand hover over the dial for a second before I switch it off:… were attending services at Light of the World Church at the time of the explosion … All I hear. More than I want to hear.
I saddle and bridle Lockjaw, promise the deputy who has shadowed me to the barn that I’ll stay in sight, then mount and begin riding toward the rear of the property. I’ve always loved Lockjaw’s easy, relaxed stride, the way her long ears dip to the sides with each deliberate step. I let the reins drape and try to settle into the rhythm of the mule’s gait, but the shock of the day’s events collides with the simmering worry of the last couple months, and I know I’ll never again enjoy riding the property the way I once did. The day is like any other for Lockjaw, though, and she heads for the barbed wire and then turns left, hooves raising dust in the narrow, worn track beside the perimeter fence line.
Our great-great-grandfather Eli purchased this land in 1920, after thirty years working in Eden Mine. He built the house in the center of the forty acres, the barn to the southeast; to this day they are two of the last structures visible from the highway before reaching the Canadian border twelve miles north. The mountains rise from the eastern edge of the property, and the oldest depths of Eden burrow into the hardrock slopes behind the house. The mine expanded to the south in the years since, Eden’s tunnels and adits reaching farther and farther before being overtaken by the newer Gethsemane Mine. The town followed, the newest homes and businesses always built just south of the ones erected prior.
Being left behind suited Eli; once he retired, he wanted as little to do with the mines as possible. Family legend says he left a lamp burning in his bedroom each night, having sworn off darkness. He intended this land to be a cattle ranch, but after the first year half the cattle died of blackleg and the rest sold for less than he’d paid. He could’ve made up the loss by selling some land, but he’d never owned anything before, and he made his son swear never to sell a single acre. Samuel told me our father made him swear the same thing.
In thirty-seven days, the state of Montana will force Samuel to break that promise.
Rather than ride the fence line all the way to the road, I cut across the pasture behind the house. Samuel hasn’t yet mowed this year, and the grass reaches almost to Lockjaw’s knees; she snatches a few mouthfuls without breaking stride. I close my eyes, concentrate on the tentative heat of the spring sun, the ease of the journey over this land.
I open my eyes. A man in his late forties stands in front of the bridge over the creek. Average height, dark hair gone gray at the temples, eyes narrowed to a squint in the sun.
“Samuel’s not here.”
“Yes. I am.” The man’s suit looks like the one Samuel owns: plain black, a few loose threads protruding from the holes in the plastic buttons, a decent if imperfect fit. His shirt is white, his tie an inoffensive red-and-gray stripe. He also wears black cowboy boots, and they aren’t near scuffed enough to make me think they’ve touched dirt before today. “You’re FBI?”
“Senior Resident Agent Will Devin.” He holds up an ID, but he’s too far away for me to read it. I wonder if he’s done that on purpose, hoping I’ll dismount. The plastic window in the wallet catches the sun, and a small square of reflected light skitters between us.
Lockjaw reaches for another mouthful of grass, and this time I stop her. “There are more of you at the house?”
Devin shakes his head. “Not yet. We’ve flown up some specialists from the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Salt Lake.” I flinch at the word terrorism, repeat it in my head until I’m numb to the syllables so the next time I hear them their sting won’t show on my face. “They’re still down in Elk Fork. I’m based at the resident agency there.”
I glance at his boots. “So you’re, what, the down-home, folksy, local-boy agent I’m supposed to trust because you wear a pair of Justins?” Shouldn’t have said that. But I don’t know what I should have said instead. I don’t know how to behave in this situation. I do know what Samuel thinks of the FBI, and maybe that’s why I’ve defaulted to confrontation, which is so unlike me but so like my brother.
“Something like that.” Devin nudges a stone with the toe of one boot. “They’re Lucchese, actually.”
I don’t care how much he paid for his boots. I should never have mentioned them, should never have tried to emulate Samuel. I urge Lockjaw forward, and Devin steps aside. I ride behind the barn and have already halted Lockjaw beneath the mounting bar by the time Devin comes around the corner. I see him take it in: the zigzagging ramp Samuel built, the metal bar overhead, and my wheelchair waiting on the platform at the top of the ramp. He keeps his expression neutral, but I don’t think he knew.
He takes a step toward Lockjaw, and I say, “I don’t need help.” I unwind the lead rope from the saddle horn and loop it over the bar above, letting the knotted reins drop to Lockjaw’s withers. Then I reach down and remove each of my feet from the stirrups before grabbing the bar overhead with both hands and pulling my body from the saddle. I move my hands sideways along the bar, like a child at a playground, and Lockjaw stands immobile even as my right leg drags across the saddle. When I’ve positioned myself properly, I settle into my wheelchair, one hand still holding Lockjaw’s lead. I release the brakes on my chair, back Lockjaw away from the mounting bar, and only then turn to face Devin. “A complete spinal cord injury,” I explain. “No feeling or movement below my waist.”
He says nothing as I wind my way down the ramp. Lockjaw obediently follows my path on the ground. In the barn, I unbridle her and tie her in the alleyway. Devin stands a couple yards away—between me and the exit, which can be no accident—but he stays silent as I finish untacking Lockjaw, and makes no more moves to help, even when I reach to pull the saddle from Lockjaw’s back and the bridle in my lap falls to the ground in a tangle of leather and metal.
He’s good. Not that most people gawk and point when they first meet me, but they tend to studiously avoid looking at my chair, and often fix their eyes on a point a couple inches above my head. He does neither, and I find myself wishing he would. I don’t want to be Jo Faber right now—don’t want to be a suspect’s sister—and I’m desperate for almost any alternative, even Woman in Wheelchair. At least I’ve had practice playing that role.
I settle the tack on its racks in the barn aisle and hang my helmet on a hook near the stall, beside the dressage whip I carry to replace the leg cues I can no longer give. Then I run a brush over Lockjaw’s coat, pick the packed dirt and stones out of each hoof in turn. I do these things slowly, trying to draw each second long. Samuel is almost to Wyoming. He’s about to cross the state line and can see the Bighorns. Finally I untie the rope halter and slide it off Lockjaw’s head. I cluck my tongue against the roof of my mouth, and the mule walks past me through the open door of the nearest stall. I shut the door behind her, check the latch. No more excuses for delay. I look at Devin.
“Can we talk in your house?”
“I’d rather not.” Another thing I shouldn’t say. I expect Devin to insist—he no doubt has the right to—but he hesitates for a fraction of a second and then nods. I’m instantly suspicious, almost wish he had demanded we go inside. I don’t like the way this feels like a chess match, and one that sets novice against master. Everything I do seems to mean something to him—even if it doesn’t to me—and I can feel him adjusting his responses, calculating and correcting.
A breeze carries through the barn aisle, and Devin’s tie flutters away from his chest before settling again. “I’ll be up-front. I’m here to arrest your brother.”
“He’s gone to Wyoming.” Every time I say it, it becomes less real. More like a story. More like a lie.
“If he has, he went after he detonated an explosive device at the district courthouse in Elk Fork.” Devin says it with no particular inflection. I suppose that’s deliberate. Wait to see how I react, whether I choose to be ally or enemy. I try to keep my features still, and after a moment he continues. “I’m going to be spending a lot of time learning everything there is to know about Samuel Faber. What he’s done, where he’s been, what he wants, how he thinks. But at this point, I’m close to a blank slate as far as he’s concerned.” He looks at me. “Tell me the one thing you think I ought to know about Samuel.”
“The one thing I ought to know about your brother. Before I find out what everyone else thinks about him, what do you most want me to know?”
I study Devin’s face. He looks back steadily, with an expression that is less hostile than I expect. Doesn’t mean anything. He can probably call it up at will, probably practices arranging his features into a perfect facsimile of empathy and understanding. He’s here to arrest Samuel; he said so himself. I am a source of information, nothing more. A means to an end.
In my place, my brother would say nothing. Not a word.
“He’s—” I stop. Devin tilts his head, waits.
One thing. One thing about Samuel. So much seems important. I could tell Devin that after our mother died, Samuel sold everything we could spare: our mother’s jewelry (he saved her wedding ring for me), the two horses and their tack, the station wagon. I could tell him Samuel treated every transaction matter-of-factly, until the day he sold our father’s watch. I could tell him Samuel put on that watch the day after our father died—he was only eight years old, and in pictures it hangs low over his hand—and had worn it every day since, and I could tell him that the day he sold it, he came home from the pawnshop and punched a hole through the kitchen wall.
Or I could tell Devin that Samuel had planned to be a veterinarian, had been the best shortstop in Prospect history and was offered a scholarship to the state university, had decided instead to go into the Army with his best friend Kev, had told me but not our mother when our lives took the turn they did. I could tell him that instead of college or the military, Samuel went to work first at the movie theater, then the fried chicken place, the home improvement warehouse, the sprawling junkyard off the old highway, and finally the sawmill in Split Creek.
I could tell him about the time Lockjaw—we’d called her Muley then—ran through a fence and two weeks later went stiff and rigid with tetanus. I could tell him that our mother had been in the barnyard with the rifle, that Samuel begged her not to shoot, and that though the vet said there was no real hope, Samuel spent the next ten days at the mule’s side, sitting silently with her in the darkened barn aisle as she spasmed, administering the medications the vet left behind, hand-feeding her soft bran mash when she was finally able to eat, until at last she recovered.
I could tell harsher tales, too, about what happened the night our mother died, or how Samuel came to get a swastika tattoo, or what he said the day the notice about the house arrived. I could tell him how Samuel’s faith in government had started to slowly erode even before it shattered into distrust, and how it had transformed into something much darker in the years since. I could tell him that I was sure the worst was behind us, that my brother had tried on half a dozen ideologies over the years but abandoned them all, that at last his soul seemed to have settled until that damned letter arrived. I could tell Devin that as much as I want to deny it, as much as I’ve been trying all day to deny it, whenever I think of that bomb in Elk Fork—whenever I can’t stop myself thinking of it—I think of Samuel, too.
I weigh each of these things, and more. I think of why Samuel sold the watch, why he took the jobs he did, why he stayed with Lockjaw, even why he got the tattoo. And finally I decide. I meet Devin’s eyes. “Samuel,” I say, “would do anything for me.”
* * *
I wonder if you know where I am, Jo. If you’ve thought about it you do, but I wonder if you’ve let yourself think about it yet.
I really did mean to go to Wyoming. That wasn’t a lie. After Elk Fork, I meant to go to Wyoming. Heard my name on the radio before I got to Billings. Don’t know where I went wrong. I was careful, really careful. I was careful, Jo, and those people weren’t supposed to be there. There wasn’t supposed to be a church; I had no idea there was a church. That little girl wasn’t supposed to be there.
Do you remember how we only had room for three books when we came here together? I brought Black Beauty because it was your favorite, The Call of the Wild because it was mine, and East of Eden because it was the longest book in the house neither of us had read, and because of the name. (Remember how I kept trying to skip the parts I thought were too old for you, but you always caught me at it?)
I don’t have any books this time. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I made preparations just in case—in case of this, I guess—but I didn’t think about books. All I have to read is this map of Montana. I’m writing in its margins now, words all along the Canadian border.
Did you believe it right away, Jo? That it was me, that I did it? You probably tried not to. You would do that for me. Maybe you’re still trying. Maybe you’re doing your best to ignore whatever they’ve told you, explain away whatever evidence I didn’t mean to leave. But deep down, I bet you believed it right away.
Don’t worry about it. You were right.
* * *
I wake in the dark to a sharp cracking sound. At first I think it’s a gunshot. Always think I hear gunshots. Then the deepest haze of sleep clears, and I decide it might be thunder; the clouds over the Cabinet Mountains to the west had darkened suspiciously the evening before. But there is no rumble, no lightning bursting through the night. It cracks again, sharp and sudden, and at last I place the sound. The left shutter of the window in my old bedroom upstairs. The latch is broken, and anything more than a slight breeze sends it banging against the house. Samuel has been promising to fix it for weeks, but there’s always something more pressing.
“Samuel,” I call. Still feel a small thrill of terror when I raise my voice in the night, like a child who has finally gotten up the nerve to call for her parents after a nightmare. “Samuel!”
And then I remember. All of it.
Before bed, I steeled myself and turned the radio on. The bomb had destroyed the south facade of the courthouse, though early reports estimated most of the structural integrity of the building remained intact. No one had been inside. One man was injured by flying debris while walking his dog nearby. (The dog, the reporter assured listeners, was unharmed.) The rest of the injured—eleven in all—had been attending services at Light of the World Church across the street. The church met in a storefront, and when the bomb exploded, the windows facing the sidewalk shattered inward. I listened to the description and imagined the glass splintered into the air like a suspended sculpture of glittering shards, and I wondered whether it had been beautiful for a moment. If it had been beautiful before it was terrible.
Most of the injured were treated and released. Three remain in the hospital, two in serious condition, one critical. That last, the one, is the pastor’s daughter. She is nine. Her name is Emily.
The shutter slams against the house again. I turn on the bedside lamp, but the relief I usually feel when light eradicates dark doesn’t materialize. I glance at the clock: 2:41.
I could go upstairs on my own. I’ve never tried it, never had to, Samuel always there to carry me. But I think it’s possible; I’m strong. It would mean transferring to my wheelchair, then to the floor at the base of the stairs. It would mean using my hands to cross my right ankle over my left and raising myself backward one stair at a time. Eighteen stairs. Half my body dead weight. No wheelchair at the top. And I’d have to get back down after. Still, I think I could do it.
I consider it a moment more. Even grab the side of the mattress, ready to push myself into a sitting position. But I don’t want to find out I’m wrong, don’t want to learn I’m not strong enough after all. So I stay in bed and lie awake and listen to the shutter crack against the house until at last, near dawn, the wind dies down.
* * *
It was night then, too. Samuel the first to spot the headlights, understand what they meant. I remember the urgency in his voice when he said, “Mom,” the expression on her face when she looked out the window and recognized Ben Archer’s truck. Samuel went to the front door, locked it, headed for the back. Mom pulled me down the hall, tucked me into a corner of the closet in her bedroom. The smell of potpourri, the brush of wool on my neck. “Stay here, Josie,” Mom told me. “It’ll be all right, just stay here.” A smile that even at ten I had known was forced. No time to object, to cry. The door closed. Dark.
* * *
I still haven’t called the lawyer. Hawkins is right; I should. But I don’t need a lawyer to tell me Samuel is in serious trouble. Besides, a half dozen FBI agents already traipsed through the house yesterday evening, carting away boxes and bags filled with what had been Samuel’s possessions and were now classified as “evidence.” I sat outside while they worked, stared hard at each person who crossed the whitewashed planks of the porch. I told myself I wanted the agents to meet my eyes, told myself they were cowards for refusing. Told myself I wasn’t relieved to be ignored.
They left a receipt when they were done, but I should go through the house and inventory it myself. If I do, will I be able to identify what’s missing? I imagine Samuel’s room, new empty spaces on the bookshelves and dresser and desk interrupting the dust like chalk outlines. For each familiar object I’d find—the sweater I gave him last Christmas he wore only often enough to show dutiful appreciation, the horseshoe he nailed above his doorway for luck—there would be another absent item I’d fail to conjure in my memory, and yet another I’d never known was there at all.
The radio is still here. Samuel and I haven’t owned a television since the day during my sophomore year when I came home to find it in the tall grass behind the house, a heavy rock resting in the center of the shattered screen. Propaganda of the Zionist Occupied Government, Samuel said. I’ve never been able to determine why my brother tolerates the radio but not the television—I think he simply likes music too much to give it up—but he does, and it stayed.
Few stations come in clearly in Prospect, and most have gone back to playing country or Christian pop, but I find one of the talk stations on the AM dial. No one has died in the night. He hasn’t killed anyone, I think. Try not to add yet. I expect them to call Samuel a “person of interest” or something like that, but no, he’s a “suspect,” not to be approached, armed and dangerous, et cetera. (They give his name as Samuel Henry Faber; the only time I’ve heard his middle name spoken aloud before is once when our mother was angry with him for staying out all night with Kev.) Lincoln Street in Elk Fork will remain closed at least through the end of the day. There will be a prayer vigil for the pastor’s daughter—Emily, her name is Emily, she has a name and it is Emily—on Tuesday evening.
There will have to be a statement; Hawkins is right about that, too. It’s surprisingly simple to write. I didn’t realize how often I’d heard similar statements on the news, how easily I’d internalized their components: First, express sorrow but don’t apologize, because apology is close to admission. (Doesn’t matter that nothing is proven yet, that I have nothing to do with it in any case, that I had no idea, that I’m devastated, too … devastated is a good word; I use it twice.) Second, cross out the sentence that casts your accused loved one in a positive light. (So Samuel raised me since I was ten. So he gave up plenty to do it. No one cares.) Third, say you feel for the victims. No, say you’ll pray for them. (I won’t. I haven’t prayed since I was a kid, and even then I suspected I was talking to myself.) Fourth, think but under no circumstances write that it could not have been your loved one, because he is your loved one, because he has strange ideas but they are just ideas, because he is your brother and how could your brother have done this? End with a futile plea for privacy.
I hear footsteps on the porch as I finish writing. One knock, not loud, then Hawkins’s voice. “It’s me, Jo.” He sounds like he isn’t sure I’ll answer.
“Just me,” he says, when I open the door. I move aside to let him in, see the glint of metal and glass beyond the row of aspens beside the road. “Quite a crowd out there,” Hawkins tells me. “Reporters, mostly. I gave ’em all a stern talking-to about trespassing.” He’d have tapped his star at the beginning, tipped his hat at the end. “FBI’s got a car by the gate, too.” It isn’t a surprise—Devin told me the night before—but it’s hard to get used to the idea. “There’ll be more of them, you know. You won’t see ’em, but they’ll be watching the house.”
I close the door. Hawkins is in uniform today, unflattering khaki head to toe. He’s lost weight the last year or so, and it’s aged him. “That’s a warning for Samuel,” I say. “Not me.”
Hawkins looks like he means to say something but keeps it to himself. He goes to the couch and perches stiffly on the arm, rests a manila envelope on one knee. I follow him into the living room, park my chair near the hearth. “You here as a sheriff or a friend?”
Hawkins sighs, runs a hand over his face. He had a mustache for years but shaved it last fall when he realized it was graying faster than the hair on his head. He used to smooth it down when he was thinking and hasn’t shed the gesture as easily as the mustache. “I don’t know, Jo. Both, I guess. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
All he’s ever wanted to do.
“I’m fine.” Hawkins narrows his eyes but seems willing to accept the lie. “What about you?” I nod to where one hand is pressed against the small of his back.
“It’s nothing,” he says, taking his hand away. A couple years ago a drunk in a pickup slammed into Hawkins’s truck while he was working a traffic stop. The accident left him with back trouble, but he rarely mentions it in front of me.
“Here.” I hand him the statement. Hawkins takes a pair of reading glasses from his shirt pocket, skims the words.
“You didn’t call a lawyer.”
“Read it for me. Sheriffs do that kind of thing.”
He folds the paper and puts it in his pocket.
“One more thing.” I rock my chair forward a few inches, back. Stop. It’s a nervous habit, and Hawkins knows it. “I don’t want to talk to that FBI agent anymore. Devin.”
Hawkins crosses his arms. “I get that it ain’t a pleasant thing, Jo, but under the circumstances—”
“I’ll talk to you. You can talk to him.”
He sighs again, a short huff with more than a hint of a scoff in it. “This might surprise you, but the FBI don’t exactly hold the office of the Sheriff of Prospect County, Montana, in terribly high esteem. No one’s got the first idea where your brother is”—he pauses, ever so briefly—“so at the moment, you’re about the best lead they’ve got. They’re gonna want their own man on this.”
“Tell them I don’t recognize their authority. Tell them I consider myself a sovereign citizen of these United States and I acknowledge no higher office of law enforcement than the local sheriff.” The words come easily. There are more I can say if these don’t work; I can rattle off the right terminology to claim allegiance to any of the half dozen or so extremist ideologies Samuel has cycled through over the years. Despite how much I hated hearing the words from his lips, saying them now makes me feel closer to him.
Hawkins closes his eyes for a long moment, opens them slowly, like a man fighting off a headache. “You ain’t ever held to any of that bullshit, Jo, and you know it.”
“They don’t.” I thought carefully about this last night. Devin is dangerous. Smart. More skillful at reading me than I am at reading him. Hawkins knows me better, of course, which might be dangerous in its own way, but I have no secrets from him. Samuel has no secrets from him. Almost none. “Those FBI folks are gonna read whatever file they’ve put together on Samuel, and once they have, they won’t have a bit of trouble believing his sister subscribes to all the same crazy nonsense.”
“I ain’t lying to the FBI, Jo. Not even for you.”
“Then just tell them the best chance they’ve got of getting anything useful out of me is by letting me talk to you, not them. Because that’s plain truth.” If Hawkins calls me on that, it’s over. This is borrowed bravado, my best impression of what I think Samuel would do in my place.
“I don’t like this,” Hawkins says at last.
“You think I do?” I hear my voice crack on the last word. I grip the handrims of my chair hard, stare at the rug on the floor in front of me. It’d be easier to move around the room without the rug, but there’s still the ghost of a stain on the hardwood. “I wish with all I’ve got that Samuel didn’t do what you tell me he did. I’m still hoping you’re wrong. But I don’t want this getting worse than it already is. I’ve spent years listening to Samuel’s diatribes; I probably know more about Ruby Ridge and Waco than half those FBI folks. And I don’t want that for Samuel, Hawkins. Whatever he did or didn’t do, I don’t want it to end like that. But if I’m going to talk to anyone about this, I need it to be someone who knows more about Samuel than what you say he did yesterday.”
I’m surprised by my own speechmaking, and I think Hawkins is, too—both of us are used to Samuel being the one prone to oratory—but I see the words working on him, and at last he sighs. “I’ll tell them,” he allows. “But I can’t promise they’ll listen.”
Hawkins stands, presses his hands against his lower back. He walks toward the door, stops just before he gets there. “You ought to see this,” he says quietly, and lays the manila envelope on the table beside the door before he leaves.
I ignore it at first. Go into the bathroom, put up my hair in a braided bun for work. Clean the kitchen counters. Wash the dishes, which is usually Samuel’s job.
I can’t do this forever. Refuse knowledge. Embrace ignorance. But each piece of truth that settles in my soul brings searing understanding with it. He is probably not in Wyoming. The glass shattered inward. Her name is Emily. It doesn’t, I hope, make me a monster for waiting until each piece of information starts to become a familiar sort of pain before seeking out the next.
So I fold laundry. Put away the brushes I left scattered in my studio yesterday. And finally, after sitting a few feet away and staring at it for several long minutes, I open the envelope.
A single photograph inside, printed on cheap copy paper in grainy gray scale. There’s a time-and-date stamp in the corner indicating the still is from 10:00 Sunday; the image isn’t as blurry as I imagined it would be. I don’t recognize the truck. Samuel’s is an extended-cab Ford, the front bumper tied on with baling twine; this one is smaller and older. For a moment I feel elated—It isn’t his truck—and then my eye goes to the figure in the bed, bending over a small suitcase. He wears a baseball cap and sunglasses, and I’ve never seen that sweatshirt before, but the hard jawline, oh, that I do know, and the strong build, and the slight hollow in his left cheek where he’s missing two teeth.
Despite what I told Hawkins, when I rose this morning I thought I’d accepted it: Samuel set off the bomb. But I must have doubted, must have been more loyal to my brother than even I knew, because when I look at the photograph, I feel the breath go out of my lungs and stay gone. For several seconds I do not move, do not breathe, do not think. And then I inhale, and the air comes rushing back to me, and with it a certainty so heavy I don’t know how I’ll bear it another moment, let alone minutes, hours, days, weeks. A lifetime.
Samuel. Yes, it is Samuel. It’s Samuel.
* * *
I steer my car down the long driveway, slowly enough the grind of gravel beneath my tires sounds like a series of distinct cracks and crunches. As I approach the highway, the glints of metal and glass I’ve seen through the trees reveal themselves to be a dozen vehicles butted up against one another on the grassy verge. Most are ordinary cars, but several are news vans with microwave antennas resting coiled atop their roofs like sleeping serpents. I’ve already been spotted, and people crowd together on the far side of the gate, some wielding cameras and microphones.
I set my jaw. Wouldn’t be so bad if I could just step out of my car, open the gate, and be back in the car in a matter of seconds. I’m quick with the transfers into and out of my wheelchair, but it will never be as fast as simply standing, and I hate the thought of being a spectacle for the cameras. Just as I put my car in park, I see a khaki uniform wading through the tide of people. Carson, the deputy from Split Creek. He meets my eyes briefly, hauls open the gate, waves the reporters back. I nod to him as I drive past, then turn onto the highway and set my eyes toward town.
I love my car. Samuel surprised me with it for my high school graduation, the hand controls already installed. A practical gift—his long shifts at the sawmill make it tough for him to ferry me around—but I’ve always loved driving, sometimes go all the way to Elk Fork or Kalispell or into Idaho, just to enjoy the mountains and the sky and the speed. I’m sure all Samuel sees is a waste of gas, but he never tells me not to go. I think about turning around now and heading north, or east, or west, driving till dark or later. Driving toward wherever Samuel might be. And where is that? It’s just one more question in a sea of others: What did he think a bomb would accomplish? Did he consider what it might do to others? To me?
I continue south toward town, pass a handful of other properties like ours, wide fields and aging farmhouses. Horses graze in one pasture, a handful of cattle in another. Deer gather at the edges of the fields. On the side of one barn, the words WE SUPPORT NORTH LODE MINING CO. are just visible, two and a half decades of Montana winters having faded the letters till they almost match the equally weathered wood. Six properties on the east side of the highway between my home and the town limits. Six other properties the government could have decided to build a road through.
The sun is directly overhead now, and the valley will stay light late into the afternoon. The mountains on the east side of the valley are the high ones, the rich ones. The reason Prospect exists. They contain silver, or did once, and their surfaces are covered in tall, spindly pine and dark, rusty rock that turns the color of old blood when it rains. They keep the town in shadow until almost noon, and in winter their peaks vanish into the low blanket of cloud for weeks on end. They have names of their own, those mountains, but I almost always hear them referred to by the names of the mines that bore into their hearts: Eden. Gethsemane. The last ore was extracted more than twenty years ago; after the Gethsemane collapse in 1994 the company made a few gestures toward reopening the mines, but the mountains were mostly depleted, and now all they’re good for is bearing the burden of a road no one here wants.
There are mountains on the west side of the valley, too, but this close to town they’re just foothills, overlapping mounds of earth clothed in prairie grass that is a fleeting green today but will soon fade to a dull, dry brown. Steeper than they look—I climbed them often as a kid—but dwarfed by the higher peaks behind them, by the Cabinet and Purcell Mountains beyond. North, in Canada, are the most striking mountains of all, jagged rows of them, their color like gray mixed with cobalt, all tipped with white.
The speed limit drops to twenty-five at the town limits, and I slow as I approach the WELCOME TO PROSPECT sign; it’s pocked with bullet dents and boasts a population of 649, which I consider exceedingly optimistic. I pass the old Gas-N-Go with its bright, remodeled facade that seems out of place among the brick and timber of the rest of the town. Next comes the school—only the elementary building still occupied, the high school students bused to Split Creek now—and then the post office, City Hall, the first of three bars, a pair of churches, four empty storefronts, Prospect Drug, and a coffee shop that doubles as the offices of the formerly-weekly-now-biweekly Miner. At the heart of town are the Gethsemane Mine Memorial and the patch of grass beside it that passes as a city park, the cemetery and funeral home beyond. When I was a kid, there was also a general store, a doctor’s office, and a small but grand single-screen movie theater called the Orpheus, but the town has withered since the mines closed. Even with many storefronts vacant or boarded up, the center of town feels cramped, narrow two-story brick buildings pressed together, private homes stacked almost atop one another up the slopes to the west, defunct mining buildings and smelters and other rusting structures clustered at the base of the mountains to the east. Things ease to the south, with the relatively newer buildings claiming patches of lawn around their perimeters: the library, the dollar store, the second gas station.
I shouldn’t like Prospect. Even in its youth it wouldn’t have been an attractive town, and its crowded, jumbled layout speaks of necessity and thrift rather than planning or care. A few years after the mines closed, the city council hired a consultant who suggested making the town a tourist destination for gardeners and flower enthusiasts, but the project was called off halfway through—the soil was so contaminated by lead and other mining offal that officials had to plead with people not to plant petunias in their own yards—and the only remnants of that hopeful time are a single aluminum sculpture of a daisy next to City Hall and a Silver Gardens City mural on the side of Prospect Drug that fades a little more each year. Then there was chatter about an Indian casino going up outside town—I practiced dealing cards at the kitchen table—but the casino never materialized, the chatter fell away, and with it the remnants of faith that something would come along eventually. Jobs left. People left. Prospect stayed, diminished. The new bypass road, once built, might finish it off entirely.
And yet it is my home. I’ve experienced enough heartbreak here I could feel justified hating the place, but I don’t. In some ways it might be easier for me to love Prospect than it is for Samuel, because I don’t remember what it was like before the mines closed. On the other hand, perhaps that’s what makes him so fiercely loyal to the place; every change is one more loss, one more thing relegated to memory. In any case, Samuel and I share a devotion to this valley. It cradles the bones of those we’ve lost, and stands in their stead; they lived here as we do, walked where we walk, saw what we see. It’s the kind of love for a place only an orphan might understand. However damaged it might be, however poisoned, however marred, it’s not just our home; it’s what remains of our family. If I believe Samuel did what he did—and I must, I do—then I also recognize this is at least part of why. This place is ours. It is not for others to take.
I drive past the SEE YOU SOON! sign at the town’s southern limits, then pull a hard U-turn. The car that’s been tailing me since it pulled onto the highway outside my gates blows past, and the one behind it has to wait for oncoming traffic before following me.
I’ve worked at Fuel Stop part-time since my last year of high school. Gregory One Bear, the owner, had the misfortune to open the gas station six months before the Gethsemane disaster and two years before the mines closed for good. I doubt Prospect ever really needed two gas stations, but it certainly doesn’t now. One Bear tries to carve out a place for Fuel Stop in the town’s economy: in addition to the usual convenience store staples of Fritos, M&M’s, and Bud Light, half the store is devoted to souvenirs aimed at the occasional tourists from Idaho or Canada who pass through Prospect on their way to Glacier or Yellowstone. Most days the tourists fail to materialize.
One Bear is behind the register when I go inside. “Jo—” he starts, but I interrupt.
“Might be a couple guys coming in behind me.” I head quickly for the back room. It’s generally a dismal place—gray folding table, windowless walls, OSHA posters, a couple lockers that don’t latch—but today it feels like a refuge. I shove the bag on the back of my wheelchair into one of the lockers, check that my name tag is pinned straight on my red polo.
A copy of the Elk Fork Chronicle lies scattered across the table, the main section facedown, a used-car-lot ad covering the back page. I tell myself not to look, flip the paper over anyway. I skim the lead story. It’s mostly about the explosion and the resulting damage, nothing I haven’t already learned from the radio. Only a single paragraph about Samuel, and just one line that mentions me:… a resident of Prospect in northwest Montana, where he lives with his sister. There’s one photo, Samuel’s mouth lifted into that rare ghost of a smile I so often try—and fail—to draw out of him. He is twenty-nine but looks a decade older. Short brown hair, a shade darker than my own, and our mother’s gray eyes. Skin that is tanned and taut and stretched too tightly over the bones beneath. The photo has been cropped closely around Samuel’s face, but there’s a small slash of yellow in the corner. My sleeve. My arm around his shoulders. We went to Glacier late last summer, drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road the final weekend it was open. We stopped at the Trail of the Cedars, asked a tourist to take the picture.
I leave the paper, go out onto the floor. I spot the reporters in the parking lot, one staring at his phone, the other smoking a cigarette. One Bear must have exercised his “right to refuse service to anyone.” He’s still behind the counter, pen in hand, occasionally marking a sheaf of papers beside the register. He doesn’t look at me, and I’m glad.
The souvenirs and gifts are crowded onto shelves in the back of the store: mugs and shot glasses printed with Montana; teddy bears dressed as cowboys; coin banks shaped like elk; beaded moccasins bearing Made in China tags; T-shirts screen-printed with romanticized images of grizzlies and wolves; huckleberry-flavored everything. The store even offers a small selection of my paintings; they line one wall above a display of stuffed mountain goats.
“Paint some lightning bolts on the horses’ legs,” One Bear advised me once. “Some feathers in their manes. A circle around one eye. Hell, paint a star on some horse’s butt and tell the customers it’s so it runs with all the speed of a shooting star.”
“I don’t suppose that last one’s authentic?”
He laughed. “White people love all that Dances with Wolves shit.”
I figured he’d given me permission, so I painted lightning bolts and feathers and circles (no stars). The Fuel Stop paintings don’t feel any more disingenuous than my others, with their clear skies and well-groomed wildlife. I usually sell two or three a month, enough to pay for paint and help with groceries.
I grab a filthy feather duster and start cleaning the coin banks. They aren’t particularly dusty. I glance outside. One of the reporters is gone. The other meets my eyes and I look away. I finish the coin banks and move on to the shot glasses. I dust and listen to the fourth track of the country compilation that plays over the tinny-sounding speakers on a loop all day every day and do my best not to think. Yesterday’s events still lie beyond a veil of surrealism, the hardest edges of knowledge blunted by shock. There’s a reckoning ahead, though, and not far off. I can feel the weight of it settling near my heart and smoldering there, ready to burn.
“I didn’t expect to see you today, Jo.”
One Bear stands at the end of the aisle, arms crossed.
“I’m on the schedule.” He glances away and doesn’t say anything more. I went to school with his son. The afternoon before my first winter formal, Samuel sat me down and told me it was important I hang out only with my own kind of people, did I understand? I said yes. I thought he meant people who lived outside town and occasionally ate squirrel; only later did I realize he was warning me not to dance with Reggie One Bear.
Most of the people in Prospect pretend not to remember Samuel’s tattoo. Pretend not to notice he never wears short sleeves. One Bear, I think, remembers. One Bear notices. At the very least he must have realized that Samuel never comes into this store, never hands One Bear any of his money. But he’s also never held it against me, never lumped me in with my brother.
The door chime sounds, and both of us look up. Not a reporter—not one I recognize, anyway—but not a local, either. The man starts perusing the jerky offerings. One Bear watches him a few seconds more, then glances at the reporter still loitering in the parking lot. “Um.” He picks up a Montana-branded lighter, lights it. Snaps the lid shut on the flame. “I could use another set of eyes on the books.” He gestures toward the papers he’s been marking. “Help me out?” I hesitate, and he adds, “Just for today.”
I want to tell him not to make promises he can’t keep, but instead I say sure and follow him into the back room. The books notably do not need another set of eyes. If I were in my boss’s position, I’d make a couple mistakes on purpose, just to bolster the charade, but it apparently hasn’t occurred to him to do so. I spend the rest of my shift at the gray table in the gray room, trying not to look at the newspaper with my brother’s face on it and wondering how long it will be before One Bear removes my paintings from the gift shop and what excuse he will give me when he does.
* * *
That evening, there’s a knock at the door just as I’m finishing dinner. To call it “dinner” is generous; I can muster neither the energy nor the enthusiasm for cooking, so I’ve poured cereal into a bowl, only to remember there’s no milk. I eat it dry. Samuel told me that after our mother’s death, the women of Prospect supplied him with food for weeks. No one has brought me anything now; apparently there is no casserole that says “Sorry your brother’s a terrorist.” The word—terrorist—still stings, but it no longer shocks the way it did that first day. The knock repeats, and I peer through the lower peephole Samuel drilled in the door. Devin, the FBI man. Same suit, different tie. I open the door and go out onto the porch.
Devin shows no surprise at my failure to invite him in. “I hear you don’t want to talk to me.” He glances around, presumably for a chair, and, finding none, leans against the porch railing. “Apparently you don’t … ‘recognize my authority,’ I think it was?”
It sounds foolish when he says it aloud, and I feel heat in my face. It never sounds foolish when Samuel says things like that—misguided, certainly; radical, perhaps—but never foolish. I’m surprised Hawkins used that line after all. I wish he hadn’t; I don’t want to pretend to believe it now. “You can hardly blame me for not wanting to talk to you.”
Devin makes no indication of either agreement or disagreement. “I want your help finding your brother,” he says. “If you’re more willing to give me that help with Sheriff Hawkins as intermediary, I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea. He knows the area; he knows you. I don’t discount that.” My gut tightens; I didn’t propose Hawkins as go-between in order to aid Devin. “I am not, however, going to disappear, and you need to accept that.” I say nothing, and Devin continues speaking, though only after a pause long enough to make me uncomfortable. “I spent most of the night reading the file we pulled together on Samuel.”
It’s a gentle evening. Still a pale gold glow above the ragged mountain horizon to the west, and though the forms of the aspens beside the creek have faded into the dusk, I hear their leaves fluttering against one another in the breeze like rustling paper. Something else I’ll miss.
“Samuel’s what we call a lone wolf,” Devin says. “He’s not acting as part of any organized group, not inspired by any one person or entity. He’s tried out plenty of movements, but never seemed to find one he liked enough to stick with, though he appears to have adopted a handful of beliefs from several.”
“You’re profiling him.” It should bother me—it does, because it reduces him to what he did yesterday—but I’m curious, too. I want to know if Devin will be able to explain the things about my brother I have never understood: Why has he tried so hard to believe in philosophies I could see through even as a teenager? Why has he so often sought meaning in anger and hate?
Devin continues as though I haven’t spoken. “He has no social media presence. He occasionally posted on a handful of extremist message boards, but by the skewed standards of those communities, the opinions he expressed were downright moderate. He enjoys pointing out the flaws in others’ ideologies. An intelligent man.” It’s a transparent attempt at flattery; I ignore it. “Most of the information about him comes from records kept after the death of your mother”—Devin lets his eyes fall from mine then, just for the briefest moment—“and from recent state court documents.” He glances toward the front door. “I’m sorry about your house.”
“I doubt that,” I say. “You work for the folks razing it.” Not strictly true. The state of Montana is razing it, not the feds. But, as Samuel would say, Both stomp on their citizenry.
“Eminent domain is enshrined in the federal and state constitutions,” Devin says. He presses his lips together then, almost a grimace, and I wonder if the words were automatic, if he regrets them. If I’ve seen Devin make a mistake.
“Yes,” I say, “I did learn that during my crash course in legal ways your government can screw you over.”
Devin looks at me closely, as though reconsidering whether I share Samuel’s views. There’s something sharp in his gaze, and I want to look away but don’t. “After this, talk to Hawkins,” he says finally. “You’ll still hear from me—and I expect you to talk to me when you do—but if I can go through him, I will.”
I can’t bring myself to thank him. It should feel like a victory. But I never really expected Devin to agree to my proposal, and now that he has, I’m already wondering why. Is it an olive branch? A kindness? A trick?
“I actually came tonight to tell you something else.”
I cross my arms, hope I look skeptical rather than apprehensive. I can’t shake the hunch that Devin can read my thoughts, or at least guess their tenor.
“I don’t think your brother meant to hurt anyone.” Devin says it plainly. “I think he detonated that bomb on a Sunday because he knew the courthouse would be empty. I think he placed it at the south facade in part because it was shielded from Main Street and he wouldn’t be seen, but also because the stores across Lincoln Street were closed Sunday mornings. I think he had no idea a church had moved in the week before.”
Yes, I want to say. Yes, you see it, too. Amid all the other evidence—the damning photographs and the eyewitness reports and whatever was hauled out of the house in FBI boxes—are these small truths. And here is proof I haven’t imagined them. It isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t make the bomb okay. But it does mean something that he intended to destroy stone, not flesh. Maybe it doesn’t matter to the law, but it matters to me. And I am not the only one who knows.
I don’t let Devin know how relieved I am, how grateful, though I have to push away a surprisingly strong impulse to confess my own ignorance and hurt, to offer up Samuel’s history to this man who seems to think he might make sense of it. I remind myself that Samuel would not trust Devin, would not want me to trust Devin. I channel my brother’s wariness, his silence. Secrecy is safer; he taught me that. I clear my throat, pitch my voice carefully. What I mean to say is something like, Thank you for telling me, and good night. What I say instead is, “Emily.”
Devin looks at me. Waits. I am suddenly angry with him again. He has to know what I mean; he doesn’t need to make me say it. “How is she?”
Devin pushes away from the porch railing, straightens. He adjusts the knot of his tie, smooths a palm down the front of his coat. I’m afraid he’s going to refuse to answer, tell me it’s none of my business. And it isn’t, really, but at the same time I feel I must know. I need to know, need Emily to be okay, need my brother to not be guilty of anything more. “She hasn’t regained consciousness,” Devin tells me. “They say it could go either way.”
* * *
I’m having nightmares, Jo. Only right, I suppose. I even expected it, was willing to bear it as a consequence of what had to be done, but I thought the nightmares would be about the explosion, the aftermath. Instead, I dream about you.
I dream about that night, but not about Mom, and not even about the hallway, but about afterward, going into Mom’s room and opening the closet door and finding you there. My dream starts when I see you huddled in the corner. Your eyes are squeezed shut, and tear tracks streak your face. There’s not much blood. I don’t even see it at first, and for a second I feel this tiny spark of relief through the rage and grief. But then I notice the light coming through the little hole in the back wall, and I remember hearing you scream, and I thought I was scared before but now I’m scared, now I know what it is to be scared. None of this should have happened, none of it, but especially not this. I know I must look frightening, so I wipe my palms across my face and they come away red, and I kneel down and try to be calm and pray in my head, just one word over and over: please. Please please please. I say your name. You open your eyes. I wake up.
I don’t have to guess at the meaning of these dreams. I know what you looked like, Jo. The girl from the church is a mystery.
* * *
Tuesday I listen to the radio: they’ve found the truck I saw in the photograph; it had been stolen from a parking lot in Elk Fork, abandoned across town. I wash the dishes. Go to work: the back room again, more meaningless paperwork. Return home and stare at the moving boxes in the living room. Leave them empty. Thirty-five days left.
Hawkins read my statement for the reporters the afternoon before, and it made the evening news. So, he warned me, had the photo I’d seen part of in the Chronicle, but this time in its uncropped state, me beside my brother. Afterward the number of vehicles parked outside the gate fell by half.
I cook an early dinner. Nothing fancy, just a fried egg sandwich. I eat it and remember they’re Samuel’s favorite, not mine. Afterward I go to the barn to feed Lockjaw, and I would like to linger there. My mule treats me no differently, looks at me with the same patient expression she always wears. She knows nothing about eminent domain, extremist politics, explosives. Samuel is the one who feeds her carrots from the flat of his hand; I am the one who tosses her hay and rides her into the hills.
I leave for Elk Fork in late afternoon. The deputy opens the gate for me again, and this time no cars follow when I turn onto the highway. Just south of town I pass the turnoff for Split Creek, where Samuel has spent the last decade working at the sawmill. (He comes home every day carrying with him the piercing scent of freshly slaughtered timber; it is simultaneously comforting and violent and will always remind me of my brother.) Then the old road that connects the highway east of the mountains to this one, the road that crumbled in a mudslide two years ago after a brutal wildfire season and a wet winter, that will not be repaired, will instead be replaced by the new road soon to pass through what is now my living room, because it has been determined by people who do not live here that it is more practical, more useful, more beneficial to pave the old, overgrown access lanes that cross the low saddle at the northern edge of Eden Mine, just beyond my home.
I continue south. The highway is mostly empty, the curves familiar. I wish they weren’t, wish I had to work harder to focus on the drive. Samuel, too, might be driving now. He could have gone anywhere once he realized his name had been attached to the bombing. Probably not Wyoming, but anywhere else. Perhaps to the Bakken oil fields, where he could try to lose himself in the waning boomtowns, or farther into the Dakotas, where there’s plenty of space to disappear into. Canada, even; there are ways to get there that don’t involve official border crossings. Or maybe he hasn’t gone so far. I hit play on my car’s CD player, spend the next couple hours doing my best to concentrate on the music and nothing else.
Elk Fork sits beside the interstate in the center of a round valley ringed by low, barefaced mountains; every winter it fills with woodstove smoke, every summer with wildfire smoke. Perhaps because I so often see them veiled, the mountains here seem less distinct than those in Prospect, impressionistic rather than solid. I reach the city just as the sun is beginning to sink toward the western slopes, exit near the center of town and find Lincoln Street still closed to traffic. I pull to the curb just beyond the blocked intersection, hope I look like just another rubbernecker. I peer past the oaks lining the sidewalk and see reams of caution tape, orange plastic barriers, a hastily erected chain-link panel fence into which someone has tucked a tiny American flag. It trembles in the wind.
Samuel used to talk a lot about America, about the Constitution. I agreed with what he said then: that the most important thing a government could do was leave its citizens alone, that people in suits on the other side of the country couldn’t be expected to know what it was like to live in a tiny mountain mining town and shouldn’t pretend to, that regular folks were always meant to hold the real power. Those ideas didn’t sound much different from the ones I still hear around town, or on the radio—from the ones I still hold myself—and I can’t quite pinpoint when they became something more sinister.
I can see very little of the courthouse itself from this angle, and the fading light doesn’t help. I’ve been here so recently for the hearing that my mind sees what my eyes cannot. Samuel placed the bomb outside the south facade; the radio hasn’t said where, exactly, but I imagine it tucked beside the stone staircase leading to the heavy double doors. On the other side of the thick walls: parquet flooring that clacks beneath women’s heels, long benches crowded with people in department store suits, brass-framed signs posted at hallway crossings. The courtroom in which we lost the house.
They found where he built the bomb. Hawkins told me. A storage unit in Split Creek. I’m relieved to know he didn’t build it in our home, or the barn, but the more details I learn, the harder it is to picture. The transition from thought to action. The many chances to change his mind, ignored. The time it must have taken, and the effort to keep it secret.
I think again of the shattering glass. The sound, the dust, the debris. The blood.
As I pull back into traffic, I force myself to glance across Lincoln Street, but the storefronts are indistinguishable from one another, a line of shattered windows boarded up with plywood. No way to know which had been the church.
* * *
The prayer service is being held in an elementary school a few blocks away. The lot is already full when I arrive, but I find a handicapped spot near the school’s front entrance. I sit behind the wheel for ten minutes, watching people walk inside. Most are dressed casually, but a few wear more formal clothes, some in colors dark enough to suit a funeral. When the trickle through the doors has slowed to almost nothing, I pull my chair from the backseat, reassemble it, and transfer into it. I rearrange my skirt, touch my hair to make sure it’s still tightly braided.
Inside, I roll slowly toward the auditorium. I pass a trophy case filled with prizes lauding the Sacajawea Hawks, a sagging butcher paper banner promoting a schoolwide read-a-thon, a poster advertising the upcoming spring field day. Outside one classroom rows of student papers are taped to the wall at elementary school student height. I stop beside them: identical worksheets outlining the process of photosynthesis. Bold arrows arc around each paper, pointing from the sun to the leaves of an apple tree and back toward the sky. Some of the papers show careful attention to detail, crayon colors precisely contained within black outlines. Others are sloppier, with bare white patches and printed lettering that gets bigger or smaller toward the end of each word. One child has colored the sun purple. I move on, careful not to look at the names on the papers.
The lingering scent of tater tots and canned green beans betrays the auditorium’s double duty as cafeteria. There are more people than I expected—several hundred, surely far more than are affiliated with a church that meets in a small retail space—and all are standing, eyes on the screen above the stage, where the lyrics of a hymn are projected four lines at a time. I quietly make my way to the rear corner of the room, take a place behind the last row of chairs. I glance around one more time, checking that no one has turned in their seats, noticed me. Tell myself I’m not hiding, that this is the easiest place to park my chair.
On the stage, a young man with a guitar sings into a microphone while behind him a woman plays an upright piano. The hymn is contemporary, the melody wistful but not gloomy, the lyrics filled with words like renewal and hope. I don’t know it. When the song ends, the musicians leave the stage, and another man steps to the microphone. He is younger than I would have guessed a pastor to be, older than me but probably no older than Samuel. He wears dark jeans and a pale blue dress shirt open at the collar, sleeves rolled to his elbows. His stride is long, his back straight, and he moves like someone used to being watched by others. I can’t see his face clearly, but it seems he’s looking at as many of the people seated before him as possible, moving from one set of eyes to another. It’s dark where I sit, but I wish I had transferred from my wheelchair to one of the chairs in the neat rows before me. I stay very still.
“It is heartening to see you all here tonight,” the man begins. “My name is Asa Truth, and I am the pastor of Light of the World Church. Many of you are strangers to me, and my congregation and I are deeply grateful for your support at what is a very trying time for our church community, as well as for Elk Fork as a whole.” His voice is clear and would carry easily even without the microphone. There’s something commanding in it, something calming, too, and I wonder whether that balance came naturally or if he’s cultivated it. It’s a voice that suggests assurance, solidity, certainty, and almost in spite of myself I find I want to listen to it. To believe what it says.
Of course I do.
It’s like listening to Samuel.
* * *
I haven’t been to church in years, not since I was twelve or thirteen. When I was a child, our mother took Samuel and me to one of the churches in Prospect, but I can’t recall her ever speaking of God and we did not pray at home, not even over dinner, so church must have been a social occasion for our mother, a small-town survival strategy. I liked it well enough. In Sunday school we acted out skits based on Bible stories and made greeting cards with the words of John 3:16 on the inside. On Good Friday, we sang “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” and I imagined Jesus on his final night, descending a thousand feet into the earth to pray. It must have been dark indeed, I thought, especially if he hadn’t brought a headlamp, though I allowed that Jesus himself might have emitted a gentle glow, perhaps just enough to make out the rock walls of the mine.
After our mother’s death, the pastor of our church visited me in the hospital. I remember his visit only dimly, perhaps because of the medications, perhaps because I’d paid so little attention to him during his sermons. In the hospital, the pastor was kind but seemed at a loss for words; he kept repeating, We’ll pray for you.
Samuel took me to church after that. The older I got, the more it bored me, and the less I believed in it. Or the more I realized I never really had. Sometimes I wonder if what happened the night Mom died was responsible for my lack of interest in religion. The old why me question, as though all the bad things in the world had been no obstacle to faith as long as they were happening to other people. It seems too simplistic. Maybe tragedy can only steal faith from those who truly had it in the first place, and I don’t think that was me.
It was different for Samuel, though. One Sunday—after Mom, but not long after—I opened my eyes during the final prayer and glanced at Samuel, half expecting him to sense my lack of participation, give me a warning look. But he stood straight, eyes shut so tightly there were wrinkles at the corners that made him seem older than his eighteen or nineteen years. His lips were moving silently, and I tried to make out the words but couldn’t. What I remember most are his hands, the way he held them in front of him, palms up, as though waiting for someone to place something in them, gift or burden.
* * *
The service continues with prayers, one led clumsily by Elk Fork’s mayor, the others more easily by the pastor. There are hymns, too; I recognize only “Amazing Grace” and “This Is My Father’s World,” which, we are told, is Emily’s favorite. As the hour draws to a close, the projector screen illuminates once again, this time with a photograph of a balding middle-aged man.
“We pray for the healing of those injured in Sunday’s explosion,” the pastor says, “and particularly for those still hospitalized. Garrett Folsom.” A few moments’ silence, in which I hear a shuddering intake of breath several rows ahead. “Ruby Harper.” The projector switches to a photograph of a woman with gray hair and a sly, closed-mouth smile. I study each face as it appears. The radio said both have been upgraded to fair condition. Fair seems promising. Fair is better than I was when I was taken to the hospital. But there’s also—
“Emily—” The pastor stops, his hand raised before him as though in benediction or blessing. It falters, dips and trembles. His shoulders rise and square as he takes in a long breath, holds it, lets it go. The hand rises again, higher than before, steadies. “Emily Truth,” he says.
And she is on the screen. It’s clearly a school photo, a head-and-shoulders shot with a carefully neutral mottled gray background. Emily wears a blue blouse and a delicate necklace with a tiny silver cross that rests in the hollow of her throat. Her hair is a glossy auburn, her eyes a vivid green, and her broad smile is missing a tooth at the far edge. I imagine the photograph framed on a living room mantel, glued to a scrapbook page, tucked into a plastic sleeve in the pastor’s wallet. Her father’s wallet. I try not to think about what the face in the photograph looks like now, in the hospital, whether it has been changed by the explosion, and how.
Whatever reasons Samuel had for what he did, they’re not good enough. Whatever reasons he had did not justify hurting these people. This child. Still I hear part of my mind whisper, He didn’t mean it. I try to banish the thought. It doesn’t matter to anyone but me.
The screen goes dark, and the pastor resumes speaking, his voice clear and strong once again. I bow my head, close my eyes, and listen to the pastor pray for healing and strength and peace. It’s not a passive prayer; his delivery suggests these things aren’t inevitable but must be searched out, fought for, earnestly and genuinely desired. When he speaks of healing his voice takes on a sharper tone, each word ringing with a confidence I envy. I want the things he prays for, want them as deeply as it is possible to want something, want them so much the wanting is almost painful. I wish for Garrett Folsom and Ruby Harper to recover from their injuries, and most of all I wish for Emily Truth to be okay, to heal, to live. I wish for it with every thought and feeling and breath, and if fevered, fervent wishing can be a kind of prayer, then yes, I pray for it.
“You’re his sister.”
I jerk my head up, eyes open.
“I saw your picture on the news.” The woman is in the back row, just a few feet from where I sit. She’s turned, one hand on the back of her chair. “What are you doing here?” Her voice began as a near whisper, but it rises with each word. People close by crane their necks to look. I’m used to stares, of course—the wheelchair—but this is different. “Why did you come?”
I know now I shouldn’t have. I thought it would be like the prayer service I heard they held in Prospect after the Gethsemane collapse, a place to share worry and show care. I thought people wouldn’t notice me, and if they did, I thought they would see I was like them, I was sorry, I was sad. I thought they would see I was not my brother. Samuel would have known I was making a mistake. He would have told me not to come, would have told me I was being naive, breaking the rules we’ve fashioned for tragedies like this. He would have told me they would not let me separate myself from him. Would have told me I shouldn’t try.
The woman won’t be quiet. “This is a space for people who have been hurt.” The man beside her lays a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugs it off. Tears dart down both cheeks. She is the age my mother would be.
“I’m—” I swallow, try to think of words I can say, right words, good words, but none come. The pastor has stopped speaking; I don’t dare look toward the stage.
The man touches the woman’s shoulder again, gingerly. “Margaret.”
“We don’t want you here,” she says, each word a sentence unto itself. She isn’t speaking loudly, but the room has gone silent.
I stare at her, jaw clenched. My hands are on the handrims of my chair, but they seem no more willing to move than my paralyzed legs.
Then the pastor’s voice enters into the silence. “Just as we pray for our loved ones and our community,” he says, “let us pray also for the man who detonated the bomb, for, like us, he is a beloved creation of God.” The pastor speaks more quietly than during the rest of the service, but his words command the attention of the room. Even the crying woman—Margaret—turns to face him. I feel the people around me resist his words. And why not? How can he say these things? How can a man whose child lies in the hospital at this very moment ask them to pray for my brother, who put her there? And do I hear something strained in that voice, something dutiful but no more? Or is that my own guilt bleeding into the words as they reach my ears? I bow my head, but not in prayer. Try to disappear into the darkness that isn’t nearly dark enough. “And let us pray also for his family and friends, for their suffering may be different than ours, but it is no less real.”
The pastor continues to speak—I’m sure he does, though I’m also sure he’s looking at me, so I keep my eyes cast down—but I no longer hear what he says. I feel like a child again, that child in the hospital, a victim to be pitied, not knowing whether she’s grateful for the prayers of others or resentful of them. Or, and this is a new thought: simply undeserving.
I test my hands again, and this time they obey. I cut across the room, not caring that several people turn to watch, and though the door gives me a few moments’ struggle, still I do not look up, and finally I’m in the broad fluorescent light of the hall and I feel my pulse return to me, steady and reliable. I push the handrims as hard as I can until I’m moving quickly enough to let it all blur.
I’m in the parking lot before I hear footsteps behind me. I turn sharply, and the pastor slows immediately, stops when he’s still a couple yards away. “Ms. Faber,” he says, and despite the wheelchair, despite the picture in the paper and the accusing woman inside, there’s a hint of a question in his voice, so after a moment I nod.
He is tall and narrow, the knobs of his wrists prominent, his cheekbones sharp angles beneath pale skin. His hair is a very light brown, probably darkened from a boyhood blond, and his eyes are green like Emily’s, and bloodshot. I look for judgment in those eyes, but their opacity reminds me of Samuel’s, and I instantly feel I’ve done something wrong, almost vulgar, in comparing the two men. The pastor puts one hand in front of him, and I recoil before I recognize it as a peaceful gesture; he sees me start and pulls back, and I remember the way his hand faltered when he prayed over his daughter’s name on the stage. “It shouldn’t have gone like that in there,” he says, and his voice is different now, not clear and commanding like it was during the service, but soft and a bit broken, a huskiness wounding the vowels. “People are … It’s a hard time.”
All I can think of is Emily’s photograph, and Emily’s favorite hymn, and Emily’s father standing here before me, looking at me and talking to me and all the while not knowing if his daughter is going to live.
Behind him, the school doors open, rectangles of harsh light cutting into the dying dusk, and people begin to file into the parking lot in ones and twos. The pastor steps closer. He moves as though he is fragile, or the world is, or both. He lifts his hand again, seems about to touch me, lets it drop gently back to his side.
I can’t look at him. Can’t speak.
He presses a small card into my hand. He takes a half step back, but waits for me to fold my fingers over the card before he lets it go and walks away.
* * *
I drive home five miles an hour under the speed limit, which is much too fast when it’s dark. The mountains blend into the night, but their peaks and ridges reveal themselves by masking the stars in the clear sky. I painted a scene that way once, all midnight blues and blacks, moonlit silver edges, and a spray of white stars. Hadn’t turned out the way I hoped. I made the stars too bright.
A few miles from the Split Creek turnoff, I spot a shifting of dark on dark and shove hard on the hand brake. Loose gravel rattles against the undercarriage. A whitetail buck stands immobile in the road, his eyes reflecting the glare of headlights. He’s close enough I can see the velvet coating each short curve and tine of his new antlers, the flare of his nostrils with his breath. He stares back for several long seconds, then flags his tail and bounds out of the road and beyond the reach of my human eyes.
I drive the rest of the way home more slowly, thinking of how many things in the world a person might not see until it’s too late.
* * *
I remember little of Ben Archer. He and my mother hadn’t dated long, a few weeks at most. At our second meeting, he gave me a toy unicorn; though it was horse-shaped, it was not a horse, and this small error, this misunderstanding of who I was and what I liked, had seemed to me to indicate some deeper flaw in his character. Perhaps if Archer hadn’t been so inexorably drawn to beer and whiskey, he would have simply been a clumsily well-intentioned suitor my mother could have kindly turned away. But there was the beer, and the whiskey. And then there was Hawkins at our house, and serious conversations and papers signed, and a warning not to talk to Archer if I saw him, and then there was a long quiet time in which I almost forgot about him.
* * *
A new canvas.
My studio is on the eastern side of my bedroom. The room is large, as wide as the kitchen and dining area combined, though not so deep. Several tall windows in both the eastern and western walls let in light all day long. I hadn’t wanted to move into this room after our mother’s death—made Samuel carry me upstairs to my old bedroom for months afterward—and it wasn’t until I set up the studio years later that it truly began to feel like mine.
When the room was my mother’s, I sometimes came here in the evenings to curl up and read in one of her two whitewashed wicker chairs, or to play with my toy horses on the braided rug. My mother would have a book of her own, and we sometimes let an hour or even two go by without either of us speaking. Samuel never joined us, and at the time I had been glad, had guarded those precious hours alone with my mother, but now I wish I could remember him here.
Where the wicker chairs used to be stand a pair of easels. The desk has been traded for a storage chest filled with paints and palettes and brushes, the braided rug replaced by a spattered dropcloth. The room, which once wore a subtle scent of aging paper and mild potpourri, now smells mostly of paint.
I take the painting I ruined the day of the bombing off one of the easels. I consider trying to salvage something from the blackened canvas, decide I don’t want to even if I can; nothing will stop me seeing the memory of that day on it. I fold the smaller of my two easels until it looks like a bundle of aluminum kindling, compact enough to close my hand around, and slip it into the bag slung across the back of my wheelchair. I add a box filled with pencils, erasers, and charcoal. Then I sort through the handful of prepped canvases and boards propped against the wall, finally select one twenty inches by twenty-four. I balance it on my thighs and go outside, down the long porch ramp, and over the patchy lawn to a spot twenty yards from the house, beneath one of the tall ponderosa pines that punctuate the property.
I have painted this house my great-great-grandfather built many times. It has appeared in winter scenes, buried under deeply drifted snow; in spring, with crocuses pushing through the soil in front of the porch; in summer, when the white exterior stands stark and bright against the fading fields; in autumn, when curling leaves gather along the foundation and the larch on the mountain slopes behind the house burns a brilliant yellow. Like most of my work, those paintings are light, impressionistic, never detailed enough to show the hard edges beneath the veneer of beauty. It’s a picturesque farmhouse, and on my canvases its paint is never peeling, its gutters always straight, its shutters never broken.
* * *
The first Christmas after our mother died, there were gifts from neighbors and our mother’s friends and near strangers in town, people who had worked with our father years ago or whose children attended school with me or Samuel. The second Christmas, there were almost no gifts (Hawkins gave me a book about mules and gave Samuel a bone-handled pocketknife), and no money to buy any.
I made a coupon book for Samuel, an envelope filled with construction paper vouchers for tasks I already did: make dinner, feed Lockjaw, play three games of gin rummy. It felt like a feeble gift even then, and too young for me—I was twelve—but Samuel thanked me sincerely. I suppose he was embarrassed by his gift for me, too: a shoebox containing five half-empty tubes of paint, two stained and splayed brushes, and a pad of drawing paper that held far fewer than the one hundred sheets promised on its cover.
I’d never expressed much interest in art before my injury. Sometimes I doodled in the margins of my school papers, but I didn’t think of myself as having any noteworthy artistic talent or inclination. In the hospital, the nurses gave me a box of markers and a package of paper, and I started drawing there because it was one of the only ways I could find to feel close to the things that were important to me. I drew horses and mules, the house and barn, the meadows and mountains. Over and over I drew them. By the time I left rehab, I’d already gained some appreciation for the promise and limitations of the pen, for the joy of putting right on paper what was not right with the world, and the sorrow of knowing it was mere illusion.
The tube of black paint proved to be hardened and dried beyond recovery, and there was just a bit of white left, so most of my earliest paintings were created from colors blended to their truest, boldest intensity. No shadows, no darkness. My first attempts were terrible, but when I gave one to Samuel for Christmas the following year—a portrait of Lockjaw that, while painted with great affection, regrettably suggested the mule might continue to suffer from her eponymous affliction—he immediately hung it beside the kitchen table. Before long I learned to see its flaws and begged him to take it down, but he refused; it gazed back at us at dinnertime for years.
* * *
I position the canvas on my easel lengthwise, take a soft pencil from the box and begin to sketch. The canvas is already primed with a thin coating of neutral gray; my markings are faint but visible. I start with the mountains, their outline so familiar my hand moves almost of its own accord, shaping the low build of Eden on the left side of the canvas, working toward the sharper angles of Gethsemane on the distant right. I pencil in the wooden fence along the edge of Lockjaw’s pasture, the creek, the handful of aspens and pines scattered across the fields, finally the barest shape of the house. I settle it to the right of center, closer to the bottom of the canvas than the top, but it is clearly the focal point. Ordinarily I don’t bother with details at this stage—those come with the paint—but today I take extra care with the house.
I can’t save it. The house. In just over a month it will be mine no more. Will be no more. It’s almost refreshing to acknowledge this. To prove that I know how to do more than deny. That if I missed something these last weeks and months, it was because my brother hid it well and not because I refused to see what was. So maybe I am trying to prove something with this painting. Maybe I am trying to reject the kind of willful optimism I’ve crafted on canvas in the past. But I’m not used to thinking of my art in such lofty, purposeful terms, and mostly I think I simply want to paint the house exactly as it is, just once while I still can. Not better, not brighter, not more beautiful. To record it, forever, the way it stands before me today, so anyone who looks at the canvas in the future can bear witness to it just as I do now.
I hold the pencil lightly in my hand, angled beside the canvas, and for the first time in my life draw the long, low incline of the zigzagging wheelchair ramp alongside the porch; the motion is unfamiliar, these lines new and intrusive, and I feel awkward but persist. Then, before I can change my mind, I shift my pencil a few inches and sketch a wide patch of peeling paint. A dangling gutter. The broken shutter.
* * *
I’ve covered most of Canada with my words, Jo, with these letters to you. It’s a map of Montana, of course, so there’s not much of Canada, just small strips of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, but I’ve already had to move on to the Dakotas. I find myself wanting to cover the far-flung places first, to avoid encroaching on Prospect.
I suppose you’ve had to offer words of your own. You are my only family; the propagandists would have demanded it. Did they leave you alone afterward? I hope so.
I know what I’ve done has caused you trouble. I know it’s caused you pain. I’m sorry for that, so sorry. I regret plenty, but—I want to be absolutely clear about this—I don’t regret what I did. If it had gone the way I’d planned, I’d regret nothing. It’s not right, Jo. I know you’re facing a house of things to pack or sell or throw away, and I know you’re facing it alone because of me—that’s not what I wanted, not what I meant to happen—but you shouldn’t be facing it at all. The government has no right to take our home.
All these years I’ve played their game. I’ve paid their illegal, extortionate taxes, even knowing it was wrong, even knowing they have no constitutional right to levy taxes against my own property, because I didn’t want to risk losing our home. I allowed myself to be treated like a tenant on my own land. I sent them my money so rich men could get richer, so the undeserving could continue to suckle at the welfare teat. And what do we get for being docile, accommodating sheep? A notice evicting us from our own home, from the land our family has lived and worked and died on for generations. Do you think anyone had even a pang of conscience about that? Of course not. The government has been corrupted by avarice, by greed for money and power. It oppresses those it was meant to serve. We cannot—I cannot—acquiesce, not to this. If we don’t stand up for our rights, they’ll leave us with no rights at all.
I left no note, no manifesto. I didn’t mean for them to know it was me, didn’t want anyone to connect it to you. But this is some of what I would have written if I had. This is what it takes a bomb to make them hear.
I’ll stop now. I’ve used up my slice of North Dakota and most of South Dakota, and I know you don’t care for my “politics,” as you call them. I don’t want this to come across as an “I told you so.” But admit this much, Jo—some part of you, however deep down, is at least a little glad I did what I did.
* * *
Thursday I finally tackle the empty box still waiting in the living room. I take a stack of paperbacks from the bookcase and push them into the corner of the box, then pull another stack off the shelf and shove them beside the first, and so on until the small box is full and I can tape it shut. Do it in less than a minute, don’t stop to look at the titles or make sure the edges line up or that I’ve made efficient use of the space. Don’t give myself any excuse not to fill the box and fill it fast. I scrawl Books across the top in thick red marker, then push it against the wall. There. I’ve started packing.
Friday I again work my shift in the back room and, when another employee calls in sick, volunteer for a second shift behind the register. One Bear thinks about it for a long minute before he nods. My paintings still hang on the wall above the stuffed mountain goats.
Saturday I take the easel and canvas back out beneath the pine, and I lay down a wash of Payne’s gray across the mountains, a shade darker and bluer than the priming gray. Then I begin the painting in earnest, using the acrylics straight from the tube, even mixing a few with modeling paste, pushing and pulling with my painting knives until I’ve manipulated the thick pigments into textured ridges and swaths. The techniques are familiar; only the colors are different. My other paintings are saturated with color, mountains edged with violet, horses’ coats reflecting bright yellows and reds. This painting will have subtler, stiller colors, like those glimpsed through a window on a rain-soaked day.
It’s not right. I know it early on, but keep painting until I’ve got most of the canvas finished, until I can’t pretend it might work itself out along the way. Maybe the knives, which work so well for most of my paintings, aren’t precise enough for this kind of work. I replace the incomplete painting with a fresh canvas, begin again, trading my knives for brushes. This one takes longer. The brush feels clumsy in my hand, the whole process less certain, less intuitive than usual. Maybe that’s good. Maybe slowing down will help me capture the details I so often gloss over.
Hours later I sit back and eye the nearly finished canvas. The subdued hues are disquieting. I meant them to be soothing, but they cast the house into gloom, and that’s not how I see my home. But that’s not the only problem. This painting is more accurate, certainly; I’ve accomplished that much. The image forming on the canvas is very like the one I see on any given day when I drive up to the house after work. There is more detail here than in any painting I’ve ever done, more realism. I haven’t glossed over anything, blurred out, minimized or erased. It is faithful in a way my previous canvases were not. I take some pleasure in this proof that I have more range as an artist than I thought, but this isn’t what I meant to paint. Isn’t what I set out to do. Perhaps accuracy and truth aren’t quite the same thing.
I’ll have to try again, but not today. I’m losing the light.
Sunday strikes me hard from the moment I wake. Sunday is one week from the bombing, one week from the day Samuel left “for Wyoming.” Sunday is the day he told me he’d be back.
I lie in bed too long, get up only when I hear Lockjaw’s shattering bray from the barn. I hurry my morning routine, but almost an hour has passed by the time I make it outside. Lockjaw starts kicking her stall door as soon as she sees me, and I holler, “Quit!” The mule flattens her long ears but stops kicking. “It’s not like you’re in danger of starving,” I mutter. I go to the feed room, scoop a quart of oats into a bucket, toss a couple flakes of hay on top. Then I look at the four bales stacked beside the bin and let my breath out in a rush. I’ve seen them every day this week, but I haven’t realized until now. Four bales. Four. We never bring down more than two at a time.
I wonder if Samuel meant it when he told me he’d be back today. Maybe he really did intend to go to Wyoming, figuring a week would be long enough to be reasonably sure the FBI hadn’t connected him to the bombing. Maybe he’d planned to drive up to the house this evening, come inside, drop a bag of burgers from the Gas-N-Go on the kitchen table. I wonder if he would have told me what he’d done. If he’d trust me with that knowledge, saddle me with it.
Whatever he told me, I’d have believed it. I believed everything. Not just Wyoming, but the lies he told me before. An extra shift at work. A trip to the store. Sorry, Jo, big lumber order so it’s all hands on deck. Sorry, Jo, the first place didn’t have what we needed so I had to try another store. Sorry, Jo, there was a wreck on the highway and it was all backed up. And I’d always said, It’s fine, Samuel. It’s fine. Which of those stories were true? Which were lies? When was he at work? When was he in a storage unit building a bomb?
I knew he was a liar, but until the bomb I didn’t think he lied to me. It shouldn’t surprise me. Shouldn’t hurt this way to realize it. After all, I’ve seen him lie to others. Hell, I’ve lied with him; he taught me how. He’s good at it, better than me. Does knowing that and believing him anyway make me a fool? Does it make me something worse?
He said he would come back today.
I still believe he meant to.
And yet. Samuel knows what’s easy for me, what’s hard, what’s impossible. Retrieving hay bales from the loft is impossible. He brought down four.
I return to the house. I intended to pack more boxes today, but the possessions I use least are upstairs. The break-it-out-once-a-year kitchen appliances and utensils are in the upper cupboards, out of reach. The bookshelves are bare save for the top shelves. I have a grabber, but it’s meant for things like cereal boxes, not electric mixers and dictionaries. I pack a single box with the good tablecloths and napkins from the linen closet, sandwiching between them a pair of brass candlesticks my mother put on the table at Thanksgiving and Christmas. She never lit the tall ivory candles, reused them year after year.
I glance at my painting supplies, but can hardly stand to look at them.
I go back to the barn, call to Lockjaw. I shouldn’t ride alone. Not without someone knowing where I’m going and when I plan to be back. I’ve adapted well to riding without being able to feel my seat or legs, but I’ll never be as secure in the saddle as before my injury. If Lockjaw spooks or stumbles and I fall, I’ll be in serious trouble, especially if I’m any distance from the house and barn. Once, years ago, Lockjaw was stung by a hornet and dumped me near the southern fence line. Samuel came home from work to find Lockjaw grazing in the front yard and me exhaustedly dragging myself a few inches at a time across the front field. If he hadn’t been there, it would have taken me at least another hour to get back to my chair, and I hadn’t even been hurt.
I consider all this. Then I saddle and bridle Lockjaw and lead her toward the mounting ramp.
* * *
There is a tree high atop the eastern ridgeline that I have always loved. It’s a couple miles southeast of the house, roughly above where the Eden and Gethsemane mines would meet, had their tunnels ever united. The tree is just a Douglas fir like so many others on the mountain slopes, but its highest reaches stand above those of its neighbors, and as a child I ascribed almost mystical properties to the tree. I thought of it as a sentinel, a guardian watching over Prospect.
I talked Samuel into hiking there when I was eight or nine, and he agreed only after extracting promises that I wouldn’t complain about the steep trails or the distance. I held up my end of the bargain, though it took much longer to get to the tree than I anticipated, and my legs started to burn and ache when we weren’t yet halfway there. When we arrived at the tree, I was disappointed. It wasn’t any larger or more majestic than its neighbors; it had simply had the fortune to plant its roots on a rocky outcropping that rose a couple yards above the surrounding ground. There were no eagles in its branches, no musical whispering of the wind through its needles.
“This was a good idea, Josie,” Samuel said, his approval instantly banishing my disappointment. “That’s one heck of a view.” It was, too, a clear bird’s-eye perspective on not only our own property—its sprawling acreage, the gray roofs of the house and barn—but also the entire town. From the tree, the foothills across the valley were dwarfed by the true mountains behind them, like the earliest ripple of a tide lapping at a beach, the peaks behind building higher and higher, the most distant ones capped with white like the highest breaking waves.
I sit atop Lockjaw now, one hand holding the reins and resting on the saddle horn, the other shielding my eyes from the sinking afternoon sun. I look at the mountains first, then the town, finally the house and land. There’s an unfamiliar metallic reflection toward the front of the property. Still a couple vehicles parked outside the gate. I catch myself scanning the property for Samuel, hoping to see him walking to the barn or mowing the pasture. Sometime soon I’ll stop forgetting what he has done, stop expecting things to be the way they once were. I can’t decide whether it will be a relief when that happens or not.
I ride slowly down the mountain, giving Lockjaw a slack rein and letting the mule choose her path. I close my eyes, willing my mind to go as dark as my vision. Usually a ride to the high fir calms me, but my thoughts come quickly, in flashes and images, one after another, piling up so I feel hounded by them. The days till the eviction: thirty. The damaged courthouse. The photograph of Emily. Samuel driving back from Wyoming, Samuel still in Wyoming, Samuel never in Wyoming at all.
* * *
Hawkins is waiting in the barn when I get back, sitting on a storage bin in jeans and flannel, cleaning his fingernails with his pocketknife. He looks up when I lead Lockjaw into the barn. “You shouldn’t ride alone.”
“Don’t have much choice, do I?”
He doesn’t say anything else. Doesn’t get up, either, though I know he has to make an effort to stay seated. Hawkins’s instinct to help those he deems to be in need verges on Pavlovian, and being both female and disabled, I set off every help that person bell in old-fashioned Hawkins’s head. Mostly he restrains himself unless I ask, and when he can’t, he helps when I’m not looking. He mucked the stall while I was riding, for instance, but he doesn’t point it out and I pretend not to notice.
He waits until I’ve untacked Lockjaw and am on the far side of the animal, grooming her coat with a soft brush. “What’re you gonna do with that mule when…”
I wince, glad Hawkins can’t see me from where he sits. “There’s time yet to figure it out.”
“Not a lot.”
I wheel behind Lockjaw, toss the brush into the grooming tote with more force than I intend. “Jesus, Hawkins. I know I’ve got to take care of it, and I will.”
I see his temples jump as he clenches his jaw, but his expression doesn’t change. “Sorry,” he says. “I know your brother usually handles that kind of thing, is all.” He folds his pocketknife, tucks it back onto his belt. His hat has been sitting crown-down beside him—it’s white, of course—and he puts it on now, stands. “I came to see if I could take you to dinner.”
“I smell like mule.”
He lets one side of his mouth twitch upward. “Puts you ahead of most folks at the Knock-Off.”
The Knock-Off is just around the corner from City Hall, in the lower half of a two-story brick building on a side street so narrow it seems charitable not to call it an alley. When the mines were open, it was the most popular place in town, but these days most of Prospect’s remaining residents prefer the newer sports bars in Split Creek, and the Knock-Off caters mostly to drunks and near drunks. This early on a Sunday, the place is almost empty; when Hawkins and I enter I see just one other customer and the bartender. We go to a table beneath high windows crowded with neon beer logos, and Hawkins kicks a vinyl-covered chair out of the way to make room for my wheelchair. The bartender saunters over with a couple menus; he drops them on the table, waits. Hawkins orders a fried chicken sandwich, I order a cheeseburger, and the bartender nods and scoops up the untouched menus.
I look at Hawkins, and Hawkins looks at the walls. A few pickaxes, black-and-white photographs from early days at the mines, an old-fashioned cap with a carbide lamp and reflector on the front. A photo memorial to each of the thirteen miners who died in the Gethsemane collapse. My father in the second row. He’s smiling, sunlight bright on his skin, blue eyes squinted nearly shut. I can see Samuel in him. He doesn’t look much like our father, really, but they have the same slim, sinewy build, and they stand the same way, rooted and sturdy, as though a person could push and push and push and still not move them.
“Nothing new to tell me about Samuel?” There isn’t—Hawkins would have mentioned it before now—but I want to say his name.
Hawkins pulls his eyes to mine, shakes his head. I wave the bartender down, ask for a beer.
“You hate beer.”
“Not drinking it for the taste.”
Hawkins presses his lips together. “I don’t like seeing you this way.”
“I’m not allowed to be pissed off that my brother blew up a building?” I don’t care about the building. But it’s easier to say than Emily.
“I just—” He passes his hand over his phantom mustache again. “I wish I could do something to make it better.”
“You can’t,” I say, but I send the words across the table gently.
Our food arrives, and I’m glad for an excuse not to talk. I’ve forgotten to ask the kitchen to hold the pickle, but I leave the sour slices where they are; it isn’t so good a burger that they ruin it. Hawkins shakes extra salt onto his fries and ferries them to his mouth by the handful. He doesn’t drink—never does—and he’s ordered a lemonade he leaves untouched. I don’t think he really likes the stuff, figure he orders it because it seems like something an Old West lawman in a dime-store novel might do, a habit that would get another man mocked but that the sheriff can get away with because no one questions his righteousness or courage. Sometimes I think Hawkins looks in the mirror and sees Gary Cooper.
The lone customer at the bar pushes his stool back and ambles toward the door in a not-quite-straight line. He’s tall, and thin in an unhealthy way; he doesn’t make eye contact with either Hawkins or me as he passes.
Hawkins swipes at his mouth with a napkin. “I don’t want to have to drag my ass out of bed tonight ’cause I’ve been called to your place, Branson.” He cranes his neck. “You hear me?”
Branson doesn’t turn but raises his hand in a brief wave that’s half acknowledgment, half dismissal. Hank Branson was out sick the day of the mine collapse. He should’ve been in that stope, which means someone else was there in his place. I don’t think he’s held a job since, and I can’t imagine he can afford to pay his extensive bar bill. I wonder who does.
Hawkins turns back once the door shuts behind Branson. “The man gives me fits, Jo.” I offer a tight smile. I’ve seen the Hawkins-Branson exchange before, and there’s something performative in it. The two of them are like a couple actors in a long-running play, and Hawkins especially embodies his part well. I don’t think he’d know what to do if Branson suddenly got sober. “He’ll be back soon as he’s sure I’m gone,” Hawkins declares.
I nod to his empty plate. “Guess he won’t have to wait long. Ready?”
He doesn’t stand. Crosses his arms, sighs. “I got a question.”
A question. Not a surprise, not really. Yes, Hawkins takes me out for a burger now and then, or has me over to his place for microwave dinners in front of the tube, but nothing gets to be that simple anymore.
I don’t make it easier on Hawkins, though part of me wishes I could bring myself to; he’s wound so tight, so obviously uncomfortable, that I almost expect him to huff and stamp a foot like an unhappy horse. Still I wait, silent.
Finally he meets my eyes. “Where did you and Samuel go that summer?”
Whatever question I thought he might have, this isn’t it. For a moment it’s so unexpected I can’t imagine why he’s asking—it seems as random as wanting to know who took me to prom, or what kind of soda I last sold at Fuel Stop—and then, in a single, awful, heavy moment, I understand exactly why he’s asking. “I’ve told you that,” I say, very softly.
“Tell me again.”
I become aware of the buzzing hum of the fluorescent Coors sign over my head. “Did Devin tell you to ask that?”
Hawkins’s voice hardens, just a hair. “Devin hasn’t figured out he should tell me to ask that.”
I spin my empty beer glass, widening the wet circle on the tabletop.
South Dakota. That’s what we told everyone, when we came back. We’d been staying with Mom’s friend in South Dakota, yes, we should have called, we could see that now, but couldn’t everyone understand, we’d just lost our mother, we wanted to go somewhere we felt safe, now we were back and it was all fine, we’d only gone to South Dakota. I told the story so many times, to so many people, it started to seem nearly real.
I remember the day the social worker told me that when I left rehab, I couldn’t go home with Samuel. He was only seventeen. (Almost eighteen, I protested.) We’d been traumatized by our mother’s death. I had special needs. Not the most suitable environment.
I remember the way everyone worried that I never cried, not since the night my mother died. Not even when the therapists and social workers came to talk to me. Not even when they told me I’d never walk again. I remember that when they told me I couldn’t go home with Samuel the tears finally came, and I couldn’t stop them. (Very nice foster parents, they assured me. Experience with physically disabled children. We can reevaluate when…) I remember Samuel looking me in the eye and telling me everything would be okay, and I remember that then the tears stopped.
I remember him coming to visit me the day before I was scheduled to leave the rehab facility. We went outside together, as we had almost every day for a month, me pushing the handrims of my still-new wheelchair, Samuel beside me, waving to the receptionist in the lobby. I remember that instead of turning left toward the city park, he turned right toward the parking lot. I remember him telling me to hurry. I remember the rifle in the back window of the pickup.
And I remember the summer. Despite all that had happened in the preceding months—our mother’s death, my injury—those six weeks with Samuel are still a time I look back on with something like happiness. I felt peaceful. I felt safe.
Samuel made me practice the story before we came back. South Dakota, he said. Our mother’s friend’s name is Mary, you don’t remember her last name. She lives in a yellow farmhouse in a small town, you don’t remember where. Let me worry about that. He showed me a map, traced our imaginary route with a pink highlighter. We stopped at Devils Tower, he said. At Mount Rushmore. At the Corn Palace. And I told the story many times, to many people. To Hawkins most of all, because he asked again and again. South Dakota, I said. South Dakota. And finally he stopped asking. Finally he let it be truth. We’d gone to South Dakota.
We hadn’t, of course.
Hadn’t left the state.
Hadn’t even left the county.
“Samuel wouldn’t—” I bite the words off just in time. Samuel wouldn’t go back there, I almost said.
“Where did you go, Jo?”
I still the glass in my hands. Lift my eyes to Hawkins’s. “South Dakota.”
* * *
I have prayed.
I have prayed with words. With any words that come to my lips, with eloquent words and words so jumbled they scarcely make sense. With words that say exactly what I mean and words that can’t come close. I have prayed with my eyes shut and my hands clenched so tightly they ache for hours afterward. I have prayed at her bedside, and at mine. I have prayed as I walk down the street, as I swallow food I no longer seem able to taste, as I sit on the toilet. I have prayed at night in lieu of sleep.
When my own words fail me, I have prayed with the words of those who have come before me, with the words others have used to reach out to You: Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in thee: yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast. And: The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust. And, sometimes, more and more, simply: Hear my cry, O God: attend unto my prayer.
I am not brave enough to pray as Jesus did in Gethsemane. Every day, a dozen times a day, a hundred, I ask You to spare me—to spare her—but the second part of that prayer, the Not what I will, but what thou wilt … that I have tried to pray but cannot. They seemed rote words until I was asked to mean them myself.
Sometimes even the words of Your book are ash in my mouth, and then I have prayed without words, trusting You to know what is in my heart, trusting You to hear me even in silence. (Do I trust? Do I really? I try.)
I have prayed her name.
I have prayed Your names.
I have even prayed with my hands. One hand on her head, one on her heart—her pulse slight as a sparrow’s; You see the sparrows, don’t You?—and I pray with all that is in me that You might work through me as You once did when I was a young man.
I have prayed every way I know how.
I have prayed in new ways and old.
I have prayed without ceasing.
Copyright © 2020 by Sarah M. Hulse
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