California, May, 1973
I knew every detail. She’d be standing there with her hip thrust to the side and her hand resting on it, like she always had. The exact same pose as in the photo I’d carried in my wallet that the bullet tore through.
The river before me and the leaves on the gentling trees had frozen as the word rang in my head. It had come from behind me but it wasn’t the sound of my name that had sucked the strength from my legs–it was the voice that had spoken it. I willed my shoulders to relax and still with my back to her, exhaled slowly.
“Happy birthday,” I said.
“You remembered…!” said the voice from behind me.
“But you…left…town,” I said, still staring ahead at – but not seeing – the river, the factory, the town’s future.
“I came back.”
My fingertips traced my clammy palms. I swallowed. Then, like a condemned man facing a firing squad, I finally turned.
And there she was. Dimples, shining, athletic. Buoyant and serene. Somehow all at the same time. With her hip thrust to the side and her hand resting on it.
“Hello, Willow,” (I think) I said. I took her in, piece by piece before assembling the whole. Bittersweet memories. Memories I had tried to control with denial in the few private moments I had had during my endless deployment at Quang Tri. But a day, an hour hadn’t passed when she hadn’t slipped into my thoughts.
“It’s been a while.” She held my gaze with those green eyes. Her hand twirled a strand of hair. “Nearly three years.”
“I know, Willow.”
“You never wrote.”
“You knew I wouldn’t…I couldn’t. It was too –”
She shifted her gaze to the shiny new factory on the far side of the river. The top of its chimney stack was level with the roadside viewpoint where we stood a quarter mile away. The tilt of her head, the half-smile that accompanied everything she said, were unchanged. But the plaits were gone, replaced with business-like, tied back hair. Instead of tatty bell-bottoms, she wore a crisp safari suit.
“You won’t have seen that place before,” she said. “Well, not operational.”
“The guy at the gas station told me about it. That chimney must be a hundred feet high.”
“Never seen it smoking though,” she said.
“They must use it – the top’s sooty.”
“That place employs half the town’s young men. Let’s hope it can take more – now they’re coming home.” Her voice lowered. “Bobby Saxon gone. Geoff Rogers burned, lost both hands. Blue Walters? You remember Blue?” she asked.
“Captured. Still missing.”
“He deserved better. You all did. I thought you’d head for the bright lights a soon as you’d received your honorable discharge and ticker tape parade. Well,” she faltered, “there should have been a parade. And Daniel – I’m so proud of you. I heard about the medal…”
She shifted her weight from foot to foot, then looked down. “So…why have you come home?
“I have some last respects to pay and a house to sort out. I guess old boats and gas engines don’t mix.”
“Everyone went to the funeral. Even Sam and Curly Collins.”
Her eyes tensed and for a moment she looked about to speak.
“Your uncle was under a lot of pressure – one man against a powerful corporation. That must explain the witness statements.”
“Pressure or not, he was no drinker. No way he’d go to sea drunk. But how could I get a proper investigation started from seven thousand miles away? I’m sorry – I raised my voice.”
“I know how close you were. With him gone, there was no one to oppose that factory. It’s here now, whether we like it or not. I guess we better learn to love it.”
I studied the spaghetti pipework that joined the stainless storage tanks to the sprawling buildings. “You’re probably right.”
“So…what are your plans, Daniel?”
“Not sure. I have to decide what to do with Steve’s house. Apparently it needs rewiring, there’s a hole in the roof, some rotten floorboards…”
“And when you’ve decided?”
“Head for the Big Apple. Charlie Macklin’s old man says he’ll see me, give me some tips, make some introductions. It would be dumb to not show up.”
“They say you saved Charlie’s life.”
“The M16’s a remarkable weapon until it jams.”
“His dad’s the guy with the Wall Street firm, right? When you make that million, don’t you dare forget us, Daniel Dragan.”
“You can take the boy out of San Prospero et cetera, et cetera. I just want to see the city, meet up with some buddies, hang out. Don’t know if I could ever work there – as Uncle Steve says – said – it’s better to be clean poor than filthy rich.”
She took a few steps towards my VW camper. Looked inside. I caught her frown in the window reflection.
“Been living in it,” I explained.
She turned slowly. “’Fraid I have to get back.”
“Willow, did you ever complete your studies?”
She coughed before answering. With that raspy edge, it sounded like a smoker’s cough. Surely she hadn’t started –
“I’m qualified now. Working at Meredith Tucker’s practice on the corner of Main and Hoover. Specialize in small animals. But around here our definition of small is pretty big…”
“Is Meredith still saving souls for the Salvation Army in her spare time?”
“Who has spare time? Plus I have an animal sanctuary to run. Jonah Bellows rents me some land on his farm. A few cats, chickens, ducks, abandoned Christmas presents. And Ray-Me, who’s responsible for me starting the place. She’s been with me three years now. Never thought she’d live.”
“I’m guessing she’s a doe?”
“She made it because you’re good at what you do,” I said.
“It was Meredith who saved her. The poor animal died on the operating table but she got her heart started again.”
“As modest as ever. I bet you helped.”
“I may have a fancy certificate on my wall but you know what? It’s L-O-V-E the animals respond to best of all. It was lucky that Humphrey joined us a few days later.”
She saw my puzzled expression.
“Humphrey the donkey. He’s blind and who wants a blind donkey? Ray-Me had just about given up on life when Humphrey came in. They adopted each other as soon as they met and became inseparable. Ray-Me was soon bounding around, looking after Humphrey. As donkeys are very sociable animals, it did wonders for him too.”
“So Ray-Me became his seeing eye deer? Sounds like a great eye-dea to me.”
She smiled. “Still the comedian, I see. Point is, never underestimate the power of love. Afraid I gotta scoot – Amy Fletcher’s finally bringing Joe Frazier in for neutering. His tally this month includes four car tires and a ripped off bus fender.”
I resisted the temptation to ask if a dose of L-O-V-E could remove the Rottweiler’s testicles.
She opened the door of her ’65 Dodge and I traveled back to that thundery August 1970 morning. We’d hugged then, broke apart, cried, hugged again. Her sobs had followed me inside the army barracks and on into the unknown when I shipped out with my platoon the next day.
The Dodge looked as if it had been through a war too. “Did you replace the radiator?”
“No – your gum’s still blocking up the hole, just fine.”
She swung one long leg, then the other in and wriggled her bottom to get comfortable. A bottom I’d first admired on the sports track as she broke the school hurdling record for the third time. Pretty soon I’d become a regular at the track too as I stretched, sprinted and jumped my way to zero victories.
She wound down the window.
“Willow? Look I’m around for a few days. I’ll be at Steve’s place. Maybe we could –”
She gunned the engine before letting it idle.
“You’ll never guess who moved in across the street from your uncle…”
Excerpt, Something in the Air
Copyright Ⓒ 2015 Ben Huxley Starling
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