Will Enterprises was housed in a long one-story woodframe. There were two doors, with a sign above each – Will Variety on the left, Will Realty on the right. Another sign at the entrance to the parking lot directed Variety patrons to park on the left and Realty clients on the right; there was a red line painted down the center to indicate where left and right began. I parked in the Will Variety lot, though it was nearly full and there were spaces much closer to the building available on the Realty side; I had seen Owen tell off friends and strangers alike who left their cars out of place. He said he liked to know what was coming.
The store was crowded, made to seem more so by the glut of pennants, bumper stickers, license plates and banners that hung from the exposed rafters. Above the entrance was a poster that said DON’T WORRY, THE GOVERNMENT WILL BREAK IT, which was old, and a stenciled image of what appeared to be a porcupine, with the words STEP LIGHTLY, which was new. I put the hood of the raincoat up, tried not to recognize anyone. I hadn’t made a list, and, overwhelmed with the enormity of entirely rebuilding the house food supply, drifted from aisle to aisle, ending up with a distracted blend of baking staples I didn’t know how to use and novelty items: a box of dry cocoa mix, a bag of flour, a raft of energy bars, a bottle of vanilla extract. He was out of one- and twopercent milk, which was typical, so I settled for skim.
By the time I got to the checkout counter the rush of customers had passed and the line was short but unmoving.
‘I just ask you to think about it a little,’ Owen Will was saying to the woman standing before the cash register. As I remembered: gray cardigan over striped double-breasted shirt, full cheeks and heavy jowls, white hair buzzed military-style. He was leaning across the counter, one hand on her elbow in an attitude of fond but grave concern. ‘I haven’t seen those studies, but hey, you haven’t seen those studies either.’
The woman seemed to assent.
‘I just ask you to think,’ said Owen. He withdrew his hand, hit a button on the register and took out a few coins, which he gave to her. She moved off and he straightened up and looked out across the store, directly at me.
‘Is it?’ he said, seeming to speak to everyone in line.
I adjusted my groceries and pretended to check a watch I didn’t have.
‘Is that her?’ he said, this time to the man standing just in front of me.
Owen pulled at the lapels of his cardigan, squared his shoulders. ‘Is that Em Saunders? Is that the Emily Saunders?’
The people ahead of me turned.
‘Hi,’ I said.
‘Em! Caledon’s own! Caledon’s brightest. Caledon’s brightest is back.’
‘Hi, Owen,’ I said.
‘Do you know this girl?’ he asked the man. ‘This girl is much smarter than you.’
‘Nah.’ The hood had failed me; I took it off.
‘I didn’t know you were coming. I would have made the place nice,’ said Owen. ‘Normally we’ve just got these jokers kicking around, you know, I don’t bother.’
I had gotten some variation of this act on trips home ever since I had started college. Every time I wondered if I was being mocked; every time I was left to conclude that it was sincere goodwill.
‘Place looks great to me,’ I said.
He closed the cash register; it rang. ‘Don’t think you’re going to wait there. You don’t wait in lines. Miss Saunders comes up to the front.’
An edge of malice? He was smiling broadly, the kind of smile that made me feel, along with the kneejerk warmth it inspired, my own smallness, highlights of which included my delight the night before at the news that my father had called him a bonehead.
‘I just saw your parents last night,’ he said, as if I’d voiced the thought aloud. I felt myself blush. ‘Come to the register, come.’ The other customers in line stepped obligingly out of the way and, with no recourse, I went, face alight.
‘What have you got here? Feeding the troops?’
“Just me and my sister,’ I said.
‘Your sister. I’m glad you’re feeding her.’
I slid the grocery basket across the counter. ‘Um, yeah. We’re kind of out of everything.’
‘That happens,’ he said, tossing the cocoa mix into the air and catching it. ‘That does happen.’ He lowered his voice. ‘I saw your folks.
They’re good people.’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘I think they’re good people.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, and, feeling as if I was being invited to expand on this, added, ‘I heard maybe things got a little heated? Last night?’
He scanned my flour and set it down hard on the counter. White smoke rose. ‘Oh, well, your dad. Your dad’s a smart guy, that’s where you get it from. Your dad’s a firecracker.’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Maybe too much.’
‘No, sweetheart,’ said Owen. ‘He knows what he believes. I know what I believe too. I just ask people to think.’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
My groceries filled three paper bags. I started to slide them off the counter, but Owen pulled them back. ‘I’ll get you, don’t worry, I’ll get you!’
I wasn’t sure what he meant until he came out from behind the register, arms around the bags. ‘I’ve got it, I’ve got you, I’ll walk you out.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Thanks.’
‘You think I’m going to let you walk out there with all this? You’d drop it.’
‘Ah, I’d be OK.’
‘You’d drop it! You’d drop it and I’d have egg all over my parking lot.’
‘Ah, ha, yeah,’ I said. ‘Luckily it’s raining.’
‘It’s raining? That’ll make your hands more slippery!’
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I meant it’d wash the – egg away – I was joking.’
‘What?’ He shouldered the door open and held it for me. In the parking lot, the water was ankle-deep. ‘I need some drainage here, don’t I? Where’re you – there.’
He loaded my groceries into the hatchback – ‘You’ve got to get them snug, see? Otherwise you’ll have milk all over your mom’s car. Your mom’s a nice lady, we don’t want that’ – and then opened the driver’sside door for me. I got in.
‘Thanks so much, Owen,’ I said.
‘Em,’ he said, ‘I should tell you – you’re going to be with Maggie now? You’re visiting?’
‘Something like that.’
‘You go hiking, don’t you? You girls like hiking.’
‘Sure.’ I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been for a hike, though throughout high school I’d gone on at least one long trip a summer; Maggie, to the best of my knowledge, limited her climbing to staircases.
‘You should be careful. Did you hear about that lady?’
I buckled my seatbelt. ‘No. What?’
He opened the door wider. Rain fell into the gap between the door and the car and spotted my left leg. ‘You didn’t – I’m surprised your parents didn’t tell you. The Picards, you know the Picards?’
‘The Picards, they live over by Echo Lake. You know them.’
‘I don’t think I know them.’
‘You’d know them if you saw them. A friend of Julie’s came to visit, back in April, and they found her dead.’
‘What? Who did?’
‘She went out for a walk alone, the friend. They found her dead. Side of the road.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘God. What happened?’
‘Someone cut her throat.’
‘God,’ I said. ‘They don’t know who?’
‘They don’t know who,’ he said. ‘So be careful. You girls have to be careful. Don’t let Maggie go out alone. Be careful with your sister.’
‘That must have been awful,’ I said insipidly.
‘Be careful with that sister.’
‘And come back and see us here soon, sweetie. It’s always a pleasure.’
He shut the door before I could thank him again.
The strike of rain on the car changed while I drove home, deepened, as if there was something else mixed with the water. I saw them bouncing on the hood: hailstones the size of peas, hitting and whipping away to either side. More hail and less rain every second; the wipers stuttered and jammed against it, and whined over the drying windshield, and the thunder returned like an answer.
I was a mile from the beginning of the driveway when there was a rustle in the trees up ahead, to the right, a hiss, and then sound guttered like light, on and off and on. Two objects had smashed together hard, or one thing had torn brutally in two; I couldn’t tell. I saw bars and balls, I saw starbursts.
I stopped in time: shards of timber fell out, peeled off – without much force, or with less than you’d expect – fell languidly, deliberately from the sloping right bank and spanned the road. Smoke spilled after them, and dark floating ash, and then other fragments – boughs sheared from neighboring trunks. They bounced noiselessly when they landed. Bright sprays of dry crumbled wood scored the pavement. I turned the engine off. I had screamed, I knew because my throat hurt. A minute or two later I remembered that I had heard myself do it. I sat for another five, waiting for my heart to soften, for the beating points below the corners of my jaw, at the wrists to drop back into numbness. Heart, blood, lungs, throat – everything usually obscure and anonymous announcing itself, felt. I had seen lots of storms, I had seen lightning hit close by; I had never seen it so close. When I drove forward again there was a new sound – an intermittent rap and scrape, something caught in the undercarriage. I pulled as far to the right as I could, put on the hazards, opened the door, listened for thunder and cars.
The road was empty. I got out, eyes half-closed against the hail. There was wind behind it now, warm and ozone-scented. Lodged and protruding above the left front wheel was the thin end of a severed tree branch, leaves still on. The first brittle inches broke off in my hand. Ice found the back of my neck and the waistline gap that opened when I bent to work out the rest; I succeeded only in snapping off further pieces, reaching deeper under the car with each one. I was still engaged in this inefficient pursuit when the wind dropped a little and I noticed the tick of an idling motor.
There was another vehicle behind me, higher and broader, some sort of glorified off-roader, square-framed and orange, dark fogged windows. It had the luxury xenon headlights that had gotten popular with the local four-wheel-drive enthusiasts a few years earlier. The figure in the driver’s seat was a barely adumbrated mass, now one now two. I was not sure if I was imagining its boundaries myself, delineating broad shoulders, short hair – someone smaller on the passenger side? I waited for them to pull around and pass.
They didn’t move though, or she didn’t – now I began to see a tall woman – they – now a bearded man beside her – now only the bearded man on the right, no one driving. I gestured again, tried to direct them around my car. I put one hand across my eyes. Their lights stayed on. Side of the road, throat cut. My heart started kicking again. Fear and embarrassment vied. Stop, be brave. I dropped into a squat and felt one more time for flotsam around the tire, and like surf the motor surged up behind me, heat on my back. They were ahead, gone.