He was justified in everything he had done. The house had burned, Jay had been hurt. It had cost the drifter something dear, and he had paid for his betrayal. For all but spitting in Glass’ face.
He had known that the girl owned the house — at least that’s what the Gadsden woman had told him in his digging. It hadn’t been ideal; but as Jay owned nothing in town, it was the best thing to do to hurt him. A thing that meant something to the stranger. And it had worked.
Ira couldn’t believe he’d really done it at first, that night when he laid in bed after setting the fire. Then it had really struck him, hearing later of the girl who had died. He hadn’t been one of the officers to respond; he’d stayed as far away as he could, not wanting any more to do with the crime scene. There was no worry of them linking it to him. Nor should there be.
It was a different system of justice, for police and civilians. It was the way things were, the way things needed to be. He’d done what he needed to do, and nobody could tell him it had been wrong.
It was only later he had learned of Rumor’s death. How had that happened? There was no one there when he’d left. He knew that. Of that he was dead certain. What had he missed? He was sad at first. He’d lost the very thing that had made him set the fire in the first place.
But in the morning he rose with a clear conscience. If she had gone in and trapped herself, well. That was no guilt of his own. If there was any fault to be had, it was Jay’s and Jay’s alone.
Glass cruised the narrow lanes of Sixty-one, his shaded eyes surveying the road, a sentinel against crime and disorder. He had done nothing wrong.
* * *
She couldn’t believe what she had seen. Still had trouble piecing it together, the things she’d seen on Coffin Road that day. That Rumor had died, for one, her only steady friend — as little as Celia really knew the girl. There were times, in the nights after the fire, when she woke up drenched in sweat, howling with fear and anguish.
And then there was the other thing… What did it mean? Not the death. That was sad enough, without need to make it sadder, more inexplicable. But then she had disappeared. The way she had died, the way it was like the willow and she were one and the same.
Celia knew what she knew, but still couldn’t believe it.
Just when she’d got the land tax paid, had thought all her worries were over for the year. She ought to’ve known better. Life was not certain, no matter how stable it could grow to seem. You had to under and overstand that.
Mosquito was with her near all the time now. She knew it wouldn’t last, knew he would go out into the town again, leave her alone. She didn’t know where he slept when he was out on the streets. But he would leave again, as he always did — when she got too stressed about money, or anything, really. He could never stand to stay put when she was like that.
She’d given up understanding him. She’d been born when her mother was 44 years old, when he was the same age she was now. They were brother and sister, but had so little in common.
They’d had Rumor, of course. And now, now…
The pain had changed something in Celia. Or if it hadn’t yet, she would make it. It had to. Rumor’s death…it had to mean something. It would always mean something to her, of course. But she needed it to do something. To be some good in the world.
She had hidden away too long from her own gift. Had shrunk away in the shadows, from the pain and helplessness of her hands being broken. Since the day of her accident she’d never played a note, though she had her reputation still. Folks would send their kids from counties all around, kids who wanted to quit their lessons. After Celia, they’d either up and quit for good, or stick to it in a way they never would have elsewise.
That’s what it would be, she decided. She would start teaching cello as well, a way to bring in more money.
But more than that, she would play again. Would make herself play again, for Rumor. For herself, and for Mosquito.
On Christmas Eve she opened the closet in her bedroom, fished out the cello case from where it was buried under boxes and old shoes and clothes. Opened it up, held the gold-brown wood in her shaking fingers. Clasped the bow, breathed deep. Listened for the strings to sing.
* * *
It was Christmas Eve. The drifter hadn’t come in like Ed had asked. Not today, nor the last either.
He wasn’t surprised. Nor did he take pleasure in not being surprised, at least not today. Not like he would have done. The girl had died. The one Jay was always with. In a fire, of all ways to go. Even Ed, hard-skinned and cheap as he was, had the sensibility to feel that.
The drifter wasn’t long for his town. Ed knew it in his bones, felt it the same way he’d felt things click into place the night Jay arrived.
All yesterday and all today, folks were streaming in the diner to talk of what had happened. There were many theories going around, blame thrown every which way. Some even said a cop had done it. Ed grunted in derision whenever that one came up. No way an officer of the law would do that.
That night, the night of Christmas Eve, as he locked the place up, Ed realized he would survive it all. He would live through losing the drifter, of course. He’d always known that. The fire, the turmoil it caused in town. He would outlive it and any other scandal that would come. Yes, the diner was in decline, but he’d survive even that.
It was a cold, lonely feeling. A sinking in his gut. He didn’t know why, nor have the wherewithal to give it much thought.
Ed took another drink of whisky, scratched his eyelid, rubbed the left temple. It was starting to ache again.
* * *
Come Christmas morning, Jay made the choice to leave for good. There was nothing for him here anymore. No debts, no obligations. Nothing for him to love. Only the land itself, which was not nothing. But it wasn’t enough. Not without her.
As for Glass… He knew, somehow, that the cop had done it. Could never prove it, of course. Another reason he could never make himself stay.
He stopped at the Li’l Cricket on his way eastward out of town. Filled up the Buick, bought a hot coffee. Readied himself for the long day’s drive. Where to? He didn’t know; but then, he had never known. Only away. At least there wouldn’t be much traffic today, of all days.
Jay took a slow draw from the coffee cup, tasting the painful heat. Pressed his eyes closed, then forced them open. He glanced up into the early morning sky. The moon hadn’t set yet. It was watching him, unwilling to let him leave without one last plea. He looked away.
The road was uneven, full of potholes as he drove on. Jay didn’t mind. As far as he was concerned, it could open up and swallow him whole, Buick and all. He tried not to think, tried to keep the grief and fear from pressing in too hard. Tried not to think about her.
Which only made him want her more. She was really gone. It was a fact he couldn’t get around, no matter how illusory it felt. Rumor was really gone. He didn’t care anymore about who she was, what she was, where she’d come from. He only wanted her.
He choked down the feeling, felt it soak into his body as a slight throb of panic. Jay felt like he was swimming underwater.
The sky was brightening, the shadows thinning out. New shafts of sunlight split the oaks overhead, traced uneasy patterns on the road. To the left, some hundred feet away, he spotted a church, a small brick building with no steeple, fenced by a throng of small, worn grave markers. Something about it made him tap the brake. On a whim he pulled into the lot, put the Buick in park.
What was he doing? He wasn’t sure. He craned his neck to read the church sign: Saint Adelaide’s. It must be Raymond Grove’s church, the priest who had been a regular patron at Ed’s.
Grove was a fair man, and fair-spoken. He’d seen him many times at the bar, often when it was otherwise empty. The priest had liked the quiet, the solitude of the place. Jay had never seen him there when it was more than a quarter full.
“Ain’t no fear in love,” the priest had once claimed.
Jay thought about that now. He’d brushed it off at the time, but he brought it out, looked it over, considered its merit. If there was no fear in love, what was there? Pain. You could never be safe from it. Maybe you weren’t meant to be.
He let himself feel it all, closed his eyes, let it wash over.
When he opened them, he wasn’t sure what time it was. It felt like hours had passed, yet the Buick still idled, the tank still full. What should he do now? Go home? He wasn’t sure.
Jay pulled out of the lot, left the homely building behind. He turned right — back westward, the way he had come. Was he really going back? He didn’t have to decide just now; but it was a possibility, in a way it never had been since he had left.
Was he ready for that? To face everything that waited for him there? Maybe he was. Maybe he would never be.