The woman on the television was grotesquely overweight, her hair a thatch of gray and what looked on the screen to be some flat, amberlike coloring. A huge T-shirt printed with a bundle of multicolored balloons lay like a tent over her chest. Her face was a mess—she was crying, had been for some time. That was clear.
"You can get help here, Rory," she told the camera, sobbing. "Please come home. We love you. You don't have your insulin. You don't have none of your medicine." She poked at her eyes with a big red handkerchief. "Please," she said again, shaking her head, "we want to help you, and we're the only ones who can."
The girl Rory had shot five times was still alive. The news report said she was 19. He was 26.
They interviewed a preacher in his clerical collar, the girl's neighbor, who said no one in Stockbridge would ever have thought that something like this could happen in a small town. "In a city, sure—but things like this are not supposed to happen here."
But they do, Carol thought. The six o'clock news verified that the unthinkable had occurred last night about two in the morning in Stockbridge, a small town just 30 minutes down the river from where she and Lloyd were watching the news while finishing their vegetable soup. The search for Rory Melius had already begun. That morning, his Dodge Ram had been found on a gravel road that dead-ended on a bluff overlooking the Big Sioux.
"Poor guy'll be dead," Lloyd told her. "You watch. He probably used that gun on himself." Carol looked up at him angrily, but he was busy watching.
On TV the reporter spoke to the anchor. "Walt, the police aren't saying much about Rory Melius. From all reports here—and Stockbridge is a little town—few people would have guessed he could do what police are saying it appears he did. The police have issued no warnings, really. They're not saying that he's armed and dangerous."
"That's because they think he's already gone," Lloyd told Carol. "He's not dangerous. His gun is empty. He put five into her and had one left."
"How can you say that?" she said.
"Well, count 'em yourself," he said.
"That's not what I mean," Carol told him. "This isn't a movie, Lloyd—these are real people."
He turned toward her. "It's domestic, honey. It doesn't matter that they weren't married. It's passion gone, shot to heck—love to hate to despair." He shook his head. "He's gone, Carol—you know that. Why do you think they're not putting out an APB?"
"I just wish you weren't so sure of yourself," she said. "Do you get some comfort out of that?—is that it?"
"Comfort?" he said.
"Yes, comfort," she told him, picking up his dish, the milk, their silverware, then getting up to take it to the kitchen. "Does it build you up or something to think you know exactly how all of this is going to turn out?" She could feel his eyes on her.
"Are you angry?" he said.
"I'm not angry," she told him, her back to him. "I'm just not as sure as you are that you're clairvoyant, and I wish you wouldn't do that—tell me what the outcome of this horrible, sinful mess is, as if you knew, as if it were written in stone."
"It's a plain old lovers' triangle," he said.
"It isn't just a 'lovers' triangle,' Lloyd—my goodness." She opened the dishwasher. It was still full from last night. "That's a real woman on the screen—somebody's aching. There's a young girl shot. Can't you see that?"
"Is what I said wrong?" he asked her, picking up the crackers and jelly. "To me, it just looked open and shut, honey. There's too many things here—"
"I don't want to hear any more, okay?" she said. "Let's just drop the whole thing."
When she heard him open the newspaper, she was still turned away from him.
One silent hour later, she lied to him, told him she was going to Wal-Mart when she was going to River Hills, a park five miles west of town where the meandering Big Sioux River cut jagged sides from the yellow clay of a series of sharp bluffs. There were no police at the entrance—not that she expected them really, but the park wasn't more than a half-hour away from the spot where they'd found the boy's truck.
It was May, late May, and from the top of the bluffs, where she first stopped the car and stood outside for just a moment, the whited path of the river showed how high it had been carrying snow melt and heavy spring rains. All the way along, maples and cottonwoods had been brought low by the high water, dumped neatly as if kneeling for a drink.
They'd had a wonderful marriage—
28 good years. But lately she was
capable of taking so very little of him.
From the very beginning of their awful heartache, she and Lloyd had been together on everything, worked together ever since the day their son-in-law, Burt, had called to tell them Paige had walked away, left him and their precious little Hannah for some teacher in that school she taught at in Joliet. She and Lloyd had never disagreed, not really. Not once. They'd sat together before the fireplace they'd just had built that fall—the idea was a sweet place to spend cold winter evenings, just the two of them. They'd talk and talk and talk about what could or couldn't be done; and not once in all those nights had they really disagreed. She knew very well that her daughter had no right, no horrific grievance against her husband. Burt had treated both of them well, their daughter and granddaughter. She and Lloyd had agreed that it was their own Paige who was at fault here, and they'd told Burt as much, time and time again when they'd call him or when they'd talk to his folks.
Maybe Lloyd had been more angry than she. It was Lloyd who had done most of the talking—and the yelling. It was Lloyd who'd laid down the law. It was Lloyd who'd cut Paige off—told her that he and her mom had to play hardball with the outright sin she'd done, that neither they nor the Lord God Almighty would buy her excuse about never really loving Burt—and the baby, my goodness, the baby. From the very beginning, three months ago—from Burt's first call—not once had she and Lloyd really disagreed about how to handle what their daughter had done.
She got back in the car and slowly followed the winding road down to the river bottom, where grass was just beginning to grow from the mat of gray mud that caked the banks after the spring floods. She pulled up to the bank of the river on freshly laid gravel, looked around to see if anyone else was there—the boy named Rory had tried to murder the girl, after all. "Plain old lovers' triangle," Lloyd had said. And why was she calling him a boy? At 26, he was a man.
I don't want to find him, she told herself—that's not the point. I don't want to see a boy who tried to murder a girl. I just don't want Lloyd to be right. Lord, she said, don't let him be right.
She didn't really know the problem. For years she'd lived with his noisy eating—soup, for instance. It seemed that he had to make noise when he sipped. But lately it was so irritating she couldn't take it. And why? Because of Paige? His laughing at a tv show could turn her inside out. Watching him correct his students' papers. Just knowing he was working at something in his office. Having to hear his strong bass voice in church made her almost nauseated—was it a virus she'd picked up from her daughter? They'd had a wonderful marriage—28 good years. But lately she was capable of taking so very little of him.
She left the Buick behind and followed the uneven path of freshly laid gravel as it skirted the banks of the river. Across the water, beaver dens gaped like black moons from the banks beneath four scraggly cottonwoods splayed in four different directions like pencils in a cup. Midstream, a sculpture of bleached limbs, one of the river's earlier victims, stood like a monument to the torrent of water that now seemed wide and slow and safe, nowhere near to dangerous. What she wanted, of course, was for the boy to give himself up, not do himself in. But did the boy mean anything to her really? She wanted him alive only to spite her own husband.
What she hated was Lloyd's nonchalance—and maybe that wasn't the right word, either. What she hated was the fact that this horror of Paige's flooded every last part of her, and had, for three months, swept everything alive and growing into its channel, everything at work and at home and at church—wherever. She couldn't sleep, and hearing his breathing relax into that heavy pattern she'd heard for years only aggravated her more. She had to force herself to eat, but he didn't seem to be suffering at all. Twice in three months they'd made love, and both times she tried to fake her enjoyment.
Maybe she should simply go to Joliet herself, alone, she thought. Maybe if she would take Paige into her arms—maybe, maybe, maybe.
The park was empty, the river quiet, bedded down calmly. And then she felt it. It came into her like something cool and refreshing, even though she recognized it for what it was the second it entered her: despair. Why wouldn't the kid kill himself? Lloyd was right. Why should he go on living? What single good reason could he give to come home to insulin and prison? There was a bullet left in that gun. Why not just quit?
She stopped and looked down at the water, silent and constant like eternity, and her own sadness, like the boy's, fed the flow of despair that came up suddenly and refreshingly from her soul. It would end things, she thought. It would end suffering. It would end horror. It would end aggravation that she lacked the strength and courage to fight anymore. It would end nausea. It would allow her rest. Despair as relief.
Across the water, a huge, scruffy owl swooped out of a tree but stayed in the woods, flying between thick branches like a circus performer. It was wrong, she knew—despair was the lack of hope, and hope was hers, always, eternally. Why was she feeling it? How was it that despair even felt so good to her soul?
She looked around. They were here in the winter, she and Lloyd, when the snowbanks lay along the unsheltered paths like bread dough, and the deer left broken chains of darkened prints down the bluffs. They'd come here several times in the last year—before Paige had left Burt—because now, with the house empty, they'd been trying to come up with some new ways of being together: cross-country skiing, photography. They'd been right there where she was standing, the two of them leaning on their ski poles, sweaty, trying to catch their breath, when a half-dozen deer walked right across the river in a single line. Life was good, a miracle. That was before their daughter had done something unthinkable. That was before Paige shattered God's law—an adulterer. Paige, adulterer. Lord, give me strength, she prayed, her eyes on the dark river beside her.
Through the trees on the bluff, the sound of the car coming down the road startled her, sent something she recognized as fear through her like a chill. She looked back at her own car, parked by itself at the river's edge, and felt a kind of embarrassment when a brown squad car from the county sheriff's office emerged from the trees at the bottom of the hill. A quarter-mile away, she watched as the squad car pulled up and an officer stepped out, a woman, who walked around the Buick as if it were a suspect, then followed what were likely Carol's own footprints in the gravel, and looked down the path toward the woods, where she stood.
The young woman, her blond hair pulled back tightly, removed her sunglasses and held a hand up over her eyes, then stared into the trees. In a gesture that seemed instinctive, she checked for the gun on her belt before tossing her hat in the car and locking it. Then she started walking, looking for the driver.
Poor thing thinks maybe there's another suicide, Carol thought. So she stepped out of the trees, stood there motionless for a moment, just to be seen, and then waved politely, happily, as if there were nothing amiss. The policewoman stopped, thought for a moment about going back, then kept coming closer.
Maybe the wave wasn't enough, she thought. Maybe the woman read the wave as someone putting her off. Carol looked down at her watch and realized that she'd been gone far too long, so she put her hands in the pockets of her coat and started walking back. "I'm okay," she said, quite loud, once the officer approached. The woman smiled.
"I came down to have a look at the river," Carol told her. "It's something I do a lot."
"You too?" the woman said.
Carol shrugged her shoulders. "You mean you weren't worried?"
"I'm always worried. It comes with the territory." She stopped, ten feet away, just far enough that Carol couldn't quite read the name on the plate on her chest. "Sometimes—middle of the shift—I come down and take a little hike," she said. "It's my region anyway—it's not like I'm slacking."
"There's something about water," Carol said.
The woman nodded. "You're not scared?"
"I figure you don't know," she told her. "Stockbridge—you're not scared of the kid who shot his girlfriend?"
"Don't know what?" Carol said.
"He turned himself in," the woman told her, smiling. "We pretty much knew he would. Might have been his mother on the TV, though," she told her. "I thought you might have heard the story—"
"I heard," Carol said. She looked away at the river.
The woman followed her gaze. "Sometimes when I'm down here alone, there's beaver running around on the banks across the river, making a big mess." She pointed to the other side. "You think all those uprooted trees come from the spring floods, but you're wrong. Beavers massacre 'em over there—here too." She pointed at trees not more than 20 feet away, already half-gnawed. "People think they're smart, but they aren't—that's what I'm told. They just do it for the heck of it—maybe to keep their teeth sharp, who knows?"
"Nature's engineers," Carol said. "I always thought of them as nature's engineers, dam builders."
"Ask the guy up the hill." The woman nodded toward the park ranger's office. "He wishes he could get rid of the whole lot of them. All they do is make a mess. But there isn't much call for beaver hats anymore." And then, for the first time, she looked directly at Carol in a way that dropped any bit of profession and pretense. She smiled. "I'm glad you're all right. I've had a big day."
"At least the boy is alive," Carol said.
"He's not really a boy—he's as old as I am." The woman shook her head, looked around aimlessly. "I was with his mother last night for a while," she said, a begrudging smile. "Women officers, you know—we're supposed to be better at that sort of thing." She shook her head. "That woman—her heart is gone. It's like it's not even there. That kid shot his girl, but he killed his mother."
"I saw her," Carol said.
"She was worse off-camera," the cop said.
"No kidding." Carol felt as if the woman had already said enough. "So this is your beat?"
The woman smiled. "There's a place down the river—the other way," she said. She was Paige's age, a little older, maybe. "If you'd walked the opposite direction, you would have seen it." She half turned. "You want to see? It's a place I go when—" she shrugged her shoulders, "—when I just like, have to, you know?" Once again, she looked at Carol in a way that seemed childlike in its pleading. "I suppose it's unprofessional, but this job—it isn't what I thought it was going to be. It's not glamorous and it's not at all easy on a woman."
"I'm sorry," Carol said.
"I don't want pity," the cop said. "And it's not that I don't like what I do. There's just some times I have to stop down here and go see this upturned tree—in the river." She pulled her hands out of her pockets and drew a circle in the air. "It's huge. Some beaver probably dumped it a dozen years ago, and the branches are all bleached like old bones—like that." She pointed at a flattened cottonwood just 50 yards away in the river. "It's like that, but it's bigger, much bigger." Again, her hands rounded out huge branches. "But this spring—you know, when the water was high?—the river grabbed this whole other tree and laid it in those branches so that the whole thing looks almost like a big—" she bit her lip, searching for words, "—well, like a big cross, I guess." She seemed embarrassed. "I used to believe in God," she said. "Sometimes I look at that tree, you know—at the way it makes a huge cross in the middle of the river, right in the middle of all that mud, and it just gets me—I mean, something weird like that. It's huge." Her face fell. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's been a tough one the last couple days—that mother and the girl."
"It's okay," Carol said. "Show me. I'd love to see."
"Maybe it won't mean anything to you—I don't know," the woman said. "But it's huge, and it sits right out there like something God stuck in the middle of everything, you know? It's just not something you'd expect to find—you know what I mean? It's like a shock or something." She stuck her hands in her pockets, kicked at the gravel. "It's just something I like to look at, I guess. It's dumb, I know. A couple of dead trees. I'm sorry—"
"What do you mean you 'used to be a believer'?" Carol said, laughing. "You sound like you still are."
"If I am, it's because of that tree." And she laughed, hard, in big heaves of breath that could have, in a moment, evolved into tears. "That's stupid, isn't it?" she said. "And I'm sorry—here I am an officer of the law and all of that, and I'm spilling my guts over this river bank. I should be tougher than that."
"We all should be better than we are," Carol told her, and she walked up to her, then waited for the offer of a shoulder. When it came, she put her arm around her. "Show me," she said. "I don't believe it. I want to see this huge tree. I need it too."
"Somebody your age got problems?" the woman said.
"You know better than to ask that," Carol said. "You're a cop."
"You know," the woman said, "you got your life, and you got your job, but I guess that's not really everything." She pulled away. "Let me show you. That's why I came."
When she got home, Lloyd was standing outside the back door, waiting, his jacket on. "You must have done some serious shopping," he said.
"I didn't go," she told him. When she came up the walk, he grabbed her in his arms. "Carol, that kid—the guy who shot his girl—he came home. He's not dead. It was on TV. He came back."
"I know," she said. "I heard." She put an arm around him, tucked her hand in the pocket of his jacket. "I went down to the river—"
"I went down to the river, and you can't believe what I saw," she told him. "It's incredible."
"We haven't been there for a long time," he said.
She pinched his side. "I'll take you, tomorrow."
James Calvin Schaap is professor of English at Dordt College. Among his books of fiction are In Silence There Are Ghosts (Baker Book House), a novel, and The Secrets of Barneveld Calvary (Baker Book House), a cycle of stories published earlier this year.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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