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Sarah Crane breathed deeply of the Vermont air as she quickly counted the chickens to make certain they were all safe in the coop before she closed the door for the night. Twelve. Perfect. She secured the door against any raccoons or weasels that might be out looking for an easy midnight snack, and with a last backward glance at the barn to make certain she had locked the door, she carried the egg basket up to the house, just as her mother had done every night for the past fifteen years. Fall was Sarah's favorite season; there was something about the light—maybe the way it filtered through the golden leaves of the maples surrounding the small farmhouse, or just the angle from which the sun shone down on her. Whatever it was, it always made her skin tingle and filled her with a sense of pure exuberance. Or at least it had until her mother got sick almost a year ago, and then died six months later. Since then even the fall twilight couldn't quite fill her with the joy of earlier years.
Nor did it help that there were only six eggs in the basket, and with the late September chill in the air, Sarah knew that the hens were about to stop laying until next spring. That, though, was nothing compared to the other thing worrying her tonight: how were she and the animals and the farm going to survive the winter with her father going into what her mother used to call "his cycle," without any preparation at all for the cold months ahead. He hadn't chopped any wood, he hadn't hunted deer, he hadn't even sold the calves, and now they were too old to bring the best price.
Instead he started drinking, and the vague unease Sarah had been feeling for the past few months was blossoming into a gut-churning fear as she scraped the bottom of the feed barrels. Now, with winter quickly approaching, the rats were taking over the barn, the hay was rotting in the field, and the woodpile, which should have been at least four cords by now, was pitifully small.
But she couldn't do it all herself.
The last of her exuberance fading as she stepped back into the warm kitchen, Sarah tried to unwind her worries as she unwound the wool scarf from around her neck. She put the eggs into the refrigerator and began cleaning up after supper, even though her father was still sitting at the kitchen table.
He hadn't eaten any of the corned beef hash she'd made for him; instead he pushed his plate aside and was staring morosely down at a photo album open on the table in front of him.
Sarah quietly cleared the table, careful not to bother him. She scraped the leftover hash into a dish, covered it with plastic, and put it next to the eggs in the refrigerator, then began running hot water into the sink.
Her father's voice was hoarse with the grief he'd been carrying for half a year, and the sound of it pulled tears to her eyes. Those tears were never far away, but most of the time she could control them.
Unless her father began to cry.
Then she wouldn't be able to stop them. How many times in the past six months had she and her father held each other on the sofa and just cried together? But when were they going to move away from all that? Her mother had told her—told her over and over again—that she wasn't to spend her life grieving. You keep living, understand? You have a whole life ahead of you, and I don't want you wasting any of it crying about me going and dying on you.
"Yes?" Sarah said, in response to her father, gritting her teeth against the cold fear in her heart.
"Bring me another beer, honey."
She felt a fist close in her belly. Before her mother died, her father never had more than one beer, even on the hottest days. But lately the first beer led to the second, and then on and on. And it did no good to argue with him—he'd just tell her to stop worrying. She pulled a beer from the refrigerator and put it on the table, but couldn't keep herself from at least trying to slow him down. "Do you have to, Daddy?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Just something to take the edge off, sweet pea," Ed Crane said, putting his thick arm around his daughter and drawing her close.
Every part of her father seemed larger and more powerful than other men, which was why everyone except her mother always called him "Big Ed." He was tall, broad-shouldered, had legs nearly as thick and strong as the trunks of the maple trees, and a grip that could have crushed her if he wasn't careful. But he was always careful, at least with her, and now his arm was gentle around her.
"Look at your mama in her wedding dress," he said, pointing to a photograph. "Wasn't she the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?"
Sarah didn't want to look at those pictures again; they only made her miss her mother even more. She wanted her father to put them away and start living again. But night after night, he didn't eat, he didn't sleep.
He just grieved.
And now he wanted another beer.
She knew how this would end. He'd keep drinking most of the night, and in the morning would apologize and swear it would never happen again. And for a while he'd be her father again.
Until the next time he decided to have a beer, and then another, and then ended up going out and drinking all night.
She squirmed uneasily from his grasp. "I have homework I have to do."
Ed let out a massive sigh. "How am I going to raise a daughter?" he said. "Without your mama . . ." His voice trailed off and his entire body seemed to shrink into a shrug of defeat.
You stay sober and tend the farm, Sarah wanted to say. I can raise myself if you just take care of the farm. I'm already fourteen and I can handle it. But she said nothing, and went back to the sink to finish cleaning up.
Just as she was drying the last of the dishes, her father opened the refrigerator and helped himself to yet another of the brown bottles that always sat at the back of the top shelf.
"Please don't, Daddy," Sarah said, unable to bite back the words. "Please don't start." The tears she had struggled to control now slid down her cheeks.
"It's okay, sweet pea," Ed said. "This isn't like last time. Don't you worry now, you go up and do your homework."
"Please?" she begged, a sob escaping her. What if he went off the deep end this time and never came home again? What would she do then?
"Don't nag me," Ed said, twisting the cap off, throwing it at the garbage bag and missing. "Better get to doing all that homework."
Sarah looked toward the ceiling. "Help me, Mama," she whispered. "Please help me. I don't know what to do."
Taking a deep breath, she wiped the tears from her face with the dishcloth, hung it carefully and neatly on its hook, then went upstairs to her room, leaving her father to his personal demons.
Lily Dunnigan was about to cover her husband's dinner plate with a sheet of aluminum foil and put it in the warming oven when she heard a loud crash from upstairs.
"Nick?" she called out, then listened for a moment, heart pounding, for his voice to come floating down the stairs, telling her everything was okay.
Instead she heard another loud bang. And another. Grabbing a bottle of his pills from the cabinet above the refrigerator, she ran upstairs, praying all the way.
By the time she got up to Nick's room, he was yelling, his voice rising by the second. "Stop! Stop it! Stop it now!"
Lily pushed the door open without bothering to knock, knowing that right now Nick wouldn't even hear her voice, let alone a rap at his door. Sure enough, his face was contorted into a grimace that hovered somewhere between pain and anger as he smashed the keyboard of his computer on the back of his desk chair. "Stop it!" he howled again, his voice cracking. "Stop saying those things to me!"
"Nick!" Lily cried, then repeated his name even louder: "Nick!"
Startled, he looked up at her, but for a moment his eyes didn't seem to focus. A second later, though, he stared down at the broken keyboard in his hands and a look of confusion spread over his features.
Lily's heart sank.
She wrapped her arms around her son, and he carefully set the keyboard back onto his desk, then clung to her, sobbing.
"They won't leave me alone," he said, his voice breaking.
"What is it, darling?" she asked. "What are they saying to you this time?" She gently guided him across the room and they sat on his bed. She smoothed his hair and rocked him back and forth, even though his fourteen-year-old frame was far too large for the easy cuddling that had calmed him in years gone by.
Nick shook his head as if trying to rid himself of some terrible memory. "Awful things," he said. "They talk about horrible things." His gaze fixed on the ruined keyboard on his desk. "I thought they were coming out of my keyboard," he sobbed, pressing his head into her bosom. "But they weren't. They were inside my head." He paused. "I don't even know what they keep saying to me. But it was—"
"Hush," Lily soothed. "Just relax. It's all right—it's not real . . . none of it's real."
Nick's sobs slowed as the two of them rocked on the mattress. When he finally spoke again, Lily could hear the fear in his voice. "You won't tell Dad, will you?"
She pulled a tissue from her pocket and handed it to him. He blew his nose.
"I won't tell him," she promised. "Assuming he comes home at all," she went on, then wished she could reclaim the words when Nick suddenly looked even more frightened. "From work, honey," she added. "He's just really late, that's all," she went on, and couldn't resist adding one more word: "Again."
But why shouldn't she say it? It was true—Shep had been working late every night for months, ever since his promotion. And lately he was always in some kind of negotiations over prison expansion plans, as well as trying to keep up with all his regular duties as deputy warden at Lakeside State Penitentiary. And for what? Did he really think that if he just kept on working twelve hours a day instead of his usual ten they'd eventually make him warden? Not likely, given that his boss was five years younger than him, and showed no interest in going anywhere else.
"You took your medication today, right?" Lily asked her son.
"I'm going to double your dosage tonight. Maybe it will help you get a good night's sleep."
Nick nodded again, but didn't loosen his grip on her.
Lily rocked him, wishing she could absorb his fears, draw them right out of him and banish them forever. But she couldn't—so far it seemed nothing could rid Nick of the voices in his head and the strange hallucinations he sometimes saw. But she wouldn't tell Shep about this episode tonight, because he'd want to send Nick right back to the hospital in Waterbury, and she would not let that happen.
Not after what they'd done to Nick last time.
"You okay now, sweetie?" she asked softly.
"They're quiet when you hold me," he said.
"Then I'll hold you all night," she said.
She felt him smile, but they both knew that holding him, rocking him, was not the answer.
But that hospital hadn't been the answer, either, and neither, apparently, was this latest medication.
Nor had her fervent prayers released Nick from the grip of what she'd come to think of as his demons. And if God couldn't free him, what could?
Maybe if they tried a different doctor.
Or a different medicine.
Or if Shep spent more time with his son.
But since Nick's last hospital stay, Shep didn't seem to have any time for Nick at all, and when the two of them were together, Shep had nothing to say to the boy, and at fourteen, she knew that Nick needed his father far more than he needed her. Yet Shep only seemed more absorbed in his work as each day and each week passed. The thought she tried to hold at bay but that always seemed to escape her control in the darkness before each dawn now stabbed through her like an ice pick driven directly through her heart. He no longer cares about Nick. My own husband doesn't care about our son.
Well, it couldn't go on—not while Nick seemed to get worse each day.
She would talk to Shep when he got home. She'd talk to him again.
But for now she would just hold Nick close, hold him and rock him and wish that things—many things—were different.
Big Ed Crane blearily lined up his shot, jabbed the stick at the cue ball and completely missed. For the second time in a row. Dropping the pool cue on the felt table in utter disgust, he made his way unsteadily back to the bar.
"Dude! You owe me two bucks," the kid in the John Deere ball cap called after him.
"Sue me," Ed muttered as he slid onto the corner bar stool and tried to bring Christine, the bartender, into focus. "Boilermaker for the road," he said.
Christine eyed him from her position at the beer tap. "I think maybe you've had enough, Ed."
"You cuttin' me off?" he demanded, belligerence rising inside him like molten lava.
"I'm thinking you could use a cup of coffee," Christine said, sliding the just-poured beer in the opposite direction, then pouring a steaming mug from the pot next to the tap and setting it in front of Ed. "And you need to pay that kid his two bucks. He beat you fair and square."
"Got no money," Ed said, his anger melting into drunken self-pity. "Got nothin' anymore." He ran his hand over his face. "Used to have . . . everything before Marsha died. Now I got nothin'."
"Man, you don't know how lucky you are," a man two stools away, wearing stained bib overalls, said. "Women are all whores. Take your money, and steal your soul. Wish my wife would die and leave me in peace."
Ed pushed the coffee mug aside, swung around on his bar stool, and glowered darkly at him. "Marsha wasn't like that."
"Sure she was," the guy shot back, ignoring the warning note in Big Ed's voice. "_'Course she was—they're all bitches, every one of 'em. Didn't you just say you've got nothin'? That's 'cause she stole it all from you, then left you to rot."
"Not Marsha," Big Ed grated, his eyes narrowing and his right fist clenching dangerously. "She was the bes' woman of 'em all."
"More like was the biggest whore of 'em all," the other guy sneered. "And your daughter'll be just like her. Just another fu—"