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The Hunters

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 4


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Chapter IV

Eli opened the door of the cabin as quietly as she could and returned the galoshes to their place on the mud mat.  She slipped Jed’s socks back on as she listened for movement, but there was none.  He was still asleep.

As she had flown away from the lonely field with the burning car and its empty, charred husk of a human being, she had felt the same way that she always did after she killed: an enormous feeling of relief, tainted with sadness and guilt.  And of course, the feeling of being dirty; of having degraded herself yet again.  One more person’s life had been snuffed out to satisfy her needs.  By the time she had returned to the cabin the feeling of relief had worn off, but the guilt, depression, and sense of damnation remained.

Notwithstanding Jed’s offer, she did not wish to wake him.  So she took the blanket off the bed and ascended the ladder, intending to lie down in some other place in the loft and thereby let him sleep as long as possible.

After reaching the top, she paused to look at him.  He lay under the old gray army blanket on his back; his eyes closed, thinning hair a mess, his mouth slightly open.  His weathered face was inanimate and expressionless. 

She thought about what he had written in his journal, which she now wished she had not read because of what it had revealed about him.  Jed, a good man who was trying to understand what life was about by leading a solitary and simple life in the wilderness, close to nature. 

Jed, who had unwittingly let an evil force into his life: her.  Eli, faker-in-chief.  Eli: a liar and a killer.  Eli, whose life was anything but genuine.  No matter how kindly he felt toward her, and her toward him, his goodness was a vast and impenetrable gulf that divided them.  He would not be able to know or understand her; she had to be incomprehensible to him. 

A feeling of terrible loneliness swept through her.  In her evil, she was all alone.

As she stood at the edge of the loft, she looked down and realized for the first time that there was a handful of dark drops on the front of her freshly laundered sweatshirt, and with this observation, she suddenly hated herself.  Hated having to live in a world of half-truths when she was around people like Jed.  Hated having to be secretive; hated having to mislead.  Hated having to take perfectly good food and throw it down the shithole so it would appear that she ate like everyone else.  Hated having make up stories about her “allergy” to sunlight.  Hated being driven by impulses that she could scarcely control to slaughter people.  Hated everything

She crouched down by Jed and reached out to touch him.  To wake him up and tell him the plain truth of what she was, and what she had done.  To ask him to blow a hole through the center of her chest with one of his guns, and put an end to her misery.

But he would never do it, even if she told him everything.  No, he would be too good for that.  He would not have the strength, the coldness, to do what should be done.

She stopped, her fingertips less than an inch from his shoulder, and then stood up.  She climbed back down the ladder and proceeded to wash the stains out of her shirt with the water from her drinking glass.  Then she returned to the loft with the indian blanket, stepped over Jed, and curled up in a small space between a couple of cardboard boxes near the back.  There she wept bitterly until the sun rose above the horizon and she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Jed awoke and sat up with a soft groan.  He looked around in the darkness of the loft, turning his head from side to side as he listened to the crackling of the arthritis in his neck.  He felt as stiff as a board.

He rolled over and slowly got to his feet, thinking about how he was definitely going to get an air mattress when he went to get those sneakers.  No one, not even someone as limber as a little kid, should be subjected to that kind of punishment all night long.

He was a little surprised that Eli had not woken him up as he had asked.  Then he looked down into the room below and felt a jolt of fear when he saw that his bed was empty.  His heart sank.  Had she left during the night?  Or was she back under the bed again?

He was about ready to climb down to investigate when he heard a sound—a sound that produced another unsettling wave of fear through his chest, because it was quite near, and he at first thought it was the low growl of a dog or a wolf.  But that didn’t make any sense, because there was no animal in his cabin.  The last dog he’d had was a stray named Cody, a mutt who’d roomed with him for about seven weeks before disappearing from whence he’d come, never to be seen again.

The sound was behind him; up here, in the loft.  With a frown he turned to look for the source.  It was coming from behind a large cardboard box near the wall, the box full of extra kitchen utensils that he had never unpacked, but just couldn’t bring himself to discard because they might prove useful someday. Ducking his head slightly to avoid banging it on the rafters, he worked his way around the odds and ends he had stashed away over the years to see what it was.

It was very dark and hard to see, but he knew that it was Eli even before he moved the box slightly to get a better look.  She was lying on her side in a fetal position, wrapped up in his blanket from downstairs, her hands tucked up under her head to make a pillow.  She was sound asleep, but made a soft growling noise unlike anything he had ever heard a person make before.

It was so strange that he actually backed up a few steps, unaware that he was shaking his head in denial as he stared at her.  He felt the same impulse that he had experienced the morning he had attempted to pull her out from under the bed and had exposed her hand to the sunlight: to get as far away from her as possible; to arm himself against something that he had momentarily doubted was fully human.

Then he stopped.  It was ridiculous to be afraid of her.  She was just a little kid, homeless and in need of help.  Yes, maybe she was a bit strange, but that didn’t mean she was bad.  Maybe her weird sounds were all part of her bizarre disease.

And so what if she growled in her sleep?  Lots of people made strange noises when they snoozed, sometimes much louder than her.  It wouldn’t bother him.

He wondered how she could possibly be comfortable lying as she was without a pillow.  Thinking that she really ought to have one, he retrieved his and returned to her.  He carefully pushed the box further out of the way to make some room and knelt down by her side.  Very gently, afraid that he would wake her, he lifted her head with one hand and slid the pillow underneath with the other.  She showed no sign of stirring, and he slowly allowed her head to fall back onto its softness.  Now things seemed better. 

Without knowing why, he paused to stroke her hair, brushing it back away from her forehead.

Don’t worry . . . I’ll take care of you.  Whatever you need.

He went to the ladder, climbed down, and got started with his day.  He didn’t usually look forward to going to K-Mart, but today he did.  Because he would be buying something for someone else for a change.

It was around lunchtime when Jed got to the K-Mart.  Instead of fighting for a closer spot, he parked his pickup at the far end of the parking lot.  It was a clear, sunny day and the temperature had risen to the high 30’s, melting the snow away into a slush that was beginning to dry up here and there in the vast expanse of black asphalt fronting the store.

Before heading into Warrenton, he had found his tarp in the equipment shed and had managed to put it up across the loft entrance.  It didn’t cover the entire opening, but he figured something was better than nothing.  He had been afraid that his staple gun would wake her up, but it hadn’t; to his surprise, she had slept soundly through the entire process.

He entered the outer doors and passed by the bubblegum machines, apartment rental flyers, and stress-test palmreader and thence into the store itself, where he was confronted with several racks of DVDs and a garish display of holiday items clustered around the shopping cart area.  To his left a few middle-aged women were waiting impatiently in line at the Returns desk, and a young Indian guy in tube socks and sandals was getting money from an ATM machine while he yammered into a cell phone.  All of them looked unhappy.

He scanned the department signs hanging from the ceiling under the bright, artificial light of the fluorescents, then headed toward the shoes, cutting through the women’s underwear section to save time.  The store was decorated with bright plastic Christmas tree bulbs and strands of silver and gold tinsel, but he paid no attention.

There were at least four rows of shoes and boots, all arranged in open boxes.  He looked them over uncertainly, not sure where to begin.  Then he scouted around until he saw some pink, glittery ones, figuring that would put him amongst the girls’ shoes.  He had no idea what size to get, so he picked up a random shoe and used his hand as a rough guide.  It didn’t take him long to figure out that Eli was about a size nine.

With black as the criteria, the choices narrowed fairly quickly.  He looked at a bunch of solid black shoes, but they all seemed lumpy and ugly, and he couldn’t imagine her wanting to wear them.  Then he found some more traditional-looking sneakers, but they were very low-cut; the sort of thing one might wear on a boat--not what he was looking for. 

Then he found them: a pair of black high-tops with red threading, white laces, and--believe it or not--rainbows printed around the rubber toe ends.  He smiled at the last detail as he picked them out of the box and turned them over.  How cheerful could you get?  They didn’t look like they would stand up to a lot of hard wear, but they might bring a smile to that small, somber face, and that, he felt, was more important.  So he grabbed a couple of pairs—a size nine and an eight, just in case he was wrong--and then headed toward the children’s clothing.

There was a bewildering arrray of girls’ winter coats for sale on two circular racks.  Most were various shades of pink, turquoise, and green.  He wasn’t sure what color she would like, but he figured that if she wanted black shoes, he would be safe getting her a black coat, too.  He picked out the warmest-looking one he could find, a quilted-appearing affair with good, deep pockets and a fake fur-trimmed hood, and went with a medium since he wasn’t sure what size to get. 

There was a bin full of hats and gloves nearby, and he grabbed a black knit hat with a pair of matching gloves attached to it with a thin plastic thread.  The backs of the gloves where covered with small pink lips and a smiling frog with “Kiss Me” printed above its head, but he didn’t notice.

It was time to get the air mattress, so he headed down a main aisle toward the sporting goods.  Bland Christmas music played overhead, and he passed a big display of artificial Christmas trees and huge, inflatable yard decorations.  A few of the trees were spinning to show off their lights.  Some, he noted, weren’t even green, and all of them looked scrawny.  He wondered why anyone would want to put one in their house.  And what did any of it have to do with Christmas?

The store was busy, and he was forced to walk slowly behind a very obese woman riding an electric scooter, who was herself trapped behind a shuffling octogenarian with her walker.  The scooter woman’s close-cut, curly hair was dyed bright orange, he observed, and she was wearing a top and sweat pants that exposed at least a two-inch gap of flesh at her bulging waistline.  He glanced at the gap and then at the lumpy flesh below, barely restrained by the overtaxed, stetchy fabric, and grimaced.

He turned his attention back toward his landmark--the fishing poles poking up over the top of a distant aisle.  Their connection with the outdoors represented a kind of freedom from this unnatural place; a freedom he might gain if he could only get past Home Decor and the seemingly endless racks of towels, pressboard furniture, soap dispensers and ceramic kitchenware.

After he had found a decent-looking camping mattress, he commandeered a cart and paused to think.  She had said something about puzzles . . . would she like to try a jigsaw puzzle?  He wasn’t sure where the toys were; somewhere over near Automotive, he thought.

Before he found the puzzles he passed through a veritable gauntlet of toys, which made him shake his head in wonder.  Did people really buy all this stuff?  Naturally, the puzzles were in the far corner, presumably because they weren’t as popular as the Barbie dolls and Legos. 

His eyes roamed over the boxes as he tried to think about what she might enjoy.  He had no clear idea, but she was no ordinary kid; he knew that much.  A one hundred-piece picture of Garfield, or of Betty Boop, probably would not fit the bill.  Dinosaurs?  No.  A gamut of sickeningly sweet pastoral scenes?  No.  Some fairies flitting around on toadstools?  Probably not.

He was about to abandon the idea when he noticed a gray-colored, unassuming box on the bottom shelf.  Something about the pattern in the picture caught his eye, and he picked it up and examined it more closely.  It was a thousand-piece puzzle of a picture by M. C. Escher called “House of Stairs,” and it made him dizzy just looking at it: a series of stairs set at impossible angles into doorways, with strange, armored creatures crawling up and down them.  He’d heard of Escher before, and seen some of his drawings, but not this one.

He checked the price: $17.99.  It seemed challenging; would she like it?  He scratched his head, and then decided to take a chance.  It sure beat “The Last Supper.”

Naturally, after he managed to wend his way back to the front of the store only one check-out line was open.  A female clerk, whose name tag Jed couldn’t pronounce, slowly unloaded a customer’s clothing from her cart, methodically scanning each item, taking them off their hangers and putting them into bags.  After the clothes, she began to remove a series of grocery items.  The customer let the clerk do all the work, and Jed groaned inwardly when she pulled a clutch of coupons out of her purse and handed them to the employee.  To distract himself, he started to read the cover of the Enquirer, sitting in its rack next to the little horoscope books, but quickly lost interest in the battles that Hollywood stars were waging against old age and cellulite, so he decided to re-examine the cover of the jigsaw puzzle instead.

A man in his 30’s in line before him began yelling at the fat kid sitting in his cart, telling him not to grab candy off the racks.  His jeans were in tatters, and he wore a black shirt that said “Save Candles-Blow Me.”  Just after he put some sandpaper and spray primer down on the rolling mat, he grabbed a Snickers bar off the shelf.  His son watched forlornly as he devoured it in three quick bites, and then tossed the wrapper down next to his items.

Jed felt enormous relief when he finally re-emerged into the sunshine.  It had all been worth it.

Jed’s foot slid as he sidestepped from one wet rock to another.  “Whoops!  I’m not used to tramping around at night like this.  Watch yourself goin’ down the slope here, Eli.  It’ll be ice before long, if the temp dips down a little lower.”

“I’m being careful.”

The beams from their flashlights jiggled across the still, rugged terrain downslope as they moved away from Brehman’s Brook and clambered down the rocky face of the mountain toward the place where he had found her.

“You warm enough in that thing?”

“Yes, thank you.  It was very nice of you to get it for me.”

“Ah--don’t worry about it.  I just don’t want to see you catch your death from a cold running around out here.”

“It’s very nice--especially the fuzzy hood.  And I love my shoes.”

He heard the happiness in her voice and felt something stir inside him.  “Glad you like ‘em.  Now you know about hightops.”  She chuckled softly, making him think, not for the first time, how low her voice was.  It was not that of your average 12-year-old girl.

The faint odor of something dead wafted up the hillside in the gentle, unsteady breeze.  Eli had smelled it for awhile, but had remained silent, waiting for Jed to say something.

“Mmm.  I think we must be gettin’ close.”  He slowed and shined his light further down and to their right.  “Yep.  That’s where it was, all right.”

She came along side him and peered downhill.  “What’s that smell?”

“It’s what’s left of a deer I shot.  A doe—she fell right behind those bushes there.”  He shined his light in the area.  “I had to leave her after I found you.”

“Oh.”  They continued downhill, moving around saplings and small bushes; then Eli spoke again.  “Do you enjoy shooting animals?”

“I don’t usually do it for nothing; I eat what I kill.  Now of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll pass up a nice-looking buck, if one presents itself.  I can always use a little extra meat, in that case.”

“So does that mean that you don’t enjoy it?”

He was a little surprised by her rejoinder, and had to think a little before he answered.  “What I mean is, I don’t kill deer just for the sheer pleasure of seeing something die . . . I like being self-sufficient.  And I guess it gives me a certain satisfaction to know I can hit what I’m aiming at.  That I can make a clean kill.  Watch them brambles, now.”  He held back the branches of a thorn bush for her.

“Thanks.”  She ducked her head and squeezed through.  “What’s a ‘clean kill’?”

“Well, when you kill a deer—or any animal, I reckon—you don’t want them to suffer.  That’s not the point.  So you aim for the heart with the hope that if you hit it there, it’ll die right quick.  That means you gotta be patient and hold off until you can make that shot.  And if you do it right, most of them do go down pretty fast.  This one here, she ran quite a ways.  Not really sure why.”

“So it is painful, then?  To die?”

He stopped his descent for a moment and looked at her, his breath clouding in the dark, frosty air.  “I guess I don’t know.  We all fear death, I suppose, because we don’t know what happens afterwards.  But the actual act of dying may or may not be painful.”  He paused.  “Well, the animal probably is scared.  But it doesn’t really know what’s happening, either, which I think is for the best.”  He turned back and continued walking.

“Doesn’t it bother you?  To kill something like a deer?”

“Not really.  Everything’s gotta die sooner or later.  It’s just part of life.”

“But the deer wants to live.”

“Everything wants to live.  But everything wants to eat, too.  Sometimes those things aren’t compatible.  Life’s a struggle.  You don’t see the deer agonizing about eating the grass.”

“Grass is different.  It’s not like animals.”

“Really?  How do you know the grass doesn’t enjoy being alive?”

“Well, it’s . . . it’s not aware, I guess.  It can’t feel anything.”

“You sure about that?”

“Well . . . no.  Actually, I’m not.”

“Me neither.  But I think plants can sense some things.  Probably not like we can, but still . . . that doesn’t mean they’re nothing.”

“The bucks . . . they’re the ones with the horns?”

“Yep.”

“Are those the ones that are on your wall?  You killed those?”

“Yes and no.”  He put the beam of his light directly on the spot where he had dressed the deer.  “One’s mine; the other was my dad’s.”

They drew up to the place, but there was no carcass; only one hind leg, still tied to the tree.  Eli looked around, and then asked him where the deer had gone.

“Oh, things don’t last long out here in the woods, you know.  All kinds of critters, big and small, know when a free meal’s around.  Nothing goes to waste—that’s Mother Nature’s way.  She’s very efficient.”

“But it wasn’t that long ago.”

“Well, I told you there are bears around.  Even cougars, believe it or not.  Plus you got the coyotes and foxes.  And the vultures, for that matter.”

“What’s a cougar?”

“Panther—you know, a mountain lion.  You don’t want to meet one of them, believe you me.  I have, out in West Virginia, and it was pretty scary.  Only time I felt like something was deciding whether to eat me.

“So anyway, here’s your cave.”  He pointed the flashlight up at the little spot behind the juniper bushes.  “You think from here you can figure out where you stashed your stuff?”

She paused and looked around with the light held down at her feet; her eyes were big and dark.  “It was below here a little ways.  There’s another little niche in the rocks.  Off that way.”  She turned and shined her light in the direction she was thinking.

“Okay.  Well I’ll let you lead the way.”

“All right.”

She stepped out in front of him, looking a little bigger, now, in her new coat and hat.  Although she wasn’t going fast, he couldn’t help but notice that she moved with a natural grace across the rugged terrain.  She seemed to know exactly where to put each foot, and he found the going easier once he began to follow her lead.  She had clearly spent a lot of time outside.

“You enjoy walking in the woods?”

“Yes.”  Her voice was soft, but her answer was short and matter-of-fact, admitting of no elaboration.  She pushed her way around a cluster of trees and paused; pointed.  “There.”

They came down and around the corner of a man-sized rock jutting out from the earthen slope.  Once he had stepped down in front of it, Jed was able to see that it had a companion; a somewhat smaller rock, now visible, lay immediately beside it.   There was a small cavity between them, resulting from their irregular shapes.  She squatted down and reached in.

“How did you remember it so well?”

“The big rock looks like a shield.  See it?”

He studied the larger of the two and realized that she was right—it was bigger on the top than on the bottom, and its lower sides seemed to curve inward.  He nodded.  “Yup.  Sure do.”

“Got it.”  She stood up beside him, brushing the leaves and dirt off a blue and gray backpack.  He thought she would be pleased at having recovered it, but she seemed more worried than anything else.  She slung it over her shoulder and stooped to pick up her flashlight.

“Is that it?  Ready to go back?”

“Ja.”

“Hmm?”

“Sorry.  Yes.”

“All righty.”

She did not share the contents of her backpack with him once they got back to the cabin, and he did not inquire. He figured it was her business, and if and when she wanted to show him anything, that would be fine with him.  He offered to fix her a meal, but she politely declined, stating that she had eaten late the night before while he was asleep.

“I bought a puzzle for you today at the store.  Something to pass the time, since I know this place isn’t exactly cut out for a kid your age.”

She finished removing her sneakers and put them on the mud mat next to his boots.  “Really?  What kind of puzzle?”

“A jigsaw puzzle that looked kinda interesting.  You said you liked puzzles, or that you had some puzzles, so I thought maybe you’d like it.”  He pulled it out of the Wal-Mart bag lying on his easy chair and placed it on the table.  “Here you go.”

She sat down and studied the box cover as he lit an extra candle and turned the wick up on the lantern so that they could see better.  Then he pulled his suspenders up on his shoulders and sat down kitty-corner to her.  He watched as her eyes traced the paths of the strange, armored beasts roaming up and down the stairs.  She quietly said, “impossible.”  Then she looked at Jed, a small smile blooming on her face.  “I like it.”

“Wanna make it?”

“Of course.”

He pulled his jackknife out and deftly slit open the paper that sealed the top and the bottom halves of the box together and let her dump the pieces out onto the table.  Then together they began the tedious process of flipping all of the pieces right-side up, sorting out the edges as they worked.  After awhile, they had all the corners pulled out.  Jed got out his reading glasses and began peering closely at the edge pieces, his gaze shifting back and forth from them to the box.

“You want me to start working on the edges?”

She smiled again without diverting her attention from the table.  “Sure.”

Jed began to move the pieces around, testing and fitting, and his attention was soon pulled completely into the process.  He worked for several long minutes, and had the bottom edge mostly done in several big fragments when he realized that Eli had not yet begun to put anything together.  He glanced up at her and saw that she was sitting very still, mouth closed, her eyes scanning methodically across the pieces covering the table.  He wanted to say something, but decided to keep his mouth shut and leave her alone while she did whatever she was doing, so he kept working on his edge, finally reaching a corner.

“I got the bottom side done,” he remarked.  He started to slide it into place in front of her, but then stopped.

She put her left index finger on one piece, picked up another piece clear across the table, and brought them together.  There was no fitting or attempted fitting; she just put them together.  Then she found another piece, this one right in front of Jed, and locked it into place as well.  She repeated the process again—and again.  The little cluster of puzzle pieces began to grow larger in front of her.  He had never seen anyone put a puzzle together in this way and he watched her, utterly fascinated.  He glanced at the box cover, which they had sat upright near the candle, and realized that she was putting together the armored creature directly in the middle of the puzzle.  As he continued to stare at her, he saw that she was building in a clockwise fashion.  Each piece that she took fell unerringly into position beside the last.

“I thought you were going to work on the edges.”  She didn’t look up.

“Oh.  Sorry.”  Spots of red emerged on his cheeks, and he quietly lowered his head and began to do the top edge, stealing glances at her as he worked.  It did not take him long to realize that she was not even looking at the box top.  Once or twice, out of the corner of her eye, she caught him peeking and gave him a small, mischievous grin; but her hands never stopped their work.

The puzzle was finished in less than an hour.  Jed had assembled three of the edges; Eli had done the rest.  Together they stared, fascinated, at Escher’s amazing drawing.

Jed got up, stretched, and headed toward the kitchen area.  “I’m gonna fix myself some coffee.  You want anything?”

“No thanks.”

He chuckled reflectively.  “Somehow, I had thought that’d last a few days, at least.  Guess I was wrong.”

 “Sorry; that’s just how I am.  I can’t do it any other way.  And . . . I love the picture, and wanted to see it big.  Can we leave it out for awhile?”  Her fingers traced the triangles formed by the stairs in the picture.

“Of course.”  He continued to speak as he fetched his coffee out of the Hoosier.  “You’re something else again; you know that?  Never seen anyone put a puzzle together like that.”

She did not reply; instead, she got up impulsively, brought her backpack to the table, and unzipped it.  “Would you like to see my puzzles?”  For the first time, he heard a note of excitement in her voice.

He turned and smiled at her.  “Sure.  Hang on a sec, though, while I get this water on the stove.  Why don’t you bring them over here by the fire?”

They sat side by side, as they had the night before.  She took a Rubik’s cube out and handed it to him.  It had worn edges and the colored stickers were not in good shape; when he handled it, he realized that it was loose as well.  But it was solved.

He grunted.  “Looks like you got your money’s worth out of this one.”

“I’ve done it a lot.”

“I bet.”  He thought for a moment.  “Someone showed me one of these at some point when they first came out. I can’t remember when--back in the ‘80’s? I never could figure it out . . . guess I just don’t have the brains.  But I reckon it’s child’s play to you.”  He gave her a twinkling smile and handed it back to her.  “What else ya got?”

She pulled out a knot of wires and handed it to him.

“Well well—the proverbial Gordian Knot.”  He turned it over in his hands.   “Reminds me of a ball of twine I had once.  Too much trouble to undo it all, so I gave up . . . cut off what I could use, and pitched the rest.  You can solve this one, too?”

“Yes.  But it takes longer than the Cube.”

“I can imagine.  All them knots.”

She nodded.

“How do you get it all knotted up again once you’ve unraveled it?”

She grinned.  “That’s easy.”

He looked at her.  “You know anything about knots?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know . . . different kinds of knots and how to use ’em.”

“Not really.”

“Mmm.  Well, it’s useful knowledge when you live out here in the boonies, like me.  Maybe at some point I’ll teach you a few.”

“I’d like that.”

“Good.  So is that it?”

She reached in and lifted a wooden box out of the backpack.  It was finished in a rich, cherry-brown and had a lock and hinges made of brightly polished brass.  As soon as he saw it, Jed could tell it was hand-made, not manufactured.  She pushed the catch and opened the lid; then removed an egg that was black and gold which she placed into his big, calloused hands.

“My egg.”

His reading glasses had slipped down on his nose and he lifted his head up as he held up the egg to study it.  “Well now, this is really something.”  He turned it in his hand.  “Sure is heavy.”

“It’s a puzzle.  You have to hold it upright, or it’ll fall apart.”

“Oh—okay.  A puzzle, you say?  How is it . . .”  He held the egg even closer to his face.  “Well I’ll be damned.”

He lowered it to his lap and looked at her.  “What’s it made of?”

“The black metal, I don’t know.  The strands are gold.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it.  It must be quite valuable.”

“I think it is.”

He studied it closely once again.  “Are each of those little . . . how many pieces are there?”

“Thousands, I think.  But I’ve never counted them.”

“You inherit this from your folks?  It looks like the sort of thing that ought to be in a museum somewhere.”

“It came from my father.”

“He must’ve been a wealthy man.  And you’ve been dragging it around in that backpack here in the States?  That seems rather foolhardy to me.  You really ought to have it in safekeeping somewhere.”

“I like to look at it and play with it.”

He smiled inwardly at her simple, honest answer.  She seemed old, but very much a child, too.  So strange. 

“That certainly is a nice box you have for it.  Did your dad make that?”

“No.  It was a gift from a friend.”

He handed it back to her.  “Well, you’d best put it back in there.  I’d hate to see it come apart and have you lose some pieces on this floor.”

 

He went to the stove and poured himself a cup of coffee; then returned to his chair and drank.  “Mmm.  There was a time when I couldn’t get by in the morning without a big cup of Joe.”

Eli placed the egg back in the box and put it on the table.  Then she got her stick and the jackknife he had loaned to her, returned to her chair, and began to whittle.  “What did you do before you came out here?”

“Oh I worked in construction, mostly, after I got back from Vietnam.  Started out as a carpenter’s apprentice with a fella named Tom Randell, and over twenty years later, wound up building custom homes.  We had a partnership for a long time, before he retired and I bought him out.”

“You must be good with your hands.”

“I like to build things.  Even as a kid, I did.”  He chuckled.  “Popsicle sticks, toothpicks and plenty of Elmer’s glue.  But, you know—it gives you a sense of accomplishment to be able to drive down a stretch of road and say, ‘I built that house.’”

“How many houses did you build?”

He glanced at her, his eyebrows raised, and gave her a smile.  “Shucks, I’ve never had anybody ask me that question.  Can’t rightly say I know.  Forty?  Fifty?  Somewhere around there.”

“Why did you stop working?”

“I suppose you could say I got tired of the D.C. Metro rat race, and plus, I could afford it.  I wanted to do something different with my life, something that had been in the back of my mind for a long time.”

“Living out here, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“By yourself.”

“Mmm hmm.” 

“So that makes me a problem, doesn’t it?”

He lowered his coffee mug to his thigh and turned toward her in his chair.  “Aww, now listen, Eli—don’t you fret.  You seem like a pretty nice youngster.”  He paused and looked down into his coffee and grunted self-reflectively.  “It’s been kinda fun, actually, having you here.”

“You’ve been very nice to me, Jed.”

“Well, it just seemed like you needed some help, is all.”  He looked at her stick.  “Makin progress, I see.”

She smiled wanly.  “Trying.  I’m not sure I’m much of a whittler.”  They were quiet for awhile; then she spoke again.  “Were you ever married?”

“Oh yeah--twice.  Both of them ended badly.”  He took another sip as he stared into the fire through the open door of the stove.

“Oh.  I’m sorry.”

“Ah, don’t be.  Half of all marriages end in divorce nowadays anyhow, so I guess I can take some comfort in that statistic.  But the truth is, I don’t think I was the greatest husband who ever came down the pike.  Or at least, I reckon that’s what my ex’s would tell you.”

“So did you have children?”

“One—a girl, Julianna.”

“That’s a nice name.”

“Yes.  Was my first wife’s grandmother’s name, actually.  And I liked it.  One of the few things we agreed on.”  He smiled ironically.  “Lord, how we fought.”

“So how old is Julianna now?”

“Mmm  . . . she’d be—oh, gracious—thirty years old now, had she lived.”

Eli put down her project and looked at him with a mixture of surprise and regret.  “Oh!  Sorry—I didn’t know.”

He shrugged.  “It’s all right—no way you could have.  She died very young, about half as old as you--just a child.  She got a cancer.  It was a very difficult time for us, and afterwards, things just weren’t the same between Bev and me.  Kinda killed our marriage, you might say.  Which I guess shows that it wasn’t the greatest marriage to begin with.”

“Do you miss being married?”

“It was very diffcult, at first.  Sorta like having the rudder torn off your boat—you’re not really sure what direction you’re goin.  But I . . . I don’t know.  I guess I have mixed feelings about it.”  He looked at her.  “I don’t know whether I ought to be burdening you with all of this.”

She earnestly returned his gaze.  “I don’t mind if you want to—or not.  It’s up to you.”

He sat back and took a long swig of coffee; then rocked for awhile.  “Well, why not.”  He sighed and then spoke again.  “I guess you could say that I never really felt that either Bev or Chrissy loved me for me.  They loved what they wanted me to be.  And when it turned out that I wasn’t what they thought or hoped I was, well . . . things sorta fell apart.  It was a little better the second time around with Christine, but even that didn’t work out.  ’Course, she was a lot younger than me.  That might’ve had something to do with it.

“You know, when you’re young and just starting out, you don’t really know a whole lot, but you’ve got a lot of energy and enthusiasm.  You believe in yourself.  You tell yourself you can be whatever you want to be.  And things seem simple—you just want to make that person you care about happy.  You think everything else is secondary, and you believe that that other person feels the same way about your happiness.  And somewhere in the middle, the twain shall meet, you hope.

“Then you get a little older, and you start to realize that changing yourself is a little harder than you thought.  That maybe, a lot of growing up is becoming more of the person you were when you were young.   A bigger, older version of that person you were, say, back in middle school.  The same flaws, the same fears.  The same interests, the same loves.  And you also start to realize that ‘making someone happy’ isn’t as easy as you thought at first, either.  That maybe some people have a limited capacity for happiness that isn’t going to change.  And that’s when the goin starts gettin rough, I think.   ’Cause just about the time you’re old enough to start figurin some of these things out, you’re pushing fifty and your choices are a helluva lot more limited than they were when you were twenty.”

He looked at her and smiled.  “You, know, you shouldn’t listen to an old geezer like me.  You’ll get discouraged, and then you’ll be afraid to fall in love someday.”

She returned his smile.  “Don’t worry.  I won’t be afraid.”

“Good.  May I see your project?”

She handed it to him and he held it up and turned it slowly in his hand.  “Who is this guy?”

“Oskar.  He was my best friend.  Only, I’m having trouble with his face.”

“Gimmee your knife for a sec.”  He used it to begin carefully scraping the wood, speaking while he worked.  “Lookee here.  If you hold the knife this way, you can make it smoother than the way you were doing it.  Nice, downward strokes.  Then if you want, I got some 220 grade sandpaper you can use to make it really smooth. 

“Also, your blade is getting dull.  Let me get my whetstone.”  He got up and went to his dresser and then returned with a small, gray rectangular block.  “You ever use one of these?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s easy, and you’ll want to know because if you start to get into whittlin’ you’ll find out you gotta have a good, sharp knife all the time.  You just hold the stone in your hand, and draw the blade across it about ten or fifteen times on each side at a very flat angle like this.  You see?”

“Uh huh.”

“Here--you do it.”

She worked for awhile and then, at his prompting, turned the knife over and did the other side.

“Now you’re ready for action.”

“Thanks!”

“You’re welcome.  Say—you sleepy yet?”

“No.”

“You probably stay up most of the night, don’tcha?”

“Yes.”

“’Cause you can’t go outside during the day, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, you wanna go do something?”

“Like what?”

“How ’bout a little midnight basketball?”

“I’d love to.”

“Good!  Let’s go.”

They rumbled up to the corner of Route 522 and 211 and stopped.  Being near midnight, there was little traffic.  It was quite cold, and the defroster had at last cleared the silver, glittering frost from the windshield.  Warm air finally began to come in at the floorboards, warming the old basketball that rolled at Eli’s feet as Jed turned left and headed east on the divided highway.

“I like your truck.  Is it old?”

“As trucks go, pretty old, yeah.  It’s a ’72.  I like it because it’s got a carburetor and a three-speed on the column, so it’s easy to drive, and easy to work on.”

“Where are you taking all the cinderblocks in the back?”

“Nowhere.  They’re just to add a little weight over the rear for better traction in the winter.  I’ll need to put the snow tires on her in December.  You warm enough?”

“Yes, thanks.”  She looked down once again at her new gloves.

“So is Oskar here in Virginia?  Or did you know him in Sweden?”

“In Sweden.”

“He must be special, if you’re carving his face.”

“He was.  Very special, actually.  But he died a few years ago.”

“Oh.  I’m sorry--sorry for your loss, mean.”

“It’s okay.  I just miss him alot.  Every day.”

“When a friend dies, it’s always hard.  But it’s especially tragic when a young person dies, before they’ve had a chance to do anything with their life.”

Eli watched the guardrails slide by along the edge of the gently rolling highway; they seemed to go on forever.  “Oskar did a lot.  He loved me and he helped me.  He always put my needs ahead of his own.  He was . . . everything to me.”

Jed thought awhile.  “Sounds like more than your average preteen crush.”

She nodded and managed a small smile.  “It was.  Much more.”

He slid the control on the dashboard over a little to cut back on the heat.  “You know, Eli, sometimes you sure don’t seem like a twelve-year-old.  I mean, when we talk, it feels as though you’ve been through a lot more than the average kid your age.”

She sighed, then slumped over against the passenger door until her cheek rested against the cold window.  She stared out at the gray guardrail posts, and began to feel lost in the hypnotic effect that their flickering motion induced.  There was a long silence; so long, in fact, that Jed began to conclude that she was not going to answer.  Then she said softly, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

He looked over at her.  “What do you mean?”

She turned her head and their eyes met—his a faded, grayish hazel; hers a dark, brownish green.  The pale features of her small face were hard to discern in the dim light from the instrument panel, but her eyes were not.  They looked at him with grave earnest, searching his face for an answer to an unspoken question, or perhaps for reassurance--Jed was not sure.  Nor was he certain whether she was finding any answers. 

Again he felt a trickle of fear; this time it was not because he doubted that Eli was human, but because it seemed as though a very old person was inside her, staring at him.  And not just staring, but assessing him in a frank way that, oddly, reminded him of his drill sergeant in basic training over thirty years ago.  Then without answering, she turned away and stared out the window.  They rode the rest of the way to the high school in silence.

The basketball courts at the school were not lit, but were close enough to the lights for the parking lot and the athletic building that one could see well enough to play ball in the middle of the night.

He shut off the motor and turned out the headlights.  “You ever played basketball before?”

“No.”

“You ever heard of basketball before?”

She shot him a look.  “Of course.”

“All right, all right, don’t get your underwear in a knot—I was just checkin.  Didn’t know whether you Swedes played it or not, is all.  Make sure you lock that door when you get out.”

She shut the door and came around the back side of the truck and together they headed toward the court.  “We play it.  It’s just that I never have.”

Well, you know you’re trying to shoot as many baskets as possible.  And if the other guy’s got the ball, then you’re playing defensive.  So you’re trying to block his shot and get the ball when you can.”

“I get it.”

He bounced the ball to her as they approached the basket.  “Here you go.  Let’s warm up and then play a little one-on-one.”

She took a shot at the basket.  The ball sailed over the top of the backboard and out into the grass.  He ran and got it for her, then tossed it back.  Then he stood to the side and behind the pole so he could get it in case she missed again.

She shot for several minutes and made a few, but mostly missed.  Then he showed her how to shoot properly, using one hand to propel the ball toward the basket when she jumped for better control, and she improved.

With his encouragement, she began to move around the court as she made baskets.  Soon, she was making as many shots as she was missing.  He was surprised to see that she was able to get the ball to the basket just as well from mid-court as when she was inside the three-point line.

He gave the ball back to her after a missed shot.  “You tired yet?”

“No.  I want to keep playing.”

“Let’s do a little one-on-one.”

“Okay.  How do you do that?”

“Well, you have to start dribbling the ball.  I’ll guard you and you guard me.  We try and block each other’s shots.”  He explained how to pivot, and about fouls; then they began to play.

He was so much taller than her that she was unable to block his shots very well without jumping up, so when he gained possession, he nearly always made a basket.  But she was much faster and more agile than him, and he found it almost impossible to effectively block her shots.  She always turned away and broke free of him before he could react, and before long he found himself chasing her around the court while she made basket after basket.  Her ability to outmaneuver him seemed uncanny.

At last he stopped, panting and out of breath. “Okay—enough.  I admit defeat.”  He watched as she made a few more, surprised that she still seemed so fresh.  “You want to try some foul shots?”

She took aim and missed; then grabbed the ball after it bounced off the backboard and stopped.  “What’re those?”

“Sometimes if someone commits a foul, like when someone is shooting, the player who was fo uled gets a free shot.  You stand on the line right there.  Each basket is worth a point.”

“Okay.”  She got in place and began to throw, making two in quick succession.  He returned the ball to her each time.

“You sure are a natural.  You ever play sports in Sweden?”

“No.”

“Too bad.  I’m sure your school could’ve used a player like you.”

“I never went to a regular school.”

“Because of your illness?”

“Yes.”

“Mmm.  I guess I could see how that’d be a problem.”

She stopped abruptly, her apparently happy mood suddenly deflated.  “I want to quit now.”

“All right.”

Without saying more, she turned away and walked back to the truck.

He pulled down to the end of the driveway and stopped.  “There’s a 7-11 a little closer in toward town.  You want anything before we head back?”

“No thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.  I told you I don’t eat much.”

“That’s an understatement.  You’re going to get sick if you keep this up.  You’re not one of those anorexic girls, are you?”

“Anorexic?”

“Bullemia.  You know, they turn around and throw up what the eat because they think they’re fat, even when they look like they’re starving.”

“Oh—no, I don’t have that problem.”

“Okay.”

11/26/02 – 2:45 a.m.

Can’t remember the last time I made a journal entry this late.  My mystery girl woke up Sun. eve. Eli’s her name & she’s from Sweden.  Says she’s 12 yrs old, homeless and has been in the U.S. for < 1 yr.  States parents both dead but denies step-parents.  Won’t tell me how she got from Sweden to Va. but says she’s no runaway.  Don’t think she’s lying, but not telling me the whole truth, either.  Prob. afraid I’ll call the Sheriff to come get her & return her to her family if she tells me more.

I thought she was strange when she was asleep, but she seems pretty normal now that she’s awake.  States she has a rare, incurable disease that makes her allergic to sunlight and caused her near-suspended animation.  Don’t know if it’s true, but it seems just as plausible as anything else.  Had a backpack full of her puzzles & who knows what else squirreled away about 150 yds. down from where I bagged my deer on the southeast slope, near that rocky ridgeline.  One of her puzzles is a very unusual egg that must be worth thousands of dollars, and yet she’s toting it around as if it’s a toy.

She’s very child-like in some ways.  Curious and interested in learning.  And also an honest-to-God prodigy, given that she polished off a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle in ~1 hr., which I’ve never seen anyone do before.  Also turned out to be a great little basketball player.  She’s a good listener, and very polite to boot.

Sounds like she’s come from a tragic past, though.  Mentioned a friend of hers who died not too long ago whom she’s still mourning.  In this she seems more like an adult than a child.  Can’t make heads or tails of that, but obviously she has much she wants to talk about, if she can trust me.  Can she?

I like her.

Eli pretended to be asleep on her air mattress in the loft as she listened to Jed pad across the room, put something on his bookshelf, and then turn down the lantern.  The shadows deepened to near-total darkness, kept at bay only by the faint yellow glow from the table and the reddish-orange light flickering from the stove.  She heard him yawn and then heard his bed creak.  There was a rustling of covers, and then silence.

Now that there was nothing to hear, she turned onto her side and thought about the day’s events.  Clearly he was trying to adjust his sleeping routine to be awake longer during the night, no doubt out of a sense of kindness toward her.  The trouble was, the more time he spent with her, the harder it made it for her to lie about eating while he was asleep.  Not much more time would pass before he challenged her directly about not eating.  And that might lead to a blow-up between them which could force her hand about everything she was keeping from him.

To flee or tell him:  that was the question.  She wanted to do neither, but sooner or later would have to do one or the other.  How long would he continue to put up with her before he began demanding to know everything about her?  A few days?  A week?

He liked her; that was obvious.  And she liked him, too.  He was generous and kind.  But was he acting that way just to gain her confidence?  So after she spilled the beans, he could take her down to the welfare people or whoever, and turn her in?  But he could try to do that now, couldn’t he?  So why was he waiting?

Because he was nice; because he didn’t want to force things.  Because he wanted to do what he decided was in her best interests without traumatizing her.  So that whatever he did, he would do with her agreement.  Or was there more to it?  How deep might his feelings for her be?  It was too early to tell.

What would he do if she told him?  Try to kill her?  Tell her to leave?  Say he didn’t care?  Of the three, she liked the first the best--as long as he did it out of love, not hate.  But why did that matter?  She would be dead either way. 

She didn’t know why it mattered, but it did.  Somehow, it did, and so she couldn’t tell him yet.  The time wasn’t right.

She pulled the covers up over her head, relaxed, and stopped thinking about Jed.  And soon, of course, her thoughts turned to . . .

Oskar.  I miss you so much.  Why is it always at this time of night that I miss you the most?  Miss your arms around me, keeping me safe.  Miss your body, keeping me warm.  Miss your kisses; miss your love.

She curled herself tighter into a ball and wished she had an extra pillow to hug; something she could at least pretend was Oskar.

Don’t cry.  Don’t.

She heard Jed’s breathing slow and deepen.  She brushed the tears out of her eyes and wished she were dead. 

A long time passed, and her tears had turned into sniffles, when somewhere out on the mountain, a coyote howled.  Its voice was long and lonesome.

Jed’s voice, thick and heavy with sleep: “Eli.”

She opened her eyes and pulled the blanket off her head.  “Yes, Jed?”

“That’s not scaring you, is it?”

It wasn’t; but was that what she wanted to say?

“Maybe a little.”

“You haven’t spent much time in a log cabin out in the woods, have you?”

The truth was, not recently; but as usual, the truth was too complicated.  “No.”

“Well if you’re scared, you’re welcome to come down here.  I’ll set up the cot right next to my bed.”

“Okay.  Thanks.”

“Bring down your pillow and blanket.”

They lay facing each other; he on his cot, she in his bed.  Outside, the coyote continued to sing his lonesome song.

“Listen to that crazy dog,” he muttered crossly.  “Damn thing will keep us up all night with his yapping.”  He adjusted the covers around her shoulder.  “You okay?”

“Yes.  Thanks.”

“Welcome.  Well, good night.”

“Night.”

He was almost asleep when a small, soft hand laid itself on top of his.  When he did not move or pull away, it burrowed under his blanket and found its way into his grasp.  He gave it a reassuring squeeze, felt it squeeze back, and then the veil of sleep overcame him.

“Eli.  Wake up.”

Jed was standing over her, shaking her shoulder.  She was still in his bed, where she had been the night before.  As she oriented herself, the memory of the previous night came back to her: the coyote’s howling; coming down from the loft to sleep; getting up later and going to the outhouse to throw more food away.

“What time is it?”

“Quarter to five--you slept the whole day away.”  He laughed softly.  “Guess I didn’t need to worry about keeping quiet.”

 “Oh.”  She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and looked around.  There was a fresh load of firewood sitting by the stove and the ash pail had been emptied.  “What’s going on?”

He held his boots in one hand, sat down at the kitchen table, and began to pull them on over his gray and orange socks.  “It’s starting to snow again, and they’re promising quite a bit.   We need to run to the store and pick up some food and fresh water, and I want to stop in first with Mrs. Enderly to see if she’s okay or needs anything.”  He went to his coat rack and put on his old barn jacket.

“Can I stay here?”

“Now where’d I put my keys?  Oh yeah.”  He went back to the kitchen table and began fishing through the pockets of a pair of pants hanging over the back of one of the chairs.

“Well, you can if you want, but I’d prefer you come because I’d like to get some more clothes for you, and it would be easier to do that if you’re with me.”

“Won’t she think it’s weird?  That I’m hanging out with you?”

He slipped his keys into his coat pocket.  “Well,  she might, actually.  I just want to check in with her because someone was murdered yesterday up near Front Royal, and because of the snow and all.”

Eli was quiet for a moment.  “Maybe I could sit in the truck and wait.”

“All right.  I shouldn’t be long.”

The road split at the bottom of the mountain, not too far past Carson’s home.  The way to the right led to the highway, and the left was a gravel road that went off in the opposite direction.  Jed took the left.  The road gradually rose and wound up and around the mountainside.

They bounced and jostled around in the cab as the truck went over dips and bumps.  The snow blew like sand in erratic eddies across the metallic green hood; it was too light and dry to stick, so Jed did not need his wipers.

“How much snow are they promising?”

“Six to ten inches overnight.  There’s about an inch on the ground already.”

“Are you worried?”

“Nah.   We’ll be all right.”

“Jed?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for last night--I really liked going to play basketball.  It was fun.”

“You’re welcome.”  He pulled the truck slightly to the right and then back again, maneuvering around a pothole.  “I thought maybe at the end there I said something to upset you.”

“It’s okay.  It’s just that sometimes I think about what I’ve missed because of what I am—I mean, because of my disease.  Like being able to go to school and play sports.”

Because of what I am--it struck Jed as an odd thing to say.  “Well listen, it was sort of a thoughtless comment.  I’ve just never been around someone with a problem like yours.  Some of the things you’ve told me are still sinking in, I think.”

She nodded.  “I know I’m weird.”

“Oh, it’s all right.  Trust me, no one is completely normal.”

She was silent for awhile, then cleared her throat.  “Thank you for letting me sleep downstairs, too.  I wasn’t really afraid of the coyote; it’s just . . . .”  She looked away from him and stared out the side window.

He glanced at her, wondering what she intended to say, but said nothing.

“. . . it’s just that I really, really miss Oskar, like I said.  And it just felt good to know that you were there.  That you care.”

He stopped the truck.  “Eli, listen.  I’d like to help you.  I feel like there’s an awful lot about you that I don’t understand.  And I know you’re reluctant, for whatever reason, to tell me about your problems.  But I’m not gonna force you to tell me anything about yourself that you don’t wanna say.  You seem like an extraordinary youngster to me, and damn nice to boot.  I like you alot.  So don’t go thinking that I’m gonna kick you out anytime soon.  I’ve never been in a situation like this before, but I’m not that kind of a guy.  If you want to tell me more about yourself, or about your feelings for Oskar, I’m here to listen.  If you don’t, you don’t.  I’ll help you however I can, to whatever extent you want.  And if that means holding your hand in the middle of the night, I’m glad to do it.  Okay?”

She looked at him for what seemed a long time with a small, trembling smile, and appeared to be on the verge of tears before whispering “thanks.”  He reached over and patted her leg.  “You’re welcome.”

He put the truck in gear and continued up the lane.  Soon, without saying anything, she unfastened her belt and slid over next to him in the middle of the bench seat.  Jed smiled to himself and kept driving.

The road soon straightened, and the underbrush gave way to organized rows of birch trees that lined their path and raised their pale, fingerlike branches toward the dark sky.  They moved along the lane in muted silence, the engine of Jed’s truck a low rumble under the gentle swish of the snowflakes against the windows. 

They passed a mailbox in the shape of a mallard duck that had wild roses growing around its post.  Then a farmhouse and an old barn emerged to their right as the trees ended and opened up into a cleared meadow.  Jed idled up next to a Subaru station wagon that was parked next to a water pump in the yard, and cut off the engine.

He took his cap off the dashboard and put it on.  “I won’t be but a few minutes.  You sure you’ll be okay here?”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay.” 

She watched as he walked up to the broad porch, which ran the entire length of the front of the house, and knocked on the door.     A couple of rocking chairs on the porch creaked back and forth in the wind.

There was movement behind one of the front windows, and then a slender, elderly woman wearing a pink cardigan sweater opened the front door.  Jed opened the old-fashioned screen door, wiped his boots on the mat, and stepped inside.

“Jed!  What’re you doing up here on a night like this?”

He took off his cap and stuffed it into one of jacket pockets.  “Evenin’, Katie.  How are you?”

“Well, I’m fine, just fine.  I was working on my needlepoint project for Janice.”  She bent and turned on a leaded glass lamp that stood on the drop-leaf table by the front door.  “Come on in.”

“No, I can’t stay, dear.  I’m headin in to Warrenton to buy some things and wondered if you needed anything.”

“Oh!  Well as a matter of fact, I might.  I heard we’re supposed to get six to eight inches tonight, and maybe more tomorrow.”

“Yup.  I heard maybe ten.”

“Seems early to be getting so much snow, don’t you think?  We just had Thanksgiving, for heaven’s sake.”

“I agree.  Speaking of which, did you enjoy spending the holiday with Marilyn and George?”

“Oh yes, I certainly did.  Marilyn and I put together a 20-pound bird, and all the grandkids where there.  She did all of the fixings, and I made a pie.  I brought some of the turkey home—would you like a little?”

“Ah—no, but thanks for the offer.  I really can’t stay long tonight.”

“Well, if you’re running in there, I could use some milk and eggs.”

“Skim, right?  Or is it two percent?”

“Two percent.  Just a gallon will do.”

“All right.  That’s it, then—milk and eggs?”

“Yes.  Do you want some money now?”

“Nah--you can pay me later.  I reckon I’ll be back out here by nine-thirty at the latest.”

She smiled at him.  “I’ll be waiting for you.”

“Sounds good.”  He turned, opened the door, and stepped back onto the porch.

“I haven’t been outside since it started snowing,” she said, pulling her sweater around herself and following behind him.  “Is there much accumulation yet?”

“Not too bad yet . . . just a few inches.  But I hope you got your snow shovel handy, ’cause I’ll want to clear your walkway.”

“It’s around back.  My goodness—look at all of it already.”  She looked out across the yard and saw Jed’s truck.  “Well I’m sorry, Jed . . . I didn’t know you had company.”

Jed did not reply at first.  He, too, was looking toward the truck and its occupant, and his back was turned to Katie.  He put his cap on, then spoke matter-of-factly.  “That’s Eli.”

Eli?  Is she family, Jed?  I didn’t know you had any grandchildren.”

“No, she’s not my kin, but I wouldn’t mind if she was.  She showed up on my property a few days ago.   Says she’s from Sweden and she’s homeless.  I’m helping her out for a few days until we can sort out what to do.”

“Doesn’t sound like you to take in a stranger, Jed.”

“Aw now Katie, don’t get all suspicious on me.  She’s a very nice young girl who just needs a little help; that’s all.  When we get back, we’ll stop in and the two of you can say hello.”

“Sounds good.” 

“Okay.  See you in a bit.”

Through her screen door Katie watched, curious, as Jed got into his truck, backed it around in a half-circle, and headed down the mountain.  When she had first set her eyes on the child, the small face had been watching her with emotions she was not sure she could read, but which seemed to be a mixture of curiosity and fear.  Then after the truck had turned around, all she could see was Jed. 

As the taillights disappeared into the gloom, a vague sense of unease took hold of her, and she remained at the door for awhile, staring down the empty lane at her lonely mailbox in the falling snow.  Then, irritated with herself, she shut the door and returned to her needlepoint.  For pity’s sake, old woman.  Of all the people you know, Jed can certainly take care of himself.  Taking in a homeless girl doesn’t sound like him, but he’s always had a big heart—you know that.  Look at all the things he’s done for you over the years.

Continued next week

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