CHAPTER ONE

Angel Creek, Colorado 1987

 

MISSY wasn’t home when it happened. She and her boyfriend Natty were smoking Winstons at the Red Canyon State Park, the two perched on a sandstone ledge with their own private view of the world, Natty playing air-drum to skater band songs while Missy mused on colors, on the way they always popped for her, on all the shades of orange and yellow and pink woven into the rock and how the green of the pines was dappled with purple. If she was an artist, she thought, she’d want to paint this place, this moment in time. She’d lock down the colors in her head so that the whole world could see it the way she did.

The late-day sun burned on the piñon forest, the air too balmy for November, its calm itchy with restlessness. Missy should have been at home helping her father with dinner for their standing Tuesday night date, a ritual they’d shared for as long as Missy could remember, but then again, she should have been doing lots of things, like, for example, listening to Agnes who lectured her every single day about what a waste of space she was for not fleeing Angel Creek and going to college where she could clear the stale chewing gum out of her brain. Attempting smoke rings, Missy mused also about the kids who had gone to the University, wondering whether they’d come home different people in the same skin.

“Hey,” Natty said, leaning toward her. “How about we stay here on this rock all night. Just so we could say we did.” 

She shook her head. “Not very comfortable,” she said, running her hand over the surface of the rock. “Sandstone. Plus, I’m already in trouble. It’s Tuesday.”

Natty looked back out to the dimming red landscape. He rubbed his forehead, his brown hair flopping through his fingers. “Why didn’t you say something?” He looked at his watch. “Jesus.”

Missy shrugged and stood to leave. “It’s been Tuesday all day long, Natty.” 

She’d been doing a lot of this sort of thing lately—being late, incommunicative, disrespectful, moody, reckless—all the stereotypical stuff of adolescence, only Missy, at nearly eighteen, was not a stereotypical adolescent and never had been, which made the behaviors seem more peculiar to her loved ones than frustrating, like she was affecting an embarrassingly ill-fitted style. Sure, she knew she was being a brat, but she intuitively felt that everyone should have a turn at it at some point in his or her life. She had certainly witnessed it in her peers. And she was otherwise utterly bored in this first year out of high school, doing little other than schlepping coffee at The Pour House for old men with bad breath, and running around with Natty and the “illiterates” as Agnes dubbed them, and so, even though Missy’s boredom was nobody’s fault but her own, she wore her bad attitude unapologetically, like a scab on her face.

*        *       *

TURNING onto Collegiate Street, which was really just a long gravel drive leading to two lone houses, a 30’s era Sears-Roebuck mail order bungalow and the slightly leaning turn-of-the-century farmhouse where Missy and her father lived, Natty asked, “So, what’s for the sacred Tuesday dinner? Tofu your Pops dug up from the yard? Grass salad?” 

Missy glanced at Natty, her head shaking. “No, I think he planned to kill one of the chickens, that one he named Natty. At breakfast, he said something about rosemary roasted Natty.” 

The truck bounced toward the two houses, uncharacteristically dim, and her tone changed. “That’s weird,” she muttered.

“Maybe your Pops is cooking in the dark. More authentic that way,” Natty said. He paused. “You aunt’s house too. Whole compound’s MIA.”

Missy’s mind leapt from the unlit homes to worse case scenario, as it often did on days when Pops came home late from teaching at the prison. For years Missy had imagined her bespectacled father jumped by inmates and brutalized on the cement floor of his classroom, or kidnapped by escapees, or held hostage by dangerous murderers, and when she shared these fears with Natty, he’d counter her scenarios with harmless ones in which Pops was wooing a female guard over a vending machine coffee, or that he’d discovered a sociologist prodigy on Death Row and was picking the unlikely scholar’s brains in his final hours. On Pops’s hiking days, Missy imagined avalanches and mountain lions, and Natty offered sunsets and fields of wild berries. But none of these explanations was relevant because today was Tuesday, and Tuesdays were safe days. On Tuesdays, Pops stayed home and wrote his cowboy novels and cooked. Unless the power was out, there was no possible explanation for a dark house. 

When they stepped out of the car and walked toward the porch of the sagging farmhouse, Natty pulled his coat toward him. “Got cold all the sudden,” he said. He sniffed the air. “Smell that?”

“What?”

“I don’t know.” He sniffed again. “It’s like… cinnamon toast.” 

In the kitchen, they discovered the blackened roasted chicken that smoked inside the oven and smelled nothing like cinnamon toast. A cup of half-finished black coffee sat next to four neat stacks of papers: research notes on “Rural vs. Urban Cultural Dissatisfaction” for the American Journal of Applied Social Psychology; Chapter 7 of Pops’s current cowboy-western novel, Them Hills; several worn, marked-up topo maps; and his finished newspapers—The Canyon City Courier, New York Times, and Christian Science Monitor. Missy could tell by his whining that their basset hound Rousseau had not been fed. 

She tried to phone next door, but there was no answer, just as there were no lights, and she couldn’t think of what else to do. It didn’t seem like she could call 911 just to report that her father wasn’t home and had burned a chicken. No dispatcher would understand the gravity of it, that there were some things in life that were absolutes, like the moon being full once a month and her Pops being home for Tuesday night supper. Stranger still that the Brocks would be out—Aunt Agnes maybe, but not Mr. Brock, a man with no friends and no interests. Where would he go? 

 While Natty knocked around the kitchen, Missy locked the front door and hit the floodlights, whose glow spilled across their little compound. Peering upon the two scabby lots divided from one another by a shoddy wire fence, the world felt suddenly eerie, sad, and unreliable, and Missy needed her father to put it back right. With a shiver, she started to turn, but stopped. Had she seen a slight movement? She squinted, carefully scanning both yards. Parked just on the Brock’s side of the fence was a 1953 Chevy truck that had never run the entire fifteen years Missy and her father had lived there. She could just barely see a blanket in the bed of it, and she wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw it move. For a few seconds, she watched closely. There it was again. A shifting. Someone was hiding in the back of the truck. Two houses abandoned to the dark, and a person hiding. It was official now—something was not right in her tiny corner of the world.

 “Natty?” she called, but then the dark shape under the blanket rose to a seated position, and a pale and puffy face emerged from its cover. It was the face Missy least expected, and it saw her. Eyes wide like a cow at branding time. A thin finger pressed against lips in a gesture Missy had seen a million times. Man-a-mercy, kids, zip it. 

Missy gazed dumbstruck out the window when Natty came back in from the kitchen with a glass of Pops’s homemade cider. “Did you call me?”

“No. It’s nothing.” 

Natty joined Missy at the window, and she hoped he wouldn’t see what she had. After all, Agnes Brock, who was a lot of things to a lot of people—Pops’s best friend, old Mr. Brock’s once-trophy wife, Angel Creek’s bohemian, and Missy’s aunt and surrogate mother—was also Silver County High’s most feared and revered English teacher and, after flunking him his junior year, Natty’s nemesis. Angel Creek’s teens, and adults too really, never knew what to think of a woman more interested in Shakespeare than in the mating habits of large animals, a woman who sometimes drove half a day to Denver and back to buy single malt scotch, a woman who in her late 50’s had the body of a svelte twenty-year-old, a woman who no more fit into the rural mountain town than a harpsichord would at a square dance. 

 “Why are you looking like that?” Natty touched the raised, rose-shaped burn mark on Missy’s forehead. “Your scar is all folded up,” he said.

The two gazed at each other in confusion, interrupted after a moment by a ringing phone. Missy jumped to answer, pulling Natty away from the window as she reached for it.

Through the wires, she could hear an echo from an intercom. “Hey, kid. Did you get the chicken out in time?” 

“Chicken?” she said. “Where are you?”

There was stiffness in her father’s voice. “At the county hospital.”

Missy sat down on the sofa, her hand over her mouth. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said softly. “It’s Mr. Brock. He’s…he’s wounded.”

She glanced toward the window where she’d seen Agnes’s puffy face. “Wounded?” Natty’s eyes popped with curiosity, but Missy dismissed him with a wave. 

“Yes,” Pops said. “Out in the yard.” Missy could hardly imagine the old man getting out of the recliner, much less getting wounded in the open air of their lawn. “Gunshot to the femoral artery. He’s okay though—that is, he’s alive. For now anyway.” He cleared his throat. “I came upstairs to turn the chicken, happened to glance outside, and saw the old man sprawled out on the grass.” 

Missy shifted her gaze toward the cracked wood paneling of the door to the tiny cellar Pops used for an office.

 “My guess is he did it to himself.” Pops paused. “Although it’s odd—the wound is at an unusual angle.” Quickly dismissing that detail, he sped up his words. “But listen. I can’t get ahold of Agnes. I’ve been calling but no one picks up. Maybe she had something at the school tonight. Have you seen her?”

Missy didn’t answer, couldn’t answer, though she desperately wanted to. But not with Natty there. Her head spun a chaotic web. It was possible that Mr. Brock shot himself, but so was the alternative. For seventeen years, Agnes had stood before bored Silver County teenagers each day preaching that literature was vital and that commas mattered, only to go home each night to wait on her mean and miserable husband, and now it seemed, perhaps, that she’d had it, that she’d taken up his hunting rifle and used it on him. But maybe not. Either way, this was a drama for their family, their “compound,” not for Natty, not for Angel Creek. 

“When she comes home,” Pops said, “you need to tell her what happened, and then I’d like you to drive her here. Can you do that, Miss?”

“I think so.” 

After hanging up, she glanced out the window toward the bed of the truck, and seeing no movement, she slowly lowered herself from the sofa onto the floor next to Natty, where she could see a mist of dust bunnies rising from the corners of the room and from under the furniture. 

“Who’s wounded?” Natty asked, throwing an arm of concern over her shoulder.

Leaving out only one detail, the piece about Natty’s least favorite teacher hiding in a truck no more than thirty feet from them, Missy told him what she knew about Mr. Brock, to which Natty blew a gust of air out of his mouth that smelled of cigarette smoke and sweet apple cider. “Pops is with him at the county hospital,” she said. “He didn’t see it, but he thinks the old man might have shot himself.”

Natty put the drink down and pulled his long legs up to him, hugging his knees to his chest. “Where’s Mrs. Brock?”

Missy shook her head.

“Did you lock the door?” Natty said.

“Yes.”

Natty took a deep inhalation and then grew oddly quiet for the space of maybe thirty seconds. Missy could see the movement in his jaw, the muscles swimming back and forth the way they did when his mind was busy at something. Her mind was busy too, but not exactly with the same thing. She needed to get to Agnes, and she needed to do it with Natty gone. 

“We should probably get out of here,” Natty said, looking from the dog to Missy. “Just in case he didn’t do it to himself and there’s some trigger-happy prison escapee running around.”

“There’s not,” Missy said. “If that were the case, there’d be police.”

“Shouldn’t there be police anyway?”

“I would think, but this is Angel Creek.”

He leaned forward to scratch Rousseau’s head, and the boy and dog gazed at each other for a moment with their thoughtful, hound-dog eyes. “You know,” Natty murmured as much to Rousseau as to Missy. “From all I know of Mr. Brock, it seems like he’s a mean old bastard, but imagine how sad his life is.” 

Missy gave a slight nod. Her stomach was beginning to hurt.

“I mean,” Natty continued. “You live next door to the old guy, and he treats you and your Pops more like stray dogs than like neighbors, much less like family. And then supposedly he’s got grown kids from his first wife who live an hour away but don’t talk to him. And then, no offense, your aunt’s... Well, I don’t know what it’s like inside the walls of their house, but knowing her, I can’t believe it’s much fun. Can you imagine how lonely that would be—it’d be like a version of hell, like that fellow we read about in Doc Brock’s class who can’t eat or drink even though he’s sitting next to a river and stockpile of good food and water—just can’t reach it. That old man next door is the same. He can’t love, but he’s got all the people he should love right near him,” he said. “That’s no life.”

Missy nodded. Maybe Natty was a meathead and an illiterate like Agnes said, and maybe he didn’t have a single ambition to speak of other than to party and do nutty things like blow up trashcans and drive his truck where no truck should go, but whether the result of his Bible-thumping parents or simply an innately good heart, it was moments like this, when compassion for Mr. Brock had not yet occurred to Missy, it seemed to her that Natty was the better human of the two. 

“Did you see something?” He pointed toward the window. “Before the phone rang?”

Missy stood where she could see the truck and the still bundle of blanket in the back of it. “Oh,” she said with a confused hand gesture. As her father’s child, she was no good at lying. “But, you can go home now. I need to wait for Aunt Agnes.”

“That’s crazy. I’m staying.”

“I kind of need to be alone.”

Natty looked toward the kitchen and shook his head. Need to be alone was their signal—time for him to beat it, and he’d learned not to test her on it. He called it her “only-child syndrome.” In his family of seven, he’d never much experienced being alone and didn’t see the point in it.  “What am I supposed to do, Missy?” he said. “I mean, leaving you here where there could be a some guy with a gun lurking around—just stupid.”

“I’ll call later.”

“Just crazy,” he said. He reached his hand toward her, and she tugged him up from the floor to his feet. They stared at each other a moment, each forming their gaze so as to penetrate the will of the other, and then, defeated, Natty squeezed her to him for a moment, his long arms wrapped in a circle around her upper back. “I don’t get you sometimes.” 

“I know.” She shrugged and walked him to the door.