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by Wade Wright



BY THE TIME I read it, the telegram on my desk was already twelve days old. I read it again, then put through a call to Brenda Scott in San Bonito. When she came on the line I explained the delay, listened to what she had to tell me, and felt my stomach twist into a cold knot.

I was hardly inside the terminal building at Los Angeles International when I spotted the girl wearing oversize shades push her way through the waiting crowd.

“Matt!” she cried, reaching up on her toes to plant a kiss on my cheek. “Welcome home. It’s been a long time.”

“Yeah,” I said. “A long time. Thanks for coming to meet me.”

The smile slipped from her face. “I’m only sorry the circumstances couldn’t have been better,” she said softly. Taking my arm she started to steer me through the building.

We were heading out on U.S. 101 when she said: “Want to light a cigarette for me?”

I lit two, reached over and placed one between her lips. “How come you’re not working today?”

“Didn’t I tell you? I no longer work for Dalton Plastics. These days I’m my own boss.” She drew deeply on the cigarette, blew smoke at her partially open window, and explained: “I finally decided to use Dean’s insurance money. I bought a little book and gift store.”

“I’m glad. Dean would have approved.” I turned slightly to look at her. She was wearing a simple white blouse and dark skirt, both of which did all the good things for her figure. Dark brown hair touched her shoulders and curled, while under the dark glasses were eyes of volcanic blue. Once we had worked together, and in a few small ways I’d been of comfort to her when, after little more than a year of marriage, her husband had cashed his chips in one of those freak highway accidents. Later, when conditions in my own life had begun to get rough, she’d been around to try and help. Now she was doing it again. “You don’t ever change,” I told her.

“I’ll be thirty-three this year,” she replied. “Haven’t you noticed the lines creeping in?” She laughed softly at the lie.

I didn’t say anything. I was wondering how things might have been had I met Brenda Scott before Linda had come into my life. It was stupid thinking. There was a fourteen-year difference in our ages: she would have been just a kid when Linda and I set up house. I started thinking about that first apartment . . . of Leigh’s birth . . .

It all seemed so long ago . . .

Something nudged my leg and when my eyes opened and I saw the road racing to meet us I was totally disoriented for a few seconds. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to fall asleep on you.”

“You looked like you needed it. Anyway, we’re already in Kern County. We should be in San Bonito in another half hour.” She paused before asking: “Where will you be staying, Matt?”

“I haven’t thought about it. Been thinking about too many other things. And getting nowhere.” For almost a minute I kept my eyes focused hard upon the road. Then, still not looking at her, asked: “What happened, Brenda?”

“I know only what I told you on the phone.” She shook her head slowly. “Only what I’ve read in the papers.”

“Still no arrests?”

“Not according to anything I’ve read or heard.”

I straightened up and tried to ease the kinks out of my shoulders. I offered her another smoke, and when she declined, lit one for myself. “Why, Brenda? Why’d it happen?”

Her head shook once more. “I’m sorry, Matt — I truthfully don’t know. When — when I saw it splashed all over the front page I — I wanted to be ill. I phoned your office immediately, but they said you weren’t in the country — that you weren’t expected back for another two days. That’s why I sent the telegram.”

“Yes — you told me.” The cigarette tasted dry and hot and like something other than tobacco. I flipped it through the window. “Tell me how it happened. Everything.”

“Under the seat,” she said, “are the papers I kept. Perhaps you’d rather read them.”

I bent to get them and her hand reached down quickly from the wheel and caught my shoulder. “Matt — there are pictures. Perhaps you’d —”

“They can’t be as bad as the ones I’ve been carrying around in my head,” I said, and felt under the seat.

I’d been wrong. They were worse. These were real, in grim black and white, inalterable by the machinations of imagination. For a long while I could only stare at them, fighting down the sickness that crawled up into my throat, the smarting that began to mist my vision. After a long time I began to read.

Next to me, Brenda said: “There’s San Bonito, just ahead.”

Looming into view was the town I hadn’t seen in five years. It looked bigger than I remembered.

I finished the last paragraph of a story that was no more than a rehash of everything that had previously been written and stashed the papers back where I’d found them.

“Doesn’t seem as if the police have made any progress at all,” I muttered.

Brenda made no attempt to comment.

“Her sister didn’t wait long, did she?”

Dark hair swirled about her face when again her head moved, this time almost angrily. “I told her I was trying to reach you; I asked her to wait. But she wasn’t much interested in anything I had to say.”

“She wouldn’t be.”

As we crossed the city limits, she asked: “Where do you want to go first?”

“How about some place where I can pick up flowers? If I couldn’t attend the funeral, at least I can say a belated farewell.”

“She could have waited,” the girl next to me murmured, and the words caught in her throat. “She could have.”


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