The next morning, the Bankses and their young guest breakfasted in the small dining room of their hotel and then returned to their rooms to shower and dress. Catherine ordered ties for Robbie and Alan, and Stacey submitted to wearing a dress. Alan kept reassuring Catherine that they were hours early, but Catherine kept reminding him of ever-present dangers of D.C. traffic gridlock.
The “What Makes America The Greatest Nation On Earth” Essay Contest awards ceremony was held that year in a conference center a short walk from the Red Line, but Catherine called for a cab to take them downtown. Inside the conference center, a low-slung building of cool glass and steel, a large ballroom had been stuffed to the point of overflowing with a stage, twenty-five large round tables with ten chairs each, a huge banner, and in a prominent place of pride, an American flag trimmed in gold.
The room laid mostly empty still, and Alan, Catherine, Robbie, and Stacey had no troubles weaving between the tables in search of their assigned seats. While Catherine and Stacey chatted about the upcoming lunch options, and Alan wandered off to talk to the family already arrived at the AL-AZ table, Robbie stared up at the ceiling as he trailed along after his mother.
Chandeliers of crystal and gold shimmered in the dim lights, and the white woodwork of the ceiling ran across the entire room like an intricate spider web. There weren’t any buildings this fancy back in Middleton. Not the town hall or Moose lodge or even Faith Memorial Baptist Church. Robbie allowed himself to quietly smile.
He was here. He was here in Washington, D.C. He had made it.
“And last but not least, we have Trevor Goode, our winner from Sheridan, Wyoming. Trevor wrote his essay on the natural beauty and wildlife of his home state. Now, let’s have a warm round of applause for all of these talented young writers.”
The conference room burst into loud dignified applause. At the same table as Kelly Ephraim, the winner from New York, and her grandparents sat the Banks family and Stacey. Robbie kept tugging at his burgundy tie, which Catherine had tied with expert hands, while Stacey’s kept glancing down at her black jumper and white turtleneck combo with morose sighs. Both children picked at the food on their plates with their forks, while the banquet host continued speaking onstage:
“Now, I’d like to say a little something about the purpose of this whole contest. It was established by Mr. Jonas Stratham White, founder of the the company now known as W&E Utilities as well as the charitable Stratham White Foundation, to allow America’s youngest citizens to express their love for their country in a literary format. In what was seen by Mr. Stratham White as an age of increasing cynicism, disaffection, and turmoil, an age where the word ‘patriotism’ itself almost became a slur … ”
It was an unusually cold time of year for Middleton. Springtime tended, of course, toward the mild and cool, but this was not the normal crispness. Back in mid-April, for instance, it had snowed a total of four inches. Puzzled Middletonians had looked out their windows that Sunday to see their children sledding, throwing snowballs, and building snowmen.
On a similar Sunday—wet, cold, gray—services had ended at Faith Memorial Baptist Church, and parishioners streamed outside after the fellowship hour, merging into a sea of black umbrellas. The Reverend Hickory stood outside the church in the drizzle and smiled at those who were leaving. When he caught a glimpse of Mayor Dell, who was leaving via a side door, the reverend ambled over.
“Simon! Real good to see you today.”
Simon Dell tried not to wince. He mostly failed. “Thanks. Good to be here.”
Hickory scratched under his chin. “Say, don’t think I saw Mrs. Dell with you. I certainly hope she isn’t sick this fine morning.”
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” said Dell, stuffing his hands in his pockets so that he wouldn’t be tempted to strangle the other man right where he stood. “Mrs. Dell just decided to stay at home, catch up on some reading.”
“Really, now?” The reverend smiled a little wider. “That’s interesting.”
Interesting, the man said. Interesting. Dell kept his hands firmly in his pockets.
Hickory’s tone changed, and he was suddenly all business. “Well, Mayor,” he began, “there’s a little something else I’d like to talk to you about. But if it’ll be an inconvenience—”
“Not at all. You ought to know me better than that, Harry. I’ve always got time to hear what you’ve got to say.”
“Great. Just great. Wanna talk with me now in my office or some other time?”
There was no real choice, and both men knew it. Mayor Dell smiled his most bland and polite smile and said, “Now will be just fine.”
Robbie sighed and shifted position in his chair. The banquet host, short round man with a too-loud voice and bald head, continued to hold his audience hostage, and it seemed that his introductory remarks might last on right through to the conclusion of the event.
Kelly Ephraim, the girl from New York, leaned over to Robbie and Stacey. “Hey,” she whispered, “how you doing?”
“Kinda bored,” Robbie admitted. “How about you?”
“Only kinda bored? I’m way past kinda bored.”
Both Robbie and Stacey chuckled softly.
“Which one of you is the lucky winner?”
“Him,” said Stacey, nodding her head toward Robbie. “He’s Robert. I’m Stacey.”
Kelly grinned. “Nice to meet you. The name’s Kelly.”
“From New York,” Robbie added.
“That’s right. Born and raised.”
On stage, the event’s master of ceremonies was deep into a detailed description of the hardships experienced by General Washington and his troops during the winter spent at Valley Forge. The portion of the audience still listening to this speech sat mystified.
Back at the table near the doors to the kitchen, Kelly Ephraim from New York asked, “So, where are you two from?”
“From nowhere,” answered Robbie quickly. Stacey gave him a look. “We’re from right in the middle of nowhere.”
“Hey, I’m home!”
It had not been a good day. First of all, Jim Weaver had never liked working Sunday shifts and tried to avoid them he could. Sundays, after all, were the Lord’s appointed day of rest, for crying out loud. Secondly, Jim’s supervisor, fed up with the constant beratings he’d been getting from higher-ups, worked his people like a goddamn Egyptian slave-master building the pyramids, and right now Jim could feel the exhaustion deep in the fiber of his bones.
“Teri? We got any beer?”
Even worse, the supervisor had made them all work an hour past their usual quitting time. Which didn’t even mean overtime pay for most of them, due to some scheduling weirdness earlier in the week. Therefore, it was with much grumbling and swearing that all the plant workers trudged out to their cars when the day finally ended. Not just any day but a Sunday. At least the Baptists among them had gotten to miss Reverend Hickory’s sermon for the week, but that was still small consolation.
So Jim Weaver wasn’t in one of his better moods. After coming in the front door, he walked through the hall, the living room, the kitchen. The entire house seemed to be empty. Weaver stood in his kitchen and glared at nothing in particular. Not only should his family be here, but his lunch should be made and on the table. Teri knew he came home hungry from his shifts.
“Anybody mind if I get myself a beer? No? Nobody? Guess I’ll go ahead then.”
He took a six-pack out of the refrigerator and carried it back to the living room. He sat down in front of the television set but didn’t turn it on. The six-pack resting on the coffee table, easily within reach, Jim stared at the blank television screen and listened to the growling in his stomach.
Robbie idly watched a fly that was crawling around on the pure white tablecloth of their table. Alan scratched his leg with his foot. Catherine wondered what the sermon Reverend Hickory had given today had been about. Stacey belched softly. Kelly Ephraim wished she had stayed back home in New York.
The banquet host was still speaking.
The water was calm and an almost translucent green. Elliot Maddox and Nick Carmichael sat side by side in Carmichael’s motorboat. Their fishing rods dangled out over the one and only fishable river in Middleton. A cooler filled with beer and fresh bait rested on the boat floor next to them, still empty enough to hold several pounds of fish still to be caught. They had played hooky from church today to take this fishing trip.
Maddox whistled loudly, a jingle from some commercial he’d once seen years ago. Carmichael tried to ignore it. Next, the doctor began singing. This time it was some old Lynyrd Skynyrd song they’d both listen to in high school while drunk off their heads.
“Okay, Duke,” said Nick, swallowing a grin, “I get it. You don’t like the silence. Okay.”
“I didn’t say a word.”
“Didn’t have to.”
“Looks like it’s going to rain soon.” Maddox sighed. “A shame, too, ’cause the fish haven’t been biting today worth a damn.”
“It’s about the journey, not the destination.”
Maddox set down his fishing rod, reached into the cooler, and pulled out a beer. The can’s tab cracked in the crisp morning air as he opened it. “Well, Nick,” he said in a casual tone, checking the time on his phone, “the way I figure it, that Banks kid must be almost ready to come back home.”
Nick snorted. “Hell, if I was that kid, I’d never come back.”
The doctor only shrugged.
They fished some more, in silence, before Carmichael whispered, “God. Washington, D.C.”
“Hear there’s a lot of crime there. Neighborhoods aren’t that nice.”
“Just think, though. One of Middleton’s own made it into the national spotlight.”
“Oh, Christ, Nick!” Maddox exploded. “We’re talking about some damned essay contest for little kids, not the U.S. Senate!”
Carmichael moodily sipped his own beer.
“Come on, don’t tell me that you like the little fucker anymore than me. He blasted you in his essay, he mouthed off to me in my own hospital … the kid’s got serious ego problems.” Angrily he finished off his beer and threw the can into the water. The water splashed and rippled in protest. “I mean, really, where’s that kid get the nerve to act high and mighty all the time? Huh?”
Nick Carmichael gazed out over the waters of the river, and his voice sounded a little strange, a little faraway, when he replied, “You know, I’ve never been to Washington, D.C.”
“But I’ve spoken long enough,” said the awards ceremony host with a little laugh. No one in the ballroom offered to disagree with him. “Many thanks for your patience. Now—without any further ado, delay, or fanfare—it’s time to announce our big winners of the ‘What Makes America The Greatest Nation on Earth’ essay contest.”
More applause. The host soaked it up. His bald head shone under the lights on the stage.
A pretty woman, dressed in a pinstripe pantsuit and seated at a table near the host, stood up. She handed the host an envelope and promptly returned to her chair. The banquet host held the envelope up for the guests to admire.
“The winners were chosen by a distinguished panel of judges with a combined total of ninety-six years of teaching experience. They hail from all geographic regions of the United States, and they spent countless hours deliberating over these very difficult choices.”
The audience squirmed in their seats.
With a flourish, the host ripped the envelope open. “And our third place winner is … ” He paused for effect, and his smile grew impossibly wide. In the audience, Robbie’s heart skipped a beat. Part of him wanted it to be his name, and part of him wanted it not to be, wanted nothing less than first place. “And the third place winner is Danielle Ortega, from San Antonio, Texas!”
Robbie applauded with the rest of the banquet attendees, half relieved and half disappointed. A small girl with dark eyes and dark hair, presumably Danielle Ortega, walked onstage. The host asked her to read her essay, a copy of which being conveniently placed on the podium.
“In the beginning there was a dream,” the little Texan girl read aloud, in a soft shy voice, “the original American dream. Americans have had to fight for that dream—even die for that dream at times—over and over again. Freedom is not free … ”
Stacey glanced over and recognized the conflicted look on Robbie’s face. Leaning in, she whispered, “If this is the third place essay, you’re definitely winning first.”
Robbie smile weakly. Then he settled in to listen to Danielle’s reciting of her essay. After she finished, and the audience applauded her, Robbie reflected that, actually, her essay hadn’t been half bad.
As fat drops of rain pattered against the windowpanes of his house, Lee Chou sat and contemplated the weather. Weather in Middleton was an entity unto itself. Sometimes it was warm and muggy, and sometimes cold, dark, and wet. Sometimes it rained, sometimes it snowed, and sometimes there was thunder. But no matter the conditions, there was always one constant—the grayness. An eternal grayness, often literal, sometimes merely spiritual, hung over the town like a hellish fog.
It seemed to Chou that the relentless, remorseless grayness of Middleton couldn’t help but seep into the lives and souls of its residents. It was like a communicable disease, almost.
Suyin wandered into the kitchen, where her father sat at the breakfast island. She climbed up onto a stool and looked out the windows with him. “Are you looking at the rain, Daddy?” she asked.
“Yes. It’s raining pretty hard, isn’t it?”
The little girl sighed. “Rain is boring. I want to watch one of Stacey’s movies.”
“I’m afraid you can’t, sweetie. Miss Stacey is on a trip and is very far away.”
“As far away as China?”
“No.” Her father smiled. “Not quite as far as that.”
Suyin went back to watching the rain with him. She enjoyed the repetitive sound of water hitting glass, water hitting glass. But after a moment, she looked up at her father and said, “I don’t like when it’s raining. I can’t go outside, and I can’t play at the park, and it gets me all wet.”
“I don’t like the rain either,” Chou said, and he hugged his daughter close to him while the rain continued its assault against the house windows.
Danielle Ortega clambered offstage as soon as she’d read the last sentence from her essay. The moment she’d returned to the safety of her parents’ congratulatory hugs, the banquet host reclaimed the podium and beamed out at the crowd.
“Let’s hear it one more time for Danielle,” he prompted, and the audience obliged him with another round of applause. “Such a great writer, and a truly wonderful young woman. Now, I imagine you’re all on the edge of your seats to find out who our second place winner will be. Considering the tremendous abilities of our third place winner, I sure know that I’m eager to find out what could possibly top it.”
“This guy sure like to hear the sound of his own voice,” grumbled Stacey under her breath. She shifted in her seat and wished, not for the first time that afternoon, that she hadn’t had quite so many bread rolls.
“And our second place winner is …” The host paused a second or two longer than was strictly comfortable. “Tyrell Jennings from Boykin, South Carolina! How about we get Tyrell up on stage here to read his essay?”
A tall boy with sparkling black eyes and the slightest hint of a mustache stood up. He made his way to the podium, where a copy of his essay was handed to him by the woman in the pinstriped suit. In a clear voice tinged with the slightest hint of a drawl, he began reading, “Once there was a man, and that man’s name was Martin Luther. He crusaded so that all Americans could take part in the great promise of the United States—freedom, opportunity, and equality …”
After Tyrell’s reading finished and the boy returned to his seat, Robbie clapped along with everyone else. But he couldn’t help thinking about how there was only one more essay left to be read.
Reverend Hickory motioned for Mayor Dell to have a seat in one of the ridiculously stiff wooden chairs he preferred to furnish his office with. The mayor sat down and took a look around. The walls were painted a pure, almost blinding white, and not a painting hung. The only furniture in the room was a small desk and chair, a set of old, poorly-constructed bookshelves, and the chair Dell was seated in.
The reverend sat behind the desk. He folded his hands and, a faint smile upon his lips, stared right into Dell’s pale blue eyes. “Tell me, Simon,” he began, very easy, very casual, “how’ve you been?”
“I’m all right enough, I suppose.”
“I know you were having chest pains a while back. Hope you got that checked out.”
Dell shifted his weight in the chair, struggling in vain to find a more comfortable position. “Oh, yeah, sure did. Doc says I’m fine. Nothing much to worry about.” He coughed. “Thanks for asking, though.”
Reverend Hickory unfolded his hands and started drumming his fingers lightly on the desk. The sound grated on the mayor’s nerves. Mayor Dell coughed again, then shifted his weight again.
“So, Harry, anything else on your mind?”
The drumming fingers stopped. “Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m just a little bit concerned about you. There’s been rumors amongst the congregation, Simon. Rumors that been going on for so long, they can’t be easily ignored anymore.”
Simon Dell sighed deeply.
Catherine Banks drank off her glass of wine and then signaled a waiter to get her another. She was enjoying herself immensely. She’d always loved museums, and there weren’t very many of those back in Middleton, of course. Just the folk art museum a town over in Long Pine. Plus, it was nice not having to worry about cooking all the family’s meals and cleaning up after.
In between sips of wine and bites of an incredibly overcooked breast of chicken, Catherine glanced at her son out of the corner of her eyes. Robbie’s own plate of food sat almost entirely untouched, and he sat forward in his chair, his eyes fixed onto the stage at the front of the ballroom. That little friend of his, Stacey, had her hand on his arm, but he didn’t seem to notice.
Every time a winner had been announced, Catherine had hoped it would be Robbie. For Robbie’s sake, yes—the vast majority of the reason was for Robbie—but also, partly, so she could finally learn what was in that essay of his when he got a chance to read it onstage. Third and second place had already gone by, and that only left one more winner. The first place winner.
“Alan,” she whispered, turning to her husband, “are you having a good time?”
Alan sat with his back flush against the seat, looking awkward and ill at ease in his necktie, the shoulders of his too-small coat jacket pulled tight at the corners. He was staring off into the distance and quietly drumming his fingers on the table.
Still Alan didn’t answer, but before Catherine could try again, the waiter brought her another glass of wine. She smiled as she took a sip. She really was enjoying herself.
The front door opened. Talking and laughing all over one another, in walked Teri, Bill, and Chris. All three of them fell silent the moment they spotted Jim sitting in his chair, a half-empty beer can in his right hand. He didn’t even turn his head when they walked in. He just quietly asked, “Where were you?”
“You were late,” said Teri in a voice that sounded small and childlike to her own ears. “So I, well, I took the boys out for some hamburgers. They almost never get hamburgers. I thought it’d be a nice little treat for them.”
“What about my dinner?”
Teri placed a hand on Chris’s shoulder. She wasn’t sure whether she did it to reassure him or herself. “There’s some leftovers in the refrigerator. I figured you would see them when you got home.”
Jim Weaver didn’t say anything. But Bill, standing a little in front of Chris and his mother, muttered loud enough for everyone to hear, “Let the bastard starve.”
Without a word, Jim Weaver whipped around and threw the can of beer at his son’s head full force. It struck Bill in the forehead. The boy staggered back a step, a bit stunned, and then something changed. Something dark and fierce came over his pale young face, and with an incoherent yell, he picked up the beer can and hurled it right back at his father.
This time, the can missed. But the effect was the same as if it had squarely hit its mark—Jim Weaver leapt out of his seat and, before anyone in the room could blink, he had his hands clutching Bill’s shoulders, slamming the boy into the wall behind him, over and over.
Chris reached out to put a calming hand on his father’s arm, but Jim shook off the boy’s hold with a sharp backhand, as simple and quick as he might wave off a wasp. Chris tumbled back and fell sideways, face first into the coffee table.
When he lifted his head, a tiny trickle of blood ran down from his nose. While Jim continued shaking the older son, Teri couldn’t take her eyes off her youngest son’s blood.
Staring into the depths of his glass of beer, Alan Banks tried to tune out the prattling of the ridiculous little man up on stage. Alan had never drank beer from a glass before, and he didn’t like it. It made him feel clumsy and foolish. All of it—the fancy ballroom, the bowtie-wearing waiters, the thin plate and overabundance of flatware—it was all too much.
He glanced over at his family. Robbie and Stacey were leaning close to one another and occasionally whispering to one another. Catherine was tossing back wine and smiling vaguely at the rest of the table. Alan supposed that this was the truly important thing—that everyone was enjoying themselves.
Alan tugged open the top button of his dress shirt and took a sip of overly bitter beer.
So far, Maddox and Carmichael had managed to catch only one fish between the both of them, and it was a paltry two-pounder at that. Shortly after they’d caught the fish, the swollen skies had opened up, and a brief but heavy rain had left the men fully drenched. Maddox hadn’t wanted to stay out on the water after that, so Nick had brought the boat back to shore. He’d let Duke take the fish. Why not? But after Maddox had driven off, he’d stayed behind, just sitting in the boat where it was tied to the dock. Alone, Carmichael packed up his tackle box and watched as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and as the water glimmered and sparkled.
He always got contemplative when he was out in his boat. Maybe it was the gentle rocking, or maybe it was the cool sweet air—he didn’t know. But whatever it was, he couldn’t get his mind off the Banks boy. Washington, D.C. When he was a boy himself, Carmichael always assumed that’s where he’d end up. The Carmichaels had always valued, if not outright worshipped, money and power and influence, and Washington seemed the ultimate embodiment of all those things to a young Nick Carmichael.
And as a Carmichael, it had seemed that nothing was out of his reach. It wasn’t until he was grown that he realized that being important and influential in Middleton—being a big fish is a very small pond—meant nothing in the outside world and especially not in Washington, D.C. So he’d done the smart thing. The grown-up thing. He chucked his bachelor’s degree in political science over his shoulder and took a master’s in education. Now, one of his own middle school students had gotten to the city that should rightfully have been his.
Nick Carmichael barked out a laugh, loud and harsh, like the blast of a shotgun. A small nearby flock of specklebelly geese gave a start and launched into flight.
Kelly Ephraim from New York whispered, “Good luck, Robert.”
“Thanks.” Robbie smiled in return. ”Same to you.”
Kelly nodded her thanks. The three fell into a mutual silence. Stacey began tapping out a tune on her water glass with a fork. The banquet host had brought up the president or CEO or executive director of whatever foundation sponsored this essay contest, in what was almost certainly a misguided attempt to build dramatic tension before the first place winner was revealed, and the executive director stood behind the podium and droned on about the current projects of the foundation.
“Kelly?” asked Robbie, and his voice held a strange note, strange enough that both Kelly and Stacey looked over at him. “Do you really care whether you win or not?”
After considering for a moment, Kelly replied, “No, I guess not really. I mean, I’d like to win. Who doesn’t like winning? But I didn’t think I’d make it this far, and my grandma and grandpa got to have a nice trip.” Kelly grinned. “Besides, it’s not as though you get a million dollars for winning first place.”
Her attention drifted back to the stage, but Stacey kept staring at Robbie. “Do you care about winning?” she asked.
“Hell, yeah, I care.”
The rain stopped, abruptly, was there one minute and was gone the next. While the water still dripped down from the roof and eaves, Suyin complained that she was hungry. Lee Chou asked his daughter what she wanted to have to eat and, to his utter lack of surprise, she said ice cream. Struggling not to smile, he that ice cream be reserved for an after-dinner treat and not the main course. Then, he cocked his head.
“Have I ever made your mother’s famous dumplings for you?”
Suyin’s father shut his eyes, a soft sigh rising from deep within him. His child didn’t even know what dumplings were. If Jianmei was there to hear this … but Jianmei wasn’t there, of course. Chou picked up his small daughter and sat her down on the kitchen counter. She watched with interest as he got out some flour, some green onions, pork, spices, oils, water.
“Now, this here is just the basics,” he told Suyin, as she watched with curiosity. “It’s your mother’s secret ingredient that really makes these special. Of course, I won’t be able to get it just right, but it should still be edible.”
“What’s ‘edible’ mean, Daddy?”
Chou finally allowed himself to smile. “It means that people can eat it, sweetie.”
“Oh. Okay.” But it was only a few minutes later that she asked, “Daddy, what was Mommy’s special ingredient?”
Chou went over to a refrigerator and searched its shelves. A brief search turned up what he was looking for, and he carried it back to Suyin. She eagerly wrapped her little fingers around the package he handed her. “It’s cilantro from the plants we grow in the backyard,” he explained to her, “and when you mix it in with the onions and the spices, it makes the dumplings taste very good.”
“Cilantro,” repeated Suyin quietly to herself, almost worshipfully.
“Your mother always had some cilantro growing in her garden. She thought the grocery store’s cilantro was never fresh enough.”
While Suyin guarded the little bundle of cilantro, Chou chopped the onions and then the pork. Together, they prepared Jianmei Chou’s famous spicy dumplings.
“What happens if you don’t win?” Stacey asked. She kept her voice deliberately even, deliberately calm, almost emotionless.
Robbie shrugged. “I go back to Middleton a loser—the same thing I was before I came here.”
Mayor Simon Dell met Reverend Hickory’s eyes with a steady gaze. “What rumors have you been hearing, Harry?” he said, and it was more of a demand than a question.
“Now, mind you, these are just rumors. But there’s been talk that you haven’t been as faithful to your marriage vows as you maybe ought have been.”
Dell wasn’t surprised. People liked to talk, and Hickory was bound to say something sooner or later. The reverend just wasn’t the sort of man to generously look the other way. No. The good reverend believed in fire and vengeance and paying for one’s sins.
“I think,” Hickory was saying, “that if you got anything to get off your chest and out into the open, you’d best do it. Confess before the Lord and your constituents, and then repent and ask the forgiveness of both.”
Dell scarcely dared to breathe. “And just what am I supposed to be confessing?”
“Well, ’fess up to the other women, I mean. ’Fess up to being led astray.” Hickory frowned a little. “I’d like to think we’re friends, Simon. We’ve certainly known each other long enough to be. But as a man of God, as the spiritual caretaker and leader for this congregation, I can’t ignore my conscience or what the Bible teaches. I know you understand.”
Mayor Dell quietly sighed in relief. Hickory didn’t know jack shit. He’d gotten off a lucky shot in the dark. That was all.
Leaning forward in his chair, he put the palms of his hands on top of the reverend’s desk. “I think I understand pretty well. And you’re right, we’ve known each other for quite some time. Do you remember when you first came to Middleton?”
“Ye-es, I remember. I don’t see what—”
“Because I sure enough remember. You didn’t have a dime in your pocket or a friend in the world back then. And do you happen to remember why you came to town?”
The reverend’s mouth became a hard line. “Our Lord called me to come here and minister to the good people of Middleton.”
“Maybe the Lord did, in His infinite wisdom, but according to what I heard—” Simon Dell paused and smiled. “And this is just hearsay, of course—but what I heard is, you left your position as associate pastor at Hayfield’s Morning Glory Baptist Church when the good people of Hayfield found out that you’d been skimming off the top of the collection plate.”
“Gossip,” replied Reverend Hickory, a bit stiffly, “is the Devil’s radio.”
Brushing off his hands, Mayor Dell stood up and looked down upon the other man. “May be. Yes, may be. But don’t you think your congregation has a right to know?” When Hickory didn’t answer, Dell added, “Don’t you think I’ve got a duty to tell them, Harry, since I’m their mayor? Don’t you think I ought to obey my conscience?”
The seconds ticked by. Hickory stared down at his desk. It was in a soft voice that the reverend finally said, “Glad we got the chance to talk, Mr. Mayor.”
“The pleasure was mine, Reverend,” said Simon Dell. “Hope we’ve got everything all worked out now. Don’t trouble yourself getting up. I’m sure I can find my way to the door.”
Dell began whistling as he let himself out of the reverend’s office. Harry didn’t actually know, and Harry wouldn’t know. Nobody would. Better safe than sorry, that was Mayor Dell’s motto. Always had been and always would be.
“You’re not a loser, Robert. You were never a loser.”
“And how would you know? You’re just as big a loser as I am.”
Stacey gave him an appraising look. “You know, on second thought? Maybe I hope you don’t win.”
It was the blood that pushed Teri Weaver over the edge. Even though she heard Bill’s cries of pain—felt the rage rolling off Jim like steam—watched the plaster on the living room wall crack as her husband kicked at Bill’s fallen body, missed, and hit the wall—even though she saw and heard and felt all this, it was Chris’s blood that broke her paralysis.
She didn’t think, didn’t hesitate. She just ran. Ran to the bedroom she shared with Jim, to the cold metal case where Jim kept his treasured hunting rifles. Her fingers groped along the top of the case and found where the key was hidden. Quickly she unlocked the case, took out the closest rifle, and fumbled with the box of ammunition. Her hands shaking, her entire body shaking, she managed to load the gun.
With the gun in her still-shaking hands, she ran back to the living room.
Once she got there, a strange thing happened. Her hands stopped trembling, and everything slowed down. She stopped running. She walked calmly over to Jim and Bill, and in a quiet voice she spoke her husband’s name.
He looked up at her, looked down at the gun, and grinned. It was the ugliest grin Teri had ever seen.
“You’re not gonna shoot me, Teri,” Jim said.
“Leave Bill alone. I’m serious, now. Just leave him be.”
Jim Weaver kept on grinning. “I’m your husband,” he explained, like an adult teaching something to a very young child. “You can’t shoot me.”
Teri stood stone-still, the rifle held at about waist level and aimed at her husband. Only her eyes moved. She took quick glances at her sons, first at Bill and his bruised face, then Chris and his bloody nose.
“You’re my wife,” Jim Weaver repeated, but this time he sounded a little more uncertain, a little less condescending.
Teri squeezed the trigger on Jim’s hunting rifle, and the blast was deafening.
The timing, of course, was perfect. The banquet host had rambled on for nearly an hour, and now that he seemed about to announce the first place winner of the essay contest? Of course it was now that the ballroom’s audio system decided to break down. The audience grumbled while the host and conference center staff hastily tried to repair the electronics.
Alan struck up a conversation with Bob and Elaine Ephraim from New York, while Catherine excused herself so she could go search out a restroom. Stacey reached over and took Robbie’s hand in hers, even though it was a hopelessly maudlin gesture. She hated hopelessly maudlin gestures, but Robert practically lived for them. Kelly Ephraim decided that Stacey must actually be Robbie’s girlfriend or, if she wasn’t, the midwest was home to some seriously weird V.C. Andrews fiction come to life.
Dr. Elliot Maddox actually had hoped Nick would take the damn fish they’d caught. He’d never let on, but he disliked the whole ordeal of cleaning a fish. Besides, his wife hated cooking fish. Said it stunk up the house for hours.
So after travelling down the road what he judged to be a safe distance, Maddox had thrown the fish out the window of the car. Then, a few miles on, he pulled over at Dell’s Steakhouse. He’d told his wife not to expect him back until late, and he didn’t much care for the thought of cold leftover pot roast for dinner. He had time for a quick dinner before heading home.
The young blonde waitress, daughter to the restaurant owner and niece to the mayor, grinned at she placed a menu in his hands. “I don’t suppose you’ll actually need this, but here it is anyways.”
“You’re right. I don’t.” Maddox grinned back. “Bring me whatever draft is on special this week and a porterhouse, medium-rare.”
“You got it, Duke.”
Maddox leaned back in the booth and made himself good and comfortable. As he waited for his steak and his beer, he wondered what was eating at Nick Carmichael. Nick had been mopey and ill-tempered all damn day, moaning about Washington, D.C. and the Banks boy and all kinds of nonsense. He liked Nick, considered Nick a friend, but good Lord, the man could be trying on the nerves.
Nick’s problem, Maddox decided, was wanting whatever he hadn’t already got. Could’ve been happy about one of his kids winning a writing contest. Could’ve been something to feel real proud over, even. But Nick didn’t think like that.
Kind of like the Banks boy, now that Maddox thought about it. Always wanting more, always a malcontent, never appreciating what he already had. Maddox chuckled to himself, wondering who’d hate the comparison more, Nick or the boy.
The waitress brought out a tall glass of beer, and he smiled.
Now Elliot Maddox? Elliot Maddox didn’t have time for all that self-pity. He could complain about his job or his house or his wife, sure, but what would be the point? He’d made his choices, and he got what he got. Besides, he thought as he took a gulp of his beer, it wasn’t like what he’d gotten was all that bad. He’d just spent the day out on the water, relaxing, and now here he was drinking a cold beer. In a few more minutes, he’d be eating one of the best-cooked steaks in the county.
What more did a man need, really?
The audio system screeched back to life, and the audience breathed a collective sigh of relief once their ears had stopped aching. Fairly glowing, the banquet host reclaimed the microphone.
“Sorry for the technical difficulties, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “but it seems that we’re back in action now.”
This announcement was met with scattered applause.
“So let’s get right down to it … it’s time to reveal who, of all fifty of these fine essayists, wrote the essay that was the most original, most interesting, and most patriotic. And the first place writer is … ”
The dumplings, as Lee Chou had predicted, did not turn out as well as Jianmei’s alway had. Suyin seemed to enjoy them anyway, but then, she almost always liked foods she had helped to cook. The after-dinner ice cream, unsurprisingly, was an even bigger success. Chou scooped out two bowls of strawberry ice cream, and they ate it in the living room while playing a round of Candy Land.
It was some time after the game had ended that Suyin said, contemplatively, “I like dumplings.”
“That’s good, sweetie.”
“And I liked the cilantro part of it, too. I like cilantro dumplings.”
Chou paused a moment before replying, “You know, Suyin, there are places where you can eat Chinese dumplings and foods with cilantro and lots of other kinds of foods. They have restaurants where you can order just about anything you can imagine.”
“Uh-huh. All kinds of different people live there, and there are all kinds of places to go, too. Big cities, small cities, mountains and lakes and forests and oceans.” He smiled down at his daughter and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Jianmei—your mother—she always wanted to move there.”
Suyin bounced up and down on the sofa. “I wanna go there!” she declared, eyes shining, her little voice demanding in the charming way only a five-year-old’s can be. “Where is it, Daddy? Can we go?”
Lee Chou laughed at her enthusiasm. “It’s west of here, sweetie. Very far away. A place called California.”
“ … Anne Labrecque from Berlin, New Hampshire!”
A pretty blonde girl, who was presumably Anne Labrecque of Berlin, New Hampshire, stood up and confidently walked onto the stage. As the applause slowly faded, she shook hands with the host, stepped behind the podium, and began reading from a copy of her prize-winning essay.
In the audience below, Robbie listened but didn’t hear. He only caught a passing reference to moose and some mountain or another. He felt Stacey give his hand a squeeze but didn’t respond to that, either. It was only afterwards, when he was on the plane headed back home to Middleton, that it hit him—he hadn’t won. Not only had he failed to win first place, he hadn’t even been able to snag second or third. For all that work and effort, he had nothing to show for himself.
On the plane, Stacey tried to chat with him, to cheer him up, but he just stared out the tiny oval window at the clouds. Eventually, with a quiet sigh, Stacey pulled out a book to read.
The sun had set by the time the plane touched down, and it was an exhausted Banks family that returned to their home after dropping off Stacey. Gene Richardson, out on his evening job, cheerfully waved and welcomed them back. He and Alan stood outside talking about Washington, D.C., while Catherine hauled the luggage inside and Robbie headed straight for his room. Once inside, he picked up his guitar and banged out the one twelve-bar blues song he knew.
On Monday morning, The Tri-City Times ran the following headline on page three of the paper: “Middleton Man Shot Dead, Wife Arrested.” The story related how local woman Teri Weaver had shot and killed her husband with a hunting rifle. It added that while Mrs. Weaver had been taken into custody, the police were still investigating the case.
On page eleven, in the odds and ends section, there was a story about the local minor celebrity Robert J. Banks. The article told about the Middleton Middle School student’s essay winning at the school and state levels but, unfortunately, not picking up any honors at the national contest awards ceremony. However, just having a local boy make it all the way to the national level, the reporter had added kindly, was an honor in and of itself.