The Dummy

A five-year-old child had been lost; the menof the town had gotten together a search; they'dfound the boy and he was fine. Why not celebrate?

BUSY night," Byron said, over the noise, when Brenda set his beer on the bar in front of him.

"For a weeknight," she agreed. "Hear you found that little deaf boy."

"Yup," he said, and raised the bottle in a mock toast.

Brenda gave the bar a pat. "On the house--excuse me," she said, and went to wait on somebody else. He watched her go, sorry, vaguely and not for the first time, that he wasn't the least bit in love with her. She reminded him pleasantly of a girl in Texas, almost fifteen years before.

"Hey, Doatze," Mike Connor called from down the bar.

Byron nodded back at him, and then at the other men with him, who raised hands or beers in greeting.

Most weeknights when Byron came in, he could stand at the bar and joke with Brenda for three beers and be interrupted only once or twice--the place stayed that quiet. But tonight, as if the tornado two days ago, or last night's search, had changed even the Rainbow, the place was so full he could hardly hear himself think.

Brenda went behind the bar again, uncapped a fresh beer, and set it in front of him. "It's on Frenchie," she said, pointing toward the back of the barroom.

"I'll be damned," Byron said, because Frenchie'd never bought anybody a beer, and that made Brenda laugh, so he said, "I better get out of here before chickens grow teeth."

"Oh, you," Brenda said, taking a little slap at his shoulder.

Then somebody called her. Byron caught Frenchie's eye, raised the second beer, and nodded his thanks.

Maybe it was that--thanking somebody he didn't like for something he didn't want--or maybe it was the noise in a place he preferred quiet, but he'd come for something else, and he didn't know what. He took another swallow and gave up. Next thing he knew he'd be feeling sorry for himself, and even as he thought that, he thought of Maude Nash and how she'd made fun of him the night before last in her kitchen. What a clean, surprising thing talking with her had been. And she didn't remind him at all of that old lost chance in Texas.

He pulled a dollar from his pocket and tucked it under his bottle. He hadn't planned on giving Brenda a blow-by-blow of the search, but there were a few things he'd have liked the chance to say, maybe just to hear how they sounded. And he sure didn't want to say them to Frenchie, or Mike, or any of the rest of them.

"'Night," he called to Brenda, and she looked up, surprised for a second. Then she waved, and he waved and left.

He had spent the day tuning his truck's engine, so when he turned the key, it started right up, and now he tried to take some satisfaction in that, sitting there, listening to how smooth it was. But even as he listened, he grew aware that he was paying attention to listening, not to the engine, so he pulled the truck around and headed back toward town. His own house, which he had built himself, of stone, and where he lived alone, was a mile in the other direction, but he wasn't ready for that much quiet just yet, and he wasn't sure what he did want.

For a long minute at the four-way stop he considered turning down East Main and seeing if Maude was home. It was still early, maybe eight o'clock. The night of the tornado, night before last, she'd called him into her house to take shelter from the rain, bullied and bossed him into her kitchen, and sat there talking with him about nothing for hours. He'd known who she was for years, but this was the first time he'd talked to her, and when he left, she'd offered to lend him her umbrella. If he'd taken it--well, then he could have returned it, and she'd ask about the boy, and he could say this and that. And then? He remembered her strong, laughing face there in the candlelight in the middle of the night: the electricity out, she in her bathrobe and he in his socks. They'd talked and had a good time. No foolishness about Maude Nash, candlelight or not. He smiled. "Smart woman," he said aloud. She had a funny way of tilting her head when she was listening, and the candlelight had shown the white in her dark hair, had softened the small scar that split one eyebrow and made her look critical in the daylight.

All those requirements for romance had been satisfied, and what he'd felt, what they'd both felt, was simply comfortable. So he hadn't taken the umbrella, and he knew why, and she knew why. So he didn't have it to return, and that was that.

He turned east anyway, and saw that the lights were out in her house, and then he turned his truck around at the high school and drove past Nobel Aldrich's house, where Aldrich's car was in the driveway and the lights were on, upstairs and down. Man's got sense, Byron thought.

The night before, he and Nobel had been one of the search teams assigned to Clayborne Woods, the team that took the old logging road in, the team that found the boy and walked him out of the woods. Nobel had seen what Byron saw, and had had the sense to stay home tonight.

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