"She makes different noises depending on how you scratch her. After a while you can almost understand what she's saying. Want to give it a try?"
Lucy tickled the cow on top of her heavy head. Minty groaned.
"What's she saying now?"
"She's saying she'll miss me," Malcolm said. Then, whispering to the cow in that silly soft voice people use for pets, "I know, Minty; I'll miss you too."
A sentimental thought crossed Lucy's mind. "Do you think they miss my dad?" she said.
"When Minty got sick, they gave us this herbal stuff to put on her. You were supposed to do it every hour, but the guy said we could let it go at night. But Skye didn't let it go. He put a sleeping bag up in the field, and woke up every hour to rub her down. I went out there once, and he was singing to her, just like a baby. He was singing 'Kookaburra.'" Malcolm took a drink. "I guess they ought to miss him."
Lucy asked, "Do you?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Lucy saw a hot resentment flicker on Malcolm's face. "Nothing," she said. "Sorry."
They sat on the ground in silence. Malcolm kept on drinking from the bottle, and Lucy pulled up blades of grass coated with cold dew. The air was moist, and water vapor made a pale, soft ring around the moon—all signs pointed to rain.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Malcolm said after a long while.
Lucy felt herself entering a conversation she would rather avoid.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean now. I don't know where I'm gonna go." His anger was gone, and his voice sounded choked, like that of a child trying not to cry.
"Do you have family?"
"Just some cousins over in Boise. Dad's in jail. Mom has this boyfriend who's a dealer, so they move around …"
"I'd join the Army, but I got to wait another year."
"I thought you were nineteen."
His face in the moonlight, with its soft, uneven growth of beard, answered her before he did.
"Nah, I'm sixteen." He raised the bottle to his lips again, drank deeply, rocked his head back, and repeated himself: "Sixteen. One. Six."
The numbers pinged in Lucy's brain. She had the unwelcome sense of a curtain's being lifted away.
"Did my dad know how young you were when he hired you?"
"No," he said, his voice tightening. "I told him later, but it didn't matter." He stabbed his thumb into the earth and pulled up a little divot with grass still attached. "Nothing made any difference to him except the stupid cows."
He threw the divot in Minty's direction, hard but aiming to miss. The cow stirred and groaned softly. In a moment she was still again.
"I'm sorry," Malcolm said.
Lucy turned away from him. "You don't have to apologize."
"Yes," he said, "I do."
Malcolm opened his mouth to speak again. Lucy had never been more sure what someone was going to say. She knew why the dogs had been quiet—not just the old mutt but the big Rottweiler who snarled even at Lucy. Norb could have killed a cow with a pocketknife, maybe, but a machete would have made it much easier. She remembered her mother's clockwork complaints, the fury that made her want to hurt Skye just to break his silence. How much greater must Malcolm's fury have been, the boy sixteen and terrified, craving a reassurance that was repeatedly and cruelly withheld. Had her father really been a coward all those years, his reticence a cover for things he was afraid to say? She thought of his expression the morning Donny had left, the one that looked like anger or regret. After Malcolm spoke, it would forever look like shame.