Clyde stood on the corner of Eighth and Wentworth. The sky was a flat primer gray, ominous with snow.
When Annabeth Price came out of Seneca Drug, she was wrestling with two shopping bags. Her hair whipped crazily around her face and she came closer.
“Stan’s dead,” she said without preamble. “They called last night. We’re having the service on Friday.”
For a second, Clyde didn’t know quite what to say. He found this happened a lot, mostly in little situations, the kind that called for small talk. It was not supposed to happen when you were hearing about the death of a friend.
He took a deep breath and struggled for words. They sounded only a little mechanical. “Can I do something for your mom? Or you.”
“Come over,” she said, and her face was pale in the light from the the streetlamp. “Bring Randy, I guess. Jesus, but this is hard, and he would have wanted you guys, I know it.”
And of course that was true. They had grown up together, always. Stan, Randall, him, and Darly.
At the Price home, Clyde and Randall knocked and then let themselves in. All the lights were on.
Mrs. Price was in the kitchen, kneading biscuit dough. She slammed it down on the board, yanking it this way and that.
“Mom,” said Annabeth, coming in from the living room. “Mom, stop. You’re going to make them tough.”
Mrs. Price turned away, dusting her hands on the front of her shirt. “Someone needs to go down to Ithaca tomorrow and pick up Darly from the bus station.”
They sat at the table, shamed in their ordinariness by the angelic specter of Darly. Sure, he’d been a terror when they were young, but he’d grown unexpectedly into the good one and by the time they reached high school, he was the only one who never caused trouble or got up to the devil.
“I’ll go,” said Clyde, speaking to fill the silence. “What time’s he get in?”
Clyde left Remus the next afternoon, driving to beat the snow.
Without him, Randall felt inexplicably at loose ends. Death was not something he had much acquaintance with and it weighed on him enough that he could not sit still and finally had to go out for walk. Eventually, he found himself standing in front of the Price house. After deliberating a while, he went up and rang the bell. Annabeth came to the door, looking harried and a little lost, but she let him in.
In the living room, they sat in silence and Randall wondered why he had come at all. He’d always liked Annabeth, made little magic tricks and toys for her when she was small. He’d tied lengths of thread around Japanese beetles and presented them to her as pets. Now, she sat stiffly with her hands in her lap, and he had nothing to give her.
“He wasn’t ever okay,” she said, looking away.
“No, he was. Don’t say that. He just made some bad mistakes, was all. We all do.”
Her mouth was so raw, so red. It made Randall think of fruit, of a nectar so strong that for a second you felt dizzy just from the taste. Terrible that she was more beautiful than ever now, so unlike herself, so broken. Terrible that death could make a person beautiful.
She shook her head, turning from him. “No. He was a nutjob, okay? He used to send these letters. I mean, my mom wouldn’t even open them after awhile, they were so freaking scary.”
Then she stood up and walked out. She was gone so long Randall thought she’d retreated to her room to be alone, maybe cry a little. When he went up after her, he found her standing with her back to him. He crossed the room, thinking to comfort her, but when she turned, she wasn’t crying.
She held a battered shoebox in both hands. “Can you keep a secret?”
“Yes,” Randall said.
Darly was waiting outside the bus station. He stood on the curb, looking cheerful and patient as always. In his coat, he seemed smaller than Clyde remembered, a slight, unassuming man, and Clyde felt the same swell of affection he always felt when he saw Darly. The snow was coming down heavier now, swirling around the buildings and the streetlights.
Clyde smiled. You couldn’t help smiling when you saw Darly. You couldn’t help admiring his mild gray eyes and his unselfconscious grin.
It was the day out by the lake that nagged at him. That was what made him uneasy, and not Darly himself. Still, Clyde didn’t care for the feeling. For the first time, he did not like that the sight of Darly made him happy.
The box was full of letters. Randall took it from Annabeth and began picking through them. Their corners were soft from being handled, but he couldn’t say if the wear was from being read over too many times, or if paper had simply been hard for Stan to come by.
Dear Mom and Annie,
The place is no hotel, but it’s not so bad. The they let us out for exercise and we have a movie once a month. Some of the guys fight or rile the guards, but they’re just being foolish. They get put in segregation, but I wouldn’t risk that for anything. All that time with your own thoughts. Sounds too horrible to think of.
Randall shuffled through the crumpled pages. Stan had never had good penmanship, but his narrative was lucid enough. Growing up, he could not have imagined Stan doing anything that fell under the heading of crazy, mostly because when he was honest, Stan lacked the imagination necessary to support a full-blown delusion.
But was that true, really? Even before the failed bookie scheme and then the gas station, Stan had not been quite himself.
The snow is terrible. We had a storm last week that knocked out the lights. I would say that I love you, but sometimes I think you wouldn’t believe it. Love you like desperation, or something just as ugly. Segregation is hell. Everything I’ve done and everything they say I’ve done is weighing on me a lot these days. It creeps in and gets me when they turn out the lights. My misery is constant, my torment is—
Randall squinted at the page, trying to decode the crabbed scrawl. “Does this say Daily or Darly?”
Annabeth didn’t even glance at the letter. “Darly,” she said, with her face to the window.
Randall nodded, feeling suddenly uneasy. He was remembering the stand of trees just off the lake. They weren’t supposed to be there. The land was private and ducks were out of season. They’d all been shaken, but quick to tell themselves that the shape they’d thought was a man had been nothing after all. Too quick? Stan had been adamant. He’d been so sure that they’d hit something. It was unlikely to hurt a man badly with birdshot, and more unlikely from such a distance. Still, Stan was ready to go haring off into the thicket to see. He had insisted there was something back there.
They deliberated a long time, but in the end, it was Darly who had gone back.
come to the duck blind with me. The nights are getting plenty cold and it will snow soon. The hill is so pretty when it’s covered. We were too early. S’pose it’s all my fault, because I knew. I saw blood on his hands.
Annabeth shook her head
. “I don’t know.” Her eyes were frightened, and she watched as he sorted through the letters, her mouth open in breathless appeal. “I don’t think it matters.”
Randall sorted farther. Then he stopped.
darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly darly early early
Clyde was smoking. The snow blew in drifts, obscuring the headlights and road. The truck shimmied and he pumped the brake twice before he got traction.
“Would you mind putting that out?” Darly said in a low, easy voice.
The radio flared into bursts of static. The speakers hissed in time to the windshield wipers. Clyde stubbed out the cigarette.
“Do you think he killed himself?” Clyde said into the messy static and the wind. “I mean, they never said how it happened, but it seems like in Auburn, maybe there ain’t too many ways to die.”
Darly nodded, looking pained. “I don’t like to speculate, but I figure you might be right. I figure we better never say anything like that in front of the Price girls, though.”
“Maybe not, but they’ll know anyway. Probably know better than us.”
“Sometimes it’s good just to let things be. Stan knew that. I don’t guess he’d want to go talking about unpleasant things. He never did.”
Something in his voice made Clyde glance over. Darly was watching the snow with that faint smile, a man at peace with himself. It occurred to Clyde that he had liked Darly because the others did. Now, alone with him in the rattling truck, he had to admit that Darly creeped him right the hell out.
They were crossing the long stretch of country road that led into Remus. The shoulder was wide, sloping shallowly into pasture, without the hazard of embankments or ditches.
Unbidden, he remembered that girl. It was the summer after their barely-mentioned hunting trip, the accident that may or may not have happened—Hard to tell, after all, when the snow had come that night and buried everything. Who would even find a body until the spring?—but the girl had been in summer and it was no accident. Jamie, he thought. No, it was something else.
All at once, he was so wound-up he felt like his whole skin was prickling. Because Darly had walked out of the thicket and said—what? He’d said, “There’s nothing back there to worry about.”
With grim precision, Clyde jerked the wheel and let the truck slide out onto the graveled shoulder. “It’s slick out there. I better put the chains on.”
“You never used to,” Darly said. “We used to go sledding around on these roads all winter because crazy Clyde didn’t care to fool with chains.”
“Yeah, well we were all a little crazy back then.” Clyde swung himself out of the cab and strode around to the back, feeling suddenly, wildly alert.
He reached into the bed and felt for the shovel. “Darly, get out here and give me a hand.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Darly said, coming around the back of the truck. He looked slightly gaunt in the glow of the taillights.
Clyde dropped the shovel. It clanged hard against the bed of the truck. “Jesus Christ, Darly.” But in his heart, he was not surprised. “What did we do? Just tell me. What exactly did we do?”
Darly stood in the ankle-deep drifts on the shoulder. His face was peaceful and he held the handgun like it weighed nothing at all.
Clyde watched the opening of the barrel, the small, black center of the universe. Out on the empty road and in the pastures, the snow came sideways, cross-ways, always.
Darly’s face was saintly, beatific as he smiled. “Nothing. That was the darnedest part. I could do whatever I wanted, because all of you—you always did nothing.”
Photo by misterbisson