He paused at a couple of rooms to glance at the patients. He saw no one he knew.
Step by step, he felt the weight of the nurse’s stare against his back. He probably should not go directly to a stairway with her watching.
In Room 218, no one occupied the bed nearer the door, and in the farther bed sat a boy of about nine. He paged through a comic book as if nothing in it could hold his attention.
Entering the room, Bryce said, “A lot of years ago, I wrote some comic books. Of course, they were all about cowboys and horses, not aliens and spaceships and superheroes, so they’d probably only put you to sleep. What’s your name, son?”
The boy seemed wary but was most likely merely shy. “Travis.”
“Now that’s a fine old name, always a hero’s name, and perfect for a Western novel.” Indicating the day beyond the nearby window, he added, “Think we might have an early snow, Travis?”
Dropping the comic book on the bed, the boy said, “Did they take away your BlackBerry?”
“I don’t have a BlackBerry, and I never will. I prefer to talk to people instead of type at them, but then I’m older than the Great Wall of China and just as solidly set in my ways.”
“They took mine this morning.” Travis glanced toward the hallway door, as if he didn’t want to be overheard. “They said text messaging interferes with some hospital machines.”
“I suppose it might. I’m pretty much ignorant about machines,” Bryce admitted. “The only thing I could fix on a car is a flat tire. But I can do a bunch of rope tricks and sharpshoot, for what that’s worth.”
“I had it the first two days here, and nobody cared. Then this morning they just suddenly make a big deal about it.”
Picking up the comic book to have a closer look at the superhero on the cover, Bryce said, “You seemed bored with this. That made my heart feel good. But then it’s probably just because you’ve read it twenty times before.”
Travis glanced at the door, at the window, at the door again, and then met Bryce’s eyes. “What’s wrong with them?”
“In my opinion, a lot of things. No damn superhero is ever really in jeopardy, not even when someone locks him in a lead box with a chunk of kryptonite as big as a cabbage and drops him in the ocean.”
“I mean them,” Travis said, lowering his voice and gesturing toward the hallway door. “The nurses, doctors, all of them.”
They were both silent for a moment, eye to eye, and then Bryce said, “What do you mean, son?”
The boy chewed his lower lip and seemed to search for words. Then he said, “You’re real.”
“I’ve always thought I am.”
“They’re not,” said Travis.
Sitting on the edge of the bed to make a quieter conversation possible, the doorway clear in his peripheral vision, Bryce said, “Sounds like it’s not just them taking the BlackBerry that’s gotten under your skin.”
“Not just the BlackBerry,” Travis agreed.
“Want to tell me about it?”
The boy’s voice fell to a whisper. “Something wakes me in the night. Don’t know what it is. Some sound. It scares me. Don’t know why. I lay here listening for it again—ten minutes, twenty. The room is dark. Only the moonlight in the window. Then the hall door opens and two of them come to my bed.”
“Nurses. I can’t see much of their faces. I pretend I’m asleep, but my eyes are open a little. I watch them watching me.”
“They don’t have medicine to give me. Don’t feel my forehead for a fever. They just watch me in the dark, and then they leave.”
“They say anything to you, to each other?”
“How long?” Bryce asked.
“Two minutes, three. A long time to be watching someone in the dark, don’t you think?” The boy looked at the window, where a graying sky would mask the moon in the night to come. “And the whole time they were watching me … I could feel it.”
“Feel what?” Bryce asked.
Travis met his eyes again. “How much they hated me.”
Nummy kept his cash money in a OneZip plastic bag, in a box of saltines, in a kitchen cabinet. At the moment the bag contained three five-dollar bills and ten one-dollar bills, plus ten more ones, plus three more ones.
Mr. Leland Reese, Grandmama’s attorney, only gave him fives and ones because Nummy wasn’t good with numbers. He could count to ten as well as anyone, but after that he got confused. Nummy couldn’t read, but he could see the difference between a five and a one.
The most stuff he needed to shop for was food and things to clean house with, like soap and paper towels. He always bought those things at Heggenhagel’s Market because Mr. Heggenhagel helped him and didn’t want money. Each month Mr. Heggenhagel sent a list of what Nummy bought to Mr. Leland Reese, and Mr. Reese paid Mr. Heggenhagel.
As he carefully lined up the ones and the fives on a kitchen counter, Nummy explained all this to Mr. Conway Lyss. He also told him how Mr. Heggenhagel always brought Nummy home with the stuff that he bought and helped him to put away what needed the freezer and what needed only the refrigerator. He talked about some favorite foods, like corn dogs with bottled cheese sauce, and cold cheese sandwiches with hot mustard, and thin-sliced roast beef from Mr. Heggenhagel’s deli.
As Mr. Lyss picked up the money, he said, “Fascinating. If they ever made a TV show about your life, it would be a colossal hit, so riveting, so glamorous.”
“I won’t be on no TV,” Nummy said. “I like to watch, but being on would be too noisy. Most stuff on TV is noisy, I turn it quieter.”
“Well, if you won’t be on, that’s the viewing public’s loss. A tragedy for the medium. So I owe you thirty-eight dollars.”
“No, sir, that’s not right. You owe me three fives, ten ones, ten more ones, and then three ones.”
Mr. Lyss shook a long ugly finger at Nummy. “You’re sharper than you pretend to be, you rascal. You’re exactly right. No one can pull the wool over your eyes.”
“I don’t like wool,” Nummy said. “It itches.”
Mr. Lyss looked Nummy up and down and up again. “There’s not going to be anything in your closet that fits me. Pants will be too short by six inches, the waist half again bigger than I need. I’ll look even more like a clown than I do in orange.”
“You don’t look like no clown,” Nummy assured him. “Clowns make people smile.”
“Did your grandma ever wear pants?”
“Sometimes she did.”
“Was she a fat old tub or did she waste away? Maybe I’d fit in her pants.”
“No, sir. You always felt like she was big, but then sometimes you’d look at her and you’d see how she was really tiny. And shorter than me.”
Mr. Lyss hadn’t been excitable for a while, but someone like him couldn’t stay calm for long. He moved back and forth in the kitchen, the way an animal sometimes got restless in a pen. He pointed at the clock on the wall. “You know what time it is, Peaches? Do you know the time? Can you even tell time?”
“I know the hour and the half. And ten minutes to each and from each. But I don’t like the middle ten minutes between the hour and the half. The middle ten is confusing.”
Shaking one fist at Nummy and then the other, Mr. Lyss said, “I’ll tell you what time it is, you bonehead mooncalf. It’s a quarter till too late. They’re going to be coming here to look for you, for us.” His tight hands flew open, grabbed Nummy’s sweatshirt, became fists again, and shook Nummy every which way while he shouted. “I need pants! I need a shirt, a sweater, some kind of jacket that doesn’t have a police patch on it! You know anywhere a skinny-assed reject like me can get himself clothes to fit?”
“Yes, sir,” Nummy said when Mr. Lyss stopped shaking him and threw him back against the kitchen table. “After his brain stroke, Poor Fred he lost a lot of his weight. He’s like a scarecrow.”
“Who? Fred who?” Mr. Lyss demanded, as though they’d never talked about Poor Fred before.
“Poor Fred LaPierre,” Nummy explained. “Mrs. Trudy LaPierre’s husband next door.”
“The Trudy who hired you to murder him.”
“No, sir. She didn’t hire me. What she done was try to hire Mr. Bob Pine.”
Mr. Lyss pounded one fist into the open palm of his other hand, pounded and pounded while he talked. “Doesn’t sound like the generous kind of woman who’d give away some of her husband’s clothes to help a poor traveler down on his luck. Sounds like a bitch to me!”
“Like I told you, Mrs. Trudy LaPierre she’s gone, nobody knows where. They say she’s on the run, but what she done was take the car, so I think they’re wrong, and she’s driving. And Poor Fred he’s up in bear care gumming mush and half plastered.”
His face all red and his lips skinned back from his charcoal teeth, Mr. Lyss slammed both fists down on the table, slammed them again, slammed them again. Right then Mr. Lyss reminded Nummy of an angry baby, except he was old, and except he looked like he might kill somebody, which a baby never would.
When he stopped slamming his fists, Mr. Lyss said, “Do you ever make sense, you featherbrain oaf? I need pants! Look at the clock. Look at the clock!”
Mr. Lyss pulled back one bony fist like he was going to punch Nummy. Nummy closed his eyes and covered his face with his hands, but the punch didn’t come.
After a while, Mr. Lyss said in a little quieter voice, “What the hell are you trying to tell me?”
Nummy opened his eyes and peeked at the old man through spread fingers. Hesitantly, he lowered his hands.
He took a moment to get his thoughts in a row, and then he said, “Before she run off in the car, Mrs. Trudy LaPierre she breaked Poor Fred’s right arm and right leg with a fireplace poker. Then what she did is she got his false teeth and smashed them. Now Poor Fred he’s up in the Bear Street Care Home, his right side in a cast and eating only all softer kinds of food.”
“Poor Fred ought to be called Stupid Fred for marrying such a psychopath,” Mr. Lyss said. “And why do half the streets in this town have bear in their name?”
“There’s a bunch of bears in the general area,” Nummy explained.
“So what you’re telling me is that nobody’s home next door, at the LaPierre house. We could just go there and take some clothes.”
“Borrow some clothes,” Nummy said. “You don’t want to steal.”
“Of course, yes, and when I’m done with them, I’ll have them dry-cleaned and pressed, and I’ll return them in a pretty box with a thank-you note.”
“That’ll be nice,” Nummy said.
“Yes, it’ll be lovely. Now let’s get out of here before they show up on your doorstep and do to us what they did to the people at the jail.”
Nummy had tried to put out of his mind what had been done to the people in the next cell, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you could forget the way you could sometimes forget Christmas was coming until people started putting up their decorations. When Mr. Lyss mentioned it, Nummy saw it all again in his mind so clear he almost needed to throw up.
They left by the back door. Nummy locked the house and put the key in its secret place under the mat, and they walked to the house next door, which was about fifty or sixty steps because both houses had some land. Grandmama always said no matter how pleasant your neighbors were, it was good to have some land, and in the case of Mrs. Trudy LaPierre it was, Grandmama said, double good.
The LaPierre house was one story. The back porch had a ramp instead of steps, so Poor Fred could get in and out of the house in his wheelchair.
Nummy checked under the doormat, but there wasn’t a key. That was all right, because Mr. Lyss had his six steel picks, and they were in his jacket pocket, not up his butt, so he set to work on the lock right away. Behind the house were only the yard and then the woods, so no one could see what they were doing. They were inside quick.
The house didn’t have any draperies because Mrs. Trudy LaPierre said they held dust and made her allergies worse. Instead there were white-painted wood shutters at every window, and because the slats were open only a little, the rooms were gloomy.
Grandmama said Mrs. Trudy LaPierre’s allergies were no more real than her story about winning the Miss Idaho beauty pageant when she was eighteen, and why she had shutters was because with draperies she couldn’t as easily spy on neighbors with binoculars.
Nummy didn’t feel right being in someone else’s house when they weren’t home, but Mr. Lyss seemed comfortable. He switched on lights as needed and led the way into Poor Fred’s bedroom, which was different from Mrs. Trudy’s room.
Mr. Lyss was searching through bureau drawers for a sweater to borrow when outside in the street a car turned the corner fast and sharp, tires squealing, the engine loud as it raced past the house. Then another car turned the corner just as fast. Mr. Lyss went to a window that looked north, and opened the shutters wider. As one car’s brakes shrieked and then the other’s, he picked up binoculars from a nearby chair and brought them to his eyes.
Nummy wished he, too, had a place at the window until Mr. Lyss said, “Cops.” Then Nummy felt half sick and didn’t want to be near a window anymore.
“Two cars, four cops,” Mr. Lyss said. “Of course, the cars are just cars, but the cops are something a whole lot worse than cops. Two are going up the front steps, two going around to your back door. I’ll bet you thirty-eight dollars they find your hidden key.”
“Betting is wicked. What if they come here?”
“But what if they do?”
“Then we’re dead.”
Two city employees arrived in a panel truck full of materials and power tools to make the necessary modifications to the barn at the back of the Potter property.
The new Mayor Erskine Potter was overseeing preparations at the Pickin’ and Grinnin’ Roadhouse, where that evening Riders in the Sky Church would hold its once-a-month family social for the last time. Nancy and Ariel Potter opened the big barn doors, the panel truck drove inside, and they closed the doors behind it.
Everyone knew what needed to be done, and they set to work without discussion. Nancy and Ariel cut window-size squares from thick rolls of insulation and with double-stick tape adhered them to the glass. The men followed behind them, screwing inch-thick squares of soundboard over the windows.
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