Authors: Mary McNear
For Suzanne McNear
Mila jerked awake and stared, uncomprehendingly, around her. “Where are we?” she asked, and her voice sounded strange to her.
“Butternut,” the bus driver said. “This is the last stop.”
The last stop.
That sounded ominous, she thought, as her hand moved to massage her stiff neck.
“I saw you'd fallen asleep,” the driver continued, almost apologetically. “But I remembered your ticket said Butternut. And I thought if you could sleep through that baby's screaming, you must really need the rest.”
Mila nodded, annoyed at herself for falling asleep. That was stupid. She was going to have to learn to keep her guard up. And not just some of the time, but
the time. She started to stand up, but her cramped legs rebelled. She sat back down.
“Take your time,” the driver said genially, looking every bit the grandfather Mila imagined he must be with his thick shock of white hair and pleasantly crinkled blue eyes. “You've been the only passenger since Two Harbors. Not many people travel this
far north, I guess. Why don't you take a minute to stretch and I'll get your baggage out for you.”
Mila nodded, then stood up again, slowly this time, and tested her legs. They were stiff, but otherwise functional. She gathered up her handbag, which she'd been careful to wedge between herself and the side of the bus, and made her way down the aisle.
When she climbed down the bus's steps, she saw that the driver was holding her suitcase and looking around doubtfully.
“Is someone meeting you here?” he asked.
“They're supposed to be,” Mila said, a little uncertainly.
“Good,” he said, handing her a slightly battered suitcase. “Because they don't get much traffic out this way. I don't know why they have the bus stop out at this junction, instead of right in the town.”
But Mila had no opinion about this. A week ago, she'd never even heard of Butternut, Minnesota. Still, she had to admit, what she'd seen of it so far didn't look very promising. There was no bus station here, for instance, only a rest area, whose cracked asphalt was overrun with weeds, and whose sole amenities were an old bus shelter and a lopsided bench.
“I hope your ride comes soon,” the driver said. “I hate to leave you here alone, but I've got to be getting back to the Twin Cities. My grandson's got a Little League game tonight,” he added.
“Well, good luck to him,” Mila said. “And thank you.”
He started to get back onto the bus then, but Mila had a sudden thought. “Excuse me, sir,” she said. “Can I ask you a favor?”
He stopped, halfway up the bus's steps, and turned around. “Name is Bob,” he said, indicating his name tag. “And you can ask me a favor. I'll be happy to do it for you, too, if it doesn't take too long.”
“It won't,” she said. “I was wondering if . . .” Her voice trailed
off. She had no idea how to phrase this. She thought about it and started over. “I was wondering, Bob . . . if someone was looking for me, and they tracked me down as far as, say, the bus station in Minneapolis, and they asked you if you'd seen me . . . if they, you know, described me to you, or showed you a photograph of me, could you . . .” She hesitated again. “Could you tell them you haven't seen me?”
Bob frowned. “Are you asking me to lie, miss?”
“Not lie, exactly.” Mila hedged. “More like forget.”
“Forget I ever saw you?”
Bob shifted uncomfortably. “Are the police looking for you?” he asked. “Because if they areâ”
“No,” Mila said, relieved to be telling the truth. “No, I promise, it's nothing like that. I'm not a criminal. I'm just . . .” She paused again here. “I'm just someone who's trying to start over, that's all.”
Bob gave her a long, speculative look. “So you want a fresh start?
“And you don't want to bring any old baggage with you?” he asked, with a smile.
“None,” she said, smiling back. “Except maybe this,” she amended, swinging her suitcase.
“Okay, that's fair,” Bob said. “If anyone asksâanyone not in a uniform, that isâI'll say that I've never laid eyes on you before.”
“Thank you, Bob,” Mila said gratefully, swallowing past something hard in her throat. But she caught herself.
Don't you dare cry, Mila. Because then he really
remember you. Besides, he can't start comforting you now. The man's got a Little league game to get to.
“Well, good luck,” Bob said. He climbed up the rest of the steps, slid into the driver's seat, and pulled the lever that closed the bus's door.
“Thanks again,” Mila called, relieved that the danger of her crying had subsided. Bob held up his hand to her in a good-bye gesture, started the engine, and eased the bus back onto the road. Mila watched him drive away, then dragged her suitcase over to the bench. She sat down on it, but no sooner had she done this than it began to rain. Not a hard rain. Just a dull, gray rain. Although it had been an unusually warm spring in Minnesota, today, the third day of June, was shaping up to be cool and wet.
So she stood up and carried her suitcase over to the bus shelter's narrow overhang, hoping to get a little protection from the rain. It was better there, but not by much. She shivered in her thin cotton blouse and skirt and wished she'd worn something warmer. But she'd tried to dress as innocuously, and as forgettably, as possible, and this was the outfit she'd settled on.
She saw something then out of the corner of her eye, and she flinched. But when she turned to see what it was, she realized with relief that it was nothing more than a crow alighting on a nearby telephone line.
Would this ever end? she wondered. This constant looking over her shoulder? This fear, always, of being followed? Of being discovered? She had a sinking feeling that it would not. Unless the unthinkable happened. And he found her.
Are you listening to me?”
“Of course,” he lied, though, in fairness to him, he had
to listen to what his sister-in-law, Allie, was saying to him. But the painkillersâthe painkillers that didn't seem to kill the painâwere making him a little foggy.
He watched now as Allie lifted her six-month-old daughter, Brooke, out of her stroller and settled her onto her lap.
he thought, and, almost as if she knew what he was thinking about her, Brooke wriggled in her mother's arms and smiled at him, a toothless, charming smile. And then, for an encore, she balled up her tiny fist and shoved the entire thing into her mouth.
Reid thought. Funny how he'd never known before how entertaining babies could be. Much more entertaining than adults, he decided, as he watched Brooke suck mightily on her little fist.
But apparently, while he was doing this, Allie was trying to talk to him, because now her voice intruded on him again. “Reid? Please try to stay with me, all right?” she asked. “Just for a few minutes.” She sounded exasperated. Exasperated and something else. Concerned. Reid tensed, warily. Because if there was anything he hated, it was being on the receiving end of concern.
“Do I sense a lecture coming on?” he asked now, finally tearing his eyes away from the baby. And his voice, even to him, sounded odd. Thick, and cottony. As if he didn't use it that much anymore. Which, of course, he didn't.
“A lecture?” Allie asked now, raising her eyebrows. “No. Not a lecture. Not exactly.”
“Because that sounded to me like the beginning of a lecture,” he said, reaching for the glass of ice water on the table in front of him. It was hard to reach from his wheelchair, though, especially since when he leaned too far forward, the full cast on his left leg dug into his thigh, and his still mending ribs ached from the effort. Still, he reached for it, and, misjudging the glass's distance, his fingers only brushed against it, knocking it off the table.
“Damn it,” he said, as the glass shattered on the floor. And, as if on cue, Brooke started to cry.
“Shhh,” Allie said, trying to soothe her. “Caroline,” she called out, to the woman who owned the coffee shop. “We're going to need a broom and dustpan over here.”
Reid reached down to pick up a piece of broken glass, but the side of his wheelchair limited his range of movement.
“Damn it,” he said again, giving up.
“It doesn't matter, Reid,” Allie said, reaching over to pat his hand, which was resting on the arm of his wheelchair. “It's just a glass. I'm sure it happens all the time here.”
“But I scared the baby,” Reid said, wondering what kind of a jerk you needed to be to scare a baby.
“Reid, she's fine,” Allie said, putting the baby up on her shoulder and patting her on her back. “She's just tired, that's all. She's overdue for her nap.”
Caroline appeared then with a broom and a dustpan.
“I wish I could tell you this was our first broken glass of the day,” she said to Reid, sweeping up the fragments of glass. “But it's our third. And today was a slow day, too.” Reid looked away and mumbled an apology.
Caroline left with the dustpan and broom and came back with another glass of water, this one with a bendy straw in it. She handed the glass to Reid and waited until he had a firm grip on it before she let go of it.
“Thanks,” Reid said, sipping from the straw.
“There you go,” Caroline said, sounding pleased. But Reid felt himself sink a little farther into his wheelchair.
Is this what it's come to?
Holding my own glass and drinking from a bendy straw now constitutes a major accomplishment?
“Allie,” Caroline said. “Why don't I take Brooke for a little while? You and Reid are obviously trying to talk.”
being the operative word,” Allie murmured. But she
smiled as she handed Brooke over to Caroline. “We just need a few minutes,” she said, shifting her gaze back to Reid.
A few minutes,
Reid thought hopefully, as the sound of the baby's fussing receded into the background. Even he could handle a few minutes of being lectured to.
“Look, Reid,” Allie started again, “I can only imagine how difficult it's been for you since the accident. And Walker and I have tried to be patient, and we've tried to give you time to adjust to all the changes in your life. But, Reid, sometimes we feel like we're the only ones who
Reid sighed wearily. So this was about his attitude. Which, admittedly, was pretty poor. But he was in a wheelchair, for Christ's sake, dependent on other people for all but his most basic of needs, and there were days, still, when the pain was so bad he was convinced the pills he took were nothing more than placebos.
“Look, I'm sorry,” he muttered now. “I'll do better, okay?”
“Reid, you said that the last time we had this conversation.”
“Well, I mean it this time.”
Allie didn't look optimistic. “Reid, as of last week,” she reminded him, “you've been through two home health aides.”
“I know that,” he said, still sipping from his straw. “But I can't help the fact that they were both completely incompetent.”
“That's a matter of opinion,” she said. “Walker and I, for instance, are of the opinion that they were both perfectly competent.”
“Right. Well, maybe that's because you didn't have to live with either of them.”
“Maybe,” Allie conceded. “But the fact remains that both of them quit, Reid. And they both gave the same reasons for quitting, too. They said that you were condescending, rude, and uncooperative.”
Reid, knowing this was a fairly accurate representation of his behavior, chose not to defend himself.
“The agency we've been using, Reid,” Allie continued, “has refused to place another aide with you.”
He shrugged. “No great loss there. They were clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel already.”
Allie frowned, and a line appeared between her pretty hazel eyes. Reid immediately felt bad. He
Allie. Most of the time, in fact, he liked her even more than he liked his brother, Walker, who, though younger than Reid, had lately developed the annoying habit of behaving like an older brother. But still, Allie didn't understand what it was like to have these peopleâthese home health aidesâliving in his house. These people whom he had nothing in common with, but who were nonetheless privy to every detail of his life. He shuddered now, just thinking about the enforced intimacy he'd had to endure with the last two aides.
“Look,” Allie said, pressing on, “I know how much you value your privacy. And I know having someone you don't know well living with you hasn't been easy, Reid, but it has been necessary. Because as much as we'd like to take care of you ourselves, we can't. We have Brooke and Wyatt.” Wyatt was their nine-year-old son. “And Walker's running the business by himself until you're ready to come back to work, and I'm heading into the busy season for the Pine Cone Gallery,” she added, of the gallery where she'd worked for several years before buying it from the owner the previous summer.
“Allie, look, I know how busy you both are,” he said. “But I don't expect either of you to babysit me. In fact, I don't
either of you to babysit me. Especially since I'm capable of taking care of myself. As in a
ll of the time,
” he stressed. “Really, Allie. I'm ready to live alone again.”
At this, Allie crossed her arms across her chest and leveled Reid with a
you have got to be kidding me
“I'm not kidding,” Reid said, to her unspoken comment. “I'm completely serious. I'll be fine on my own. And, if I need help, you and Walker are only a phone call away.”