It was back in the beginning of September. At the height of harvest and the beginning of hunting season, and the yearly friction between swathers and combines sharing the road with shiny SUVs sporting out of county plates. Back during the spike in calls about trespassers in camouflage and high-visibility orange spooking cattle and leaving pasture gates open.
It was her breathless “Fuck me,” from my front porch at half-past two on a clear and crisp Thursday morning.
I didn’t bother taking my eyes off the dancing green veil of the aurora overhead as I answered, figuring her comment wasn’t meant as an invitation. “You need to get out more.” I waited, anticipating a smartass comment from her, and when it didn’t immediately come I threw out a bit more bait. “The view is better from back here.” I leaned back in my steamer chair and listened for the swish of her thick wool socks crossing the deck boards.
“I get out plenty-been out half the fucking night already. I’m starting to wonder why I bothered buying a house; it’s not like I’m ever there.” Her voice trailed off when she stopped in front of me. Her face was tilted up to get a better look, and she was backlit by the faint strands of green light. I could see that her lips were parted slightly as she watched the sky ripple and time slowed as her breathing quickened. The sight stirred something deep in my gut.
“And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself.”
The Whirlwind in front of me had made it clear on many frosty occasions that she was definitely not from the North, but she turned nonetheless and I could imagine the look sparking in those tarnished eyes, the one she used to warn me that I was being, in her words, weird again. “Ezekiel.” I clarified before she asked. “They’re rare in Wyoming, but they’re easier to see out here away from all the lights in town.”
She’d grabbed the wool blanket from the back of my recliner and had it wrapped around her like a shawl. I reached over and tugged the hem, pulling her closer until those shapely calves of hers butted against the steamer chair and she collapsed on the edge of the chair beside me. I heard the clink of glass on glass as Vic produced a pair of longnecks from under her blanket and handed me one. “It’s five o’clock somewhere, right?” There was a short hiss as she twisted the cap off hers.
“I take it you’re not planning on driving home?”
“Nope.” She snapped her thumb and second finger together and the bottle cap flipped off somewhere into the darkness. “There a problem with that?”
“Nope.” I smiled in the dark.
I was glad she’d decided to stay. It had taken over four hours to finally clear the accident off the highway and I hadn’t been able to get a status on the wife and two kids, other than at least one of them had been airlifted to Denver. I’d been feeling unsettled since the last ambulance had pulled away and knew I wouldn’t have bothered coming home if I’d been by myself. Since the last thing this county needed was their sleep-deprived sheriff behind the wheel causing another car wreck, I probably would've spent the rest of the night in currently vacant Absaroka County Jail, and most of tomorrow working the kinks out my back.
Vic had changed out of her duty shirt and jeans, and scrubbed her hands and face while I’d been outside, but the scent of sulfur from the road flares lingered on her skin.
“The wife came through surgery fine and she’s in stable condition. The husband and the kids are being kept at Durant Memorial overnight, but all their injuries are minor. Scrapes and bruises, mostly. They’ll be released in the morning.” She leaned back against me and I shifted over to make room for her on the steamer chair. “Oh, and the department and the county are getting sued for damages to the combine header.” She brought the bottle to her mouth but didn’t take a sip. “Vern Selby left a message on the office machine. He wanted to know if the Jaws of Life were really necessary. I left him a message back telling him to call the trauma surgeon at Denver General and ask them that question.” There was a note of smugness in her voice, but the tension I felt in her shoulders told me this wasn’t going to be the end of it. She’d been worried too.
I slid my arm around her and pulled her closer to me. The aurora flared once, a bright slash that twisted its way across the sky like an old video of lightning slowed down to one-sixteenth speed, and then it faded, the bands of green and pink shifting toward a softer haze that shrouded the faintest stars. I could just see her outline as she twisted around to study the sky again.
“I read somewhere that the lights are supposed to be the spirits of the dead up there dancing, or something.” She pointed with the hand holding her beer bottle to the faint wisps.
“The souls of the stillborn.”
Maybe I was still feeling melancholy, despite the company. I hadn’t meant for that to slip out.
Car accidents always had a way of reminding me of my own mortality; one moment you’re driving along, minding your own business, the next you’re lying in under a pile of twisted steel and shattered safety glass, listening to the sounds of your family in pain all around you and you have no way to reach them or comfort them. I’d been fighting the urge to pick up the phone and call my daughter in Philly since we’d wrapped up the scene, but it had been late here and even later there.
Beside me, Vic paused, then deposited the bottle on the deck beside the chair her enthusiasm dampened. “You believe that?”
I thought a moment, remembering my experience up on the mountain back in the spring. Vic and Henry had finally gotten me to open up some about the things I’d seen up there, but I hadn’t told them everything. Not the important parts, at least, not the conversations I’d had up there. I tried to divert the trail she was following. “I might have heard that somewhere.”
“From The Bear?”
Vic sat up and turned so she was facing me, straddling my legs. I could feel the warmth from her thighs pressed against mine. She leaned in, eyes narrowed in the low light, and I could tell she knew I was being evasive. Women always seem to know.
“Nobody died tonight, Walt.” Her voice was soft and sure. She let it hang there between us. Her fingers tightened in the front of my shirt, as if to make a point. I felt her breath trail against my jaw and I was comforted by the weight of her on my lap. She was solid and grounding, and she felt like something that had been missing for too long.
Above her, the sky had cleared. The stars were sharp points of light in the crisp autumn air. The souls had stopped dancing, but I didn’t want to think about what that might mean.
Her fingers brushed my cheek on their way to the back of my neck and I found myself glad that she hadn’t wanted to be alone either. I leaned forward until my forehead touched hers and willed her words to be true. “Nobody died tonight.”