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Thursday, July 31, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part eleven: Nick makes a promise


"Do you hear that?" Maddy asked. "Listen. Far away."

We were in her bed, down the hall from Billy's room. Nobody said anything for a while. In that middle-of-the-night quiet, I could hear Maddy breathing, feel my own heart beat. And then I heard it, far, far away, barely a whisper moving through the night.

"Is that a train?"

"The highway," she said.

"Really?" The highway was at least five miles.

"Shhhh. Listen," she said. "Sometimes you can pick out a single truck."

We waited, holding hands in the darkness, listening to that whisper drifting in and out of range. I could feel Maddy's pulse. Her hair smelled of smoke. The whole damn house smelled of smoke. Another lesson learned the hard way: if you decide to dance your lunch hour away, it's best if you turn off the oven first.

Several minutes passed. The whisper was displaced by a high-pitched whine. There was no question it was a truck. I could almost see it out in the left lane passing everything in sight, the driver illuminated by faint dashboard lights.

"You know, all the years we lived here, I never heard it until Billy was gone," she said. "It's the loneliest sound in the world, isn't it?"

"I was just thinking it was kind of comforting," I said. "I mean, here we are, warm in our bed, completely out of touch with the outside, but there's the world saying, we're still here."

"Like Ann's letter," she said.

" 'The world will go on without you.' " I quoted from the letter that had been hidden in the lamp base. "I'm looking at a larger world. She's got it all divided up."

"You'll be picking up my garbage someday."

"That's not what she said."

"No, but it's what she meant," Maddy said.

"She's just a kid."

"And that excuses, 'You lost all the beauty you once had.' Why would you write that to a troubled teenage boy?"

"She was trying to push him to action. She also said, 'I'll always love what we had.' "

"I know I'm being silly," she said. "It's so much easier to be mad at her."

"You know how to get in touch with her?"

"She sent me a Christmas card. 'Is Billy back yet?' I thought if anyone knew, she would."

"Knew what?"

"That he's gone. You know when I knew? September 11. What a day. I know it was horrible for everyone, but to be a teacher, to have children looking at you for an explanation, and there's just nothing you can say.

"But when I got home, I was feeling hopeful. I knew Billy would come or at least call. How could he not? And the phone kept ringing. I heard from people I hadn't talked to in years. But . . . he never called. And when the days went on and he didn't, I knew. I knew in my heart that he never would."

Now I could hear the loneliness in that far away sound. All those trucks pushing through the night, each driver alone in his matchbook-sized world. And all the lonely people scattered throughout the countryside, alone in their beds, or, worse, only in their heads, listening to that low moaning, while the seconds inched toward dawn.

"You know, it's been years since I smoked a joint," Maddy said.

"You're not thinking of that stuff in Billy's room?"

"Why not?"

I went down the hall and came back with the plastic bag. Maddy grabbed it and the rolling papers.

"I'm impressed," I said.

"It grows wild out here, you know."

I found my matches on the nightstand. "Wait." I went back down the hall and slid Hartman and Coltrane into the CD player. "Gotta have music," I said.

Before long we were coughing and laughing, and then on our backs again, strange shapes dancing on the ceiling.

"If the sheriff breaks down the door, we're in big trouble," I said.

"I'm already in big trouble: spending the night with a private detective. The whole town will be talking about that."

"You sure they know?"

"Nick, your car's been in front of my house all day."

"Yeah, but . . . "

"It's OK. I'm never going to forgive them either."

"For what?"

"For pushing Billy away. For being so satisfied that he was gone."

"Why would they care?"

"Because it proves their point. The horrors of a broken home, the stain of divorce. Do you know they publish all the divorces in the local rag?"

"In the newspaper, really?"

"Every single one. I waited three years to get mine. Three years from the day Billy's father walked away. Did I bother to tell Billy? No, I did not. Why would I? But do you know that friends came up to him, teachers, parents of his friends--they couldn't wait to let him know."

"The newspaper, is it any good?"

"If you want to find out who got arrested for DUI or who wrote a bad check."

"How about for background on Sheriff Archer?"

"They love the sheriff. Everybody loves the sheriff. Heck, even I like the sheriff. But now you've got me wondering . . . "

"About what?"

"About the sheriff. Why he went to California."

"Maddy, I shouldn't be telling you this," I said. I could feel the drug working. My words came slowly, and they were all heartfelt. "The odds of me finding Billy are pretty slim. But I'm gonna make you a promise here. If nothing else, I'm gonna find out why the sheriff went to California?"


"You can count on me, girl."

"Oh, wow. Did you just say that?"

"Say what?"

"Remember when we used to talk like that?"

"We used to?"

"Oh, my God." She started to roar. The roar turned from a shriek to a chuckle. Before long she was asleep in my arms.

"You can count on me, girl," I whispered.


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