The call he’d been expecting for twenty- two years came at midnight when he was working late at his desk. He had a second’s start, the kind of stab he’d experienced often in the first years when the tele- phone rang in the early hours, but with the passage of time the duties of his office had accustomed him to its ring in the middle of the night.
The name of the caller appeared in the identification screen, and his heart did a flip-flop. He plucked the receiver from its holder before a second ring could disturb the household. “Hello?”
A chuckle, dry and mocking. “The same. You up?” “I am now. Where are you calling from?” “I’ll get to that in a minute. How are you, Tiger?” “Surprised. It’s been a long time.”
“Not so long that you didn’t recognize my voice. I find that kind of comforting. I’m coming home, John.”
John drew up in his chair. “You are? After all this time? What for?” “I have a few loose ends to tidy up.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little late for that?”
Another chuckle, devoid of mirth. “Still the same old John— guardian of my conscience.”
“I seem to have failed miserably.” “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
John waited, refusing to rise to the lure the loaded tone invited. After a probing pause, Trey added, “The Tysons are interested in buying my aunt’s house. I told Deke I’d come to Kersey and we could talk about it. I’ve got to do something about Aunt Mabel’s things anyway, arrange for their disposal.”
“The Tysons? I thought they’d moved to Amarillo and Deke had bought a home security business there.”
“They did, but Deke’s retiring and wants to come back to Kersey to live. His wife’s always had an eye on my aunt’s house. A surprising turn of events, wouldn’t you say?”
“Not as surprising as some I’ve known. Where are you?”
“In Dallas. A connecting flight would have gotten me into Ama- rillo too late for my indigestion. I’ll fly in there in the morning, pick up a car, and meet the Tysons at Aunt Mabel’s around eleven o’clock.”
“As long as my business takes. A couple of days is my guess.” John asked after a guarded silence, “Where are you staying?” “Why, I was hoping you would put me up.”
Shocked, John asked, “Here? You want to stay here at Harbison House?”
Another dry laugh. “Why not? I don’t mind a bunch of runnynosed kids. The Harbisons still with you?”
John answered warily, repulsed at the thought of Trey Don Hall sleeping under the Harbisons’ roof. “Yes . . . Lou and Betty are still here. They help me run the place.”
“That must be nice for you,” Trey said. “I’ll drive out after I’ve met with the Tysons. That should be in time for lunch. We’ll break a
little bread together, and maybe I’ll have the good padre hear my confession.”
“I didn’t think you were planning on staying that long.”
Another chuckle, this one familiar. “Spoken like my man. It will be good to see you, John.”
“Same here,” John said, realizing with an ambush of feeling that he meant it.
“Don’t bet on it, Tiger.”
The line went dead, Trey’s last words raising a tickling sensation along John’s nape. Slowly he replaced the receiver and rose from his desk, aware that he’d broken into a mild sweat. He went to stand before a framed picture on the wall. It was an official shot of Kersey High School’s 1985 uniformed football team. Below was the caption District Champs. John had been a wide receiver on the team that had made it all the way to win the state championship, and in the picture he stood beside the tall, grinning quarterback and his onetime best friend, Trey Don Hall. Even then, Trey had been called “TD” Hall, a sports announcer’s moniker that had stuck all through his dazzling college playing days and his subsequent career as a quarter- back in the National Football League. There were three other group photos of the team lined along the wall, each representing the Kersey Bobcats’ victories in the following play- off games, but the district con- test against Delton High School was the one John remembered the most clearly. It was to that group picture that he most often turned his gaze.
What could be bringing Trey back home after twenty- two years? John didn’t believe for a minute that it had to do with selling his aunt’s house. The place had stood locked up and vacant for the two years since Mabel Church had died and left her nephew the home where he’d grown up, everything still in it but the food perishables and pet parakeet. Trey had no sentimental attachment to his aunt’s things or the handsome brick house where the three of them— he and Trey and
Cathy— had hung out all the years of their childhood. He had people who could sell it and dispose of its belongings long- distance. What then? Was he seeking reconciliation and forgiveness? Absolution? Atonement? John might have considered those possibilities had Trey’s tone suggested them, but on the contrary, it had sounded mocking and mysterious. He knew his former friend and football teammate well. TD Hall was coming home for some other purpose, one that most likely would not bode well for anyone. He must warn Cathy.
On the night of January first, 1979, two hours into the New Year, Emma Benson saw a cross on the moon. Wrapped in her old flannel robe, awakened by a strange disquiet, she stepped outside her clapboard house in the town where she’d lived all her life, deep in the Texas Panhandle, and stared up at the unearthly sight, disturbed by a sense the cross was an omen meant personally for her.
The next day, she was informed that her last surviving child and his wife had been killed in a car accident coming home from a New Year’s Eve party. The caller identified himself as Dr. Rhinelander, a neighbor and close friend of Sonny and her daughter-in-law. He and his wife would keep the couple’s eleven- year- old daughter, Cathy, with them, he said, until the courts or whoever was in charge decided what to do with her.
“What do you mean— the courts?” Emma asked.
She heard a painful sigh. “I’m speaking of foster care, Mrs. Benson.”
Foster care. Her granddaughter, blood of her blood, growing up under the roof of strangers?
But who else was there to take her? Where else could she go? There were no family members left. Emma’s daughter-in-law had been an only child, adopted by a couple long past childbearing years and now
deceased. Her other son, Buddy, had been killed in Vietnam. She was the only surviving blood connection to the child, but she was someone the little girl had met only once and had probably forgotten, since Emma suspected her name and family place were rarely, if ever, mentioned in her son’s household.
But she heard herself say, “If you’ll allow Catherine Ann to stay with you until I arrive, Dr. Rhinelander, I will bring her home with me.”
Emma, who had never flown in an airplane and had ridden the train only twice in her youth, booked a flight from Amarillo to Santa Cruz, California, and in the confining six hours in the middle seat of her row— cotton inserted into her ears to block the petulant whining and fractious misbehavior of the four- year- old boy behind her— worried to what extent her second son’s genes had infected his daughter. Her observation had been that, nine times out of ten, first daughters took after their fathers, not only in physiological structure and temperament but also in character, whereas firstborn sons echoed their mothers’. Her first son, Buddy, had proved no exception.
But Sonny, coming along later, hadn’t a drip of sap from the family tree running in him. Vain, materialistic, self- entitled, with a capacity for empathy no bigger than the eye of a needle, he had felt designed for a more exalted plane than the one on which he’d been born. “I was cut out for something better than this,” Emma could remember him stating, wounding her profoundly, and at the first opportunity he had taken off to correct the mistake that nature had made. He had rarely come home again, and after his marriage to a woman who shared his temporal values, only once. He said he’d come to introduce Emma to his wife and daughter, but he had come to borrow his brother’s life insurance money paid to her when he was killed. She’d refused. Sonny’s disaffection for her continued, abetted by his stylish wife who had barely been able to conceal a sniff at the surroundings in which her husband had grown up. Emma had read her disdain to mean that
hell would freeze before she exposed her daughter to the place of her father’s birth and the stern, no-nonsense woman who had raised him. And as Emma had correctly interpreted, they’d never come again, nor invited her to their home in California. But she remembered well the delicate, feminine, startlingly pretty little four- year- old who almost from Emma’s hello had crawled into the safety of her daddy’s lap and refused to have anything to do with her.
Emma had thought her lamentably spoiled. You had only to look at the expensive clothes and toys, to hear the cooing and baby talk, to observe how her parents stood at the ready to grant her every wish and desire, to know that when she grew up she’d have the substance of a cube of sugar. Still, she was an enchanting little thing with her father’s curly blond hair and big blue eyes, gazing— shyly or coyly, Emma couldn’t tell— from beneath long lashes that in sleep lay like downy feathers on the sweet, creamy curve of her cheeks. Emma had a picture of her from that time displayed on her bedside table.
Catherine Ann was now eleven years old, perhaps a legatee of the chemical unit that carried hereditary characteristics from parent to child, her attitudes already formed by her upbringing and the ways and lifestyle of her native state. How did you transplant such a child from palm trees and ocean and permissive parenting to prairie and scrub brush and the care of a grandmother who still maintained that children should be raised to understand they were precious but not the center of the universe? That little boy in the seat behind her was a good example of the new child rearing. Heaven forbid that, despite his confinement, he should be expected to respect the eardrums of those around him.
There were bound to be fundamental conflicts, perhaps never overcome, but Emma understood her duty and, at sixty- two, was prepared to put her heart at risk for the loss of yet another child.
Excerpted from TUMBLEWEEDS © Copyright 2012 by Leila Meacham. Reprinted with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.