HEAVEN OR CALIFORNIA
(all rights reserved, etc. etc.)
Aug. 1, '05
Oh, God. I'm writing this at work--Leo Santos just came in and told me Tristan Cole's brother died in a car crash this morning! I thought it couldn't be true, but Leo heard it from his cousin, the paramedic, who was actually on the scene. And when I rode my bike here earlier I remember seeing Lost Gold Road blocked off with cones and police tape. The Coles live up there.
I feel all sick and freaked out. I didn't really know David, but poor Tristan! He seems so quiet and sensitive; I don't know how he's going to deal with this. Should I go to the funeral? If I don't, I might not see him till school starts. What should I say? It's not like I can go up and hug him, but I ought to do SOMETHING.
Argh!! I want to be a child psychiatrist when I grow up, and I can't even figure out what to say to a guy who lost his brother. Maybe Leo got it wrong and it's not true. Please let it not be true.
In other news, Leo's trying to grow a mustache. Which is really sad, 'cause dude, you're a sophomore and you're 5'1".
* * *
Ian Sornak walked yawning into the kitchen at nearly noon. His mother, dipping tortilla chips into a tub of salsa, froze with a chip half-dipped when she saw him. She reminded him of a scared rabbit.
"Don't stare at me," he said. He got down a bowl for cereal.
"I'm sorry. There's been terrible news. You know the Coles?"
The frosted corn flakes fell more slowly as Ian paused to listen. Hope bloomed in his heart. "Yes?"
"David--the older son--was killed in a car crash this morning."
The hope gave way to amazement, triumph, and a tiny prick of fear. He rolled shut the plastic bag inside the cereal box. "They say how?"
"Missed the curve on Lost Gold Road, I guess. Went through the guardrail into the ravine."
So people probably thought it was an accident. Good. But the police would still investigate; Ian knew he mustn't get optimistic yet. He poured milk onto his cereal. "What a tragedy."
"Did you know him?"
"From around. He was younger than me."
"Those poor people. His poor mother."
"I'll check with the paper. See if they want me to put the news online." Ian took the cereal back to his room.
He closed his door and sat down on his carpet between stacks of newspapers, balancing the bowl in his cupped hands. He stared at David's photo on last week's front page. His legs felt shaky with elation--could he really have done it?
A week ago his world had looked bleak. He was twenty years old and still living with his mom, stuck in a boring part-time job and unable to get a better one because nobody would give him a good reference--"unfriendly," they called him; "antisocial" sometimes; "scary," even. And when he had phoned his father in San Francisco for money so he could move to a new city and start fresh, he had received no help at all.
"It's not money you need, Ian; you need to lighten up with people," his father had said. "Show respect. Show some responsibility. You're so hard to understand and sometimes you--well, sometimes you do scare people."
"Responsibility? That's funny from someone who left his wife and son for another man," Ian had said.
"Okay. Fine. Your point's valid. But your attitude isn't going to make me help you."
Ian had hung up on his father, hauled out a box of photos and old toys that he associated with him, and burned them in the backyard while his mother was at work. Money would have done it, he told himself now, chewing cereal. He didn't require his father's love, his mother's shelter, or anyone in this idiotic town; he only required independence, and he needed money for that. Money meant power. And power had seemed infuriatingly out of Ian's reach.
He had logged in to his favorite chat room and sought solace in tearing apart every remark made by everyone else, but he felt no better. He typed "I think I'm going to kill whoever's on tomorrow's front page," but then deleted it before hitting "enter." Still, typing it had improved his mood a little, the way it had done when he used to work at Robinson Auto, and would leave the brake cable unconnected, or the brake fluid almost drained, fantasizing about the death of whoever came to pick up their car. But he had always undone his mischief at the last moment. Too easy to be traced--no fun if you couldn't get away with it.
When the chat room had failed to soothe him, he had called up the Amoryville Herald's website and logged in as webmaster to do his piece of inadequately-paid work. He had paused to glare at the front-page article, where David Cole, the popular and handsome eighteen-year-old athlete, was getting his butt kissed by the paper for being accepted at Stanford. Rage had boiled up inside Ian.
Seven years ago (just before his dad had left), in the Amoryville Middle School library, when Ian had been an eighth-grader, he had been sitting with his nose buried in a horror novel and his finger buried halfway up his nose. The library air had always been so dry; and he hadn't been thinking. Ian had heard a snicker, looked up, and seen David Cole, the sixth-grade brat, watching him with fascinated revulsion from across the room. David had turned to one of the friends who surrounded him like satellites, and whispered something, and soon the whole group of sixth-graders was staring, snickering, and chirping insults. The nicknames from that incident had spread through the school and stuck to Ian for the rest of the year.
He had a whole litany of such events. David and his friends and his brother Tristan roamed the town like feral cats and seemed always to pop up at the worst moments. They'd brought a camcorder to Pioneer Park once to film each other skateboarding, but swung it around to capture Ian walking by. When he had turned his head to glare at them, and tripped over a garbage can and fallen on his face, the little punks had caught it all on film, and nearly died laughing.
And once in Ian's senior year of high school, while he was harboring a tender and obsessive love for Yolanda Santos, also a senior, he had walked into the hallway to find her making out with David Cole against his--Ian's--locker.
"You know this moron's a sophomore," Ian had told her.
"At least he's not a freak," she had said, and kissed David again.
David had winked at Ian, whispered something to Yolanda--Ian could have sworn it contained the words "dad" and "fairy"--and strolled away with her.
To be fair, Ian thought, drinking the milk from his cereal bowl, David was only one of many kids in this town who had made life hell for him over the years. But he was the one unlucky enough to be on the front page this week. So he was the one Ian had chosen.
And now he was dead. Ian chuckled and admired the newspaper once more. He had never felt more powerful in his life, and he loved it.
* * *
The black sky in Heaven shimmered with countless stars, nebulae, galaxies, and the occasional planet, but lately its beauty had been no consolation to Gabriel. The Cole family's situation was unendurable, so unendurable in fact that he was taking his complaint to Salilus for the first time in his life. Salilus, his Celestial Official, was 150 years older than Gabriel, and made him feel like an immature, impatient, well-meaning but ignorant fool. And aren't I all of that? Gabriel asked himself, as Salilus folded his dragonfly-like wings and unfolded his patronizing smile.
"It's natural you're unhappy," Salilus said. "This is the worst your charge has ever been through; and, since you're young and have done nothing yet except be his Guardian, it's the worst you've ever been through too."
Gabriel held back his own wings, though they wanted to stir in rebellion. Done nothing yet--what a condescending way to put it. But it was true. He was nobody in particular. He wasn't the Angel Gabriel; he was just one of a million angels named Gabriel, the most popular angel name of the last three thousand years. Being called Gabriel in Heaven was about as remarkable as being called Mohammed in Egypt. And he was only twenty, which in Heaven was, as Salilus had put it, "nothing."
"Let me guess," Salilus went on; "you're not merely worried about Tristan. You're concerned about the 'justice' of the thing."
"Of course. Captain, his brother was murdered. They're treating it like an accident, and it isn't!"
"But I have no orders to share that information with anyone on Earth."
Gabriel shut his mouth. He felt awkward and naïve, a mere Guardian in green, no match for the serene blue wisdom glowing from Salilus. Orders were orders. Gabriel had heard it a thousand times. Even Salilus didn't know why the orders were the way they were; the Being in Charge was inscrutable. But he tried one more time.
"Can't anyone down there show them the truth, Captain? An anonymous tip to the police, maybe?"
Salilus shook his head. "It isn't in my orders."
Gabriel looked at his window upon Earth, where he could see Tristan sitting with a blank sketchpad on his lap, under the pine tree in the backyard, staring ahead at nothing. "I just wish I could help him."
"All in the divine plan, Gabriel. We must trust."
A pinecone landed on Tristan's sketchpad. An inch closer and it would have bounced off his nose, but Tristan didn't flinch. He drew its outline on the page as if tracing chalk around a corpse.
"I'll check up with Michaela next," Salilus said. "Thank you for sharing your concerns, Gabriel. Just be patient. Humans are obsessed with time, but we don't have to be."
Salilus yanked at the pliable fabric of Heaven, stepped into the fold, and disappeared. The ripple in the starry sky smoothed out.
Gabriel made his own fold in the sky, and muttered a phrase in Heaven Universal. He emerged beside Michaela. She glanced at him and returned to watching Deirdre Cole, her charge, Tristan and David's mother. The tiny halo-lights seemed to gleam less brightly in Michaela's dark hair lately, and her luna-moth wings had lost some of their luster. But she was still beautiful, and the sight of her soothed him.
"How did it go?" she asked.
"Like you said. He won't do anything."
"He said he'd talk to you next. I thought, maybe, if you tried..."
"Why would he do anything for me?"
"Because." Gabriel focused on Tristan. "You were..."
"Married to him?"
"That ended a hundred years ago."
"But only because of death. If I had been your husband, I'd do anything you asked for eternity." He had gotten bold with that last sentence, and imagined that in human form he might have blushed in saying it. Not that he would know.
"And if we were on Earth, I might test you on that."
Gabriel smiled, recognizing the flirtation he used to receive from her more often, before the tragedy.
"But here..." She reached out for his hand.
He reached for hers too, and they watched their fingers glide through each other like two crossed flashlight beams. Gabriel felt nothing at all; not physically, anyway. He turned his gaze back to Tristan, who was surely feeling more, physically and emotionally, than Gabriel could fathom.
"I wish we could visit Earth," said Gabriel. "Together. I would be able to help them, and I--well, I would actually feel something when you touched my hand."
"I wish we could, too. But until Deirdre and Tristan are in mortal danger at the same time..."
"Yeah. And I don't wish that."
Tristan placed the pinecone on the grass and went back to staring straight ahead. Gabriel glanced at Michaela's window to see Deirdre, in her studio in the daylight basement, painting a design for a fall festival brochure. The canvas was bright with gold squash, red apples, and brown wagon wheels, and said "Gold Country Harvest Days!" in rollicking Old-West lettering. But Deirdre's face was like a robot's; it showed no joy or interest. Her hair, coppery-brown like Tristan's, hung in a neglected ponytail. Only her arm moved as she painted.
Why couldn't the angels do anything? What was the use of Guardians?, Gabriel wondered for the thousandth time, even though he knew the stock answer: So that nobody is ever truly alone. A lot of good it did them, when they didn't know they had angels at all, and wouldn't find out until they died.
Michaela waved open another window and murmured, "Ian Sornak." Gabriel looked over too. Ian, gangly and unshaven, sprawled on his bedroom floor before a flashing TV, stabbing at video-game buttons with his thumbs. Piles of newspapers, the weekly Amoryville Herald from the past year or more, slumped around him.
"What he did may have been in the divine plan," Michaela said, "but that plan better include punishing him too."
As a Guardian, Gabriel tried to love all of humankind, but couldn't help loving his charge best of all, and got angry with those who hurt him. Gabriel felt something like hatred now at the mere sight of Ian. "I'd pull the trigger myself," he said.
* * *
I am an only child. Tristan tried to get the impossible sentence through his head. David, his older brother by a mere sixteen months, had always been there, knocking him into the wall when they passed in the hallway, teaching him how to drive, doing hilarious and sometimes exasperating impressions of everyone at Amoryville High, giving Tristan a mature handshake and then a vicious noogie when Tristan topped David's SAT scores on the math section. David's photo had even been on the front page of the local newspaper last week; they had run a story about the Amoryville graduating class and where they were all headed. David, their star example, had been accepted at Stanford. Half his stuff was already packed into boxes, either to go with him or to go into storage in the attic.
Now nothing of David's was going to Stanford, and he would be on the front page again one last time. The paper wasn't out yet, but Tristan knew they would make it the top story: David Cole, dead at eighteen. Brakes failed, unpredictably, on a bend in Lost Gold Road, half a mile from home, at six-thirty a.m. on a bright summer morning, on his way to the school track to run some laps.
Tristan curled up tighter on his side. His blankets were too hot underneath him, the way everything was too hot in August around here, but he didn't move. He was busy not counting the hours. It did not, could not, matter that it was twenty-nine hours since David and the old white Dodge had smashed through the wooden guardrail, bounced against oak trees and boulders, and somersaulted to a stop, upside-down, fifty feet below in the dry ravine of Lost Gold Creek. It did not matter that it was twenty-nine hours (and fourteen minutes) since Tristan had become an only child.
Sweat collected in the crook of his knees, and trickled down his calf. Tristan stared sideways at his wall, which was covered with posters, a calendar, his latest artistic creations, and a clock. Everything on the wall was pinned exactly where it had been twenty-nine hours ago. How could that be? Nothing was the same now. Didn't his wall know?
His parents, right now, were at the funeral home with Pastor Mackie, deciding on a coffin and flowers and a tombstone, and whatever else people decided at a funeral home. Tristan had not wanted to come along. He knew it was awful for his parents, probably worse than it was for himself. But all the same, he could not go to the funeral home. He wasn't even sure he would be able to face the funeral.
On the front porch, in the shade, sat old Mrs. Beauchamp from next door, rocking in the creaky bench swing, "just there" in case he needed anything. Seventeen years old and he was being babysat. "Babysitted"?
"Yeah, maybe that's why you didn't beat my verbal score on the S.A.T.'s," David might have answered.
Tristan could still hear his voice, clearer than he could hear the squeak of the porch swing. He compressed himself into a tighter ball. No closing his eyes. No crying, either. That hadn't helped during the night and it wouldn't help today.
He knew denial was one of the earliest and most common phases of grief, but he still concluded that this whole situation was impossible. It was impossible that he, Tristan Cole, was an only child. It was impossible that the body in the closed coffin would belong to a Stanford-bound scholar and track star, and that Tristan would have to sit through a funeral and condolences from their neighbors, and that David would never speak or breathe again even though he had been talking and breathing just the other day.
Just twenty-nine hours and sixteen minutes ago.
Tristan ground his palms into his scalp, tangling his hair. Stop counting. Numbers go to infinity; it will never end; stop counting, stop, stop, stop.
Ian walked up Sunset Lane's steep hill in the dark, taking his time. Two weeks had passed since David's death--David's murder, rather--and nobody had so much as blinked in Ian's direction. He was waltzing about town quite scot-free. The warm night wind swept dust off the dry mountains and scattered it across Ian's face and arms, but he didn't mind. His amazing deed portended nothing but good for his future; he knew it as if it were an established fact.
At the top of the hill, in Pioneer Park's otherwise empty parking lot, the faint lights from town gleamed off the back fender of a long car. As Ian walked closer he recognized it as the beat-up station wagon lately acquired by young Vera Brandt. That caused him a twinge of annoyance--sixteen-year-old girls with snippy tongues and drunk mothers were getting cars, and he wasn't. He approached on quiet feet, thinking he might at least ruin her evening by catching her half-dressed in the back seat with some idiot.
But she wasn't in the back seat, and she wasn't with anyone. She sat on the hood of her car with a two-liter soda bottle, kicking her leg against the headlight and staring out at the view of the town below.
"What's in the bottle, Miss Brandt?"
Vera spun and almost fell off the hood. "Who the hell is that?"
He walked up to her, smiling.
She recognized him. "Oh. What do you want?"
He sat down beside her on the hood. "Just out for a walk. Thought you looked ever so lonesome. What's in the bottle?"
"Coke; what's it look like?"
He took it from her, sniffed at it, and took a swig. "Hmm. With a goodly dash of cheap vodka, is my guess. How classy."
She snatched it back. "Yeah, not all of us are old enough to buy our own."
"I'm not old enough either. Just very knowledgeable."
"Whatever." She looked out at the town and drank another swallow.
"So what brings you out here this fine night?"
"My parents, being losers. And there being nothing to do and no one to hang out with in this crappy town."
He settled back on the hood, feeling uncommonly generous. "Then hang out with me. Tell me your troubles."
She snorted. "Why should I? I hardly know you."
"Could be more exciting than you think."
"Uh-huh. Right." Vera leaned back and stared at the stars.
Ian waited. He had nothing else planned tonight; and anyway, you never knew when allies could come in handy.
"So my dad, he left us a year ago, right?" she began.
* * *
Aug. 18, '05
Well, I did go to the funeral. I haven't felt like writing here, though. Plus I've taken on extra shifts to get overtime, and I am SO SICK of ringing up people's pills and vacation photos and condoms. And everyone from school who comes in says, "Hey, did ya hear about David Cole?" Like I WOULDN'T hear. We only have two thousand people in town; hello! I don't mind when they seem sad about it and want someone to talk to, but half of them treat it like the juicy gossip of the month. Real nice.
Yesterday Vera Brandt came in with Ian Sornak. I haven't heard if they're dating or what. It didn't really seem like it. Anyway, they didn't mention David but they were still annoying. Vera must have turned sixteen over the summer, because she was blabbing about DRIVING here and DRIVING there, and practically waving her car keys in my face. I hate it when people get their license and spend the next month jingling their car keys at everyone.
As for Ian, he's creepy, and obviously a loser since he's, what, twenty?, and still lives at home, and has nothing better to do than hang around with greasy-haired high school bitches. Anyway, I was distracted because I was still thinking about the funeral, and of course being around Ian makes me uncomfortable, and I gave Vera the wrong change, and she was all, "Ex-CUSE me. I gave you a ten." And even though I apologized and fixed it, she looked at me like I was the world's hugest retard. Then when they were leaving, Ian looked back at me and winked, and did a full-on checking-me-out thing, which was incredibly gross. If that had anything to do with our dads, I swear I'm going to kill him.
Anyway, the funeral was the saddest thing ever. I haven't been to one since Grandma's, and that was sad of course, but this was somehow about a hundred times worse. I guess it's because someone who's eighteen shouldn't die, especially someone in good health. Not to mention cute--I mean, Tristan's cute in my opinion, but David was a FOX and everyone thought so. I know that doesn't matter, but it probably helped make him popular, so there were all these girls crying. They got me started before long, even though I HATE crying in front of people.
The whole school must have been there, including all the teachers, and most of the parents. The church was packed. I was way in the back and couldn't see Tristan, up front, but at the end when they let the family leave first, I saw him for a minute. It didn't look like he'd been crying, but he still looked more miserable than I've ever seen him. Not "miserable," that's the wrong word..."haunted," that's it. His mom and dad looked the same.
Pastor Mackie's eulogy was of course annoying, but I suppose he means well.
So in a couple weeks we go back to school, and Tristan will be a senior and I'll be a junior, and I was originally thinking that since Amanda moved away I might actually try to hang out with him. He's not exactly a replacement for a best female friend, but I like him better than any females at our school. I signed up for a locker next to his at registration yesterday, out of habit I guess, because my locker was near his last year and he was always nice to me. But now everything's changed, and maybe it'll just be weird.
I don't want it to be weird. I want to help him. Jeez, I almost think I'm getting a crush on him, because isn't this a typical "woman" thing? Wanting to "save" a guy? But of course I put "woman" in quotes, 'cause fifteen isn't that old, and I'm clueless about a lot of things.
And I hate how greasy my skin gets in this hot weather. Between the sun and the mountain roads, California sometimes bites.
* * *
Amoryville, one of a hundred equally picturesque towns nestled in the western foothills of California's Sierra Nevada, had exactly two churches. People either went to the non-denominational Sierra Christian Assembly ("the Sierra church," to locals), or to St. Brigid ("the Catholic church"). If you were exotic enough to require any other kind of religious architecture, you went out of town for it; but Amoryville only had a handful who bothered doing that.
The Cole family attended the Sierra church. To the angels it was all the same, but Gabriel did sometimes wish Tristan had been Catholic, and a regular confessor, so that Gabriel might have gained better insight into Tristan's mind. Or maybe Tristan could have taken to writing in a journal, the way that girl Abbott Abe did. Instead Gabriel had to interpret Tristan's moods and motives by outer clues.
From such clues Gabriel would have thought, on this day three weeks after his brother's death, that Tristan was not yet interested in speaking to anyone. Tristan's parents, partly to replace the ruined Dodge and partly out of a desperate need to do something for their remaining child, had bought him a used Ford sedan, but Tristan hadn't driven it anywhere yet except to the grocery store. After David died, Tristan had stopped going to his summer job at the plant nursery, and stayed home most of the time. He drew landscapes of vast uninhabited places; no well-tended gardens or unique buildings like he used to sketch. And this morning he read webpages about the solitary vision quests some Native American boys traditionally went on as a rite of passage--even though there was practically no Native American ancestry in Tristan's blood.
So it surprised Gabriel when Tristan checked the clock, said to his folks, "Youth group's at ten-thirty; I better go," hopped into the white Ford, and drove off to the Sierra church. It surprised his parents Deirdre and Peter too, to judge from the look they exchanged.
"Guess that might help," Peter said.
"At least it's something," Deirdre said.
"I thought he wasn't planning to go to youth group this year," said Michaela.
"He wasn't, last I heard. But I guess he changed his mind..." Gabriel shrugged, as baffled as anyone else.
* * *
Abbott was so surprised to see Tristan walk into the meeting hall at the Sierra church, she inadvertently snapped a blue ponytail band across the room. She didn't even wear the things; her hair was too short. She had found the band on the carpet and started weaving it between her fingers in figure-eight pattern in the hopes of avoiding Pastor Mackie's questions about how her summer had gone. The other eleven people in the circle--ten teenagers and the pastor--didn't notice the flying elastic. Like Abbott, they had gone quiet at Tristan's entrance. Pastor Mackie's round face was red and shiny in the heat, and his curly hair matted from the baseball cap he usually wore. Now he opened his meaty arms toward Tristan, who hovered in the door frame.
"Tristan." The pastor's voice oozed compassion. "What a blessing to see you. Come. Sit down."
Save him!, screamed Abbott's mind, addressing neither the pastor nor Our Lord Jesus, but rather herself. While the rest of the students lowered their eyes, uneasily or maybe respectfully, Abbott lifted her chin and met Tristan's gaze. She smiled and scooted over on the carpet to make room for him. Without a word, Tristan walked toward her. One of his dark green sneakers, which he wore without socks, squeaked with each step. He put his car keys in the pocket of his shorts, and sat down next to her.
"Hi," Abbott said.
Tristan's large eyes, haunted as ever, flicked her direction. "Hey." He looked at the carpet, and pushed his hair out of his eye.
Pastor Mackie folded his hands, elbows resting on his hairy knees, and regarded the group tenderly. His T-shirt, alien-green and proclaiming "Catch GOD fever!", made Abbott's eyes hurt. She cringed and took off her glasses to polish them with the hem of her shirt.
"Well," said Pastor Mackie. "A sad summer it has turned out for our group. I had hoped to gather all our familiar young ones here, after their vacations, with joy and welcome; but instead we're missing a longtime friend."
Oh, God, do not go there, Abbott begged silently.
He did anyway. "Tristan, it's so good to see you. I hope we can be a comfort to you."
Abbott kept scrubbing at her glasses. Tristan's knee shifted beside hers. He said nothing--might have nodded; she couldn't bear to look.
"I'm sure it's on everyone's mind," the pastor went on, "and when it comes to grief, sometimes the most soothing thing is to talk about it. Sometimes that's the only way we can come to accept why the Lord lets us suffer. He intends for us to comfort one another, especially here in His house."
Abbott cringed again, and covered the grimace by tugging at her eyelashes, as if one had gotten lodged in her eye. Please, make him change the subject. I know he means well, but God, SHUT HIM UP.
"So let's talk. Tristan, it's only fair to start with you, if there's anything you have to say."
Abbott could feel the horror gripping the entire circle in the silence that followed. She slipped on her glasses, and stared at the carpet in front of her. Tristan swallowed, a click of his throat in the quiet room, and shook his head. She saw it in the corner of her eye.
"No?" Pastor Mackie went on. "How about others? I know it would comfort Tristan to know how much this event has shaken us; how much we're keeping his family in our thoughts and prayers."
Silence. Someone cleared their throat but didn't say anything. Abbott stared at the carpet until bright colors bloomed around the edges of her vision.
"Sara?" Pastor Mackie said. "You look like you have something to say."
Sara Wideman turned pink as everyone looked at her. She chewed on a hangnail. "Um. I was, like, I could hardly believe it. I mean, he was...I don't know." She shot a glance at Tristan and shut up.
"Yes," Pastor Mackie uttered, as if she had said something profound. "It is always hard, at first, to understand that God could allow such a thing to happen. And perhaps, in this lifetime, we will never know why. We can't expect to settle, right here, the question of why God took David Cole from us. But--I'm sorry, Tristan, should we go on?"
Tristan had stirred at his brother's name, and was getting up. He backed away. "I've got to get going."
"Please, don't feel--"
"No, I've...got to..." Tristan was already around the circle and crossing the room.
Out the door. He was gone.
Before she knew what she was doing, Abbott leaped to her feet and grabbed her backpack from the floor.
"Yes, Abbott," said Pastor Mackie, "if you could bring him back, let him know he's welcome--"
Abbott reeled around to stare at him. "How could you bring it up in front of him like that? He's still in shock!" Then she felt her face go hot. She had never shouted at her pastor before. It seemed the kind of thing that would cause the earth to rumble and crack open beneath your feet.
The pastor lifted one hand toward her, like someone in a medieval religious painting. "Abbott, please wait."
She let out a gust of breath, spun around, and ran out of the meeting hall.
* * *
He wasn't going to start crying. That was order of the day Number One. He was in public, and everyone in town knew him, so there was no being anonymous about it. But, having lost a brother to a car accident, he also was not about to get behind the wheel while rattled like this. So Tristan leaned against the hood of the Ford, in the shade of a pine in the Sierra church parking lot, taking deep breaths and gripping the warm metal behind his back with both hands. He fixed his gaze on the top of the pine, and concentrated on how it looked against the sky.
Footsteps approached and stopped somewhere off to his right. When he heard a feminine-sounding cough, he ventured a glance. There stood Abbott Abe--pronounced Ah-bay, his mind always chanted. ("It's Japanese," she had explained, in bright and thoroughly American tones, years ago when he had first met her in youth group. "Though actually I'm half Philippino.")
He touched his dry lips with his tongue. "Abbott Abe," he said, since it was the only thing he could think to say.
"Hey." She fidgeted with her backpack. Her spiky black hair matched the shape of the pine needles above. "I didn't come here to bring you back."
"I'm not going back," she went on. "I think he was totally rude. Everyone thought so. Even though he didn't mean to be." She rolled her eyes.
Under his shoe Tristan rotated a pinecone the size of a raccoon. Cars got dents around here from pinecones this big. Cars also got dents from tumbling down slopes into Lost Gold Creek. He squeezed the hood harder behind his back. "You going home now?" he asked.
"I don't know. I guess."
"Don't have to work today? You work at the drugstore, right?"
"Yeah. But the job's over for the summer. I wanted some time off before school started." Abbott scuffed her feet in the fallen pine needles. "Though it's not like I'm going to get out of town and do anything cool."
Tristan took out his keys. "Want to? Get out of town, I mean."
Abbott blinked. "Like where?"
"I don't know." He opened the passenger-side door. "Anywhere." He had no idea what he was doing, except that getting out of town sounded fairly appealing.
She opened and closed her mouth, looked over her shoulder, then dove into the car. She grinned at him.
He swung her door shut, and got in on his side. "So what do you think? Over the mountains?"
"Whatever." She laughed nervously. She clicked her seatbelt on, and chucked her pack into the backseat.
He started up the engine. "How about Death Valley?"