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Location: Highland, Connecticut, a convenience store
Time: 3:34 pm
At 3:32:02, Sally Hampton asks Lou Robinson for a Saturday night date. Jason Peterson considers which flavor of chips to purchase before deciding on a white cheddar variety. Eugene Parker counts out exact change for two packs of cigarettes, and Alton McAllister hums elevator music.
At 3:33:18, a lethal weapon is displayed.
3:33:22, the clerk, Lou Robinson’s sister, calls the police.
3:33:27, Lou Robinson’s sister leaves a dark handprint on the counter.
3:33:36, Eugene Parker drops both his change and his cigarettes.
3:33:42, Sally Hampton falls onto the white synthetic tiling and stains her lavender tunic with blood.
3:33:45, Lou Robinson’s teeth chip together as he knocks over a rack of magazines.
3:33:46, Jason Peterson runs. 3:33:53, he stops running.
3:34:00, Alton McAllister can smell the blood, he can hear the gunfire, and he stops humming. The police haven’t come, not yet, and a little more time will pass before they arrive. He feels something run deep in his stomach, something hot, and the force pushes him back. He doesn’t hear anything. He falls, and it is as though he is drugged -- the speed with which his senses leave. He had forty-two seconds to be scared, and he was. But suddenly, he is not.
Location: Highland, Connecticut, Johnson Memorial Hospital
Time: 9:18 am, one day later
Three policemen shift to allow Theresa Turner to pass. She is thirty-six, and she has driven over two hours to reach the hospital. Her blond hair is pulled back with a flashy rhinestone barrette. She is a large but shapely woman and she is wearing jeans, a white tee shirt and a denim jacket with a sparkling rhinestone butterfly stamped across the back. Her eyes are blue.
One of the homicide detectives, Leo Rain, smiles at the woman, who does not return the sentiment. Pages held on a clipboard are tucked under his left arm, apparently from an earlier interview. “I assume you have clearance, ma’am?” Leo asks as politely as he feels inclined to.
The woman puts a hand on her hip impatiently. “I’ve come to see my brother. I was told blood relatives were permitted.”
Leo nods. “Yes, that’s right. Go on in.” He pushes open the wooden door to the private room for Theresa, who glares at him. “I’m just tryin’ to be polite.” he says innocently.
The woman frowns. At last she acknowledges grudgingly, “Thank you.”
She pulls the door shut once she is inside, and Leo Rain laughs softly but humorlessly at the sort of irony he sees in her behavior.
Inside the room, where Leo’s observations are of no importance, Eugene Parker lies close to death. Theresa pulls a chair to his bedside and sits. For a moment she is silent. Then she murmurs as though bemused, “This’d make one helluva truckin’ story, Eugene.”
Parker makes a small noise of agreement. “Good…see you…Theresa.” He is a stocky man, black-haired man. He is covered with a thin sheet and lacy blue blanket that seem undignified to Theresa. All but one intravenous feed have been withdrawn in anticipation of the man’s death.
“Yeah, I know, I know. It’s good to see you, too.” She puts an elbow on the bed and runs her fingers through her hair. “But you know, only one of two that weren’t killed -- that’s pretty damn lucky.”
At first the man tries to laugh, but then he says, “Ma never liked it when we cussed.”
Though their mother’s wishes regarding language have never been important to Eugene before, Theresa consents, “Yeah, that’s right. I’ll watch my mouth.” She shakes her head and looks up at him. “Jesus, Eugene.” The man has been shot twice in the chest. There are tinges of discoloration on his face and she knows he will die shortly but she doesn’t know what to say to him. She can only say what she knows, and so she repeats it: “This’d make one helluva truckin’ story.”
Location: Highland, Connecticut, a private home
Time: 1:25 pm
Charlie Hampton picks at a loose thread on the patterned couch. He hates the little red flowers that have been sewn across it. Charlie Hampton doesn’t want to sit on flowers.
His little sister, Amy, sits at his feet, fisting her small hands against her eyes. Amy likes the flowers; she likes to pretend to pick them and give them to visitors. Amy is only six. Charlie knows that when she is older, she, too, will dislike the flowers.
In a rocking chair across the room, indifferent to the flowers on the couch, Charlie’s grandmother sews a patch on a pair of pants. Glancing up at the two children, she asks, “You kids need anything?”
Charlie shakes his head without looking up and Amy sniffles.
Charlie puts his hand on her shoulder to comfort her but she shrugs it off.
“What?!” Charlie demands, angered.
The girl turns to face him, her eyes flashing. “You think you know everything, Charlie. You don’t know anything at all. I want my mommy, I don’t want you, and so you can’t tell me what to do. Not her either.” She gestures violently to their grandmother, who watches the children detachedly.
“Just shut it, Amy.” Charlie snaps, rising from the couch. “You’re not the only one who’s missing Mom.” He slams his hand into the end table, and his grandmother raises her eyebrows and watches him, patiently. He shoves the stack of his grandmother’s books to the floor before heaving a great sigh. Then, he braces himself against the arm of the couch and lowers his head.
“Are you through, Charlie?” his grandmother asks quietly, threading the needle without watching it.
“Mom would have punished him by now.” Amy sulks. “She never let him yell at me.”
“Shut up!” the boy shrieks. “Shut up!”
The grandmother trims the thread with small scissors and glances casually at Charlie. His hair is brown and his eyes are dark and wild. He is quite a contrast to blond, blue-eyed Amy who is decked out in a princess outfit and plastic jewelry.
“Mom wouldn’t let him yell at me like this, Gramma. Mom would have stopped him.”
“Amy, let’s you and I go out on the porch for a while and chat, all right?” She rises from her rocking chair and offers a hand to the girl. Amy refuses to take it, but obliging follows her.
Outside, Amy picks flowers and grass and tie them into strings. Sitting on the porch, the grandmother wants to find time to mourn for her daughter, but now, she senses, it is more important to allow the children to mourn for their mother.
Location: Barworth, Connecticut, a pay telephone
Time: 3:17 pm
Harry Jordan drops another coin into the slot and dials the phone number he has memorized. When his call is accepted, he says quickly, “Hey, this is Harry Jordan, â€˜member me?”
“Yes, what can I do for you?” The man, Mr. Robinson, has a pleasant enough voice, but Harry is nervous.
Deciding to be blunt, Harry says, “I’ve got some news about Lou and Jessie…uh…bad news…”
“Yes?” The voice has changed and there is a more urgent and less friendly color to it.
“You know the store where Jessie works…uh…the place was shot up yesterday and Lou was there and-”
“Where are they, are they okay?” There is panic in the voice now.
Harry squints his eyes tightly and leans against the panel of the phone booth. “They’ve been killed, Mr. Robinson. I am so, so sorry.”
There is a silence, and when it is heard again, the voice is indescribable. “I heard a shooting on the radio…but I don’t watch the news, you know…oh, God…”
“I’m…truly sorry, Mr. Robinson.” Harry runs a hand across his eyes, not knowing what to say. “I’ll…let you go…now.”
Before the voice can change yet again, Harry hangs up the phone. He pulls a folded piece of paper from his breast pocket and marks off the man’s name. He finds another coin in his pants pocket which he drops into the slot on the telephone and, referring to the next name down, dials another phone number.
Location: Highland, Connecticut
Time: 3:47 pm, five days later
Alexander Banker wears a black suit and a pale blue tie, and he stands expressionless as the mourners file past him. Stoicism does not suit him well: his hair is a fiery orange and his cheeks are rosy and freckled. Normally, people expect laughs from Alex, but today his hard features are excused by most.
The graveside service is concluding, and when it is finally done, he and four other men will lower the casket into the vault. Normally, Alex doesn’t attend the funeral services, but he knew Jason Peterson; he was the best man at Jason’s wedding three years previously. Normally, Alex wears jeans and an undershirt when filling the graves, but today he will dress more formally. He had a great deal of respect for Jason.
Jason’s friends, uncles and aunts, cousins, and parents pass him, and then Jason’s widow, Michelle, rises from her seat. He has been dreading Michelle’s farewell.
Many people hug Michelle or shake her hand, but she repeatedly looks over to Alex. He is the one she chooses to hug as she passes, and to comfort her, he holds her tightly and strokes her hair.
“Jason was a good man.” he whispers to her.
She puts her head on his shoulder. “I know he was.” She begins to cry, more loudly than she had during the service, and Alex kisses her forehead gently.
Knowing she is a religious woman, he murmurs, “He’s in a better place, watching over you.”
Knowing Alex is an atheist, Michelle smiles but still takes comfort from the words. Finally, she pats his back and says softly, “You’ll be gentle with him, won’t you?”
Alex nods solemnly. “I always am.”
As he watches Michelle walk with the last of the mourners to their cars, he turns to the white and gold casket resting just outside the cover of the tent. “You, Jason Peterson, were a lucky, lucky man.”
Location: Highland, Connecticut, Lawrence Treck Care Home
Time: 4:17, two months later
The old man nods to the turquoise-clad worker, Dwight Engton. Dwight has dark skin and an infectious smile, so when he grins, the old man does the same.
“You want somethin’ to feed him, Mr. McAllister?” Dwight asks, pushing a cart.
The man nods, and Dwight Engton smiles again. “I thought so. I’ll get somethin’ and be back with it in about ten minutes.”
“Thank you, Dwight.”
The old man, Kerry McAllister, enters a small room with blue curtains, a television set, a bookcase, a nightstand, a rocking chair, and a bed. Kerry directs his attentions to a man in a wheelchair next to the bed. His hair is a pale brown, and his clothes are a sort of standard-issue blue-grey. He wears pale brown Velcro shoes and his socks have fallen down around his ankles. One sock and shoe clad foot rests on the floor, the other on the metal plate of the wheelchair. His knees lean against one another and his hands rest palm-up in his lap. His face is expressionless, his brown eyes blank and he does not move when Kerry enters the room. He never has.
Since Alton McAllister was shot in the stomach and the head two months previously, no one has heard him speak.
Kerry is Alton’s uncle and has raised him since he was seven years old. Kerry visits his nephew every day. Sometimes they watch movies, but usually, Kerry reads to the boy. Actually, Alton isn’t a boy anymore, but Kerry still thinks of him as though he were seven years old.
When he visits, Kerry usually tries to feed Alton. Some days, he’ll bring Alton milkshakes or home-grown vegetables. Sometimes the boy will swallow a little of the food, usually accidentally, but every evening Dwight has to employ a feeding tube. Even when Alton eats, he doesn’t eat enough.
Kerry sits in the rocking chair next to Alton and opens the book to the marked page.
Sometimes, when he reads, he thinks he sees Alton smile, but he’s never sure.
By the time Kerry has finished the chapter in their book, Dwight has left a blue plastic tray on Alton’s nightstand.
Kerry picks up a yellow comb from the top of the bookcase and begins to brush the boy’s hair. Alton seems unaware, and lets his head rock with the pull of the plastic against the knots.
“You think you’ll eat anything today, Alton?” Kerry asks, just as though the boy will answer him. He refuses to patronize his nephew; he believes that somehow, his Alton is still alive and can hear the words he says, comprehend the books he reads, follow the movies they watch.
“Dwight says you’re having potato soup, and that’s one of your favorite dishes.”
Alton says nothing, and Kerry stands in front of him for a moment, straightening his blue-grey collar. Then he leans forward kisses the boy’s forehead. “I love you, Alton.”
Maybe, Kerry thinks, maybe that was a smile.