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Tumbleweeds, p.32
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       Tumbleweeds, p.32

           Leila Meacham

  “Oh? Another wrong to put right in your final days?”

  “I’d call it a misperception to put right.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean that all these years, everybody, including you and Cathy, has believed that Will is mine. He isn’t.”

  “Oh, for the love of God, Trey!” John swiveled his chair away from the sight of the figure in the easy chair. The gall of the man, steps from death’s door, to continue to deny the wonderful son who would make any father proud. “Whose else could he be?”

  “Yours,” Trey said.

  Chapter Forty-Nine

  John spun his chair around. A chill ran through his body. “What?”

  “You heard me.” Trey unscrewed a prescription bottle and shook two pills into his palm. He threw them into his mouth and washed them down with the beer. Illness pulled at his lean, handsome face.

  “That tumor has made you crazy, Trey. I hope what you just said stays in this room—that you won’t spread that crazy lie around town.”

  “It’s no lie, Tiger, believe me.”

  “Why would you say such a thing? The boy looks exactly like you.”

  “Does he now?”

  “The same build, hair, eyes.”

  “No, Padre, he’s got yours. Everybody expected him to look like me because they knew I was screwing Cathy. They searched for what they wanted to find and found it, but they were wrong. Look closely at you and me, or rather, the way we were then.” Trey nodded toward the framed pictures of the Kersey Bobcats on the wall, he and Trey seated together in the center of the front row. “See if you and I don’t look enough alike to be brothers. Next time you and Will are together, look at his face without superimposing mine over it and I think you’ll see your own.” Trey raised the can to his mouth. “And, of course,” he added, “there’s always my DNA to prove I’m telling the truth.”

  Stiffly John turned his gaze to the picture and studied it. Growing up together, they’d often been told they could have easily passed for brothers, but Trey was suffering from a cancer-induced delusion to claim he wasn’t Will’s father. The boy could be no one else’s. Had Trey forgotten the time he crawled back to Cathy, begging her to forgive him? They didn’t come up for air for a week.

  “What makes you think the boy isn’t yours?” John asked.

  “Because I’m sterile,” Trey said calmly. “I have been since I was sixteen. If I’d ever fathered a child, your Virgin Mary would have nothing on me.”

  John’s mouth slowly dropped. He recalled Trey’s collapse during spring training the end of their sophomore year, his inflamed and swollen jaws, Aunt Mabel’s eyes popping when she took his temperature, the swagger gone from him when he returned to school after his two weeks’ confinement.

  “That’s right,” Trey said. “I see you remember. The mumps hit me in both testicles. They were swollen the size of lemons by the time Aunt Mabel got me to Dr. Thomas and had to be packed in ice for days. When I was eighteen, I got my sperm tested. No swimmers then or forevermore. So you see, I couldn’t possibly be the father of Will Benson.”

  “But… the condoms, the pills Cathy took…”

  “To be on the safe side until I got the courage to have myself checked out. I was going to tell Cathy the results of the tests the day after we got back from summer conditioning, but before I could, she dropped the bomb on me that she was pregnant. I figured it could only have been by you.”

  For a delusional moment, the sense of detachment came over him he adopted in the confessional. The grate between him and the penitent and his sin removed him from personal involvement and liberated him to offer wise counsel. He was listening to Trey as if his revelation pertained to someone else. It wasn’t possible he’d gotten Cathy pregnant. He’d hardly touched her….

  Dear Mother of God…

  “I know how this must hit you, John—as hard as it hit me when my best friend, the guy I loved like a brother, hell, more even than myself—boffed my girl behind my back. I’ve always been surprised that you and Cathy never suspected the boy could be yours. I figured it happened during the time I broke up with her, right after you and I got back from our first visit to Miami. Do you deny it?”

  The pump of blood to his head was almost blinding. He could not draw breath. “I admit that Cathy and I… one afternoon came close to what you’re accusing me of,” John said, Trey’s face growing fuzzy. “She was devastated when you dumped her, out of her mind. She came to me desperate for comfort. We started drinking and got very drunk, but nothing happened. Cathy passed out instantly. She has no memory of it—”

  “No memory of what?”

  “That I almost took advantage of her. But I didn’t, TD… that is, I… well, you see, I… never penetrated her.”

  “Were you wearing a condom?”

  “No, I—it happened so fast—”

  “Were her panties off?”

  John blushed. “Yes.”

  “Why didn’t you go through with it?”

  “Because—” He had never forgotten Cathy’s sleepy, contented murmur. “Because she said your name, TD. She thought I was you. I backed off immediately, so I see no way Cathy could have gotten pregnant by me.”

  Trey gripped the arms of the chair and drew to a taller sitting position, staring at John as if he’d had a glimpse into heaven—or hell. “What? She said my name? She thought you were me?”

  “Yes. Clearly. She was out of it—totally plastered. She loved you, TD, and only you. Cathy would never have knowingly slept with anyone else but you. How could you believe she would?”

  Trey dropped back in his chair, his face stark with the anguish of horrified realization tinged with the cast of cancer. “Catherine Ann… Catherine Ann,” he moaned, closing his eyes. “Oh, God, John. If only I’d known…”

  “You would have if you hadn’t run out on her.”

  “I couldn’t… have hung around, Tiger. Not then.” He lifted his head, his eyes feverish in their sickly sockets. “Didn’t you ever wonder why I… went ‘off the reservation,’ as you put it, on that first visit to Miami—how I could do that to Cathy?”

  “You know I did!”

  “I found out my test results the day before we left. I couldn’t tell Cathy; I just couldn’t. She’d have pitched her tent with me no matter what, and I thought it was the perfect time to break us up. It was better to leave her thinking I couldn’t be faithful than that I couldn’t father children…. She’d get over me easier, I thought….”

  John shook his head. “Good God, TD…” Trey’s voice came to him muted, as if he were speaking through glass. He… Will’s father? How he wished it was true, but he couldn’t be…. It wasn’t possible.

  “You know I could never go by the books, Tiger—that I could never play anything straight.”

  “Well, you’ve called the shots wrong this time, too, TD. I couldn’t be Will’s father. I barely touched Cathy.”

  “You still impregnated her, Tiger. You and Bebe may have got it on, but you were still a virtual innocent at eighteen. You didn’t know that you didn’t have to penetrate her for her to become pregnant. Cathy was off the pill then, and your semen only had to touch her skin…”

  “But I didn’t ejaculate!”

  Trey’s voice gained volume. “You didn’t have to. Your fluid alone would have done the job. Most guys have no control over it and cannot feel it coming out. That’s why the withdrawal method you Catholics preach as a means of birth control doesn’t always work. Because of that, I thought somewhere along the way you’d have figured out the kid could be yours.”

  “How do you know so much about this subject?” John demanded.

  Trey’s mouth twisted into a sad, wry grin. “Believe me, I’ve researched everything ever known about sperm.” He gazed into his friend’s appalled gaze. “You’re Will’s father, John.”

  A full picture of Will Benson popped into John’s mental vision, and the faint paternity traces he and Cathy had taken no notice of were
suddenly accented: the slant of Will’s right eyebrow, the slight slope of his left shoulder, a certain swing to his walk, a particular resonance in his laughter… all characteristics of John Caldwell. How could he and Cathy have not noticed them? They had searched only for likenesses to Trey.

  John heard Trey’s voice crack in remorse. “I’m sorry, John. I know that makes no difference to you and Cathy and that you’ll never forgive me for not telling you the truth right away. I don’t expect you to, but as God is my witness, I expected you and Cathy to marry and come on to school as planned. I had no idea you were considering the priesthood.”

  Astounded, still trying to absorb the marvel of the impossible, John cried, “But later, why did you keep the truth from us, Trey? Why did you let the boy grow up thinking his father had abandoned him? You knew what that was like. Cathy and Will—do you have any idea the shame and hardship you left them to suffer?”

  The questions caught Trey like a ball thrown too hard at his midsection. He clutched himself—a house caving in upon itself. “Because I thought you betrayed me!” he said, his eyes suddenly blazing with anger and illness. “You were my family—all I had in the world. All I cared about. Do you have any idea what it was like to believe that the friend I would have died for fucked the love of my life—my heart!—and had fathered the son I never could! At that time, you could have all gone to hell, for all I cared. I wanted to hurt you as you’d hurt me, but then, as the years passed…” His voice weakened, his eyes dulled. “It was too late. The boy had his mother and great-grandmother and… you. You and Will were as close as father and son could be. You were on the path to righteousness and Cathy was… settled. There would have been a scandal involving all of you. Was it better for the boy to believe his father was a bastard than that his mother conceived him with his best friend behind his father’s back?”

  He was still good at it, John thought. Trey could find a vein of glitter and sell it for a gold mine—and John would buy it.

  Still holding his stomach like a cradled football, Trey lifted tormented eyes. “I did what I thought was best when it was too late to change things,” he said. “It was rotten of me, but I… didn’t know what else to do.”

  “Coming in!” Betty called, opening the door, and John, thankful for the interruption, rose to take the tray from her and place it on a table earlier set for the meal. At the waft of food, his stomach turned over. Betty’s wide gaze of surprise told him he must look as white as the table linen. She threw a glance at Trey, still bent over, and set a grim face as she unloaded the tray without a word.

  “Thank you, Betty. It looks delicious,” John said. “We’ll serve ourselves, and I’ll bring the dishes down when we’re through.”

  “Very well, Father,” she said, cutting Trey a warning look he did not see as she left the room.

  When the door closed, John asked, “When do you plan to tell Betty and Lou?”

  Trey roused himself. “You tell me when would be a good time. I have a flight out of Amarillo tomorrow at noon, so I’ll be leaving early in the morning. I don’t want you with me when I tell them. You’ll squirm and look guilty as sin, and it wouldn’t take but a look at your face for that sharp old Mrs. Harbison to know you were involved.”

  A weakness in his legs forced John to take one of the chairs at the table. “Tonight when Lou returns from mass with the kids,” he answered. “Betty stays behind to look after the ones who don’t go. She and Lou settle down in their room to watch TV around eight. It’s at the other end of the hall. I won’t be home until late. Now come to the table and try to eat something. The food will give you strength.”

  With a labored effort, Trey pushed out of his chair and took his place at the table. “Am I going to hell, John?”

  The hardest duty of his office was at times like these when he was called upon to offer assurance to the morally corrupt facing death that their sins would be forgiven. He would remind himself that he spoke for God and not for John Caldwell. “Nobody goes to hell who truly repents of his sins and asks forgiveness from those he has injured, Trey. Your heart knows the truth, so it is there you should look for your answer.”

  It was the best comfort John could give. Trey alone knew whether he’d be here today if he weren’t dying tomorrow.

  John picked up a spoon to take a stab at eating the luscious cream of vegetable soup Betty had taken pains to prepare along with a salad of greens picked that morning and tossed with her tangy strawberry dressing.

  “When are you going to tell Cathy?” Trey asked.

  John looked up from his soup. “When am I going to tell her?”

  “I can’t face her now any more than I ever could, Tiger. I don’t want to die remembering the look in her eyes. The only saving grace will be her relief when she learns that Will is your son.”

  Will was his son! He was the boy’s father! It was almost impossible to believe, but he would keep his eye on that one inextinguishable light. “I’ll have to decide,” he said.

  “There’s no point in telling the world the boy is yours. It should stay between you, Cathy, and Will. Think what would happen to your reputation if the news got out.” Trey made a visible effort to smile. “Let me die with my public believing the worst of me. I deserve it, and I’d like to leave with yours still thinking the best of you.”

  “That will depend on Will and the will of God,” John said.

  Chapter Fifty

  Deke Tyson fidgeted, hardly able to swallow the lunch Melissa had prepared to celebrate the purchase of the house. His mind was miles—years—removed from the conversation around the table where he and Paula sat with their daughter and her husband and son.

  “What’s the matter, Daddy?” Melissa asked. “You’re not eating. Don’t you like the casserole?”

  “Oh, I do, I do,” Deke assured her. “It’s just that I’ve got my mind on something else.”

  “I hope you’re not having regrets about the house,” Paula said.

  “No, no, I like the house. I think it will be fine for us.” Deke forked up a mouthful of the chicken casserole with feigned eagerness and considered how to break the news that he would have to cut the weekend short. He had to get back to Amarillo to have the crime lab check out something in the evidence bag related to the Harbison boy’s death.

  “If I didn’t know better,” his daughter remarked, “I’d say you’re wearing the kind of look you used to get on your face when you were working on a case.”

  “Does it have anything to do with that stuffed bobcat you put in the trunk?” Paula asked.

  “Paula, be quiet!” Deke ordered. “You don’t have to tell all you know.”

  Everybody at the table looked astonished at this uncharacteristic outburst. Paula, recognizing that something was going on with her husband since he’d pulled the bobcat out of the pile of disintegrating hunting trophies, recovered first. “You’re right,” she said, taking no offense. “Sometimes I blab too much. This casserole is delicious, Melissa. What does your mother have to do to get the recipe?”

  Deke asked suddenly, “Melissa, do you remember Donny Harbison?”

  Melissa’s brow elevated at the question. “Donny Harbison? Wasn’t he that boy from Delton who died from an accident when I was in high school?”

  “That’s him. You kids were seniors. Do you know if Trey Hall knew him?”

  Her brow still hiked in surprise, Melissa said, “I doubt it. They went to rival schools, and Trey was a jock. He hung out with other jocks like John Caldwell. Donny played in the band. Even if he’d gone to Kersey, he would have been invisible to Trey.”

  Paula put her hand on her husband’s arm. “Why are you asking these questions?” she asked, curious about his concern. But then, he’d always been disturbed by the Harbison boy’s death.

  “Oh, no reason,” Deke said. His answer wouldn’t satisfy Paula, but she would let it be. At this point he didn’t want to betray the drift of his thoughts, especially to his wife and daughter. In a town like Kersey,
where gossip was the mainstay of conversation among the womenfolk, they might have trouble keeping their mouths shut.

  “Well, I’m sure he didn’t,” Melissa said. “The Bobcats and Rams didn’t mix in those days.”

  Deke let out an exclamation and jerked the napkin from his collar. Bobcats… Rams… By God, that was the connection! He shot up out of his chair. “I’m sorry, everybody, but we’re going to have to get back to Amarillo.”

  Deke’s son-in-law made a sound of objection and his grandson let out a wail of dismay. His grandfather was supposed to be taking him fishing that afternoon.

  “We do?” Paula said.

  “Oh, Daddy, why?” Melissa protested. “You just got here!”

  “Because your father said so, dear,” Paula said, getting up. The glance she gave her daughter cut off further objection. Paula cupped her grandson’s chin. “We’ll be back over during the week, sweetheart. Now give your grandma a big kiss, and we’ll be on our way.”

  In the car, Paula said, “And why do we have to get back to Amarillo as if we’ve got a lynch mob after us?”

  “I need to get to the forensics lab before it closes,” Deke said. While Melissa had packed them a part of the chocolate cake she’d made for dessert, he’d called in a couple of markers. First, he’d telephoned Charles Martin, now chief of the Crime Laboratory Service for the Department of Public Safety in Amarillo. During his tenure as county sheriff, Deke had met Charles as a fledgling technologist. Yes, he told Deke, he remembered the case from years ago when Deke had asked him to process the fingerprints on some lewd magazines and extension cord and compare them to a set taken from a teenage suicide victim. Charles had never forgotten the look on Deke’s face when he told him that the victim had never touched either item.

  Deke now had an idea why Donny’s prints weren’t on the magazines or the extension cord.

  His next call was to Randy Wallace, current sheriff of Kersey County. “I’m to look for what?” the sheriff asked.

  “If it weren’t important, I wouldn’t ask, Randy.”

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