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Tumbleweeds, p.35
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       Tumbleweeds, p.35

           Leila Meacham

  Cathy waited to feel something for Trey’s eighteen-year-old feelings, the devastation he must have felt when she told him she was pregnant, but nothing came, nothing at all. Her vision, her heart, were filled only with this man and the awe that he was the true father of her son. Never again would she have to worry that one day, years down the line, Trey’s genes would kick in, pollute the integrity that had marked the difference between father and son since Will was born.

  “John…” She took her gaze over the features of his face, the shape of his ears, recalling the way his hair—like Will’s—curled in damp weather. How had she not seen John in her son? She said in wonder, “You’re Will’s father?”

  “There’s no doubt, Cathy.”

  “I should have known…. I should have guessed….”

  His fingers tightened. “As Trey said, we looked only for what we expected to find.”

  “I can’t begin to imagine how Will will feel when he learns the truth.”

  “He’ll feel what I do.”

  They stared at each other, each reading all the what-could-have-beens in the other’s eyes. “Good lord, John…” The enormity of Trey’s lies, the camouflage of his deceits, rose in her awestruck mind like gigantic boulders blocking the sun. “How could he have done this to us… to Will…?”

  “He believed we betrayed him,” John said. “We shattered all he knew to be faithful and true, and he wanted to punish us.”

  A mother’s fury began to shake her. She stood to get away from the rebuke of the liturgical shirt and Roman collar to the unholy rage she felt. She balled her fists. “But how could he let Will think his father had deserted him? How could he let that little boy suffer the same feeling of being unwanted he’d known? Somewhere along the way, wouldn’t some decency in him make him come forward with the truth?”

  “He thought it was too late,” John said. “I was already in the priesthood, and he knew you’d never ask me to leave my vocation to marry you.”

  “I despise him,” she said simply.

  “You have reason to.”

  “You should despise him, too.”

  “I would if I didn’t feel enormous pity for him. He’s never stopped loving us, Cathy, and that has been his greatest torment. I believe if you saw him, you’d see he’s suffered more from the consequences of his acts than we have. You and I, for all we’ve been denied, have had our friendship, and we have Will.”

  She swung around. “If I saw him, I’d shoot him, so help me God, I would. I swear if he walked in right now, I’d drag out my grandmother’s old .30-30 and blast him to hell.”

  “He’ll meet his death soon enough,” John said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “He’s dying, Cathy. An inoperable brain tumor—an astrocytoma. That’s why he’s here now.”

  An image of Trey on the tennis court their senior year in high school—tall, strong, tanned, reflecting sunlight—whirled out of the past. She’d carried that picture of him through the years like a secret photograph tucked away in a wallet secretly glanced at now and then. That Trey could be dying—that strapping paragon of male health, the man she’d loved nearly all her life—momentarily stunned her, but no sorrow or pity, no understanding, warmed the cold hatred she felt for him. “I see,” she said, her voice soft with contempt. “And so he’s come to buy some eleventh-hour peace with God, is that it? Trying for a Hail Mary. How typical of TD Hall.”

  “Sit down, Cathy,” John said, indicating the seat next to him. “There’s more I’ve come to tell you.” He picked up his glass and emptied it.

  Cathy’s hopes tumbled. He was going to tell her they couldn’t make Will’s paternity public. There was John’s work, his reputation, to consider as well as hers and Will’s. But what was worse—correcting an old scandal based on a lie or raising a new one established on truth? She’d not had time to think it through. She sat down. “What is it, John? Do you feel we can’t let it be known you’re Will’s father?”

  “It’s not that at all, Cathy. I’ll be proud to announce to the world that Will is my son if that’s what you and Will wish. He was conceived before I took my vows, and the Church would want me to do what’s right by my child. In any case, when you hear what I have to tell you, Will may not want to acknowledge me as his father. You may not be all that eager to claim him as mine.”

  Goose bumps rose on her skin. “Why not?”

  “Trey came home to make two confessions.”

  She put her hands over her ears. “I think I don’t want to hear this.”

  “Do you remember Trey and me getting sick the week of the district championship game against Delton?”

  She dropped her hands. “Vividly. It was a Monday. You and Trey looked green as stewed turtles from the hamburgers you ate at Bennie’s.”

  “We weren’t sick from Bennie’s hamburgers. We were sick because we were responsible for causing Donny Harbison’s death.”

  Cathy sat rock still, her jaw slowly dropping.

  “Yes, you heard correctly,” John said. “Donny died from an accident, but Trey and I caused it. That’s the other sin he’s come home to confess—to the Harbisons.”

  Cathy heard him as if a wad of cloth had been shoved into her ears. Household sounds faded. She thought of the school picture of Donny displayed on a shelf in the Harbisons’ kitchen. She’d never seen it without a vase of Betty’s flowers beside it. The photo was all she knew of the son they had lost. His name had never been mentioned to her in the years of her buying produce from the children’s gardens at Harbison House.

  John turned his head to the window, and Cathy could see memory float into his gaze like a tide bringing long-lost flotsam to shore. “Trey was convinced our scholarships to Miami were on the line if we didn’t win district, and he got it into his head we had to do something to give us an edge….”

  It took no more than five minutes to relate the events of that unalterable November afternoon. Listening in horrified silence, Cathy recalled that a razor had gone missing from Dr. Graves’s clinic. She could remember the bruise on Trey’s shoulder and how he had clung to her that afternoon as if she were a lifeboat in a stormy sea. She could remember thinking then that the two of them were forever and that nothing could drive them apart.

  “Trey plans to tell the Harbisons the truth about their son’s death tonight while I’m at mass,” John concluded. “He says he’ll keep my name out of it—that he’ll take full responsibility for Donny’s death.”

  She was still too appalled to form a response. She could imagine the depth of the Harbisons’ pain and grief only through what she would have suffered if it had been Will strung up in the barn. To go off and leave their son like that for his parents to find… The act was almost too unconscionable to comprehend, and it had been John’s idea. But he had been only seventeen and panicked beyond any thought but saving from jail a boy closer to him than a brother—and preserving his future for the girl they both loved. John’s Catholic conscience had compelled him to choose the lesser horror of two evils.

  And the act had driven him into the priesthood.

  “Do you believe him?” she asked.

  He diverted his attention to the window to watch a hawk diving and swooping high in the sky. The wistfulness in his gaze caused her to wonder if he was envying the bird its ability to spread its wings and fly away. “I believe his intention,” he said.

  “His intention?”

  “Trey’s a dying man making his confession. He’s emotional, desperate for absolution, and on medication. It wouldn’t take but a slip of his tongue to start the Harbisons questioning, wondering….”

  She felt her scalp tingle. “What are you saying? Do you think somehow they’ll learn you were involved?”

  “The Harbisons are intelligent people. They’re bound to wonder how Trey could have acted alone. It would have taken two to hoist Donny’s body in the barn. Trey would never intentionally implicate me, but the Harbisons—Betty, especially—might decide to have the
ir son’s death investigated. She is not of a forgiving nature, and in Trey’s condition he could never stand up to a police interrogation. Eventually, my name would come out. I was Trey’s best friend in high school. We were inseparable….”

  A cold panic whipped through her. “Oh, my God, John. Did you warn him he was risking your exposure?”

  “No. I must let Trey do what he feels he must do.”

  “Oh, John!” She had the insane urge to rip his Roman collar from his neck. “How can you be so blasted priestly? You’ve got to stop him. Trey could ruin you—your life, your work, your reputation. Think of what it would do to the Harbisons if they learned of your involvement. It would destroy them.”

  “Believe me, I am thinking of it, but I have no choice but to let things ride out as they will.” He stood, pushed his hands into his pockets, and stared out the window. “It may be that I’m worrying for nothing….”

  “You don’t believe that.”

  “No. I believe God has given me fair warning.” He turned to face her, the light behind him throwing his broad-shouldered, dark-suited figure into relief. “Cathy, dear, it’s been… very difficult for me to live with the knowledge of the lie I allowed the Harbisons to suffer all these years. It’s a sin I’ve never forgiven myself for and neither has God.”

  She did not like where his priest’s conscience was taking him. She hopped up. “Screw God!” she cried. “You’ve made up for your sin a thousand times over, if you want to call it that. You’ve done your penance. Betty will never, ever forgive you. Trust me, as a mother, I know. You’ve got to stop Trey!”

  “Shush,” he said softly, and held her by the shoulders. “I must leave this to God and trust His will. If worse comes to worst, I must be prepared to accept it. At least I’ll be free of the shadows that have dogged my backside ever since it happened. I’m so tired of trying to outrun them….”

  “But it’s so unfair!” she cried. “That afternoon was all Trey’s doing. He should take the rap for all of it—with God and the Harbisons. He owes it to you. You were only seventeen—a boy!”

  His arms came around her, and she pressed her cheek to the black shirt like the time she dimly remembered from long ago when she’d rested her head against his chest after being sick in his bathroom.

  “But as a man I could have put it right,” he said, speaking softly above her head. “I’m not sure now whether I did not use my allegiance to Trey as my reason not to confess to the police and the Harbisons what happened that day. And as a priest, I convinced myself that God’s work could be achieved only through people’s faith in His priests and ministers and I had no right to relieve my conscience by destroying what I had accomplished in His name. But I was wrong. God’s work will prevail despite the frailty of its priests. And all my efforts to atone for what I did have brought me no peace. Every time I look into the Harbisons’ faces, I feel my guilt.”

  She lifted her head to look at him. “They must never know your involvement.”

  “I pray to God they won’t.”

  “If Trey had not come, you would continue living with your guilt? You wouldn’t be tempted, for the sake of your conscience, to break your silence?”

  “God forgive me, I wouldn’t.” He drew away and glanced at his watch. “I have an appointment with the bishop at three. He’ll advise me what to do.” He smiled at her. “Let’s talk about how we’ll go about telling Will our wonderful news. I’d like for us to be together as a family before… whatever happens. Could I come back after mass?”

  She nodded numbly. “We’ll be here.”

  “It will be all right, Cathy. One way or the other, it will be all right.”

  “You could be kicked out of the priesthood,” she whispered as he took his keys from his pocket. “You could face criminal charges. You could lose everything….”

  He came to smooth his thumb gently across the ridge of her cheek. “Not everything,” he said. “I will still have our friendship, and I will have my son. Now I must go.” He kissed her forehead and left her staring numbly after him before the couch.

  Chapter Fifty-Four

  Deke pulled away from the Turner house feeling that a black cloud had dropped over him. Good God! John Caldwell, an accomplice to the death of Donny Harbison! He hoped to hell he was wrong and that Trey had talked somebody else into going with him on his mission that day, but Deke had a sick feeling that the other set of prints on the extension cord belonged to John. Deke wouldn’t know until he acquired a set to match them to, but before he worked on that he had to be absolutely sure of the time the boys showed up for practice.

  It was possible that Donny was killed at night and the food on the table was his supper, not an afternoon snack as assumed. Trey and John could have driven over after dark, done the deed, and returned home with nobody the wiser. But several things bothered him. One, would a boy alone in the house eat his supper on the kitchen table rather than in front of the television like every other kid in the country? And, if Trey and John were as sick as described, would they be in the mood to carry out such a stunt? He’d think it would be the last thing on their minds.

  Also, the boys would have expected Donny and his family to be home in the evening unless they had reason to believe the Harbisons were out of town. That was another point he’d have to get cleared: how the boys knew they’d be alone to have a clear shot at the ram.

  He’d start first with Bobby Tucker, the defensive line coach from those days. Coach Tucker might have a different recollection from Ron of the hour the boys appeared on the field.

  Deke caught him working in his yard this first week of summer vacation. Bobby was grateful for the break, and he and Deke plopped down on the porch steps. Deke came right to the point without explaining the reason for his question or that he’d been to see Coach Turner. Bobby did not take long to reflect.

  “Yeah, I remember the incident like yesterday,” he said. “Coach Turner was about to have a stroke before they showed up an hour into practice. It scared the hell out of us, our quarterback and his best receiver coming out on the field sick as rabid dogs.”

  “You’re sure it was an hour, not two?”

  Bobby laughed. “Are you kidding? I’m telling you Coach Turner would be pushing up daisies now if they’d been a minute later.”

  “But still, how can you be so sure of the time?”

  Bobby grinned. “We gave them an hour. If they didn’t show up, we were going to call you at the sheriff’s department to go look for them. They made it in the nick of time.”

  “I see,” Deke said, but he really didn’t. Donny was just coming home from band practice when Trey and John got to the field. “One other question before I let you get back to your mowing,” he said. “It will sound strange, but do your best to answer it. Did you notice an emotional change in TD and John during and after that week? Maybe they were distracted, edgy….”

  Bobby frowned. “I’m not the one to ask. That was my first year on board, and I didn’t have much to do with Trey and John. They were Coach Turner’s personal bailiwick. He’s the man to talk to—that is, if he’ll answer his phone.” He shook his head sadly. “You know about his… addiction?”

  “Melissa keeps us informed.”

  “A tragedy that Coach Turner now practices what he preached against. He’s got everything—money, a beautiful house, a garage of fine cars.”

  “Except the things that must matter to him,” Deke said. He looked at his watch. Fifteen until five. He’d stop by Bennie’s and talk to Cathy Benson. If anyone could tell him about Trey and John’s behavior the week of the district game, it would be Cathy. After that, he’d go by Melissa’s and look for the name of the home economics teacher.

  “Is it true you’re buying Mabel Church’s house?” Bobby asked as Deke got to his feet.

  “Trey and I made the deal at noon today. News travels fast.”

  “Thank Melissa for it, Sheriff. She’s made no secret of you and Mrs. Tyson buying the house and meeting with T
rey. I thought I saw TD in town today around lunchtime. He didn’t see me. Was it something he said to trigger your interest in the week of that district play-off game?”

  Deke grabbed at the opportunity to pacify the coach’s curiosity. “Something like that,” he lied. “Melissa is tasked with writing a journal of her senior year for posterity.”

  Bobby smiled understandingly. “Like a time capsule,” he said, walking Deke to his car. “TD Hall and John Caldwell. They were quite a team. John could have had a shot at the pros, if you ask me. Did you ever figure him for the priesthood?”

  “Not right out of high school,” Deke said, having an idea why John had fixed on his avocation so soon. “Maybe later, but not at eighteen.” He tipped his Stetson. “Much obliged, Coach.”

  Deke headed toward town with his heart still heavy. If he brought down Trey Don Hall, he’d also destroy John Caldwell, a man who’d spent his life trying to atone for a mistake he’d made as a teenager. Trey had gone on to riches and glory and probably never looked back on what he had done, but John had taken his burden with him on a path of poverty and chastity and obedience to God. Deke had no doubt that when he got to the bottom of this he’d find that John had gone along that fateful November afternoon to minimize the cruelty, maybe even prevent it. He’d bet his bottom dollar that Trey had decided on autoerotic asphyxia as the cause of death when John, a Catholic, had refused to go along with suicide as a cover-up of what had happened.

  Was restoring Donny’s good name to his parents worth annihilating John Caldwell’s? The county had given him the status of a virtual saint, and justly so. Father John’s exposure and possible arrest for obstruction of justice would have far-reaching and devastating effects to the Church, not to mention the Harbisons. He hated to think what they would feel when they learned the man they loved like a son had participated in their boy’s death and the cover-up of how he died. The scandal would drive the most decent man Deke had ever known from the parish, maybe the priesthood, and the life he’d lived, the good he’d done, would be seen as a lie.

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