Few people may have been close enough to hear it, but the shot sent birds from their trees. Branches shook in their squawking, a thunder of wings against the air. Even in the mounting rain, you could hear them, even in the high-pitched silence of an action no person could undo.
By comparison, the bullet had been almost soundless, a mere thwack to his chest. He had stumbled, knocked against a post and then the table, before his knees had given out. His eyes still wide with wonder as he fell. Grant looked down now but saw no blood, no movement, just the heap of a lifeless body, bones and muscles and nothing else.
He would later learn that there had been blood—lots of it, in fact—and that it had, according to the police, been quite hard to wash away. They would tell the newspapers there had been two bullets, two thwacks against his chest, but it was the first one that killed Karl, a pitch perfect strike to his heart. But from those first few minutes, shock like a cloud before his eyes, Grant remembered only the raindrops on his shoulders, the puff of breath as he exhaled.
Someone said his name, and he turned to see Susannah standing not five feet away, the Glock droopy in her grip. He moved to take it, but she waved him off. “Gunpowder,” she said.
Grant stared at the woman who had saved him. Minutes earlier, when she’d emerged from the woods, he had not noticed all the damage. Her swelling lip and eyelids, the crusted blood above her ear. Her clothes torn at their stitching. Her hair matted with mud. But behind the bruises, somehow, she began to look more like her daughter. Those same firm shoulders kept her back straight, that same unyielding in her eyes.
Voices called from out of view. “Hello,” they yelled. “Are you okay?”
Susannah moved to grip his arm. “Get out of here,” she urged him. “Go.”
“I’m not going to leave you. The cops, they’ll ask questions.”
“None that I can’t answer.”
“But then they’ll know. They’ll arrest you.”
She shook her head, almost smiling, if not for the split above her lip. “I’m tired. It’s time to stop. You need to find her. Go.”
Somewhere, a siren started chirring. He had a minute, maybe less. He squeezed Susannah’s wrist before he took off running. Up the slope, between the trees. At his truck, he glanced back, and she was there, where he’d left her, that gun still heavy in her hand.
Grant was halfway to 400 before he remembered speed limits and stop signs. He tapped the brake, but still he felt it, the need to drive faster, just because he could.
At the turn onto Buckhead Loop, his phone slid out of his back pocket, down into the gears below his seat. He pulled into the bank to retrieve it, now that he remembered Jules and Mallory.
They had called seven times while he’d been there, thumbed all-caps texts with increasing speed. It seemed so long since he had dialed a number, hit send, said hello. He was still surprised to be breathing. The simplest action, a miracle.
Jules answered, panting, as he pulled back onto the road. “Grant? Is that you?”
A warmth welled up inside him, nearly spilling from his eyes. “It’s me,” he answered, laughing. “It’s over. We’re okay.”
He told her the facts of what had happened as if he’d watched it on TV. Nothing about the birds or raindrops or the blood he didn’t notice. In the background, as he talked, he heard Mallory softly sobbing. He thought of her smile and was grateful that he had lived to see it again.
“Where are you?” Grant asked. “Still at the library? I can be there in—.”
“We’re at the precinct on Ted Turner. The detective’s on his way. FBI too, I think.”
“You found something,” he said.
“Honey,” Jules smiled. “We found it all.”
Grant slapped his steering wheel and hooted as the phone beeped to signal an incoming call. “Hold on a second.”
He hadn’t stored the contact, but by now, he knew the number.
“I’ll call you back,” he told Jules, switching over just in time. “Hello?” he said. “Are you there?”
The woman on the other end wasn’t the same social worker who had called before, but she asked the same questions, used the same measured voice. Was he Grant Maxwell? Did he know Frank?
Identity confirmed, she continued, a higher pitch to her words. “I’ve got good news for you,” she said. “Mr. Wiley is awake.”
A nurse met him at the elevator, a guy with a buzz cut and cheekbones. He led Grant down the same hallways, stopped at the same door.
“He’s alert,” the nurse said, “and responding to stimuli. Light, sound, all of it. We even got him to try drinking through a straw. He hasn’t talked yet, but he seems to understand what we say.”
“Is it temporary, the not talking?”
Kindly, the nurse frowned. “Too soon to tell. With strokes like his, it could go either way. But he’s awake and aware, so he’s already beaten plenty of odds. What he needs now is to rest and recover. Be around family.” The nurse patted his arm. “See a friendly face. We can worry about the damage later on.”
Grant thanked him and knocked softly before opening the door. The lights were off and the machines still beeping. A laugh track mumbled from the TV. The white sky through both windows cast a glow about the room.
On the bed, Frank sat unblinking. His hands folded, his feet bare. As Grant entered, he turned to see him, a grimaced smile across his face.
“Hey there, sleeping beauty,” Grant said as he walked over. From the wall, he dragged a chair to sit down. “Hell of a nap, huh?”
Frank’s eyes were glassy, that smile stuck in place. He looked thinner than he had a day ago, his skin more mottled in blue, but beneath the tubes and wires, the white-taped gauze, those bandages, the man he knew was in there somewhere. Grant could feel when he touched his hand.
Again, Grant couldn’t help but wonder how much Frank knew, what he believed. Perhaps he had no idea about Susannah. Maybe he had mourned her all these years. But they hadn’t had a funeral, no body to bury, no memorial tree to plant, so maybe at least he had his suspicions, in his quietest hours, his buried thoughts. Either way, she chose to leave them. She planned her exit. She said goodbye. In the ripples of the wake that she’d invited, either way, they had lived on. Through it all, Frank loved his daughter as fiercely as he could. What else besides that mattered? Who cared what story he believed?
A dry cough rose up Frank’s throat like an engine that wouldn’t start. Grant went to the sink to fill a cup, but when he brought it to the man’s lips, water just dribbled on his chin. The nurse had said something about straws, so Grant glanced over the bedside table, the balled tissues, the tubs of Vaseline.
That was when he saw the handle, bright yellow, peeking out. He moved the bulk-sized lotion, the spare pillow, and there it was. A pitcher, this one ceramic, tiny flowers painted along its rim. He picked it up and turned it over, too dizzy at first to read its letters, but soon they spelled the most beautiful word: Serenbe.
Grant remembered their weeks here, twenty years ago but still so clear. The endless days, the doctors’ faces, the ache of that bed against his back. With his knee, Grant hadn’t spent his nights wandering the hospital stairs and hallways. He hadn’t visited other floors or hid in any closets. He never snuck into the morgue. All those weeks, he had just laid there, impatient for the sun, when Eliot would come and sit beside him, tell the stories of where she’d gone.
He ran to the door and flung it open, but she wasn’t standing in the hall. In both directions, nurses hurried, carts rambled, time went on.
On the white board, he wrote his message in words she’d understand: 11 a.m., Saturday: 111+2.
He kissed Frank’s forehead before leaving. He tugged the blanket over his feet.
In the elevator, this time, Grant couldn’t stop humming. Down every floor, at every stop. Eliot’s voice, those words she’d taught him, that same old song he’d always loved.