Sorry, miss. You can’t go any farther.”
Jenn frowned at the young trooper. She knew he was only doing his job, but that fact did nothing for her spirits. She donned her “charming” smile. “Look, I grew up here. I know this area like the proverbial back of my hand.” She peered at his nametag. “I also know, Officer Tanner, that you can make exceptions to any rule. Can’t I sign a release that says I’m going up at my own risk?”
“I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “Governor Ray said no exceptions. I’m just obeying orders.”
Jenn thrummed her fingers on the steering wheel of her rented fourwheel-drive pickup. Getting up to Spirit Lake gnawed like a rabid badger at her insides. “Look…”
“What’s the problem, Tanner?”
Jenn turned her head at the commanding voice. It sounded vaguely familiar.
“This lady insists on going up to Spirit Lake, Sheriff.” Officer Tanner stepped back from the truck window at Frank’s gesture.
“Now, ma’am, I’m sure Officer Tanner here has explained the situation.”
McKenzie tipped his hat brim back with one finger.
“Hello, Frank.” Jenn removed her oversize dark glasses and turned in the seat to face him. Would her childhood idol even recognize her?
“Well, I’ll be blowed over.” Frank’s smile made it all the way to his hazel eyes for the first time in months. “Jennie’s come home.” He turned and grinned at the young officer as if he should be excited too.
Jenn flinched at the diminutive. Jenn was okay, J.E. better, but Frank wouldn’t know that.
“Yes sir.” Officer Tanner glanced back at the cars lining up behind the pickup. “Uh, maybe since you know this person, you could, um…”
“You’re right. You go deal with those others, and I’ll take over here.”
Frank waved in dismissal. “Thanks, Tanner.”
Jenn studied Frank briefly during his exchange with Tanner. The man had aged! He looked like he could barely crawl out of bed. Had his family’s tragedy made him physically ill? When he turned back and leaned closer, she caught a whiff of whiskey. Did it take a drink to get him out of bed every morning? Her musings failed to alter her smile. What were they? Two of a kind?
“Sorry for all that.” He extended his hand. “Welcome home.”
“I won’t be home until I get up to the lake. Can’t you do something about that?” Her eyes darkened with intensity. “I have to get up there.”
“I know you do, squirt. You and The Lady always had a special affinity.”
The ancient nickname slipped out without his awareness. “Park your truck over there and come with me. I have to go up and try to talk old Harry Truman out again. Won’t do any good, but it’s a great way to spend the morning.”
“Thanks.” She felt like bouncing in the seat, just like she used to.
Strange, so many memories she hadn’t thought of for years. What is happening to J.E. Stockton? Man calls her squirt, and she immediately regresses to that tomboy who tagged along behind Frank even after he joined the county force, even after he brought home his bride.
She parked her truck at the back of the parking lot and swung her camera and daypack out in one fluid motion when she stepped from the cab. The camera was an extension of her soul, her graceful body a product of years of grueling dance and ramp work. She started to lock the door but brought herself up short with a small grin. She was home. No one locked houses here, let alone cars. Cowlitz County was a far cry from the crime-ridden city where she made her living.
She opened the door of the forest-green Blazer and froze. The massive German shepherd facing her from the seat lifted one lip slightly. The growl remained in his throat, audible only to Jenn. An expletive escaped before she clamped her mouth shut.
Sig watched her, waiting for her next move.
“Frank. Call off your dog!” Jenn matched the monster, stare for stare.
He was magnificent. Frank laughed, a carefree sound that Jenn failed to appreciate.
“Backseat, Sig.” He rumpled the dog’s alert ears and thumped him on the shoulder. With a thrust of his powerful hindquarters, the animal pushed himself over the seat. He assumed his sitting position on the rear seat, tongue lolling, eyes still on the woman.
“She’s a friend, Sig. A friend.” Like a soldier ordered “at ease,” the dog immediately relaxed and, with a quick swipe of his tongue, cleaned the sheriff’s right ear. Frank wiped his ear dry and extended a hand to pull Jenn’s backpack into the center of the seat. “You’re not afraid of him, are you?”
“No. Just respectful.” She followed her gear in. “Eye to eye, no one with any brains would argue with him.” Jenn looked over her shoulder to accentuate her point, then slammed the door. “I’m ready when you are.”
When Frank failed to move, Jenn glanced up. At the intensity of his gaze, she locked herself into an assumed nonchalance, one of the poses for which the camera made her famous. Her head tilted slightly as if resisting his gaze.
Frank studied her, his piercing stare wandering from the top of her head, lifeless hair easily tamed with a bone clasp, to her eyes, the purple shadows under them huge in her face. He noted the hollows under the cheekbones, the once strong chin, now all bone, her neck no longer graceful but gaunt. “You look like something out of a death camp. What has that city done to you? Or what’ve you done to yourself ?” He grabbed her chin in brutal fingers and turned her face to the light. “You fall or someone work you over?” The bruise on her temple tried to tell its own story.
“None of your business, Frank McKenzie.” The ice in her voice belied the fire in her eyes. “Besides, look who’s talking.” She jerked her chin free, conscious but uncaring that there’d be another bruise. “You’re only fortyfour. Yet you look sixty—and a sick sixty at that.”
“Yeah. Well, I guess I earned my scars the hard way.” The cynical bite in his tone contradicted the desolation in his eyes.
“And you think I didn’t?” Blue eyes locked with hazel, as if the two were sworn enemies rather than friends who’d been separated for years.
Jenn gave up the contest, hating the emptiness she saw in his soul.
“Frank.” She laid her hand on his sleeve. “I’m sorry. I thought you’d have gotten over that by now.”
“I know. What’s a wife and kid in the grand scheme of things?”
“I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
“Yeah. I know.” Frank worked his hands loose from the steering wheel. He shifted the Blazer into first, checked his side mirror, and pulled out onto the road. “Let’s go rout out old Harry, squirt.” He reached over and patted her knee. “Maybe he’ll pour us some of his special stock as a welcome home for ‘the face of the seventies.’ He has one of your magazine covers up on his wall, you know. Along with all the other celebrities who’ve visited the lodge. Says he knew you before when…”
It was obvious that they were to return to banalities, so Jenn buried her ravaged feelings and dug her camera out to mask any pain in her eyes. Why could this man crack her armor with a few choice words when no one else had even nicked it in the last years? And heaven knows, they’d tried.
The gray clouds scudding overhead matched the turbulent, gray river. Both mirrored Jenn’s feelings. The brief flareup with McKenzie only served to deepen the depths of her grayness. She was counting on the mountain to bring her back to life, but each milepost they passed intensified her fear rather than heightening her anticipation. What if the mountain were dying too? Don’t be stupid! She cut her thoughts off. Mountains don’t die. Only people and living things die. And dreams. And hopes. She glanced at the hard profile of the concentrating driver. And those you love.
Dying is hard, but murder? She tried to comprehend how he must have felt. The horror eluded her, but empathy and its cousin sympathy found a home. She shifted, staring out the window, to hide the drops seeping from her eyes. When that failed, she rolled her eyes upward, clenched her jaw, and commanded her emotions back into their burrow. Who was she crying for anyway? Frank? Herself ? The Lady?
The weathered cedar siding of Mount St. Helens’ Lodge melded into the lowering mist as Frank parked in the empty parking lot. Spirit Lake needed a clear day to mirror the proud peak. Today tips of white on the rolling waves were the only color in the murky lake. Mount St. Helens hid herself in the gunmetal clouds. The brisk wind off the lake gave Jenn an excuse for the moisture in her eyes as she stepped from the cab. She fished in her pocket for a tissue while pulling her gear out with her left hand.
With her pack slung over her shoulder and her camera around her neck, she finally had both hands free to blow her nose and wipe her eyes.
Frank beat her to it. His hard fingers gripped her chin, gently this time, as he tilted her face upward. He wiped each eye, the tear path over her jaw, then handed her the handkerchief. “Blow.”
She mutely obeyed and handed the red square back. He nodded.
“That’s better.” He stared into the eyes still brightened by the tears he’d been aware of but refused to comment on. He unclenched his jaw by conscious effort. “So I’m a sick sixty.” He shook his head. “Let’s see what Harry’s serving this morning.” He transferred his grip to her elbow and aimed her toward the lodge. At Sig’s short, sharp bark, Frank shook his head. “Sorry, fella. Stay. You drive those cats of Harry’s crazy.” Frank slammed the door. The sound was lost in the moaning of the wind in the giant Douglas fir trees that sheltered the aged building from storms off the lake.
They ducked their heads and clattered up the worn stairs to the lodge as the first squall whipped through the windbreak and spattered giant tears across the landscape.
“Anybody home?” The wind wrenched the door from Frank’s grasp and slammed it against the wall. He shoved Jenn inside, then stepped out to pull the door securely shut behind him.
Jenn shook the drops from her hair while allowing her eyes to adjust to the gloom. The main lighting came from a roaring fire in the rough rock fireplace, since the storm had darkened the windows. “Harry,” she called, raising her voice against the wind. “You here?”
Frank took her elbow again and led her across the cavernous room.
“Harry!” He thumped the scarred wooden counter. A ragged-eared tomcat, jarred from his nap on the counter, leaped to the floor and disappeared around the corner.
“I’m comin’. I’m comin’. What’s your hurry?” Harry shuffled through the door still muttering, gray hair standing on end, bulbous nose and cheeks stained a permanent blush from his favorite beverage. He stopped, peered at the couple through sleepy eyes, then a grin split his face from ear to ear. “Well, I’ll be…” Harry finished his sentence with his trademark run of profanities. He nodded as if confirming what his eyes told him. “Ya growed up, kid.” He wiped his hand on his pant leg and reached for Jenn’s hand. “What’n blazes are you doing up here? Thought you’d forgotten all about us, you’n all that big city glamour.” He glanced back at the picture on the wall. Even in the dimness, the striking beauty of the face on the cover of Time magazine arrested one’s attention. He peered at the woman in front of him, then back at the cover. He stared at her a lifetime, his woodsman’s eyes trained to note minute detail. He nodded, a barely perceptible motion. “Had to come home, did ya? Back to The Lady?” He squeezed the hand he still held and grasped her elbow with the other. “You poor child, why’d ya wait so long?”
While Jenn usually hated pity, she felt the moisture rising again at the depths of his scrutiny. It stabbed like needles, piercing her soul as she held his gaze.
“I don’t know, Harry”—she swallowed—“but I’m here now.” The needles lanced the pustules deep within where she’d buried her bitterness and disappointment and left them to fester. She clenched her teeth and squeezed his hand, fighting against the incipient tears. “So, Truman, what’s happened to your famous hospitality? Frank promised me you’d kept a good supply up here and…”
“And, darlin’, you need a drink. Cocoa, Frank?” He grinned up at the sheriff leaning on the counter. “Or…?”
“Always the comedian, aren’t you?” Frank thumped the old man on the shoulder. “Let’s have some ‘or,’ and make it a stiff one. By the way, I brought you a couple of cases of Coke. ’Fraid you might run out.”
“If you ain’t a real friend.” Harry led them toward the bar. “Got plenty of Schenley. Stuff goes pretty far now, since those busybodies in Olympia won’t let nobody come up here.” Never able to say three words without cussing, some of which he ran together and used as one adjective, he busied himself behind the counter as Jenn and Frank perched on the stools in front of the bar. He set up three glasses, ice, whiskey, and topped them off with Coke from a can, but not much of the latter. After sliding two drinks across the bar, he raised his own. “To comin’ home, darlin’. To comin’ home.”
Jenn swallowed against the rising tide and raised her glass in salute.
The barely diluted whiskey burned a path through the gathering tears and warmed a puddle in her middle. What’s happening to me? she thought. I don’t cry and mush about like this. Get your act together, girl. Tears don’t belong in your life. You’re tough. Remember? She coughed and slid her empty glass back across the counter.
“Last time you was here, you was too young for my special brew.”
Harry refilled the glass, the Coke barely staining the amber Schenley.
“Now, you want a second? Quicklike—what’s gone on with you, girl?”
“Just fill it up, Harry. The story’s much too long and boring.”
Frank watched the by-play, already on his third drink. He’d poured his own after the first splashed down and begged for a chaser. By now he could feel the glow creeping around his gut and out to his extremities. He sipped, finally taking time to allow his tongue some appreciation of the smooth, warm whiskey flavor. His eyes and mind searched for clues to Jenn’s comment.
Whatever had happened to her, it certainly wouldn’t be boring. She bristled like a baby porcupine before it had any sense, ready to throw its quills at any distraction. Frank glanced down at the tabby cat twining around his ankles. Sig would have a field day with cat scent all over him.
At the same moment, the ratchety chir-r-r-r of a raccoon preceded a sleepy bandit face from the dark end of the bar. Cat and coon shared the premises on an equal basis, but for the top heavy number of felines.
“Well, look at you.” The smile in Jenn’s voice broke across her face as she spied the newcomer. The raccoon tried to slip a hand into Harry’s glass but dodged when the man pushed him away. Harry reached in his breast pocket before the raccoon could and handed Jenn a peanut.
“Here. Give the old fool this, and he’ll be your friend for all time.”
Jenn held the peanut out on the flat of her palm. The raccoon snatched it with one black paw. Black eyes sparkled in the light as he held it daintily with both front paws, chewed the shell open, and picked the nut meat out. Jenn dug in her pack for her strobe, attached it to her camera, and snapped off the lens cap. “Give him another peanut,” she ordered and focused.
The raccoon ambled toward her, sniffing cautiously at the strange contraption. When a peanut materialized in front of his nose, he sat back on his haunches and proceeded to dine. The first flash sent him scurrying for cover, but another peanut turned him back around. The best shot was of the tubby bandit dunking a peanut in one of the glasses.
Watching the photographer in action, Frank searched for traces of the little girl he once knew in the professional before him. She was quick, her motions smooth and yet unhurried. She muttered to her subject more in the way of encouragement, as if the animal could understand every suggestion she made.
“More peanuts!” The snap in her soft tone was a definite command.
“Now, back away.” The two men did as ordered. The raccoon lapped it all up—the liquor, the peanuts, and the attention.
Jenn swiped an errant strand of aged honey hair back from her cheek as she dropped the camera back around her neck and dug the lens cover out of her shirt pocket. She laughed, pointing to her waddling subject.
“He beats most of the models I’ve worked with lately. Can’t say much for the lighting, but, Harry, you’re a great assistant. Bet he’ll sleep for a week after all that.” She scratched the animal behind its ears and stroked down the silky back. “No wonder they used to make coats out of your cousins.”
She continued stroking. The raccoon rolled over for her to scratch his tummy. His soft purring encouraged her to keep it up.
“What a sweetheart.” She laughed, suddenly conscious that she’d gone off into her own world. She started to pick up her drink but remembered whose hands had been in it last. Besides, it was empty. She paused.
Her ear tuned to an inner voice as her eyes sought Frank’s. A miniature freshet of joy trickled from around her icy interior, like snowmelt in the first rays of spring sun.
Frank’s hard stare was like looking into reflective sunglasses. He raised his drink, as in a toast, and tossed it back with one swallow.
Frozen again, Jenn turned. “Make it a stiff one, Harry.” When she failed to rub his belly anymore, the raccoon sniffed at the other glasses and then ambled off into the darkness.
“He’ll sleep good now,” Harry broke the painful silence. “At least till I feed the cats.”
Frank turned back to the bar, his elbows resting on the worn surface.
He poured a straight shot and swallowed appreciatively, nodding at Harry.
“That was a great show, old man. Now, when are you coming out?”
Muttering his usual, Harry bristled like one of the old cats in a squall.
“You know better’n that, Frank. I said I was staying here, and I meant every word of it. If I leave here and that mountain takes my home, I’ll just die anyway, so I’m staying.” He hoisted a bottle. “Me’n my special stock here. We’ll wait it out in a secret shaft I know of.” His ruddy face sobered.
“And if it’s my time to go, I can’t think of any other place on this whole earth that I’d rather be. This is my home. Why, you know I even own the top of The Lady. Went toe-to-toe, me and Burlington Northern.” He stared into the glass in his hand. “You can’t make me go, Frank.” His voice softened. “Don’t try to make me go.”
Frank took a deep breath. “Just doing my job, old man. They tell me to go up and reason with old Harry, so now I can say I’ve done so. Again. I didn’t expect you to change your mind and besides, Jenn and I”—he brushed her arm—“we were really hoping The Lady’d be out. The sky was clearing in Toutle.”
Jenn flinched at his touch. He was as changeable as spring weather. Who—where was the real Frank McKenzie?
The sheriff continued. “This city gal here needed to get out and get her boots dirty. Sight her camera on our mountain, ’stead of some idiot walking bundle of bones.” He slurred his words only slightly.
“Sight all you want. I’m not leavin’, but you come on back any day. We’ll all still be here, me’n the cats and coon. And of course, St. Helens. She sure is making it hard to sleep at night. Those earthquakes giving me a crick in my neck.”
“Earthquakes?” Jenn joined back in the conversation.
“Yeah. All that rockin’ and rollin’ even knocked some stuff off my shelves. Lost a brand-new bottle the other night. Smashed all over the floor. What a waste.” He ran his fingers through his thinning hair, making it stand even higher. “Shame.”
“Have the quakes done any more damage that you know of ?” Frank asked.
“Not down here, but I know that’s what opened those two craters at the summit. Keeps all the geologists hyped up too. They got tracking equipment scattered all over the place. Talked to a couple up by Dog’s Head. They say that there bulge to the subpeak happened in the last eruption, ’bout a hundred years ago. Now it’s swelling again. Been avalanches, too. ’Course, everyone you talk to has a different theory.” Harry shook his head. “Near as I can tell, they’re all guessing what’ll happen next, just like the rest of us.” He picked up a half-grown black cat and cuddled the animal under his chin, all the while stroking the soft fur. “The only thing I know for sure is that I sure ain’t leaving.”
“I get the point, Harry.” Frank pulled himself upright. He hadn’t felt so relaxed in a long time, a mighty long time. “But we’d better get ourselves back down that road. I’ve done my duty, the most pleasurable part of my duty. Next time I come, you need anything?”
“Na. When you coming?”
Frank switched his gaze to meet the questioning look in Jenn’s eyes. “The next time the mountain decides to show herself. She’s what this photographer friend of ours came to see. You don’t suppose she made the trek clear across the continent to have a drink or two with a couple of old has-beens like us, do you?”
“Speak for yourself, you young pup. I gotta lot of living yet in this old hide of mine. You just get yourselves up here, and I’ll walk your legs right into the ground. You’ll get some real pictures, gal, you stick with old Harry.”
Jenn laughed as she shook her head. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“I’ll bring in those cases of Coke.” Frank slipped his down vest back on.
“You think I can’t carry in my own drinks?” Harry puffed up like a bantamweight prizefighter.
“Stow it, Harry. Sig would chew you in pieces if you opened that door. You know that.”
Water beaded and ran in rivulets down his vest by the time Frank set the two cases of Coke on the counter. He shook the drops off his felt hat.
“Pouring harder than ever. Keeps up very long, and we’ll have more flooding. The Toutle’s a mess already. Come on, lady, let’s hit the road before it
“Thanks, Harry. These have been the best hours I’ve spent in a long time.”
“Don’t wait so long, girl.” Harry walked them to the door. “See you, sheriff. You keep all those gawkers away now, you hear. Don’t let old Harry make a penny up here. My boats are gonna rot out with no one to rent them. And what’s a lodge without guests? That’s right. You and old Dixie Lee. Keep an honest man from earning an honest living.”
“Maybe it’ll all calm down by the time fishing season opens. Then you’ll really be in the bucks.”
“Yeah, and overrun by all them sightseers.”
Frank snorted as he swung open the door. “Can’t have it both ways, old man.”
“Nope, just wish we was back the way it was. I’ve had a good life here. The best.” Harry stared at his boot toes a moment. “See you soon?”
“Soon.” Jenn gripped his hand. “Very soon.”
Frank and Jenn dove for the Blazer, both of them laughing as they ducked their heads against the squall that tried to wrest the car door from Frank’s grasp. Jenn threw herself up to the seat just as Sig leaped into the back, his tail brushing across her face. She sputtered, wiping both dog hair and raindrops off her chin, then honked the horn at Harry when she realized the fogged windshield prevented him from seeing her wave.
Frank honked again as he backed the truck and turned to head down the loopy road. Beautiful it was any time of year, but treacherous would be more likely today. Good thing he had four-wheel drive. They might need it.
His concern proved unfounded when they pulled into the Toutle parking lot, an hour and a half later. The river had nearly crested the road in a couple of places, but Highway 504 was holding its own. Both Frank and Jenn had retreated to their inner dungeons as they returned to civilization, neither of them speaking for the final twenty-five miles.
“Thanks for the ride.” Jenn picked up her pack, prepared to step out.
Her teeth clenched on some of the choice words she’d been rehearsing to deliver. Instead she went with her heart. “If you ever want, I mean, need to talk about what happened, I’ve been told I’m a good listener.” Besides, I’m your friend from those eons ago.
“You get some rest,” he ordered, eyes straight ahead. “And for heaven’s sake, eat.”
“Who do you think you are?” She bit off each word precisely. “My keeper?”
“By the looks of you, somebody’d better be.”
She let the slam of the door answer for her. And see if I offer again. Ha! her inner voice added. Sometimes only the wounded recognized each other.