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19

Hollis has begun to have his dream about the horse again, that awful dream that always wakes him in the middle of the night and leaves him out of breath and sweaty and ready to run. He supposes that you cannot really murder a horse; that is something humans do to each other. You kill a horse, just as you would a cow or a sheep, but somehow its not the same. Its uglier. It gives you nightmares, year in and year out and maybe even for the rest of your life.

If you are going to do it, Hollis knows, do it speedily and in the dark. Plan it out carefully, and be aware of what hours the grooms and the trainers keep. Make certain to get half your money up front, and be sure its a great deal of money. After all, the owner of a dead racehorse stands to collect quite a bit from his insurance company. Thats why hes paying you. All you have to realize is a single indelible fact: Just because you walk away after youve been paid doesnt mean you wont be dreaming about it afterwards, when youre no longer as hungry or as young.

Heres the thing about killing a horse-its screams are far worse than any sound a man can produce. Wear earplugs, work fast; be sure youre done and over the fence before they realize their pain. Its a lot of money for someone with no education and no training and no heart at all. Its a small fortune, if you can stand the way they scream when you shatter their cannon bones and knees with a hammer or a wrench. When you start to have bad dreams, go back and ask for more money from the owners. Dont call it blackmail; its simply an extra payment for a job well done. After all, the horse wasnt running well, and thats what such horses are meant to do. Invest your money wisely, in land and condominiums and the market, and do it before you get hurt, because there will always be a horse who will fight for its life.

That is the one he always dreams about, the last one in Miami, a job so botched the owner never collected, even though the horse had been a Preakness winner and was insured for two million. Horses have hotter blood than humans, thats what Hollis believes, and he was covered with blood by the time he was finished. He had to stand in the shower for hours, and even then the cold water was a pale remedy. That horse, a white thoroughbred, had refused to go down. Hollis had blood under his fingernails and all over his boots; two weeks later, after hed headed back to Massachusetts, he was brushing his teeth in the bathroom of his rented rooms above the Lyon Cafe when he found horses blood in the rim of his ear. A single red thread which couldnt tie him to any crime, and could be easily scrubbed away with a damp washcloth, and yet that mark seems to have been a curse. He still does not like to look at himself in the mirror, for fear hell see blood, and to this day he despises the color red. That horse continues to follow Hollis while he sleeps. He runs in pastures that are as red as blood; he races through guilt and grief. Kill something, and its yours forever. At night, you will be at your victims mercy, but thats only temporary. Dreams, after all, are worthless things-Hollis knows that. They cant reach you on the street where you walk; they can only torment a man with a conscience, any fool who allows it.

Now that the dream is back, Hollis often gets out of bed in the dark. He leaves March sleeping, and goes to sit in Mr. Coopers parlor, in the leather chair where Mr. Cooper liked to relax and smoke his cigars. He watches the light break through the sky above the Farm. Blood buys things and it always has. It was his dream to stand on top of Fox Hill and own everything in sight, and now he has made it all so real that if any trespasser comes by hell find himself hauled off to jail. Its his, the acres of woodland, the houses, the fences, even this chair, where Mr. Cooper liked to read the Sunday paper, unaware that he was being watched through the window by a boy who owned nothing, not even the clothes on his back, which had been paid for out of the goodness of Henry Murrays heart.

Everything you have I own, Alan Murray told Hollis when he came back from his fathers funeral.

Well, hes fixed that, hasnt he? Sitting in the dark, Hollis thinks about his money. He thinks about the woman, asleep in his bed. Why is it he continues to feel so poor? Why is he waiting for March to bolt out the door? Hes been worrying about Richard Cooper, whos not giving up so easily and who has taken to calling. Hollis has been hanging up on him, but sooner or later March will answer the phone, and that wont do. Hell see to it the way hes seen to the mail, so that March hasnt received any responses from the stores that want to sell her work. A woman who has her own money can leave you when you least expect it; she can walk off anytime.

Long before anyone in the house is awake, before Hank has fed the dogs, before Gwen has written a letter to her father or March has set about making a cranberry coffee cake to bring to the Justices Thanksgiving dinner, Hollis has taken care of the phone lines.

Must be some wire down, he says, when March tries to contact Susie to ask if theres anything else she should bring to dinner.

Are you sure you wont go with us? March asks.

Dinner with those old coots? Hollis grins. I dont think so. Ill stick to frozen food.

Hollis has actually encouraged March to take the kids and go to dinner; their absence will give him the chance to look through her suitcase and her dresser drawers to make sure she hasnt managed to receive any letters from Richard before Hollis could retrieve the mail.

I want you to have fun, Hollis tells March. Enjoy yourself. Take Hank-he can eat the Justices out of house and home for a change.

Remember, March says when theyre ready to leave, you can always change your mind and come for dessert.

Ill think about it, Hollis tells her, even though hed rather be tied into a straitjacket than have a meal with the Justices.

Hollis isnt going? Hank asks when March comes out to the car.

Hank is in the backseat, and March hands him the coffee cake. He hates polite society. You know that.

Well, Im sure it hates him right back, Gwen says. Shes sitting in the front seat, with Sister on her lap.

Youre bringing the dog? March asks.

Im not leaving her here.

Hank looks over his shoulder at the house. Maybe I should stay.

Oh, no you dont, Gwen says. Dont you feel sorry for him.

Its not that, Hank insists.

Gwen smiles in spite of herself; its exactly that.

Its a holiday, thats all, Hank says.

Well, youre coming with us, March says. Hollis wants you to. One of the reasons Louise is getting a twenty-five-pound turkey is because Im bringing two teenagers.

When they get to the Justices, Gwen and Hank take Sister for a walk, since March wants the dog to stay in the car during dinner. Actually, its a pleasure for the two of them to be alone in the smoky air, because today everything smells like roasted chestnuts and burning wood and cinnamon wafting from the windows of the bakery, where theyre working overtime to fill holiday orders.

I wish you wouldnt be so concerned about Hollis, Gwen says as they walk past front lawns and fences. Theyve let the dog run on ahead through the last of the fallen leaves, those which havent been blown away or turned into dust. He still hasnt given me the ownership papers for Tarot.

He will, Hank tells her. He keeps his word.

Yeah, right. Ill bet he does.

He does, Hank vows. Youll see.

Hank and Gwen take a longer walk than theyd intended, but the Justices house is crowded even without their presence. Dr. and Mrs. Henderson are there, along with the Laughtons, Harriet and Larry-all of them so polite and stuffy that Hollis would have gone nuts in their presence. The Hendersons daughter Miranda is there, free as a bird since her divorce last spring. Ed Milton has of course been invited, along with his twelve-year-old daughter, Lindsay, as has Janet Travis, the new attorney in town-since a resident of ten years is still considered a recent arrival-and her husband, Mitch, who teaches social studies at the high school.

Where were you this morning? Susie asks, after shes hugged March and taken the coffee cake out of her hands. She cant help but wonder if March knows that some of the white in her hair has grown in; March looks older with her hair like this, and her face seems drawn. Ive been trying to call you to ask you to pick up some eggnog. Susie lifts the foil and peers at the cake. Cranberry, she says. Yum.

I was home. March hangs up her coat and follows Susie into the Justices kitchen. Baking that cake.

Well, I called and called and no one ever answered. Susie pours them each a glass of red wine. Do you believe how many old folks are out there?

Ed Miltons not old. March samples the sweet potato casserole cooling on the counter. Hes cute.

Dont get all excited, Susie tells her. Its not serious.

Louise Justice comes into the kitchen, catching that last bit of conversation. Thats what Susie always says. Youd think she was a frivolous person, if you didnt know her better.

Heres a drawback, Susie says. His daughter hates me. If she keeps being so nasty, Im going to be nasty right back.

Shes twelve, Louise says. In six years shell be off to college and youll see her at Christmas vacation if youre lucky. And for now, she lives with her mother in New York. They moved to Roslyn, out on Long Island, this past summer, and Lindsay likes seventh grade a lot more than she thought she would.

Susie and March both give Louise a look.

I didnt pry, Louise swears. Lindsay volunteered the information. Which she would with you too, she tells Susie. If you gave her the chance.

Louise now sets them to work. March is to ladle corn chowder from the pot into a tureen. Susie is to remove the oyster stuffing from the cooling turkey.

I guess Hollis decided not to show, Susie says. Surprise, surprise.

Hes opted for a frozen dinner and peace and quiet, March says.

At least he let you come, Susie says.

You wouldnt have wanted him here, considering how you feel. Both of you. March is looking straight at Louise.

I told her about your theory, Susie admits to her mother. About Hollis and Belinda. Im sorry.

Im glad you did, Louise says.

You are? Susie is surprised and rather relieved.

I am, although I know that March will make her own choices no matter what we say. Wont you, dear?

Thats right, March agrees. So Id appreciate you butting out, unless youre willing to let me take over your lives.

Touch'e, Louise says.

Susie pours herself and March more red wine, and gets some cold Chablis from the fridge for her mother. Louise nods and takes a sip of wine. Sometimes, in the old days, the Murrays would bring Judith Dale with them when invited to the Justices holiday dinners. Judith would bring her special dishes: her apple brown Betty, her green beans with almonds, her onion soup with its delicious, thick crust. She worked well beside Louise in the kitchen, and Louise always told the Judge how lucky the Murrays had been to find Judith. Why, one year, before she knew anything, she sat Judith next to the Judge, and if shed been more observant she would have noticed that neither of them spoke a word throughout that dinner, as if proximity and desire had made them mute. For all Louise knows, they may have been holding hands under the table all through dinner. She does remember how surprised and pleased she was when the Judge offered to help Judith clear the table, since he usually didnt think to attend to household chores.

Are you okay, Mom? Susie asks as she slips the bowl of stuffing into the oven to keep warm.

Louise has a house full of guests and shes standing there, doing nothing, with a glass of wine in her hand.

Perfectly fine, Louise says.

She goes to help March take out the soup bowls from a high cabinet. Every time March reaches for a bowl that emerald ring which used to belong to Judith shimmers, as if it were made of some mysterious liquid. Louise tells herself shed better snap out of her reverie and stop the self-pity; a ring, after all, is not a heart, its not a soul or a husband beside you in bed every night. Its a rock thats only worth something in the first place because someone has decided to give it value.

The Judge now comes in. Theres the turkey, he says. His one holiday task: to carve. Louise has left out the knife he likes best and the large silver fork which belonged to her mother.

As usual, the Judge is wearing a suit and tie; he seems much too tall for the kitchen. He carves the turkey, teasing the women as they travel back and forth to the dining room, bringing out platters of food. Hes the same man whos stood here in Louises kitchen every Thanksgiving, but today something is different. The Judges hands shake as he carves. Its a slight tremor, so mild no one would notice, except Louise.

When the Judge is done with the turkey, he goes to wash his hands. From the window above the sink, he can look into the yard. Well, well, he says when he spies Gwen and Hank out there. The reluctant guests?

They dont consider adults to be human, March jokes.

Ill lasso them, the Judge says. Ill offer food, that should do the trick.

As he goes out, a cold blast of air rips through the kitchen. The Judge is so tall he has to crouch to maneuver past the branches of a peach tree Louise planted in the first year of their marriage. This was the Judges parents house until the older Justices retired to Florida; Bill grew up here and Louise often thought of that when she was tempted to throw him out. She simply couldnt imagine him living anywhere else. And anyway, its too late to think about such matters. Whats done is done.

Youre sure youre okay? Susie now asks her.

Louise moves her hand to her face, as if smoothing something out. Susie and March both look concerned. Louise must have slipped and shown them a bit of her pain. She must have let something through.

A touch of the virus, Louise says. Absolutely nothing.

The three women stand by the back door and look out. The terrier is in a pile of leaves, chewing on a stick, while Hank and Gwen whisper to each other.

Everybody inside, they hear the Judges voice call.

The dog starts running toward the Judge as soon as it hears his voice, and has leapt into his arms before the Judge knows what hits him.

Wow, is that dog crazy about you, Hank says. Look at her.

The terrier is making yipping noises as it licks the Judges face.

Stop that, Sister, the Judge says, but he seems extremely pleased to be holding this creature to his chest, in spite of the burrs in its fur and the mud on its feet.

At the door, Louise Justice turns pale. Clearly, this was their dog-his and Judiths-and now, in spite of the chilled wine, Louise has a mouthful of grief. Susie had begged for a dog when she was young, but the Judge had always said no. Too much hair and dirt and fuss.

Mom, Susie says softly. She doesnt understand this-could it be that her mother knows about Judith Dale and the Judge? Maybe youd better get the dog out of here, Susie suggests to March.

Im sorry, March apologizes. She and Susie exchange a worried look. I wasnt thinking. Ill put the dog in the car.

No, Louise says. Dont.

Outside, they can see that the Judge is crouched down; hes scratching the terriers head. These girls in the kitchen, March and Susie, feel sorry for her, Louise is well aware of that. But what do they know about love? You make bargains youd never imagine youd agreed to, and you do it over and over again.

Im fine, Louise says. Well start with the chowder, before it turns to ice.

These girls think in black and white, love or rejection, yes or no. Louise watches the Judge as he makes his way to her back door and she feels the intensity of being together for nearly fifty years. She knows him completely, and not at all. She made her choices, just as March and Susie are doing. Young people believe that regret is something you will never feel if you simply do as you please, but sometimes its a matter of degree. Would Louise have preferred not to have the Judge at her table? Would she have preferred to have raised Susie alone, or have some other man watching TV with her in the evenings, someone easygoing, someone whose affections she could be sure of?

Were sitting down to chowder, Louise tells the Judge when he comes inside.

The Judge has muddy paw prints on his pant legs; the suit will have to be sent to the dry cleaner.

Look at this mess, he says. When he brushes the leaves off his jacket, theres the tremor, in his hands.

Its not so bad, Louise says, cleaning off the lapels. Its a miracle fabric.

The Judge laughs. I can always trust you to perform miracles.

Hardly. Louise snorts. He was charming as a young man, so tall, so much fun in spite of his serious nature. She loved him then and she loves him still. Someone else might have left, but she stayed, and here she is, beside him.

Whats wrong with that daughter of Ed Miltons? the Judge asks. Ive never seen a more sullen child.

He wasnt really there when Susie went through her worst times, at exactly the same age. Susie hated herself and everyone else, but the Judge was too busy to know. He was working, or over at Fox Hill, and maybe Louise was too quick to settle all of the daily details and problems before his car pulled into the driveway.

The poor thing is twelve and shes worried that Susie will be a wicked stepmother, Louise tells the Judge. Im sure it will work out fine.

Hank and Gwen come in now, embarrassed to be late, worried about the dog.

Ill leave my dog in the mudroom, Gwen tells Mrs. Justice. If thats okay.

So its her dog now. The Judge smiles to hear that, and Louise notices he has the look he always has when hes thinking about Judith.

Thats perfectly fine. Although Louise is addressing Gwen, its the Judge shes looking at. Whatever makes you happy.

By the time they finally leave the Justices its late and so cold they see their breath in the air. They have all overeaten, even Sister, who was slipped a plate of turkey and stuffing. Its a dark and beautiful night, dreamy and black, filled with the silhouettes of bare trees.

Thanks for taking me with you, Hank says when they pull up to the Farm. The food was great.

The dogs in the driveway rouse themselves and head over. Hank has brought them a bag full of leftovers which he sets down in the driveway.

I can see why you like him, March says to Gwen.

Gwens got Sister under her arm. Just being with all those normal people tonight has made Gwen realize how much she hates living out here. She watches Hank pet those dreadful dogs, the ones Belinda first took in out of pity.

You dont see anything, Gwen tells her mother.

March stays in the driveway when Gwen goes inside. March has had several glasses of wine and she feels a little tipsy. She had fun tonight, something she hasnt had in quite a while. Finally, she and Hank walk toward the house together, and thats when March realizes that Holliss truck is gone. They go inside and look around, but no one is home.

If youre worried, I could take your car and look for him, Hank offers.

No, March says. Im sure hes fine.

After Hank goes up to bed, March tries to call Susie, to talk about Ed Milton and his daughter, but the phone still isnt working. Maybe the wires have frozen; the house is cold, and outside the temperature is dropping. March makes herself a pot of tea and takes it into the parlor. She can view the driveway from here, and sometime after midnight she spies headlights when Hollis arrives.

Hey, Hollis says when he comes into the parlor and sees March. He grins and takes off his gloves. How was it?

Great, March says. Shes relieved that he smiles, as if there was a right and wrong answer to his question and shes scored correctly. Since Hollis seems to be in a decent mood she dares to venture a question of her own. Where were you?

Me? Hollis sits down in the easy chair across from March. The cold is still on his skin and he rubs his hands together. I took a ride up to Olive Tree Lake, to look at that development going up there and see if I want to buy into the project. Then I drove past the Justices, but the party must have broken up. I guess I missed dessert.

And it was good too. March has the funniest feeling about tonight. Hollis isnt looking at her. He hasnt looked at her once. Youre sure everythings all right?

The only problem is how cold it is in here, Hollis says. The burners not doing the job.

The phones not working either.

Hollis goes to the fireplace and sets out some kindling and two logs. He bends down, one knee in the ashes. He has always found it best not to look at whoever hes lying to, although, in point of fact, nothing hes told March is an outright fabrication. He was up at Olive Tree Lake, true enough; hes simply failed to mention that he was there fucking Alison Hartwig. It wasnt as though he planned it. He drove down to the Red Apple to get a big bag of dog food, and there she was, buying eggnog and soda to bring home to her kids and her mother. He knew he was going to fuck her the minute he saw her; he knew it would be good to fuck someone he didnt give a damn about.

He has always been at Marchs mercy, and thats a problem. His own love for her is an agony. It makes him feel like a beggar, even now, and he cant have that. Let someone else beg. Let Alison Hartwig beg him to fuck her. At least it wont be him down on his knees.

March has come up behind him. She places one hand on his shoulder, and her touch makes him feel like weeping. But he doesnt. Hes not even certain if hes capable of crying. People said that, when his son died-Look at him, has he once cried? Well, maybe he has no tear ducts, or maybe hes not human, but he cant do it, and whats more, he wont.

I missed you tonight, March says.

Hollis reaches to take her hand then, but hes careful not to look at her. He keeps his eyes trained on the fire before him, and he doesnt dare let anything get in his way.


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