Two days later, the kid comes back. Since the day has brightened up after a rainy start, Cal and his desk are back out in the garden. He finished off the drawer runners last time, so he’s moving on to the nest of cubbyholes inside the drop front. The pieces of wood that make them up are delicate, dadoed together in an intricate jigsaw, and several of them are broken. Cal lays the desk on its back on a drop sheet and takes photos of the whole contraption on his phone before he carefully works the broken pieces free, loosening old glue with a scalpel blade, and starts measuring them for replacements.
He’s finishing up the first one, chiseling the last of the dado that will slot it snugly into place, when he hears twigs cracking. This time he doesn’t need to play any games. The kid pushes through the hedge and stands there watching, hands in the pockets of his hoodie.
“Morning,” Cal says. The kid nods.
“Here,” Cal says, holding out the piece of wood and a sheet of sand‑ paper.
The kid comes over and takes them out of his hand without hesitation. He seems to have refiled Cal from Dangerous Unknown to Non‑ threatening Known since they last saw each other, the way a dog will, based on some mysterious judgment process of his own. His jeans are damp to the shins from walking through wet grass.
“This part’s gonna be visible,” Cal says, “so we’re gonna be a little bit pickier about it. When you’ve finished with that sandpaper, I’ll give you a finer one.”
Trey examines the piece of wood he’s holding, then the splintered original on the table. Cal points to its gap among the cubbyholes. “Goes here.”
“We’ll stain it to match. That comes later.”
Trey nods. He squats on the grass, a few feet from the drop sheet, and gets to work.
Cal starts penciling out the next piece of wood, positioning himself so he can look the kid over, in glances. The hoodie is clearly a hand‑me‑ down, and one big toe is poking out through a hole in his sneaker. He’s poor. It’s more than that, though. Cal has seen plenty of kids poorer than this one who were ferociously well cared for, but nobody has been checking that this kid’s neck is scrubbed clean or patching his worn‑ out knees. He appears to get fed, more or less, but not a lot beyond that. Leftover raindrops tick in the hedges; small birds hop and peck in the grass. Cal saws, measures, chisels out dadoes and grooves, and gives Trey the fine sandpaper when he’s done with the coarse one. He can feel the kid glancing at him, the same way he was glancing at the kid, assessing. He whistles softly to himself, here and there, but this time he doesn’t talk. It’s the kid’s turn.
He appears to have picked the wrong kid for that: Trey has no problem with silence. He finishes the shelf to his satisfaction, brings it over to Cal and holds it out.
“Good,” Cal says. “Have another. I’m gonna wax this one up here and here, see? and then fit it in where it belongs.”
Trey hovers for a minute or two, watching Cal rub wax along the dadoes, and then drifts back to his spot and starts sanding again. The rhythm has changed, though, got faster and less neat. The first shelf was to prove himself. Now that that’s done, there’s something else moving around in his mind, looking for an exit.
Cal ignores that. He kneels by the desk, lines up the shelf and starts gently hammer‑tapping it into its grooves.
Trey says, behind him, “I heard you’re a cop.”
Cal nearly hammers his thumb. He’s been careful to keep that piece of information to himself, going off his experience with the people around his grandpa’s place in backwoods North Carolina, to whom being a cop as well as a stranger would not have been a big plus. He has no idea how anyone could have found out. “Who said that?”
Trey shrugs, sanding.
“Maybe next time don’t listen to them.”
“I look like a cop to you?”
Trey surveys him, squinting against the light. Cal looks back. He knows the answer is no. That was one of the points of the beard, and the overgrown hair: no more looking like a cop, and no more feeling like a cop. More like Sasquatch, Donna would have said, grinning, twisting a lock around her finger to tug it.
“Nah,” Trey says. “Well then.”
“You are, but.”
By now Cal has made up his mind: no point playing games if people already know. He considers a deal—you tell me where you heard, I’ll answer your questions—but he decides it wouldn’t fly. The kid is curious, but not enough to rat on his own. Deals need to wait a while longer. “Was,” he says. “Not any more.”
Trey examines him. “You’re not that old.”
The kid doesn’t smile. Apparently he doesn’t do sarcasm. “Why’d you retire, so?”
Cal goes back to the desk. “Things just got shittier. Or seems like.” He wonders too late about cussing, but the kid doesn’t seem shocked, or even startled. He just waits.
“People got mad. Seemed like just about everyone was mad.”
Cal considers this, tapping at the corner of the shelf. “Black people got mad about being treated like crap. Bad cops got mad ’cause they were getting called on their shit all of a sudden. Good cops got mad ’cause they were the bad guys when they hadn’t done anything.”
“Were you a good cop or a bad cop?”
“I aimed to be a good one,” Cal says. “But everyone would say that.” Trey nods. “Did you get mad?”
“I got weary,” Cal says. “Bone‑weary.” He did. Every morning got to be like waking up with the flu, knowing he had to trek miles up a mountain.
“So you retired.”
The kid runs his finger along the wood, checking, and goes back to sanding. “Why’d you come here?”
“No one ever moves here,” Trey says, like he’s pointing out the obvious to a moron. “Only away.”
Cal jiggles the shelf a quarter‑inch farther in; it’s a tight fit, which is good. “I was sick of shitty weather. You guys don’t get snow or heat, not what we’d call, anyway. And I’d had enough of cities. Round here is cheap. And good fishing.”
Trey watches him, unblinking gray eyes, skeptical. “I heard you got fired ’cause you shot someone. On the job, like. And you were going to get arrested. So you ran.”
Cal did not see this one coming. “Who said that?” Shrug.
Cal considers his options. “I never shot anyone,” he says, truthfully, in the end.
“Ever. You watch too much TV.”
Trey keeps watching him. The kid doesn’t blink enough. Cal is starting to fear for his corneal health.
“You don’t believe me, Google me. Something like that, it’d be all over the internet.”
“Don’t have a computer.” “Phone?”
The corner of Trey’s mouth twists: nah.
Cal takes his phone out of his pocket, unlocks it and tosses it onto the grass in front of Trey. “Here. Calvin John Hooper. The signal is shit, but it’ll get there in the end.”
Trey doesn’t pick up the phone. “What?”
“Might not be your real name.”
“Jesus, kid,” Cal says. He leans over for the phone and puts it back in his pocket. “Believe what you want. You gonna sand that, or not?”
Trey goes back to sanding, but Cal can tell from the rhythm that he’s not done. Sure enough, after a minute he asks, “Were you any good?”
“Pretty good. I got the job done.”
“Were you a detective?”
“Yeah. The last while.”
“Property crime. Burglary, mostly.” He gets the sense, from Trey’s look, that this is a letdown. “And fugitive apprehension, for a while. Tracking down people who were trying to hide from us.”
That gets a swift flash of a glance. Apparently Cal’s stock has gone back up. “How?”
“Bunch of ways. Talk to their relatives, buddies, girlfriends, boy‑ friends, whatever they’ve got. Watch their homes, the places they like to hang out. Check if their bank cards get used anywhere. Tap some phones, maybe. Depends.”
Trey is still watching him intently. His hand has stopped moving.
It’s occurred to Cal that he may have found his explanation for what the kid is doing here. “You want to be a detective?”
Trey gives him the moron look. Cal gets a kick out of this look, which is the kind you would give the idiot kid in your class who just fell for the rubber cookie yet again. “Me?”
“No, your great‑gramma. Yeah, you.” Trey says, “What time is it?”
Cal checks his watch. “Almost one.” And when the kid keeps looking at him: “You hungry?”
Trey nods. “Lemme see what I’ve got,” Cal says, putting down the hammer and getting to his feet. His knees crack. He feels like forty‑ eight shouldn’t be old enough for your body to make noises at you. “You allergic to anything?”
The kid gives him a blank look, like he was speaking Spanish, and shrugs.
“You eat peanut butter sandwiches?” Nod.
“Good,” Cal says. “That’s about as fancy as I get. Finish that off meanwhile.”
He half‑expects the kid to be gone when he comes back out with the food, but he’s still there. He glances up and holds out the piece of wood for Cal’s inspection.
“Looking good,” Cal says. He passes the kid a plate, and pulls a carton of orange juice from under his arm and his mugs from the pockets of his hoodie. Probably he should be giving a growing kid milk, but he drinks his coffee black, so he doesn’t have any.
They sit on the grass and eat in silence. The sky is a dense cool blue; yellow leaves are starting to come off the trees, lying lightly on the grass. Off over Dumbo Gannon’s farm, a cloud of birds swoops through impossible, shifting geometries.
Trey eats in big wolfish bites, with an intentness that makes Cal glad he fixed him two sandwiches. When he’s done, he downs his juice without pausing for breath.
“You want some more?” Cal asks.
Trey shakes his head. “I have to go,” he says. He puts down the glass and wipes his mouth on his sleeve. “Can I come back tomorrow?”
Cal says, “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Yeah you should. How old are you?”
The kid evaluates him for a moment. “Thirteen,” he says. “Then yeah you should.”
“Whatever,” Cal says, as it suddenly occurs to him. “Not my problem. You want to skip school, knock yourself out.”
When he looks over, Trey is smiling, just a little bit. It’s the first time Cal has seen him do that, and it’s as startling as catching a baby’s first smile, seeing an unsuspected new person breaking through.
“What?” he asks.
“A cop’s not supposed to say that.”
“Like I told you. I’m not a cop any more. I don’t get paid to hassle you.”
“But,” Trey says, the smile vanishing. “Can I come here? I’ll help with this. And the staining. All of it.”
Cal looks at him. That urgency is back in his body, poorly concealed, hunching his shoulders forwards and pinching his face.
After a moment Trey says, “ ’Cause. I wanta learn how.”
“I’m not gonna pay you.” The kid could clearly use some cash, but even if Cal had any to spare, he doesn’t plan on being the stranger who hands out money to young boys.
Cal considers the possible ramifications. He reckons that if he says no, Trey will go back to lurking. Cal prefers him visible, at least until he works out what the kid wants. “Why not,” he says. “I could use a hand.”
Trey lets out his breath and nods. “OK,” he says, getting to his feet. “See you tomorrow.”
He brushes off his jeans and heads for the road with a long, spring‑ kneed woodsman’s lope. On his way past the rookery he tosses a rock up into the branches, with a hard wrist‑whip from a pretty good arm, and tilts his head back to watch as the rooks explode in all directions and cuss him to hell and back again.
After Cal washes up the lunch things, he heads for the village. Noreen knows everything and talks a blue streak—Cal figures these are two of the real reasons why she doesn’t get along with Mart, who likes to have a monopoly in those areas. If he can aim her in the right direction, she might give him an idea where Trey popped up from.
Noreen’s shop packs a lot into a little space. It’s floor‑to‑ceiling with shelves crammed with the essentials of life—tea bags, eggs, chocolate bars, scratch cards, dish soap, baked beans, batteries, jam, tinfoil, ketchup, firelighters, painkillers, sardines—and a variety of things, like golden syrup and Angel Delight, that Cal doesn’t understand but has ambitions to try if he can work out what to do with them. It has a little fridge for milk and meat, a basket of depressed‑looking fruit, and a ladder so Noreen, who’s about five foot one, can reach the high shelves. The shop smells of all those things, with a strong underlay of some uncompromising disinfectant straight out of 1950.
When Cal pushes open the door with a cheerful bell‑ding, Noreen is up the ladder, dusting jars and humming along to some cheesy young guy on the radio aiming for a hoedown feel. Noreen favors tops with explosive flowers and has short brown hair set in such tight curls that it looks like a helmet.
“Wipe your boots, I’m only after washing the floor,” she orders. Then, noticing Cal properly: “Ah, ’tis yourself! I was hoping you’d call in today. I’ve that cheese in that you like. I’ve been keeping a packet back for you, because Bobby Feeney does like it as well, and he’d buy the lot on me and leave you with nothing. He’d eat it like a chocolate bar, that fella. He’ll have himself a heart attack one of these days.”
Cal wipes his boots obediently. Noreen comes down the ladder, pretty nimbly for a round woman. “And come here to me,” she says, waving her dust cloth at Cal, “I’ve a surprise for you. There’s someone I want you to meet.” She calls through the door into the back room: “Lena! Come out here!”
After a moment a woman’s voice, husky and firm, calls back, “I’m making the tea.”
“Leave the tea and come here. Bring that cheese out of the fridge, the one in the black packet. Do I have to come in and get you?”
There’s a pause, in which Cal thinks he catches an exasperated sigh. Then there’s movement in the back room, and a woman comes out holding a packet of cheddar.
“Now,” Noreen says triumphantly. “This is my sister Lena. Lena, this is Cal Hooper that’s after moving in up at O’Shea’s place.”
Lena isn’t what Cal expected. From what Mart said, he was picturing a beefy, raw‑red six‑footer with a voice like a cow’s bellow, bran‑ dishing a frying pan menacingly. Lena is tall, all right, and she has meat on her bones, but in a way that makes Cal picture her hillwalking, rather than hitting someone upside the head. She’s a couple of years younger than him, with a thick fair ponytail and a broad‑cheekboned, blue‑eyed face. She’s wearing old jeans and a loose blue sweater.
“Pleasure,” Cal says, offering his hand.
“Cal the cheddar fan,” Lena says. She has a firm shake. “I’ve heard plenty about you.”
She gives him a quick wry grin and hands over the cheese. He grins back. “Same here.”
“I’d say you have, all right. How’re you getting on in O’Shea’s?
Keeping you busy?”
“I’m doing OK,” Cal says. “But I can see why nobody else wanted to take it on.”
“There’s not a lot of people looking to buy houses, round here. Most of the young people take off for the city as soon as they can. They only stay if they’re working the family farm, or if they like the country.”
Noreen has her arms folded under her bosom and is watching the two of them with a maternal approval that makes Cal itchy. Lena, hands in her jeans pockets and one hip leaned up against the counter, doesn’t appear to give a damn. She has an unforced stillness to her, and a direct gaze, that are hard to look away from. Mart was right about this much: you would know she was there.
“You stuck around, huh?” Cal says. “You in farming?”
Lena shakes her head. “I was. I sold the farm when my husband died, just kept the house. I’d had enough.”
“So you just like the country.”
“I do, yeah. The city wouldn’t suit me. Hearing other people’s noise all day and all night.”
“Cal was in Chicago, before,” Noreen puts in.
“I know,” Lena says, with an amused tilt to her eyebrow. “So what are you doing here?”
Part of Cal is tugging him to pay for his cheese and take off, before Noreen calls in a priest to marry them on the spot. On the other hand, he came here today for a purpose, besides which he’s out of a bunch of stuff. Complicating this is the fact that he can’t remember the last time he was in a room with a woman he liked the idea of talking to, and he’s unsure whether this is a point in favor of sticking around or of getting the hell out of Dodge.
“Guess I just like the country too,” he says.
Lena still has the amused look. “A lot of people think they do, till they go full‑time. Come back to me after a winter here.”
“Well,” Cal says, “I’m not exactly a tenderfoot. I lived out in the backwoods off and on, when I was a kid. I figured I’d settle right back in, but looks like I’ve been in the city longer than I thought.”
“What’s getting you? Not enough to do? Or not enough people to do it with?”
“Nope,” Cal says, grinning a little sheepishly. “I’ve got no problem with either one of those. But I’ve gotta admit, I get a little jumpy at night, with no one close enough to notice if any trouble came calling.” Lena laughs. She has a good laugh, forthright and throaty. Noreen snorts. “Ah, God love you. You’ll be used to all them armed robberies and mass shootings.” The beady glance confirms for Cal that she knows about his job, not that he doubted her. “We’ve none of that round here.” “Well, I didn’t reckon you would have,” Cal says. “What I had in mind was more like bored kids looking for entertainment. There was a crew of us that used to mess with the neighbors: prop up trash cans full of water against someone’s door and then knock and run, or else fill up a big potato‑chip bag with shaving cream and slide the open end under the door, and then stomp on it. Dumb stuff like that.” Lena is laughing again. “I figured a stranger might get a little bit of that treatment. But I guess, like you said, the young people don’t stick around. Seems like I’m the only person under fifty for miles. Present company excepted.”
Noreen jumps right on that. “Will you listen to him, making us out to be God’s waiting room! Sure, this townland’s got plenty of young people. I’ve four myself—but they don’t be going out making trouble, they know I’d redden their arses if they did. And Senan and Angela have four as well, and the Moynihans have their young lad, and the O’Connors have three, but they’re all grand young people, not a bother out of them—”
“And Sheila Reddy’s got six,” Lena says. “Most of them still at home. That enough for you?”
Noreen’s mouth pinches up. “If you did have any trouble,” she tells Cal, “it’d be from that lot.”
“Yeah?” Cal says. He scans the shelves and picks himself out a can of corn. “They bad news?”
“Sheila’s poor,” Lena says. “Is all.”
“It costs nothing to teach a child manners,” Noreen snaps, “or get it to school. And every time those childer do come in here, there’s some‑ thing missing after. Sheila says I can’t prove it, but I know what’s in my own shop, and—” She remembers Cal, who is peacefully comparing chocolate bars, and stops. “Sheila’d want to get her head on straight,” she says.
“Sheila does what she can with what she’s got,” Lena says. “Like the rest of us.” To Cal she says, “I used to pal around with her, in school. We were wild then. Getting out our windows at night to go drinking in fields with the lads. Hitching lifts into town to the discos.”
“Sounds like you were the teenagers I worry about,” Cal says.
That gets another laugh from her. “Ah, no. We never did any dam‑ age to anyone except ourselves.”
“Sheila did herself damage, all right,” Noreen says. “Look what she got out of all that messing. Johnny Reddy and six just like him.”
“Johnny was a fine thing, back then,” Lena says, with a lift at the corner of her mouth. “I shifted him once or twice myself.”
Noreen tuts. “At least you’d more sense than to marry him.”
Cal decides on a Mint Crisp bar and puts it on the counter. “The Reddys live near enough to me that I oughta keep an eye out?” he asks.
“Depends,” Lena says. “How much of a worrier are you?”
“Depends. How close is the trouble?”
“You’re grand. They’re a few miles beyond you, up in the mountains.”
“Sounds good to me,” Cal says. “Johnny a farmer, or what?”
“Who knows what Johnny is,” Lena says. “He went off to London a year or two back.”
“Left Sheila high and dry,” Noreen says, with a mix of condemnation and satisfaction. “Some pal of his over there had a business idea that was going to make the pair of them millionaires, or so he said. I’m not holding my breath, and I hope Sheila’s not either.”
“Johnny was always a great man for the ideas,” Lena says. “Not so great for making them happen. You can relax. Any child of his, a crisp packet full of shaving foam would be more than they could organize.”
“Good to know,” Cal says. He has a feeling that one, at least, of Johnny Reddy’s kids may not take after his daddy.
“Now, Cal,” Noreen says, struck by a thought and pointing her dust cloth at him. “Weren’t you telling me only the other day, you were thinking of getting a dog? And wouldn’t that be the perfect way to put your mind at ease? Listen to me now: Lena’s dog’ll be whelping any day, and she’ll be wanting homes for the pups. Let you go with her now and have a look.”
“She hasn’t whelped yet,” Lena says. “It won’t do him much good staring at her belly.”
“He can see if he likes the cut of her. Go on.”
“Ah, no,” Lena says pleasantly. “I need my cup of tea.” Before Noreen can open her mouth again, she nods to Cal, says, “Nice to meet you,” and is gone into the back room.
“You’ll stay and have a cup of tea with us,” Noreen orders Cal.
“Appreciate it,” Cal says, “but I oughta be getting home. I didn’t take the car, and it looks like rain.”
Noreen gives an offended sniff, turns the radio louder and goes back to dusting, but Cal can tell from the occasional glance she shoots his way that she hasn’t given up that easy. He grabs groceries fast and more or less at random, before she can come up with a fresh scheme. At the last minute, when Noreen is already adding up his bill on the noisy old manual cash register, he throws in a carton of milk.