Excerpt

The Current

Tim Johnston

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Current, by Tim Johnston, whose short story collection Irish Girl won an O. Henry Prize and whose acclaimed novel Descent is about a young girl who disappears in the Rocky mountains. Here, two young women are plunged into an icy Minnesota river, unearthing the decade-old murder of another young woman killed in the same way.

At the front desk they told him she was in the ICU but when he got there they told him she’d been moved to the third floor, and when he got up there the girl at the desk said visiting hours were over and she was sorry but there was nothing she could do, he’d have to come back in the morning.

Gordon stood looking down at the young woman in her chair. Her large brown eyes. A hundred small eight braids drawn back from her temples and collected in a thick snakeball on top of her head. “MONIQUE ROSE,” said her ID.

“What about the father?” Gordon said, and the young woman’s brows bunched up.

“Sir?”

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“Can the father go in there?”

“Into her room? Yes, of course he can. But you are not the father.”

“How do you know?”

“Pardon me?”

“How do you know I’m not him?”

The young woman turned her face a little to one side and spoke carefully. “Because I’ve seen him? Because I know him by sight?”

“You know him by sight.”

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“Yes, sir.”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“Sir, I’m not sure I understand—”

“Did you see him tonight?”

“Yes, sir, but … ”

She looked Gordon up and down. She was looking for some evidence of his authority, of his right to ask her such questions. He could see that she found none.

“Look,” he said more gently. “I drove all the way up here and all I’m asking now is can you go tell him that I’m here, and that I’d like to talk to him?”

“Tell who?”

“The father. Her father.”

The young woman said nothing. Her mind was working.

“He might be sleeping,” she said, and Gordon looked at her. He tried to give her a smile.

“Trust me,” he said. “He’s not sleeping.”

He took a seat in one of the plastic chairs and sat staring at nothing, the opposite wall, the TV up in the corner, and he stared at the dark screen of the TV for a long while before he realized that the man sitting back in its gloom, as if in another room altogether, or another world, must be himself; when he got out of his jacket in the overheated room, the man in the TV got out of his too. Some minutes later another man came into the image of the room, and into the room itself, and except that he was waiting for this man, expecting to see this man and no other come around the corner, Gordon would not have recognized him, and not because the man wasn’t in uniform. He saw what he’d already known but would have known anyway in that first glance, which was that this man coming toward him was not well. Considerably down in weight, his flannel shirt hang­ing on him as it would on a hanger, and when Gordon stood he saw that the man had grown shorter too, as old men do, though this man was a good five years younger than Gordon himself. And yet when the man put out his hand, Gordon was surprised by the strength of the grip. Surprised by the blueness of the eyes too, down in the wells of their sockets, blue and sharp as ever.

“Gordon,” said the man in that same rough smoker’s voice.

“Sheriff,” said Gordon. “How is she?”

“She’s OK. She’s busted-up some, but she’s gonna be all right.”

The man, Tom Sutter, passed his jacket from one hand to the other and stood looking at Gordon, Gordon looking at him. Sutter’s face so thin now. His hair, gone purely white, looked as if it would blow from his skull in a strong wind, like milkweed seeds. The man was sick and there was nothing to say about that. It was too big a thing to ever say aloud.

The young woman behind the desk sat watching them. Light tubes hummed in the ceiling. Machines beeped behind doors.

Sutter raised the jacket and said, “Well, you’re here, Gordon. Do you care to join a man for a smoke?”

***

They had the shelter to themselves and they stood in its weak light, Sutter smoking and Gordon blowing into his hands. He put his hands back into his jacket pockets. Sutter was watching him.

“I saw it on the news, is why I drove up here,” Gordon said.

Sutter flicked the ash from his cigarette, raining tiny embers that flared out before they hit the ground. “She’s hardly been awake two minutes,” he said. “I’m not even sure what in the hell happened down there, except that she’s alive, and her friend isn’t.”

“She’s hardly been awake two minutes,” he said. “I’m not even sure what in the hell happened down there, except that she’s alive, and her friend isn’t.”

Gordon looked down and toed his boot in the thin remains of ice. “I figured it was too soon to see her,” he said. “But I came anyway.”

Sutter blew smoke and was silent.

“I remember when she was just a little girl,” Gordon said. “I remember seeing her sitting there in the cruiser that day. She couldn’t have been more than six years old.” He looked up again. Sutter was looking at the building.

“No, she’s nineteen now,” Sutter said, “so she must’ve been nine back then. She’d been sick at school that day and I had to take her with me.” He turned back to Gordon. “I was always sorry about that.”

“I knew you had your reasons. But, hell, seeing her there, just sitting there, waiting for you to come back to the car. I never did forget that.”

Sutter took a pull on his cigarette and blew the smoke.

“I won’t stand here and tell you I understand, now, Gordon, what you went through. Because I don’t. These situations, our situations, they aren’t the same, not even close. I know how God damn lucky I am—how lucky she is.” He shook his head. “I never could imagine what you were going through. And I can’t imagine what those folks down in Georgia are going through right now. A young woman like that. A daughter…” He coughed, then turned his face and coughed again, from the lungs, wet and ragged. He took a step away and spat, and stepped back and dropped his cigarette down the plastic throat of the receptacle.

“Well,” he said. “I best be getting back.”

“On the news they said there might of been a second vehicle,” Gordon said, and Sutter’s right hand, raised for shaking, lowered again.

“I don’t know what bigmouth said that,” he said, “but if he was one of mine we’d have us some kind of talk.”

Gordon watched the ex-sheriff’s face. His eyes. As he’d always watched them. What does this man know that he isn’t telling me? What right does any man have to know something about my daughter’s death that I don’t know?

“I know it’s none of my goddam business, Sheriff,” Gordon said.

Sutter shook his head again. “There’s just nothing I can tell you, Gordon. Like I said, she’s hardly been awake two minutes. I’m not sure she even knows where she’s at yet. I don’t think she knows about her friend. I called in some favors just to keep the cops off her a while longer, until she’s out of the woods. And I tell myself it doesn’t really matter right now anyway. Tell myself that all that matters is that she’s going to be OK.” He looked to the sky. “And I tell myself that all that matters to those folks down in Georgia right now is that they get their daughter home so they can begin to do what they have to do. But I don’t know. I don’t know what they need from me. I don’t know what they need from my daughter.”

“Hell, Sheriff,” said Gordon, “you’re not even close to knowing.”

Sutter watched him. “Meaning?”

Gordon shook his head. His heart was thumping in his neck vein. He thought he could put his fist through something.

“Meaning,” he said, “grief is just about the smallest part of it, Sheriff. Meaning if it turns out there’s some person out there who had something to do with this, and that son of a bitch just goes on living his life—?” Gordon swallowed. He was choking. Sutter standing there watching him.

“That man down in Georgia,” Gordon said, “that girl’s father? Hell, he ain’t even the same man anymore, Sheriff. He’s already some other man.”

Sutter had not looked away as Gordon spoke, and Gordon saw a light come on in those eyes, bluer than before. Brighter. But whatever was behind the light, whatever he was thinking about saying, Sutter said nothing.

You dont have to say it, went Gordon’s own mind. You can just turn around now and go back home. Saying it won’t change a God damn thing for anyone and you know it.

“Tell you one more thing, Sheriff,” he said, “and then I’ll let you get back up to your girl.”

Sutter waited.

“The things I called you when you let that boy go, when you just let him walk away? Those words weren’t nothin’ compared to what I wanted to happen to you. I knew you’d lost your wife. I knew you knew something about loss. But this thing that happened to you here, with your daughter—I wished it on you. I wanted you to know what that was like. I’m sorry I wished it, and I’m glad your girl’s OK—but I did wish it, back then.”

“But this thing that happened to you here, with your daughter—I wished it on you. I wanted you to know what that was like.”

Sutter was silent. Then he said, “I have to say you picked one hell of a time to tell me that, Gordon. With my daughter lying in that hospital room and that other girl in a box on her way to Georgia.”

“When would be a good time?”

“How about never? Did you think about that?”

“I did,” Gordon said. “I thought about it hard.” He looked down at the concrete, the crystals of salt. He ground at them with his boot sole, and the gritty crushing sound was the only sound. “But I just kept asking myself: What would Sheriff Sutter do differently now, if it was his girl instead of that other one who didn’t make it? What would he do for himself that he didn’t do for me?”

He looked up again and the two men stood watching each other, their breaths smoking between them.

“If you’re waiting for an answer to that,” Sutter said, “you’re gonna wait a long time, Gordon. All I know right now is my daughter’s OK. She’s alive. Jesus Christ—” he said, but then looked away. He took a breath and blew a long white cloud into the stars, as if to rid himself once and for all of whatever it was inside him—his cancer, maybe. The poisonous little cloud drifting through space with all the other gases and junk up there.

“I’m just as sorry today as I was back then, Gordon,” he said finally, like a man done talking. “I never stopped being sorry and I never will. There just wasn’t a God damn thing I could do.”

“I know,” said Gordon. “That’s what you cold me ten years ago.” Gordon offered his hand then, and Sutter stood looking at it.

“I just came up here to tell you I’m glad she’s OK, Sheriff. I’m sorry as hell about that other girl, but I’m glad your girl’s OK. I mean that.”

Sutter said nothing. Finally he shook Gordon’s hand. Then he stood watch­ing as the man walked off toward the parking lot, as he climbed into his van and turned over the engine and backed out of his spot. He watched until the red taillights had disappeared into the darkness, and when he was alone again he got another cigarette to his lips, and he fished up his Zippo and he stood turning it in his fingers, the old familiar weight of it, before at last flicking it open and flicking the flint wheel once and raising the flame to his face.

__________________________________

From THE CURRENT. Used with the permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2019 by Tim Johnston.




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