Chapter Twenty-eight

Mom’s car was gone from the driveway. The house seemed empty when we entered it, but I called out anyway and got no answer.

“She must’ve gone somewhere,” I muttered. It seemed odd that Mom would leave the house this late in the afternoon.

“Maybe she went to the store,” Slim suggested.

“Maybe.” That didn’t seem likely, since she’d done her grocery shopping that very morning. But maybe she’d forgotten to pick up buns or something, and decided to make a last-minute run.

On the kitchen table, I found a note in Mom’s handwriting.

Honey,

Your father just called from the hospital He has been hurt, but he tells me it is nothing to worry about. I am going to be with him. Don’t know when I’ll be back Go ahead and eat without us. Burgers are in the fridge. I’ll call when I can.

Try not to worry, your dad’s fine.

Love,

Mom

Slim and Rusty watched in silence while I read the message a couple of times. It gave me a cold lump in my stomach. When I finished with it, I said, “My dad’s in the hospital.”

Slim winced. “What’s wrong with him?”

Shaking my head, I handed the note to her. Rusty stepped up close beside her and they read it together.

“He can’t be very bad,” Slim said. “He was in good enough shape to phone your mom.”

“But he can’t be that good,” Rusty said, “or he wouldn’t be at the hospital.”

Scowling, I shook my head.

Slim put down the note. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” I muttered.

“Want us to go away?” Rusty asked.

“No. Huh-uh.” I pulled out a chair and sank onto it. “Why couldn’t Mom tell me what’s wrong with him?”

“She said he’s fine,” Slim pointed out.

“He can’t be fine.”

She picked up the note and stared at it for a while. “Your dad got hurt,” she said, “but he’s fine. That’s what it says.”

“Doesn’t make any sense,” I muttered.

“‘Got hurt,’ ” Slim said. “Your mom wouldn’t have worded it that way if he’d had something like a heart attack. Sounds like maybe he had an accident.”

“Or got shot,” Rusty suggested.

Slim gave him a dirty look. “Whatever happened,” she said, “it’s nothing really serious but he does need some sort of treatment.”

“Why couldn’t she just tell me?” I blurted. “He must’ve told her.”

“I don’t know,” Slim muttered.

“Maybe she thought it’d scare you,” Rusty said.

“But it’s not supposed to scare me not being told?” Slim put her hand on my back. It made me feel better, but not a whole lot. “We don’t have to wait for your mom to call. Why don’t we phone police headquarters? I bet somebody there can tell us what happened.”

I checked the kitchen clock.

“Dolly’ll still be on duty,” I said.

“So?” Slim asked.

I shook my head. Much as I hated the idea of talking to Dolly, I stood up and headed for the wall phone.

Rusty met my eyes. He looked as if he were in pain, himself. “Or you could call the hospital,” he said.

“How do we know which one?” Slim asked.

While the town of Grandville had a hospital of its own, the county hospital over in Clarksburg was better equipped for major emergencies. In nearby Bixton was a Catholic hospital staffed mostly by nuns. People from our area could end up in any one of them, depending on one thing or another.

“Start with the nearest,” Rusty suggested.

“Easier to ask Dolly,” Slim said.

We hadn’t gotten around to telling her about our run-in with the vicious little dispatcher. Under the circumstances, however, I figured Dolly would be sympathetic. Even if she couldn’t stand me, she liked my dad. For good reason; anyone else would’ve fired her a long time ago.

“Guess I’ll call her,” I said.

Just as I reached for the phone, it rang. I jumped and jerked my hand back, my heart pounding like mad.

Before the second ring, I snatched the phone off its hook. Hardly able to breathe, I said, “Hello?”

“Dwight?”

It was a mother, but not mine. And she didn’t sound happy.

“Is Russell there?”

“Yeah. Yes. He’s right here.”

“Please send him home right away.”

“Would you like to talk to him?”

Teeth bared, Rusty put up his hands and shook his head.

“I’ll talk to him when he gets here. As for you, young man, I must say I’m terribly disappointed in you.”

I felt my own lips peel back. My stomach suddenly felt even worse than before.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You ought to be. Elizabeth has always been very fond of you.”

“I’m fond of her, too.”

“You have a strange way of showing it.”

“I’m sorry,” I muttered.

“Send Russell home immediately, please.” With that, she hung up.

Rusty and I stared at each other.

“You’re supposed to go home right away,” I said.

“Shit.”

“Bitsy must’ve told on us.”

“Told you she would, man. Shit. The little bitch.”

“Hey,” Slim said.

“Well, she is. I knew she’d spill her guts.”

“What’d you guys do to her?”

“We sort of ditched her,” I said. “She wanted to go with us to look for you. We tried to talk her out of it, but she wouldn’t

take no for an answer.”

“Always has to have her own way, or she goes crying to mommy, the little twat.”

Slim scowled at him. “Quit it.”

“Anyway,” I said, “I finally said she could come with us but she had to put shoes on. So when she went into the house for her shoes, we took off.”

“That wasn’t very nice,” Slim said.

“I know. But she was being a pest. And anyway, it was for her own good. I mean, we were heading for Janks Field. Do you think we should’ve taken Bitsy to Janks Field?”

“You’ve got a point.”

“So now we’re neck-deep in shit,” Rusty said.

“You’d better get going,” I told him.

“What about you guys?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“We’ll stay here,” Slim said, “and try to find out what’s going on with the chief.”

“What about tonight?”

“You worried about the goddamn vampire show?” Slim blasted him. “Dwight’s dad’s in the hospital, you cretin! Get outa here!”

She hurried ahead of him and opened the kitchen door.

Watching me over his shoulder as he walked toward the door, Rusty said, “We’ll still try’n make it, though, right? I mean, if your dad’s okay and everything?”

I just shrugged and shook my head.

“I’ll call you,” he said.

Then Slim shut the door behind him and we were alone. Our eyes met.

We’d both had it drilled into our minds that, unless an adult was present, we should never be in a house with a member of the opposite sex.

It had been different when Rusty was with us. Now he was gone. We were suddenly free to do anything, and I’m sure we both knew it.

Knew it, and felt embarrassed by the knowledge.

Slim shrugged and said, “Do you want to call Dolly?”

“I guess I could.” I stepped over to the phone. And stared at it. And kept staring.

I didn’t want to make the call.

Not because of Dolly, but because of what she might say about my father.

In a soft voice, Slim asked from behind me, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, but I don’t know. Maybe I’d better wait for Mom’s call.”

“She might not call for an hour or two.”

“I know, but… maybe I’d better wait.”

“Want me to call Dolly and see what’s going on?”

“No, that’s okay.”

“Are you sure? I’ Il do it if…”

The phone rang. Its sudden jangle made me flinch. My insides cringed.

I grabbed the handset. “Hello?”

“Honey, it’s me.”

Mom.

I shriveled..

“Did you see my note?”

“Yeah.”

Tell me!

“I would’ve called sooner, but people were using the phones. And then I did call, but our line was busy.”

“How’s Dad?”

“Oh, he’s fine. He said to say hello.”

“Well, what happened?”

“He had a little accident in his patrol car, honey. A dog ran out in front of him. You know how your father is about animals. He swerved to miss it, and everything would’ve been fine except his front tire picked that moment to blow out. So then he lost control of the car and smacked into a tree.”

“Hard?” I asked.

“Hard enough,” Mom said. “You know how your father feels about seat belts.”

According to Dad, only sissies wore them. It seemed like a strange attitude for a chief of police, but he’d grown up in the Great Depression, fought in World War Two….

“How is he?” I asked.

“Well, he broke his left arm and cracked a few ribs. He also hit his head on the windshield hard enough to break it. The windshield, not his head.” She laughed, but it sounded a little tense. “You know how hard your father’s head is. Anyway, he apparently was knocked unconscious for a while. But then he came to and drove himself over to County General.”

“Why County General?” I asked.

“Well, he feels it’s better equipped, and he was almost as close to it as…”

“Where was he?”

“Out on Route 3.”

On Route 3 and a dog ran out in front of his car?

A chill scurried up my back and the skin on the nape of my neck stiffened with goosebumps.

“Anyway,” Mom said, “he’s fine, but they’re going to keep him overnight.”

“What for?”

“Just as a precaution. Because of the head injury, mostly. They want to keep an eye on him till morning.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Anywhoooo, I thought I’d like to stay here at the hospital with him.”

“All night?” I asked.

“I don’t have to stay….”

“No, it’s fine.”

“If you’d rather not stay by yourself, I could come home.”

“No, you don’t have to do that.”

“Or I’m sure you could spend the night with Rusty or one of your brothers.”

“Danny’s out of town.”

“Well, Lee’s home. Or go over to Stu’s.”

“I’ll be okay here,” I said.

“That’s fine. You’re certainly old enough to stay by yourself. There’s ground beef in the fridge. You can make yourself a hamburger if you want. We were going to grill them on the barbecue tonight….” Her voice trembled and stopped and I knew she was weeping. After a while, she sniffed and said, “If you’d rather get take-out, there’s money in the drawer….”

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Don’t worry about me. Tell Dad hi for me, okay?”

“I will, darling. Oh, he said I should let you know that he missed the dog.”

“He should’ve hit the dog and missed the tree,” I said.

I heard Mom laugh softly. “I’ll tell him that. And I’ll give him your love.”

“Thanks.”

“Anything else before we hang up?”

“Not that I can think of.”

“Okay then, honey. You can call us here if anything comes up.” She gave me the hospital’s phone number and Dad’s room number. Then she said, “I guess that’s about it for now.”

“Guess so.”

“Okay, we’ll see you in the morning.”

“See you then,” I said.

“Be good.”’

“I will.”

“Bye.”

“Bye,” I said, and hang up.

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