by Linda Sillitoe
[p.135]He left his revolver in its holster on the closet shelf of his room, preferable to locking it in the snow-covered car. Before going over to Caitlin’s room, he’d called Isabel Cumming in Salt Lake City and filled her in. Nick found his position awkward. He wasn’t on official business; Caitlin was not a victim, not a witness exactly, and not her usual bright and balanced self. He definitely felt responsible for her, but, of course, she would prefer being responsible for herself. He’d prefer that, too.
“All I can suggest is that you try to keep her grounded,” Isabel had said. “You know, try to keep her in touch with the ordinary world so she’s not so aware of psychic stimuli.”
“How would you suggest I do that?”
“Food, television maybe. Play poker or twenty questions or something. Focus on thinking, sound, sight, anything tangible in physical reality.”
“Okay, I’ll give it a try.”
“You can have her call me if you or she think that would help.”
“I’ll do that, thanks.” He knocked at Caitlin’s door, but when no answer came, he let himself in with the key, then shoved it into his pocket. Caitlin lay so still on the far double bed that she hardly seemed to breathe. [p.136]He assumed she’d already called home. Her wet boots were off, he noticed, but she still wore her sweater, slacks, even stockings; nothing in the room seemed touched or altered. She must be exhausted. Nevertheless, he didn’t want to leave her alone. She’d looked so ashen in the car on the way over that her lips had turned bluish, even though the car heater had him sweating. He’d considered treating her for shock.
He turned the television on softly and stretched his legs, trying to relax. He was stuck for the day, and might as well get used to that idea. Maybe the night, too. The motel had a restaurant, so probably food wouldn’t be a problem. A nap might do the trick with Caitlin. When she wasn’t freaked, she was great company. He was just beginning to anticipate the evening when he heard a half gasp, half scream, and saw her run for the bathroom.
“Oh, shit,” Nick muttered. He rose to go after her, then sat back down. Give the poor kid some privacy. After a few minutes, he heard the toilet flush and water running. He relaxed a bit and decided to have her call Isabel first thing. Get the afternoon off to a solid start.
When she carne out, asking about road conditions, looking for something, she seemed refreshed by the nap. Nevertheless, his automatic radar registered her movements—boots-coat-bag-door—and he’d caught her before she had the door open, although the wind muscling the door shut had helped. She fought him, glaring as if they had never been friends.
Finally, he ended up sprawled over her on the bed, her hands pinned behind her. “Quit, damn it,” he growled. ‘‘I’m hurting you.”
Her teeth were gritted, he saw, .but then her angry eyes closed. In the next moment all the fight went out of her and all the energy, too. She lay absolutely limp. His weight had [p.137]dragged her cable sweater awry, and he noticed the delicate ridge of her collar bone. She was thinner than ever, he thought.
He picked himself up gingerly, watching her inert form for a potential spring at the door. “God, Cait,” he said, moving over to the chair. “Take it easy.” She said nothing, but after a minute he saw her hands turn flat, then ease to her sides. The wrist nearest him looked red. ‘‘I’m sorry,” he said. “Really.”
She pulled her knees up, turning away from him on her side, and stayed like that while the contestants on the game show laughed mindlessly and uttered quips that Nick couldn’t find any sense in, although he let the program play until it ended in a tinkling theme song. He tried to imagine how it must feel to be her—scary, frustrating, humiliating—then gave up. He didn’t have it so easy, either.
When he was sure it was safe, he got up and went in the bathroom, shutting the door almost tightly, demonstrating renewed trust. When he came back, she hadn’t moved. He sat down beside her on the other side of the bed so that she faced him. He picked up the wrist that looked injured.
“You okay?” he asked. Her eyes were closed. He moved her hand, noted her frown when he turned the wrist laterally. “Shall I find something to wrap this?”
She shook her head.
“How about the other one?”
“Do you want to call Isabel?”
“No,” she said clearly.
Silence then, and in that silence he sensed despair. He had [p.138]felt this before in men he delivered to prison, the full weight of a futile life, so befouled that they probably would never be worth shit again. Caitlin wasn’t imprisoned—except that she was, not only here but inside her own head. And especially within the blizzard and motel. He couldn’t find anything to say.
A rerun of Bonanza came on the television. He watched that, too, propped by pillows on the other bed. When the telephone rang, they both jumped. Nick reached for it, keeping his eyes on Caitlin’s still face.
“Hi, Jake. Yeah, she’s fine. Yeah, the road’s still closed.” A pause. “Okay, just a minute, let me tell her.”
Her eyelids tightened, waiting. “Your kids want to talk to you. They’re worried about you.”
He watched her take a deep breath, then her eyes opened. She reached for the receiver and he saw her wince as her hand took its weight. “Hi.” Her voice was faint. “Hi, honey,” she said again. “I’m fine. I’m okay. How are you?” As he watched, her voice found energy, her eyes focused, and by the end of the conversation with one daughter, and then the other, she was sitting on the edge of the bed, completely in charge. “If it’s a snowy day tomorrow, just stay in and keep warm,” she said in her mother voice. “Maybe Dad can stay home with you. I’ll call you before I leave here, for sure.” She caught Nick’s eye and he motioned that he was going next door. She nodded, and so he left.
By the time he turned off the hot shower that relaxed his knotted muscles, he heard the shower coming on in Caitlin’s bathroom through the wall. Good enough, he thought, shaking out his wrinkled clothes. They’d both clean up for dinner.
[p.139]The usual Caitlin met him at her door, her quick smile in place, a sparkle in her eyes. He wondered what determination it had taken to muster that normalcy, but he silently thanked her for it, letting his hands rest on her shoulders a moment when he helped her with her coat. For a second she leaned against him—allies again.
The motel restaurant felt like a submarine once they’d fought their way through the blizzard and inside the door. Snow piled on the sills and clung to the panes. The fluorescent lights rippled on the plastic surfaces with hollow cheer.
Nick ordered chicken fried steak. Caitlin ordered a chef salad, but Nick urged her to eat something hot. She changed her order to a baked potato and a dinner salad. Halfway through the meal, although she continued to chat about the changes in local television anchors, Nick noticed her glance stealing more and more often toward the relentless snow and the occasional headlights that crept through it. He caught her watching truckers over his shoulder and was relieved that all the conversations they could overhear dealt with the closed freeway and everyone’s stranded condition. By the time she paused, fork upright in the shell of her baked potato, gazing at the windows farthest from their table, he had decided to confront their dilemma.
“Caitlin?” Her eyes switched back to him.
“That’s east, isn’t it?” she asked absently, indicating the way she had been staring.
“Nothing. Just wondered.”
The mountains, he thought. “Caitlin, tell me how you and I are going to get through the night.”
She looked back and her eyes hardened. “Sleep, I guess,” she [p.140]said a little defensively. ‘‘I’m fine now. I’m sorry I lost it earlier.” They both looked at her wrist.
“Does it still hurt?”
“A little. It’ll be fine. My fault.”
“Look, don’t get me wrong. If I were in your shoes, I’m sure I’d be frantic.”
She shrugged as if she didn’t believe him but it was a nice thing to say. Then her eyes crept up toward his with an honest question—Would you, Nick? He met her look, and the misery he knew she felt filled her eyes. Panic was not far behind.
“So how are we going to manage?” he asked again.
“Maybe there’s something on the late show,” she suggested without much hope. “I hardly ever see late night television.”
“That’s a possibility. We’ll check it out. I don’t have a deck of cards or anything like that. Do you?” She shook her head. “On the other hand,” he continued, “I’ve never heard your life story.”
She laughed. “That ought to put you to sleep.”
“Mine might do the same for you,” he said, and they both laughed.
“We could tell war stories,” she said, “but yours will be better. You have more investigations under your belt than I do.”
“Not necessarily better ones though,” he said, keeping it going. “Yours would be better told. I’ll have to remember not to get stranded with a writer again.”
This was good, he thought. Isabel was right. Keep her mind engaged. Too bad he wasn’t the glib type, a charmer. Already the tension was gathering around her mouth as her eyes stared out the window keeping the mountains at bay. End of banter.
“Cait, what I’m saying is, I’m not going to leave you by yourself tonight.” He watched that sink in with one slow blink. “But I want you to hang in there with me and fight this thing, don’t fight me. Is it a deal?”
[p.141]“You got it,” she said, then looked profoundly relieved. She took a long drink of ice water and said, “Age six.”
“Tell me what happened the year you were six. Then I’ll tell you. Then you can choose a year.”
“Oh shit,” he said. “Let me pay the tab first. Can I plead memory loss?”
“Sure, but you lose points.” She already had the bill and her wallet in hand. “My turn to pay,” she said, and led the way out.
Between television and the personal history game they talked until about 2:30 a.m. when they both became punchy. By then the television was off and so were their outer clothes, which each hung on a chair while the other was in the bathroom. When Nick was sure Caitlin slept, he flipped out his overhead light. He left hers on, glowing gently over her white shoulder, pale against her black strap. A rosy streak spread down her arm. Quickly he fell asleep, hoping, as his last lucid thought, for clear skies in the morning.
Before first light, he heard Caitlin’s voice and his eyes snapped open, his body tensed. In the other bed Caitlin was tossing, muttering, shaking her head. He threw the blankets aside and hurried over. “Can’t,” she was saying thickly, eyes still closed; “tell Nick, tell Nick.”
He grasped her shoulders. “Caitlin,” he said. She jerked, her eyes flew open but glassy, and he felt her tense for a real scream. Then her eyes focused and she saw him. She clutched his arms, searching his face. “He came here,” she said, “can you tell?”
Nick didn’t answer, just reached for her overhead light, clicked it off. Turning her shoulders away from him, he slid in beside her. “Take it easy,” he said, as she startled. They were both too weary now for any anchor but touch, so he pulled her against him, put his arm over her outside the blanket, covered her hand [p.142]with his. “Sleep,” he said into her hair, noting that the reddish black tresses were as soft as they looked. Her body curved against his; eventually he felt her relax against him, and they both slept.