When did his home acquire this flavor of the strange?
Thanksgiving dinner at his gran's was the same as it's been since he can remember. Same Butterball turkey (Gran invariably mentions the brand when offered a compliment), same green bean casserole, same powerfully sweet candied yams and three different kinds of pie. The shape of the day was the same as always: Generations of women and girls presiding over the mysteries of the kitchen through the morning and afternoon. The Finn men collected in the den, half watching the football games on his granddad's TV, which was easily as old as some of Riley's cousins. Dinner and then the walk by the river with the cacophony of dogs and kids bounding on ahead of the adults.
Pretty much the same talk around the dinner table (he's been at the grownups' table since he was fifteen): crops, weather (he knows people in California who think that's small talk, but in Iowa it's serious business, being directly related to topic number one), hunting, fishing, the latest news around town and the church, once in a while the newest movie in town (at the soloplex, as his brother-in-law Jeff calls it), if it's deemed fit dinner conversation for both ends of the age range.
"So how's California?" Jeff asked. "All surfing and pretty blonde girls?"
Riley couldn't remember the last time he'd gotten to the beach.
"Or are you more interested in nightlife?"
Nightlife, yeah, that's him, he thought. He hits all the hotspots: cemeteries, demon bars. Nightlife of the living dead.
This, he realizes, is why home feels strange to him. Because it's Riley who is strange. The knowledge he's come into has changed him on a cellular level. (Contaminated him? Sometimes he wonders.) Yet he can't talk about any of it. This is why their dinner conversation, which has always meant comfort and belonging, suddenly seems superficial, filled with gaps.
Pretty blonde girls. Absolutely. Almost as plentiful as times he's been surfing. Sometimes they're even among the breathing.
He thinks about Buffy. She definitely fits in with Jeff's Beach Boys-fueled image of California. Sunshine in the form of a girl. There's something else there, too, though. A passing shadow -- a little sadness and uncertainty. No wonder, considering she'd crossed paths with that asshole Parker Abrams. He works the girls who are open and trusting, so the fact that he's bragged about sleeping with her doesn't put Riley off. An idiot can discover gold and then toss it aside; that doesn't make it any less valuable.
What if she did give Riley the time of day, though? What if she saw past the stammering lummox who couldn't dance and by some miracle eventually came to return his interest? She'd be just another person he cared about but couldn't talk to, not about what gives him purpose.
Thanksgiving dinner was just a taste of what that would be like. He wanted to tell his family about his work, about this hidden world he'd had shown to him, about the rush he felt when they got another demon off the streets. Instead he yammered about being a TA for Dr. Walsh, about the reading he's been doing for her seminar. He poured all of his enthusiasm for his real work into talking about theory and journal articles, and very probably made an ass of himself. Jeff called him college boy.
This is what Buffy has in store, if he's lucky enough to spend any time with her.
His alarm clicks on, the radio in the middle of an ad for farm equipment. That's something he doesn't hear in Sunnydale. No seed and feed ads, no farm reports, and the weather isn't the top story on the eleven o'clock news (which comes on at ten, here at home). Well, what's to report? The weather hardly ever changes there.
Riley slaps at the snooze button, thinks about blowing off the day's plans. Every year on the day after Thanksgiving, he goes hunting with Jeff. That's what they call it, anyway. What it amounts to is walking, with guns. They tramp through the woods on his granddad's place, talking about what's going on in their lives. As often as not, they come back without firing a shot. Riley's not sure he's in the mood for it today. Definitely not for more "college boy" crap. That's not like Jeff; they've always gotten along. Maybe it's Riley himself. Has he changed that much?
The clock goes off again. Some old song of Hank Williams, Jr.
I've got a shotgun, a rifle and a four-wheel drive,
and a country boy can survive.
Riley decides that it's sticking to tradition, not abandoning it, that's going to pull him out of this funk. He switches off the music and shambles downstairs to make some coffee, and while he waits he pulls out the turkey leftovers Gran sent home with them, and he looks out the kitchen window at the sky as he picks.
It looks moody, piled high with clouds, threatening rain. Sometimes when the weather's bad, he and Jeff just get in the truck and drive. Sometimes they end up all the way in Rogers, Minnesota, where there's a Cabela's that satisfies the hunting itch. His sister Noreen rags them both when they come back bearing shopping bags. "Let's see what the mighty hunters have killed," she says.
You wouldn't believe what I'm hunting nowadays, sis. Though mostly it's catch 'em and tag 'em, and eventually they'll be let go, but they'll be safe. Neutered.
"Not much of a day for the outdoors," his mother says, startling him. If Graham had seen him jump, seen a fifty-four year old farm wife get the drop on him, he'd never hear the end of it.
"Doesn't look like it."
"You'll want a good breakfast anyway. It's a long way to Cabela's. Sit down and have your coffee, and I'll fix you up." She starts rummaging in the fridge. "Aldi's started carrying this apple-smoked bacon, and your dad and I just love it."
"Mom, you were in the kitchen all day yesterday. We can stop at the Country Kitchen."
"Don't be silly," his mom says. "How often do I have my kid home to cook for?"
"If you're sure." He's wondered if she's losing interest in cooking now that it's just her and Dad. The last couple of times he's been home, at least, food hasn't tasted all that great. Same with Gran's Thanksgiving meal. He feels heavy and sluggish after a few days at home. Guess he's acquired a taste for the light California cuisine. Really sad when you look forward to the residence hall chow more than Mom's home cooking.
"I saw Debbie Stanton at church Sunday. She said she's hoping to see you while you're in town."
Riley makes a non-committal noise.
"Or have you met someone out there?"
"Maybe. I mean, yes, but that's all I've done. I don't know if she has an interest."
She asks a few questions about Buffy, which he mostly evades, then when she sets breakfast in front of him, he tucks into that, putting on a show of enthusiasm. She watches him, so he's sure she noticed his lack of appetite at the big family feed yesterday.
He's grateful when Jeff taps the glass of the back door and lets himself in. "Colder than a well-digger's ... toes," he announces. "Hi Mom." Jeff kisses her cheek. "I can't believe this one here has room to pack away more food. Me, I'm still staggering around with all that pie in me."
"You watch," Riley says. "Ten minutes into the woods, he's gonna be all about heading into Ames to hit Maid-Rite." Usually he's all in favor of that plan, but they've been doing something different with the meat there the last few times he's been, and it doesn't taste as good either.
"What's Noreen up to?" his mom asks.
"Christmas shopping," Jeff says. "She was up before me to hit the door-buster sales in Des Moines."
"Wow, she's letting it go late this year," Riley says, and Jeff snorts.
Riley finishes off his breakfast and gears up for the outdoors. He can't help thinking of pulling on his gear for night patrol: flak jacket, balaclava. Items more about concealment and protection than warmth.
"Why don't you take one of mine?" Jeff asks. He's loaded up the gun rack in his truck, and Riley will have a chance to try out Jeff's favorite of last year, while Jeff carries the 870 Remington Noreen got him for his birthday.
Riley considers it, but what he really wants is the feeling of familiarity carrying his dad's Greener gives him.
Once they step off the porch, the door safely closed behind them, Jeff says, "What do you say we try to nail that sonofabitchin' coyote?"
Relief gusts through Riley. He's too restless for a few hours sitting in a blind or the truck. He'd tried to promote the idea at dinner when the subject of the coyote came up, without being too obvious about it.
"Did you hear that bastard last night?"
"Can't say I did," Riley says. "I was sleeping off the turkey and the walk."
"You're getting soft, surfer boy."
Riley can't tell if the irritation that rises in him is due to some off mood of Jeff's, or if he's just got a hair trigger because of his own. He says nothing, just climbs in the shotgun seat for the twenty-minute drive out to his grandparents' place.
Jeff's quiet too, and Riley does think there's a mood attached.
Finally Riley breaks the silence. "This coyote," he says. "Has he done much damage? Preying on livestock?" He thinks there's not much supernatural going on back home -- he takes the local weekly by mail just to keep tabs on things -- but something new could be moving.
"Nah, he's mostly going after game. The turkey hunting's been for shit lately."
Good, Riley thinks, but he doesn't let that one slip. He likes having a break from night hunting. Likes knowing his family's safe.
Jeff pulls up to a gate to a rutted pasture path. Riley gets out to unhook the latch, dragging the gate out of the way. The wire loop is a tight fit over the gatepost (he wonders how many t-shirts he's pinched holes in this way over the years), but after a moment's struggle, he gets it latched and climbs back into the truck cab.
It's another two gates before they reach the woods. Once he's moving, Riley begins to feel better, even though the air is damp and bone-chilling. His body feels stiffer than it should, but it begins to loosen up, and so does his tongue.
"There is a pretty blonde girl," he says after a while. He keeps his voice down; sound carries out in the woods on these gray mornings. "I don't know her real well yet, but I'd like to. Her name's Buffy."
Jeff snorts. "You are going for the California experience."
Riley ignores the dig. Or maybe it's just a joke. "No, she's different from other girls I've met out there. She's smart -- but she doesn't act like an uberbrain like some girls do, sometimes I think she doesn't even realize she's that smart. And she's sweet, and funny, and hipper than I'll ever be, yet she's still down to earth. She's cute. Pretty. Both, actually. She asked me to the Thanksgiving deal that she and her friends were having." This is why he likes having these conversations in the woods -- even in the truck. Their attention is focused on their surroundings, or on the road, and it's easier to get at what matters. Mom and Noreen, on the other hand, would talk things out across the kitchen table. It's one of those male-female wiring things they've done studies on. Riley wrote a paper on it last spring. "There's nothing I want more than to start something up with her, but I -- well, shit, Jeff. There's so much I can't talk to her about."
"What do you mean?"
He takes a deep breath. There's no way he should be doing what he's about to do. "You can't tell anyone," he says.
Jeff looks at him sharply. "Tell them what?"
"I'm in a program. Kind of like ROTC, but kind of not. More intense than that. I can't talk about what I do. I'm breaking all kinds of rules just saying I do things I can't talk about. How do you start something new with a woman when you can't be open and honest with her? I've got this friend who gets a huge kick out of the secrecy and the whole I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you thing, but then, he thinks he's James Bond."
"Even James Bond got married."
"Noreen found all those old James Bond books at a garage sale, and I read 'em last winter after the snowmobile accident. In one of 'em, Bond falls in love and gets married. Of course she dies. The I could tell you, but then the author will have to kill you thing."
"Don't know what to tell you, Ry. I really don't. Just don't get so worried about what might happen with this girl that you don't let anything happen at all."
This is more like the Jeff he's used to. It's why he doesn't let anything interfere with their day-after-Thanksgiving tradition. "Yeah. That makes sense." A powerful urge sweeps through him, to tell Jeff everything. Vampires, demons, what he's been doing about them, the work that matters to him. No question that Jeff will keep it to himself. Riley has absolute trust in him. Instead, what comes out of his mouth is, "And get this: Buffy's best friend warned me that if I break her heart, she -- the friend, that is -- will beat me to death with a shovel."
Jeff turns away from him so abruptly that Riley thinks he's heard something moving in the woods. He freezes too, scanning the woods, listening. He sees nothing, hears only birdsong and Jeff's uneven breathing. Jeff's gun remains pointed at the ground.
"Tell me," Riley says after a moment. "Something's been eating at you all morning."
"Nothing," Jeff says sharply, and he starts to walk.
"Go ahead and tell me. You can kill me after." Despite the joke, there's a cold nugget of fear at the heart of the question, that something might be wrong between Jeff and Noreen. He tries to remember how they were yesterday at dinner.
"My sister Callie and her husband were supposed to be there yesterday, at your gran's."
"I know. Callie got stomach flu. Aaron stayed to take care of her."
"That's the story. Noreen fixed up a packet of leftovers to take, and we dropped them by her house on the way home. Callie answered the door, but she wouldn't let us in."
"She probably didn't want you to catch--"
"He's been hitting her."
"That worthless piece of shit. Aaron. He's beating her."
C'mon, he's a banker, is all he can think of to say, but that sounds inane. "Are you--?"
"I'm sure. There've been signs before this, but I've been stupid about them."
The sound of the rain in the tops of the oaks reaches Riley before the first drops do. "I'm sorry. I don't know what to say, Jeff. That's terrible."
"Someone needs to straighten him out."
"Talk to him, sure. But be--"
"Not talk to him. Give him a little back. Then take Callie out of there."
"Do you know that she'll go?" Three fat, wet plops, and then the skies open, rain hissing through brown leaves.
"She might not want to leave." Riley doesn't get that, but he knows it's not uncommon. He thinks of something Graham said about their night patrols. "Can't save everyone, Ry." That's not something he'd ever say to a brother. It's not something he wants to believe.
Jeff pulls up the hood on his parka. "She'll go." Gesturing at the woods around them, he says, "Screw the coyote. Let's go take care of this." He turns on his heel and marches back the way they've come.
Riley scrambles to catch up to him. "Jeff, no. That's an unbelievably bad idea. You can't just show up at his door and beat the crap out of him. Let the law handle it. That's what it's for."
"They only care if someone calls while he's actually beating her up. I live fifteen miles away. Their nearest neighbor is half a mile off. Nobody will ever hear anything. And hell, half of the cops probably got their mortgages from him. They won't do squat, not until he kills her."
He's getting winded stumbling along at Jeff's heels. He feels so sluggish; Jeff shouldn't be able to outpace him. Not on his best day. What the hell is wrong with him? "They're all decent guys. They'll do their job."
"You're in California now," Jeff says, as if that closes the whole topic.
"Someone'll get hurt if you go charging over there," Riley says.
"That's the idea."
"It might make things worse for her."
Jeff whirls on him. "What if it was Noreen? What if you found out I was smacking her around -- or even just thought I was? Don't tell me you'd wait for the police to do something about it."
Jeff would never do it. That's something else Riley has absolute trust in. "Going over there and being like him is not gonna help her."
"I won't be like him. I'll be beating on someone who deserves it. I'm just gonna talk the language he understands, Ry. Make it clear in case he doesn't get it."
This is a recipe for disaster, he can see it coming.
He should go along. Keep things from getting out of hand.
By the time they make it to the truck, Riley's chilled to the bone, despite the outdoor gear. He wrenches the passenger door open -- it's stuck ever since he can remember -- as Jeff starts it up.
"I'll drop you at Lucille's," Jeff tells him. "Don't want to screw up your military career."
Funny how he trusts that Riley won't call the police the second he walks into the cafe. "No. I'll go too. Help keep things reasonable."
Jeff doesn't respond, but at the first gate, Riley gets his answer. Once Riley's unhooked the gate and pulled it out of the path, Jeff guns the engine and leaves him scrambling to catch up on foot. Muttering a string of curses, Riley runs after him, leaving the gate lying in the pasture grass. It's not something you do, but this is an emergency.
The next two gates require Jeff to get out of the truck and tend to them himself, allowing Riley to gain on him some. He can do this -- he can do this with a forty-pound pack on his back. Running flat out -- he doesn't have to save his stamina for the miles ahead -- and shedding anything that's not crucial, he follows the truck out to the road.
When he reaches the road, Jeff's truck is out of sight. Praying for a car to come along, he works at the latch of the last gate to keep his granddad's stock from wandering onto the road, at least. His fingers numbed from the cold -- he lost a glove at the last gate -- he's still fumbling when a red Mazda roars down the road. Riley abandons the gate and flags down the car, begging a ride to Aaron and Callie's place in town.
Jeff's truck is slanted across the driveway, blocking in the two cars there. Jeff's on the porch, yelling, "Callie, get in the truck! I'm taking you home." From where Riley is, the screened door is blank darkness.
As he scrambles out of the Mazda, some detached part of his mind is thinking how a nice house like this isn't supposed to have wife-beaters in it. Riley, boy, Forrest is always saying, you are just so naive.
"Jeff, c'mon, he says. "Let's simmer down."
"Callie, Get in the truck!"
Riley hears weeping from inside as he cautiously approaches. The front door must be open, but he sees nothing but black. "You're scaring her, Jeff. Come on back. Give her some space."
A sudden movement of shadow in a shadowy rectangle. A bumping sound, then a clatter of furniture on hardwood floor.
"Come out and beat on someone who's got a fighting chance," Jeff hollers, lunging for the door.
And then there's thunder, and Jeff staggers back, tumbling down the porch steps.
Riley dives back toward the truck, scrambling for cover, for the gunrack, but before he's sprinted two strides, there's another boom and a mule-kick knocks his leg from beneath him. He sprawls by the muddy back wheel of the truck, watching a stream of red spray wildly over the hubcap.
He reaches for his leg in a vain attempt to press his hands against the wound. To slow his death. His fingers find nothing that feels like a leg. Distantly he hears the high, sobbing wail of a woman, but there's another boom and it stops.
Riley rolls onto his back, rain pelting against his face as he stares into the gray.
Can't save everyone, Ry. Not even yourself.
He wishes he could at least be looking into the high blue California sky.
After another moment, the color of the sky doesn't matter.
Riley wakes to the sound of the clock radio, after a fitful night's sleep, full of bad dreams. He can't remember any of them. He's disoriented at first, but the farm equipment ad and the feeling of his feet suspended in air off a mattress that's too short tell him he's home.
His left thigh aches like nobody's business. Must've pulled something during that squash game with Forrest. He rubs at it, stumbles out of bed to rummage through the bathroom cabinet for some aspirin. Twitching the frilly bathroom curtain aside, he checks the sky, just beginning to lighten.
It looks moody, piled high with clouds, threatening rain. He rubs at his thigh again.
He doesn't feel like tramping around out there today, doesn't even feel like folding himself into Jeff's rattletrap truck for four hours just to spend a couple at Cabela's.
Chasing the aspirin with another Dixie cup of water, he wonders if he can catch a standby flight back to California today. Seems like each time he visits home, he's a little more restless.
He heads down to the kitchen long enough to call Jeff and bail on the day's plans. When he gets back to his old room, Hank Williams, Jr.'s singing,
He was killed by a man with a switchblade knife
For $43 my friend lost his life.
I'd love to spit some Beechnut in that dude's eye,
and shoot him with my old .45,
cause a country boy can survive.
Riley switches off the radio and drops back into bed, and this time sleeps without dreaming until the smell of bacon and coffee wafts up through the heat register.
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