No one was sure when the crazy lady first arrived in Two Bridges, but after the parish fish fry the first Friday of Lent, the whole town knew she was there. The ringing of a table knife against the rim of a coffee cup brought the church basement to silence as the woman stood up. “I went hunting for the very first time,” she announced. Was she Jack Sampson’s ex-wife? Old man MacMillan’s daughter, back from the Twin Cities to bury him? The woman backed into the hallway and disappeared just long enough to re-emerge with a black trash bag. Struggling with the weight of it, she extracted a still dripping buck’s head and muscled it aloft.
The hubbub made it impossible for people to agree on what she’d said next. At Sal’s Crosstown Café the next morning, some said she declared that giving up meat for Lent was a rejection of God’s bounty. Others remembered she’d apologized for taking the deer out of season — even before the accusations filled the room. A select few at Sal’s, conjecturing at a corner table in the back, said the woman delivered a coded message that held clues to the recent mysterious deaths of nearly a dozen farm animals. Only a couple details were agreed upon: Father Timothy had escorted the woman and her poached treasure out the door and into the rectory — and that buck had a damn nice rack.
A week later the bloody unveiling was still a topic of conversation. At the Corner Tap Jimmy Ray Ralston downed his fifth beer while his friend Russ pried the top off a fresh one. Russ knew Jimmy Ray wasn’t even halfway to where he aimed to get to most Friday nights. “What I want to know is who the hell lets a woman that crazy keep a gun?” Russ asked as he slid the beer down the bar toward Jimmy.
“Maybe she got that buck with a bow,” Jimmy Ray said.
“Even scarier,” Russ said as the bar’s phone interrupted them. Jimmy Ray paused mid-sip while he studied Russ’s reflection in the mirror behind the bar. “Well, I’ll be goddamned,” Russ said, turning to announce the news to Jimmy and a handful of other patrons, “Father Tim’s been killed in a car accident. He clipped a deer and crashed his Pontiac into the bridge.”
No one had to ask which bridge. These days Two Bridges had only one bridge. The East Bridge washed out the spring after the ’99 fire obliterated the half-dozen worn out buildings at that end of town. With nothing much left on the other side, there was no reason to repair it. People cracked jokes about changing the town’s name to One Bridge or West Bridge or just plain Bridge, but no one took up the cause. There were plenty of towns that didn’t live up to their names.
Jimmy Ray gulped what was left of his beer. “Father Tim was a damn nice guy,” he said, raising the empty in a toast. The old-timers in the corner laid down their cards and joined Jimmy Ray and Russ at the bar.
“Next round’s on the house,” Russ said.
* * *
Father Timothy’s funeral was an eerie affair. The power went out, and Mass had to be finished with only the morning’s gray light, filtering through the stained glass. As the mourners filed behind the casket toward the exit, the procession jerked to a halt when the doors wouldn’t open. A hearty push dislodged the large branch that had sailed up the church steps and jammed itself under the door handles.
“That just might have been an act of God, if you know what I mean,” Jimmy Ray said at the buffet lunch afterward. The power had come back in time to heat up the roast beef and green beans, but the wind was still rattling everyone’s nerves. Every now and then someone reflexively ducked as debris careened against the basement reception hall windows. It had been less than two weeks since the severed buck head had made its appearance, and now, interjecting itself between other remembrances, Father Tim’s diplomatic handling of the crazy lady cycled in and out of a half-dozen conversations. The last lingerers gave it another go-round while they scraped up the final bites of apple crisp.
Sheriff Molly Donaldson changed the subject. “Do any of you know what the padre was doing out so late that night?” She looked from Russ to Jimmy Ray and to each of their wives. “I’m assuming he was out on a sick call or tending to some sort of trouble, but nobody seems to know the details.” Folks liked to say that Molly, with her freckles and wavy red hair, was as cute as a button — however, that button wasn’t one you wanted to push. She was fiercely proud of being a second-generation sheriff and the first woman on Lincoln County’s force. But while her dad had been easygoing, Molly missed out on the cool-as-a-cucumber gene.
Jimmy Ray’s wife, Jean, leaned toward Molly. “Have you spoken to Father’s housekeeper? People say he told her everything.”
“Already asked,” Molly said.
“How’s she doing?” Russ’s wife asked, scanning the room to see if Miss McClain might be hunkered down in a corner somewhere.
“Undone,” Molly said. “Like losing a son.” She hated to admit it, but she was more than a little undone herself. A queasy lightheadedness overtook her as she thought of Father Tim. People said he hadn’t been at all disturbed while guiding the crazy lady and her bloody buck’s head out the door. Molly had missed that drama, but she couldn’t shake the image of him in his fractured car, drenched in his own blood. The weird goings-on over in Rock County with those poor animals were bloody ordeals too. She reminded herself these things had nothing to do with one another, but whenever she thought of one of them, the others slipped into her mind like nightmares on ice.
Jimmy Ray was holding court in his usual spot at the bar when Molly walked into the Corner Tap the next night. “You two better stop meeting like this,” Russ said as she slid onto a stool next to Jimmy Ray. Jimmy Ray, Russ, and Molly had been best friends when they were muddy-kneed hooligans, catching salamanders in the creek and daring one another to jump from the East Bridge into the swirling water. Jimmy Ray and Molly even dated for a minute or two in high school until Molly told him she felt like she was kissing her brother.
Secrets were hard to keep in a town of 1,800 people, but Molly had come to the Tap with secret-keeping in mind. She would bet her last dollar Jimmy Ray had information beyond the official version of the Rock County animal mutilations. His sister was married to the Rock County sheriff, and since Molly couldn’t seem to keep eyeless bloody cows from stalking her imagination, she wanted to talk about it. When two couples settled themselves at the other end of the bar and Russ went to take their orders, she seized her moment. “Watch the game with me,” she said, pulling Jimmy Ray to a table against the wall. She’d ruined both her knees as a power forward playing D-2 college ball and could barely handle a pickup game, but she watched every contest, college or pro, that made it onto the airwaves. “I want to know everything there is to know about those animals,” Molly said, angling her chair toward the TV.
Jimmy Ray listed the details his sister, Rose Ann, told him. Cows and sheep with eyes, ears, and sexual organs surgically removed. Probable burn marks at the perimeter of the missing organs. Except for the gouged eyes, very little blood. The bodies of the dead animals, not hidden, but not grotesquely displayed either. The count was now at eleven. Three separate incidents on two different ranches, the first one — the one Molly had seen with her own eyes — straddling the border of Lincoln and Rock Counties. “Rose Ann says the sheriff thinks it’s meth heads or kids doing weird shit on a dare,” Jimmy Ray said.
“What about the ranchers?” Molly asked. “Did Rose Ann mention what those guys think?”
“They’re of opposite minds. The older guy has seen it all before. There were a couple dozen animals killed out west the same way in the ’70s. He says if it was aliens, they’d sure as hell have taken over the planet by now. Could be a cult, copycatting the past mutilations. But he says blowflies can clean out an animal’s eyes and that foxes have teeth as sharp as scalpels.”
“And the younger one is stockpiling ammunition, right?”
“Yup,” Jimmy Ray said. “Speaking of nut jobs, anybody seen the fish-fry lady around?”
“Not a trace,” Molly said. “But the game warden and I would sure like to find her.” She took another sip and stretched out her legs. “Does Jean know about the animals?”
“Are you kidding?” Jimmy Ray shook his head. His wife was the type who’d lose sleep over cults and aliens. After the second miscarriage she was more high-strung than ever.
“What about our friend Russ?” Molly tilted her head toward the bar.
“Just the basics. Believe it or not, the effort to keep this thing from mushroooming into full blown hysteria is working.” Jimmy Ray drained his beer, and when he went to the bar again, Molly followed him. “‘Night, guys,” she said, clapping Jimmy on the back. “I’m going to catch the second half at home.”
Five minutes later she pulled into a parking spot in front of the rectory and lifted a meatloaf from the backseat. When Bridget McClain answered the door, she looked as though she had been either sleeping or crying. “You probably thought I changed my mind about stopping by,” Molly said. Miss McClain politely contradicted her. Molly handed over the foil wrapped and zip-locked offering. “For when you don’t feel like cooking,” she said. The grief on Miss McClain’s face was so fresh it was hard for Molly to look at her. Her own grief over the loss of her father six months ago was a more well behaved sadness these days.
“I’d like to stop by the church for a minute,” Molly said. “Is the key to the side door in its usual hiding place?” Miss McClain nodded.
“Say a little prayer for me,” she said.
“I’ll say a big one,” Molly said.
After she’d lit three candles, one for Father Tim, one for her father, and one for her mother, Molly slid into the front pew.Lately, she beseeched her father daily. Her mother, so long dead, seemed beyond communication. As for Father Tim, all last week she’d meant to ask him about the fish-fry lady. Did he know her? Molly peered into the candlelight and tried to push away the queasiness threatening to overtake her.
Molly stood and stretched. Unable to stop thinking of the weird goings-on at the fish fry, she walked to the basement door, opened it, and descended. Here, beneath the long row of coat hooks, the woman must have stashed the bag with the buck’s head. It took only a second, people said, for her to step around the corner from the dining hall and grab it. The thought of the dripping buck’s head and the lingering smell of the post-funeral meal made the queasy feeling rise. Molly realized she hadn’t eaten a thing all day.
The frozen burrito stalled mid-rotation as the microwave in the church kitchen died with a popping sound. The lights hummed and flickered into black. Molly held her breath. She had always been afraid of the dark. Darkness beckoned ghosts. The childhood image of her mother’s ghost — or was it her mother herself? — standing over her bed, weeping, revisited her whenever she felt spooked. Trying to slow her pounding heart as she got her bearings in the pitch-black basement, she stood as still as one of the plaster saints in the church above.
The ceiling above Molly’s head creaked, then creaked again. She’d left the door to the church unlocked dozens of times when she’d come in to pray at night as her father inched his way toward death, but she wished she hadn’t done so tonight. Instinctively, she patted her hip. Her revolver was in her glove compartment.
Molly padded to the other end of the kitchen. On the far wall, above a new stainless steel work counter, was a small door. Ice, or coal, or something was delivered through that door in the old days. She knew that on the other side of it was a crawl space that led to an exterior door. She and Jimmy Ray made their escape through that door the day they’d stolen an entire case of ice-cream bars. Molly must have eaten a dozen herself and spent much of the night on the toilet, but her dad pronounced her well enough to go to school in the morning. She and Jimmy Ray endured Sister Theresa’s demand for a confession, broadcast school-wide over the PA system. While Molly had sweat through her uniform blouse and nearly admitted to their crime, Jimmy Ray’s 12-year-old poker face never cracked.
Molly hoisted herself onto the countertop and crawled in. A minute later she edged open the outside door. Brushing the cobwebs from her clothes, she crossed the back parking lot and circled around to the side door where she’d entered. A wave of shivering overtook her as a woman in a dark coat came down the steps. The woman crossed the street and rang the bell at the rectory. Molly watched as Miss McClain ushered her inside.
* * *
Bridget McClain assured herself she was channeling Father Timothy’s spirit as she led the weeping woman to the sofa in the front parlor. Her own tears retreated in the presence of the deluge in front of her and were replaced with the calm she’d often seen Tim himself employ. Words were beyond the reach of the woman and probably would be for a little while, so Bridget slid the box of tissues on the coffee table directly in front of her. “I’m going to make us some tea,” she said. “If you want to freshen up a bit, the powder room is through the archway on your left.” Bridget slid open the dark wooden pocket doors and walked down the hallway to the kitchen.
Mary Elaine blew her nose repeatedly, taking a fresh tissue each time, then compressed the soggy mess into a ball, and carried it with her into the bathroom. She washed her face twice with the little bar of soap, scented and shaped like a rose, and used her damp hands to smooth her auburn hair. There was more gray at the temples than the last time she’d studied it. She’d meant to have the gray touched up before her journey to Two Bridges and she wished she had.
Mary Elaine and Bridget McClain re-entered the parlor at the same time. When Mary Elaine saw Bridget with the elegantly laid tray of tea things, she shuddered with a residual sob. “It’s a very sad thing Father Tim won’t be here to facilitate the meeting,” Miss McClain said as she arranged the tea things.
“I felt ready,” Mary Elaine said, “after all his counseling. But now…” Tears spilled from her eyes anew.
“We’ll have a new priest in Two Bridges in a few weeks, and meanwhile Father Schmidt from St. Stephen’s will be coming over to say Mass — if you don’t mind taking someone new into your confidence,” Miss McClain said.
Mary Elaine wiped her eyes and plucked a cookie from the plate. “I don’t want to explain it all again. What if this other priest thinks I’m still sick and says the whole thing is a bad idea? My doctor says the impulsiveness is under control, and the new medication…” She trailed off, her cheeks reddening at the memory of the fish fry. She’d had a plan, a reason for the out-of-season buck and all of it, but she didn’t want to explain it.
Bridget McClain refilled their cups as the clock on the mantel chimed 11. “This is a very small town,” she said. “You’re not in the big city anymore. Things don’t stay hidden in Two Bridges. People are still talking about the buck’s head, and if it weren’t for the stories about those carved-up farm animals over in Rock County, it might be all they were talking about.”
“You think I should just get it over with?” Mary Elaine asked.
“Well, my dear,” Miss McClain said, “people always know something you don’t think they know, and eventually someone will figure out who you are.” Mary Elaine drained her cup.
“You’re right,” she said. “Do you think you and I can meet with my daughter just like we’d planned, but without Father Tim?”
Bridget McClain nodded. “When you’re ready, let me know.”
Sheriff Molly Donaldson was in her bed, burrowed into a dream as her mother said goodnight to Bridget McClain. As Mary Elaine’s road-weary Toyota passed the dark house, Molly was pivoting her way down the court on two good knees with the game clock ticking down. As the Toyota circled the block for a second time, Molly hustled backward, eyes on the ball, every muscle in her body readying itself. A missed shot by the other forward, the rebound by the center, the pass back to her. By the time Molly released the dream basketball, watching its arc, and then rejoicing as the ref’s arms rocketed upward, Mary Elaine was on the highway. Headed out of town with her cheeks still flushed from crying, she rolled the window down and let the frosty air soothe her. She thought that somewhere, not too terribly far away, she heard people cheering.
* * *
As the sun rose the next morning, Jimmy Ray stood in the timber twenty-some miles north of town at the door of the cabin he’d built with his own hands. He knocked, hoping Mary Elaine was awake. “They’ve got sleet predicted, so I brought you a bag of essentials,” he said. “I know you’re not comfortable shopping in Two Bridges, and the highway to Pine City might be a sheet of ice by noon.” Mary Elaine set her mug of coffee on the kitchen table and took the bag from his arms. She gestured for Jimmy Ray to sit as she put the eggs, milk, and orange juice into the refrigerator.
“So sweet of you,” she said. “Coffee?” She was already pouring some into a mug, so Jimmy Ray said yes. He couldn’t take his eyes off her as she made herself comfortable across the table from him. Her face was Molly’s face 20 years into the future. She moved like Molly and sounded like her. The voice — not just the tone, but the rhythm of her sentences. It was the voice that compelled him to shift his eyes from the buck’s head and look into Mary Elaine’s face the evening of the fish fry. He couldn’t believe no one else noticed. It troubled him for days before he went to talk to Father Tim about it. Tim already knew. The two of them hatched the idea to let Mary Elaine hide out in the cabin while they prepared Molly for the news that her mother was not dead, as she had been told, but all these years had been besieged by mental illness, livng three hundred miles away in Chicago. Mary Elaine wanted nothing more than to reunite with her daughter.
Jimmy Ray felt a lump rising in his throat and washed it down with a gulp of the steaming coffee. All the years he’d known Molly, she’d never stopped aching for her mother. “You’re still going to meet her, aren’t you?”
“I want to,” Mary Elaine said. “If you and Mrs. McClain can get Molly ready without Father Timothy’s help.”
* * *
It took some coaxing to get Molly to meet Jimmy Ray at the grade school playground the afternoon of her Saturday off. When they got out of their cars, each with a basketball under an arm, Jimmy Ray struggled to remember their last shooting contest. Maybe after the first knee had blown out, and Molly was home from college on winter break, still on crutches — a decade ago by now. Molly laughed him off at first when he suggested a “for old time’s sake” game of horse. He couldn’t explain it, but he wanted to tell her the news about her mother while she held a basketball in her hands.
Molly had humored Jimmy Ray because she’d heard something in his voice that said he needed to talk. She hoped it wasn’t another miscarriage. Jean and Jimmy Ray wanted a family, but wanting, as Molly knew, was not enough to make it so.
After a couple of rounds of horse, they each shot ten from the line twice. Jimmy Ray second-guessed himself and wondered if Molly should be sitting down when he told her the news. Hell, maybe he should be sitting down. “I’ve got a thermos of coffee, and I’ve got a six-pack on ice,” he said. “Your call.”
“Beer,” Molly said. Jimmy Ray opened the hatch and popped the tops off two cans, then poured the beer into two plastic travel mugs.
“Looks like coffee. Tastes like beer, ” he said, handing one of the mugs to her as she settled into the front seat. “I’ve got big news,” Jimmy Ray said. Molly braced herself. What she thought she was about to hear and what Jimmy Ray actually said required such an adjustment that she flung open the car door and ran. Jimmy called after her as she sprinted to the edge of the playground and stood in the weeds. He walked toward her. “Your dad moved you here to start over and get away from her,” he said as Molly turned to face him. “She was in and out of mental hospitals.”
“The person I looked up to more than anyone lied to me for years, and he lied about something huge. He lied about the most central thing in my life.” Molly said. Jimmy nodded. “How long have you known?” she asked. Jimmy laid out the sequence — the fish fry, his talk with Father Tim, how they’d taken Miss McClain into their confidence, and how they’d all met with Mary Elaine.
“He told you she died because he thought it was easier that way. It was the wrong thing to do, but your father thought your mom was so unstable that she was a danger to you,” Jimmy said.” Molly shook her head.
“What’s dangerous is not having a mother,” she said.
On the other side of the church Mary Elaine maneuvered her car into a spot in front of the rectory. As Jimmy and Bridget McClain had arranged, she was the first to arrive. For a few moments she sat in the car in silence, her heart thumping. When she climbed the steps to the front door she was both ready, and not ready, to reunite with her daughter. Miss McClain waved her inside. Mary Elaine smoothed her skirt and took a seat on the sofa, angling herself toward the door. Miss McClain was going on and on — something to do with small towns and their gauntlets of gossip — how there were things people might choose to forget and things they might forgive. Right now Mary Elaine didn’t care which was which.
Outside Molly and Jimmy Ray made circle after circle around the blacktop basketball court. They talked about truth and lies, coincidences and mysteries, and how some things were beyond all understanding. At the appointed hour, as the church bells tolled, they climbed the steps to the rectory. The budding leaves on the trees next to the front door were trembling in the breeze, but Molly felt steadier than she had in weeks. Her mother had come back from the dead. A living ghost. Flesh, and blood, and breath. Molly would put her arms around her. Hold her. And be held.