THE eastern seaboard is crammed with dead people. When work brings me to that part of America, the whole time I'm there it's like wings of a huge flock of birds are fluttering inside my brain, never coming to rest. That gets old pretty quick.
But I had some jobs in the East, so here I was, driving through South Carolina with my sort-of brother Tolliver in the passenger seat. He was sleeping now, and I glanced over at him, smiling because he couldn't see me and it was okay to smile at him. Tolliver has hair as dark as mine, and if we didn't run and spend quite a bit of time outdoors, we'd both be pale; and we're both on the thin side. Other than that, we're quite different. Tolliver's dad never took him to a skin doctor when Tolliver was a teen, and his cheeks are scarred from acne; his eyes are darker than my murky gray ones, and his cheekbones are high.
When my mother married his dad, it was a case of two yuppies joining together in the hurtling path down the drain. My mother was dead now, and Tolliver's father was somewhere, who knew where? He'd gotten out of jail the previous year. My dad was still in for embezzling and a few other white-collar crimes. We never talked about them.
If you have to be in South Carolina, it's beautiful in the late spring and the early summer. Unfortunately, we were nearly at the end of an especially nasty January. The ground was cold and gray and slushy from the melt of the previous snow, and there was more predicted in a few days. I was driving very carefully because traffic was heavy and the road was not clear. We'd come up from mild and sunny Charleston. A couple there had decided their house was uninhabitable due to ghost activity, and they'd called me in to find out if there were any bodies in the walls or flooring.
The answer was clear: no. But there were bodies in the narrow back yard. There were three of them, all babies. I didn't know what that meant. They'd died so soon after birth that they hadn't had much consciousness for me to tap into, so I hadn't been able to name the cause of death, which is usually quite clear. But the Charleston homeowners had been thrilled with the results, especially after an archaeologist dug up the meager remains of the tiny bodies. They would dine out on the dead babies for the next decade. They'd handed me a check without hesitation.
That's not always the case.
Tolliver said, "Where you want to stop to eat?"
I glanced over. He wasn't fully awake. He reached over to pat my shoulder. "You tired?" he asked.
"I'm okay. We're about thirty miles outside Spartanburg. Too far?"
"Sounds good. Cracker Barrel?"
"You must want some vegetables."
"Yeah. You know what I look forward to, if we really do buy that house we talk about? Cooking for ourselves."
"We do okay when we're at home," I agreed. We had bought a few cookbooks at secondhand bookstores. We picked very simple recipes.
Our apartment in St. Louis was hanging in the balance right now. We spent so much time on the road that it was very nearly a waste of money. But we needed a home base, somewhere to collect our mail, a place to call home when we weren't driving around the United States. We'd been saving up to buy a house, probably somewhere in the Dallas area so we'd be close to our aunt and her husband. They had custody of our two little sisters.
We spotted the restaurant sign we'd been looking for after about twenty miles, and I pulled off the interstate. Though it was about two o'clock in the afternoon, the parking lot was crowded. I tried not to grimace. Tolliver just loved Cracker Barrel. He didn't mind wading through all the kitsch in the store part of the building. So after we parked (about a half mile away) we slogged through the slush past the rocking chairs on the porch, stamping our feet on the mat so we wouldn't track the icy mess inside.
The restrooms were clean, and the place was warm. We were seated almost immediately, and the waitress, a very young woman with hair as straight as a horse's tail, was delighted to serve us. Well, Tolliver. Waitresses, barmaids, maids in hotels: serving women love Tolliver. We ordered, and while I was simply enjoying not being in a moving vehicle, Tolliver was thinking about the next job.
"It's a law enforcement invitation," he warned me.
That meant less money but good buzz. We always wanted law enforcement professionals to give us a good recommendation. About half the referrals we got came from detectives, sheriffs, deputies, and so on. Though they might not believe in me, there'd be pressure on them from somewhere about a particular investigation, and they'd call me in, having heard about me through the law enforcement grapevine. Maybe there was someone influential they wanted to get off their back. Maybe they were stumped about finding someone, or they'd exhausted just about every venue in their search for a missing person. The law didn't pay well. But it paid off.
"What do they want me to do? Cemetery or the search?"
That meant I'd have to go looking for the body. The jobs I got were about fifty-fifty. Since the lightning had snaked through the window of our trailer in Texarkana when I was fifteen, I'd been able to locate corpses. If the body was in its proper grave in the cemetery, the people who hired me wanted to know the cause of death. If the body was in an unknown location, I could track it, if the search was limited in scope. Luckily, the buzz given off by a corpse was less intense as the corpse aged, or I'da been batshit crazy by now. Think about it. Caveman corpses, Native American corpses, the early settlers, the more recently deceased - that's a lot of dead people, and they all let me know where their earthly remains were interred.
I wondered if it would be worthwhile sending my little brochure to archaeological digs, and how Tolliver would go about collecting the address information for such a mailing. Tolliver was much better with our laptop than I was, simply because he was more interested.
It wasn't like he was my servant or anything.
He was the first person I'd told about my strange ability, after I'd recovered from the physical effects of the lightning strike. Though at first he hadn't believed me, he'd been willing to humor me by testing what I could and couldn't do, and as we'd worked out the limits of my odd new power, he'd become a believer. By the time I'd graduated from high school, we had our plan all worked out, and we hit the road. At first, we'd just traveled on weekends; Tolliver had had to work a regular job, too, and I'd picked up money by working in fast-food places. But after two years, he'd been able to quit the day job. We'd been on the road together ever since.
At the moment, Tolliver was playing the peg game that's always on the table at Cracker Barrel. His face looked serious and calm. He didn't look like he was suffering - but then he never did. I knew Tolliver had been having a painful time since the discovery that a woman who'd been pursuing him had had an ulterior motive; even when you're not crazy about someone, even when in fact you're a little repelled by that person, that's got to sting. Tolliver hadn't talked about Memphis much, but it had left its mark on both of us. I watched his long white fingers moving, lost in my own sad place. Things hadn't been as easy between us in the past few weeks. It was my fault...all my fault.
The waitress came by to ask if we needed refills on our drinks, managing to smile a little more brightly at Tolliver than at me.
"Where are you all going?" she asked brightly.
"Asheville area," Tolliver said, glancing up from the game.
"Oh, it's beautiful there," she said, doing her bit for the tourist board. He gave her an absent smile and bent back over the pegboard. She gave his downturned head a philosophical shrug and hustled off.
"You're staring a hole in me," Tolliver said, without looking up.
"You're just in my line of sight," I said. I leaned on my elbows. Where the hell was the food? I folded the paper band that had been around the napkin-rolled tableware.
"Your leg hurting?" he asked. I had a weak right leg.
"Yeah, a little."
"Want me to massage it tonight?"
He looked up then. He raised his eyebrows.
Of course I wanted him to massage my leg. I just didn't know if that would work out. I might do something wrong - wrong for us.
"I think maybe I'll just put some heat on it tonight," I said. I excused myself and went to the ladies' room, which was filled with a mother and her three daughters, or maybe her daughter had some friends along. They were very young and very loud, and the minute I could get into a stall, I closed the door and pushed the bolt. I stood there for a moment, leaning my head against the wall. Shame and fear, in equal amounts, clogged my throat, and for a second I couldn't breathe. Then I gasped in a long, shuddering breath.
"Mama, I think that lady's crying," said a child's penetrating voice.
"Shhhh," said the mother. "Then we'll just leave her alone."
And then there was blessed silence.
I actually did have to use the bathroom, and my leg actually was hurting. I eased down my jeans, rubbing the right leg after I'd sat down. There was a faint red spiderweb pattern above my right knee, extending to my upper thigh. I'd had my right side to the window when the lightning came in.
When I rejoined Tolliver, the food had come, and I was able to keep busy eating it. When we went out to the car, Tolliver slid into the driver's seat. It was his turn. I suggested a book on tape; at the last secondhand bookstore we'd visited, I'd gotten three. Unabridged, of course. I popped in a Dana Stabenow novel, leaned back, and walled my brother off. No, I wasn't walling him off; I was walling myself in.
Tolliver had booked one room in the motel in Doraville. At the desk, I could see that he was waiting for me to tell him to ask for another one, since I'd been acting so standoffish.
We'd often shared a room in the past few years of traveling together. At first, we hadn't had enough money for two rooms. Later, sometimes we wanted our privacy, and sometimes we didn't care. It had never been an issue. I wouldn't let it be an issue now, I decided recklessly. I didn't know how long we could trudge on down this dreary road without Tolliver blowing up and demanding an explanation I couldn't give him. So we'd room together, and I'd just have to be uncomfortable in silence. I was getting used to that.
We took in our bags. I always took the bed closest to the bathroom; he got the one by the window. It was a variation on the same room we'd seen over and over again: slick polyester bedspreads, mass-produced chairs and table, television, beige bathroom. Tolliver got busy on his cell phone, while I stretched out on the bed and turned on CNN.
"She wants us to come by at eight tomorrow morning," he said, getting a pencil out of his bag and folding the morning's newspaper open to the crossword puzzle. Sooner or later, he'd break down and learn how to work sudoku, but he was sticking with his crossword pretty faithfully.
"Then I'd better run now," I said, and I noticed he didn't move for a few seconds, his pencil poised over the puzzle. We often ran together, though Tolliver usually took off toward the end of our exercise so he could go full-out. "It'll be too cold in the morning, even if I get up at five."
"You okay running alone?"
"Yeah, no problem." I got out my running gear and took off my jeans and sweater. I kept my back to him, but that was normal. While not having any modesty fetish, we tried to keep a boundary there. After all, we were brother and sister.
No, you're not, said my bad self. He's really not related to you at all.
I stuck a room key in my pocket and went outside into the cold wet air to run off my unhappiness.
"I'M the sheriff of Knott County," the lean woman said. She was leaning over the counter that divided the front of the station from the back, and she'd been chatting with the dispatcher when we entered. I've never understood how law enforcement people can stand to carry so much equipment around their hips, and this woman was bearing the full complement, too. I never like to stare long enough to identify all the items. I'd had a brief relationship with a deputy, and I should have taken a moment then to examine his cop equipment. I'd been more involved with his other equipment, I guess.
When the sheriff straightened, I saw she was a tall woman. She was in her fifties, with graying brown hair and a comfortable set of wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She didn't look like any true believer I'd ever encountered, yet she was the one who'd emailed us.
"I'm Harper Connelly," I said. "This is my brother, Tolliver Lang."
We weren't what she'd expected, either. She gave me a scan up and down.
"You don't look like a dingbat," she said.
"You don't look like a prejudiced stereotype," I said.
The dispatcher sucked in her breath. Uh-oh.
Tolliver was right behind me, slightly to my left, and I felt nothing but a calm waiting coming from him. He always had my back.
"Come into my office. We'll talk," said the tall woman. "My name is Sandra Rockwell, and I've been sheriff for one year." Sheriffs are elected in North Carolina. I didn't know how long her term was, but if she'd only been a sheriff a year, she must have plenty to go. Politics might not be as urgent a consideration for Sheriff Rockwell as they would be during election year.
We were in her office by then. It wasn't very big, and it was decorated with pictures of the governor, a state flag, a U.S. flag, and some framed certificates. The only personal thing on Sheriff Rockwell's desk was one of those clear cubes you can fill with pictures. Her cube was full of shots of the same two boys. They were both brown-haired like their mother. One of them, grown, had a wife and child of his own. Nice. The other one had a hunting dog.