“I TOLD YOU SO,” said Blake. “I’m sorry to say it, Tracy, but I did.”
“You don’t look sorry to say it,” Tracy complained, handing him a bowl of steaming beef and vegetable soup. On stressful days, Tracy liked to destroy things in blenders. “I didn’t tell him to go in there and do those paintings, you know. He’s not a toy that I control.”
“No,” agreed Blake. “He’s a boy that you influence. And you keep encouraging him to act out.”
“I do not!” Tracy said furiously. “How did I encourage this?”
“You told him the artwork was good.”
“It was good.”
“Tracy.” Blake frowned. “When Principal Hargreaves showed you the math lady in the hot dog bun, you laughed! Right in front of Nick! You told me that yourself.”
Tracy shrugged helplessly. “I know. I shouldn’t have, but it was funny. Nick is funny, that’s the problem, Blake. And I love that about him.”
The truth was that Tracy loved everything about her son. Every hair on his head, every smile, every frown. Becoming a mother had been the great miracle of her life. Creating Nicholas was the one, pure, wholly good thing she had ever done, untinged by regret, untouched by loss or pain. Whatever the boy’s faults, Tracy adored him unconditionally.
“It was tough to keep a straight face in that office,” she admitted to Blake. “Every time I looked at Hargreaves I couldn’t stop thinking about the farting thing.” She started to giggle. Once she started, she couldn’t stop.
Blake sat in stony silence as tears of mirth rolled down Tracy’s cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” she said eventually.
“Are you?” Blake said sternly. “ ’Cause I don’t see it, Tracy. Do you want that boy to wind up like his father?”
Tracy recoiled as if she’d been stung. Blake never brought up Nick’s parentage. Never, ever. He knew Jeff Stevens was Nick’s real father. Seeing the two of them together that time Jeff came to stay at the ranch had hardened Blake’s suspicions on that score into incontrovertible fact. But he’d never discussed it with Tracy. Never asked for any details or cast any judgments. Till now.
To her surprise, Tracy found herself suddenly defensive of Jeff Stevens.
“Do I want Nick to be funny, you mean? And charming and brave and a free spirit?”
“No,” said Blake angrily. “That’s not what I mean. I mean do you want him to be a criminal, a liar and a thief? Because if you do, you’re going the right way about it.”
Tracy pushed away her bowl and stood up, her eyes brimming with tears.
“You know what, Blake? It doesn’t matter what I want, or what you want. Nick is like Jeff. He just is! You think you can lecture it out of him, or punish it out of him, but you can’t.”
Blake stood up too. “Well, I can try. I’m gonna take him out for a meal tonight in town. Talk to him man to man. One of his parents needs to tell that boy the difference between right and wrong.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tracy shouted. Blake was already heading for the door. “You are so goddamned holier than thou, Blake Carter. Did you ever wonder why I’m your only friend? You’re not perfect, you know.”
Blake kept walking.
Tracy yelled after him. “If Nick’s a hoodlum, he’s a hoodlum you raised! Not Jeff Stevens. You! Take a look in the mirror you . . . hypocrite!”
Blake shot her a look of real pain.
Then he walked out, slamming the door behind him.
FOR THE REST OF the afternoon Tracy caught up on paperwork. Then she cleaned the kitchen until every surface sparkled and reorganized the books in her library. Twice.
Why did Blake have to be so judgmental?
Worse than that, why did he always have to be right?
Afternoon turned to evening, then to night. When the hands came back in from the fields, Nick wasn’t with them.
“Mr. Carter came and picked him up,” one of the men told Tracy. “They were headed into town, I think. Did you want us to bring him back here, Ma’am?”
“No, no. That’s OK,” Tracy said. “You go on home.”
It was a bitterly cold night, not snowing, but with a wind blowing that could flay the skin from your bones like a razor blade. Usually Tracy loved nothing more than to curl up in front of the fire on a winter’s night like this, luxuriating in the warmth and savoring the precious hours alone with her book. But tonight she found she would read a page and take nothing in. She wandered into the kitchen to make herself some food, then found she wasn’t hungry. If Nick were here they’d have watched a show together—something mindless and funny like The Simpsons—but Tracy hated watching television alone. Eventually she gave in to her jitters and began pacing the room, going over and over the argument with Blake in her mind like a child stubbornly picking at a scab.
I shouldn’t have called him a hypocrite.
High-minded maybe. And rigid. But not a hypocrite.
He’d looked so hurt when he walked out. That was the killer. Then again, Tracy had been hurt too. Did she really deserve to be punished for loving the free spirit in Nick? For finding him funny and charming, even when he was being exasperating? For being on his side?
Tracy’s parents, both long dead, had always been on her side. Especially her father. Then again, as a child Tracy had never given them cause to worry. She’d never stepped out of line or been in trouble at school.
I was the archetypal good girl. And look how my life turned out.
For all Blake Carter or anyone else knew, Nick might grow up to be a missionary or an aid worker. Rebellious boy didn’t necessarily translate into rebellious man. Did it?
Still, she shouldn’t have said what she said to Blake. She’d apologize as soon as he dropped Nick home. And thank him for tonight.
Tracy looked at her watch. 10:15 P.M. They were very late. Most restaurants in Steamboat stopped serving at nine. Tracy pictured Blake ensconced in a booth somewhere, haranguing Nick about moral responsibility until the poor boy’s ears melted.
I hope he’s OK.
A banging on the front door broke her reverie.
Blake must have forgotten his key. Tracy flew to the door. Pulling it open, the first thing she noticed were the lights of the squad car, blinking blue and white in the darkness. Then she focused on the two cops standing in front of her.
“Yes,” Tracy said cautiously.
One of the cops took off his hat. He gave Tracy a look that made her knees start to shake.
“I’m afraid there’s been an accident.”
No, there hasn’t.
“It seems Mr. Carter ran his truck off the road up at Cross Creek.”
No, he didn’t. He didn’t. Blake’s a very careful driver.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Schmidt, but I’m afraid he was killed instantly.”
Tracy clutched the doorframe for support.
“What about Nick? My son?”
“Your son’s OK. He’s been taken to the hospital. Yampa Valley Medical Center.”
Tracy’s legs gave way beneath her. Blake was dead—her Blake, her rock—but all she felt in that moment was relief. Nick was alive! It shamed her to admit it, but that was all that mattered.
“He had to be cut out of the truck. But he was conscious going into the ambulance. We’ll take you to him now if you’d like?”
Tracy nodded mutely. She started walking towards the squad car, stumbling through the snow like a zombie.
“Do you have a coat, Ma’am?” the cop asked. “It’s pretty cold out tonight.”
But Tracy didn’t hear him, any more than she felt the cold.
I’m coming Nick. I’m coming my darling.
EVERYONE AT YAMPA VALLEY Medical Center knew Tracy Schmidt. She was one of the hospital’s most generous local donors.
A nurse led her to Nick’s room. To Tracy’s immense relief, he was awake.
His face was bruised and his lower lip was trembling. Tracy wrapped her arms around him like she would never let go. He started to cry.
“I know.” Tracy held him. “I know, my darling. Do you remember what happened?”
“Not really,” he whimpered. “Blake thought someone was following us. A woman.”
“What woman?” Tracy frowned. “Why would he think that? ”
“I don’t know. I didn’t really see her. But Blake was kind of distracted I guess. One minute we were driving and the next . . .” He started to cry.
“Shhhh. It will be all right, Nicky. I promise.”
Tracy stroked the back of his head. Beneath her palm she could feel a lump the size of a hen’s egg.
Forcing herself not to panic, she asked, “Do you feel OK?”
“Sort of. I feel dizzy. And super tired. The doctors ran some tests.”