Sondra watched the sky, hurrying clouds gliding above the bare trees, knowing she was missing something important but not caring to grasp it. Suddenly, Cody’s twisted face replaced Sondra’s view of the sky. “Oh God, Sondra, oh God oh God, hang on, Rita’s coming, oh God —”
“I’m okay, Cody,” she whispered. “I just don’t remember getting down off the guardhouse. What’s the matter?”
Cody started crying. “They shot you, Sondra! Oh God, there’s blood everywhere, just hang on —”
Shot? She tried to think around Cody’s freak-out. She took out the preacher, the dangerous guy with the deer rifle who spotted her too late, Mr. Mirrorshades… and did she shoot that guy closest to Cody or not? She was on the guardhouse… and now she wasn’t. And what about Rita? It must be bad, she thought, Cody’s really freaking out. I should be scared… it should hurt. Am I dying? She felt the barest twinge of fear, but it was gone before she could catch it. She raised her arm; it felt heavy but she touched Cody’s lips then took his hand. He gripped it tight in his. “Are they gone? What about everyone else?”
“There were two left, the ones that shot you. They ran off. I tried to shoot them first, but I missed. I totally suck. Everybody else is okay. Cleve got ‘winged,’ he called it, but he bandaged it himself.” As Cody said his name, Cleve was there, kneeling at her feet, looking worried. An apparition, she ignored it.
“Good. I need to rest, Cody. Stay here.”
“You stay here. Don’t leave me.” He kept talking, but it faded into buzzing as light seemed to shine from Cody’s anguished face and she closed her eyes…
“Dad? What are you doing here?”
I’ve been here all along. I was afraid something like this would happen.
“You were really here then? I thought you’d drove off.”
Nope. Just drank myself to death. I think that’s what happened, anyway. I looted me a couple cases of prime quality bourbon, the stuff I could never afford, and next thing I knew I was here.
“But I—? Oh God, no. I’ve gotta get back, Cody’s already freaking out!”
There’s no going back to the mess that guy made, cara. He was using hollow points.
“I… can’t I at least tell him good-bye?”
A pause. Yeah. But you don’t have much time. You — both of you — deserved better than this. He really loves you, you know. More than anything. I want you to tell him something…
The buzzing sound faded back to Cody’s voice. “Oh please God, let Sondra hang on, just a little longer, oh please —”
“Stop,” she whispered, and mirabile dictu, he did. She could barely see him — it was darker than it should have been — but that wasn’t important now. “Dad said I don’t have much time.”
“Yeah. He’s going to be all the way there for me now. He said to tell you, Revenge is a dish best served cold. But throw away the leftovers.”
“That’s what he said. You’ll figure it out. I believe in you, Cody.”
“Sondra, I love you, Sondra. I don’t want to live without you. I wish it was me there, not you.”
“I love you, Cody.” She shivered a moment. “But don’t —” She gasped as a spasm clamped her mangled guts.
“Don’t what? Sondra! Sondra!” She tried to force the words out, but the buzzing and the light came back…
“— push the world away… damn.”
“I needed more time!”
Yeah. Like seventy years, at least.
Before she could respond, she felt a tug on her arm — her right arm, now as dark and feeling as her left. A small, silent boy held her hand in both of his, looking up at her. His hair was jet black, and hung down nearly into his eyes; his complexion was olive like her own. Those eyes were big and round and dark… but luminous —
“Well, hey there,” she said, blinking. “Who are you?”
Looks like I almost had a grandson.
“Grandson? You mean — oh, crap. I was a few days late, but —” she sighed. “Yeah, I guess I knew, but I was pretending not to.” She looked down at her son. “Poor guy, you never had a chance, did you? You look just like Cody, too.” He said nothing, just held her hand and watched her with the same bright and solemn gaze.
He’ll get his chance when he’s reborn.
“Reborn? Is that what happens to babies who don’t make it?”
Yeah. Souls have to be tested. It’s time to go now. Your granmama is waiting for you.
“Oh, her too?”
Yeah. She had a heart attack the night of your first gunfight.
“I’m glad she didn’t drive off, anyway.” She took her father’s hand, and the three of them walked away.
“I’m so sorry, Cody,” Rita said, holding his hands in hers. He looked terrible, but wondered if she looked much better — the last few hours had been some of the worst of her career and life. The frenzied ride to the guardhouse, hearing Cody’s wail and knowing she was too late; she and Cleve loading Sondra’s lifeless body on the backboard and riding it back to her clinic, Cleve’s siren wailing… her clinical detachment broke several times through the afternoon.
Now, they sat in office chairs in the clinic, Sondra’s body lying covered on the exam table above them. A pair of oil lamps pushed back some of the gathering night and masked some of the clinical odor. “Please, believe me: even if we’d had a fully-functional trauma center here, with the best surgeons standing by, we couldn’t have saved her. She was…” Again, the droning voice of a certain pathologist at Grady began running through her head, as it did during her brief autopsy: Victim was struck by two gunshots to the abdomen. Exit wounds and extensive organ damage consistent with high-powered rifle, using soft-point or hollow-point ammunition. Damage to spinal column means Victim would have felt very little before expiring from blood loss. A final note: Victim’s uterus was swollen, consistent with early stage pregnancy. Test strip confirms diagnosis. “She was just so torn up.” She dared not say much more; Cody was already on the edge. No telling what he would do if she told him Sondra was pregnant.
Cody shook his head. “It’s my fault,” he said. “I panicked. I just started shooting at those guys, didn’t take the time to aim or anything. If I’d done it right, they wouldn’t have had the chance…” He took a deep, shuddering breath, but he’d run out of tears hours ago.
“Don’t blame yourself,” Rita said, squeezing his hand again. “You did the best you could. When I was stitching up Cleve, he told me all of you did a lot better than he’d expected. He said most soldiers never fire their weapon at all in their first battle. If you have to blame someone, blame the people who came here to kill us all just because we aren’t like them.” Cleve had also said Sondra should have stayed down and used the roof for cover, but that was something else Cody didn’t need to hear just now.
“Yeah.” Cody stood, turned to the exam table. For a moment, Rita thought he would lift the sheet, but he only put his hand on the table. He looked down, hair covering his eyes. “I know you did what you could, too. You’re not the bad guy here.”
“And neither are you, Cody. Remember that.”
Neither spoke for a moment. Rita stood to join Cody at the table. “Take care of yourself, Cody. I won’t try to tell you to get some sleep, or eat anything, but you’ll need to do both sooner or later. Preferably tonight.” Cody nodded, and Rita hugged him, wondering if anyone would sleep much tonight. He felt wooden in her embrace, but after a moment reached up and patted her shoulder.
“Thanks,” he said. “I gotta go now. I got stuff to do.” He slipped free and into the dark before Rita had a chance to ask him what he had in mind.