Louise Meeker rose in bed, naked and tall and bone thin, her skin smooth and blue in the pale window light. Dark early morning of her twenty-second birthday. The retired sheriff Gale Wright snoring beside her, his gray-fur belly round and taut and high on the coarse blankets. His old penis lumpy, yellowish, soft on his leg.
In the kitchen Louise poured a tall glass of milk and stared out at the moon hooked in the skeletal cottonwood behind the shed out back. She wrapped her fingers around the cold white glass, her knuckles white and single strands of her brown hair newly white, and found the dark column of the ruined sugar beet mill on the horizon, a narrow weathered spine, black in the swales of dead grass and shallow snow and rocks and sand.
Gale's bare feet padded up behind her on the cracked linoleum. His belly reached her first and he gripped her around the waist. "Oh Lou," he said. "Such a window gazer." He pulled her from the window, took the milk from her hand and set it on the counter. "You're fine," he said. "There's nothing wrong with you," and he led her back to bed.
At work Louise looked up from the short list of story assignments for the week, saw her face in the dark blank of her computer monitor, and nudged the mouse to whiten the screen. Nose so long and bent. Dark hollows of her eyes too close, set too far back in her head. Ugly. So ugly that Frank Pyne couldn't look away. She knew he was staring from all the way down the hall as he walked toward her, she could feel it, his spectacled face pointed at her, heat of his eyes on her sloped shoulders, her scrawny neck. She waited for him, slouched in her seat, empty chapped hands in the lap of her brown-checked office skirt, long narrow curved back. Outside the window beside her, a long flat line of ranch houses on White Tongues River Road: pea green, mustard yellow, pale blue, brown; pea green, mustard yellow, pale blue, white. Treeless lawns and gravel driveways and cement porches lined with evergreen rectangles.
"Well Lou," Frank said, "here's your first real story." He put his huge hands on his slim hips, facsimile in one hand. "Prissy Monger. First grade. Went out to play yesterday, never came home."
"Mine?" Her voice grainy and wet with mucus. She cleared her throat.
"We didn't hire a smart college girl to write up town meetings forever," he said. He pointed at the fax. "That's the police blotter, her photo. Mongers are coming in. You'll want to call the sheriff, the school, teachers, principal, family friends, everyone. Any little thing you find, we make it everybody's business. Got it?" He looked at his watch. "Hell of a new year story. Christ."
Louise looked at the grainy black and white scan of the girl's school picture. Six years old, seven. Round white scoops of a lacy collar. Long shining yellow hair. Tiny even teeth. Louise scratched at it with her fingernail. Pretty girl, Prissy Monger.
Artie Tye, the young skinny photographer, came up behind her chair. "Not exactly the safe sleepy town you were looking for, huh?" He put his hands on her shoulders and Louise started and knocked a potted ivy from the desk that spilled a small fan of black dirt on the gray berber. "Jumpy," he said.
Louise put the plant back on the desk, and Artie looked at the photo of Prissy Monger taped to the side of her computer monitor. "I don't think we'll see her again," he said. "How many truckers through here on I-80 in a day." He shook his head. "We ought to hunt the guy down. Chop it off him."
"You think it was like that?" She looked up at him, her smooth white forehead creased with lines.
"Come on sweetheart. Really?"
They both stared out the window, the day whitewashed, cold.
"Well," Louise stood and lifted her coat off the back of her chair.
"Gonna be a long one," he said. "You want to get a drink or something after work?"
"I don't think I can."
He shook his head. "I keep thinking you'll get to missing city life. Get tired of that garage you live in. Come out and have a little fun." He grinned down at her.
She crossed her arms over her chest.
"Offer stands," he said, smiling and stepping backwards. "Have to make friends sometime." He nodded at her calendar. "Been what? Three months? No one in town's even given you a proper welcome."
The long single emergency note sounded on the radio in Laramie, Cheyenne, Sterling, Greeley, Grand Island, Lincoln, Omaha. Highway patrolmen notified. Parents questioned. Relatives phoned. All of Prissy Monger's classmates. Outside a fine rain began to fall.
Louise pulled the huge hood of her wool coat over her head and walked into town to visit the grade school at the lunch hour. All the kids kept inside by the rain and the cold sat in circles on bright orange and yellow rugs and ate their sandwiches. Colored plastic checkers and cards and crayon boxes and sticker books spread about the floor. They turned and whispered when Louise stepped in, webs of dark wet hair stuck to her pale face and throat, tall and narrow and creepy in the colorful room. The children hushed and pointed and grinned behind their small hands.
The round-cheeked teacher handed Louise a smock from the art bin to dry her face and shrugged apologetically. "Better than paper towels, anyway" she said.
Some father's old work shirt spotted stiff with finger paint. Louise dried her face in it, faintly repelled by its familiar sour smell. Small apartment. One father. Three uncles. Six cousins, all boys. The loud television and the men cheering and cursing and the red and blue and yellow lights strangled up about the frail Christmas tree and the freezing cold outside, so cold, so crowded, so full of strangers and strange cars, everyone on the sidewalk and in the store bumping you and touching you and grinning at you and winking at you and touching you, and inside this apartment no where to go, not enough closets, cupboards too small. Get Louise. Get her. She's under the bed. Grab her by the ankles. Bring her here.
Louise gave the shirt to the teacher and looked around the room where the children were gathered. "They seem fine."
"Kids are resilient," the woman said.
"No they're not."
"I'm sorry?" The woman's wide round cheeks turned pink.
"It's awful," Louise said, staring back at the children. "How they just keep playing."
For a moment the woman looked at Louise, saying nothing. Then she smiled. "How are you liking White Tongues, then? Pretty different from Des Moines?"
"Oh yes. Well. Even more different then?"
"Not so much." Louise stood limp and haggard and damp in the bright warm classroom. "Not so different."
Outside the rain turned to snow. A low blanket of pale gray clouds settled over the town. Freezing rain dripped into long glassy fingers hanging from the street lights and iron-limbed trees and Louise walked beneath them, shoulders hunched, back curved, hugging herself in the cold. At the police station the new sheriff looked up when Louise entered his office, his face grave.
"Hey," she said. She lifted her damp yellow legal pad a little. Her long hands were red with cold. "Anything since morning?"
"Not much," he said. He stood and rounded the desk, stood beside Louise. He put his hand on her shoulder. "Best thing you can do is keep warm and—Jesus girl—get yourself some gloves." Louise looked at his hand. He let go. "How're things working out otherwise," he asked, turning beside her to face the window. "Think you'll stay out here with us in the boonies for a while?"
"Don't miss your family?"
"Yeah?" he said. "And you don't get bored? I mean, White Tongues?"
"Love to get you a drink sometime, there's that new bar. If, you know, you ever want to get out."
"Oh. I like the quiet out there."
"He keeps that little garage apartment right and tight I suppose. If I know Gale."
"Yeah," she said. "It's warm."
"Great guy." He shook his head. "Really. A hell of a guy. You were smart to take that place. You tell him everybody misses him out here. When you see him."
She stepped backward toward the door. "I'll call in the morning."
He nodded, lifting his hand goodbye. "Always good to see you Louise."
From the front door of Gale's low gray house Louise heard the fry pan snap and spit. She shook the snow from her hair and hung her coat. Standing before the stove Gale pointed at a short glass, jabbed his finger in its direction twice, quick. Louise took the glass and looked in the pan. Eggs in there. On the counter, innards of a split tomato, a curled pink worm of ground beef.
She carried the glass from the counter to the round table beneath the lamp and sat. Long shadows of her eyelashes cast slantwise across her cheekbones in the orange light. Gale looked back at her with the spatula up, gunked with yellow and brown. "Can I feed you?" he asked. Louise shook her head. "Come on," he said. "I know my girl. You want to eat. What do you need? Cheese all over it?" He took a yellow triangle of cheese from the refrigerator. Louise bent over the table and sipped at the glass. "Oh oh," Gale reached back into the refrigerator. "I know what you need." He brought out a jar of relish and a jar of horseradish. Louise drank and watched Gale.
"There's this girl," she said.
Gale nodded, looked back at her, his face serious. "Saw it on the news." He scraped the egg onto paper plates and shook his head, bringing it all to the table. "You talk to that new kid at the station?"
Louise nodded. "He said no story."
"Trucker," Gale said, spooning the horseradish and relish onto Louise's eggs.
"That's what the guys in the office think."
"There you go," he put the plate before her. Louise watched him spread the relish into the eggs with the back of the spoon. "Mm," he said. "Eat all that up."
"Frank gave me the story," she said.
"Why." He sat. "He want to fuck you?"
Louise laughed, snorting like a kid. "Come on," she said.
Gale filled his fork with eggs and meat. "Well?"
She looked at her hands, red and flat and chapped in her lap. "I don't know," she said.
"Well I do," Gale looked up at her from his plate, "he does. Frank does and that other little shit—with the camera."
"What. You think I'm wrong?"
Louise looked at his plate. "No relish for you?"
"No," he took a slug of brown whiskey. "That's disgusting."
Louise sipped. She poked the food on her paper plate. Tasted the eggs around the edges.
"What's the matter?"
"I don't like relish."
He filled his mouth, chewing and swallowing and filling. "Yes you do." He filled the fork again and filled his mouth again and took another slug of whiskey. "It's green. You like green food." Louise watched the translucent grease flower blooming on her paper plate from beneath the eggs, and she tried the relish again.
Gale scraped the last of the egg and meat off his plate. Took up his drink. Looked at Louise over the rim of his glass. "I found something today," he said. "Cleaning out that closet for you." He swallowed and pushed his chair back. Across the room he lifted a heavy black rod with a short black handle from up out of his desk. He slapped it into his palm. "Night stick," he said. "For you."
"How's that." Louise smiled. He lifted the nightstick like it was a twenty-two and sighted her along its long blunt end and came to her and knocked it against the insides of her knees, hard, and flipped up the end of her brown checked office skirt.
"Want to?" he said.
She looked at Gale, at the nightstick. "With that?"
"Such a smart girl," he said, and took her hand, led her over to the couch. "How do you know so much? Or do you just know me. Is that it?" He smiled down at her, shook his head, then placed the nightstick on the crown of her head and tipped her face down so that she and he were both looking at her body. "Nobody's ever?" he said. "With something else?" She shook her head. "Don't lie to me," he said.
He drew the bones of her arms and legs with the nightstick, tracing her skeleton. "Here," he said, before the couch. "Get on your knees for me." He helped her, bending her elbows and knees like she was a doll, and she checked his face with her own: is this right? Like this? "Yeah," he said. "Like that." He lifted her skirt again. "I know all about you," he said, and she held her breath. "You trust yourself in my hands don't you. You know I won't hurt you. You know I'll be real gentle."
When she met Gale there was something. The way he put his hand on her blouse, between the blades of her shoulders, guiding her into the apartment above the garage. As if somewhere on her face Louise wore a recognizable mark, a weariness, her forehead broad and smooth and pale as a white flag.
"I was sheriff of this county thirty years," he'd said, showing her the little studio, the half-size oven, the twin bed. "So a girl—excuse me—a woman—will be safer here than anywhere in town."
Even when he told her there were no locks; even when he invited her over for dinner later that very first week, already drunk, and reached across the card table in his TV room and pressed the bone between her breasts with his thumb. Even then she felt, somehow, that he was probably right. This was safe.
Now he gathered her hair at the back of her neck, held it in his fist and pushed off her underwear with the nightstick, pulling back her hair in his hand, lifting her chin up at the window behind the couch, pushing her gaze out the window. The hollowed-out mill stood on the horizon in the failing daylight and Gale behind her, slowly moving it, the nightstick, and she pictured it, the nightstick, her small insides, the nightstick inside her small insides, what it would look like, and her head lifted at the window, and she knew what it looked like inside there, she was in there, once, two months ago, the spray of rat shit on the floor, the stacks of warped boards, a thousand things she couldn't see in the dark, spiders probably, many-legged things, dead things, something rotting, the horrible smell of something dead, something that'd been there a long time, rotting. She fixed on it. Fixed her eyes on the dark glassless window at the top. Gale's hand lighting again, then again against her bottom. The other hand pulling back, up and back on her hair, her white neck and throat long and bare and rigid and tense. "You sweet," he was saying. "You sweet." Her body rocked forward and back as he moved and she breathed through her teeth, eyes out the window. Gale bent low over her back, his face beside her ear, and she smelled the food on his warm breath. "You just love me don't you. You just give me everything." His warm egg breath labored. "You sweet, sweet delicate thing."
Louise spent Thursday morning at work on the telephone, staring at the sugar beet mill, small as a toy on the horizon. Dark and even and still. Everyone around her coming and going. The new young sheriff, in and out and past her desk grinning and lifting his hat and glancing down at her body her chest her lap her arms and legs as he's gliding by. Frank Pyne peering at her from behind his small clean glasses and Artie gangling above her, beside her, over her, all day long right behind her, and the big wide black eye of his camera hanging around his neck, pointed at her.
At her desk Louise studied the creases of her hands and her torn cuticles. She found a hangnail with her teeth, ripped at it, thinking. She took Prissy Monger down, repositioned her at eye-level. Stared at her.
"Jesus Meeker," Artie stopped behind her desk. "What happened to you?"
He nodded at her hand, her middle finger bright and wet with red blood. Louise wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand. Grabbed a Kleenex.
"Do me a favor?" he asked. Louise nodded, squeezing her finger inside the tissue. "I get free drinks from my buddies if I can drag you to join us after work." He winked.
Louise shook her head. "Sorry."
"Boy. You're tough." He looked at his watch. "That old man out there's a greedy sonofabitch."
Louise looked at him.
He put his hands up. "I'm kidding." He smiled. "Rain check?"
"Alright," he patted his pockets for his keys. "Meantime go easy on yourself." He nodded at her finger. "Swallow yourself whole sitting there."
At home Gale made hot dogs, filled a plastic red bucket with ice and bottles of beer. He lifted a beer at the TV. "Come watch with me."
"Oh come on. You going to mope all night?"
Louise stood behind the couch. "I keep thinking of that girl."
Gale tipped his beer at the bucket for Louise to take one. "I've seen that kid." He shook his head. He waggled his huge old hands at the side of his head and down his shoulders. "Long yellow hair." He clicked his tongue. "People dress up their little girls."
"She was pretty."
"That kid's been raped ten ways in four truck stops from here to Idaho."
"Gale. God. She was six."
He looked up at her. Reached into the bucket and put a beer in her hand. "Don't blame me, Lou." He took a drink and shook his head and swallowed. "I sheriffed almost ten years in this county before you were even born."
Louise blinked. She put her hand on the arm of the couch, stooped and put the beer on the coffee table. She looked away from Gale, out the window.
"Oh stop it," Gale said. "It's the truth and you know it. It's a fact and you deal with it." She turned to him, staring. He slapped his thigh. "Come here," he said. "Come sit."
She sat on his lap. Took his free hand in hers. He gave her back the beer from the table. "Come on," he said. "Catch up."
Louise held the cold bottle in her hands and Gale tinked it with his own and both brown bottles foamed over on their fingers and hands. Gale licked Louise's hand, then squeezed her bottom and looked back at the TV, touched her face with his eyes on the screen. "You pretty girl. You pretty." He turned to face her. "Are you all mine?" He put his hand beneath her chin and turns her face toward his. "Tell me."
"Yours." He nodded down at her, so she pulled her arms into her sleeves and lifted her sweater over her head.
He kissed her throat. "It's that I get everything about you, isn't it? I know things about you, you don't even get yourself."
"For example," he said, "I know that in one minute you're going to get up, go find me that billie, put it right here in my hand."
Noon Friday Louise had nothing on the Monger story. No one did. She did not speak all morning. You do the rest of your job she told herself. You shake out these cobwebs. There are other stories. On the east side of town power went out from the ice and wind and she had that story. The weather. Artie got her pictures of power lines down. She looked at the picture of Prissy Monger, pinned up beside her monitor.
Near the end of the day Frank's office door slammed open and he hollered at Louise from his office. Artie suddenly appeared and ran to Frank's office and Louise followed.
Frank was on the telephone, a finger pointed at them in the doorway. He tilted the phone from his mouth. "There's a body," he told them. He nodded his head at the phone. "Yes. Right." He pointed at Louise, at Arthur. "Whiterock Gulch." He said. "Got it."
Louise and Arthur and Frank ran out, notepads and jackets and cameras. They drove along the county road to the gullies and rills along the White Tongues River, three miles from the girl's home.
All the ground was veiled with sparse dirty lace of snow and mud. City and county vehicles line the dark unpaved county road, lights silently flashing blue and red and white in the fine snow and the growing dark. The wind pulled at Louise's coat and she held it shut with both arms running over the ground through the small crowd, the half dozen people.
They pulled Prissy Monger out of the sandy ford in her pink boots and pink jacket and pink wool hat muddy and frozen, pale blue mittens hanging from braided white yarn inside her sleeves. Everything in place. On their knees in the cold wet muck beside the now covered body, her parents. Mrs. Monger's shoulders shaking. She wasn't much older than Louise. Mr. Monger held his wife about her shoulders, shielded her face from Artie's camera.
"Arthur, please," he said. "Don't."
Prissy Monger drowned. Prissy Monger froze to death. Prissy Monger was lost in some game in her head; didn't know where she was going, how far she'd drifted. The girl didn't want to go to school. The girl was tired, distracted, got lost. Disoriented. Stupid. Left alone. The girl was kidnapped but got out, ran away, ended up here. She wandered straight out of sight. Out of reach.
The Mongers shielded the small body with their own. They shielded each other. They didn't want to talk. They didn't want to be in some article. "It's okay," Louise told them. "I understand."
Later in his office Frank Pyne shrugged. Louise and Arthur in their damp coats, their faces red from wind and from cold. Bare hands wrapped around Styrofoam cups of coffee. "Fuck," he said. "Little kid freezes to death." He shook his head. "That's all she wrote."
"At least it was—what," Artie said.
"Yeah," Frank said. "Must be a little easier on her folks this way."
Louise wrote up what she had, the men laying out the next day's stories in Frank's office. As she readied herself to leave the two men watched Louise button her long coat, pull her hood up over her long dark hair. They didn't ask where she was going, they didn't ask her to stay, they didn't ask her out for drinks, they didn't ask her anything at all.
From the dark shoulder of the county road Louise saw Gale paying for a pizza in the bright yellow rectangle of his open front door. She walked in the frozen gravel and slush, head down, hands deep in the pockets of her long coat. From behind the wheel of his filthy red pick-up the pizza delivery boy honked at her.
"Hey sweet cheeks," Gale called from the kitchen when she opened the front door. "Come on," he said. "Warm in here. Pizza."
In her long coat Louise walked into the kitchen and sat down by the dark window and looked out. It was too dark to see anything in the glass but the kitchen and the table and her self and the neon blue numbers of the stove clock reflected backward.
Gale reached across the table with a half-eaten slice of pizza. He put it to her face for her to take a bite but she pushed his hand away.
"What," he said. "They found the girl?"
Louise nodded, and taking her hand, Gale pulled her over onto his lap. "What happened?" he said, chewing.
She looked away from him, back to the window where she saw him, and herself, and this room, and this table. She closed her eyes. "This man," she said. "Took her."
Gale jostled her on his lap. "Tell me," he whispered, his warm wet lips on her hear. "Tell me all the details."
Louise drew up her shoulders, put her arms around Gale's neck. Her face against his warm old skin. He ran his hand up in her hair.
"Some guy," Louise said, rolling her head a little this way then that way against Gale's chest. "Picked her right up. Took her right off the swing set."
"At school?" He murmured.
Louise nodded. "No one was even watching. How many kids saw it and didn't even notice? No one went in to tell their teachers." She put her face into his shirt. "He. Told her. All kinds of things."
Gale slid his hand down her chest and flat stomach. "Like what," he said, slipping his hand just inside the waistband of her skirt. Red sauce on the corner of his mouth. He kissed her chin. They sat still in the kitchen, their shadows iron blue in the half-dark, their faces gray.
"She's lucky," Louise said. "That little girl is lucky she died."
"No," Gale said, "tell me how he touched her. How she looked." He put his mouth to her ear. "Don't skip to the end like that."