Jessica James had only been home for two hours, and already Whitefish was a couple of sizes too small. She waited until everyone else cleared out, then loaded a flimsy paper plate with crusty potato salad and the last piece of huckleberry coffeecake. Standing alone under the shade of a hemlock tree, she was just digging in when she heard a ruckus coming from the waterfront in the direction of Specht Mill. Stopping mid-bite, fork still in her mouth, she turned toward the river. Squinting against the sun’s glare behind the jagged peaks of the Whitefish Mountains, all she could make out were four silhouettes, arms flapping. Shading her eyes with one hand, and balancing her plate on the other, Jessica peered in the direction of the commotion. To her surprise, she recognized her cousin Mike shaking his finger at a tall overdressed woman who stood out amongst the lumberjacks like a rattlesnake at a square dance. Usually so laid-back he was prone, she’d never seen Mike this agitated. Jessica narrowed her brows, retracted the fork from her mouth, and stabbed it into a fat chunk of greasy potato. Grabbing her sweaty beer bottle off the picnic table, then gripping her precarious plate by its sticky edge, she strode across the park grounds to investigate.
As she wove her way through the jumble of lumberjacks, mill workers, forest service hacks, and timberland owners (and their wives and girlfriends), their unforgiving stares burned through her freckled skin; suddenly she was an alien visiting from another planet. Except for the woman in the navy blue sheath and pearls down by the river, she was the only one wearing a dress, albeit a wrinkly gabardine vintage number with faded black velvet embroidery. And for all the cowboy boots in the crowd, hers were the only ones painted bright red with model paint.
But it wasn’t just her funky mismatched clothes or tangled mop of blonde hair that made folks shake their heads and tut with their tongues as she passed by. Even before she left Montana to go “back East” and study philosophy, she’d never been able to meet their expectations of a proper young lady. A “klutzy tomboy” constantly getting into scrapes and a “trouble maker” constitutionally unable to play by the rules, growing up she’d always run afoul of the “natives.” Still, she hadn’t expected kids she’d known since kindergarten to turn up their noses and snub her attempted greetings. On the way from the airport, her cousin Mike had warned her that some of the old crowd thought she’d gotten “too big for her britches,” coming back and flaunting her fancy degree and “book learning.” But she could no more resist philosophy than they could resist reproducing. Just as their new babies sprouted every spring following a cold harsh winter, her perpetual soul-searching was the natural consequence of the cold harsh reality of her childhood, starting with her birth.
Her mom loved to tell Jessica she’d been born rolling her eyes and sucking her thumb, “only a few seconds old and already bored with life.” If it was true she’d emerged from her mother’s womb sucking her thumb, she’d probably just been biding her time, waiting until she could escape from the constricting grip of her maternal confines and get on with life. Even in utero she’d been pensive and brooding, a natural born philosopher, and the perfect fit between her tiny thumb and the roof of her mouth confirmed her contemplative character. It also meant she’d wear braces for most of her adolescence. The braces may have straightened her teeth, but nothing could straighten her temperament as meandering as a Montana stream.
Concentrating on her plate and avoiding eye contract with the disapproving Specht Mill picnic crowd, she snaked her way toward the shore. By the time she approached her cousin, the well-heeled woman he’d been gesturing towards had taken cover behind one of two gray suits and was shaking her head “no.” When Jessica was within earshot, she heard her cousin say, “I know it was you.”
She sidled up to Mike, then, glancing back and forth between the attractive well-dressed trio and her shaggy shabby cousin, she took another bite of coffeecake and watched for his next move. Mike snorted, crossed his arms over his broad chest, and just stared across the river at the mill. Mouth full, she shrugged her shoulders at the suited trio now gawking at her. After several awkward seconds, the younger of the two gray suits extended his hand to her. “Hi, I’m David and this is my brother, Richard, and his wife, Maggie…er, Margaret.” David’s angular jaw and full lower lip reminded her of a twenty-something Johnny Depp, and his smoky voice went down like a barrel aged Kentucky bourbon.
With both hands full, she waved her beer bottle in acknowledgment, swallowed her cake, and said, “I’m Jess…” But before she could finish, her cousin grabbed her by the arm and whisked her away food first. “What the hell are you doing, Mike?” she demanded as he pulled her along.
“I’ll tell you in the rig,” Mike said, still tugging at her arm as he marched across the dry grass toward the parking lot.
Trying to keep up, she stumbled over her own feet, and the paper plate slipped from her hands, slid down her front, and skidded across the dry grass, sending mayonnaise drooling down her leggings and spitting chunks of pickle into her boots. She barely managed to hang on to her beer bottle and keep from falling flat on her face.
“Now look what you made me do!”
“Sorry,” he said as he opened the passenger door to his beat-up Ford King Ranch. “Get in. I’ll take you home.”
Jessica grabbed the handhold and hauled herself up into the passenger’s seat. She remembered back five years ago when Mike had finally saved enough from working at the Mill to buy the shiny black pickup, his pride and joy. He’d driven through town every chance he got just to show off his fancy ride, especially during hunting season when he could tie a buck’s antlers to the rack behind the back window. The rusty concave fender suggested he’d hit something bigger than a deer though, a moose maybe, or a grizzly bear.
“You made me dump a perfectly good plate of grub.” She glared at her cousin, pulled some Kleenex from her backpack, wiped at a glob of potato salad on her favorite dress, and then started picking crumbs out of the fringe of her buckskin jacket.
“What was going on back there? Why were you yelling at that woman?”
Mike shifted in his seat. “She’s the wife of that damned business mogul Knight. He’s trying to buy Specht Mill, along with half of Montana.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Richard Knight, one of the richest men in the country.”
“What’s he doing in backwater Whitefish?”
“Let’s just say, a lot has changed since you left, Jesse.”
“I bet nothing has changed at the trailer park. Ten bucks says my mom’s probably not even out of bed yet.” After almost a year in Chicago, her mother and Alpine Vista had become a bog of soggy depression and sappy expectations. She shuddered imagining herself in a trailer next door to her mom, married to a beer swilling lumberjack, changing diapers and wiping up baby puke, a stash of Xanax in her nightstand and a bottle of Jack in her pantry to counteract the mind numbing domestic routine.
“So what’s up, Mike?” Jessica reached across the center console and put her hand on her cousin’s shoulder.
“Somethin’ weird’s going on at the mill.” Mike narrowed his brows as he stretched the seatbelt around his doughy belly.
“Weird? Are they downsizing or something? Or, did Mr. Swanson run off with that transvestite you tried to set him up with at the Christmas party?” Jessica poked him in the shoulder and laughed.
“I wish.” Mike slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a deer and her fawn leaping up from the underbrush across the road.
Jessica white knuckled the handhold and let out a little squeak as she watched the mother and baby disappear into the forest. The view of the rugged snowcapped peaks up ahead hit her harder than a shot of whiskey. She may be a nerdy alien among the shaggy old hippies, neo-Nazi skinheads, redneck cattle ranchers, and gun-toting Libertarians, but damn how she loved this place. She had a visceral connection to the land itself; the blood, sweat, and tears of her ancestors were part of her DNA, and her sinews and tendons were rooted deep in the dry Montana soil. Surrounded by these fierce mountains, she felt safe in the earth’s strong arms, but the smoky haze encroaching on the horizon suggested otherwise.
“There was an accident at the mill last week,” Mike said, interrupting her reveries. “Johnny Dickerson, right after his promotion.”
“Oh my god. I remember Johnny. I met his sister, Little Eagle, once at Glacier Lodge. Is he okay?” she asked, dreading the answer.
“He’s dead,” Mike said as he pulled into the driveway. “And I don’t think it was an accident.”
“What?” she asked, distracted by the dilapidated doublewide’s decrepit front porch and an overstuffed armchair oozing filthy stuffing that was swallowing up her tiny mom. Smoking a cigarette and petting an orange tabby cat on her lap, her mom sat at attention, shaded her eyes, and looked in their direction. The ramshackled scene brought back the pain and loneliness of her childhood: Her dad’s senseless death, her mom’s melancholic drinking, her own introspective isolation, all one sharp slap in the face named Alpine Frigging Vista. How could the grass be both overgrown and dead? Her mom dropped the cat, then the smoke, and bounced across the brittle lawn, waving her spindly arms in the air. Jessica steeled herself for a sloppy reunion. Twisting a piece of leather fringe between her thumb and forefinger, now she regretted ever coming back home.
Jessica waved back to her mom. When she reached over to hug her cousin goodbye, she noticed tears in his eyes. “I’m so sorry about your friend, Mike.” She sighed and pulled Mike closer, inhaling his cinnamon roll scent, remembering all the times he’d gotten her out of scrapes: pulling her out of playground fights, bandaging her bloody knees, doing her chores so she could ride Mayhem, even covering for her when she’d sneaked home in the middle of the night from high school parties. Mike had been her only friend, at least her only human friend.
“Johnny killed himself?”
“No, he wouldn’t do that. I mean….I mean…it was foul play.”
“You think someone killed him? Why?”
“I don’t know, Detective Clue Slow. You tell me.” He smiled knowingly. Once, during recess in grade school, Mike had found her crouched inside a box. Instead of going outside to play, she’d hidden in the ball box pretending to be a detective, peeking up over the edge, stealthily spying on the other kids, looking for something to pin on them. Since then, Mike had called her “Detective Clue Slow.”
It was true. She’d spent most of her childhood wandering off to explore bear caves, abandoned hay barns, or hunter’s tree stands. She pretended the school bus was the starship Enterprise taking her to rendezvous with intelligent life on other planets to collect evidence of crimes committed by humans towards other species. Now, instead of creeping around secret caves and spooky barns, she haunted libraries and museums; and instead of wielding a special gadget lodged in the tip of a ballpoint to unlock secret passageways, she used a pen and notebook to unravel the existential quandaries of life, and searched for clues to the meaning of life in dusty old books. She was becoming a detective alright, just not the sort she’d imagined as a kid.
“If there’s foul play at the mill, we’ll get to the bottom of it.” She shuddered thinking about Johnny chewed up by a saw at the mill. “You can count on Detective Clue Slow.” She forced a smile as the wild woman closed in on them from the sunburned yard. At least her mom zooming toward the truck pushed thoughts of dead bodies and gruesome mill accidents out of her mind. Just two weeks ago, she’d seen the dead body of her thesis advisor lying in his bathtub, killed by a deranged student. She’d solved the murder, but she much preferred contemplating the mysteries of life to the mysteries of death.
“Wanna come in for a drink and save me from my mom?” she asked, rolling her eyes at the spray tanned, bottle blonde, sinewy snip of a woman flying towards the pickup. She’d kicked off her shoes and was picking up speed. From a distance she looked like a young girl in her tight jeans and tube-top, but as she got closer, Jessica could see the deep lines in her leathery face. Since her dad died, her mother had started drinking hard. And gambling even harder.
“I’m afraid you’re on your own. I’ve got to be at work first thing in the morning. I’m subbing for my friend Kyo Kosi, Johnny’s brother.”
“Is that a Blackfoot name?” Jessica tugged on her backpack trying to free it from the tumble of stuff in the backseat–old tools, greasy rags, and candy wrappers.
“Means Bear Child in Blackfoot.” Mike’s burly body slumped in his seat and he sighed. “Johnny and Kyo Kosi are, were, my best friends at the mill.” He unbuckled his seatbelt, leaned across to wrap his arms around her and squeezed her so hard she could hardly breathe. Still holding her tight, he asked, “Jesse, can I tell you something? That woman back there. She’s the one that took the baby. I’m sure of it.”
Confused, Jessica pulled free of her cousin’s embrace and scrutinized his sorrowful eyes. “What baby?”
“She’s the woman from the bus wreck, the one with the baby,” he repeated. “They were at the Snow Slip Inn that night. I’m sure of it.”
“The bus wreck? You mean my dad’s…” Just then, her mom rapped on the window, jumping up and down and waving. Jessica inhaled deeply, gave her cousin an apologetic shrug, and opened the passenger door, wishing like hell she’d cashed in her plane ticket to hole up in the Philosophy Department for the summer, smoking dope, drinking whiskey, and arguing about the liar’s paradox or brains in vats with the other graduate students.
“I’ll be back on Saturday to drive you over to East Glacier,” Mike said as she tugged on her duffle bag to free it from the bed of the pickup. “I have a hunch about that baby and I’m going over to North Valley hospital. I’ll tell you what I find out.”
She blew her cousin a kiss, and then turned to face the flurry of maternal affection coming at her.
Still jetlagged even after twelve hours of sleep, Jessica spent the next afternoon sitting cross-legged on the tatty plaid Lazyboy in her mom’s dingy living room watching television and petting the cat. Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened when she saw Mike’s graduation photo flash onto the boxy set. She turned up the volume as she stared at the caption “second mill accident in two weeks.” She could barely breathe, glued to the television, waiting for more details.
A woman reporter held a microphone up in front of the mayor’s face. “It’s tragic. Our hearts go out to the friends and family of Mike James. It’s just terrible.” A group of local officials touring the mill had found the body, what was left of it. A picture of Johnny Dickerson appeared in the corner of the screen while the camera panned the mill in the background. The reporter came back on and introduced “City Councilman William Silverton of Whitefish.” She uncrossed her legs and scooted to the edge of the easy chair, holding her breath and gripping the armrests as her childhood crush (now with more girth and less hair) described the grizzly scene: “The City Council was touring the facility when we heard yelling and I ran into the saw room. One of the workers, I think it was Tom Dalton, had already stopped the machinery, but it was too late. Apparently, Mike James had gone inside the debarking machine to clear a jam and somehow the large rotating drum used to strip bark off the trees had gotten turned back on, and he was… he was killed.” Her stomach flipped, and she fought off a wave of nausea, then buried her head in her hands. It couldn’t be true. Mike was dead. Last year she’d been afraid to leave Whitefish, now she was afraid to be back.
Tears streaming down her face, Jessica heard the news anchor conclude, “The mill will be closed until further notice.” She staggered outside to find her mom lounging in the recliner on the porch playing online poker and drinking a vodka Collins, a burning cigarette dangling from her thin lips. Choking back her tears, the brutal words stuck in Jessica’s throat. She should have paid more attention when Mike told her something sinister was happening out at the mill. Two accidents in two weeks couldn’t be a coincidence. Now she realized what Mike had been trying to tell her: Johnny had been murdered, and so had her cousin. Bile pooled at the back of her tongue. She’d expected her homecoming to be rough, but not gutting.
© Kelly Oliver