Chapter 1

I saw my cousin Thaddeous as soon as I stepped into the Hickory Regional Airport, towering over everybody else.

“Hello Thaddeous,” I said. “It’s been a long time.” My husband Richard and I hadn’t been back to Byerly since the Christmas before last.

“Hey there Laurie Anne. It’s good to see you.”

I reached up to hug him, and then said, “How’s Paw?”

“I talked to Mama just before I left work to come out here, but she said there’s been no change.”

I let my breath out slowly, not knowing whether I should be relieved by his answer or not. I had known that Paw was bad off when Aunt Nora called that morning because she would never have risked Uncle Buddy’s wrath for a frivolous long-distance phone call. She told me that my grandfather, known to several generations as Paw, had been in an accident at the mill. When I asked how badly he had been hurt, all Aunt Nora would say was that she thought I should come home right away.

I had taken the next flight out of Boston, leaving Richard to pack and take care of the necessary details so he could join me that evening.

Thaddeous and I walked on to the parking lot, letting the hustle of the airport excuse us from making small talk. I looked at him curiously. He was even taller than I remembered. Of course Thaddeous had always been taller than me, even if I was two years older. Obviously he got his height from Uncle Buddy’s side of the family.

Other than his height, he was clearly Aunt Nora’s son. He had her blue eyes and solid build, and his skin burned easily just like hers. Normally his face looked cheerful and friendly, but today he just looked tired. Even if I hadn’t already known about Paw, I would have been able to tell that something was wrong.

I could feel the heat rising from the parking lot when we left the air-conditioned airport. In April, the difference between the seasons in Massachusetts and North Carolina was plain. Spring had just begun to make itself felt in Boston, but here in Hickory, the first flowers were already fading to make way for the next batch of blooms.

“Isn’t it awfully hot for this time of year?” I said.

“We’ve been having a warm spell for the last couple of weeks. It wouldn’t be so bad if it would just rain. It’s not the heat—it’s the humidity.”

Great, I thought as he opened the door of his dark blue pickup truck for me and I gingerly climbed onto the sun-warmed seat. I hadn’t seen my cousin in a year and a half and all we could talk about was the weather. I sighed. I always did feel tongue-tied around my family, except for Paw.

“As soon as I get the truck going good, I’ll turn the air-conditioner on,” Thaddeous said.

I waited until he had pulled out of the parking lot and turned onto the highway before I asked, “What happened, Thaddeous? Aunt Nora didn’t tell me much.”

“Just one of those things, I guess,” Thaddeous said. “Paw went up to the mill yesterday afternoon to pick up a carton of socks to pull.”

I nodded. Tube socks were woven in long tubes with the junction between each sock perforated, like a sheet of stamps. The mill paid retired mill workers to take the long tubes home and pull them apart.

Thaddeous continued, “There wasn’t nobody else there but Davy Sanders at the security booth. They don’t run the mill on Sunday like they used to.”

I knew that there hadn’t been enough business to run the mill on Sundays for the past ten years, but I nodded anyway.

Thaddeous said, “Davy let Paw in and then the shift changed and Ralph Stewart came on. You remember the Stewarts, don’t you, Laurie Anne? May was in your class in school.”

He stopped talking long enough to pull out in front of an eighteen-wheeler with a flourish that would have done a Bostonian proud, and then went on.

“It wasn’t until two, three hours later that he checked the sign-in book and realized that Paw hadn’t come out. He called up to the warehouse, but when no one answered, he locked up the gate and the booth and went to take a look.”

There was another pause while Thaddeous pulled a pack of Pall Malls out of his shirt-front pocket. He tapped the bottom of the pack to slide a cigarette neatly into his hand, inserted it into his mouth, lit it with a disposable lighter decorated with a Confederate flag, and inhaled deeply. Then he politely rolled down his window a crack to draw the smoke out.

“Then what?” I prompted.

“Paw was there, all right. He must have slipped while trying to pull a box of socks off of the shelf and fell and hit his head. Ralph found him stretched out on the floor with the box of socks pulled out on top of him. He called for an ambulance, and they got him up to the hospital in Hickory.”

The hospital in Hickory would have been the closest. There hadn’t even been a doctor in Byerly since Dr. Spater died when I was in high school.

Thaddeous said, “The doctor said he was lucky to be alive. He had had a heart attack, and that may be what made him fall. Or maybe he had the attack after he hit his head—they can’t really tell. They’ve got him in the coronary care unit, won’t let us in to see him but for ten minutes every three hours. Mama’s been up there all night. Just in case.”

I knew what he meant. Just in case Paw died.

Neither of us said anything for a while, and then Thaddeous asked, “Are you still working with them computers?”

“I still am. How about you? Didn’t Aunt Nora write me that you were promoted to supervisor at the mill?” I was amused when he puffed out his chest a bit at the question.

“Yeah,” he answered nonchalantly. “Not all that much of a much, really. Longer hours, lots more paperwork, and a little bit more money.”

“Youngest supervisor they ever had, so I hear.”

“I don’t know about that,” he said with a small grin.

By then we had reached the hospital. We parked, stopped to pick up visitor passes from the front desk, and walked up to the second floor. Aunt Nora, a plump woman who kept her hair blond, was sitting in one of the green vinyl-covered chairs in the waiting-room. Though there was an open true confessions magazine in her lap, she was staring into space and my heart sank when I saw the forlorn expression on her face.

“Aunt Nora?” I said softly. “Is Paw…” I couldn’t finish the question.

She jerked toward my voice, and then half-smiled. “He’s still hanging on.”

I found I could breathe again.

“Laurie Anne, I am so glad you’re here,” Aunt Nora said. She stood and held her arms out toward me. “Just let me hug your neck.” She hugged me firmly, whispering, “I swear, why is it that we only see each other when there’s trouble?” I didn’t say anything because I knew it was herself she was asking as much as it was me.

Aunt Nora pulled back but took both my hands in hers. “Just let me look at you. You know the older you get, the more you favor your mother. I just wish she was here now.” Tears glistened in her eyes, as they always did when she spoke of my mother. She let go of my hands so she could rummage in an enormous beige, vinyl pocketbook and pull out a ragged, pink tissue to wipe her eyes.

“All right, Mama,” Thaddeous said, not unkindly. “I expect Laurie Anne wants to see Paw.”

“I’ll take you down to his room,” she said. “Thaddeous, you stay here and watch my pocketbook.” She led the way down the quiet hospital hallway to a room on the corner.

“We got him a private room. The Medicare would only pay for a semi-private room, but you never know who you’re going to get in your room with you that way.” She raised her eyebrows at a passing black woman. I nodded, only half-offended. I knew Aunt Nora didn’t mean any harm.

“The nurse said to let him rest,” Aunt Nora went on, “but he’d have a fit if he found out you were here and we hadn’t told him. You know Paw.” She carefully opened the door to the room. “Just go on in,” she whispered. “We’ll be in the waiting-room.” She tiptoed away.

The room was so quiet I had to resist the impulse to tiptoe myself. The only sound was a soft wheezing coming from an oxygen machine attached to a tube leading into Paw’s nose. Standing next to the oxygen machine was a rack holding an IV bottle, filled with yellowish fluid slowly seeping into his arm. This array of medical technology seemed to dwarf the man sleeping in the bed.

Damn the mill, anyway! Paw was supposed to be retired. If Walters Mill paid a decent pension, he wouldn’t have to work part-time to supplement his Social Security checks.

Of course, while I was at it, I might as well blame the entire Burnette family. Paw would have savings to live on if he hadn’t spent every penny he ever made bailing out Aunt Nellie and Uncle Ruben; Aunt Ruby Lee and her husbands; Aunt Nora and Uncle Buddy; Aunt Daphine; and cousins galore every time they got into trouble. My parents had had enough sense to take care of themselves, at least until they died in a car accident when I was fifteen.

Paw took me in then, and made sure I never felt alone. He encouraged my college-bound ambitions, despite the opinions of the rest of the family, and helped me find my way through the maze of admissions and financial aid forms to get into MIT. When I graduated with a degree in computer science and decided to stay in Massachusetts, he never balked, only nodded and filled his station wagon with my belongings to trundle them to Boston. The last thing he said when leaving me was, “If you need anything, you just call. Collect.”

I blinked back tears. Oh Paw, what are you doing here? You should be in the basement of the house, watching Jeopardy on the tiny black-and-white portable because you think the color console upstairs in the living-room is too much picture for just one person. You should be telling your grandchildren what their mothers were like when they were young. You should be playing your guitar and singing sweet gospel music. You should be anywhere but in this sterilized, hush-voiced horror of a place.

As if he had heard my thoughts, Paw opened his light blue eyes and smiled a soft smile. “Laurie Anne.”

“I’m here, Paw.” I leaned over to carefully kiss one cheek. “How are you doing?” I asked, wondering how anyone could ask such an inane question.

“I’ve been better,” he said, his voice only a whisper. “Where’s Richard?”

“Still in Boston. He had a meeting he couldn’t miss, but he’ll be here tonight.”

“He’s a good boy.” He winced, and I saw him tremble.

“Should I call for a nurse?”

He shook his head, and just stared at me for a long moment. Did I really favor my mother? Everyone knew Mama had been Paw’s favorite, and sometimes I thought I could see something of her in the dark brown eyes, light brown hair, and firm jaw line reflected in my own mirror.

Seeming to sense my thoughts, he said, “Alice would be real proud of you.”

“Don’t talk so much,” I said as lightly as I could. “You need to rest. You’ve had a rough couple of days.”

He trembled again, clearly tiring. “Laurie Anne?”

“Yes, Paw?”

“I didn’t fall.”

I waited while he struggled with what he was trying to say.

“They said I fell, but I didn’t.”

I stared at him. “What do you mean, Paw?”

He strained, but couldn’t seem to get any more words out.

“Paw, I don’t understand what you mean. You didn’t fall?”

He nodded, and managed to work out one word, “Hit.”

“Hit? You were hit by something? Something fell on you?”

He shook his head, and I hated how frustrated he looked. I tried again. “You didn’t fall, and nothing fell on you.” I had a thought, but surely that wasn’t it. “Did someone hit you?”

He nodded as forcefully as he could.

“On purpose? Someone hit you on purpose?”

He nodded again.

“Who? Who hit you, Paw?”

He tried to speak once more, but after a few seconds seemed to give up. His eyes fluttered shut.

“Paw?” I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. “Paw!” Then I saw the blessed movement of his chest, and I felt like crying in relief. I probably would have if I hadn’t heard the door open.