Jack waited, holding his breath. There was silence for a few beats.

"Jack," Alma said. It wasn't a greeting, nor an accusatiom, but simply a repetition of the name, as you might repeat back a number someone gave you over the phone.

"Yeah, it's me."

"What's goin on?" she said, a note of alarm coming into her voice. "Is Junior okay? Somethin happen?"

"No, no. Everythin's okay." He saw no reason to trouble her with the goings-on at the ranch. "It's…that ain't why I'm callin."

"Why you callin? Where's Ennis?"

"He's back at home. I'm, uh…I'm here. In Gillette."

Another beat of silence. "You're here?"

"Yeah. Stayin at the Holiday Inn downtown."

"What're you doin here?" she asked, her voice edging towards strident. Why, I came here ta invade your life and spread around more a my queer voodoo all over you, Alma, Jack thought. That's what it sounded like she was afraid of.

"It's my mother. Ya might know my folks live up in Lightning Flat? Well, she's been doin poorly and I had ta fly out and bring her here to a specialist. Turns out she's got Parkinson's disease. Plus her lungs're gunked up; she's in the hospital right now gettin better."

"Oh," Alma said. "That's…I'm, uh, sorry ta hear that." She cleared her throat. "So why didn't Ennis come with ya?"

"He couldn't. The heifers're calvin at home and he cain't get away. Hopin he can come join me once that's over'n done with." If them fuckin hatemongers don't burn the ranch ta the ground first. "Know he'd sure like ta see Francie."


Jack steeled himself. "Alma, reason I called is…I hate ta impose, but I was hopin you might be able ta help me with somethin."

"Help you?" She sounded dubious.

"Yeah. When my ma's released from the hospital, the doc don't want her goin back ta the ranch right away. I'm tryin ta find her someplace ta live in the meantime, some kinda place for older folks that ain't no nursin home. I don't know what I'm lookin for, and you've lived here a coupla years. I was thinking ya might give me some advice."

He heard her sigh. "I see."

"I know I ain't got no right ta ask nothin a you, Alma, but this ain't fer me, it's fer my ma. Whatever bad blood you n me got, it ain't her fault, and she ought not t'suffer for it. She's a sweet lady and I'm tryin ta do right by her since my dad cain't seem ta step up."

Silence. Jack wondered what she was thinking. Was she weighing her dislike for him against the guilt of refusing to help an old woman in need? Was she wondering if this meant she'd have to see him around town? Was she resenting his intrusion on her home turf? "Lemme make some calls," she said, finally. "Where can I reach you?"

Jack gave her the number of his mother's room at the hospital as well as the hotel number. "Alma, I cain't thank you enough…"

"You're welcome," she said flatly, cutting him enough. "I'll be in touch. Probably tomorrow, seein's it's a holiday today." She hung up. Not exactly the warmest, fuzziest conversation he'd ever had, but Jack felt relieved. Could've been worse.

Ennis came into the kitchen just after seven to be greeted by two surprises: Lars Borrickson sitting at the kitchen table eating hashbrowns, and Marianne at the stove. He addressed the latter first, because he was pretty sure he already knew the answer to the question he was about to ask. "Marianne, didn't I tell ya not ta come in until all this blows over?"

She handed him a cup of coffee. "Yes, you told me. What do you want for breakfast?"

He sighed. Like talking to a brick wall. "Ham n eggs, please." Marianne nodded and went back to the stove. Ennis sat down at the table. "What're you doin here, Lars? You weren't on watch last night."

Lars held up a finger until he could chew and swallow the mouthful of hashbrowns. "Nothin else ta do! Came over bit after midnight ta see if I could lend another hand!"

"Ain'tcha had no sleep?"

He flapped a hand. "The older you get, the less you sleep. Guess it's God's way a letting us make the most of what few days we got left! Ha! So I kept watch with the other fellas, then this pretty young lady offered me some coffee n breakfast and I just can't say no to a pretty young lady. Hope ya don't mind!"

Ennis shook his head. "Nah. Nice a you ta help out."

"So! My son tells me you're queer!" Lars said.

There was a clatter as Marianne dropped her spatula. Ennis inhaled a mouthful of coffee and choked, spluttering and coughing as Lars hammered him on the back with a wide, callused hand.

"You all right there, son?" Lars asked, leaning over him. "Go down the wrong pipe?"

"Startled me a bit," Ennis rasped, regaining control of his breathing. "Jus…didn't expect that."

"You're red as the side of a barn! Did I embarrass you? I do that, sometimes."

"I jus…" Ennis held up a hand and took another deep breath. "Don't care fer that term."

"What? Queer?"

Ennis flinched again. "Yeah."

"Well, are you or aren't you?"

"I don't see that it's any a yer business, if you'll pardon me," Ennis said, wishing he'd stayed in bed for another half an hour. He surely hadn't planned on discussing his personal life with a crazy Norwegian he barely knew.

"Let me tell you a story, son," Lars said. Ennis didn't wonder how he'd become "son" to this man over less than a day's acquaintance. It was clear that to Lars, "son" was any man younger than himself. "About my best friend in the whole damned world. John Lawson was his name. We came up through boot camp together, got shipped overseas together, tramped across half of France together. Always wondered why he never showed around pictures of his sweetheart back home, like the other guys did. Took him three years to trust me enough to tell me that his sweetheart was a blond-haired farm boy named Eugene. Never forgot how his hands were shaking holding his cigarette as he told me. His eyes were so full of fear, fear that I'd reject him or beat him or turn him in or God knows what. All I could think was that this man, who I'd fought with and saved and been saved by and loved, dammit, was now afraid that I'd hurt him because of who he was and that wasn't right. Nothing should make that much of a damned difference. But I was young and dumb and I didn't know how to say things, so all I did was hug him and told him that now we really had to live through the war so that my Edna could meet him, and his Eugene could meet me. He cried, he was so relieved."

Ennis listened, transfixed. Marianne had stopped cooking and was leaning on the countertop, watching Lars' face. "Didja meet Eugene?" Ennis asked.

Lars nodded. "But not with John. A sniper got him. I held him and watched as the life ran out of him." A tear ran down Lars' cheek and he brushed it away absently. "I got home after the war and I took John's tags to Eugene in Minnesota. Come to find out that because they'd had to keep themselves secret, no one knew who he was, so no one had told him John was dead. He'd been wondering why he hadn't had a letter in so long. I had to tell him his man wasn't ever coming home." Lars shook his head. "Him and me cried together, then we talked about John, and I still visit him once a year when I go back to Wisconsin to see my sister. He and his fella own an apple orchard. Best damned cider you ever had in your life, like to bite your lips off when you drink it." Lars met Ennis's eyes. "Son, I don't know your story, or what you and your fella have been through. But I can see that you live together here with friends around and family that love you, and John never got that chance. I am sixty-five years old and I have lost my ability to bullshit. You're telling me that you live here with your man, who I'm told you loved all your life, and made a commitment to him, and you don't care for the term 'queer?'"

"It's…uh…" Ennis didn't know what to say. He felt ashamed of himself.

"You're queer, son, and you'd better own it even if you don't say it. Because if you don't, you are spitting in the face of all the men like John that came before, men who risked real death and jail and God knows what else, men who didn't get to live in a time like we do, when things are changing. Men who weren't so lucky to have what you've got here." Lars stood up and put a hand on Ennis's shoulder. "You be proud, son. Be proud you're brave enough to stand up and live honest with the partner God made for you." He patted him a few times. "But now I've jabbered on long enough. Rod would have told me to shut my big yap ages ago! Ha! I'll be off. Thank you for the breakfast, ma'am. I'll be seeing you soon, Ennis, and next time you talk to your man you tell him hello from this old codger, you hear?"

Ennis nodded. "I surely will." He watched Lars as he put on his coat and hat, then headed out the front door to his truck.

Marianne was back at the stove. "Well," she said. "I guess he told you a thing or two."

Ennis grunted. "Barely know the guy, and he's in here in my kitchen lecturin me about bein queer? Got some nerve, is what he got. Who's he think he is, anyway?"

Marianne set a plate in front of him. "I believe he thinks he's a man with something he wants to teach," she said. "And if he can't teach it to the world, at least he can try to teach you."

"I don't want ta go inta no nursin home, Jacky."

"Oh, no, Ma! I'd never put you in one a those places. You ain't so sick as all that. Doc jus don't want you ta go back ta the ranch right away. I'm gonna find you someplace nice ta stay for a bit."

"All by myself?"

"I'll be around."

"You cain't stay forever. What about your ranch?"

"The ranch is in good hands. And I wouldn't put you anywhere that you'd be all alone."

"I think I'd like for there ta be people around."

"We'll see what we can do." The phone next to his mother's bed rang. Jack picked it up, knowing who it probably was. "Hello?"

"Jack? It's Alma."

"Thanks for getting back ta me."

"My friend Louanne works in the kinda place you mean…like an apartment house for older folks? Regular apartments, like, but there's nurses and such there, too."

"Yeah, that's just what I mean."

"I talked ta Louanne and she says they got some vacancies. You wanna go out there n have a look?"

"Oh, you bet I do. You wanna gimme the address?"

Alma hesitated. "Be easier if I jus come n get you. You at Campbell?"

"Yeah," Jack said, stunned.

"Wait outside fer me. Be there in ten minutes." She hung up.

"Who was that?" his mother asked.

"Oh…a friend," Jack said, glad he didn't stumble over the word. "Mighta found a place you can stay. I'm gonna go look at it, okay? I'll be back soon as I can."

Grace nodded. "Tell your friend thanks for me."

"Will do."

Jack went to the hospital lobby and stood near the windows; it was too damned cold to wait outside. He had no idea what kind of car he was looking for, or why Alma had been so quick to leap to his aid. He'd expected to have to cajole her into just listening to his list of possibilities and telling him if they were in a bad neighborhood or not.

Within a few minutes, a blue station wagon with wood paneled doors pulled up. Jack could see Alma behind the wheel and trotted out to the car. She motioned for him to get in, so he just pulled open the door and slid into the passenger seat. They sat there staring at each other for a moment. "Thanks for helpin me," he said again. It felt very strange to be seeing her here, now, when she'd just been at the ranch less than two weeks ago. "Uh…happy New Year," he said, feeling he ought to make some kind of acknowledgment of yesterday's holiday.

She pulled away from the curb, not responding to his season's greeting. She drove in silence for a few blocks, which was more than too much silence for Jack. "So, where's this place?"

"Couple miles down this road. Louanne's there today, she said ta bring you on by, said it weren't no trouble."

"Why're you bein so nice ta me?" he asked, unable to hold the question back any longer.

Alma spared him a brief sidelong glance. "Am I bein nice?"

"Well, ya found this place, now you takin me there…I call that nice."

"I call it my Christian duty ta help a sick lady in need. Plus Louanne gets a bonus for referrin residents."

"So ya still hate my guts, then? Jus checkin."

She sighed. "I cain't hate you no more, Jack. I ain't got the time nor the energy and that poison was eatin me up. Anyway…Junior'd want me ta help you if I could."

"Well…I surely appreciate it."

She looked at him again, a longer glance this time. "You look awful tired."

"Yeah. It's damned hard bein out here n handlin all this by myself. It's weighin on my mind somethin awful, plus I got other worries…uh, back home. And I miss my fella," he said, barely sparing a moment to consider the appropriateness of adding this last. It was true. Why should he censor himself to spare her? She'd had her chance to make her peace, and she seemed to have done so, as much as was possible.

She nodded, not reacting to his statement about Ennis. "How long you stayin?"

"Dunno. Be a few days at least till Ma can leave the hospital. Meantime I gotta figure out what ta do bout her, and my dad, and the ranch, and I hardly know where ta start."

"And when's Ennis comin out?"

"Uh…don't rightly know. Someone's gotta mind the ranch."

"Here we are," she said, pulling into the parking lot of a long, three-story brown brick building shaped like an L. It looked pretty new, and well-tended. A sign that said "Cedar Crest" was mounted in a bed of flowers near the parking lot.

Jack nodded. "Looks like a nice place."

"Built three years back." They got out of the car and went inside. There was a large lobby, and Jack could see a dining room off to the right. Ahead was a room full of chairs and a few TV sets, and another one that looked like some kind of activity room. A woman at the front desk came to meet them. "Hey, Louanne," Alma said to her. "This is…uh, the fella I told you about."

"Nice ta meet you," Louanne said, all smiles. Jack wondered if Alma had told her friend who he was, exactly.

"Jack Twist," he said, shaking her hand.

Louanne showed them around the facility. It seemed like a regular apartment building, except the hallways were a bit wider and there were lots of common rooms. There was a nurse's station on each floor, but it didn't have that hospital feeling like a nursing home. She showed him an empty apartment. It wasn't too big, but it had a bedroom and a nice big bathroom and a kitchen. "These all furnished?" Jack said.

"Yeah, just like you see here. But you don't hafta use it. Your ma can bring her own stuff in, much as she likes."

"Don't know how long she'll be here. You rent by the month?"

"Sure enough."

"How much?"

"Well, sounds like your ma don't need much help, so she'd be at the lowest care rate. That's $900 a month."

Jack had to work hard to keep his mouth from falling open. "$900?" he repeated.

"I know, it's a chunk a change, but it'd be double that, at least, for a regular nursin home. You gonna wanna look into some a the assistance programs we got? Your ma got Medicaid?"

"No, it's okay, I can pay it, it's jus…didn't expect that."

"Most folks don't. I think it's worth it, though. So many older folks get ta be so lonesome, and scared on their own. Here, there's lots of people ta talk to and visit, and they're never alone."

"My Ma's only 65."

"I know, that ain't so very old, but if she's got Parkinson's, might be a good option. What about your dad?"

"He's 65 too, but he's every bit as healthy as me. What I'm hopin is ta convince him ta sell that damned ranch and get them a house here in town. I jus need somewhere for her ta stay while I pound that inta his damned stubborn head."

Louanne smiled. "Sounds like yer dad n mine would get along just great. Well, we ain't s'posed ta take folks short-term, but we don't hafta mention that, seein's yer a friend a Alma's here."

Alma coughed a little at that; she and Jack exchanged a glance. To his surprise, he caught a glimmer of amusement in her eyes. "I appreciate that, Louanne."

"When do ya wanna bring yer mom in?"

"Not sure. Coupla days?"

"I'll get you the paperwork, you can bring it in whenever. Need first month as a deposit, plus the first month's rent."

"Okay." Jack was already thinking ahead to which account he'd need to transfer the money from, calling Ennis to warn him to expect a $1800 withdrawal, telling Lizzie so she could balance the books…

Louanne gave him the paperwork and they bid her goodbye, braving the icy winds once again as they hurried across to Alma's car. "Nice place," was her only comment.

"Perfect," Jack said. "I jus cain't thank ya enough, Alma. I'm sure Ma'll be comfortable there for however long."

"Sounds like you got a fight ahead a you with yer pa."

"And how. Me n him don't get along under the best a circumstances."


"He takes some issue with my bein queer."

"Oh." She seemed to shrink in her seat a little, and said nothing more until they reached the hospital.

Jack lingered a moment. "Thanks again."

"You done thanked me enough. Weren't nothin."

"Couldn't'a done it without yer help."

"You take care a yer ma."

"I will."

"And tell Ennis ta call me if he's comin out. Wanna make sure Francie's gonna be around."

"I'll tell him." Jack got out of the car and shut the door. He started to bend over to wave, but Alma was already driving away.

"What's the news, Rod?"

"Almost done. Only a dozen to go," Rod said, consulting his clipboard, generously smeared with dirt and mud and blood.

"Thank God." Ennis leaned over one of the laboring heifers.

"So…I hear my dad gave you a little talking-to this morning," Rod said, smiling.

Ennis fidgeted. "Somethin like that."

"Don't take it personal. He has this deep need to father everybody he meets. He hadn't known my wife ten minutes before he was lecturing her about how important it was for her to know how to change a tire, and was dragging her outside to teach her himself."

"Told me this story bout…"

"His queer friend John from the war? Yeah, he tells that story to anyone who'll stand still long enough." He put down the clipboard. "Actually, Ennis…the reason I called my dad to come help, and the reason he came all the way from Binghamton, is that gay rights are his particular mission in life, because of John. It's also one of the reasons I'm working here."

"Is that so?" Ennis said, dubious. "Ain't never heard a no straight man takin up arms ta help queers."

"Some do. He's not the only one. You'd be surprised how many men like my dad have had friends, brothers, or neighbors who were queer and changed their opinions from how they were raised. Especially army buddies from the war. Plenty of straight men met queer friends in the trenches, no matter what some folks say about it. Dad always says that meeting John changed his life."

Ennis smirked. "I guess guys named John got a talent for that," he said. Rod frowned, not getting it. "That's Jack's name, too," Ennis explained.

"Oh! Shit, I ought to have known that. Anyway, Dad was about over the moon when I first told him who I was working for. The minute I told him about your troubles he was hanging up to get in the truck, I hardly had to ask him to come."

"Well…seems like a good hearty sorta fella, your dad."

Rod laughed. "Pain in the ass is what he is, but he means well. And if you let him, he'll fucking smother you with help and advice, requested or not."

Ennis's short-wave crackled. "Jack's on the phone, Ennis," Liz said.

"On my way," he replied. "Gotta go," he said to Rod. "Back soon."

"You don't gotta be down here all the time," Rod said. "We're almost done."

"I'll be back soon anyhow." Ennis trotted up to the house and in through the back door, heading to the living room to pick up the phone. "Jack?"

"Hey, darlin."

"How come you didn't call me last night? I waited for ya."

"I'm awful sorry, cowboy. I came back ta the hotel and was gonna call, but I jus fell right ta sleep. I ain't been sleepin so good, I was plumb tuckered out."

"I figured that was it. Missed talkin to ya, though."

"Me too. Least I got a decent night's sleep out of it."

"How you doin today?"

"Pretty darned good. Ma's feelin a whole lot better; they're gonna start her on them Parkinson's pills tomorrow morning. Found a place for her, too. Real nice place, like a little apartment with lots of other older folks around, and help if she needs it."

"Good. That was fast."

"Well…had a little help. From Alma."

Ennis blinked. "Alma?"

"Yep. I'd made a list a places, I called her just hopin she could tell me which ones was nice, y'know? But she had a friend worked at this place, and she came and picked me up ta take me there and everythin."

"Huh," Ennis said, completely poleaxed by the thought of his embittered ex-wife voluntarily helping Jack with anything. "Ain't that somethin."

"She said she'd feel bad not ta help my ma, and that Junior wanted her ta be nice ta me."

Ennis chuckled. "I didn't guess that havin Junior move out here would mean that Alma'd start suckin up ta her."

"Well, you sure used ta suck up ta her when she lived in Wyoming, or did you forget?"

Ennis considered this. "Ya got a point. It's hard being thousands a miles away from yer kid n feelin guilty about it day in n day out." He felt a stab of guilt that he was explaining this to Jack, who surely did not need it explained. "As you know, a course," he added.

"Yeah, you better say that." Jack groaned a bit, the way he did when he was stretching something. "Any more bad luck stick ta you since we spoke?"

"Fraid so."

"How bad this time?"

"Not so bad. Kinda stupid. Lizzie n me went ta the office supply store yesterday, and while we were in there some asshole slashed all the tires. Middle a the day."

"Shit. That's fuckin…yeah, stupid. Didn't nobody see em?"

"Sheriff's askin around. Walter thinks they're pissed that they cain't get ta the ranch with all the patrols, so they just actin like dumbass teenagers now."

"That's it?"

"Yeah. Nothin last night, nothin so far today."

"Walter ain't got nothin?"

"He's workin on it." Ennis stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankle, sighing. "I sent them photo albums this mornin. Overnight. You might get em tomorrow even."

"I'm gonna hafta go up ta Lightning Flat and get more stuff fer Ma before I move her ta this place. Probably leave tomorrow mornin."

"How long'll you stay there?"

"I'll jus get her stuff and come right back. Once she's moved, and with folks around her, I'll be able ta go up there and stay longer ta work on the old man. Don't wanna leave her for too long in the hospital."

"Jack, I gotta say, I'm worryin on ya."

"Yer the one with all the troubles."

"You got troubles too. Plus I got all kinds a folks here ta help me. Liz n Marianne, n all the guys…yer all alone. You ain't sleepin good…"

"I don't never sleep good when you ain't next ta me, darlin."

"I am feelin awful bad I'm stuck out here…"

"Oh, no, Del Mar. Don't you even think about leavin our ranch with all the trouble goin on. I can take care a things here, you don't gotta worry on me none."

"Yer gonna get an ulcer or somethin…"

"I ain't getting no ulcer. Quit frettin like a damn mother hen. I got a mother right here, ya know."

Ennis sighed. "All right, I'll leave ya be. I jus hate it that I ain't there ta see ta you."

"I can see ta myself, Ennis," Jack said, starting to sound impatient.

"All right, sure ya can." He cleared his throat. "I better get back ta the calvin. Almos done now, maybe a dozen ta go."

"Good. I'm gonna head back ta the hospital for a few hours. Get my ass handed ta me in gin rummy some more."

Ennis smiled. "You watch the Patriots on New Year's?"

Jack snorted. "Talk about getting yer ass handed ta you. They were playin the home team around here, too. Hospital was full a fuckin Bronco fans."

"You watch with yer ma?"

"Yeah, but she don't watch football. Tried ta explain everythin, but she mostly did her crosswords. Ended up with two orderlies, a doctor and two nurses watchin with me in her room."

"Jack fuckin Twist. Everywhere he goes, a party starts up."

"Is there a party in yer pants? Am I invited?"

Ennis laughed. "Ain't gonna be no parties in these pants for awhile, bud." He sighed. "Okay, now I really gotta go."

"Me, too. I love you, cowboy."

"Back atcha, bud." Ennis hung up, stared morosely at the phone for a moment, then got up and went back to the banal drudgery of his life, usually made bearable…even enjoyable…by the one he shared it with.

Junior was combing out her wet hair, always an adventure of tangles and snags, when she heard the phone ring downstairs. "Junior!" Annemarie called. "It's your stepdad!"

Junior frowned. "Really?"


She went down to the kitchen and picked up the phone. "Hello?"

"Hey, honey."

"Jack!" she said, grinning. "Why're you calling me?"

"Why not? I miss you."

"Aww, I miss you too. And Daddy. And Liz. I'm banished to Middlebury, and…hey, how'd you get this number?"

"Lizzie gave it to me. And yer dad's just lookin out fer you."

"Treating me like a helpless ninny, that's what he's doing. I should be at the ranch."

"Him n me are both sleepin better knowing you're not."

"How's your mother?"

"Well, I don't know if your dad told you…"

"He never tells me anything."

"She does have Parkinson's. But they're puttin her on pills for it, so she'll probably be okay for some years yet."

"Aw, I'm so sorry, Jack."

"Thanks, darlin. I knew you'd want ta know…and that your dad wouldn't think ta tell you."

"I guess you know him pretty well."

"After all these years I oughta. I'm sorry, hon, I cain't talk long. Gotta get back ta the hospital. Jus wanted ta call n tell you what was up, and that I miss you."

Junior blinked back tears. "Thanks, Jack. The ranch ain't the same without you."

"G'night, Junior. You take care."

"Goodnight." She hung up. Annemarie, who'd clearly been waiting just beyond the kitchen doorway, came scurrying out.

"What'd he say?"

Junior grinned. Annemarie was just as curious about Jack and her father's relationship with him as her other friends were, she just put on a better show of hiding it. "He wanted to say hello, and tell me how his mother's doing."

"Oh." Annemarie seemed disappointed, somehow.

"Why, what were you expecting?"

"I don't know. That's so…ordinary."

"That's what they are. Ordinary. Just because they're both men doesn't mean everything is different."

Jack stretched out on top of the bedclothes, the TV on in the background while he read over the paperwork and materials Louanne had given him. Shit, he thought, sitting up. I plumb forgot ta tell Ennis about the damned $1800. He glanced at the clock…9:00. A bit late to call him now, he'd be asleep. I'll call him tomorrow. Won't be payin it for a few days anyhow.

He wasn't looking forward to the next day's trip up to his father's ranch. He just needed to get more clothes and personal items for his mother, that was all. He planned to inform his father, in terms that he hoped would sound final, about the place he'd found for Grace to live, and he was going to raise the possibility of selling the ranch. He hoped it wouldn't precipitate too rough of a shouting match.

Hate ta leave Ma all alone for the whole day, he thought. Guess it can't be helped. I'll go see her in the morning on my way outta town.

Maybe…it could be helped. Jack considered, reconsidered, and then finally decided he had nothing to lose. Worse that can happen is she'll tell me ta stick it where the sun don't shine. I can survive that.

He sat at the hotel's desk again and dialed Alma's number. "Hello?"

"Alma? It's Jack."

"Oh. Hello. How's your mother?"

"Doin much better, actually, thanks. That's kinda why I'm callin. Uh…is this an okay time ta talk?"

"Sure. Monroe's doin inventory at the store, Francie's at some kinda church meetin. She's got lots a them."

"I hate ta ask, you already done so much fer me, Alma, but…I gotta ask you for another favor."

Alma sighed. "You certainly are presumin a lot on a little."

"I know, I know. And you just say no if you don't wanna, you ain't got no obligation."

"I know that," she said, sharply.

"The thing is, I gotta go up ta Lightning Flat tomorrow, ta pick up some more a her things and talk ta my father. I hate fer her ta be alone all day. I know you don't know her at all, but…well…" He took a breath. "I was really hopin maybe you could stop in and check in on her? Maybe in the afternoon? You don't hafta stay long…just say hello, see she's all right, and got enough crosswords and such…" Silence. "It'd ease my mind ta know she'd have one visitor stoppin in."

He waited for what felt like a long time. "I dunno, Jack…yer ma? She's a stranger ta me…"

"Oh, she won't be after two minutes, she's that kind. She's a real peach, Alma, so sweet…I know she's tired a bein in that hospital, and it's kinda big n scary ta her…"

"All right, you don't gotta lay on the guilt like that," Alma said, a bit snappishly. "I'll go and see her. For her sake, not for yours."

"That's all I ask. And she can tell you all kinda embarrassin stories about me that you can use ta blackmail me, how's that?"

Alma chuckled a bit, then swallowed it abruptly. "Well, that I can live with."

"I'm very much obliged, really."

"Well…yer lookin after my daughter and payin her way through school. Guess I can spare an hour ta sit with yer ma. Safe trip," she said, and hung up.

Jack was still reeling a bit from the success of his not-terribly-optimistic request when there was a knock on his hotel room door. He frowned. I didn't order room service, did I?

He opened the door. A young woman was standing there, her hair in a ponytail so tight it was pulling the skin back from her forehead. She was wearing owlish glasses with dark rims, and she looked familiar. "Uh…can I help you?" he asked, trying to place her.

"Are you Jack Twist?"

"Yes, I surely am. Who might you be, miss?"

She sighed. "I mighta known you wouldn't recognize me. I'm Francine Del Mar, Mr. Twist. Can I come in?"