7.

It was a small and ordinary patch of turned dirt out in the garden. It was hard to believe that the earth had been scraped for anything more momentous than planting seeds. Buz stood and looked down at it, and wondered what it had been like for Mallory laying her own child down in the ground and covering it over. There were too many thoughts hung up inside him about babies. When he looked at one he couldn't imagine turning away and leaving it for someone else to look after. He couldn't imagine what it must be like to lose a baby that you did want.

He had found a big whetstone wheel in the tangles of briars near the house, the iron and wood frame long since destroyed by the weather. It had taken time to wrestle it out from the clinging tendrils of plants and to clean off the dirt and green bloom from it, but Mallory had looked at it and nodded and smiled, and he had brought it to the grave to act as a lasting memorial.

'I might plant flowers in that centre hole,' Mallory said as he laid it down on the earth. 'Something wandering, something that will come out and lay itself all over the ground hereabouts. Something for those puppies too.'

Buz straightened up from positioning the stone over the grave and put his arm around her shoulders. She felt thin and fragile, but some kind of catharsis had begun when she had confessed to him in the kitchen about the small soul that she had lost. Some of the dark shadow seemed to be lighter and easier around her.

'Buz, what's going on?'

Buz turned to see Tod walking across the sun-struck grass, rubbing his eyes as if he were still half asleep. He had obviously dressed hastily. His shirt wasn't buttoned up, showing a sprinkle of freckles across his chest like constellations in the night sky.

'You look like a hay stack after a hurricane,' Buz said, nodding at Tod's sleep rumpled hair.

'You wouldn't recognise a hay stack if it fell on you, city boy,' Tod said tartly, but he smoothed his fingers through his hair all the same. 'What's going on, Buz?' he asked, his voice serious again, his eyes moving between Buz's arm around Mallory's shoulders and the stone on the ground.

Buz glanced at Mallory briefly, and she nodded her head very slightly. He squeezed his arm on her shoulders and then let go.

'Come back into the house, Tod. I'll fix us all some pancakes.'

'You'll fix us pancakes?' Tod asked doubtfully. 'I don't know. It feels a little early to be exposed to your cooking, Buz.'

'You'll love 'em,' Buz assured him. 'Just like Mrs Kiedrowski taught me.'

As they walked away he saw Mallory kneeling down on the ground beside the grave, the black dog sitting beside her as if it understood her pain.

'What is that, Buz?' Tod asked in a low voice as they reached the house. 'Is that where those pups are buried?'

Buz shook his head. 'Well, yeah, they're there too. But they're not the only thing. Mallory had a baby, Tod,' he said quietly.

'Had a baby?'

Tod made as if to turn, and Buz grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into the house.

'Leave her be,' he said. 'She needs time on her own. We just laid that stone down and she's all tangled up in her own thoughts. Yeah, she had a baby,' he nodded. 'Here, in this house, alone. It died, and she buried it there. That's the black dog that's following her. That's the cloud that's covering up her sun. No, we can't do anything,' he said as Tod turned again as if to go outside. He knew Tod too well. He would run to authority – to doctors or whoever seemed right to straighten out the mess of a woman who had run away from her husband and whose baby had died. 'She won't see a doctor. She doesn't need a doctor. We just need to leave her alone. Let her grieve, okay?'

'Okay,' Tod said doubtfully. 'Poor kid,' he murmured as he followed Buz into the kitchen. 'I can't imagine…'

'No, me neither,' Buz said. He picked up a stack of cut wood and started to feed the pieces into the stove, hoping the dying embers from earlier would be enough to set flame to the new fuel. 'But I think there's a lot of strength inside her, Tod. She's kinda broken up right now, but she's going to get better. She looks like the kind of kid who's going to make it. I just – I wish I knew what I could do for her, Tod.'

'What we are doing,' Tod said prosaically, gesturing at the house around them. 'Get this place cleaned up and fit to live in. Hope she'll be strong enough to do the rest herself. The only other wild card is that husband.'

'That husband wants to meet me in a back alley on a moonless night,' Buz said darkly. 'There's a hundred ways to hurt someone, and it's not all physical. He sounds like an expert in the non-physical ways, but I could teach him something about the others.'

'Yeah,' Tod nodded. 'Well, if she thinks she's got the strength to keep away.'

'I think she's got the strength to keep away,' Buz said firmly.

He picked up an old mixing bowl and began to pour flour into it and then cracked an egg into the soft white powder. The contents fell silently into the flour and he stood looking at it for a moment, thinking how many lives were aborted before they had even begun. The world was a strange place. It was full of death, and people just shrugged and moved on. Even Mallory, in the end, would move on.

'Well, you're right, anyway, Tod,' he said as he added milk to the mixture. 'We can't do anything about the husband for her. We can't do her grieving for her. What we've got to do, is to just keep on doing this. Keep on cleaning up and sorting out and make her a home to live in. She'll get sorted out in time. Maybe she'll go back out into the world again and meet some guy, and he'll be a good one this time.'

''''''''''''''''''''

As they walked away from the house in the strong sunlight of midday the place was a strong contrast to how it had seemed on that first night. In the dark, with the headlights striking it obliquely through the trees, it had looked like no more than a tumbledown shack. But it had never been as ruined as it had looked, and a week of hard work had turned the place back into a home again. The smoke from the kitchen fire rose steadily from the chimney and drifted away into the sky. The windows glittered reflections of the sun. The weeds had been pulled away from the boards and the grass had been shortened with a scythe and then an old push-powered mower, and the front door was painted and looked welcoming instead of forbidding.

Two days ago they had all driven into Elbow Creek and Mallory had bought a car that stood next to the Corvette at the end of the dirt track. It seemed to symbolise a rejoining of the world for her.

Now she walked between Tod and Buz, the dog at her heels and her arms linked in theirs until they reached the cars. The shadow that hung over her had been lifting all the time, and it seemed thinner still in the bright sunshine that brought light to her hair and made her eyes shine.

'You're sure you'll be okay now?' Tod asked her as they stopped by the Corvette. 'I mean, no electricity, no phone. This place is a long way out. You'll be all right?'

She nodded her head. 'I'll be all right,' she promised. 'I came here like an animal looking for a place to bed down and have my baby. Then I lost her, and – well, I've been through a thousand skins since then. I don't feel like curling in a chair and hiding from the world, but I'm not ready to join the throngs. It's all I want, Tod – to be alone for a while, in peace. I'm glad you two found me. I'm glad you shared this week with me and did all that work. But I'm ready to be alone now.'

Buz pressed a hand to her arm and smiled. 'You'll be all right,' he nodded. 'You'll be just fine. And if we ever travel back this way we'll stop in and see you.'

'I'd like that,' she smiled. She pulled at the straps over the cases on the luggage rack, and nodded. 'All secure. You're ready to go.'

Buz took her shoulders in his hands and kissed her forehead.

'So are you, kid,' he said. 'I want to see your next book in the bookstores and your picture on the dust jacket, smiling like you mean it. Will you promise us that?'

'I promise,' she said. 'Now go, before too much time rolls by.'

The car seats were warmed by the sun, and Tod and Buz sank into their places as if they were regaining a home. For them, the Corvette was home, as much at the house behind them was Mallory's home. Tod turned the key and the engine roared to life, and the wheels began to press dirt and broken stalks of grass beneath them as they turned.

It was a slow drive back to the road. The clouds of dust raised by the Corvette's wheels turned the trees into an obscure haze and hid the house from view. The black dog chased the car for a few hundred yards, barking at the wheels, but then it turned back and it too was swallowed up in the dust. The sun shone down, unyielding, and the car moved on.