As I reach for the office doorknob, I freeze. Drew is staring at the table with tears pouring down his face. I hesitate, giving him time to collect himself. What does it take to make an M.D. cry? My father has watched his patients die for forty years, and now they're dropping like cornstalks to a scythe. I know he grieves, but I can't remember him crying. The one exception was my wife, but that's another story. Maybe Drew thinks he's alone here, that I slipped out with all the others. Since he shows no sign of stopping, I walk out and lay my hand on his thickly muscled shoulder.
"You okay, man?"
He doesn't reply, but I feel him shudder.
He dries his eyes with a swipe of his sleeve, then stands. "Guess we'd better let Theresa lock up."
"Yeah. I'll walk out with you."
Side by side, we walk through the front atrium of St. Stephen's, just as we did thousands of times when we attended this school in the sixties and seventies. A large trophy cabinet stands against the wall to my left. Inside it, behind a wooden Louisville Slugger with thirteen names signed on it in Magic Marker, hangs a large photograph of Drew Elliott during the defining moment of this institution. Just fourteen years old, he is standing at the plate under the lights of Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson, hitting what would be the winning home run of the 1977 AAAA state baseball championship. No matter how remarkable our academic accomplishments -- and they were many -- it was this prize that put our tiny "single A" school on the map. In Mississippi, as in the rest of the South, sport overshadows everything else.
"Long time ago," he says. "Eternity."
I'm standing on second base in the photo, waiting to sprint for the tying run. "Not so long."
He gives me a lost look, and then we pass through the entrance and pause under the overhang, prepping for a quick dash through the rain to our cars.
"Kate babysat for you guys, didn't she?" I comment, trying to get him to focus on the mundane.
"Yeah. The past two summers. Not anymore, though. She graduates -- was supposed to graduate -- in six weeks. She was too busy for babysitting."
"She seemed like a great kid."
Drew nods. "She was. Even these days, when so many students are overachievers, she stood out from the crowd."
I could point out that it's often the best and brightest who are taken while the rest of us are left to carry on, but Drew knows that. He's watched more people die than I ever will.
His Volvo is parked about thirty yards away, behind my Saab. I pat him on the back as I did in high school, then assume a tight end's stance. "Run for it?"
Instead of playing along with me, he looks me full in the face and speaks in a voice I haven't heard from him in years. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
Copyright © 2005 by Greg Iles.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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