The old man woke still tired from a restless sleep in the back bedroom of his small house on the outskirts of Cody, Wyoming, and grumbled to himself as he rolled over, seeking comfort in a new position. His legs were aching again and there was a charley horse in his right foot. He slid down far enough in the bed to brace it against the footboard and push hard against the cramped muscles of the arch, stretching them until the spasm finally eased, then for a while longer, just to make sure it wouldn't immediately return.
Wide awake now, he pushed himself to a sitting position so he could swing his feet painfully out of the bed, stood up, and tottered toward the bathroom. Couldn't sleep through the night anymore without his bladder waking him at least twice. A couple of times lately he had even dreamed that he got up and made it to the toilet, only to come suddenly awake in the middle of the action and find himself lying shamefully in a wet spot like some goddammed kid. The doctor said there was nothing really wrong, that it was just age and a body that couldn't be entirely depended on anymore -- but it worried him anyway.
Young medical whippersnapper -- maybe he'd missed something. Whippersnapper? Where the hell had that come from? He'd never said whippersnapper in his life. Even beginning to sound old, he chided himself.
As he stood poised for action, one hand braced on the door frame, he realized that, through the slightly open bathroom window, he was faintly hearing voices from the house next door -- angry voices, one male, one female. They were at it again. If they had to fight, why did they always have to do it in the middle of the night? But he knew why.
That bastard McMurdock came off his shift with the Cody Police Department at midnight. At least one night a week he would come home, have a snort or two, and provoke his wife into an argument that rapidly turned physical -- pounding out frustrations and aggression on her that would have had him up on charges had he done it on the job. Sometimes lately the hostility wound up involving her young son, Patrick, who hated his stepfather and, now that he was older and bigger, sometimes came to her defense.
Finished with his business, the old man flushed the toilet and, impatient for the rush of water in the tank to stop so he could listen, flipped off the bathroom light and went to the window. Working to raise it as far as it would go, he peered out into thirty feet of dark yard between the two houses, worried about the woman, but more about the boy. The upstairs bedroom light was on next door and he could almost, but not quite, make out the sense of McMurdock's belligerent shouting. The tank water quit running and he heard McMurdock's wife wail in pain and her body thump against a wall.
A dim light came on in Patrick's basement room and the old man hoped the youngster would stay put and out of harm's way. His interference would only make things worse, as usual. Though he might divert some of his stepfather's brutality from his mother, he was not large or strong enough to stop him, to do what the old man longed to do -- though he knew he was no more up to the job of giving McMurdock a taste of his own savagery than the boy.
He would call the police -- if the dammed police would do anything. But from sad experience he knew they wouldn't arrest one of their own -- he'd already tried that twice to no avail. All it had earned him was a threat across the back fence from McMurdock and embarrassed pleading from young Patrick not to call his stepfather's friends again.
He was a good kid, really. Showed up unasked on a regular basis to mow the old man's lawn when he mowed his own, sometimes helped out with things too heavy for the old man to lift or too high for him to reach anymore, or ran a few errands. Then they would sit in the kitchen over a glass of juice or soda, talking -- though never about what went on in the night next door. Patrick tried to act as if everything was perfectly normal, but his casual smile often didn't erase the hurt and confusion in his eyes, as he shied away from anything approaching the secret he was clearly ashamed of and bent on keeping to himself.
From Dead North by Sue Henry. Copyright Sue Henry 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted without the written permission of the publisher, William Morrow & Co.
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