Everyone knew the McCloud men were bad news. The family’s patriarch, Franny, only gave up drinking after almost causing an unspeakable tragedy. His sons are no better—except for Gabriel.
Gabe isn’t perfect, but he’s handsome, charming, and friendly with just about everyone in the small, ocean-side town of Willow Creek. So after he wraps his truck around a tree one foggy night, Gabe’s death affects the entire community. The tragedy opens up old wounds for some people, and brings others closer together.
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By Cynthia D. Grant
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Cynthia D. Grant
All rights reserved.
Something terrible has happened, but I don't believe it.
They say Gabriel is dead.
The phone woke me up a couple of hours ago. My mother picked it up in the hallway.
The sky was getting light. I was drifting back to sleep. Then I heard her cry out, "Oh, my God!"
I got out of bed and opened the door so I could hear my mother talking. "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God," she kept saying, as if the news were breaking over her in waves.
Then she said, "She's still asleep. I'll tell her later." Before their bedroom door closed she told my father: "That was Betsy Shahl. Gabriel's dead. He smashed his pickup into a tree."
Dreaming, caught between darkness and light, I dressed quickly, pulling on my blue sweater and the skirt Gabe likes so much. In minutes I was out of the house, glad I'd brought a jacket. The morning was cool. The streets were empty. Everyone was inside, getting ready for work or school.
I walked fast, trying not to think. There was no need to panic. Mrs. Shahl is a gossip. She has a knack for making things sound bad. I wouldn't think about anything until I talked to Gabe. I planned to meet him at our special place. That's where he'd come to find me.
But somehow I ended up on the dirt road that leads to his house. I was surprised when I saw it, dead ahead, beyond the little pond in the front yard. Cars and trucks were parked all around. Some don't run, some are for sale, some belong to his brothers, but Gabe's pickup was gone, so I knew he wasn't there.
Jack must've seen me. I heard him barking in the house. I took off before anyone came to see what he was fussing about. I didn't want to talk to Gabe's brothers or his father and get them all worked up for nothing.
Gabe can't be dead. It will turn out to be a rumor. Mrs. Shahl probably fell asleep next to her police scanner and dreamed up the accident. She's always the first one with news of disasters: a burning barn, a child in a well, some fool driving too fast in the fog and plunging off the highway into the ocean. We lose a few tourists that way, their being in a hurry to be someplace else.
I count my steps, keeping my mind busy. How will I explain cutting school today? I heard this terrible rumor, I'll say, and it really upset me. I love school. I'm a good student. When I graduate next year, I plan to go to Chico or Davis or maybe even Berkeley, if they'll take me.
Gabriel and I won't be staying in Willow Creek. It's a nice town, but we've lived here forever. Gabe has anyway. We moved here when I was eight.
I want to do important things. I want to see exciting places. But I want Gabriel to go with me.
He says, "What the hell would I do in a city, a rough old boy like me?" Smiling when he says it so I know he's teasing. He could get a good job, he's so smart and quick; he can learn anything in a minute. And I'll go to college and get my teaching certificate —
O Gabriel, please. O Gabriel, please. I need to have you with me right now.
I've been walking for a long time, through misty woods, tender ferns unfurling under ancient trees; now through a meadow that is purple with lupine and swept with incredibly yellow Scotch broom. May is such a pretty month. Nothing could go wrong today. This summer I'm going to work in the library. We'll save our money. I'll get scholarships. I know Mrs. Sanders will recommend me. She's the very best teacher I've ever had. Someday I hope someone will say the same for me.
The fog is lifting. I can see the ocean. A car is coming down the highway, so I step behind a tree. If people saw me, they'd say, Jennie Harding, what are you doing way out here? Then they'd guess that I was going to meet Gabe, and our secret place wouldn't be a secret anymore.
The car was full of strangers. I should've known by the make. This is Chevy and Ford country, with lots of pickups like Gabe's. That thing may be old, but it's his baby.
School must be starting. The sky is pinky blue. Although I've been walking for miles, I'm not tired. I could meet Gabe in hell if I had to.
I hear a truck coming. I turn around. I'd know the sound of that engine anywhere. It's Gabriel. He stops the truck beside me. Jack is in the back, wagging his tail.
Gabe opens the truck door and pulls me in beside him. I bury my face in his neck, his hair. I knew you wouldn't leave me, I say, crying.
Well, of course I wouldn't leave you. He's puzzled, smiling. Why are you so sad, honey girl?
I wish as hard as I can — I can see him in my mind, I can feel his arms around me! But the highway is deserted.
Just ahead is the place where we park the truck. No one can see it from the road. It's screened by a thicket of blackberry bushes. The truck could be there now, for all I know.
Gabriel is always late.
A hundred yards down the highway is the tuck in the cliffs, where the path leads down to the sea. It's steep and slick; it wouldn't be safe for anyone but Gabe and me.
Maybe he wrecked the truck and has come on foot. He'll be so upset, because he loves that truck, and he knows how mad his dad will be. As if Mr. McCloud has a right to talk. He wrecked a lot of cars when he was still drinking.
I leave the highway and am on the path, but I can't see the beach yet or our special place. That's where he'll wait for me. Just beyond that clump of wildflowers, I'll look down and see Gabe. I have to take my time or I'll lose my balance. It's a long drop to the rocks below.CHAPTER 2
The ambulance arrived at about six o'clock. My father stuck his head in my door and said, "Get up, Donald. I need you."
I was already awake; they'd had the siren going, for some stupid reason. It's enough to wake the dead, people say, but it's not.
"Who is it?" I asked.
"Gabe McCloud," he said, and left.
I felt like I couldn't get out of the bed; like my legs had been cut off. Gabe McCloud dead. Jennie would die when she found out. She would curl up into a ball and die. If she hadn't already been killed too.
I dressed and went downstairs. My father was talking to the ambulance attendants.
"Gabe McCloud. Big surprise, huh?" the driver said.
My father just grunted and signed some papers. "You know where to put him. Donald, unlock the back doors."
The bodies are always delivered around back, like sides of beef to a restaurant.
I said, "Was Jennie with him?"
My father gave me a look. I turned to the ambulance driver.
"Was anyone else hurt?"
"No, he was all by his lonesome."
"Get the doors, Donald," my father said again.
I'd forgotten my keys. I went back upstairs, feeling as if I were moving underwater. You'd think I'd be used to people dying, but I'm not. No matter how old I get, I'll never be like my father.
By the time I got downstairs my father had opened the doors. The men had left Gabe on the stainless steel table. My father was looking down at him.
"What's the matter with you?" he said to me. "Is this some friend of yours?"
"Not exactly." Jennie's my only real friend. We've always been close, even though I'm a few years older. But I'd always liked Gabe. He was so full of life. Now all the life had leaked out of him.
"Will you pull yourself together? Look at the way you're dressed. You didn't even put on a tie. This is a business, Donald. People expect us to be professionals. How will you ever take over when I'm gone?"
I won't, I could've told him. I will never run this business. When you die, it will be your funeral pyre. I'll burn this place to the ground.
"Are you going to give me a hand, or are you going to stand around looking tragic? Bring me, the tray."
I couldn't bear to look at Gabe. Once he was so tall and strong and golden.
I brought the tools my father required.
"Gabe McCloud," he said. "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." Then he rolled up his sleeves and went to work.CHAPTER 3
When the phone rang, the wife said, "Don't answer it," her voice as sharp in the darkness as if she'd been waiting for the call.
"I have to answer it."
"No, you don't."
"Somebody has to go out on these calls."
She said, "Why does it have to be you?"
We went all through this before we got married. I thought Becky understood. But lately when the phone rings she gets all worked up. Be careful of the fog, she says. Don't drive too fast. As if I hadn't lived here all my life.
"What's up?" I said into the phone.
"You, just barely," said Lois, the dispatcher. "Somebody hit a tree, a mile south of Widow's Peak."
"Dead or alive?"
"Don't know," she said. "A trucker called it in."
I got out of bed and dressed. One of the boys woke up. Becky brought him a glass of water.
By the front door she asked, "How long will you be gone?"
"Depends what we find." I hugged and kissed her. "Go back to bed."
"I can't sleep without you."
"Yes, you can," I said firmly. "Now promise me."
I'm old enough to be her father and at that moment, I felt it. I'll be dead on my feet at the store tomorrow. I've been a volunteer fireman since I was twenty. Too long. It used to be exciting. You rush down to the station and the sirens are blaring. You jump on the truck and it rolls. Your armpits prickle as you roar down the road, wondering if you'll find life or death, a mangled stranger or your own mother. But now I'm getting too old.
Roger and Stan were suiting up at the station. Stan's a new man, young and green, but Roger's been around. I trust him. I put on my gear and we took off.
As soon as we got past Widow's Peak we could see there was no need to hurry. A pickup truck was wrapped around a tree. One headlight was burning through the fog.
We walked toward the truck. The night was real quiet, except for the sound of the sea. Suddenly I got this sickening feeling. "Oh, Lord," Roger said. "It's Gabe McCloud."
He was dead. The steering wheel was stuck in his chest, but there wasn't a lot of blood.
"I guess he got where he was going," Stan said. "Look at this." The front of the pickup was full of empty beer cans and there were a bunch more in the bed. "Poor little dumb-ass. I've seen him around town. I hear his family's nothing but trouble."
I said nothing. There was nothing to say. Roger said, "Where the hell is the ambulance?"
We've been having a problem with the ambulance lately. It won't start without some fooling around under the hood. Which is fun when you're supposed to be rushing someone to the county hospital. In Gabe's case, there was no rush.
I didn't want him to be dead. He's a good kid, nothing like his old man or his brothers. Why couldn't it have been Fran or one of them? I felt like I was going to throw up.
When the ambulance came, we got Gabe out of the truck. It was a mess; he was really stuck. The whole time, I tried not to think who it was, 'cause when I did, I felt like screaming. Gabe used to be such a happy kid. He could really cheer you up.
We rode back to town. Gabe went over to the mortuary. I arranged for his truck to be towed to the Chevron so I could clean it up before his mother saw it.
Then there was nothing to do but drive home. All these thoughts crowded into my mind. I kept picturing Gabe when he was little, bright as a dime; he was different from his brothers. The other two take after Franny, especially the middle one, Gerald. He's bad news.
They say Franny's changed since he stopped drinking. I don't know. He and I don't talk anymore. After that car deal, I wrote him off. Selling me a piece of junk like that.
I used to think Gabe would amount to something, if he lived long enough to straighten out. He did the damnedest, dumbest things, like quitting school this year. One semester to go and he drops out, as if he couldn't imagine graduating, as if he had to be a failure.
At least he wasn't mean. There's no excuse for meanness. Fran should rot in hell for the way he treated those boys. Beating them bloody, beating up their mother. We all knew it was going on. A couple of times people even called the county and reported it to one of those child abuse places. Nothing came of it. The county seat's too far away. They don't care what's going on in Willow Creek.
Things changed when the boys got big. Gerald fractured Franny's skull with a pool cue one time. David beat him up in a bar. But if an outsider attacked them, they'd stick together like molasses. People used to pray they'd move away. Except for Gabe. Everybody loved Gabe. He used to love to sing, even when he was a baby: He'd sing the little jingles he heard on TV.
Makes me sick to think about it. Makes my stomach hurt and my blood pound and my eyes ache from not crying. I'm lying in bed, Becky's head on my chest, her breath warm and even. She's sleeping. She was waiting up for me when I got home. When I told her what had happened she started crying.
"Was he wearing his seat belt?" she asked.
"No, he wasn't wearing his seat belt! Are you kidding? If he'd had one, he wouldn't have worn it. That's how stupid they all are!"
"I'm sorry, honey. I was just asking." Becky's voice trembled. I felt ashamed. It wasn't her fault that Gabriel was dead.
I hugged her. "I didn't mean to yell," I said. "I'm just tired. Let's go to bed."
That was an hour ago. The curtains hold back the light. But I can't fall asleep; I'm too exhausted.
It's funny, a little while ago, for a second I thought I was holding Kay instead of Becky. Kay died of cancer when our boys were in tenth grade. Now they're grown up with families of their own, and Becky and I have two little boys. ... Sometimes it's hard to keep things straight. Sometimes I feel like I fell asleep and when I woke up, my whole life had changed. Kay's gone, the twins are grown men, Becky's here, and I'm forty-eight —
Damn it, Gabe, you poor little baby. You never even knew what hit you.CHAPTER 4
Gabe's not here yet. He'll show up any second.
I can feel him with me. I can feel how much he loves me. He can't have gone out of this world.
The sun has warmed the rock I'm sitting on. The ocean spreads around me like a blue skirt, the color shifting in the light, reflecting sky. I'd never walked here before. It must've been ten miles. Good thing I wore my comfortable shoes.
Gabe always talks about hiding food on the beach; burying a treasure chest full of goodies so that when we get hungry, there it will be and we won't have to drive back to town. He hasn't gotten around to that yet, but the hole in my stomach isn't hunger, it's worry. If Gabe is really dead —
He's not, he's fine. God wouldn't let somebody like Gabriel die.
Oh, Gabe, I'd be so scared if I thought you'd left me.
The sun feels like gentle fingers on my face. The sea is calm. It's a perfect day for diving. Gabe will probably be here in his wet suit soon, hungry for abalone.
I get upset if he dives when the ocean is rough. He's not afraid of the water. But he knows you have to respect it. The ocean fills me with awe. Think of it, wrapped around the planet, touching everything, like God.
I've seen Gabe and his dog standing on the sea, on a rock that was almost gone; waves crashing over them, Jack barking, scared. He hates being out there, but he won't desert his master. Get out of there! I'm screaming. Gabe's smile is gleaming. He throws his head back to drain his can of beer. Then he jumps into the water —
He always makes it back to shore. By then I'm frantic, angry.
What's the matter with you? I yell at him. Do you want to get killed?
It feels so odd to be here on a school day. Gabriel thinks I take school too seriously. It floors me when he says that school's not important. You've got to have a good education. Do you want to work in a mill all your life, I say, making coffins and losing your hearing?
What? Gabe shouts. You'll have to speak up!
He's too smart to play dumb. He's brilliant. And I'm not just saying that because I love him. Mrs. Sanders thinks so too, even though he's always had problems with school. She thinks he might have a learning disability; but Gabe's not interested in being tested. He says he's done all right so far.
His family is a big part of the problem. They think school is a waste of time. His mother didn't care when he dropped out. She didn't want him going away to college; she wanted him to stay in town. My parents are the opposite. Their biggest fear is that I'll marry Gabe and settle down here and get a job selling hot dogs at the drive-in.
We do want to marry, but we have big plans. Big plans! Gabe laughs when he hears me say that.
Excerpted from Shadow Man by Cynthia D. Grant. Copyright © 1992 Cynthia D. Grant. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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