A sudden winter storm split the prairie from Nebraska to Canada, a straight line that separated fifty degree spring weather from ten below freezing sheets of snow. The blast of Arctic winter sent preachers to their knees, children to God, turned livestock into statues and Belle Rousseau out the front door of her house that overlooked the river valley, looking for her husband, Don. He had called to tell her he needed his nitroglycerin tablets on the bed stand. She hadn’t hesitated, even with the warnings on the radio. She knew she could get to What Cheer, twenty miles west of Keokuk on a two lane county road that led between black rows of fallow corn fields to the Knights of Columbus Hall where Don had called from.Nothing in the call surprised her.
“It’s hurting more; I shouldn’t have come to the meeting. I can’t drive. I left the pills next to the bed. You have to bring them to me. We’ll get home before the storm. Please hurry.”
The phone went dead. Belle didn’t know whether the weather broke the connection or Don had slammed the phone down as he always did when he was angry. She noted an edge in his voice. The doctor said he could live with the pain if he held a nitro tablet under his tongue.
“Just keep the pills with you,” Doc Ryan said.
“Damn pills, I’ll go when I’m ready, angina pills or no angina pills.”
Belle’s face got her in the door; wavy blonde hair, round blue eyes, a smile that caught the men off guard.
“She must like me,” they all thought.
It was just Belle’s way of treating every one the same.
Don marched Belle into restaurants, theatres and St. Marks Cathedral, feeling as if she was a prize that had escaped the rest of town. She and Don had been married ten years and she looked the same as on their wedding day. She knew he was embarrassed by their lack of children.
It was easy to overhear the women, “Barren, just like her aunts. Pretty soon it’ll be too late.”
And the men, “Blanks, shooting blanks, but what a target.”
Always quietly spoken, never intended to harm, at least that’s what Belle told herself. She never felt it was her fault, or Don’s. And the townspeople didn’t have anything else to talk about.
Her solace was in the sixth grade at Wilson Memorial Elementary. They hadn’t yet acquired the subtle habits of self deprecation that entertained their parents.
When she told them about Henry Fleming’s bravery in “The Red Badge of Courage,” her life was full. She saw her students overcoming the worst that adults could throw at them. If Henry could face his fears and carry the battle to the enemy and eventually return to the safety of his own home, they could do the same.
“What do you feel when you read this book?” she asked.
“I am there with Henry,” Jonathan Laurie answered.
“I want to read it again,” Bobby Smith answered.
“I want to be at home waiting for my son,” Susie Harrison answered.
Belle knew that her classroom, her books, her students, were more important than the games outside.
She was thinking of the next book for her class. Perhaps “To Kill Mockingbird.” Was it too advanced? Maybe not, as her car hit a thin sheet of ice, spun across the other lane of the blacktop road and flipped once landing on the Chevy’s four wheels. The steering wheel broke off in her hands, her head hit the windshield, the door sprung open and she rolled out onto surprisingly soft black dirt.
She pulled the collar of the white coat up and saw red.
“My scarf, or is it blood? It’s warm, salty. Scarf’s don’t have salt on them.”
She pulled herself up the edge of the ditch and saw the rock pile. Ben Harrison had been piling rocks from his corn field at the base of tree break for twenty years. They were a refuge for squirrels, winter varmints, and now her. She leaned against the southeast side of the pile, away from the highway. She could taste blood; she smelled ice as it entered her nostrils and closed the trachea. She died with her eyes frozen open, two solid tears clinging to her lower eyelids.
This is what Jonathan Laurie sees, his eyes filling, as he brushes the snow away from her face.
“I’m here. We all came out to look for you as soon as our parents would let us. We spread out all over the fields. Your husband said he’d found the car and looked for you, but you had disappeared. He said he had looked here, but I didn’t believe him. What do you want me to do?”
She leans against the rocks, knees pulled up to her chest, head turned, lips parted, her eyes stare into his, as if to say,
“Where were you? I needed you to find me?”